Encouragement for My Fellow Adult Ballerinas

Balletomanehk.comAs an adult ballet student, discouragement is a feeling I experienced often since the beginning of my ballet journey. Over the past nine years, there have been so many instances where “life gets in the way,” including repetitive injuries, my father’s death, a major surgery, loss of job/starting my own business (which made ballet unaffordable), a recent major life crisis and so on. Every time something big happened, I was forced to take a break and go on a hiatus. Needless to say, I felt discouraged and fearful that I would lose all my technique and flexibility. The thought of having to start from scratch/square one made me shudder!

There were also times when “studio politics” got in the way of my enjoyment of going to class. And then of course there were frustrations concerning the inability to master a certain step or technique after trying it for so many years, such as the venerable pirouette!

Yet, through thick and thin, I have always come back to the studio, gone back to the basics, and just tried to stick to the routine of going to class, no matter what the external circumstances of my life are.

I have also discovered that muscle memories built over the years aren’t easily lost. One technique I have adopted during those inactive periods was to “dance in my head.” I would visualize myself dancing in a studio, coached by a world-renowned dancer, and let that image run vividly for a while in my mind while I was in a relaxed state. This has allowed me to pick up the movements and steps with relative ease when I went back to the studio. This practice has eased my overall anxiety and allowed me to know with certainty that “not all is lost.”

Another source of discouragement is the discrepancy we see between our own image in the mirror and the “ideal” image we have learned through photos and videos of professional dancers. Thus most of us have a tendency of frowning upon ourselves in disapproval. How many times do you catch yourself talking to yourself in a negative way or tone in a day? Negative self talk seems to be rampant! But does it help improve your technique or artistry? Does it help you enjoy dancing more?

One day I saw this on a friend’s status on FB and a light bulb moment dawned on me.

“Be careful
how you are talking to yourself,
because you are listening.”

I used to berate myself for every little mistake or ugly movement I made in class. The result was that I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could’ve. And what’s the main purpose for me to learn ballet? I asked myself. To enjoy myself! Right! So when I recently came back to ballet after a six-month hiatus, I decided that I would dance with joy and enjoy every moment of it! Sure, I still make mistakes and look ugly from time to time, but those are no longer reasons for me to stop enjoying ballet. I fill my heart with joy when I dance, and no matter how the results come out, it would be a wonderful experience.

So, starting from today, treat your inner self as a little child who needs to be encouraged and pampered. Give her/him some tender loving care as if you would to your child/any child. Because she/he deserves it!

The more joyful you *feel*, the more joyous experience you will attract. Try it!

P.S. The photo above was taken about eight years ago when I had learned ballet for not so long. Sometimes it helps to look at old photos and remind ourselves of the enthusiasm we had when we started.

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.

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

My First Real Class after the Hiatus

First-Ballet-Class-2016

Yesterday was the first time I went back to the ballet studio after half a year’s hiatus. I was so thrilled and nervous at the same time! Also, as I just recovered from the flu, I was a tad worried and didn’t know if I could make it through the class or not. On top of that, I was too careless not to have checked the ballet studio’s Facebook updates to see if there was actually a class today. So I messaged the teacher but I didn’t hear from her even though it was only 15 minutes before the class would start. The door to the studio was locked and I started to wonder if I had wasted the almost two hours’ trip from home. Well, turned out that the teacher was stuck in cross-border traffic and the class would start half an hour later and so my journey was not wasted after all. But I had to cancel a tutoring appointment, which I scheduled right after the class… and lost HK$500 :'(.

In any case, I was determined to rekindle my ballet training this year. So off I go against all odds! This just happened to be first day of former New York City Ballet dancer Kathryn Morgan’s ‪”12-Week Challenge.” I mentioned this challenge a couple of days ago, and was super excited about starting it. I am really not sure if I can follow through even the light version of the challenge, but to get started would be to have won half the battle, at least in my case, as I had so many reasons to put off resuming class last year. But I finally made it!

The class was conducted by a young substitute teacher, whom I have been an acquaintance for quite a few years. It was slow-paced but she really made sure we got the alignment and movements right. We had only two center exercises, starting with a tendu+temps lié and ending with sauté. The last set of sauté was long-ish and I almost felt like collapsing, but I persisted till the end and am really proud of having completed the exercise.

To my surprise, my technique is still there, despite not having much strength and flexibility. But I know these will come back in time. To me, at this point, being able to move my arms and upper body in a graceful way means more than being able to have high leg extensions or super flexibility, as the important thing is to be able to do what I can still do to get back the feeling of dancing again. So, I’m just taking things in baby steps now.

After class, I could feel the endorphin rush… I wanted to sing James Brown’s song out loud: “I FEEL GOOD!!!”

Looking forward to more ballet this year.

Hong Kong Ballet’s Pinocchio Exceeds Expectation

Pinocchio curtain call

The performance of Pinocchio by the Hong Kong Ballet earned enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Last Saturday I had a most enjoyable afternoon watching “Pinocchio,” a brand new production by the Hong Kong Ballet that marked both the start of the company’s 2015 fall season and the world première of the ballet itself. I almost didn’t go, as the previous couple of programs by the company made me close to lose faith in its future productions. Luckily, a review by art critique Carla Escoda in Backtrack and her personal recommendation with a simple urge, “Go!” made me change my mind. I am so glad I did purchase the tickets after all, as the production was anything but a disappointment. In fact, the highly creative elements—the engaging acting, the beautiful dancing, the fitting and grand musical score, the wonderful orchestral performance and the sophisticated and expensive costumes, lighting and set design—combined to give me an impression that this production was top-notch and meticulously put together, resulting in a strong emotional impact disguised in a child’s play. Instead of finding myself noticing flaws and yawning from time to time, my senses were delighted and I found myself pleasantly surprised again and again during the entire performance.

HKBallet_Pinocchio_PromoPhotoThe ballet started with a good pace, with a quick introduction by the Cricket (danced by Dong Ruixue) to the opening scene. The lack of a prelude as in other classical story ballets is a plus for today’s impatient audience, especially since an important target audience of this ballet are children. The lighthearted score by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi blends extremely well with the storytelling, putting the audience right into the mood for a series of intriguing adventures to unfold.

I laughed when a three-year-old seated next to me screamed to her mother, “I’m scared, let’s go home!” when the piece of pine wood from which Pinocchio would emerge arrived at the home of Geppetto (danced by Li Lin). Isn’t this ballet supposed to be made for children? Oh wait! Very soon, the kid calmed down and was engaged by the storytelling. The entrance of Pinocchio, danced by Hong Kong Ballet’s new soloist from Italy, Vittorio Galloro, who made his début with the company in this matinee performance, made a strong impression on me as his clumsy and stiff movements convincingly resembled that of a wooden puppet and the costume was masterfully designed to give the illusion of bulkiness and inflexibility.

Gradually, Pinocchio learned to move in a smoother fashion and then picked up a few dance steps. I don’t know how many others in the audience felt the way I did, but I could actually relate to this as I reminisce on how I initially picked up ballet steps when I started to take lessons as an adult!

Almost too quickly though, Pinocchio was given a book by Geppetto to head to school, and the audience most likely did not catch the transition well enough to make out the emotional development between the boy and his “father.” But given the fact that the complex original story had to be told in two acts with 20 different scenes, some of the nuances in transitions were sacrificed.

Jessica Burrows as Columbina, Xia Jun as Arlecchino, Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Marionettes | Photographer: Tony Luk  Shen Jie as Pinocchio, Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Marionettes | Photographer: Tony Luk

The next scene depicts a fantastically executed commedia dell’arte scene as observed by the wide-eyed Pinocchio at a marionette theater. The neo-Baroque music beautifully threads together the movements of the masked marionettes, with a clearly defined plot featuring the classical characters of the Arlecchino (Shen Jie), Arlecchina (Arianne Lafita Gonzalvez, also a new soloist of the company this season), Columbina (Jessica Burrows) and Pietro (Gong Yi Wen). At the end of the theatrical performance, Pinocchio went to join the puppets and released their hands from the ropes that tied them. To me, this act took on a profound philosophical tone. I am not sure if it was intended or not by the Swedish choreographer Pär Isberg. What came to my mind was the liberation of the slaves from their semi-conscious/zombie state, and Pinocchio suddenly became the hero as the puppets became aware of their freedom and independence! According to the story line, he took part in the performance, which earned him some gold coins from the theater director. Here I find a lapse in logic as Pinocchio is supposed to have done something naughty (selling his book to buy the theater ticket and forgetting the purpose of going to school). But I find him all the more likable for his heroic deed!

Li Lin as Fox, Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Liu Miao-miao as Cat | Photographer: Tony Luk

The next scene, featuring the Blind Cat (Vanessa Lai) and the Fox (Xia Jun), contains my favorite solo numbers. I was particularly impressed with the performance of Hong Kong-born Vanessa Lai, whose talent is obviously appreciated despite having only been in the company for two years (as apprentice and then as corps member). Her nimble movements reflect that of a cat so very well, with a tinge of sensuality and humor. Her pas de deux with Xia Jun was seamless and entertaining. And I really loved the backdrop showing the trees with Photographer: Tony Lukgolden coins! Kudos to the incredibly talented painter Jordi Castells from Spain. The plot of this scene was clearly played out, leaving no doubt in the audience’s mind with regards to what was happening. One can’t  help but feel pity for the wooden boy for being duped by these two cunning characters.

Starting from the next scene on, I had difficulty making out what happened that eventually led Pinocchio into such agony that called for the rescue of the kind-hearted Blue Fairy (Liu Maio-miao). In fact, the whole rationale behind the elongation of Pinocchio’s nose was not clearly expressed. It is understandable that certain details of the story do not lend themselves well to expression by dance movements, but even so, here is where I found the weakest part of the ballet. The transition was contrived and confusing, to say the least. The role of the Blue Fairy is not very strong either. Fortunately, the character was saved by the graceful dancing of Dong Ruixue, who exerted a calming energy throughout.

Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Schoolmates | Photographer: Tony Luk  Shen Jie as Pinocchio, Jonathan Spigner as Lampwick, Ricky Hu as The Coach Man and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Schoolmates | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco

The Land of Candy and Play scene made me laugh so much as the slim and muscular dancers suddenly appeared with gigantic stomachs at the verge of explosion! That was the result of ingesting too many giant-sized candies, another thing that triggered my laughter. How perfectly this Felliniesque scene depicts our time—the mindless addiction to all things sugary, until everybody goes into a trance without realizing the harmful effects on the mind and body. Of course, this is also my own interpretation,  a social commentary that wasn’t perhaps intended? Who knows! Something to ponder upon after the giggles.

Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as sea creatures | Photographer: Kitmin Lee

The underwater scene in the second act was the highlight in terms of the set design. Kudos to Bo-Ruben Hedwall, a set designer with extensive experience working for Swedish Television. It was so sophisticated that at times, it boggled the mind how the scenes were produced. For adults and children alike, the characters of all the sea animals—jelly fish, turtles, starfish, seahorses and little fishes—were all lovable. Liu Yu-yao as Cricket and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Tony LukThe costume design by Jérôme Kaplan really excelled in this scene, although it is equally sophisticated and flamboyant in the other characters, especially the Cricket. Later on when Pinocchio found himself in the ocean waves looking for his lost father, the beautiful flowing blue fabrics weaved together a marvelous sight to behold. It gave me yet another Felliniesque flashback—one from the powerful, risqué and odd tale of Casanova.

The final scene with the score from Respighi’s  “The Pines of Rome” was nothing short of dramatic, and rightly so as we witnessed Pinocchio’s transformation into a human being after having learned the earthly lessons of what it means to be human—through being “naughty” and experiencing everything from deception, gluttony to betrayal, his triumph in rescuing and reconciling with his father ultimately made the audience’s hearts melt.

What I love about this ballet is that any bravura steps were not executed simply to impress. For example, when Pinocchio made his high jumps, he did them deliberately with a lack of precision sometimes to show that he was still mastering his movements in his adaptation to a human body. In a way, this takes the pressure off the dancer from the stereotypical demand for perfection and puts the focus on the storytelling itself.

Vittorio Galloro was tremendously engaging as a dancer and actor. Congratulations to him for a brilliant début! I certainly look forward to more of his performance with the company in the future.

I think the captivating power of the Pinocchio ballet lies in the emotional message in it—not so much the moralistic rendition of the Disney version of the tale, that telling lies leads to punishments and regrets, and a good child must be honest; but more about our ability to transcend and grow into our fullest potentials.

Like Pinocchio, every one of us goes through life with all its fascinating, gratifying, ecstatic, fearful, unpleasant and dark moments, yet we are not stuck in one state or another. Life keeps moving, and as long as we keep on exploring for ourselves and learn the lessons along the way, we will grow into who we are truly meant to be. The transformation of Pinocchio into a full-fledged human gives us a glimpse of that non-dying hope for humanity.

Hong Ballet's "Pinocchio" - Backdrop Painting by Jordi Castells

Backdrop Painting by Jordi Castells

Having led the Hong Kong Ballet for six years, Artistic Director Madeleine Onne from Sweden has finally created an original ballet that Hong Kong can be proud of. Sure, one can argue that it is a largely Swedish production with a strong Italian theme. But with the participation of local talents, such as Ava Mok working on props and Billy Chan working on lighting, as well as dancers from Hong Kong, mainland China and around the world, this production represents the international spirit of the city in its best light. I hope Pinocchio is not a one-time affair but have a chance to tour overseas and surprise the world what a high-calibre ballet company Hong Kong possesses. Rather than keep on producing the same-old, same-old classical ballets, why not devote more time to creating something original like this? Of course, a production like Pinocchio probably costs millions of dollars to create. But this is certainly a step in the right direction if the company is to do something worthwhile—something that will make a strong artistic imprint in the world.

Media articles on Pinocchio:

Hong Kong Ballet unveils a sumptuous and sophisticated Pinocchio (Bachtrack)

Hong Kong Ballet reinvents classic fairy tale Pinocchio (Preview by SCMP)

Interview: Choreographer Pär Isberg – Pinocchio (Time Out HK)

Review: Hong Kong Ballet’s Pinocchio has great dancing, costumes and sets, but is let down by score (Review by SCMP)

Photo credits: Except for the top and bottom photos, all are by Hong Kong Ballet’s commissioned photographers, Tony Luk, Conrad Dy-Liacco and Kitmin Lee.

See the Music, Hear the Dance

George_Balanchine_See the Music

“See the music, hear the dance.” ~George Balanchine

Nobody has described the relationship between dance and music better than the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. In just six words, he has painted the essence of how dance visually expresses music, and what dancers should always bear in mind when they perform.

Simple statements often beguile great wisdom. In this case, behind what appears to be a catch phrase lies a great deal of sophistication, sensitivity and a lifelong dedication to the ephemeral art of movement in time and space.

One of the main reasons that I am so drawn to the art of ballet is the music—and to a great extent, it is classical music that is the ultimate charmer. Long before ballet fell into my adult consciousness, I was already enchanted by the world of classical music. The fact that my husband is an aficionado of classical music, a one-time cellist in an orchestra and a neoclassical music composer, means that I am constantly exposed to beautiful music and the history behind it.

It is no surprise, then, that I immediately became smitten by the music used in class when I started taking ballet lessons as an adult. Classical music just makes dancing so much easier for me, and it gives me the generous illusion that I am actually dancing more gracefully than I actually am. No matter how I look, it makes me feel graceful and feminine, and that’s what really matters.

There are, however, times when the music in class does not inspire me to dance. The worst case is when the music actually turns me off as if a switch has been flipped and my muscles no longer respond. Am I too picky? I have seen fellow students who do not react to music the same way I do. Basically, whatever music is being played seems to be fine for them. Granted, the taste for music is a highly personal thing. For me, certain types of music just makes me cringe or feel blasé. The No. 1 inspiration killer for me, is cheesy Christmas melodies adapted for ballet class, played during the entire December month. Second in line is Broadway musicals converted into class music. Third is petite allegro music that is too cute or pretentious. Call me old fashioned or whatever you like. Just give me some good-old classical music—some adapted from the classical ballet repertoire, or neo-classical music, and I am a happy dancer!

Music for Dance_Karen Salmansohn

Of course, we can’t always choose what music we dance to. In that case we might have to follow Karen Salmansohn’s advice of adapting our way of dancing to the music.

What are  your pet peeves when it comes to ballet class music?

What kind of music gets you into the “zone”?

Do you have any favorite CDs that you use for your own practice? Please leave me a comment. I’d like to hear what you like!

Here is my top favorite ballet class music CD: Dmitri Roudnev’s “Favorite Classics of Ballet for Ballet Class”

Let me end this post with another quote by Balanchine:

“Dance is music made visible.”

Let’s dance to and, more importantly, in music!