Encouragement for My Fellow Adult Ballerinas

Balletomanehk.comAs an adult ballet student, discouragement is a feeling I experienced often since the beginning of my ballet journey. Over the past nine years, there have been so many instances where “life gets in the way,” including repetitive injuries, my father’s death, a major surgery, loss of job/starting my own business (which made ballet unaffordable), a recent major life crisis and so on. Every time something big happened, I was forced to take a break and go on a hiatus. Needless to say, I felt discouraged and fearful that I would lose all my technique and flexibility. The thought of having to start from scratch/square one made me shudder!

There were also times when “studio politics” got in the way of my enjoyment of going to class. And then of course there were frustrations concerning the inability to master a certain step or technique after trying it for so many years, such as the venerable pirouette!

Yet, through thick and thin, I have always come back to the studio, gone back to the basics, and just tried to stick to the routine of going to class, no matter what the external circumstances of my life are.

I have also discovered that muscle memories built over the years aren’t easily lost. One technique I have adopted during those inactive periods was to “dance in my head.” I would visualize myself dancing in a studio, coached by a world-renowned dancer, and let that image run vividly for a while in my mind while I was in a relaxed state. This has allowed me to pick up the movements and steps with relative ease when I went back to the studio. This practice has eased my overall anxiety and allowed me to know with certainty that “not all is lost.”

Another source of discouragement is the discrepancy we see between our own image in the mirror and the “ideal” image we have learned through photos and videos of professional dancers. Thus most of us have a tendency of frowning upon ourselves in disapproval. How many times do you catch yourself talking to yourself in a negative way or tone in a day? Negative self talk seems to be rampant! But does it help improve your technique or artistry? Does it help you enjoy dancing more?

One day I saw this on a friend’s status on FB and a light bulb moment dawned on me.

“Be careful
how you are talking to yourself,
because you are listening.”

I used to berate myself for every little mistake or ugly movement I made in class. The result was that I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could’ve. And what’s the main purpose for me to learn ballet? I asked myself. To enjoy myself! Right! So when I recently came back to ballet after a six-month hiatus, I decided that I would dance with joy and enjoy every moment of it! Sure, I still make mistakes and look ugly from time to time, but those are no longer reasons for me to stop enjoying ballet. I fill my heart with joy when I dance, and no matter how the results come out, it would be a wonderful experience.

So, starting from today, treat your inner self as a little child who needs to be encouraged and pampered. Give her/him some tender loving care as if you would to your child/any child. Because she/he deserves it!

The more joyful you *feel*, the more joyous experience you will attract. Try it!

P.S. The photo above was taken about eight years ago when I had learned ballet for not so long. Sometimes it helps to look at old photos and remind ourselves of the enthusiasm we had when we started.

‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by Mikhailovsky Ballet

Mikhailovsky Ballet: "The Sleeping-Beauty" - www.balletomanehk.com
This year, the Hong Kong Arts Festival presented “The Sleeping Beauty” by Mikhailovsky Ballet of Russia. Like winning the lottery, I happened to have bought the tickets for the show with Polina Semionova and Leonid Sarafanov in the leading roles.

Prior to the performance, my biggest expectation was to see Polina and Leonid flaunting their extraordinary technique on stage, but the show turned out to give me so much more. I didn’t realize that the choreography is by Nacho Duato, a Spanish choreographer known for his European contemporary style. The changes from the “traditional version” with Petipa’s choreography and staged by the Mariinsky Theater, along with the brilliant costumes and sets designed by  Agnelina Atlagic, kept me wide awake the whole evening.

One refreshing change in Duato’s choreography is the absence of mimes. “I try to show the characters and their replationships through dance,” he said in an interview published in the playbill, adding that the mime scenes were a device in the old days for the principal dancers to take some time to rest in between, but due to the improved techniques and stronger dancers today, such a device is unnecessary.

With this change, the music becomes more alive with continuous dance movements without much slowing down of the momentum. Even the King and the Queen were seen dancing (the Queen visibly more), making them characters that are more vibrant.

When it comes to the movement style, the non-classical use of the arms and the head and  the sometimes exaggerated extension of the torso reminds me of William Forsythe–but dressed in Baroque costumes! To the traditionalists, this may look very jarring. But when this style was used by the fairies, it exudes a kind of oddity that is quite acceptable and amusing to me. After all, these are fairies with non-human qualities, and such movements add humor to the piece.

While many of Petipa’s classical steps have been altered, the overall feeling I got while watching the show was that the emphasis on the inner emotions of the characters trumps the flaunting of bravura techniques and high extensions. Many a high arabesque has given way to a more subdued line such as a lot of moderate back attitudes and low arabesques. There seems to be a more natural progression of the story line, with more subtle emotions conveyed as the number of exciting “tricks” was reduced.

Speaking of inner emotions, I really enjoyed the brilliant interpretations of Polina and Leonid in their respective roles. Polina was the perfectly convincing 16-year-old when she first appeared, innocent, wide-eyed, coquettish. When she was pricked by the huge needle given to her by Carabosse, you can literally see her energy diminish, as if her soul actually left her body on stage. I especially like the scene where she woke up after being kissed by the Prince and stumbled in a frail body before being able to walk again. The transition between a 100-year-old sleep wasn’t so abrupt as some of the other versions I have seen, where Aurora just perked up in a split of a second, ready to stand upright en pointe! (I later heard from my teacher, who was sitting very close to the stage, that Polina actually stumbled by mistake and made a thump, but it was a detail that I missed, being seated in the top circle).

Leonid also played his role as Prince Désiré extremely well, expressing a big contrast between how disinterested he felt about the women in the hunting scene and how he was enchanted by the Lilac Fairy and was later completely love-struck by the appearance of Aurora in a vision.

Without the miming, there was enough time for the characters to express their emotions more fully, and this was the biggest satisfaction that I got from Duato’s version.

Ekaterina Borchenko danced the Lilac Fairy and put up a strong performance. Her character played a heavier role than Petipa’s version, tying the various pieces of the plot with a red thread (or purple thread for that matter!). Some remarked though that the role should’ve been danced by a more experienced dancer who can hold down the ford.

The portraits of the fairies were a bit disappointing as the individual differences were not pronounced enough, neither through the choreography nor the music.

The Garland Waltz at the beginning of the ballet were danced by young adults instead of the usual children dancers in the original version, and the peach-green costumes really made the dancers look as if they were flowers swaying in the breeze.

I love the sets and the costumes. The contrasting lighting and colors of the sets between the scenes was a clever device to contrast the good with the evil, with black being the predominant color with every appearance of Carabosse, the evil fairy, whose costume and character play was outstanding.

As for the costumes, the ornamental Baroque style done in a restrained, minimalist way was a feast for the eyes. The colors were luxurious and harmonious. No wonder these costumes were worthy of a catwalk (see video below):

Now, let’s talk about the Rose Adagio, the highlight of every “Sleeping Beauty” production. I don’t recall seeing any actual roses received by Aurora during the scene. The four princes were given more frequent rounds to approach the Princess and so it appeared that each of them was given relatively less importance than in the traditional version. While Polina’s technique was impeccable, the focus of the dance, so tightly arranged, seemed to steer the audience in the direction of feeling the frustration of the Princess in having to choose among the four uninteresting princes rather than gasping at her technique alone. This subtle difference gives this adagio a refreshing feel.

The final wedding scene was wonderful and not too drawn out. I love the pussy cat scene a lot more than the Blue Bird, which did not show enough exuberance in my view. The solos and pas de deux by Polina and Leonid were the true highlights of the evening. Polina’s beauty and talent shined as brightly as her glittery tutu, while Leonid’s superior ballon and jumps were a show-stopper. There was a very sweet chemistry between the two.

All in all it was a very enjoyable performance, and it was a dream come true to see the two superstars of today’s ballet world up close!

Balletomanehk with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre - www.balletomanehk.com

Yours truly with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre–Alas! The picture is so blurry due to my cheap smartphone, but still happy to have taken a snapshot with him. Wasn’t lucky enough to take a picture with Polina though.

Musings on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. While ballet has very much developed into an art form in which the dancers are predominantly women, there is still a big gender disparity in terms of those in the decision-making positions, such as artistic directors of ballet companies as well as choreographers.

A prominent female figure in the ballet world today is English National Ballet Director and Principal Dancer Tamara Rojo. She is a heroine in my eyes, my role model of a perfect ballerina embodying superb strengthen and grace, and above all, a strong woman with just the perfect balance between chutzpah and femininity.
Tamara Rojo

In an interview with Dance Tab last year, she said that “the way that art, that everything, is seen in life, has different angles depending on the people that do it. And that in dance, very often, choreography is created by men, so it has that perspective. And it would be good if we could have it more often created by women.”

To that end, she has commissioned a new triple bill, “She Said,” featuring new works by world-class female choreographers: Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang, which will be staged next month by English National Ballet. It will be a truly exciting event.

Despite their small number, women are starting to make inroads into the top echelon of world-class ballet companies around the world.

For just over 10 years, Karen Kain has been the Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada and taken the company to a new level of international recognition.

Madeleine Onne, former Artistic Director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, has been the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet for over six years now. While I wouldn’t consider HKB “world-class” (yet), the fact that she is a female—and foreign—director of this artistic institution should be recognized, considering the challenges she faces in this conservative society.

Aurélie DupontAurélie Dupont, the darling of the Paris Opera Ballet, who spent her entire 32-year career there and retired last May, will take over the helm of the world’s oldest ballet company after Benjamin Millepied’s one-year tenure.

Julie Kent as Juliet

Julie Kent, one of the most celebrated American ballerinas of her generation, and who retired from the stage last summer after a 29-year career at American Ballet Theatre, has just been appointed the Washington Ballet’s new artistic director.

Both women had previously expressed their strong wishes to live a more carefree life and spend more time with their children and families. However, they changed their minds. I am sure that they have received tremendous support from the men in their lives and the communities around them. Just as successful men often have supportive women behind them, women—especially those who have children—could use a ton of support if they want to fulfill their highest dreams and potentials.

These new appointments are truly good news that we should celebrate. I hope we’ll hear more of such appointments and, with much anticipation, I hope the leadership by experienced female dancers like these will change the ballet world in a way that will truly reflect the balance of genders and different perspectives.

A Valentine’s Rose for You

The rose is an ancient symbol of love and beauty. While most people think of Valentine’s Day as a day to celebrate romantic love, the true meaning of “love” transcends this narrow definition. I wish all of my ballet friends love and beauty in your lives, in whatever form! Here is a card I’ve made for you, my friends. To the left is Vaslav Nijinksy posing as the rose in the 1913 Ballets Russes creation “Le Spectre de la Rose” (1913), and to the right is a blooming rose from my garden today. Enjoy!

Nijinsky - Le Spectre de la Rose - Balletomanehk.com

Flexibility at the Expense of Grace

Browsing the social media for dance pictures can become a mind-numbing habit, so much as that certain traits start to become a main theme that they are being taken for granted as the “must-have’s” if one is to become a great dancer. One of such traits is flexibility.

I don’t know about you, but some oversplits just look downright ugly to me.

Have a look at this Instagram account Godatu Dance (https://www.instagram.com/godatu.dance). While many of the photos show beautiful poses, the majority of the dancers featured are flauting how flexible they are. I can’t help but lament the overemphasis of this quality. True, flexibility does give dance a certain “wow” factor. It is a show stopper. But it is not the only thing that counts when it comes to dance quality. I’m afraid so much of today’s training focus has been put on flexibility, such as the ability to do the oversplit, that the element of grace is being compromised, not to mention that many young dancers have actually sustained severe injuries to their hips or back that would have a detrimental effect on their future career.

Have a look at dance physiotherapist Lisa Howell’s article on this subject:

Oversplits in Second — What are the Risks?

Here is another very good article about oversplits. Are they necessary? Are they desirable? Have a look.

Oversplits — Overdoing It?

Because of the overemphasis on flexibility, an occasional sighting of a ballet pose with a low extension done with grace has become extra refreshing. Have a look at this one:

Dancer: Rachel Richardson, corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Luis Pons Photography.

Dancer: Rachel Richardson, corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Luis Pons Photography.

Fredrik Ashton’s choreography is a great example of how ballet can be extraordinarily beautiful and entertaining without the high extensions. Enjoy this delightful Rhapsody pas de deux.

Actually, ballets like Ashton’s are inspiring for us adult ballet students as not all of us can achieve the kind of flexibility and high extensions that are considered ideal. But what we can do is to try and achieve a beautiful line by extending our body to cover as much space as possible. Working with the upperbody using épaulement is a good way to achieve a beautiful line.


R.I.P. Violette Verdy, Luminous Balanchine Ballerina

Violette Verdy in Jewels (Emerald), 1967

Violette Verdy in Jewels (Emerald), 1967

Two days ago, Violette Verdy, Balanchine ballerina and coach extraordinaire who helped to bring the Balanchine legacy to generation after generation, passed away at the high age of 88. She had earlier directed the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet, and later became a ballet coach, a writer and an honorary music professor. Her contribution to the arts was enormous! (Read more about her in this New York Times article.)

I first became aware of Verdy when I first started to learn ballet as an adult. It was about nine years ago. I bought the DVD “Violette et Mister B,” in which I saw how she coached Isabelle Guerin in “Dances at a Gathering,” among others. Her energy and humor, and her fervor in passing on the Balanchine style in the most faithful manner really impressed me.

Here is a clip from the DVD:

And here is a video of her talking about Balanchine, taped at her home in 2005. The opening and closing shots in the video come from the film “The Poor Little Ballerina,” shot in 1950 when Verdy was only 16 years old! Look at her technique and acting skill, both of which were quite marvelous given her tender age.

May this beautiful and strong flower of the ballet world continue to bloom wherever she is now.

George Balanchine and his ballerinas in "Jewels." Verdy was the one standing directly behind on, in the Emerald costume.

George Balanchine and his ballerinas in “Jewels.” Verdy was the one standing directly behind him, in the Emerald costume.

A Tough Winter

It has been a tough winter for many of us who live in places where the temperatures are unseasonably low (most likely due to global climate change). Hong Kong recorded the lowest temperature since the 1950s. On the coldest day, January 24, we registered just above-zero temperatures—around 2-3 degrees Celcius in the outskirts of the city (roughly 35 degree Farenheit). While it may sound “warm” to those of you in North America or Europe, the high humidity level, the zero insulation and lack of central heating or built-in radiators in Hong Kong’s buildings means that we have all been freezing our butts off!

Prior to the cold spell, I got sick with a nasty stomach flu. Luckily I was back on my feet within a week (thanks to many factors but mostly the wonderful probioticsDr. D’Adamo’s Polyflora—I have been taking and Miracle Mineral Solutions 1 & 2). Yesterday I made my way back to the ballet studio. It was very very chilly and most of us didn’t get warm even after the barre exercises! For me, I usually start to sweat after the first tendu, but yesterday I didn’t start to feel warm until ronds de jambe!

Gaynor Minden Paws - balletomanehk.com

So happy to make it back to ballet class after being sick and then hibernated in the extreme cold. Nothing feels better on a cold day than working up a good sweat! BTW, those Gaynor Minden paws are really great!


During the class, I also found it a big challenge to maintain the proper ballet posture as I had been lying in bed a lot and sitting in a hunched position in this chill for the whole week. My muscles were so tense (still are!). My teacher kept on reminding me to activate the scapular as my upper back was not upright and my arms and shoulders were not properly stretched out. This really affected all my movements. I felt it acutely when doing pirouettes. But as soon as I became more mindful of my alignment, I had a better go with turning.

The pirouette has always been the bane of my ballet existence through the years. Even after almost nine years (with many hiatus in between), I have yet to make a good clean single. In the past, I would condemn myself and feel devastated each time I failed to execute a good pirouette. But my mental state has changed. I have learned to laugh at myself and pat myself on the back every time I fail. In fact, I don’t even use the word “fail” in my head anymore. I just think of it as an attempt that leads to mastery one day. And I try to really focus on what went wrong and make an effort to do it differently the next time. So instead of pouting, I would put on a smile and try, try again.

While I’ve totally “gone off the wagon” of the 12-Week Challenge, I just try to go easy on myself and allow my body to slowly adjust to the temperature and my physical conditions instead of feeling frustrated. It is never a good idea to push yourself from zero to perfection, especially for those of us mature recreational dancers. Don’t you agree?