full circle

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When I was 9 years old, I took my first pointe class.  It was my first exposure to classical ballet, my first time hearing the word épaulement, and my first time using those barres around the studio walls for a non-playtime purpose.  I had stepped- rather abruptly- out of the world of sequins and trophies and into the rigorous schedule of Festival Ballet Providence’s summer workshop.

Because like many children of the ’90s my previous knowledge of pointe shoes came from posters of babies in green tutus, I strolled into that very first pointe class with my ribbons criss-crossed 3 times and tied just below the knee.  Yes, I know.  Luckily for me (and my pre-adolescent self esteem), gracious Miss Mary Ann put a gentle arm around me, chuckled, and guided me through the entire process from padding to relevé.

That first pair of properly laced pointe shoes was like a seal; I was irrevocably into it.  The next fall I registered for a few classes, then more, and by the following year I was diving into a full load of classes on the pre-professional track at FBP.

When the need for Summer Dance Intensive training wove its way into what I was beginning to subconsciously refer to as my “career path”, I was 11.  FBP’s was the first SDI I attended, effectuating my first impression of the demanding, rewarding, and, yes, intense experience these programs are named for.  Naturally, I was hooked.

The six summers that followed brought me from Connecticut to New York and back.  I performed with a pseudo-company of 22 international dancers at Jacob’s Pillow and studied under countless methodologies, including a Bolshoi program taught entirely in Russian.  Ras, dva, tri…

Just in time for my final Summer Dance Intensive, though, fate brought me back to FBP.  Those 4 weeks were some of the most physically difficult and spiritually gratifying I have ever experienced.  My body and mind were tested in that specific, euphoric way only exhaustive dancing can incite.  It was my divine confirmation.  This was the work I wanted to be doing.  This was professional ballet.

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If my summer dance experience seems to have already come full circle, well then consider this a second lap: I am thrilled to announce I will be teaching in FBP’s 2017 Summer Dance Intensive!  This July I will join the staff at FBP, instructing future ballerinas in variations and pointe.

The studios that fostered my love of ballet, equipped that love for the real world and have since become my second home will now grow with me once more.  I cannot wait to give back all that this sacred place has given me.  So come dance with me, will you?

audition tour dates.

more information.

i changed my breakfast

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I am a creature of habit.  I don’t easily tire of routines, and when I find a recipe or food I like, I will often eat it every day until the season’s agricultural tide urges change.  That being said, every now and again a friend will recommend something (the breakfast bowl that inspired the image above has become one of my favorites) and it will scramble up my whole pattern in the most refreshing way.

Recently, two of my best friends have been raving about steel cut oats.  Their promise of a fuller, nuttier flavor and more robust consistency (as opposed to traditional rolled oats) finally wore me down; it was time for this creature of habit to break the mold.img_9564

Though they take quite a bit longer to prepare (about 20 minutes versus the 5 minute cook time for old fashioned rolled oats), those little steel cut morsels really are a game changer.  My mornings have me feeling stronger and more energized throughout the rehearsal day.  I’ve been mixing in some flax seeds as my oats cool, to give them even more substance, and a secret ingredient for an added boost…img_9563

DanceFoods is the first superfood blend made specifically with dancers in mind.  It contains a mix of maca root, raw cocoa, goji berries and plant protein, all sourced from small farmers growing chemical/hormone free plants.  That’s all of the organic antioxidants and energizing goodness, and none of the extra junk!

The blend was conceptualized by a former professional dancer who felt the stress of long rehearsal days weighing on him.  With little time to prepare an adequate lunch, he could feel himself growing weaker.  His solution was to create this blend, providing dancers with a quick way to digest the essential vitamins we so often miss out on.

A dancer’s body is her instrument, and taking care of that instrument begins on the inside.  To get the best fuel possible, I’ve been cooking up some oats every morning and mixing the superfood blend right in.  I top the whole shebang with some berries and cinnamon et voila!  My routine has transformed.  img_9557

DanceFoods is offering Setting The Barre readers a 10% discount on their first purchase!  Use the code ‘settingthebarre’ at checkout.img_9561

a contemporary classic

We’ve traded Tchaikovsky for a delicious mix of Prokofiev and Bizet, and oh, what a welcome trade.  There’s nothing like a new soundtrack to wash away the worn and sing kinetic life.

This month and next are filling quickly with material- both the newly created and the boldly revisited.  Between R&J rehearsals, videos of Viktor Plotnikov’s first full-length rewind and play, rewind and play.  Fourteen years ago, our beloved Viktor reimagined this classic drama in that way only he can.  Then a fairly new choreographer, Carmen was one of his first collaborations with the company whose roster he now graces.  A decade and a half later we wake Viktor’s steps to discover them somehow still innovative; his is an ever revolutionary form of dance.

During my first year as a trainee with FBP, I performed as a (rather intimidated) “factory girl” in Viktor’s Carmen.  I remember reveling in the genius of his unforced mime and celebrating- though timidly- my body’s ability to use his powerful and strange dance vocabulary.  This season I am honored to be learning the role of Michaela, Don José’s betrothed who, in this version, also has the privilege of acting as a bit of a narrator.  Finding herself in quite the assortment of situations, Michaela’s choreography is both sweet and mature, and I am all sorts of excited to dance it.

 

for tickets.

beyond the barre with mahallia ward

My friendship with Mahallia is one of the most unique I’ve ever encountered.  This is likely due to the fact that we have never actually met.  Well, not in the conventional shake-hands-and-how-do-you-do way, at least.  Shared passions and the vast interwebs introduced us in that marvelous and strange mathematical way I’d rather pretend was serendipity.  Cyber-sations be damned, we’ve taken to exchanging actual, real life letters, and it turns out what snail mail lacks in speed of interaction it makes up for in depth.  It’s been so fun getting to peek into her world, I thought you might like to do the same…Snow Queen.jpeg

K: Let’s start from the very beginning.  What is your earliest dance-related memory?

M: My mom was my ballet teacher when I was really little. I remember our class performance when I was about five years old. My mom was on stage with us and she wore these huge butterfly wings. We all followed her around doing our best “butterfly arms”. I also remember she wore her huge plastic frame glasses on stage, the hipstery kind that are popular now (but weren’t then). I thought she was great.

That’s adorable!  So in high school you trained at the Harid Conservatory for 3 years.  What was it like being at a ballet boarding school?  Do you ever feel like you missed out on “normal people high school experiences”? 

I definitely didn’t have a “normal” high school experience, but I feel like I had a very rich one. I became close with girls who understood my desire to dance and the dedication that it took. I also gained an early sense of independence and responsibility. While some students felt caged in by the boarding school rules and curfews, I felt like I had plenty of freedom. All I wanted to do on the weekends at that age was go to Whole Foods, grab a bag of trail mix, and eat it in the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble with my girlfriends. I was pretty satisfied, haha.

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Definitely living the dream, haha.  After graduating from Harid you were a given a traineeship with the Joffrey Ballet for one year, before receiving a company contract the following year.  Was it difficult to transition into company life? 

My first year with Joffrey was so much fun. I loved living in the city and wearing whatever I wanted in class. I felt very welcome in the company and of course it was awesome to get paid. I met my best friend that year and my future husband. I just soaked it all up. The rep, the touring, the newness. The challenge of the transition from student to professional came later for me. I had to learn how to motivate myself without a teacher and how to manage jealously and unhealthy comparison. In school I was always amongst the top in my class and I benefited from those opportunities. It was difficult to adjust to the very high level of competition in a professional company, and to start near the bottom again.

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What has been the most personally significant onstage moment or role in your career thus far?

I’ve been fortunate to dance many fulfilling roles in my time at Joffrey. But what comes to mind now is the role of Lady Capulet which I performed for the first time last week and will perform again this weekend. I am three months pregnant, and dancing this role has been gratifying beyond my expectations. Prokofiev is gorgeous and Lady Capulet’s character is complex and heartbreaking. But most significant for me is the confidence and enjoyment with which I am able to perform this role. My path in ballet has been riddled with insecurities and it feels incredible to have reached a level of maturity at which I can fully appreciate what I am doing, especially since (or perhaps because) my life is about to change so drastically.

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Okay, let’s talk life changes.  You are married to a non-dancer.  Is it difficult to explain certain aspects of the ballet world to someone who is not directly involved, or do you find it refreshing?

The only time I find it difficult to explain the ballet world to my husband is when I’m in the middle of the extreme highs and lows that can come with it. Sometimes after a great show, when I’m still hyped up on endorphins, I wish he could be up in that place with me. And other times, when I’ve felt absolutely crushed, I feel like he can’t truly understand the emotional toll that a disappointment can take after investing in something since childhood. But mostly my husband is a steady source of comfort and encouragement. Because he’s not in the ballet world with me, he offers clarity and perspective that is extremely helpful to me in navigating this profession. He has also developed a pretty good eye for a non-dancer. He’s always ready to talk to me about a performance with thoughtful comments and critiques.

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So it’s all about balance, it seems?  How fitting!  As you already know, I am such a fan of your blog, on ballence.  You are such a talented writer and photographer, where do you find the time to cultivate these passions?

Thank you! I like blogging because writing and photography serve as a reflection on my life as it happens. Material for a post or photograph is everywhere, and I love the exercise of noticing an experience and turning it into a beautifully documented memory. The more frequently I post, the easier it is to find the time for it. When I write a lot I write more easily. For me, the challenge is to find consistency in something I’m doing as a hobby.

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I completely relate to that.  It’s difficult for dancers to find the time for hobbies, but I think it’s so important!  How has blogging and pursuing other “extracurricular activities” shifted your perspective inside the ballet studio?

I saw the sweetest kid’s book the other day called “What to do with a problem” by Kobi Yamada. In the book a little boy discovers an uncomfortable problem. He tries to ignore it but it grows and grows. When he finally confronts the problem he realizes that inside of it lies and opportunity! The nice thing about writing is that in any situation; be it wonderful, challenging, or even mundane…there is an opportunity to turn it into something thoughtful and beautiful by writing about it. If I have a bad day at work, well at least I have post material.

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On a lighter note, you are expecting your first child, CONGRATULATIONS!  This kind of life change certainly spawns reflection, I’m sure.  Do you ever contemplate life beyond the barre? 

Yes all the time. Especially right now. At the moment my career seems to be simultaneously shrinking and growing in significance. With the anticipation of a child I feel less attached to my identity as a dancer and also more grateful for it. I am surprised and delighted to find myself in this state. I feel at peace with how far I’ve come in my career and whatever unknowns lie ahead.

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Lightning Round:

Breakfast this morning was…French toast with honey

Favorite ballet? Lar Lubovitch’s Othello

Favorite place in Chicago? I really like the coffee shop Dollop in the South Loop. It’s near our theater and has the best chicken pot pie ever. Whenever my family comes to town for a show we hang out there all the time.

Current pointe shoe brand/style? Capezios. I copied the specs from another dancer’s special order and I’m loving them.

Thank you so much for sharing, Mahallia!

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photos 1, 4, 6, 9 by Cheryl Mann ; photos 2 & 3courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet ; photo 7 by Alejandro Mallado, all others via Mahallia Ward

collide

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This new season begins with collaboration.  A propitious brew of poet, choreographer, actor, dancer, observer, blended in pursuit of manifesting tragedy.  We’ve come together under a prolific score to leave some unique, yet to be determined impression on history’s most influential love story.  Creating and learning together, spoken expressions fusing with silent ones to produce some new form.

The past 2 weeks were certainly long ones, with Ilya Kozadayev in Providence creating an entire full length ballet in just 11 days.  Yeah.  We also welcomed 2 talented actors from Pawtucket’s Gamm Theatre as well as their director, Tony Estrella, into the studios to incorporate the element of dialogue into the show.  With words so beautiful, it’s only right to hear a few of them spoken by professionals.

Speaking of pretty words, as a lover of literature, I’ve been so appreciating hearing such expertly chosen arrangements articulated in the studios.  One of my favorites so far: “Come what sorrow can, it cannot countervail [this] exchange of joy.”  Ah, such lyrical beauty.  Here’s one that hits even closer to home: “Ladies that have their toes/ Ah, my mistresses!  Which of you all / Unplagued by corns will walk a bout with you.”  If you know my history with corns, well.

I’m quite looking forward to bringing this all to its decidedly unique fruition.  Stay tuned, friends.

 

photo via Festival Ballet Providence.

remembering romeo

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When I was in the 5th grade I memorized Romeo’s balcony scene monologue.  My brother had just started in the 8th grade at a new private school, and his English class was studying Shakespeare.  Each student was required to memorize a passage from the great tragedy and recite it to the class.  My brother, though brighter than most, was rather intimidated by this.  He favored equations over paragraphs.  Shakespeare’s particular brand of loquaciousness might as well have been Portuguese to his number-loving mind. Fortunately, my mother was always one step ahead.  She established a line-a-night system, softening the intricate prose so it may permeate and linger long enough to be spoken before his classmates.  Each evening after dinner, she would read the tangled words aloud slowly, using an authentic inflection.  Hearing it broken down this way, I awoke to Shakespeare’s poetry.  The words came alive.  It made sense.

“That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.”  I understood.

Thanks to sheer proximity (re: shared couch space), my mother’s slow Shakespearean sets seeped their way into my brain as well.  Though serving over the years as little more than a fun party trick, my memorized bits of Romeo’s monologue are resurfacing in the studio, as we set a brand new interpretation of the epic love story.  But this time my understanding feels different.  Though the ancient text remains unchanged, the love and loss in my own life have transformed the words I once thought I knew.  The prose itself seems to have inflated, the sentiment of every sentence deepened.  Romeo’s love for Juliet seems ever more magnificent to me now, their untimely deaths far more crushing.

I can’t wait to see where the rest of this ballet takes me, perhaps even beyond fair Verona, where we lay our scene…

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a sunday story

dsc08220The sound of blowing snow and falling sun wake me.  My apartment creaks as I shift pillows and the old radiators whine right on cue.  Sun beams C major through the frosty window.

All around winter sounds; oh sweet Sunday morn.

Thick layers wrapped and zipped and fixed, I waddle through snow right into his car.  Headed for warm caffeine and a walk through our latest most favorite neighborhood.

Every few steps a clump of gooey gingerbread appears inches from my lips.  I’m given no choice but to indulge and well, there are worse problems than this.img_9005

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Seeking refuge from chill in the old stone Athenaeum, we search through stacks and steal kisses.  From a certain corner Poe peeks in.  Smacky.  A nod to the oiled canvas Washington and we head back into the snow.

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Home at last.

He holds sunset tomatoes and fills the kitchen with french singing.  It’s early dinner and we’ll have a buttery omelette.  It’s big and full and tough to flip, but he knows full well:

things always taste better shared.