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.

Balletomanehk.com

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?

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!

Cardio Day and Nice Reward

How is everyone doing with your 12-Week Challenge? Here is how my calendar looks like:

12-Week Challenge - Balletomanehk - www.balletomanehk.com

For me, keeping up with the light schedule is itself a challenge. I had to swap a lot of the exercises to fit them into my schedule. But going back to regular class definitely helps to get me into the groove. The cardio is often the part that stops me…. I would find all sorts of excuses, like having a sore back or headache, for not doing it. As on any day of the week, I have a short supply of time today, but the weather is super nice and I decided to give cardio a try. So I made a search on YouTube and found this awesome video—a 10-minute cardio workout for busy people by Amanda Russell:

It’s made up of 10 exercises. You would do each for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds then start the next one. This would make the set a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), perfect for fat burn. In the past, I have done HIIT in the form of jogging. I have to admit that these exercises are much more fun to do than jogging, as they provide a good amount of variation. But at least half of them are extremely difficulty for me as they require a lot of strength in the core, thighs and quads. At first I thought that 45 seconds would be easy peasy. Nope! I had to stop in the middle of at least three exercises to catch my breath. The good thing is that they really get my heart rate up fast and they are not as tough as the other set by Jenna Wolfe that I mentioned in my last post. Give it a try and see if it suits you. The best part is that it takes less than 10 minutes to complete once you are familiar with the routines. I think this would make the cardio part of the challenge easier for me. And I am starting to appreciate the benefits of doing cardio exercises for my ballet training. They seem to contribute to my stamina and strength.

Before I did those exercises today, I was actually starting to get hungry and debated whether I should eat first or exercise first. But I decided to hold off eating and finish the workout first. Sure enough, I forgot about the hunger and got the exercises done. It didn’t take that much time as imagined. Then I rewarded myself with an organic garden salad, freshly harvested from my little rooftop garden. Yummy yummy!

Organic Garden Salad with Salmon - Balletomanehk - www.balletomanehk.com

Hope you are having fun with the challenge, seeing progress in your ballet training and most important of all, feeling good about yourself! See you next time!