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

welcome to the dark side

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For most of my career I have been “the good guy.” Fairy, princess, maiden, swan queen; she comes in many forms, all of which include a healthy does of sweetness and sparkles. Last season, however, I got to dip my toes into the shoes of a not-so-nice-guy, and well…I kinda loved it.

Our fall season opens with Ilya Kozadayev‘s (very creepy) Hansel & Greteland I’ve graduated from the young heroine and straight into the wicked mind of her evil stepmother. She’s mean, she’s ruthless, she might even be slightly possessed. And yes, I’m all about it. Who knew creating the conflict could be so satisfying?

Though the show is part of our chatterBOXtheatre series geared toward children, brilliant Ilya did not hold back on the scare-factor of this grim (Grimm, heh*) story. The role is rife with all sorts of unsettling movements in which some vile creature within nearly breaks through her skin and bursts into the scene. The choreography somehow accomplishes this while remaining folkloric and simple enough for children to grasp onto. No small task. Perhaps the most frightening thing of all, though, is the stepmother’s ability to keep all of this darkness contained behind a startlingly realistic artificial composure. Shudder. She’s an intricate bit of character work and a real treat to tuck into. Long live the bad guy.

 

*Full disclosure, I already used this joke once today, in an interview with H&G choreographer, Ilya Kozadayev. Not proud, but still sorta proud, you know?

photo by Dylan Giles for Festival Ballet Providence

hot town, summer in the city

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It’s been a whole month (!) since Swan Lake. Several days after the final performance, The Great Flu of ’19 knocked me down for 2 weeks and well, you could say I ran out of steam. My annual lofty goals to “keep dancing all summer” fizzled under piles of tissues, and needless to say, I’ve been looking for motivation to get back into the studio ever since. Well guys, I think I might have just found it…

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We know the magic of Zarely’s super soft tights (I love the recovery compression tights for going out after a performance when my legs need a little love!) and elevated activewear, but did you know they recently released two leotards? Well, listen up. I’m out here shouting it from the rooftops.

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Have I peaked your curiosity? Okay, the review…

In keeping with Zarely’s design style, the Alicia leotard is cut to flatter. I was worried about her higher neckline, but the material (made in Italy) hugs so nicely. The lining is soft but effective- trust a busty ballerina to give you an honest assessment when it comes to support that doesn’t strangle you.

The base fabric is  thick enough to smooth things out without puffing up, but I think my favorite feature is the mesh panel…

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The designers at Zarely pay special attention to lines when creating each piece, and woah baby, it pays off. I’m not typically one for wearing mesh on the front of my torso, but this leotard dips a toe into the trend without being over the top. I’m a fan.

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So, what do you think?! If you’re interested in trying out one of Zarely‘s new leo’s (or any of their well-made dancewear) and want a little discount, use code KIRSTENZARELY for 20% off at checkout.

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photos by Jenay Evans for STB.

moving me

IMG_7312This bitter earth
Well, what a fruit it bearsIMG_7314What good is love
Mmh, that no one shares?IMG_7313 2And if my life is like the dust
Ooh, that hides the glow of a roseIMG_7317What good am I?
Heaven only knowsIMG_7311Oh, this bitter earth
Yes, can it be so cold?IMG_7315Today you’re young
Too soon you’re oldIMG_7316But while a voice
Within me criesIMG_7319I’m sure someone
May answer my callIMG_7318And this bitter earth, ooh
May not, oh be so bitter after all

This Bitter Earth
Dinah Washington
Snapshots of rehearsal for the contemporary solo from Christopher Wheeldon’s Five Movements, Three Repeats (thanks, Aza), originally created on the incredible Fang-Yi Sheu at the Vail Dance Festival. One of those five movements is the ballet-famous “Bitter Earth Pas”. Have you seen it? It was made for Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle, and it is truly breathtaking. Each and every time I hear this song, I find myself teary in the wings tuning into the lyrics as I wait for the third repeat.
The piece began as a mutual “fan-girling” between Fang-Yi Sheu and Wendy Whelan (former principals of Martha Graham Dance and New York City Ballet, respectively). This mini-documentary (thanks, Melissa!) gives a nice background of the collaboration and creation process. What is it about watching masters watch other masters shape their craft? So inspiring.

 

If you’d like to be moved too, come and see this weightless work live at Up Close On Hope. Tickets here.

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The life of a twenty-first century ballerina often means jumping from one persona to the next, out of pointe shoes and into socks, tattered technique shoes, bare feet and bruises. For three hours we are bunheaded and floating, while the next three have us rolling through the floor, hair and hips flying loose and low.

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Of course, this can wreak havoc on the structure of the ever-important feet and ankles, dramatic shifts in positioning and pressure causing all kinds of inflammation, irritation, and injury. Our February program jumps from balletic Serenade to apocalyptic Smoke & Mirrors and creature-like Coma, and all I can say is THANK YOU, SHOCKS.

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With compression in the arch and ankle, the Performance Shocks from Apolla are saving my feet. They hug just the right areas to provide support and protection, while still allowing the toes to shape and the heel to ground into the floor.

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Before a long day in pointe shoes, (my feet and) I love taking barre in my Apolla’s. They give me the perfect lift without being restricting or bulky. Ah, can a person truly love a pair of socks, you ask? I’ve rambled on and on about all of their many benefits, but for now let’s check out some close up glam shots and find out how well they really perform…

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Oooooh, aaahhhhh. Who knew a pair of socks could make me feel some kinda way? If you’re looking for a date this Valentine’s Day, might I recommend a fresh pair of Performance Shocks? Just kidding…kind of.

In you’re interested, Apolla is offering a discount to STB readers! Use the code SETTING*THE*BARRE19 for 10% off at checkout.

All photos by Jenay Evans for STB.