Back in May, as we prepared for the final set of Up Close On Hope performances, the halls of Festival Ballet acquired a new inhabitant. Although temporary and exceedingly subtle (I imagine this is the mark of a truly cunning journalist), the presence of Ms. Gates and her quiet observation were of a curious and absorbent energy. For her final dissertation in the study of journalism at Brown University, Zoe was to consider a career both foreign and appealing to her, immerse herself in it completely, and, of course, write about it. Intrigued by the mysterious, dramatic art form, she chose ballet.
I was fortunate enough to spend one sunny afternoon following the commencement of our season getting to know Zoe over tea at Seven Stars, where I talked her ear off about what it means to be addicted to dancing and the struggles of working in an underfunded and often under appreciated performance art. Recently her story was published in the East Side Monthly (big Congrats to you, Ms. Zoe!), and I thought a few of you may enjoy reading an outsider’s perspective on the ballet world from behind the curtain. If you are curious, read on…
“At nine in the morning, the atmosphere in the Grand Studio is that of a high school corridor before the morning bell rings. Dancers drift in one at a time and dump their bags on the floor. Dressed in leggings, tights, t-shirts, skirts, or leotards, they cluster in groups just as teenagers beside their lockers, chattering and stretching.
A young woman sits on the floor beside her friends, counting aloud the bruises on her knee; there are fifteen*. One man does yoga at the front of the studio, pausing intermittently to take a sip of coffee. Others do sit-ups or lie back on foam rollers. The room murmurs with flutters of restless movement.
A burst of energy disrupts the quiet when one of the youngest dancers, a 19-year-old trainee name Jorge, bounds into the studio. He and two others have purchased matching black jumpsuits in jest—baggy black one-pieces that zip up the front, hanging loosely on their slender bodies and exposing their muscular arms. They put them on all together, striking poses and laughing at one another’s ridiculous appearance.
Jorge pulls the hood over his head and begins to hip-hop dance in place. “Team gangster up in the crib,” he says, eliciting giggles from his colleagues.
And then, an authoritative voice cuts through the buzz. At once, nearly two dozen ballet dancers take their places around the studio. They line up at the barre around the edge of the room and at portable ones that have been dragged to the center of the floor. When the piano music begins to play, the jovial atmosphere dissolves and one of focus takes its place. It is a drill they all know—they drag their pointed toes and extend their arms in familiar patterns, awakening their muscles for the long day ahead.
All at once, the space has been transformed. Muscular legs lengthen and bend, spines curve at unimaginable angles. The same young men and women who were laughing and lazing only moments ago now paint sweeping arcs in the air with their fingers and bend low to the ground, their faces composed and calm.
Five mornings a week, this is how the professional dancers at Festival Ballet Providence (FBP) on Hope Street begin their workday. The small but highly regarded company is composed of 24 dancers, a small artistic staff including a ballet master and mistress who act as dance instructors, Resident Choreographer Viktor Plotnikov, and various other choreographers. In the afternoons, the studios are taken over by a ballet school. All is overseen by Artisic Director Mihailo “Misha” Djuric.
A native of Yugoslavia, Misha once danced as a soloist with the National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Belgrade. His choreography, which has been performed worldwide, has been recognized with numerous awards. Before coming to Providence, Misha served as Artistic Director at Ballet New England in Portsmouth, NH, where he was lauded for transforming the company. In 1998, Misha took over at FPB in the wake of the founder and previous director’s death. Under his direction, the company has matured into one of the most respected ballet companies in the area.
As summer approaches, the company prepares for the final program of FBP’s 37th season—a black box performance entitled Up Close on Hope that takes place in the studio where the company rehearses daily. The show is the last of six programs that the company performed this season, four of which took place in the Black Box Theater on Hope Street.
The idea behind the Up Close performances is to provide audiences with a more intimate viewing experience; at eye level with the performance space, spectators have the chance to see the sweat on the dancers’ foreheads and hear their shoes squeaking on the floor. The program, which the company spends about a month and a half putting together, consists of nine pieces, many of which are company or world premieres.
Before Festival Ballet, founded in 1978, took up residence at 825 Hope Street, the building housed a funeral home. Today, music constantly rings through the three bright studios and cluttered offices. Dancers labor for long hours, putting their bodies under incredible stress for the sake of art. Each day, while the world outside bustles with conference calls and traffic jams, they dance.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late March, the studios hum with activity as the company rehearses for the next month’s Up Close on Hope performance. There are only two weeks until the first show, but many of the dances are far from polished.
In the Grand Studio, a choreographer works through the steps of a brand new piece with a handful of dancers. In it’s completion, the piece will feature nine dancers to tell a dark and emotional narrative. But first, they must learn the steps.
A young man and woman, both wearing skirts, stand in the center of the floor. They are connected by a red elastic chord that ties around their waists. It stretches and quivers as they pull towards and away from one another, threatening to entangle them if they do not execute the moves precisely.
The choreographer, a woman with a thick Lithuanian accent, instructs the female dancer to do a complicated series of cartwheels that will force her to navigate around the elastic chord. “Just concentrate. This is like ninja stuff—just do your thing,” she says. The choreographer laughs as the dancers wrestle with the alien connection, their movements lacking the grace expected of ballerinas.
In another room, a different rehearsal is wrapping up. Dancers float between studios following a schedule that has been posted in the hallway. They attend many rehearsals throughout the day, for each dancer must learn a number of parts for the upcoming program. Vincent (“Vinnie”) Brewer and Tegan Rich prepare to practice a new pas de deux (a partnered dance) choreographed by the company’s ballet master, Jaime Diaz, who has danced with the National Ballet of Cuba and the Boston Ballet. All three are young and athletically built, attired in workout clothes.
Tegan does sit-ups in the corner while Vinnie leans against the mirror sipping a coffee and making faces at his partner. When they finally take their places in the back corner, though, he is serious and composed.
Jaime presses play on the speakers. A piano, steady and rhythmic, echoes through the room. As though propelled by it, Tegan steps forward slowly, with Vinnie just a step behind. A violin cuts in, unhurried and wrought with emotion. The pair skates across the floor, drifting in and out of the orbits of each other’s bodies. At one point, their fingertips nearly brush the mirror at the front of the room, and then suddenly they are at the back, Tegan’s legs straight in the air as she rolls over Vinnie’s bent spine. In one moment they lay side by side with their feet flat on the floor and their knees in the air. One hand at a time reaches desperately up towards the ceiling, pulling the dancers’ shoulders off the floor and back down again. A moment later they are standing by the doorway, their faces close before she pushes him away. When the music fades, Vinnie lies curled up on the floor as Tegan walks away.
“We were late,” she says, the magic dispelled at once. They begin to pick apart the choreography, isolating single moments and tweaking subtle movements. Jaime corrects precise foot placements, turns, and when the dancers should or should not make eye contact. The music starts and stops as they work.
The discussion turns to Vinnie’s facial expression, which has been lacking enough emotion. “Have you ever had your heart broken?” Jaime asks him with a Columbian accent.
“Just think of something that makes you sad,” he advises. “Just think that she is messing you up.”
At some point during the practice, Misha has wandered into the room. He sits by the mirror with his arms crossed over his chest, occasionally interjecting with a comment or bit of criticism. He is a short man, wearing round tortoise-shell glasses, sweatpants and a grey t-shirt that matches his grey hair.
Misha is typically the first one to arrive at the studio in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. His office features a glass window that looks over the Grand Studio, where he can keep an eye on things while working at his desk. Since the company is small, Misha’s duties range from administrative tasks such as payroll and scheduling to running rehearsals and choosing works for each program. He can tell you to the day how long he has been with FBP (just over 17 years).
Spending so much time in front of the computer working tends to leave Misha less feeling inspired than when he was dancing and choreographing more earlier in his career. But his love for ballet as an art form and admiration for the people he works with keep him going. “If I was not passionate about dance, I would not do this, I would do something else. My passion makes things easier even if they’re hard,” he said.
Recent financial difficulties have posed significant challenge for Misha and FBP as a whole. “These days a lot of communities don’t appreciate dance as much as they appreciate sports or music or theater,” he said. With virtually no government funding and dwindling corporate support, the company relies on ticket sales and individual donations to stay afloat. This season, FBP was not able to put on as many main stage performances as usual. Where the company typically finishes off a season with a big classical ballet on a main stage in May, this season ended early with a smaller production of Up Close on Hope in the studio.
“It’s kind of a nice way to live but it’s also scary way to live,” said Misha. Despite the difficulties, FBP has managed to emerge from a low point in the company’s history that took place during 2009-2011 when the company faced large debt. The people at FBP, however, don’t tend to measure success in terms of financial stability. “We have had more successful seasons in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we were in our ‘prime’ in those periods,” said Dylan Giles, Marketing Director and company dancer. “I think Misha would argue that the company is as artistically strong now as it’s ever been…. We have been through the ringer financially and we have come out stronger and wiser as a result. So by those metrics, I would say our prime is now.”
According to Misha, there are advantages and drawbacks to having the audience virtually on stage with the dancers during black box performances. “Being close definitely gives some excitement, but also being far away gives some magic,” he said of the different types of performances. “Here in this space people really start to appreciate more dance because they see how much hard work it is. They see every drop of the sweat, every moan. And on stage you don’t hear all those things…. Distance creates magic and something that is unreal.”
While audiences tend to appreciate the intimacy of the Up Close performances, company dancer Kirsten Evans, 23, lives to dance on the big stage. She feels that classical ballet is meant to be observed from a distance. “Dancers don’t want to be called athletes but it’s extremely athletic. We have the same amount of stress on our bodies as a professional athlete but we have to make it look beautiful,” she said. “A football player is allowed to grunt and look like whatever he wants. But we have to smile and look beautiful and pretend we’re not sweating.” In the close setting, fine details of a dance tend to be under intense scrutiny by the audience, often making Kirsten feel self-conscious. She feels that her most authentic performances happen when she is on stage and is able to forget the audience, getting wrapped up in the dance itself.
“For me anyway, that’s when all the payoff comes—when you actually get to get on stage and show what you’ve been working so hard on. So to not be able to perform especially on a big stage, it almost starts to feel like you’re not even doing you’re job,” she said. “It feels kind of dark. I’m trying not to sound dramatic. It feels pretty dramatic.”
As a dancer, Kirsten has felt the burden of the company’s debt. Though she hardly goes a day without dancing, it often feels like the rewards of such hard work are few and far between. “If someone has a really strong passion for baking, it’s like as if their baking all these cakes all the time and they never get to give it to anyone or sell it to anyone or have anyone try it or taste it,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Kirsten wouldn’t dream of having another job. Originally from Seekonk, MA, Kirsten began dancing with FBP as a child and has been a member of the company for the last five years. During her senior year of high school, she was a trainee with the company, attending Company Class in the morning and high school classes in the afternoon. A year at a time, she moved up the ranks from trainee to apprentice to full company member.
Ballet is Kirsten’s life. She spends upwards of 40 hours a week in the studio, not counting performance days, and trains all summer long to stay in shape for the next season’s start in September. Her ballet-focused blog, “Setting the Barre,” has over one thousand followers. Despite “senioritis” at the end of the season, Kirsten will be back in the studio just three days after the final performance practicing with an advanced class at the ballet school. Her social life exists almost entirely within the company, as it’s hard to meet other people with her hectic schedule. On days when she’s not dancing, she’s often too tired to do much else besides rest.
Kirsten described March and April as a whirlwind of preparing for Up Close. Casting for the show is constantly in flux, so dancers have to learn up to six parts at a time.
The first few weeks preparing for the show are spent working out the kinks of choreography. If the piece is brand new, certain dancers will work directly with the choreographer to put together a sequence. Otherwise, they often learn from videos.
“I like to be choreographed on,” says Kirsten. Often, choreographers and dancers will work together to discover what feels and looks best on a dancer, catering to personal style and making changes along the way. Like many dancers, Kirsten is inspired by being the first one to perform a particular piece.
Over a number of weeks, the works come together and rehearsals get more structured. Weeks are spent fine-tuning, and rehearsals often involve dancing the same piece over and over again. During the week leading up to a performance, the company focuses on details like costumes, hairstyle, and even what color shoes are to be worn for each dance.
Kirsten is especially particular about her pointe shoes. During intense periods of rehearsing and performing, she goes through as many as one pair of shoes a week, as they become “dead” with use. Although the company allots $800 to each dancer a season to cover the cost of shoes, it doesn’t come close to covering the many pairs of $90 shoes that Kirsten prefers.
Despite the hours of preparation, casting changes sometimes happen as last minute as the night of a show, forcing dancers to be ready for anything. During one show in April, Kirsten was cast in four high-energy pieces, something she didn’t think her body could handle. They re-cast the program last minute so that she only had to dance three times, but it was still one of the most physically taxing shows Kirsten ever performed. Retrospectively, Kirsten is grateful for the challenge, which she believes has prepared her to continue to grow throughout her career. “Everything is a learning experience in ballet,” she said in reflection. “Everything just makes you stronger.”
As it is smaller than most ballet companies, a number of the dancers at FBP also work administrative roles, creating a tight-knit organization. “I would not call it community, I would call it family,” said Misha. “It’s like every family’s ups and downs and tears and laughs and fights.”
The company dynamic truly is familial. This season made new parents of three of the dancers and staff; on any given day, there will be babies in the studio or offices during rehearsal time. Dylan even brings his dog, Calvin, to work with him. After performances, many of the dancers can be found hanging out together at Ivy Tavern just down the street from the FBP studio.
“A lot of other companies can take it way too seriously and they don’t really allow themselves to develop the relationships the way that we have,” said Kirsten. The company dancers range in age from 17 to 44, with varying levels of experience. The younger dancers who are just beginning their professional ballet careers tend to look up to their older colleagues, some of whom have danced all over the world. “Ballet forces you to grow up at a very young age so everyone’s very mature and responsible. To be a professional at 17, you have to have the mindset of someone who is at least 25. So, we’re all mentally at a very similar age,” said Kirsten.
This night marks the last performance of the season, and it is almost show time. Guests pick up their tickets at the front desk, then walk down the hallway to the Grand Studio. The building has been spruced up for the show with fairy lights hung along the corridor that leads to the black box. On their way to their seats, guests see dancers getting ready in Studio 1, putting on makeup in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirror, listening to iPods and stretching. Then they walk by Misha’s office, where the Artistic Director himself can be seen through the glass window, sitting at his desk as usual with the computer screen reflecting in his glasses.
Rows of chairs have been set up on risers in the Grand Studio and black curtains obscure the cinder block walls and the barre. Dancers wander onto the de facto stage and warm-up casually before the audience. Some are in costume, some wear sweats. It is all out in the open; they stretch, practice jumps and turns, chat and joke with one another all as the audience files in. Jaime, the Ballet Master, struts into the studio. He greets some of the dancers and exchanges a secret handshake with Kirsten before taking a seat.
Though the space is the same, the energy in the building is a far cry from the mood before morning warm-ups. Though there is laughter, many faces are serious. One of the dancers sits on the stage lacing up her pointe shoes with meticulous concentration.
The lights are lowered, and Misha, wearing a black t-shirt and grey pants, walks before the audience, mic in hand. He introduces the show, cracks a few jokes, and retreats to a corner where he will operate the light board for the evening.
In the studio atmosphere, the anticipation feels like that before a recital in an elementary school auditorium. But then, the dancing begins.
Five dancers wearing matching skin-tight black costumes take the stage in the first piece. It is a frenzy of robotic movements and intense music. The dancers march across the floor with their spines ramrod straight, sometimes disappearing offstage and returning moments later. Their facial expressions are severe. The lighting is low, and their shadows jump off of the walls.
When the music stops, the lights are raised and the five dancers step forward to take a bow, all smiles.
Each piece is dramatically different from the next. Kirsten, wearing a flowy peach-colored dress, and her partner Alex, in tights and a billowing white shirt, dance a classical pas de deux, full of elegant twirls and graceful lifts. Other pieces are contemporary, hardly resembling ballet. In “Split Flap,” four female dancers dressed in matching powder blue sweaters, underpants and kneepads mimic one another to snappy music.
Each dance is a story of its own—they are haunting, sweet, traditional and quirky. After each piece, the dancers step forward and bow to fervent applause.
The last piece before the intermission is the one with the red elastic chord. This time, there is no tripping over the strand, nor any unwanted tangling. The dancers execute precisely. The dance itself is like a world of its own—it is almost an entirely different entity from the one the jumble of steps that they practiced weeks ago in this very space.
At the end of the show, the entire company takes the stage for a final bow. They have all changed from their costumes into street clothes. In jeans and sneakers, they are hardly the picture of ballet dancers.
“Anyone can feel something watching a ballet performance and anyone can feel something different than the person sitting next to them,” said Kirsten. “Not only is the audience getting something, but the dancers are really just living. None of us can imagine any other way of expressing ourselves or letting out frustration or really any emotional form—Any kind of emotion would be bottled up without any physical way to release it. I’m sure any dancer would feel the same way—we’re just movers….It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
For Misha, the meaning of dance has evolved over many years. Whereas once he was allured by the self-discipline and difficulty of the task, he sees ballet now in a bigger picture. “Now there is a big appreciation and a love for the art form and trying to keep it alive. You know, to pass this passion and love or whatever to someone else with the hopes it is going to last for another 300, 400 years or longer. And to excite the people around,” he said. “Before we start talking, before we start singing, before we start playing the instruments, it was all done by the gestures. And also it represents being alive, being able to move.”
It is late now, and Hope Street is quiet. A young man in jeans and sneakers walks with hunched shoulders by darkened storefronts on his way to the bus stop. He passes beneath a streetlight, which casts shadows on his face as the stage lights did only moments ago. Now, in plainclothes, he is anonymous. Passers-by will see him as another exhausted college student or a waiter returning home after work. They cannot hear the music that runs through his head or see the steps he re-imagines as he walks. They know not the hours of rehearsals he has put in over the past months, or the relief he feels for the freedom of summer. But across the city, dozens of ballet-goers remember the way he moved onstage tonight. Couples will recall excitedly this lift or that sequence on the drive home, aspiring young ballerinas will pin ticket stubs to bulletin boards. They won’t remember his name, but they will remember how they felt—for a brief moment, swept away in the dance.”
Article written by Zoe Gates for Brown University, published in the East Side Monthly.
*Sidenote: this girl was me. Hah.
photo by Jenay Evans