circling the nest

It has been 9 months since I last performed in pointe shoes. Just in case my math is off- because, let’s be real here, it usually is- that is December to September. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. I have not performed en pointe since Nutcracker. OOF.

For all those months, I have wondered what my return to the stage might look like. Would it be in 2 weeks? 2 months? Half a year? Somewhere outdoors? Something virtual? Livestream? Pre-recorded? Would it involve bells and whistles, hoops to jump through and mountains to climb? Now, all these months later, several weeks past the usual “start of season”, I finally have some idea of what it might be…

And to my delight, it’s seems it may be so much simpler than all of that. Of course, nothing is simple about re-teaching your toes how to not only tolerate but excel at standing on their very tips, guiding your body into now-foreign positions, turning out joints that prefer to remain in their “upright and seated position”, if ya catch my drift. But if there’s any way to make the process just a bit easier, it certainly must be reconnecting with your favorite kind of wings and your favorite instrument. Sometimes all you need is a piece with a soul, a space to keep distance, and a team with a vision.

If you’re interested in peeking into the journey of a ballet dancer returning to the stage amidst COVID, please follow along! I could use some hands to (virtually) hold. Wish me merde.

waking the dying swan

Anna Pavlova as The Dying Swan

It has been 115 years since Anna Pavlova first performed her famous swan solo. Now a celebrated part of ballet history, The Dying Swan was originally inspired by the ballerina’s visits with swans in public parks and Lord Tennyon’s poem of the same title. Pavlova had recently become a ballerina at the Mariinsky Theatre when she asked choreographer Mikhail Fokine to create a solo for her as a pièce d’occasion. At a Mariinsky ballet gala in 1905, their collaborative piece debuted and The Dying Swan was born.

Still regularly performed by dancers across the globe (Pavlova herself performed it more than 4,000 times!), The Dying Swan has surprisingly humble beginnings. When Pavlova approached Fokine with her request for a solo, the choreographer suggested they use Saint-Saëns’s cello piece, Le Cygne (from La Carnaval des Animaux), which he had been practicing in his home on a mandolin. Accompanied by his friend on piano, Fokine choreographed the short solo quickly and unpretentiously. Of the simple process, Fokine told Dance Magazine (1931):

“It was almost an improvisation. I danced in front of her, she directly behind me. Then she danced and I walked alongside her, curving her arms and correcting details of poses.”

The choreographer notes Dying Swan as a transition from old world to new. Fokine calls it a response to previous criticism that his creations often avoided pointe shoes, tending towards bare feet. Swan, instead, has the ballerina almost entirely en pointe for the duration of the brief solo. While not the most technically exhausting (it consists mostly of port de bras and pas de bourée suivi), the artistically demanding nature of The Dying Swan earns the piece its celebrity-status in the ballet world.

Case in point: originally titled “The Swan”, the solo became “The Dying Swan” after Pavlova’s dramatic portrayal as a swan in the final moments of life. The piece is ripe with dark beauty, certainly a reflection of the morose Tennyson poem which inspired it. It is this duality between the airy, feather-light movements of the dancer combined with the heart wrenching lament of the cello that gives Dying Swan its intoxicating quality. The solo is, like many ballet variations, highly customizable, meaning every rendition is slightly different. What differentiates this solo from most classical variations, however, is the reasoning behind each dancer’s distinct artistic choices; These small adjustments are not made to choose the steps that will best highlight the dancer’s technique, but rather to interpret the story exactly the way it is felt by that dancer. In that moment. On that stage. The spontaneity and freedom of performance! Oh, how I love living art.

The dark, emotive heartbeat of this macabre solo is what makes it so special. A cry for beauty in the most fragile moments, expressed with every inch of the body from toe to tip of finger. It is even rumored that on her deathbed, Anna Pavlova cried out, “Prepare my swan costume.”

In 1934, Mikhail Fokine told dance critic Arnold Haskell that the meaning of The Dying Swan was not to showcase technique, but to “create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal.” In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak this May, ABT’s Misty Copeland and Joseph Phillips harnessed that message by (virtually) gathering 32 ballet dancers to record themselves performing the solo. The fundraising effort, aptly titled “Swans For Relief”, would benefit artists temporarily displaced by the coronavirus. Bringing together dancers isolating in 14 different countries, this Dying Swan compilation video is evidence that the historic piece continues to hold power and move its viewers, even if through a computer screen.

If you’ve made it this far, good on you! A little history lesson for your Monday evening. Clearly, I have had quite a bit of fun deep diving behind the wings (heh, double pun) of this brilliant solo…and I can’t wait to share why. ;) There is so much more I can (and will!) write about Dying Swan, but for now, please enjoy these photos of Anna Pavlova with her pet swan, Jack, taken in August of 1927 in her home, Ivy House, by London’s Hamstead Heath:

today, now.

Without much certainty of the future, this strange year has led to a great deal of looking into the past. Comparing ancient plagues to the current pandemic, digging up old friendships during quarantine, and heck, I wrote the book on studying a past version of myself. But what about now?

If you are not local, you may not have heard; This summer FBP said goodbye to its Artistic Director of over 20 years, school director, and beloved ballet master. Quite the shake-up, to put it lightly. It goes without saying, but here I am writing a blog and here you are reading it, so…well here we are: so many changes in the midst of a pandemic has been jarring. But perhaps most surprising is how adjusted I have become to extreme change.

Uncertainty has asserted itself as a central fixture in my life.

What I’ve also realized, though, is that uncertainty has always- and if we’ve learned anything from the patterned nature of history, will always- exist. It’s not as if this uncertainty has recently taken up residence in my mind, I’m merely much more aware of it now than I’ve had to be before. I have been privileged enough to live in a state of mild uncertainty, a rarely unsettling state that has moved out of rotation this past year.

So here I am, September 2020, making friends with uncertainty. I’ve waxed poetic before about “being prepared to be surprised“. But somehow those lessons learned- the ones that felt colossal at the time- now feel a bit more like a warm-up. A gentle barre before the grueling effort of a 4-act ballet.

I’m envious of this earlier version of myself, one that was simply frustrated with her body’s slow process of returning to ballet. A dancer who had taken a bit too much time off in the summer, but who saw her fall season laid out ahead of her. A series of shows to promote, classes to attend, choreography to learn, and steps to hone. A plan.

Like so much of the world, ballet has been placed on hold. Some companies are returning to work slowly, in pods or using technology to create virtual performance experiences. Some companies have cancelled their annual Nutcrackers entirely. Digital Season was once a foreign concept, now I’m sure you’ve read enough announcements not to stumble over its meaning anymore.

I am motivated to continue dancing not because this is a particularly inspiring time, but because it is one that requires creativity and I am nothing if not a gluten for thinking outside the box. I’ve never been interested in arithmetic, but there is something about solving an artistic equation- one that demands flexibility of mind and resilience of spirit- that pulls me in every time. I can’t seem to resist the call of a problem whose solution lies in c r e a t i o n.

Something new where there wasn’t something before.

Since ballet is all about connecting- with our fellow dancers, with our audience- right now I’m leaning into other ways to connect (that don’t involve breaking the 6′ rule). Two things (I hope!) will never be off limits: connecting with the music and connecting with myself.

There are things in the works at FBP. The school has recently seen a major shift and with the addition of a new “Leap Year” program, I am hopeful for its success. I am confident in this little company’s ability to rise up in the face of change. I have seen us create greatness from the most meager of resources, and I know that we will do it again. But until then, it’s time to look not to the past or the future, but to the girl in the mirror today. The one who loves the work, with or without the certainty of audience. The one who misses dancing in the moment, dancing in the now, dancing for herself. I’m diving in. No more baby steps, wondering when…how? Today, now.

photo collage by Li Dai

ramen on the hill

I’m a nester.

I may fly here and there but rest assured, I’ll always find myself back in sweet, sunny pvd. This little city wears my heart on her red-bricked, tree-lined, ramen-drenched sleeves.

After hosting a mini get together for a few friends Friday night, we spent most of the morning on the couch watching bad romcoms. Yep. Sometime around 3pm, we dragged ourselves out of the nest and down to Benefit Street, one of my favorite Providence neighborhoods, for some DENDEN.

I have mused on my love of Benefit too many times to count…I hope you’ll indulge me in (at least) one more. Even C laughed when I lifted my phone to capture yet another photo of College Hill, but hey, sometimes you’ve got to be a tourist in your own city! Especially in this age of staycation…

Speaking of staying close to home, anyone else have a sudden case of nesting fever? After months of being forced to stay in, I’m finding so much joy in rearranging furniture, making old spaces feel new, and making room for some recent musical additions to the household, including a piano, drums, and drummer…stay tuned. ;)

we are family

when i set out writing “the silhouette inside” i had no idea i would be seeing it on a shelf. what started as lines written in the back of my mind has become an external piece of me. this book is so personal, like the pages of my diary turned inside out and illustrated. i’m so excited to share that my book is officially on stock at books on the square in my beloved home, providence, ri!

i would be remiss if i didn’t pay some thanks to this little corner of the internet, which i created 10(!) years ago to document my life as a dancer and keep my writing skills somewhat in tact as i began my professional career. back in 2010, a month before my first day of work at festival ballet providence, i opened a wordpress account and started typing. a decade ago, back when blogs were a thing of the future (hah), i could have never imagined that this site would grow into what it is today.

nostalgic to my core, i still look back on posts from the past fondly, some so clear i can almost read each word before i see it and others sweet reminders of memories long lost. somewhere along the way, this space grew from an online journal to a community of readers, entrepreneurs, and friends.

in honor of that relationship, i am giving you all a special discount on my book, “the silhouette inside“. use the code STBFAMILY (in all caps) at check out for 15% off the book. and pssssst…if you’ve been here for a while, you’ve already got a sneak peek into book number two ;)

she’s out!

my book “the silhouette inside” has officially been released! so many months of work have led up to this.

i am thrilled to announce that the book is available at my favorite Providence shop, Frog & Toad. it’s such an honor to be stocked by this beautiful little store, one that is curated with love and spends time supporting small businesses and artists all over rhode island.

while i would love to do an in-person reading/signing one day, until that becomes an option, head to my instagram to see a little video we put together to celebrate the release. the video features the first poem of the book, and one that was largely the impetus for putting the poems together and creating the narrative. i hope you enjoy!

if you’d like to get yourself or someone you love a copy, they are also available here.

MY BOOK COVER IS HERE!

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they say not to judge a book by it’s cover, but c’mon.  designing a cover for my book felt like a colossal undertaking. i’m not a designer, and i would never purport to do an adequate job at something many talented people have spent their lives learning to do. but since i had written an illustrated every page of the book thus far, something felt phony about hiring another contributor to put a face on my work.

first impressions are everything. i wanted my book to represent not only the poetry within, but my brand as a writer. i looked to artists i admire for inspiration. i wanted something modern, but with a vintage twist. something simple, clean, and subtle, yet speculative enough to make you want to turn the page…

i created the cover image using a vintage strawberry plant wallpaper from the 1970s (strrrrrong strawberry vibes in this book, guys) and the outline of a photo my mother took of me jumping up into the air. the result appears almost like a cut-out (hello, henri), which felt perfectly appropriate for a book about a silhouette.

i hope you love the cover as much as i do! preorder info coming soon!

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judging books by their covers

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It’s officially summer! It feels like we slept right through Spring (anyone else?), but filling up my schedule with creative projects is helping keep some sense of normalcy in this odd time.

I spent the past three months of quarantine assembling my first book of poetry, and now comes the fun part- DESIGN. Fun, yes. Terrifying? Also, yes. I have always loved literary design, books and magazines with beautiful formatting…but creating one of my own that does justice to the poems I’ve pored over and describes my brand as a first-time author…that is a daunting task!

I’ve been perusing local bookstores (though it’s quite difficult in a germ-centric world), and scouring my own collection for inspiration. I’d love to share ideas and sneak peeks of the process here as I continue. Are you interested in book design? Where do you find inspiration? What kind of books are you drawn to? I’d love to know!

photos taken at pvd’s Riffraff bookstore/bar/café. Providence is the coolest.

i’m writing a book

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So speaking of books, I’m writing one!

I know, it’s the quarantine cliché; the early stages of lockdown put all kinds of pressure on folks to write the next best seller. But a few weeks into isolation, I found myself so motivated to put my poetry into a collection. Alas, here we are…

 

I am nearly finished with the first draft and knee-high in tutorials on self-publication. I will keep you updated here, but I would love to know…

Do you read poetry? Would you ever consider buying a complete book? What kinds of illustrations or imagery do you connect with when reading poetry? Who are your favorite poets?

brain walks

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What are you reading? Are you reading? I admit, I’m usually a slow reader. I tend to get distracted, rereading the same sentence 4 times or coming to the turn of a page  realizing I have no idea what I’ve read. BUT! Quarantine has been different.

Lately, I have found it helpful to escape into other worlds, living vicariously through characters and studying the minds of authors, considering why they carefully chose one word over another to craft beautiful prose as with Anthony Dorr or Annie Dillard. It’s been nice to dance around a new place in my mind while my body is trapped between walls.

I have given myself a (loose) goal of finishing one book a week, to keep the momentum going. I’ve also been accidentally matching my dress to book covers, which is a fun little mood-boosting bonus :)

Currently, I’m enjoying Lily King’s Lovers & Writers. The familiar setting (it takes place in Boston in 1997) and characters (it follows a young writer as she navigates love and finishing her first novel) place me so comfortably into a group I have always wanted to mingle my way into. The main character also works as a waitress at a busy restaurant, another lovely reminder of how sweet the bustling of civilization can be. Weaving through King’s relatable pages has provided some semblance of balance these past few days.

These days, reading feels like taking my brain for a walk.

I’d love to know…what are you currently reading?