My Story as an Adult Ballet Dancer

Pointe Till You Drop, one of my favorite ballet blogs/FB pages, has recently invited its adult ballet student readers to contribute to its “Adult Ballet Dancers” album. This is not the first time the page owner, Johanna, an avid and long-time adult ballet dancer from Finland, extended such generosity to her fans. I have seen photos of other adult ballet students she posted earlier, and felt very inspired by all the stories behind them. So when she opened up a new album this time, I jumped on the opportunity to participate, in the hope that my photo and story would also be a source of inspiration for other adult ballet students, especially those who have not yet started and wondering if they should or can do ballet at all as an adult.

Here is the link to my photo and story, which I am reposting here on my own blog for my dear readers:

River Nymph

Photo by Westkenny

This photo was taken during a dance competition I participated in two years ago, when I was 41—the first and only time I ever performed on stage. It was a special moment as I was dancing with my best ballet buddy to original music composed by my husband and original choreography created for us by our teacher from a long distance (in Kazakhstan)!

Here is my story: I started learning ballet at 35 and eight years later am still loving it! I took two years of ballet when I was a kid but switched to modern for a couple of years and then stopped dancing altogether. When my health started to deteriorate in my 30s, I asked myself what would make me feel whole again. It didn’t take long to find the magical answer: “ballet”! Doing ballet at an age when most professional dancers would have retired presents a special kind of challenge–not to mention the large fibroid tumors inside me, which had given me serious impediments in the learning process since hip alignment is so crucial to ballet. Nonetheless, I kept calm and carried on. Now after my operation I am starting all over again as a beginner. I know that technically it will be an uphill battle. But I don’t let age get in the way of my enjoyment. Ballet is my biggest passion in life! I want to keep on dancing for as long as possible.”

And to throw in a little bonus, here is the video of the dance I did with my friend Carrie two years ago at the dance competition. It’s called “The River Nymphs.” Original music composed by Fredix. Original choreography by Nurlan Baibusinov. Enjoy!

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Farewell, Carla Körbes

I never saw Carla Körbes dance live, and the first time I ever watched her perform was her last. And how lucky I am that I did, thanks to the live streaming of her farewell performance on June 7 to a worldwide audience, credits to the company she retired from, Pacific Northwest Ballet—the first American company to ever broadcast an entire evening’s performance via live stream.

The program was a mixed bill event, and Carla was not the only one who bid farewell to an extremely enthusiastic audience. Soloist Kiyon Gaines also said goodbye with warm applauds from his loyal fans. The program that evening (morning here in Hong Kong) included six ballets.

The first one was “Dirty Goods,” choreographed by Andrew Bartee, with music by Oregon band The Chromatics. I don’t like the music but apparently a lot of audience members loved it—the immediate audience feedback is a special experience thanks to the chat room feature during the live stream (which became distracting sometimes). This modern piece reminded me of Trisha Brown’s style, with dancers dressed in casual wear dancing movements that remind one of everyday movements, against a backdrop of some video clips of a person walking in the forest and another hiking, etc. Interesting but not my cup of tea.

The second one, “Calling,” was the first appearance of Carla in the program. The opening of this short piece gave a stunning effect, with the 33-year-old Brazilian dancer clad in a super long creamy white dress that draped across the center stage, making mostly upper body movements. This piece is choreography by Jessica Lang (no, not that actress you might be thinking of) with music by Trio Mediaeval. The imagery from start to finish is a singular column of white with a towering feminine energy reaching out, out, and out. I was mesmerized and transfixed by this minimalist creation, reading into it my own struggle to reach for some distant dreams—life’s calling—with the feet planted firmly on the ground. When she did make that rare move with an arabesque or the lift of one leg, it accentuated the contrast of freedom and restraint. A very deep and spiritual performance. I can’t believe I was in tears already by the middle of this four-minute performance.

Carla-Körbes-Calling

“Calling”: Stunning costume, minimalist but intense choreography, supremely touching performance bt Carla Körbes.

 

The third ballet in the program was “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” choreographed by William Forsythe. I had never seen the entirety of this ballet until this time, and it was simply fabulous! The live music performance was a delightful switch from the use of recorded music in the previous two pieces. Long before I got to know about this ballet, I was already in love with the Pringle tutus. This was like a huge Pringle feast for me (not that I like the actual potato chips… yuck!).

PNB_Livestream_The-Vertiginous-Thrill-of-Exactitude

Pacific Northwest Ballet performs “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” by William Forsythe.

 

The next ballet, “Rassemblement,” is a contemp piece choreographed by Nacho Duato and featuring Elizabeth Murphy and Kiyon Gaines, who gave his final appearance before retirement. The music was beautiful but I wasn’t paying enough attention to the dance as I was distracted by the discussions among audience members on the screen 😦 Kiyon received many bouquets and lots of applause after the performance. One can tell that he is well loved by his fans.

The fifth piece consisted of excerpts from Balanchine’s “Jewels“. It was very cleverly arranged so that only the most dynamic and exciting parts of the ballet were included. It was a good introduction to those who have not seen the piece without stretching the time. The “Emeralds” act featured a pas de deux with Laura Tisserand and Charles McCall. The “Rubies” act featured a pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths. I have seen many version of “Rubies,” the most recent one being Bolshoi’s performance in Hong Kong, which I thought was a disappointment. By contrast, the performance by PNB dancers was a great success in my eyes.

PNB_Livestream_Rubies

“Rubies” pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths.

 

The highlight of Jewels was the “Diamonds” pas de deux featuring Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz. Carla had a short, creamy white bell-shaped tutu, which is quite different from the large pure white pancake tutu (similar to Odette’s) spotted in other productions. She looked sweeter than a cream cake and flowed beautifully in the stream of Tchaikovsky’s score. Her dance was grace and perfection embodied.

Carla-Körbes-Diamonds3

“Diamonds” pas de deux with Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz.

Here is a video of the “Diamonds” pas de deux, posted by PNB afterwards:

https://www.facebook.com/PNBallet/videos/10153098827513952/

Then came intermission, and everyone in the virtual audience was chatting incessantly about how much they anticipated the grand finale, “Serenade.” But when we heard the music that so solemnly announced the beginning of the ballet, a black screen greeted us for what seemed like eternity! There was a technical glitch, which was finally resolved after a few minutes. As a result, the live stream audience missed seeing the most anticipated beginning. Nonetheless, some tried to calm others down by highlighting the fact that we were all extremely lucky to be able to see the live performance free at all! The whole experience itself was indeed history in the making.

PNB_Livestream_Seranade4

Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in a pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Serenade.”

The final scene of "Serenade," when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

The final scene of “Serenade,” when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

 

Although the quality of the live stream was less than perfect, it was tolerable when watched without full screen. And I am actually OK with the reduced quality. My reasoning is that, if everyone can watch a live ballet performance at home at a high quality, what would entice people to go to the theater anymore? Sure, it would still be extremely difficult for someone with limited resources like me to travel to the other side of the globe to watch this performance live. But at least, to ensure the continuity of ballet as an art form, whose excitement largely hinges on the risks and uncertainties inherent in live performances, it is best to leave it alone to the exclusive experience of being personally at the theater.

Here are some scenes captured from Carla Körbes’ final curtain calls. She received so many flowers and the applause just didn’t want to stop!

Carla Körbes' curtain calls

Carla Körbes’ curtain calls

 

After her retirement, Carla will be married to Patrick Fraser, a photographer who published a photo book of her and shot this slow-motion portrait of her on video:

Best wishes to this phenomenal ballet dancer of our time, who cleverly left the stage before the stage left her.

Related Article:

DanceTabs’ interview with Carla Körbes:
http://dancetabs.com/2013/02/carla-korbes-pacific-northwest-ballet-principal/

Hong Kong Ballet’s ‘Paquita, Bolero, Carnival+’

Paquita, The Hong Kong Ballet

Paquita by The Hong Kong Ballet, with Jurgita Dronina and Wei Wei dancing the lead roles

This past weekend, Hong Kong Ballet concluded its Spring season with a mixed bill showcasing both a well-known classical number, Paquita, and a few contemporary pieces, two of which were world premieres. Mixed bills are usually a good way to showcase a company’s dancers’ capabilities and artistry across a broad spectrum of styles while providing high entertainment value. However, I must say that the mixed bill this time was a mishmash of dances that were not put together thoughtfully enough. Just look at the title of the show. What does it tell you?

Bolero, The Hong Kong Ballet, with Liu Yu-Yao and Lucas Jerkander dancing the lead roles

Bolero, The Hong Kong Ballet, with Liu Yu-Yao and Lucas Jerkander dancing the lead roles

OK, it may have led you to believe that the program is made up of a classical number plus two contemporary ballets set to music by impressionist composers. But in reality, Bolero turned out to be an odd one. It is a newly choreographed piece—an experimental one created by company dancers Yuh Egami and Ricky Hu, set to Ravel’s music with some additional music by Li Jia-bo and Yuh Egami. It resembles a theatrical play rather than a contemporary ballet as there isn’t too much meaningful dancing to speak of. Instead, I saw movements on a popped up platform that symbolized the hospital bed. A big part of the dance by the protagonist, performed by Liu Yu-yao, took place inside a cage that symbolized her mental prison. She was crawling on the bars like a caged animal, struggling to get out. The concept of a group of male dancers wearing devilish masks, personifying Liu’s inner demons, was interesting and drew quite a lot of appreciative gasps. But the rest of the roles—the doctor, the hospital workers and the boyfriend, were mostly boring. I’m not talking about their ability to dance, but the material they were given to dance with. While the story line would probably work well in a staged drama, I feel that it is a waste as a ballet because the choreography really does not give the dancers a good chance to fully express the story and the emotions through the language of ballet. The stage props and costumes thus became distractions—at least for those of us looking beyond gimmicks. But worst of all, the less-than-exciting choreography doesn’t do the music, which is highly rhythmic and becomes increasingly intense, any justice. The mismatch is too obvious.

HK-Ballet-Letting-Go

“Letting Go” with Edwaard Liang and Yuan Yuan Tan

The other one that I have a gripe about is, unfortunately, a world premiere and featured one of my top favorite ballerinas, Yuan Yuan Tan. It is hard for me to write this but truth be told, Letting Go is a flop in my eyes. The dance, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, is about a woman’s journey in her attempt to move on from a dead lover. Well, after watching this super short number, the impression I had was “clinging on” instead of “letting go.” There wasn’t very much stage chemistry between Tan and Liang, compared with what I have seen between Tan and her previous dance partner Damian Smith. The latter partnership gave me such an earth-shattering experience that even their breathing alone could tell a story and leave behind in the audience mind a meaningful fabric of the art they co-created. Not so with this partnership. Of course, Tan herself is sublime as she always is, but this ballet just did not give her a chance to really shine. Nevertheless,  a friend of mine, who is not as “spoiled” as me, was taken by Tan’s beauty and was greatly impressed. For first-timers, this was a wonderful experience after all. Another thing about the program, is that the pas de deux was, like a previous Hong Kong Ballet mixed bill, squeezed in between all the other numbers. And since it was so short, the experience was greatly reduced. It would have been nicer if the program either began or ended with Tan’s dancing. One more thing: The musical score, composed by Max Richter, was unbearably monotonous and without any climatic developments—just like so many ballets today that use scores that have this Philip Glassian style. I just can’t stand it.

Now, a word about Paquita, which kicked off the evening’s program. The ballet, though having performed by the company countless times, still left a lot to be desired. It is a highly technically challenging ballet and requires quick and exact footwork and musicality. But what I saw was a lot of floppy feet and movements that were chasing the music. The saving grace came when Guest Principal Artist Jurgita Dronina, former Principal Dancer of the Dutch National Ballet, entered the stage. Her musicality and ports de bras are superb. Suddenly, you start to see the music coming alive in front of your eyes. It was a pity to have Wei Wei partner her. His jumps are stiff and his proportions just not too pleasing to the eyes. But who in the company can really match her caliber, I wonder?

"Le Parc" danced by Paris Opera Ballet Principal Dancers Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet

“Le Parc” danced by Paris Opera Ballet Principal Dancers Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet

The best all-round performance of the evening, in my view, was “Le Parc,” danced by Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet, both Principal Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Set against the delicate Piano Concerto No. 23 by Mozart, this intimate pas de deux of a bedroom scene between a couple passionately in love is one of my top favs. The dancing was perhaps less intense than the version I have seen on YouTube, with Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris. Not sure if that was because they were told to scale down their intensity due to the prudishness of the Chinese audience here? 😉 But to see the kiss scene live was a wonderful experience. What diminished my enjoyment was the constant chatting and laughter of two young girls sitting behind me. I feel that mixing a ballet that has a somewhat X-rated status with another one geared toward children, “Le Carnival des Animaux,” was a wrong decision.

Le Carnival des Animaux, The Hong Kong Ballet

Le Carnival des Animaux, The Hong Kong Ballet

“Le Carnival des Animaux,” or “The Carnival of the Animals,” is choreographed by the acclaimed Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who was in Hong Kong earlier to coach the dancers. This is a teasing and fun-filled ballet, with highly creative movements and costumes of bursting colors. It was actually the first time I listened to the entirety of Saint-Saëns’ musical score in 14 movements—and how I loved it! Each movement was expressed with a different kind of animal, rapidly and fluidly succeeded by another. The frequent burlesque movements of the animals elicited laughter throughout the performance. One can tell that both the children and adults in the audience—as well as the dancers themselves—enjoyed this last piece of the evening’s program wholeheartedly. If there was something to be improved upon, it would be the costumes. While they were really beautiful to look at, with a few exceptions like the lion, the hens, the birds, the jelly fish and the swan, it wasn’t easy to discern what type of animals the dancers actually represented.

If The Hong Kong Ballet wants to keep its audience coming back in the future, I would suggest exploring a repertoire that goes beyond the typical traditional classics, while devising mixed bills with a maximum of three pieces. After all, we are not coming for a buffet, but a few quality dishes.