technique is not the end

Though my posts have been sporadic this year, I have mentioned one of my new favorite teachers more than a few times. At this point he’s STB famous for his revelatory insights (remember remove expectations from the studio and make the perfect mistake?) and in class yesterday, he rattled off another little gem that went something like this:

Allow yourself to dance. Technique is the means, not the end. Technique allows you to dance. Dancing is the point we are after.

Whew, let that sink in. It’s one of those suggestions that seems obvious when you hear it. Of course we are here to dance. This is a dance class, after all. But between the calisthenics of barre and mind-numbing-mirror-staring-nit-picking of center, somewhere that idea gets lost. We stop moving for movement’s sake and start moving for…technique? We’ve got it backwards.

The point of dancing isn’t to make your technique perfect, the point of perfecting your technique is to be able to dance. The more proper your placement, the easier your pirouettes will be. Lengthened muscle work leads to a lighter adagio. It’s not about jamming your body into positions until it breaks. It’s about practicing those technical aspects in the pursuit of dancing. Ah, dancing. It’s so pure, if you allow it to be.

Are you waiting for me to turn this into a life lesson? Some kind of “dancing through life” encouragement? Me too. It’s a concept I still need to put mindful effort into practicing. Perfectionism has ruled my life for as long as I can remember, and in fact, it’s one of the things I fancy most about myself! But perfectionism for perfectionism’s sake (say that 10 times fast) is unfulfilling. Perfectionism for the sake of living at your best, that on the other hand, is a worthy cause.

This lesson is about finding the “why”. Not a groundbreaking concept, but one worth repeating nonetheless. When our days blur into weeks and actions become routines, we tend to go about our business rather blindly, our subconscious convincing us it has a purpose. But often times, we’ve lost sight of the greater purpose as we struggle with the minutia of the micro-tasks that make up the “work” of our lives. We stay up nights worrying about decisions, making pro and con lists, considering every angle, and suddenly we’re imprisoned by the stress of details when the ultimate point is to feel free.

If it’s not glaringly obvious by my lack of clear direction in this post, I have not yet figured this one out myself. I still struggle every day with focusing on my “why” and keeping a looser hold on the perfectionist details. I have been confined far too many times by indecision. But I’d like to remind myself, and whoever else needs to hear it too, that sometimes all there is to doing it, is just doing it. Sometimes, dancing can just be dancing. Take a step back, look at the whole picture, and for a while, enjoy the slightly alarming spontaneity that comes with putting the technique in your back pocket so you can just do some damn dancing.

just keep reading

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say it one last time: 2020 was the year of changing courses. Every track ransacked, every road demolished by some undetectable mayhem. Following suit, as you may know, FBP’s live performances of The Nutcracker were off, then on, then off, then on, then…

After 4 weeks of rehearsals, a twice delayed opening date, a statewide two-week “pause”, and a close contact positive test, by the grace of some Nutcracker magic we were able to film an adapted version of our reimagined production as a virtual show for our audiences. The hard work of so many artists brought us the gift of a long day in a theater, something I almost forgot how much I loved. And then somehow, two weeks later, I got to do it again…

Days after Christmas, six dancers returned to the studio and Yury dug his hands into the clay. We engaged in something dancers crave more than anything; We began the process of creating a new piece. Like brushes dipped in buoyant paints, we let his eyes twirl us around the room, filling empty space with waltzing and making music in the offbeats. By New Year’s Eve, we were half way through- chiseling out careful bits of stone, each pass shaving a bit closer to our sculpture.

On January 8th, we had a tech rehearsal(!!!!). Our theater received us for the first time since February, familiar faces half-covered by medical masks, but wholly welcoming us home. The next day, we woke early for a dress rehearsal followed by two performances of our waltz. Of course, I’ve saved the best tidbit for last: our accompaniment. Pinchas Zuckerman, Amanda Forsythe, and the RI Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. There is nothing quite like dancing on a real stage to live music played by world renowned musicians within kicking distance.

After two performances with significantly limited audiences, we did what any artists starved for the camaraderie of a post-show buzz would do- we celebrated! The theater hosted a little socially distant gala for the performers in the gallery space, where we got to mingle behind masks and sneak sips of wine between breaths. For an hour, it almost felt normal.

At home, I relished the ability to hug my partner and eat pizza on the couch. We talked about the day I’d had and C let me spout on about how good it felt to plug back in. Electrify. Finally, I fell asleep, but the buzz lasted through the night, as good show thrills always do. As I sipped my tea the next morning, I thought How could this be? Fussing over my little artifacts- some backstage polaroids on the coffee table, false eyelashes on the counter- I cherished the only evidence of any magic moments before my carriage turned back into a pumpkin and life returned to something of a blank page.

What a ride these past few months have been. Slowly getting back into the studio in September, taking on Dying Swan in a parking lot October, returning to something slightly resembling “company life” in November, recording a new Nutcracker in December, getting back on stage in January. Now, I’m not sure what this next season will bring. But shoulders strong from carrying all of the lessons learned last year, I’m not reading ahead, I’m just looking forward.

As one of my new favorite teachers says, “Remove the expectations and observe what is actually happening here.” Do not try to predict, don’t look ahead to the last page- the ending won’t make sense yet. You have to live in the pages. So just keep reading.

performance photos by Dylan Giles.

opening little windows

Dancers being dealt months of dormancy throughout the company’s most changing time has its obvious challenges. Less overt but perhaps more productive to consider, though, are the many openings that come with prolonged pause. Small but mighty things that contribute to grand personal evolutions when collected over time. Tiny victories and lessons gathered as the results of risks taken during times of rediscovery. Or maybe it’s just reacquainting…

Complicated technique that has slipped away paves a path for correcting old habits. Deep grooves that once sculpted your thighs have smoothed over for a new artist’s carving to begin. Even simple things become fun endeavors to discover; Considering a new brand of pointe shoes? Remember this old leotard you used to love? What about this rehearsal skirt that never got worn? Everything is just a bit more precious. There’s no need to save it for later. All cards are fair game.

These realizations are helpful when you are waist-high in creating a reimagined Nutcracker. One that’s not only different from the production you have danced through 19 Decembers, but different from any show you’ve ever even seen. Because it’s outside. In a parking lot. And there are masks, and skipped scenes, and forced heat. It’s amazing how a year of perspective-change training can make all of the “shortcomings” into miracles. How lucky are we to be given this grant, this space, this time to refocus on our craft? This is the process that gives us life, what makes us tick. The mundane, the repetition, the midnight ache. All of these thorns in our sides that let blossom our art.

As we watch cases rise around the country and here in RI, we remain hopeful that this new Nutcracker will move forward and that we will be able to bring some much needed cheer to our community this season. If you are around, consider bundling up and seeing something new here in Providence.

expectations and why you should lose them

Expectations. How much time have you spent dwelling on them, ruminating on them, being let down by them? If you’re like me, a lot. But how much time have you spent actually questioning their importance?

By this point in life, one thing I can certainly be certain of is the prevailing presence of uncertainty. Nothing ever turns out to be the way you expect it. This unpredictability is the one thing you can count on. So why, then, do we spend so much precious energy investing in our expectations?

expectations: strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future

The other day in ballet class, the teacher said something that stuck: “Remove your expectations.” He was referring to the expectations every dancer in the room absolutely shared in that moment, preparing for pirouettes across the floor; We were all thinking, “This is the part of class to get in multiple pirouettes. If I don’t hit any triples or higher, this part of class has been a failure.” Our teacher’s suggestion was to abandon this train of thought entirely. Hop off of the expectation train!

In place of expecting, we were instructed to be present. To use the exercise as just that: a learning experience. A chance to build. Check in with our bodies in that moment, remember the techniques that work, try to apply them, and see what happens. If you go into a pirouette expecting three and end up falling out of two, your brain reads only failure. If you go into the pirouette with an open, steady mind, you are more apt to clue in what’s happening- the good and the bad.

Time and time again I come back to life lessons learned in the ballet studio. In the crowded elevator of our brains in their every day shuffle, it can be easy to miss out on these chances to translate ballet into human language. But with a world of 2020 uncertainty and unpredictability around every corner, I’m finding myself relating anecdotes from ballet class directly to my life quite often. Back to expectations…

This lesson might be the most important of the year so far. Remove the expectations. It works for both the high and the low ones. Just don’t expect. Stop trying to predict the future. It will only ever prove you wrong. So let that go. Open yourself up to right here, right now. Do your best to set things up for yourself however you see most fit in this moment.

I’ve been learning a bit about manifestation lately. Whether you believe in its power or not, the practice of bringing yourself what you want in life through a present mindset (not future!) certainly feels powerful. To be clear- in my understanding, manifestation is not a practice of focusing on what you want for your future, rather mindfully embodying what is coming now. It’s about tapping into the things that may not be physically happening, but feel real and true to you somewhere deep in your gut. It’s a difficult thing to tap into, but surely only made more challenging with pesky expectations clouding your vision.

So try this: close your eyes and look out into the horizon of your inner focus. Wipe the skyline clean. Stop picturing things and instead tap into what you feel. Does your gut rise up into your head and jingle any bells? Is your supporting leg telling you to engage the “safety pin of steel” under your glute? Is your throat whispering a command to a little dog named Louie? Tap in, feel them all, and just hang on…

the perfect mistake

There have been a fair few new faces around FBP lately, and one that I have particularly enjoyed meeting is Christopher Anderson. His classes are fun but challenging, with an emphasis on placement, mind-to-muscle connection, and fluidity of movement. You know that refreshing feeling when you hear someone explain something you’ve been working on for 20 years in a way you’ve somehow never considered before? “Put your collarbones into your first position circle.” Lightbulb.

Christopher tends to call upon memories of his own training, sharing nuggets of wisdom he received from his teachers around the world. They are always golden tidbits, but one in particular stood out last week…

It was a story about a former teacher of his who used to skip around class exuberantly, cheering students on and giving corrections from all angles of the studio. The interesting bit was this: When a student would fumble slightly, but maintain placement or correct mechanics, his teacher would shout excitedly,

“You made the perfect mistake!”

The perfect mistake. This little oxymoron instantly clicked for me. It rooted itself even deeper when, that evening while coaching students for YAGP, one of my girls asked what she should do if her attitude turns don’t go well on stage. We spend a lot of time talking about performance quality and the point of competitions, which in my opinion, is not being judged, rather painting the stage for the audience. It’s about learning to set the scene and fill the space with dancers so convincingly that the audience can see them, too. It’s about finding your voice. If you can do this during a competition when you’re alone onstage, storytelling through dance becomes second nature as a professional. But I digress…

I try to impress upon my students the importance of “rehearsing options”. In other words, practice what you will do on stage if you fall out of that pirouette, or come down early during your hops en pointe. Don’t just stomp it off. Gracefully transition to the next step. Smooth things over. Make the perfect mistake. The mistake that shows your technique and mindfulness. I can’t help but think about how well this idea can be applied to every day life…

When you are over tired and accidentally order 5 too many jars of peanut butter during quarantine. But then you have a shelf-stable option that gets you through that stretch of sheltering-in-place where cooking an elaborate meal every night became an uninspired chore…for example. Or when you accidentally board the wrong train, end up somewhere in New Jersey with no cash, cry, find your way back to Manhattan, but then get to spend a surprise extra night with your best friend. The perfect mistake.

So I’ll repeat what we’ve all heard and know, but perhaps need to hear again: it’s not what happens, but how we deal with it. What’s more empowering than that? This truth brings the control back into our own hands, makes mistakes into opportunities. Accidents become lessons, chances to show our worth, our training, our humanity. Those little moments of impurity become the slivers of ourselves, little flashes of individuality, because how I deal with a mistake will be different from everyone else in the room. And that is where our voice hides. In the perfection. Only in those teeny cracks in our facade can we show the world who we really are.

october swan

On an outdoor stage with cars replacing rows of plush red velvet seats, horns honking in place of applause, and the sun as our spotlight, FBP performed for the first time in 8 months. It was different- but isn’t everything these days?

The weather held out, sunny and 62. Between the chill and the slippery stage, I must admit I was not very happy with my performance, but it did feel liberating to get in front of a crowd again. The sweetest part was being accompanied by the cellist, Leo, a talented musician from the New Bedford Symphony. Live music always gets my toes twisting (even when I’m supposed to be sitting still), but there is nothing more breathtaking than Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne played with care. I am convinced this piece must always be a duet between dancer and musician (have you seen Lil Buck and Yo-Yo Ma?) and look forward to building upon this performance next time I get to take this piece on.

Life lately has been revving up with more ballet classes in anticipation of our Nutcracker performances in December, punctuated by many cups of tea, comfort foods, and watching the world do its autumn dance as we shift into a new season.

If you live somewhere with seasons, take time. Walk slowly while it’s not too cold, hold a red leaf in your hand. Feel the crunch of summer’s glory crush under your boots and whisper “thank you” to the wind, because she doesn’t get enough credit. Have you ever seen little yellow leaves fall like rain from your window? Look closer.

learning to fly

Whew. Ballet is hard.

I’ve been delayed in posting an update about my progress getting back into the studio because, well, with so much disaster in the world right now, it feels frivolous to wax on about my aching toes and the enormous effort it takes to float one’s arm like the wing of a swan. I feel the need to preface every sentence with an admission of my privilege to even have these frustrations. But it’s come to my attention that a few of you are wondering exactly what I’ve been hinting at

So an update is in order! In just over 3 weeks, FBP will perform for the first time since February. Though sadly the show won’t include the entire company (support the arts in any way you can, people! we need you!), it will include the New Bedford Symphony and a drive-in theater. Yes, you read that correctly. Audience members will drive in to the outdoor performance venue at the Zeiterion in New Bedford for a collaborative performance featuring ballet and live music…for the first time in 8 months!

As you may have guessed by my *swan dive* into history, I will be performing the famous Dying Swan solo, accompanied by the New Bedford Philharmonic cellist. This will be my first time doing Swan, and it’s been an unconventional, very “2020” rehearsal experience so far. From her serene garden somewhere in Scotland, former Royal Ballet principal Zenaida Yanowsky recorded herself walking through the choreography for me to learn from. It’s clear why Zenaida is known for her portrayal of this solo– even in her tennis shoes, on grass, she looks at home in the graceful body of a swan. With this inspiration, I’m slowly learning to fly…

Of course, this does not come without tough days and setbacks. It’s a new form of isolation, being in a studio alone with a screen. Just myself and the movement. I am trying to focus on embracing the space, appreciating the freedom of a big room and a purpose. This pandemic has hit so many other people in much more difficult ways than I can even process, but it is quite a unique experience for artists…to be unable to do our work is to be separated from what gives us our identity. After so much time away, I can hardly believe I am getting the chance to reconnect with ballet. To put myself back together.

Despite the frustration I have been feeling with re-teaching my feet to endure just 3 minutes en pointe (remember when we could do 3 acts of Swan Lake, guys?), the lingering feeling is not the ache in my toes, but the gratitude that seems to come from every part of my body. Every piece of me that has been scattered around my house for the past 6 months…I’m picking them up and stacking them up once more. And it feels so good. That’s the thing about ballet- it always tells you what you need. A bucket of ice for clarity, a hot bath for relaxation, a warm cup of tea to let it all sink in…

There’s even more good news to report, but I’ll save that for another day ;) Until then, I’ll just be here, thanking the universe and massaging my calves.

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