Such lightness, such elegance –finding inspiration in Polina Semionova

 There’s something disarmingly different about Ms. Semionova, a willowy, warm dancer who grew up in Moscow, lives in Berlin and, in May, made her long-awaited debut with American Ballet Theater in “Don Quixote.”

-Gia Kourlas for the NY Times

Just yesterday, the NYT ran a small article – a newslet, really- about Polina Semionova’s contract with the ABT. I hadn’t thought about Ms. Semionova for a while, and yet she was the one, who-albeit indirectly- kicked my posterior off the couch and to an adult beginner ballet class. You see, I was spending my Saturday as usual: on the sofa, browsing YouTube. Then, I stumbled upon this music video

Take a moment. Look at that grace, that elegance!

Wheew… I think I cried after watching that video. In a space of a couple of days, I had a plan. I was going to start ballet, and become just as skilled as Ms. Semionova (oh, the naivete of a ballet newbie…). But I wasn’t sure. What if the other adults were all former ballerinas? I was 100% sure I would look like an idiot. But embarrassing moments are easier to bear if you have a friend to hide behind. So I called my good friend F.

The conversation was something like this (give or take some words)

Me: I really want to start ballet classes.

F:?

Me: Yeah, look at Polina Semionova in this video. Look at it.

F: oooukaay. She’s a pro. Ballet is really hard.

(Author’s note: F had been dancing competitively in ballroom and latin dances, and knew what she was talking about. )

Me: Pleaase, please, can you come to adult ballet with me?

F: how about hip hop?

I’m sad to say I chickened out. I didn’t go to the adult ballet class for another year or two. I stayed at home, and watched Ms. Semionova dance.  And then one day, I decided enough is enough. I went to ballet class and have not looked back. Thank you, Ms. Semionova, for being such an inspiring dancer!

That’s not dance!

Spring semester in college is over, and it’s time to enjoy summer classes in my native Nordic country. Today was the first class of the summer season with G, my old ballet teacher. After class, two women discussed the combinations in the women’s changing rooms, and one of them remarked, “Well, that wasn’t dance!”

I had to smile. There was a time, when I would have left class with exactly the same thoughts. It’s only a 60 minute class, and the teacher is wonderfully pedantic. She will repeat exercises, even the warm up plies as many times as is necessary for her group of adult beginners to learn. Getting the basics right, that is the key to advancing. And I agree. Going to advanced class with floppy plies, shoddy port de bras and a wrong sense of using your turn out etc can be dangerous (I’m speaking from experience here!). The point is, we don’t get to do much in the center because of the time constraint and the bulk of class time is spent at the barre.

I only came to understand this recently, but the barre is not a crutch, it’s your partner. Just a few weeks ago, at the Ailey Extension Classes Mr. S told us not to grip the bar for dear life. “You’ll cause your partner to lose a couple of fingers”, he laughed. The barre is our imagined partner. Isn’t that the reason that it is ballet classroom etiquette never to turn to the other side away from the barre?

Here is a video of the barre portion of a  final classical ballet exam in a Russian ballet school. Those ballet dancers are really dancing!

 

A Day of Dance in NYC

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Times Square at night

After months of scheduling conflicts, I finally found myself in NYC with an afternoon to spare. And what better way to spend it than doing and watching ballet?

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The Joan Weil Center

I started the morning with a brisk walk down Broadway toward Columbus Circle. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is just conveniently located at the corner of 55th and 9th Avenue, a blazing white building in a peaceful Midtown neighbourhood.

The lower lobby of the Joan Weil Center

The advanced beginner class was taught by Bradley Shelver. What a departure from the rigid Vaganova based classes I have been taking for the past months! The barre exercises were mostly what one would expect from an advanced beginner class: tendus, jettees, developpées and the rest, but the emphasis was different. Rather than emphasizing poses and epaulement, the emphasis was on brisk footwork (we did a right left alternating, passé, jettee combo, and boy was I lost!) and spatial awareness. A favorite exercise was grand battement- balance´- attitude relevé combination. Letting go off the barre in the middle of the exercise enhances your ability to move in space. You have to time your balance pretty well to avoid a crash with the barre.

The center adagio was ok. Long, slow, controlled developpe croisée and enface, a transition from arabesque into attitude with a renverse.  In the across-the-floor combinations I was lost, hopelessly so. A fast tombe pas de bourrée, followed by jettees right and left, tombe pas de bourree and two glissades. The tempo of the exercise was way over my speed limit, but I gave it a try (and failed).

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Despite the rather lackluster performance in the center, I left Alvin Ailey on a ballet high, my stomach bubbling with anticipation for the evening’s Giselle at the Met.

The Metropolitan Opera

The spring-summer season of the ABT at the Met will feature a vast array of ABT principals and guest stars (Natalia Osipova, Roberto Bolle, Diana Vishneva and the rest). The night’s Giselle was performed by ABT principals Xiomara Reyes  and Herman Cornejo, with Devon Teuscher in the role of Myrta. First staged in Paris in the late 1800s, Giselle tells the story of a peasant maiden (after whom the ballet is named) and Count Albrecht, who disguises himself as a peasant to win Giselle’s heart. Unfortunately for the lovers, Giselle’s jealous suitor, Hilarion, discovers Albrecht’s true identity and reveals it to Giselle. After learning that the count is already engaged to be married to princess Bathilde, Giselle dies.

The second act opens with a haunting scene, a lone grave in the middle of a forest. Hilarion, who lovingly places, a cross on Giselle’s grave is tormented by appearances of wilis, the phantoms of young maidens disappointed in love.  The count also pays his respects to Giselle. While grieving at Giselle’s grave, Albrecht is surrounded by Myrta and the wilis. While Myrta wants to kill Albrecht, Giselle protects him from the wilis and saves his life.  As the night ends and the morning sun illuminates the forest clearing where Giselle’s grave is, she retreats leaving Albrecht with one white flower.

The first act featured solid dancing, but veered too much into the theatrical side (which, I admit, is necessary to establish the story). But the second act was truly captivating!  Teuscher’s Myrta was a perfect combination of grace and haughty elegance. Every arabesque, every tendu had an air of power and even cruelty.  Cornejo, on the other hand, is able to integrate seamless acting and dancing. His futile attempts to capture Giselle’s ghost are a poignant manifestation of Albrecht’s sorrow. Reye’s Giselle, a coy and shy character in the first Act, undergoes a transformation. In the second act, she is no longer powerless. Reyes, perhaps inhibited by the shy peasant-girl role she was portraying in the first act, truly blooms in the complex en diagonal pirouette and grand allegro combinations of the second act.

Although some criticize the classical repertoire for being too fairytale-sweet, there is rarely a sight more breathtaking than the entrance of dozen wilis and Myrta. In that moment, these ballerinas cease to be dancers on a stage. They transform into a mélange of time, space, movement and music.