(un)finished

What is a work in progress?

This question, scrawled in my notebook last week as the lights dimmed for the dress rehearsal of “Starts and Fits, No Middles No Ends: Eight Unfinished Dances,” was the first and last coherent statement I wrote that evening. My classmates and I had rushed over to the Danspace Project to see our composition teacher Rashaun Mitchell in a brand new “dance dialogue” alongside Jody Melnick, Sara Mearns, and Sterling Hyltin. Theirs was a casual intensity, one that made the decidedly unfinished nature of the work feel like a natural choice. It was brilliant, strange, humorous, unexpected, thought-provoking…

Unfinished. It begs the question ‘What do we mean by unfinished work?’ A work in progress, something not-yet-complete, a piece in the midst of process.

All of which implies, when you think on it, that there is a place this work is attempting to reach–a place in which the work will be “finished” when it is reached.

So, next question: Does this place exist? Can we even get there? Do we really want to?

My reflexive answer: Yes, of course. Allow me to point to a standing masterpiece, say George Balanchine’s Apollo. Immediately, however, I have to amend my answer. Balanchine’s Apollo is an oft-performed masterpiece that the choreographer created, and re-created, and re-created throughout his career from his days at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to his own New York City Ballet. Even today, every major ballet company in the world who has Apollo in its repertory differs from every other, because virtually no one dances the same version. The Royal Ballet has a prologue that was later omitted, while NYCB begins with Apollo and his lyre and dances what is perhaps the most stripped-down version. Are these each in their own right complete? Yes, absolutely–just not in the same way. And, I would argue, they are all constantly, delightfully, works in progress.

Dance, by its very nature, is ephemeral. Our bodies are our instruments, and we wake up in a different one every day. The work that we do, by extension, changes with us. No two performances of the same piece will ever be identical, even with the exact same dancers. Add in new performers and the work changes even more: seeing Sterling Hyltin take over Wendy Whelan’s part in Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a markedly different experience, even though the choreography was identical. The work is never static or unchanging.

Maybe that’s what makes art so inherently human–maybe the ephemerality, the ever-shifting nuances, the countless choices that go into creating a moment onstage is what makes dance so transcendently us, in the end. It is all just an ever-changing, hopefully improving, draft. Does this lessen the work? I don’t think so. Do we attempt to present something to the audience that is “finished”? Yes, but the key word is not “finished,” but “attempt.” It is the striving, the discovery and the failures and the surprises that create the work, that make the work worth doing. “Process not product,” one of my teachers is fond of reminding us. “The dance is never done,” he continues.

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The work is always in progress.

 

 

 

{an aside: In the 2004 film Hawking, listening to Bach’s final, unfinished composition, Roger Penrose (Tom Ward) muses, “Bach didn’t finish it…but it’s so perfect. Everything done before it [is] so perfect, it’s as if it doesn’t end, you can hear it after it stops. Listen. Can you hear it?”}

 

Ballet, Relationships, Community: Justin Peck at NYCB and Cedar Lake’s Latest Installation

A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense (and unexpected) privilege of seeing not one, but two of my favorite companies performing brand new work: ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes (Justin Peck) at New York City Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015 (Alexandra Damiani and Cedar Lake Dancers). Surprisingly enough, the two works had more in common than you might guess.

On the evening that I made my way up to Lincoln Center (February 4th), Justin Peck and fellow NYCB Soloist Sean Suozzi were required to step into an injured Andrew Veyette’s role for the world premiere of the ballet. Despite the small hiccup this created in fully understanding the composition of his new work, the novelty of seeing Peck dance one of his own ballets was a treat–much like the piece itself. I will admit to feeling some trepidation at the announcement that Peck was to choreograph to Aaron Copland’s iconic score (Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo is, after all, a classic), yet he rose to the challenge of the wide spaces and rambunctious movement of the music beautifully. The movement highlighted the technical bravura, quickness, and lightness of City Ballet’s men while Sara Mearns, the sole woman in the cast, had a refreshing naivete and youthfulness that I tend not to associate with her typically fierce and soulful performances (her technique was, of course, as sharp and sure as ever). Another standout was Taylor Stanley, whose ability to fully embody any movement was particularly  notable in the second ‘episode’. The beautiful origami of Peck’s spatial organization gave way to humor, to casual conversation, to quiet friendship and the sweet possibility of more. In short: Peck’s usual quirkiness, beauty, and humor in perfect measure. (I highly recommend checking out the handful of clips on City Ballet’s website.)

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's Installation 2015

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015; Photo Credit: Nir Arieli

Four nights later, I found myself walking into a warehouse-like room already filled with bodies–including the members of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, wearing dark shawls and sweaters over black costume skirts and bare feet, moving around the circular mini-stage set in the center of the space. As the dancers came face to face, they initiated contact and held it, first with simple, intimate gestures and progressing to sharing each other’s weight.  A delicate intensity was already brewing between the dancers, and this was only the introduction. The piece, created by Artistic Director Alexandra Damiani and nine members of the company, had movement that ranged from delicacy to extremism, with relationships emerging between the dancers that could be sexy, tender, near-violent, or all of the above as they stripped down to near-nakedness in the course of the evening.

These were not the only relationships that were interesting, however. Violin and viola duo Chargaux, who composed and performed the music for the installation, were only rarely tucked away in a corner to play; more often than not, they were moved by the dancers or wound their way through the center of the space, sometimes drawing focus to a particular event but often giving a visible reference to the relationship every dancer had with what they were hearing. One memorable moment towards the close of the piece had one of the musicians ‘playing’ a female dancer like a violin, undulating under her skilled hands. The performers’ relationships to space were delightfully complex in that every part of the room could be used as a stage; at some points it was physically impossible to see everything that was happening. This multiplicity of focus is where perhaps the most fascinating relationship of the evening came to light: that of the audience itself with the performers and the space. Dancers might brush past to get to their next cue, create a human chain to make the audience shift positions in the space, or leave the audience to their own devices so that they have to make their own choices about how they experience the work. The piece was a study in and a ritual of intimacy, as much between the dancers as the audience. What was on display was probably a clearer demonstration of who the company is than you will ever see at one of their repertory concerts: a community of unique movement artists who are willing to let an audience get this close to their work.

So what does this study in intimacy by one of New York’s coolest contemporary ballet companies have to do with a brand new piece at one of the top ballet companies in the world? At first glance (or second), not much more than a general medium and a (somewhat) related technique base. The glitz and glamour of the David H. Koch Theatre against Cedar Lake’s unassuming rehearsal studios near Chelsea Piers; pointe shoes and ballet slippers against socks and bare feet; the work of a solo choreographer against a collaborative creation process; an audience comfortably relaxed in assigned seats beyond the proscenium arch against one that is free (and encouraged) to take any vantage point they wish.

The common thread, in a word, is community.

ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes   World Premiere Choreography by Justin Peck New York City Ballet   Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik studio@paulkolnik.com nyc 212-362-7778

NYCB in ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes (World Premiere) by Justin Peck; Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

What really impressed me about Peck’s take on Rodeo is the manner in which he created an entire world that felt very real without any of the encumbrances of plot. Sara Mearns first appears like a dream as the men stand casually grouped together, for all appearances chatting as though during a rehearsal break. Later, Mearns places a reassuring hand on Taylor Stanley’s shoulder before dancing a pas de deux with Amar Ramasar; equal partnership and friendship is on display as opposed to the more typical ‘man lifts woman’ paradigm that is often presented. Daniel Ulbricht took some light teasing for the contrast between his bravura dancing and diminutive stature; four men sat with their legs dangling into the orchestra pit below, laughing and horsing around. We are not just seeing choreographed interactions, but an extension of the relationships that exist between colleagues who have been working and training together for years. Now look at Cedar Lake, where the movement on display was so obviously from the dancers’ own bodies–different bodies, yet smoothed out among the company to look both natural and unique. Look at the care they took in partnering each other, in taking care of each other as they hung upside down and slammed into walls and navigated through seas of unrehearsed audience members. You get the sense, watching either of these companies in action, that no matter the situation, these dancers are going to take care of each other as they do their work, whether that means catching a colleague flying through the air or managing a few partnered pirouettes.

And, in totally different ways, both managed to reach out to the audience and say, “Hey, why don’t you join us tonight?” I felt swept up in both of these worlds, enamored by the dancers and entranced by the music and utterly unaware of the passage of time. I felt as though I was witnessing something important, something almost sacred–and what’s more, I felt myself to be some small part of it, whether the action was happening inches from where I stood or on the opposite side of a packed theatre. This, I think, is why I do the work that I do. This is what it’s really about: the ritual of art illuminating and creating communities of individuals.

Listen

Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say. –Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist

There’s a part of The Alchemist where Santiago begs his heart to never stop speaking to him. He promises (if memory serves) to always listen. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about listening. I’ve been wondering how much we miss when we’re so plugged in that we don’t hear the sounds of the city around us, or when we don’t hear what the people we care about are actually saying to us, or when we forget that our bodies can communicate with us very, very effectively without using anything that necessarily resembles language. And I’ve been wondering what would happen if we just listened. Not even asking questions and waiting for a response, but just…listened.

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As a dancer, someone who, by definition, is a professional mover, you would probably guess that I am very good at listening to my body—being aware of its quirks, what makes it look and feel good, how to imitate or create movement without needing to actually see what it looks like. You would be correct. But imagine, if you will, a roomful of us students of movement being given the task to stand as still as possible, in silence, with our eyes closed until further notice. After an interminably long time (okay, it was ten minutes, as we later found out) we were allowed to move again with the simple directive, “Move however your body wants to right now.”

Easy, right?

Blind, silent stillness. This task, set in my improvisation class this past semester, only left one thing for me to do, short of panicking. I told my body, “Don’t stop talking to me. Whatever happens, I’m here, and I’m listening.” It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I am a firm believer that our bodies understand things that we cannot quite express with our language-driven brains, so I allowed myself to (mentally) step back and just breathe.

I thought I understood how to listen to my body before then, but it was an entirely new world that opened up within my own skin. The experience I had dancing in that state of mind is something for which I do not have words.

We’re two weeks into 2015. Two weeks into a new year, and whatever resolutions that we have (or have not) made to greet it. Maybe those are going swimmingly; maybe not. Whatever the case, I’d like to offer you, dear reader, an additional challenge. Listen. Whether it’s to your heart or your friends, your body or the sounds of your morning commute, is up to you. You’d be surprised how easy it is, once you get past the difficult task of admitting that you might not already do so as well or as much as you could.

#WWFarewell

Tonight marks the end of an era at New York City Ballet. Wendy Whelan is retiring from the Company after thirty years–yes, that’s right, thirty years with one of the top ballet companies in the world. If you do not know her, get on YouTube, do a Google search, find her Instagram account, because she is important. Everywhere I look today, I am seeing pictures of and articles about and memories of watching this remarkable ballerina. What can I say that has not been said? What can one say, staring at the evidence of such an immense legacy?

Wendy is one of those dancers that, as a ballet student, you grow up knowing and admiring, no matter where you are. And we didn’t love her for her body (though there is so much to love about it, like any body that moves). Let me say that: we do not love her because of her body.

We love her because of what she says with it. We love her for communicating intelligence and humility and presence and wisdom without ever speaking a word, and then stepping off of the stage and confidently giving voice to all of those qualities when she speaks about what it is that she does. We love that she is herself–as have other dancers and choreographers and audiences the world over.

Wendy Whelan and Desmond Richardson, photo by Jae Mon Joo, courtesy CCB

Wendy Whelan and Desmond Richardson, photo by Jae Mon Joo, courtesy CCB

We love her because she is herself in the work, and because she acknowledges that there is an element of work in this thing called dancing. And yet she never appears to force anything; dance is her calling, and so she goes to work to answer it. She is the epitome of the hard-working, humble ballerina who seems to always treat herself as someone who has much still to learn and explore. I can remember seeing her dance as a guest artist with Complexions Contemporary Ballet when they came on tour to New Orleans several years ago. Tackling a duet created for herself and Desmond Richardson by Dwight Rhoden, I was (and still am) utterly in awe of the mixture of curiosity and guts that must have been required for her to undertake such an alien venture.

She is also one of those dancers that you expect always to be there, because no matter how much maturity she displays onstage, she has never once seemed to show signs of aging like other mortals, has never seemed physically fragile (even in the midst of hip surgery) or anything less than 300% committed. Wendy Whelan dances. Wendy Whelan has always danced. Wendy Whelan will always dance. After seeing her perform a week ago, my feelings on that matter have not changed.

There is no conclusion here, just like what she will dance tonight at Lincoln Center is not a conclusion. It’s another night of dancing, a necessary stillness, and then another move.

I simply cannot wait to see what happens next.

Observations from an Evening at the Ballet (NYCB 21st Century Choreographers)

This weekend I had my first evening at the ballet of the semester. Not just any ballet, of course: New York City Ballet’s 21st Century Choreographers at the David H. Koch Theatre, Saturday the 11th of October (yes, I am so cool that I spend my Saturday nights partying it up at the theatre). On the program: an established repertory piece by Peter Martins, and world premieres from Troy Schumacher, Liam Scarlett, Justin Peck, and Alexei Ratmansky. I admit that I bought the ticket specifically to see the latest from Peck and Scarlett, who are at the top of my top choreographers list, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the evening in its entirety. And, on a bittersweet note, I realized as I looked at the casting notice that this performance would mark the last time I would see Wendy Whelan dance before her official retirement from the Company next weekend (October 18th).

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Enchanting was my watch word for the evening, though each piece evoked that particular descriptor in unique ways. Here are a few impressions that I managed to cobble together in the intervals.

Morgen

Choreography: Peter Martins

Dancers: Ashly Isaacs, Rebecca Krohn, Teresa Reichlen, Zachary Catazaro, Chase Finlay, Russell Janzen
Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin, Ask la Cour in 'Morgen'; photo by Paul Kolnik

Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin, and Ask la Cour in ‘Morgen’; photo by Paul Kolnik

A series of pas de deux to ten songs for soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss, Morgen is presented as a series of individual relationship studies. The first three duets range from ethereal longing to whimsical delight to something darker and needier before the partnerships begin to scramble, and with them the range of romantic attachments revealed through the differences in each couple’s interactions. The pas de deux as a rule were lovely, though a practiced eye could pick out moments of uneasiness likely caused by the perpetual shifting of partners. However, there were moments of breathtaking daring and sparkling technique from both corps member Ashly Isaacs and principal Rebecca Krohn that made up for any shakiness in certain sections of the partnering.

This was one of those ballets where I found myself desperately wishing for program notes; having no background knowledge of the choreographer’s intentions and given the similarity of costumes between the men, I found myself distractedly musing over the possibility that the men were all versions of the same person, or that the women perhaps represented different types of romantic love. (After perusing the City Ballet website, I found that while this piece is meant to be an exploration of aspects of love, each individual onstage is, in fact, an individual–something it would have been nice to know going into the piece.) The partner-swapping was only made very clear in the final movement when all six dancers were finally onstage simultaneously, a lovely section I wish had come sooner. Another wish: that Martins would let the men really move instead of teasing us with the presence of beautiful male dancers like Chase Finlay and only allowing them to show their expertise in making the ballerinas look good.

Overall impression: Lovely, if long; would have been helped along by program notes.

Clearing Dawn

Choreography: Troy Schumacher

Dancers: Ashley Bouder, Claire Kretzschmar, Georgina Pazcoguin, David Prottas, Teresa Reichlen, Andrew Veyette
'Clearing Dawn'; photo Andrea Mohin

‘Clearing Dawn’; photo by Andrea Mohin

Do I understand why the piece is called Clearing Dawn? No. Do I care? Not particularly, because Schumacher’s first work for City Ballet’s main stage was the most fun to watch of the evening. The opening costume gaff had the audience chuckling appreciatively, setting the tone for a playful schoolyard romp of a ballet (an impression help on by Thom Browne’s English-chic blazers-and-vests costuming). The movement asked the dancers to work at a breakneck level of speed and intensity without sacrificing any of their clarity–something at which, as Schumacher is clearly aware, the Company excels.

[Check out an excerpt on City Ballet’s website here.]

Of course Ashley Bouder‘s name is on this ballet, and she is her usual whirlwind of technical virtuosity and playful surety of movement; one particularly memorable moment was when she casually executed a tricky series of double pique turns with constant direction changes, then added an extra revolution and a balance to the final turn before walking out of it and joining the group as though the display of her ridiculous technical prowess was just another day at the office (which, for her, it actually is). Slightly more surprising (by which I mean hardly surprising at all) was the brilliance of Georgina Pazcoguin in this piece; she matches the boys technically while maintaining a girlish cheekiness in her interactions with the other dancers onstage.

Overall impression: Great fun, shows off a group in top technical form, excited to see what Schumacher brings to the table next.

Funérailles

Choreography: Liam Scarlett

Dancers: Gretchen Smith and Zachary Catazaro
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in 'Funerailles'; photo Paul Kolnik

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in ‘Funerailles’; photo by Paul Kolnik

This is the most spare I have ever seen Scarlett work. Though on of my favorite things about his work is the innovative approach he takes to pas de deux, normally it is in the context of a larger whole, the balance of which displays his sound compositional skill set. Here, however, the work is distilled: one man (a vampiric embodiment of death), one woman, a solo piano upstage left–and an Alexander McQueen dress which very nearly makes the piece a pas de trois.

All of the things I have come to expect from Scarlett’s work were present: the aforementioned beautiful creativity in the construction of the duet, a sensitive musicality, his dark sense of drama, his penchant for lingering over mesmerizing images. I was particularly impressed by the way he managed to keep the action interesting and arresting with only two dancers present and his application of stillness at key moments. While not my favorite of his works, it was by no means a poor show, my only real complaint being the moments where Gretchen Smith’s gorgeous ankle length dress concealed some of the intricacy of the partnering that would have been lovely to see.

Overall impression: Not a revelation, but beautiful to watch nonetheless.

Belles-Lettres

Choreography: Justin Peck

Dancers: Lauren Lovette, Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Brittany Pollack, Taylor Stanley, Rebecca Krohn, Tyler Angle, Anthony Huxley

Take Peck’s signature cleverness, geometric organization of bodies in space, and unpredictable movement aesthetic, add a sweeping score and an air of Regency romance, and you have Belles-Lettres. It’s everything you would expect sitting down to a Justin Peck ballet, but re-contextualized so that everything is fresh. The cheekiness makes you smile instead of chuckle; the daring elicits awe, not shock. The opening alone, with its kaleidoscopic imagery, is worthy of quite a bit more study than a single viewing affords. Compositionally the work is as well constructed as anything; the motif development is skillfully handled and the repeated sections are anything but unnecessary. Overall, the effect is one of breathless wonder.

'Belles-Lettres'; photo by Paul Kolnik

‘Belles-Lettres’; photo by Paul Kolnik

Alongside the Ratmansky (below), this was easily the best-danced piece of the night. Anthony Huxley as the male soloist deserves a shout-out for a frankly ridiculous level of cleanliness that served as a welcome reminder to the audience of what City Ballet’s men are capable of.

Overall impression: ‘Year of the Rabbit’ is still my favorite, but brilliant (as per usual) with an unexpected tenderness. How long until Peck’s next premiere?

Pictures at an Exhibition

Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky

Dancers: Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Gretchen Smith, Abi Stafford, Wendy Whelan, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Gonzalo Garcia, Joseph Gordon, Amar Ramasar
"Pictures at an Exhibition"; photo by Paul Kolnik

“Pictures at an Exhibition”; photo by Paul Kolnik

I have never quite understood the fuss about Alexei Ratmansky. The limited exposure that I had previously had to his work gave me impressions of enjoyably danceable movement and an interesting musicality, and yet…I just didn’t get it.

And then this piece happened.

Composition? Flawless. Musicality? Interesting, precise, and made all the more clear by the solo piano accompaniment (Modest Mussorgsky’s music performed by Cameron Grant). Movement? Classical with a twist, tailor-made to each dancer without losing the unifying center that holds the piece together. To the backdrop of a progressively de/reconstructed image of Wassily Kandinsky’s Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles, the five principal pairs that comprise the ensemble come together and break apart in ways that demonstrate an investigation of the various aspects of the abstract painting and how they work together, even as the painting illuminates and inspires the relationships between the dancers themselves.

Among the men, Amar Ramasar was decidedly a standout, a massive grin taking over his face as he danced as though he were having the time of his life. Tiler Peck got to show off her youthful exuberance and technical virtuosity, Sara Mearns her strong yet ethereal spirit (even in her purposely awkward solo in the second movement), yet of the women it was Wendy Whelan who shone brightest.

Emerging from the ensemble in the fourth movement, entitled The Old Castle, Whelan and Jared Angle dance a pas de deux that slowed time to an absolute halt. Utterly tender with each other and wholly self-aware, they danced quietly, as though for themselves and each other. It was impossible to forget that this was the last time Whelan would perform this brand new ballet, that in a single week she would be giving her last performance as the veteran ballerina of City Ballet. This audience member, for one, fought back tears for the entirety of the duet and, at the close of this single movement, the audience applause was as enthusiastic as it had been for any completed piece of the evening. Throughout the ballet, Wendy was her calm, collected self, the mature voice in a pool of relative youth. Ratmansky gave many small moments to the veteran ballerina in the yellow shift throughout the piece, and rightly so, as it allowed Whelan to anchor the dancers around her and leant the space a sense of gravity, of weight and immediacy.

Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, 'Pictures at an Exhibition'; photo by Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’; photo by Paul Kolnik

The audience knew they were witnessing one of the last evenings of grace Whelan has left to bestow on the Company; at curtain calls, it was very clear that no one was leaving until she had taken a solo bow, despite this being an ensemble piece. When she was finally pulled onstage to take one, it was by none other than Alexei Ratmansky himself–and of course she immediately gestured for her colleagues to join her onstage for the final bow of the evening.

 

Overall impression: The best Ratmansky piece I have ever seen, my experience of which was delightfully heightened by the incomparable Wendy Whelan.

 

 

Here Or Maybe Elsewhere

The notion of ‘home’ becomes a rather tricky concept when you find yourself in the midst of your college education. Us college kids will say that we’re ‘Going home for the Christmas/summer holiday.’ Upon finding ourselves amongst our families in the places we grew up, however, we also might find ourselves referring to our college towns–the places where we spend the majority of the year, where we have an entirely different group of friends/families-we-chose, where we actually live–as home. It is a strange place to be, moving between the homes we were born into and the homes and lives we have made for ourselves.

Being a dance major, for me, sometimes makes this dichotomy even trickier to navigate. Because let’s be honest, in pre-professional dance training you often see your teachers and classmates as much as, if not more than, your parents. Those people and that studio can be a massive marker of what ‘home’ is for you–that has always been true for me, who from the age of twelve has quite vocally defined home as, “Anywhere with music, mirrors, good space, and a decent floor.” That was certainly true of Lafayette Ballet Theatre, where I danced as a student company member for my final two years of high school and where I return to take class during school holidays.

Two years since I left the company for college, however, returning to take class has a certain sense of surreality mixed in with the normalcy I have always felt walking into the studio. Same floor and mirrors and barres and art on the walls; same directors, with the same quirks and particularities and absurdly quick petit allegro combinations; even many of the dancers I used to perform with are still there, doing their plies in the same room I left them in. And yet the two years has somehow also changed everything. Some differences are obvious–dancers who have come and gone, new company members who were gangly students when I was dancing here, the exponential growth of certain young dancers who have gone from tentatively feeling out their bodies to fully embodying them. Others are subtler–a new CD for technique class, a pointe warm-up I’ve never seen before that is now referred to as ‘the usual’, the ways the girls I used to see on a daily basis have grown into women.

But, perhaps most striking of all, was the realization of just how much I have changed as well. The minutiae could not be of interest to anyone except me, but the past two years, one in London, one in New York, have helped me to become more myself.

It’s funny, because when you start living away from ‘home’, part of you expects to come back and for nothing to have changed at all, as though there is a time lock on the entire place, preserving it as it was when you knew it intimately and called it, without hesitation or qualification, home. Though you know intellectually that time has passed, going home is made strange when you observe the differences; even stranger is when you observe them in yourself. You might breathe just a little easier when you find yourself once more in the home you have made because there, at least, all the ways you have been becoming seem less strange and more a matter of course. I walked back into Tisch Dance last Tuesday for my first day of being a second year BFA student, and something inside of me settled, never mind that I was utterly confused about the class schedule, had never worked with four of the teachers with whom I was now facing twice-a-week sessions, and was surrounded by more than fifty brand new BFAs and MFAs. I was home, where I knew exactly what to expect in that I never really knew what was going to happen once I showed up.

It’s occurred, of course, that one day I might find myself walking these halls and internally marking the strangeness of being in a place that I once considered home, that I will graduate and move on and this building will still be here, subtly changing with the program and with the students. I have certainly found alumni in the elevators, heading to a rehearsal, remarking on how odd it feels to be back years after graduating. It’s a bit terrifying, I admit, that I only get two more years here.

And that’s okay. Because I have realized that there is a sort of certainty in the act of showing up somewhere every morning and convincing your body and soul that you can get through another class, another rehearsal. There’s a certainty in taking class, in not quite knowing how things are going to turn out on this particular day but listening to your body and finding out. It’s been true of every city or studio I have called home: as long as I am in the practice of moving and of listening, everything will be okay. I do my first plie of the day and the rest of the world quietens. I know I’m lucky that this is true for me, that I can carry my ‘home’ to anyplace that I am able to move. A few of my non-dancer friends have even expressed a modicum of jealousy over it. But I think that everyone should have that, in some form; if we’re not at home with ourselves, then where? And I hope you find it, whatever it is, whoever happens to be reading this. I really do.

So what’s the point of this rambling nonsense? I’m not entirely sure. Just the feeling that, for now, I am happy to be home even as I am missing home.

Here OMaybe Elsewhere

 

 

What I’m Nerding Out About (at the moment)

So much has been happening in the past few weeks, I thought I would share just a few tidbits of news that I am really excited about.

Liam Scarlett to create his first work for ABT

This young British choreographer has positively burst onto the ballet scene over the past few years, and rightly so. He started choreographing at the Royal Ballet School before going on to choreograph for the main company, English National Ballet, and BalletBoyz, as well as stateside with Miami City Ballet and New York City Ballet. And he can also boast being named the first ever Artist in Residence at The Royal Ballet.

Liam Scarlett in rehearsal

Liam Scarlett in rehearsal

Why I’m Nerding Out: Simply put, I’m in love with this guy’s work. I first discovered him watching Royal Ballet Live two years ago, and my fascination with his work only increased in the year I spent in London. His understanding and mastery of form and structure is clear in his choreography, creating the illusion that time has stopped amidst the seamless transitions within his work. His movement is deliciously innovative without losing any respect for classical technique–in fact, he seems to continue to find ways to make the work more fluid–while the partnering he creates is as creative as anything I have ever seen. Don’t even get me started on his musicality.

The Royal Ballet's Marianella Nunez and Ryiochi Hiracho in Liam Scarlett's "Viscera"

The Royal Ballet’s Marianella Nunez and Ryiochi Hiracho in Liam Scarlett’s “Viscera”

Breathtaking is usually the word that comes to mind. I’m really curious to see which dancers he gravitates towards at ABT; I can imagine Hee Seo, Stella Abrera, or the newly promoted Isabella Boylston handling the lyrical side of his work quite nicely, while I imagine he would also have fun with Marcelo Gomes’ easy maturity and Daniil Simkin’s absurd technical ability. In any case, I’m glad to have more of his work on this side of the pond and look forward to the premiere in October!

 

 

Isabella Boylston promoted to Principal Dancer with ABT

While we’re on the topic of American Ballet Theatre, I have to stop for a moment to note the handful of new promotions announced at the end of June. Not only is Boylston now a Principal, but four other dancers have been promoted to soloists.

Isabella Boylston as Gamzatti (photo by Gene Schiavone)

Isabella Boylston as Gamzatti (photo by Gene Schiavone)

Why I’m Nerding Out: Boylston has been catching my eye quite a bit during ABT’s Spring Season at the Met. In particular, her Gamzatti in La Bayadere was surprising in its sensitivity, an unusual take on a character normally presented as strong and sensual; I was hesitant until I realized the character arc she had chosen to take her character across, one that lent Gamzatti a three-dimensionality and continuity that is often missing from the role. Boylston still has room to grow (as does everyone), but I’m very excited to see what the newest ABT Principal will do next.

Justin Peck named Resident Choreographer at NYCB

Justin Peck in rehearsal at NYCB (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

Justin Peck in rehearsal at NYCB (photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

The New York City Ballet soloist is the second person to hold the title, the first being Christopher Wheeldon. His most recent work for the company was Everywhere We Go, which premiered at the NYCB spring gala this year. This new position will require him to make two ballets a year for the next three years on his home company.

Why I’m Nerding Out: Justin Peck is the choreographer whose work I can never seem to speak or write about articulately after watching. His movement vocabulary and understanding of structure are clearly products of his training at SAB, and yet there is something indefinably Peck about the way that he’ll introduce a classical form and then deconstruct it right in front of you. My mouth was open for most of Year of the Rabbit because I quite simply couldn’t believe that he had gone there. Clever, quick, and quirky–that’s Peck. And getting to watch more of his artistic growth with at least two New York premieres every year for the next three years? Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

NYCB in Justin Peck's "Year of the Rabbit" (photo by Andrea Mohin)

NYCB in Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” (photo by Andrea Mohin)

And while we’re talking about nerding out…

How about J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter short story in honor of the World Cup, the announcement of BBC’s Sherlock producing their first ever Christmas special, or the newly released image of Sir Ian McKellan as Sherlock Holmes? Or getting a proper trailer for Series 8 of Doctor Who?

So, if anyone happens to be reading this, chime in! What have I missed? What are you nerding out about?

What I Would Have Told Myself as a New Tischie

Whew! We did it! My classmates and I have just completed the 2014 Tisch Dance Summer Residency Festival, which means that we are absolutely, 100% done with our first year! Looking back, it’s been completely mad. Absolutely mental. And while my experiences this year have not changed who I am, per se, I cannot say that I have remained unaffected; rather, I have become more deeply and wholly myself.

And, as I look back, I also can’t help but think of all the things I rather wish I could have told myself in the first few weeks at this program. So, here are fourteen things I’ve figured out this year that might have been good to hear about ten months ago (too bad the TARDIS is unavailable…)

  1. You deserve to be here. You will probably find yourself at dance orientation wondering how on earth you’re in a room with so many beautiful people. And then in placement classes and the first few weeks of technique and composition you’ll realize that all of these beautiful people know how to move. It’s going to be terribly intimidating. You aren’t going to doubt that any of your peers belong here, so don’t doubt that the faculty knew what they were doing when they decided that you—yes, you—deserve to be here, too.
  2. Be yourself. It’s not just a cliché anymore, it’s one of the many high expectations that this school has for you. The faculty will not try to make you a particular kind of dancer. They will be scary and/or silly, almost definitely tough, and collectively from an insanely diverse array of backgrounds, but everything they do comes from a place of caring about helping you to become the best version of yourself. They’re going to give you as many tools as possible, because the hallmark of a Tisch dancer is not one who looks or moves a certain way but one who can adapt to nearly anything and always has a point of view that is distinctly their own.That extends to your peers as well. Don’t fret about not fitting in. In the studio, the individual is celebrated even as we form a community that loves to share movement with each other. Anything less than your brilliantly imperfect self just won’t cut it here, inside the studio or out.
  3. Practice gratitude and positivity. Begin every class with a happy thought. Don’t just say thank you to your teachers at the end of class out of habit. Be grateful to them, as well as to your peers who are in the trenches with you, to the musicians who are sometimes the only thing that will get you through a rough day (or, other times, will play your favorite song just to make you smile), and to anyone or anything that makes your day better or brighter. You are fortunate enough to be able to do what you love every single day, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult, so create an environment for yourself that reminds you of the good things even when you think you cannot possibly stand to be in the dance building for another moment.
  4. Show up and do the hard work. And, every day, thank yourself for doing it.
  5. Accept that sometimes things just won’t work. There are going to be days that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t do a single pirouette and cannot seem to complete even the simplest movement phrases. And that is absolutely okay. Shaking it off—or better yet, being able to laugh at yourself—is a lot more productive (and healthier) than getting upset every time you don’t have a perfect class (which, lets face it, is every day). Technique, in some fashion or other, is something that you will be constantly working on until the last day of your career. So work hard, work smart, but don’t freak out.
  6. Deal with it. Whenever freaking out inevitably occurs (because it will), go with it. Feel whatever anger or disappointment or fear or sadness you’re going through. Ride it out. Face it, because ignoring it won’t help anyone. Then step away, acknowledge that it happened, and keep moving forward. And on the really brilliant days, let yourself feel that too.
  7. Listen to your body. Know the difference between discomfort that you can push through and signals from your body that say you need to take a step back. At the same time, however, don’t treat injuries as limitations. Think of them as challenges in the choreography. Prioritize sleep, eat the foods that will help you survive the day, and, for the love of all that is good, ROLL OUT AFTER CLASS.
  8. Take care of each other. One of our main jobs as dancers is to take care of each other, because if we don’t then nobody else will. There are people here that will love you for all of your quirkiness and madness, not in spite of it but because of it. They will take care of you when you need them to. Return the favor. Sometimes if you’re wobbling, the best way to help yourself is to help balance the people who are wobbling more than you are. And (bonus!) dancers give the best hugs.
  9. Be a real human. Don’t lose your sense of self outside of being a dancer. The best dancers, you will soon realize, put themselves into the work.
  10. Find the value in watching. I don’t just mean keeping your eyes open, I mean observing. Of course you should watch your peers in class to give yourself advice or be inspired to approach a movement in a different way, but there is also something very special about coming together with a group of people and really seeing each other move, in witnessing the work happening. No one knows where any of you will be in three years after graduation, but right now you are in a community filled to the brim with brilliant budding artists, and getting to see the collective and individual growth of your peers is one of the greatest gifts of going through this program.On that note, see dance whenever, wherever, however you can. You’re in New York, something is always happening (usually, very many somethings). And then talk about it. And then see some more. [Student discounts are, after all, a wonderful thing.]
  11. Show up and speak up. If you see someone doing work that you find interesting, tell them so. If you want to work with someone, talk to them about it. Chat with the faculty; they have an absurd amount of knowledge that, in most cases, they would love to share. If the MFA candidates or upperclassmen hold an informal audition or an improv jam, go to it (they aren’t nearly as scary as you think they are). Try for opportunities you think you have no shot at. Be humble, be honest, be kind, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there; some of your best opportunities will come from asking, or by just saying yes.
  12. Explore new ground without losing sight of where you come from. Experiment, try new things, get so far out of your comfort zone that you have absolutely no clue what you’re doing. But don’t ever discount what you enjoy or where you’re comfortable—it’s the confluence of knowing where you like to move from and stretching past your edges that will give life to your own voice.
  13. Your work is valid. So is your point of view.
  14. Embrace the chaos. This many college-aged artists moving and creating in a single building for the majority of the day at least five days a week results in madness. It’s a pressure cooker within the pressure cooker that is New York. You’ll love each other by Christmas and be ready to rip each other’s throats out by summer because families are like that. Students and faculty alike will challenge you to broaden your idea of what dance is, what it can be, what you can be. Absurd things will happen. Plans will change at the drop of the hat. You might learn a part backstage five minutes before going onstage; you might put together a ten-minute piece in less than a week; there might be a piles of brown paper bags or tutus or singing trees. Or, most shocking of all, you might have a normal day (as normal as our days ever get, at least). The point is, you can never know. Figure out what you need for relative stability so that you make it to the other side, be it your morning coffee or a certain ab workout before class or talking to your best friend(s). And then smile, open your heart, and take it all in.

It’s going to be a mad ride. And it’ll go by quicker than you realize. You’re never going to actually feel ready. But you are.

So, shall we dance?

Hello again…

So, if anybody out there is still listening, I still have stuff to say. It has just taken me a while to decide what, among those things, ought to be on here. Not to mention the insane business that has been my life at Tisch Dance/NYU for the past several months of radio silence.

But here we are again. And all the madness business that has kept me from writing has given me a lot to write about. So keep an eye out.

For now, enjoy Federico Bonelli, meme courtesy of the Cloud & Victory facebook page…Image