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.

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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!”

Ballet Photography: My Eclectic Picks

Photo by Enrico Nawrath

Photo by Enrico Nawrath

(Note: Each photographer’s name, photo project and book is hyperlinked to the relevant website. The link appears in dark brown but may not be obvious on your screen. Please click if you are interested to explore further.)

In a recent post named “Saving Ballet” on his blog “A Ballet Education,” David King listed a number of excellent and well-known ballet photographers who, thanks to the rigor of their skillful representation of the ephemeral art form and through the efficient propagation on social media, have helped to resuscitate ballet and even cultivated a new audience who would otherwise not become aware of it at all.

Photo by Stephanie Ma

Photo by Stephanie Ma

Besides the many ballet photography projects, such as Ballerina Project and NYC Dance Project, based in New York, and Ballet Zaider, based in Los Angeles, I would like to name a few photographers in my neck of the woods who are perhaps not so widely appreciated but worth a mention simply because they represent the ballet community where I live: Conrad E. Dy-Liacco‘s photos of dancers at Hong Kong Ballet and Stephanie Ma‘s photos of Hong Kong dancers and dance students.

Outside of the United States, check out the work of Simone Ghera. Ghera is an architect with an interest in dance photography. His pictures connect dance and architecture. With his project Dancer Inside, he toured several major European cities, and has worked with ballet dancers in major iconic buildings in each city he visits (article).

In Germany, I like the ballet photos of, Enrico Nawrath, a former professional dancer turned photographer who shoots  for National Ballet Berlin and is known for his works of naked and half-naked portraits of ballet dancers.

Stanislav Belyaevsky

Photo by Stanislav Belyaevsky

Russian photographer Nikolai Krusser is also one of my favorites. I think his onstage and backstage shots of ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle are so good that they really capture the “ghostlike,” ethereal quality of these “white ballets.” Another photography, a former Kirov (Mariinsky) ballet dancer Stanislav Belyaevsky, is well-known for his photos of Vaganova Academy, which have, among other works of his, wowed ballet students around the world with the beauty and rigor of the Russian dancers’ form and technique.

So far I have mentioned but one female photographer, but here is notable one: Spanish-born former soloist of National Ballet Berlin, Maria-Helena Buckley. The way she captures ballet has a distinct feminine sensitivity and energy to it… hard to explain, but if you are a woman you’d probably detect it right away.

Akira Enzeru

Photo by Akira Enzeru

A relatively little known photographer but whose work I love, is Romanian artist Akira Enzeru. I’d use “unusual” and “daring” to describe his work. He uses unconventional concepts, setting and environment for his outdoor ballet shots, the results of which are often surprising and humorous.  He also seems to enjoy doing a lot of nude photography, some of which uses ballet dancers as models.

In the United States, most people know about Gene Schiavone through his work for the American Ballet Theater, but equally impressive and perhaps more fluid and spontaneous in style is the work by award-winning photographer Richard Calmes, who have published two volumes of dance photography, “Dance Magic” and “Lines and Leaps.”

Another photographer’s work who may send a warm and fuzzy feeling through your body—and sometimes makes you gasp with disbelief—is that of Jordan Mather. His carefully and painstakingly planned photos of dancers leaping and flying in the air in mostly urban landscapes can be found in his new book “Dancers Among Us.”

Another dance photographer whose work has impressed me a lot is Jesús Armand. The Brooklyn and Boston-based multimedia artist  and former contemporary ballet dancer has taken a great deal of single-exposure photos of some of the world’s top ballet dancers. He cleverly used a single, long exposure for each set of ballet movements in order to present the idea of continuous movement rather than a frozen moment in time and space (For photos, see  his Kickstarter campaign for Esprit de Corp a year ago).

Also doing long-exposure shots is Brooklyn-based Bill Wadman. See and read about his slow-mo dance photos in this article.

I’ll be posting another article about dance photography from the viewpoint of our local dance photographer, Stephanie Ma, soon. Stay tuned.

Embracing Fear

Photo by Jordan Matter

The photos of Jordan Matter, New York-based portrait and dance photographer, are well known within the dance community. Recently I purchased his newly published collection of dance photography, “Dancers Among Us” and am really enjoying the stunning images, each one being meticulously choreographed and executed with great patience and skill. But what surprised me most was not the unusual visuals. It was the little stories about the photographer’s family life preceding each chapter that presented me with an element of philosophical delight.

For example, in the section of “Exploring,” Matter wrote about his young son Hudson’s experience of fear when he was faced with the prospect of a baby sister being born as his mother went into labor. “I’m a little scared,” Hudson said.

And the author’s response?

I had no idea how to alleviate a fear that I couldn’t comprehend. I picked him up and held him in my lap, and we sat in silence. He’s never been one to like cuddling very much, but that morning he wrapped his arms around my neck and gripped me for dear life.

After spending a few days with his new sister, the cloud lifted. Hudson was excited. Buoyant. Relieved. Out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “I am not sacred anymore. I thought that when my sister came, I would have to be a big boy. But I’m not a big boy; I’m just a big brother.”

He had been faced with a new reality for which he felt unprepared, and the mystery had frightened him. This may be one of life’s greatest struggles. Often we fear the unknown’s when we could be anticipating its rewards.

The last sentence really tells the essence of what fear is about. It is when we take the plunge and step into the unknown—embrace the uneasiness and the feeling that we might possibly fail, fall or die—that the greatest irony might be awaiting us on the other side, the irony of sweet rewards.