Reality check

Recently, life has taken a tumble. I graduated, all in one piece, so maybe I should be happy. I moved back in with my parents to hunt for jobs and eat noodles. Unfortunately, ballet has gone on hiatus. And I don’t know how long I’ll stay away. Right now, I also have an injured right foot. It’s an old stress injury that won’t heal. No one knows what its problem is, but I guess it just can’t take the stress that my weight places on it.

I wish I could write more about dance and of course dance, dance, dance! But for now, it’s just the sofa and the cold summer rain.

blackswan

Source (click on image)

 

The Caged Bird

Dance is the only art form that speaks of prayer and blasphemy in the same language.

Before time started ticking in atomic clocks and ancient animal debris fueled our hunger for travel and luxury, humans lifted their hands to the skies in ancient dance, a song to the gods, asking for good fortune, rain, a good harvest, a healthy child. Dance was the song, the medium of the prayer. It was the language of community, a public supplication to the god that breathed wind and rain and roamed the sky.

But time has changed and we have changed, as an organism, a culture, a mind. Nature has turned into steel and concrete canyons, thousands of reflecting eyes in which we see our fragmentation. The world has shrunk, but we’ve drifted apart, faster than the continents. We see each other not in the flesh, but in thousands of bits traveling through space in arteries of light. I am no longer eyes, body and touch, but an endless stream of updates, texts and instgrammed moments. I don’t know the side effects of this particular addiction yet. In time, we shall all know.

Somewhere along this endless stream chronicled as history, came along the French and the king in his mirrored hall, and harnessed dance, caught it, placed it in a cage with rules and obligations.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

writes Maya Angelou. She is not writing about dance, but the mind supplies the narrative even when it is uncalled for. I think of ballet as the caged bird, an ancient artform reborn with rules.

Somewhere along the road we began to think in dichotomies, in borders drawn on water: night and day, black and white, woman and man. Shimmering borders that seem absolute. Thus came also the arts of the mind: painting, literature, music and poetry and the art of the body: dance.

I was recently at a ballet recital. It was one of the “nude” ballets, that modern choreographers are fond of putting together and presenting to eager audiences. A man and a woman, in minimalist leotards, on a stage together. Bodies entwining. I am intrigued and ashamed. I feel that intimacy is violated in the dusky lights of the stage even though this is a performance. At the end I clap, with everyone else. The loud noise shatters the moment I want to savor, the moment when the danseur gently touched the hand of the ballerina, brushed her body. There is something that appeals to the very ancient part of my brain in that touch, in the close contact of hands and torso.

After the performance, I discuss something mundanely existential with a platonic friend. We dip into the dance performance of the evening. “That touch was…” I leave the sentence hanging between us. “ Carnal”, he says. The trill of the r hangs like an unpleasant expletive. As an afterthought, he hovers the bottle over my glass. “More?” “Sure”. Chiraz, when poured slowly, has an oddly seductive quality, the bruised grape blood flickering in the dim room. Carnal. Dance for years was among the persecuted art forms, forbidden, because it inspired lust and carnality. A blasphemy.

Somewhere, far below in the glass canyon between the two buildings, an ambulance wails. Someone is bleeding on a gurney beneath fluorescent lights. The body is so frail in these moments, when it hovers on the brink of death or on the brink of touch.

a dancer, more than any other human being

There is always an end in the distant future. It is almost 11pm. Classes are over, exams have been finished papers written. A thunderstorm is raging outside and I am trapped in the library , soaked completely wet and too scared to walk back to my dorm.

 

I haven’t written, danced or lived much during the past few months except for the routine things of classes, homework, dinner and lunch, a TV flick caught here or there. The truth is, all I have wanted to do is cocoon myself from the world. Endings, death, goodbyes, loss have all been present and at times I have felt at a loss. Loss of what to do or what to turn to. Dance, the ever healing presence of music and moving bodies, became a burden. So I stopped, slowed down, let time run around me like a river washing over.

Martha Graham once remarked,

”A dancer, more than any other human being,

dies two deaths:

the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body

will no longer respond as you would wish.

After all, I choreographed for myself.

I never choreographed what I could not do.

I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to

accommodate the change.

But I knew. And it haunted me.

I only wanted to dance.”

source

Her words have often been with me during this spring. I imagined the burden of knowing that one day the body will no longer be a fine tuned instrument. I imagined the coming of that realisation, that end.

I also imagined a world beyond my obsession with ballet. The mirrors that reflect all that beauty also reflect all of that which is vile and undesirable, both in the body and in the mind. I have sought escape from that.

I have been away from ballet for nearly two months. I have looked at my pink satin slippers lying on the floor, week after week untouched. I have put on weight again, so that black leotard will have to stay hidden.

And yet in one of the insomniac moments, I pine to live in the moment’s dream, extend myself if you will beyond the everyday, breathe and exhale the music.

Because moments are not everlasting.

Ballet goals for 2013

The big five things to work on.

Work on a higher three-quarter pointe

I have a very stiff big toe joint, which makes my three-quarter pointe extremely low. I know I need to work on the flexibility of my joint, but it’s just so dang painful to stretch it.

More plié when jumping

This is a correction I am constantly getting in class. My jumps don’t have the catlike bounciness that makes grand allegro a joy to watch and I don’t have the strength required to complete long changement-echappe exercises.

Core, core and core.

You need it for high extensions, for pirouettes, for jumps, for adagio, for everything. So there’s no excuse not to do it.

Higher extensions

Yes, it won’t happen overnight, but it’s something to aspire.

Turnout

I won’t be vying for more turnout, but for more control over the turnout I already have, especially in grand battement and developpe a la seconde.

Pointe Dreams

I have been dancing ballet seriously (adult beginner seriously, not pro seriously) for a mere three years (it’s my fourth now), but I’ve been surrounded by the magic of ballet a lot longer. In fact, I can remember the precise moment when my obsession with this form of art began.

I was 5 or 6 and angrily demanding that my mother take me to ballet class. Unfortunately, being a single mother, she wasn’t always able to give me what I wanted, so instead my grandmother bought me a VCR of a 1968 performance of the Swan Lake by the Kirov Ballet. From the very first moment, when Odette, in her romantic flowing tutu, still in human form appears under that lone spotlight on the stage, I was enamored. In love with the beauty, the grace, the strength. For me, a pudgy, couch potato child reared on chocolate and hours of bad soap operas, it was unbelievable that a human body could be so graceful and strong, so beautiful and delicate. Part of the grace and delicacy of ballet is of course pointe work. A ballerina balancing on the very tip of her toes gives ballet an ethereal, weightless, floating feel.

I did eventually go to ballet class as a child, but I soon quit, because, sigh, of my pudgy body. To this day I regret that decision, but I digress. Back to pointe and the silly dream this adult beginner has of one day dancing on pointe.

Before I joined the web balletblogosphere, I was convinced that pointe was only for the pros in training and real ballerinas, not logshaped 20-somethings. But then I started reading blogs of other adult beginners. And it seems that pointe is indeed possible. Johanna from PointeTilYouDrop has detailed accounts of her experiences as an adult beginner learning pointe and so do many other bloggers. Not only are adult beginners embracing pointe as a part of their ballet practice, it seems that everyone ( in the blogosphere) is breaking in their pointe shoes within months or maximum a year after starting ballet for the first time. I know I don’t have a huge amount of years under my belt, but definitely more than a few months (hear the envy speaking…). I’m starting to think there is something wrong with my body. Being shaped like a huge piece of heavy timber sure doesn’t help with getting approval for pointe. But what is it’s something I can’t fix? What if it’s my appalling turnout? Or the fact that I cannot wing my foot and hence it looks sickled?

Of course one can advance to a very high level in ballet without ever wearing pointe shoes. You can be challenged every class even in soft shoes, but alas, it is the gracefulness, the feeling of being weightless that I crave.

Maybe one day… but in the mean time, let’s get back to those calf strengthening exercises.

I wanted to leave you with a video of the beautiful Swan Lake prologue in which Rothbart turns Odette into a swan, but it seems the more contemporary versions available on YouTube no longer incorporate the prologue. Luckily, they have the same scene (or nearly the same) as a dream sequence in the Black Swan.

Additional reading on adult beginners and pointe

So with this beautiful video, I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas!

A recap of Fall 2012

Being a college student, my time is conveniently divided into semesters and quarters. The fall semester is short and sweet, punctuated by breaks and holidays, and a slow mellow transition from the hot last days of summer to a chilly, golden fall. That is, if you don’t take into account the stress, the endless piles (hah, almost spelled that as plies…) of homework, papers, projects. That being said, education is a privilege and I shouldn’t whine. But sometimes, just sometimes I wish that I was already done with this phase and out in the big world. Working a 9-5 job, shuffling papers. And dancing ballet.

Because when you are a student at a small college in the suburbs with nonexistent public transportation, paying skyhigh fees for tuition, books and room and board, ballet becomes a rare luxury. We do have a small dance program at the college, but there is only one class for each level, and the gaps between the levels are huge. For example, the intermediate level caters for people with 1-3 years of experience while the advanced level is for people who have danced pretty much their whole lives. Also every semester, the intermediate and the beginner level “start from the beginning”. So there is really no way for someone in the intermediate class to advance to the beginner class, unless one wants to jump into the deep end of the pool all at once.

Fall 2012 was kind of wishy-washy in terms of ballet anyway. In the summer I had a hamstring injury that came from overuse, and I wasn’t sure whether I could come to ballet at all. Luckily, the muscle felt better as August progressed and I was able to take my spot at the barre as classes started. It was the same class with the same instructor, but luckily, in ballet, one is never ready. There are always those extra inches to work toward with your extensions, more bounciness for those echappes and changements, double and triple pirouettes (I wish, sigh…). But two classes per week are just that. Two classes per week. It’s a welcome respite from the studying and problem sets, but it’s just “ballet” padding. No real progress is taking place. I sit and read other bloggers, who clock in astronomical ballet hours, 9-10 classes per week, take private classes and are on pointe within a year of starting ballet. I’m afraid pointe will always be a silly dream.  I have been an adult beginner for the past 3 years, and I haven’t even come close to being pointe ready or participating in recitals, or heck even making into the more advanced classes. There have been times when I’ve wanted to quit.

I do love ballet. For 90 minutes, twice a week, I get to be someone else, a shape in space intertwined with music and time. I can choose to have emotions, express them, be them. A pure fantasy world. But sometimes, I feel like I wasn’t meant for this (and you, know, I kind of wasn’t). My body is big, slow and lumbering, a log. The dancer I am in my mind never materializes in class.

But I will keep coming back. Coming back to the barre, to the studio, to the practice of discipline and dance. Even if the barre is just the back of the chair and the studio my small college room.

The first breath of dance

It’s been silent in this corner of the world wide web. It’s been silent in my dancing life, partially due to injury, partially due to dance burn-out (I didn’t think it could happen, but lo and behold, it did. There does exist such a thing as too much dance.) I spent most of the summer in my room, gazing outside as the arctic rain washed the window panes again and again. I spent countless hours in the offices of the orthopedists, the physical therapist and the osteopath. Most of them were not optimistic. And neither was I. I didn’t want to be optimistic. I felt like I had had too much dance. I danced through pain, illness and fatigue. I danced when I should have just sat back and let my body heal.

I promised that I would not go to ballet class this fall. I sat in my dorm room and watched as the clock crept toward 2 pm- the time at which the intermediate ballet class starts. I was wearing an old baggy t-shirt and worn-out running pants. 20 minutes until class starts- should I go or should I not go? 10 minutes until class starts- go, now, no, wait. 5 minutes- I dashed out of my room and grabbed a pair of ballet slippers on my way out.

In the studio, there was an assemblage of perfect leotards, tights and buns on perfect dancer bodies, and then there was me, my baggy t-shirt and running pants. But all of that didn’t matter.

Because as the music began, and the arm drew the first breath of the port-de-bras, everything else, but the purity of movement in time, ceased to exist.