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.

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 Dream about Nureyev

Nureyev at the barre - Balletomanehk - www.balletomanehk.comFour years ago, I saw Rudolph Nureyev in my dream. In it, I was teaching him how to do port de bras (geez, does he need any help?!) . We were talking French. At the end of this dream sequence, I said “ta den” (take this) in Swedish to him (referring to his arm), and he repeated these words in a sexy voice and then moved his arm in a most graceful manner! Hardly do I have dreams as vivid as that!

Thanks to Facebook, which gave me a reminder of what I wrote in my status on the same day four years ago, I can now savor this sweet dream 😉 I also dreamt of Yuan Yuan Tan one time, but I will share it in another post later. Have you ever dreamt of a ballet dancer? Or do you mostly see yourself dancing in your dreams? I’ve had quite a few of those myself—in which I was able to perform some feats that I normally aren’t able to in the waking state, such as 10 pirouettes landing in 4th. Of course I have also had less pleasant dreams… such as thisthis and this. Please share with me your ballet dreams—if you remember them!

My Connection to Margot Fonteyn

My headline may have you fooled into thinking that I have any sort of personal relationship with Margot Fonteyn. Well, in that case I have succeeded 😉

To say that I have a connection with her is actually not that far-fetched, even though such a connection is not personal.

What ties me to this prima ballerina absoluta, who still is very much alive in many balletomanes’ hearts, are two vintage items that I have collected.

The first can be considered my favorite piece of ballet memorabilia in my meager collection: An autographed copy of “The Magic of Dance,” written by Fonteyn herself.

The Magic of Dance by Margot Fonteyn - © www.balletomanehk.com

I acquired this book a few years ago from someone who apparently did not know who Fonteyn is, and was thus selling the book on eBay at an extremely reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised to find the ballerina’s autograph in the book as well as a pamphlet for a luncheon held in London to mark the publication of this book. Whenever I look at her autograph and touch the title page, a special kind of awe springs from deep inside me. Unfortunately, the pamphlet has been lost during a recent move. Luckily I have scanned the cover. I remember the inside spread shows the rest of the guest list as well as a seating plan.

The Magic of Dance Luncheon Pamphlet - © www.balletomanehk.com
In the book, there are a few lovely pictures of the dancer herself, including one taken inside the Drottningholm Theatre in Stockholm (which I had the great opportunity to visit one time), one in Shanghai and one in Athens. She wrote about dance history and all forms of dances in the book, not just ballet. Not surprisingly, one can find quite a lot of photos of her dance partner Rudolph Nureyev. This book has a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

The other item I want to share with you is a vintage ballet postcard showing Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Act I. On the back of the postcard, a beautifully handwritten message says: “June 16, 1953 Covent Garden, ‘Sylvia’ Sadlers Wells Ballet. Margot Fonteyn – Sylvia, Michael Somes – Aminta. Beautiful setting and decor. Superlative dancing by both of the “stars” – also, by John Hart (Orion) and Alexander Grant (Eros). The group dancing was also near perfection.”

There is something magical in reading someone’s handwritten note that summarizes a ballet performance in such earnestness, albeit in great brevity. The magic lies in the nostalgia of a bygone era. Today, most people would not take the time to do this sort of thing. A selfie inside the theater, a short status update on Facebook or a review on a blog are the most common ways to record our experience at the dance theater. But a handwritten note on a postcard? This just feels so much more tactile, more real. Not a bad idea to revive this practice, eh?

Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty, 1953 - www.balletomanehk.com

Today, it is not difficult to find tons of digital images of ballet stars past and present. But owning a postcard like this helps to shorten the distance between me and the dancer. This postcard is framed and sitting on my desk, and Margot Fonteyn continues to inspire me with her beauty, grace, elegance and strength.

What are your favorite ballet memorabilia? I would love to hear from you.

Related article:

Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

Dancing off the Beaten Path: The Stories of Three Young Chinese Male Dancers

Photo credit: Self portrait by Mickael Jou (Click on photo to visit Jou’s FB page)

Male ballet dancers in Asia are a rare species. Not that they don’t exist. But generally speaking, parents do not encourage their sons to pursue the path of becoming a professional dancer because dancing is still very much considered a feminine activity and thus a dancing boy would be seen as a “sissy.” In addition, in Chinese societies, especially in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is scanty government funding for the arts, dance is not regarded as a prestigious profession, as being a dancer does not equate a big salary and a “stable” future.

Against these odds, there are a few young male dancers who have followed a non-traditional path and carved a niche for themselves. By defying the skepticism around them, these young men have become a source of inspiration for many aspiring dancers.

Mickael Jou (周楷), an American-born Taiwanese dancer and self-taught photographer, has wowed the world with a series of selfies showing himself dancing and jumping around the world. His photos have recently been published in the Huffington Post (http://huff.to/1GEPiAZ) and the Daily Mail (http://dailym.ai/1IlaDER), in which he is described as “the man who defies gravity.” The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper has even met up with him in Berlin and done a video interview after observing the painstaking process of him taking self portraits (http://bit.ly/1LQc27y)

When you look at Jou’s “selfies,” it is hard to tell that he is not a professional dancer. What surprised me the most is that he actually did not start to take ballet lessons until he was 18. He studied business in university and started working in sales. His adventurous spirit brought him from the United States to Paris, France and later to Berlin, Germany, where he is now working with photography. His passion of dance+photography has taken him around the world doing crazy jumps amid wide-eyed and head-scratching crowds. He is a perfect example of someone who lives outside the traditional box—a box that is perpetuated among Chinese families. He is a true inspiration of creativity for us Chinese people!

Photo courtesy of Meng Ting

Another young Taiwanese man, Meng Ting (孟霆), grew up in his mother’s ballet studio and eventually pursued ballet studies at Taipei National University of the Arts. But after graduation, he has chosen to join the army’s Honor Guard. The Taiwanese media published a report on this (http://bit.ly/1eCjDJG). Why has he chosen this career path? “The main consideration was the practical side,” he answered, hinting at the uncertainties of pursuing the ballet profession in Taiwan. He said he did not audition for a ballet company after graduation. But he still practices and performs in his mother’s studio’s yearly school performance, and finds tremendous satisfaction in that.

In the video posted by Taiwan’s Security Department as a recruitment ad (above), Meng said that he has chosen to work in the Honor Guard as there is a chance for him to perform on stage and he finds a parallel between the work there and ballet dancing. Both have very specific and detailed demands for each movement and require a strict discipline. At the same time, there is a constant need to come up with new choreography for the Honor Guard, so it is just as challenging as dancing ballet. The “selling point” used by the Taiwanese military is that a man who can execute graceful movements can also be suitable for work in the military—a perfect harmony between the soft and the hard sides of masculinity. Meng told me that the job suits him because he can find the perfect balance between financial stability and an outlet to make use of his dancing talents, applying the spirit of ballet in his military work.

Kelvin Mak

Photo courtesy of Kelvin Mak

Back in Hong Kong, my home turf, we have a “miracle” created by Kelvin Mak (麥卓鴻), who started learning ballet at the age of 16 and has successfully become a professional dancer three years later. The 21-year-old started off learning hip hop and fell in love with performing arts, moving on to ballet and contemporary dance. He graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in modern dance, and in 2013, joined the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), the most prominent contemporary dance company in Hong Kong, as a professional dancer. Why did he pursue dance? His answer: “I believe that dance has chosen me.”

Like so many Chinese mothers out there, Kelvin’s moother has never really supported his choice of becoming a dancer. But Kelvin dances on, in the hope that one day he will earn her support through his success. Among his numerous achievements so far is winning the third prize in the Classical Pas de Deux category at The American Dance Competition in 2013. Watch him dance in the YouTube links below.

Besides dancing for CCDC, Mak is also a dancer with the newly established Beyond Dance Theater (舞界限舞蹈團), founded by his ballet teacher Linus Kwok. When asked how dance has inspired his life, he said, “Although ‘impractical,’ dance gives me a strong sense of living in the moment…. The process is not painful at all, but rather, very joyful. Dance definitely brings me a kind of spiritual enjoyment. It gives me a channel to express my emotions.” When asked about his advice for students who are looking to develop a dance career, he said, “Be truthful to who you are at any given moment. Although you may be ‘imperfect,” you need to enjoy the imperfection, too. As a dancer, there is a bright spot in every step. Take in every moment carefully, and you will never regret the rest of your life!”

Congrats, Misty!

Photo by New York Dance Project

 

Congratulations to Misty Copeland, for having been promoted to Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre a few days after she debuted her role as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. She is the very first African-American ballerina who has ever been promoted to the rank of Principal Dancer in ABT’s 75 years of history. A true historical landmark.

Besides her unique style of gracefulness and technical prowess, I really like her strength and her athleticism—qualities that the stereotypical ballerina does not and should not possess. Some critics have pointed at her muscular limps and disqualified her as a pure classical ballerina based on that! Others have argued that her artistry is not at a level where a principal dancer should be. Not having seen her perform live, I am not in the position to judge the quality of her presence and artistry. But summarizing the dance reviews I have seen so far and the videos of her dancing, I have no doubt she has great potential to hone this vital aspect and grow into her principal role. To me, a dancer’s evolution is even more interesting to watch than a “finished product” that is perfect and has no room to improve.

What truly excites me and thousands and thousands of audience members worldwide, is that she has opened a new window to who the modern ballerina CAN be. The possibilities are limitless. By far, the strength of Misty’s mind is her greatest asset, and she has become a true inspiration for so many people, especially aspiring dancers of color. Yes, her promotion is a complicated story and has generated innumerable controversies on whether she deserves the principal role just because she is a great black dancer, and whether or not ABT should be more inclusive in its dancer profile.

To me, it is too difficult to separate the underlying politics from the artist. But why should we? It is a healthy debate. Misty’s vocal and proactive stance on the need to make ballet more inclusive has created wonders. She is bringing in a whole new group of audience who would otherwise not have become interested in ballet at all. And needless to say, she has inspired countless little brown girls to explore and advance in the art form. Just that itself is no small feat.

Bravo, bravo, Misty!

Related articles:

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland Is Promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater (The New York Times)

Misty Copeland’s success shows ballet leaping in the right direction (The Guardian)

Geeking Out With Misty Copeland’s First Ballet Teacher On The Bigness Of Today (Huffington Post)

Misty Copeland, New York Dance Project

Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Original Short on Misty Copeland

Maya Plisetskaya: The Forever Swan

Maya Plisetskaya

Legendary Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya passed away of a heart attack in Germany last night. She was 89 and survived by her husband Rodion Shchedrin, a world-renowned composer. Read the news here: http://bit.ly/1zF5mWM

Born in Moscow on November 20, 1925, Plisetskaya was one of only two ballerinas in the Soviet Union who received the honorable title of “Prima Ballerina Assoluta,” the other being Galina Ulanova.

Plisetskaya  joined the Bolshoi Theater at the age of 18 and continued to perform until she was 65. Her delicate performance of “The Dying Swan” in Tokyo at the “high” age of 61 left an indelible impression on audience all over the world.

In real life, not only was she NOT dying but thriving for almost another 30 years, choreographing and giving master classes. Not so long ago, I saw a picture of her attending a performance featuring Diana Vishneva, Russian ballet diva of our times, and the love she shared so generously with the star of the new generation.

Besides “The Dying Swan,” her dancing in “Carmen Suite” and “Bolero” were phenomenal.

Here is a documentary of Plisetskaya made in 1964 in the Soviet Union, Plisetskaya Dances (DVD available here).

And here is something more recent: a TV program celebrating her 80th birthday:

Because of her vitality and longevity, many people in the ballet world actually never thought she would die!

Plisetskaya a exemplifies how a true artist can make an indelible impact in millions of people’s hearts. Her beauty is beyond society’s limited definitions. It emanates directly from her soul–ageless and timeless. It is very touching to know how she has dedicated her entire life to artistic work in lieu of raising children. She has lived a long and fulfilling life. This ballet star will forever shine in the sky!

Related blog:

Gramilano: “Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya dies at 89”