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

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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”

Happy International Dance Day: A Celebration that Everyone CAN Dance (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I featured a few disabled dancers who have shown the resilience of the human spirit. Today, I want to feature a few more courageous souls who inspire me beyond imagination.

Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a 33-year-old ballroom dancer, lost part of her left leg during the tragic bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. But after having visited her in the hospital, MIT professor Hugh Herr decided to build her a high-tech prosthetic leg, known as a bionic limb, to allow her to dance again. Around the first anniversary of the bombing, Haslet-Davis went on stage again and performed a dance with Christian Lightner at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver. Read more about the story here, or watch the entire TED Talk by Prof. Herr, which climaxed at the end with the highly emotionally charged performance by Haslet-Davis and her partner, here. Below is a short clip with some snapshots of the dancer’s performance:

These days, Noah Galloway has become America’s household name and superhero for his amazing performances of chacha, samba and more on the TV series “Dancing with the Stars.” This Alabama Army veteran lost part of his two left limbs during a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq. He did not only survive but thrived after getting a bionic prosthetic leg. In the past 10 years he trained himself in all kinds of athletic activities—running marathons, climbing mountains, conquering obstacle courses and even parachuting from airplanes. Now he has even picked up latin dance with the help of his partner Sharna Burgess. Watch one of his performances below and stay on to hear the judges’ touching comments too!

 

In China, there is a dancing couple who do not have the help of high-tech prosthetic limbs but they dance beautifully nonetheless. They were the first disabled dancers I ever saw performing in a professional manner. Their stories are both tragic and inspirational. Ma Li was trained as a professional dancer and joined an art troupe when she turned 18, but later on she lost her whole arm in a car accident. Having danced almost her whole life, she couldn’t imagine how she could carry on living. But with the help of her mother as well as a program for disabled people that encouraged her to get back into dance, she rebuilt her life and started training and performing on stage. As for her partner, Zhai Xiaowei, he lost his left leg at the age of four while playing and then falling from on a heavy truck. He trained as a paraplegic cyclist but one fateful day he met Ma Li in the rehabilitation center. She introduced him to the world of dance and invited him to learn dancing from her. Eventually he gave up cycling and took up dance with her. The rest is, as they say, history. Since then, they have been dancing on stage and in TV shows, wowing the audience in China (Today, they are married with a child). Here is a video showing their award-winning dance, “Holding Hands”:

Simona Atzori is an Italian visual artist and dancer born without arms. Thanks to the strong support of her mother and her own determination, she started painting at the age of 4 and dancing at the age of 6—against all odds. Later on, she even pursued a university education in visual arts in Canada, combining her passion for both painting and dance. She has been exhibiting her paintings around the world and performing dance on stage. I am so impressed by the expressiveness of her legs and feet, as well as the strength of her core! In the following video,  you can watch her perform at the Paralympic Games in Turin:

I would like to wrap this post up with the same closing remark I made yesterday in case you have not read that post.

These dancers are so inspiring because they are not born with the “right” body or have the “right” conditions. They are great despite lacking those.

Happy International Dance Day: A Celebration that Everyone CAN Dance (Part 1)

Today is the International Dance Day, which was inaugurated in 1982 by the International Dance Theatre (ITI)’s Dance Committee to be celebrated every year on the April 29, the anniversary of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the creator of modern ballet. Each year a message from an outstanding choreographer or dancer is circulated throughout the world. The intention of the “International Dance Day Message” is to celebrate Dance, to revel in the universality of this art form, to cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and bring people together with a common language: dance. This year, the message comes from Spanish choreographer and dancer Israel Galván. You can read the message by going to the following website:
http://www.international-dance-day.org/en

I really like this all-embracing idea of celebrating dance regardless of the dance form and who the dancers are. This year, I would like take this opportunity to present a few extremely inspiring dancers and the messages they share with the world.

Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli, who creates powerful dances with his crutches, says: “No matter what age, race, sex or ability one may have, everyone can dance. Dance is within all of us. Some choose to share it with others and some choose to keep it to themselves. Life is a dance whether we know it or not. We are constantly dancing with every movement we make, with every breath we take, and with every beat our hearts make, a rhythm is being created. It’s the slightest movements that make the greatest difference in a performance, just like in life it’s the little things that matter. Dance is the connection between you and the universe while we are dancing we are developing ourselves based on the energy, the emotions, and the challenges we experience. It is up to us to determine how we want to communicate our dance to the world. Dance is the ultimate form of self-expression and it is the escape that always reminds us that everything is going to be ok. Dance challenges us to surpass our limitations by discovering strength within. So, live your life to the fullest and dance beautifully!”

Alissa Sizemore, an eight-year-old American girl, lost her calf in an horrible traffic accident last year. A car drove over her and she lost her entire right calf. Despite the tragedy, Sizemore, who started learning dance at the age of four, picked herself up courageously and started taking ballet lessons again after she got her prosthetic. “I don’t want to give up!” she said. “I just want to dance!” Within a year, she is on the stage performing, and her mother is sharing what this brilliant little star can do with the whole world through videos she posts on YouTube. So inspiring! She made me tear up!

Another story that inspires tears is that of the Latkovski sisters. The younger sister, Gracie, has cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis and is wheelchair bound, but she does not let that stop her from dancing. She started to take dance lessons since she was three and loves it. Her elder sister Gracie has choreographed a special dance, “Reflections,” to perform with Quincy on the WHAS Crusade for Children telethon. The choreography is ingenious, considering how young even the elder sister is. Absolutely touching video. Get yourself a tissue before watching!

Lastly, I would like to share with you a video showing a group of deaf dancers. Although they can’t hear the music, they can feel the rhythm in their breastbones. One of the dancers, Tashina, has been dancing since she was 3 years old. She has some words of encouragement for anyone who aspires to be a dancer: “It feels like a different world, one that I can shape myself and let go of everything I am going through and just leave them on the dance floor. I just feel so free. Don’t give up. You are going to experience a lot of frustration, and trials and tribulations. You just have to take one day at a time, and it’s going to add to your life experience. Just don’t give up. Once you set those goals you will be able to accomplish them. As long as you keep chasing them.”


These dancers are so inspiring because they are not born with the “right” body or have the “right” conditions. They are great despite lacking those.

Click  here to read Part 2.

Book Review: ‘Dancing Through It’ by Jenifer Ringer

Dancing-Through-It

Jenifer Ringer, of “Sugar Plumgate” fame and who just retired from her long career with the New York City Ballet, came out with her memoir, “Dancing Through It,” at about the same time as Misty Copeland published her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion.” Both dancers faced incredible challenges and hardships in their careers with two top-tier ballet companies in the United States. While Copeland’s big obstacle has been racial discrimination, Ringer’s great stumbling block was eating disorder.

I still remember back in 2010 when the subject of Ringer’s non-existence weight gain issue was blown up by a New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who criticized the principal dancer for having “eaten one Sugar Plum too many.” This critique set in motion a sleuth of debates on TV as well as on social media, with lots of ballet fans and non-ballet fans joining in to defend Ringer.

I recall looking at the beautiful dancer while she was being interviewed by Today’s Show‘s host Ann Curry. Nowhere could I find evidence of this extra sugar plum on  her lean body. “How cruel this dance critic was!” I thought. Ringer gave graceful and well-versed replies to Curry’s questions.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ringer had already gone through a few years of eating disorder and depression in the early stage of her career. In this memoir, she chronicled her entire career and took us through the events that led to her weight issues.

We all know that eating disorder is not a rare occurrence in ballet companies—partly due to the demand by the companies themselves on how their dancers should have that specific “ballerina look,” which often means not just lean and long limped but also a kind of boyish figure. This is especially true at New York City Ballet, whose founder, George Balanchine, was known to prefer this kind of “ideal body” to the more womanly figure. However, what actually goes through the minds of the dancers themselves when they are given the pressure not only to achieve technical and artistic perfection but also to keep their bodies so thin that it borders at a point where the strength of the bones won’t support the body weight safely?

Ringer gives us a very detailed look into how she descended from one of NYCB’s up and coming stars to someone who was too heavy to fit into any tutus—and dancing roles for that matter. What I find interesting is that her anorexic behavior was the only way she knew to be able to help her gain any sort of control over a highly stressful life where she could not control the outcomes. She became a professional ballerina at the tender age of 16 and was plunged into the strict demands of the ballet world without any psychological preparation. She was that “perfect girl” who was best in school and was pretty and proper (a Southern ideal) and was “supposed” to have no problems whatsoever. So when life dealt her a big blow, when the ballet master signaled to her that she needed to lose weight, it was a moment of truth that stroke hard, leaving her with little self defense.

Through a long journey—in her case, going back to her Christian faith and, later on, meeting and marrying a fellow dancer James Fayette—she healed herself of the emotional trauma caused by the eating disorder. So when “Sugar Plumgate” happened, she was actually strong enough to face the “attack.” Better still, she was able to transcend her personal problems to become an inspirational force for women—dancers or not—who were struggling with the issue of body image and eating disorder.

Here is a poignant passage about the painful perfectionist conundrum ballet dancers face:

“…our life is spent seeking perfection and correcting infinitesimal errors of line or technique. If something about our dancing is good, we ignore it because it will take care of itself. We fixate on the parts that are wrong. Ask a dancer what her weaknesses are, and she will be able to give you an immediate and very detailed list. Ask a dancer about her strengths, and she has to pause and think about it.”

After reading her book, I actually feel glad that I never entered the ballet profession. I wouldn’t have been able to pass such rigorous tests and would probably have gone through worse nightmares than Ringer did! I have had a close shave with eating disorder and have been struggling with weight issues and body image ever since I was a teenager. Ringer’s story really inspires me. I relate to her spiritual growth as a source of strength, even though I do not relate to her Christian faith. I think if we put aside the religious aspect—which may turn some readers off but which she took the risk to lay it out on the table—her story still serves as a great inspiration for anyone with the same struggles that she went through.

Since the “Sugar Plumgate,” there have been a greater awareness in society on the body image issue, with more discussions leading to a gradual liberation for women from the impossibilities of what the society—or the ballet world in the dancer’s case—deem “ideal.”

See the following articles on artistic endeavors and social movements related to body image:

 

The Little Things…

Ballet Beautiful_Little Things

I really love this quote by Mary Helen Bowers of Ballet Beautiful, the trainer of Natalie Portman in the movie “Black Swan.”

“The little things you do every day impact the big picture and get you where you want to be.” ~ Ballet Beautiful

By the same token,  “The little thoughts you think every second impact who you are becoming and define your destiny.” ~Balletomanehk 芭蕾舞迷

Les Sylphides and More by Hong Kong Ballet

The Hong Kong Ballet ended its season with a mixed bill in the past three days. On the program was its Guest Principal Dancer Tan Yuan Yuan, whom I just couldn’t resist seeing. She had two numbers on the program, both being contemporary pas de deux with her long-time partner Damian Smith, who has recently retired from his principal role at San Francisco Ballet.

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

First, an assessment of the title program, “Les Sylphides.” Choreographed by Michel Fokine and originally staged in 1909, the ballet features a collection of Chopin’s most known piano pieces.  This was the only number that had live music. Daniel Chan, a nine-year-old local piano prodigy, accompanied the ballet on the first two shows, whereas the Sunday matinée one was accompanied by Nicholas Lau. His piano playing was not bad, but definitely not to be compared with Lang Lang… or my favorite, Vladimir Horowitz 😉 OK, OK, perhaps I’m not being fair there. Anyway, let’s turn to the dancers of this particular show. The main dancers of the pas de deux were soloists Liu Yu-yao and Li Jia-bo. I have always liked Liu Yi-yao for her poetic movement and how she covers space despite her extremely lanky physique. I think she was a good choice for this role, light, ethereal, an emblem of Romantic beauty. However, I don’t like the performance of her partner Li Jia-bo at all. His jumps did not have good ballon. His facial expression was strained, as if it was a constant struggle for him to “get her.” As a partner, his musicality is just a tad off, so that he often caught his partner’s waist a fraction of a second too late, leaving her to catch up with the music in the next moves. For me, they just didn’t work well as a pair on stage.

Overall, the piece was beautiful, as it was set out to be, but lacking in dramatic elements. The corps de ballet provided a beautiful ambiance with their formations, but I could see that most of them looked a bit bored staying in the same position or repeating the same port de bras. An apprentice, who will move on to the corps de ballet next season, Vanessa Lai, caught my eye though. Not only because she was in the same ballet studio where I studied a few years ago but also because I could see how hard she worked even in supposedly “boring” steps. Her épaulement and head positions were more interesting than many others in the corps. Definitely a young ballerina worth watching in the upcoming seasons.

The gems of the program appeared like meteors after the first intermission—so bright yet so fleeting! Tan Yuan Yuan came on stage next to Damian Smith against a dark backdrop and mists in the air. The piece is called “Finding Light,” chreographed by Edwaard Liang with music by Vivaldi (Concerto in B Major). This piece really showcased the mature dance partnership between the two seasoned dancers to the max. Moving like fluid, the two seemed to be groping in the dark, seeking light—just as the title implies. Sometimes the male partner would be moving in front of the female, who became totally obscured—something you’d never see in classical ballet. A lot of times they would be moving side by side. There wasn’t a single pause in the movements and there wasn’t time to breathe either. Every inch of their bodies expressed the emotions of yearning and seeking. When I watched Tan, her tiny body and long limbs were talking so loud without a word, moving as smoothly as a snake yet you could almost feel her soul trembling with exertion. I would’ve held my breath a bit longer but the dance was over too soon.

Tan-Yuan-Yuan_Damian-Smith

Tan Yuan Yuan and Damian Smith in “Finding Light” Photographer: Erik Tomasson

Next on the program was the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” Act II. The dancers, Jordan-Elizabeth Long (from the United States) and Adilijiang Abudureheman (from China), were invited from the Royal Swedish Ballet, where Hong Kong Ballet’s Artistic Director Madeleine Onne was a principal for many years. Well, I think the choice of this number—being such a well-known one, with footages by the world’s best dancers all over YouTube—was a wrong one. It would be hard-pressed to find any surprise element and I was right. The dancing and costume of Long was utterly boring, despite the frozen smile constantly glued to her face. She also was not in the music. There was a lack of attack and passion in her entire approach. Abudureheman was a bit more interesting to watch. His jumps and leaps were powerful, his pirouettes not quite so—he did not finish using all the music for the  turns at the end. I was glad when the variation was over, as I couldn’t wait to see Tan and Smith again in the next number, “Five Movements, Three Repeats” pas de deux.

The piece was created by British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, set to the music of Max Richter, “This Bitter Earth,” sung by Dinah Washington. This was a very dark piece, almost depressive, as you hear the repeating lyrics with a sad voice:

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter Earth
Can be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all

Tan and Smith appropriately expressed the depth of bitterness and despair with their body language. It was almost too sad to bear. Personally I do not like ballet set to songs with lyrics, so this was a minus for me. But the dancing and partnership of the two dancers redeemed this “fault” and again, the dance was too short to satisfy my desire to see Tan dance. But all beautiful things must come to an end, and I was glad that I went to see her despite the pain I had to endure traveling to the theater with my post-op body.

Tan is a goddess of ballet in my eyes. At 37, she is still dancing at her prime, and I hope to be able to see her perform live a lot more times. We are lucky to have her as Hong Kong Ballet’s Guest Principal Dancer.

The last on the program was a surprise. It was the world premiere of “Shape of Glow,” choreographed by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. A neo-classical piece set to the marvelous music of Mozart and Beethoven, “Shape of Glow” reminded me a lot of American Ballet Theater’s “Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Except for a much smaller stage and the lack of a theater set, “Shape of Glow” was every bit as interesting. Okay, I still prefer the dancing and the costumes in Concerto No. 2, but the music chosen makes the ballet surprisingly exciting to watch—Symphony No. 28 in C Major and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B Flat Major by Mozart; ending with a heroic “Consecration of the House Overture” by Beethoven.

The movements beautifully reflect the complexity of the musical structure, the partnership was fluid and fun to watch, and so were the futuristic-looking costumes—turquoise and black leotards that look like Star Trek costumes and female dancers going tights-free, showing their strong muscles. Credits go to Yumiko Takeshima—of Yumiko dancewear fame—for these costumes. I wish I could show you a picture but I can’t find one on the Internet.

In this show one can see what a melting pot the Hong Kong Ballet has become—as opposed to the homogeneous look in some other elite ballet companies. I think it is a good and stimulating development, and so is the collaboration with quality choreographers like Jorma Elo. Going forward, I hope our local dance company will put out shows of more consistent quality and try to tap into the local talent besides the international dancers and guest stars it has attracted in recent years.