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Putting the “Grand” in Grand Pas

It starts like this: once upon a time (okay, five minutes ago), I decided (G-d alone knows why) to break the First Law of the Innertubes and read the comments.

The comments in question were those on this lovely rendition of the Adagio movement of the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas, performed by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov of The Royal Ballet:

The Nutcracker – Sugar Plum pas de deux: Adagio (Nuñez, Muntagirov, The Royal Ballet)

There were not, I should mention, any dick jokes. Or…well. If there were, I didn’t scroll that far.

But only because I got exactly far enough to discover a troubling undercurrent: an entire quorum of commenters who felt that, compared to the high drama of the musical score, the dancing was, in a word, boring.

Full disclosure: between the ages of, say, three and maybe twelve or so, I would’ve agreed completely, though presumably for different reasons. My reason was that I was, at least in that regard, the very stereotype of a little boy. Romance was GROSS, and also there were no big jumps or, like, explosions[1].

  1. Not tryna one-up anyone–but, y’all? MY COMPANY’S NUTCRACKER HAS ACTUAL EXPLOSIONS. Just, you know. Not during the Adagio bit of the Grand Pas.

I’m guessing the opinions of commenters old enough to have their own YouTube accounts are primarily based on less-childish criteria.

Now, I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to their own opinions.

First, that would be incredibly hypocritical, since you know as well as I do that I’m packed to the gills with opinions.

Second, it would be rude.

That said, I think there are probably quite a few people (maybe among these commenters, maybe not: I don’t know their individual ballet-commenting journeys, after all) who don’t actually know what the adagio movement is trying to accomplish, and who might be inclined to judge it by a metric that doesn’t fit.

The Nutcracker’s Grand Pas–and, in particular its adagio movement–is a bit of an anomaly.

It’s a subtle, exquisite gem set in a brash, flashy setting[2].

  1. The Snow Pas is sometimes played this way as well–one of the things I like most about our Nutcracker is the sweet tenderness of the Snow Pas).

The music is dramatic, of course: I mean, it’s Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky hid his subtlety amongst the broad, dramatic strokes[3]. It’s part of why Tchaikovsky’s bombast works: when Tchaikovsky brings out the big guns, so to speak, he doesn’t neglect the battle as a whole[4].

  1. Listen to the horns calling back and forth at the beginning of “Capriccio Italien:” the opening fanfare is brassy, even brash, but the fanfare that echoes evokes one replying from a distant hillside. Now, listen to the music of the Adagio. In the most dramatic moments–usually while there’s some visually-impressive lift happening onstage–the highest woodwinds play a wild little descant in which you hear the wind and the snow and the wild spirit that is Sugarplum, who is choosing in this moment to be tame.
  2. Sorry, guys. This is the worst analogy. I mean, sure, it’s effective, but … battle? Couldn’t I think of something else?

The Royal Ballet’s version of the Adagio choreography, meanwhile, is very British. It’s deeply restrained, and its restraint lends it a specific kind of romance. The Grand Pas adagio isn’t always that restrained, but it’s almost never bombastic, even though at times the music is, perhaps, just a bit bombastic (I mean: it’s Tchaikovsky).

I will note that, perhaps, this particular performance could have been a bit more expressive even within the context of its restrained approach–but I don’t think that means the choreography itself is boring.

I think it means that this is Nutcracker, and that for all we know this particular upload might be video from a performance in which both artists had already done this show thirteen times that week, and fourteen times the week before that, and fourteen times the week before that.

In other words, it seems entirely possible that they were tired.

Dancers joke about hating Nutcracker, but what we mostly mean, as far as I can tell, is that OMFG IT’S EXHAUSTING. Most of us actually seem to either secretly or not-so-secretly love Nutcracker. We’re just also deeply traumatized by it ^-^’

Even in a small company with a relatively short Nutcracker run, three weeks of performing the same ballet 6+ times per week, with up to three performances per day, is physically and mentally taxing.

In a huge, world-class company like The Royal Ballet, Nutcracker is a sort of towering juggernaut; a gauntlet through which dancers must pass each year as if it was some kind of old-world rite of the Winter Solstice like:

WHO WILL MAKE IT THROUGH??? ONLY THE STRONG WILL SURVIVE!!!

So basically what I’m saying is that Nutcracker is a callback to our atavistic fear of the long dark of winter; a kind of sacrificial ritual.

Okay, so no: that’s not really my point at all, though heck, it sure is an interesting idea, and possibly worth revisiting?

But, anyway. My whole point was about the Grand Pas Adagio.

The adagio isn’t exciting in the usual way because it shouldn’t be exciting in that way.

“Adagio” derives from the Italian (wait for it) “ad agio“–literally, “at ease.”

(I’ll pause here so anyone who has ever, during a long adagio in class, wanted to die and then murder their teacher, but hasn’t been sure in which order to do so, can laugh uproariously. Like, “At ease! At ease??!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”)

L’Ancien likes to remind us that, musically speaking, this is understood to mean no stress–as in, no OOMPH. It’s not BOMP-chika-bomp. It’s aaaaaaaaahhh.

Adagio isn’t about grand allegro pyrotechnics. It’s about something far subtler. It is, more than any other part of a ballet, about acting.

And, there, both Nuñez and Muntagirov perform, if not flawlessly, then beautifully. There are some moments that they could, perhaps, be a bit more expressive. Those moments generally happen to coincide with doing things that are, in terms of technique, not so easy. Or lifts. It can be hard to look tender AF when you’re lifting another adult human, no matter how sylphlike they are[5].

  1. This is one of the things I admired about C, who danced with us last year. Not only was his technique superb and lovely and clean, but he almost always managed to look sweet and tender and loving or however else he was supposed to look while lifting other adult persons.

Ultimately, Nuñez and Muntagirov’s performance treats the Adagio exactly as it should be treated: gently, deftly.

As an audience, though, many of us aren’t used to that. We’re used to TRANSMOGRIFIERS: END OF THE UNIVERSE!!!

(Which … don’t get me wrong. That stuff is fun, too.)

Even our less-explosive fare tends to be terribly unsubtle (Remember the Twilight series? Subtle as a chainsaw -.-).

So maybe we’re just not sure what to think when we find ourselves hard against the Adagio, in the middle of what might be the Most Bombastic Ballet Ever[6] if it weren’t for Swan Lake, which is what American movies would create if they created a ballet (and which, btw, is also one of my very favorite ballets).

  1. Okay, so … there’s also Spartacus. Which is even more bombastic, but I always forget about it because I’ve never seen the whole thing. Also Troy Games, hwich I Haven’t seen, but since it’s basically Men’s Technique: The Ballet, I’m assuming it’s probably got actual explosions and the audience probably has to sign a waiver. I’ve never seen any part of Troy Game (Y’ALL! I FOUND IT!!! And, um, it’s funny AF in parts), but I can state with conviction that I would LOVE a role in that ballet.

The grandeur in the adagio movement of Nutcracker’s Grand Pas derives not from virtuoso technical shenanigans, but from the power of the dancers to evoke emotion–in short, from their acting ability. Without that, there’s nothing to keep the audience hooked.

If what an audience expects from a ballet performance is a lot of virtuosic tricks, the Grand Pas Adagio will almost always be a bit of a letdown–as will some entire ballets, like Neumeier’s La Dame Aux Camelias (this will take you to Act I, but the whole thing is out there), which depend more on the dancers’ acting ability than on the (metaphorical) pyrotechnics we all know and love.

This, by the way, is what worries me a bit about audiences trying to make the leap straight from So You Think You Can Dance to full-scale ballet performances. SYTYCD and its kin have helped bring dance to audiences who, in the past, might never have seen it, either because they lacked access or because they didn’t think it was for them.

But, at the same time, because most of the dance-contest shows skew towards short performances built to please the general public, tricks are thick on the ground (and in the air), and subtle, expressive dance is almost unheard of. Same goes for Insta posts (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone): if you want to post video in your regular Insta feed, you get one minute, which really means like 58 seconds. Are you going to post 58 seconds of you staring fervently into your partner’s eyes, or are you going to post that hella cool manege?

Maybe I should swallow my own medicine and start posting the 58 seconds of staring into my partner’s eyes. Or, well, something like that. 58 seconds of nothing but staring could get weird.

Anyway. Watching ballet is like anything else: it’s a skill. When I watch American football, I basically haven’t the foggiest idea what’s happening (beyond the fact that our costumer would MURDER ME, s l o w l y , if I ever got my performance gear that dirty ^-^.

That doesn’t mean I’m an uncultured dolt; it just means I didn’t grow up watching football (my sis, on the other hand, has become an avid fan because someone mentioned to her that football is basically chess with big athletic dudes and she LOVES chess, so now she knows everything about football, too).

By way of a clearer analogy: I grew up on classical music and jazz, with a bit of the more obscure species of pop and folk thrown in here and there. The first time I heard classic rock, I was like, “Huh?”

In short, I didn’t speak the music language. But over time I heard it more and more, because my Stepdad is into classic rock, and I learned to speak its language and came to like it (a lot of it, anyway: there are dog farts in every genre–ballet probably has some, but since ballet is already pretty obscure, they probably don’t make it too far from the offending dog).

And while I usually use this analogy to explain why people often think they don’t like classical music, and then slowly evolve to like it, it works for ballet, too.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to dislike this specific Grand Pas adagio even if you’re a balletomane or a dancer. Maybe you just don’t like Muntagirov because he looks kind of like a deer who became a human but on some level is still a deer. I mean, I like that about him, but it might weird some people out. Maybe you like a different version of the choreography (there are a couple I do like better in that regard, though they overlap considerably with this one).

But if you simply think the choreography is boring in relation to the music, I invite you to watch like 25 different versions (as I have, G-d help me, bc I’m formally learning this pas de deux right now) as a means of learning the language.

You may find, of course, that watching 25 Grand Pas Adagios in a row really just makes you want to come to my house and demand that hour and a half or so of your life back, in which case, I cannot offer you a refund, but I’ll be happy to make you some tea?

On the other hand, you may begin to see the subtle shadings that make adagio so powerful when it’s done well.

Thursday Class: Slow Burn

I’m still playing it safe with my foot, which means still no jumping in BW’s class last night—but I think that’s actually turning into rather a good thing.

No jumping means we have tons of time for everything else, and that we can work at a borderline-glacial pace.

As a kid, this would have driven me insane. That’s half the reason it’s so good for me now.

~

For much of my life, I tacitly equated “slow” with “boring,” though I didn’t admit it even to myself.

Like many with ADHD, I am best at remaining focused when I’m moving quickly.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it made me a good skiier; it still makes me a good cyclist. It serves me well in the midst of grand allegro. It might be related to my tendency to stay calm in acute crises[1]. But it’s limited, and doesn’t cover so much of daily life.

  1. At least, the physically-actionable kind: I’m great when faced with a panicky horse or a bike crash, but when I locked my keys and my wallet in the car in Cincinnati with only 15% battery charge left on my phone, I rapidly descended into meltdown mode. Physical action couldn’t solve the problem at hand, and the only solution I could think of—calling D—wasn’t working. Cue utter panic.

This is one of the things medication improves. I may sweat even more than usual, but it’s worth it to be able to remain mentally engaged through a slow and repetitive exercise designed to tease out the deep and subtle essence of technique.

I suspect that BW is the kind of person who was born with that ability to reflect and synthesize. Nothing that I know about him suggests that he is, in any way, more than typically impulsive; if anything, I’d guess that he’s better at planning and implementing his plans than the average human being.

As a teacher, he’s a master of the slow burn: the exercise in which one folds and unfolds through slow tendus, fondus, ronds, and extensions, battling gravity and all the weirdness of the human body in order to maintain placement, aplombelan.

This doesn’t mean he doesn’t excel at the fast stuff as well. Last night’s class involved, among other things, a super-fast degagé-frappé that fried my brain even as it forced me to use the right muscles to close because there was literally no other possible way to make it happen. When we do petit allego, it’s light and quick, as it should be.

But I suspect that I learn the most when we’re working slowly. I come out of every single one of his classes with greater awareness of technique and of how my own body works in conjunction with technique. Nothing will make you more aware of the body mechanics required in attitude devant than finding it, then holding it for sixteen counts.

~

Last night’s class felt like a watershed, in a way: things that we’ve worked on for weeks suddenly made sense, physically and mentally, in new ways. It was like the day last year that I realized I had developed the ability to feel and activate my deep rotators with much greater precision.

As human beings, we can take many routes to learning. We can flail or inch towards transcendence. I suspect that ballet requires a bit of each. You can’t inch your way into grand allegro, for example: you just throw yourself at the target, dust yourself off, take your corrections, and adjust.

But in order to know how to adjust—in order to operate the minuscule muscles that control turnout and maintain the subtle adjustments that define placement as you soar like a lightning bolt—you must first have inched your way into the control room of your own body, taught it to do things, built those things into habits.

Last night, we worked slowly and with precision. There were no fireworks. No grand allegro. No triple turns.

Instead, there was what BW calls “medicine”—those dry, academic exercises[2] that lie at the heart of sound classical technique—and one exercise with turns and balances, and at least one really impeccable single from fourth with a fast spot.

  1. Full disclosure: I love dry, academic ballet exercises. Not everybody does. To me, they feel like playing Tetris with my own body, and those moments when I suddenly “get” it really give me a charge. That said, Adderall makes me a lot better at doing them for an entire class.

At least, it felt really impeccable. Chances are that, one year from now, I’ll remember that turn and think, “Huh, that really wasn’t so great.”

The final combination was pure medicine: tendu side with arms in second, hold, petit rond, petit rond, petit rond, hold and carry the arms through first to third without changing anything else, tendu, close back, reverse, other side.

It sounds easy; if you brute-force your way through it with no attention paid to the finer points of technique, maybe it even is easy. But when you’re thinking about everything, when you’re keeping the placement of your head and body and legs and TOES absolutely precise as you try to move only your arms (without automatically doing a petit rond or bringing your leg in), suddenly it’s not so easy anymore.

It takes a lot of a thing I’m going to call “microtechnique;” a lot of management of the tiny muscles that control placement, the awareness of which is essential if you want to dance well and for a long time.

You’d better believe that I’ll be working that one in my kitchen pretty often from here on out.

And then we stretched, and that was it.

Slow and steady, as they say, wins the race.

Oh, Adagio.

Remember how the other day I was all like:

I R SO AWSUM AT ADODGIOH. I PWN ADODGIOH ALLA TAIMZ.

Well, apparently, there are limits.

I should begin by making all the appropriate excuses:

  1. I managed to get to sleep at a reasonable hour (1:30 AM; 7 hours of sleep isn’t great, but it’ll do) only to wake up at 5:00 in the morning.

    Why? Who knows.

    Either way, not great for balance, coordination, the ability to learn rapidly, or … well, basically anything else you need in ballet (though my body was ON today, at least, in terms of sending proprioceptive signals about where its parts were).

  2. Company B was in class. This is normally a good thing. I admire him (okay, so he is totally my current Ballet Crush), and I learn a great deal by watching him. For some reason (probably Excuse #1 above, sleep-dep does not improve my ADHD), though I found this a little distracting today.
  3. Um, did I mention that whole thing where I woke up at 5:30?
  4. Oh, and also Ms. B (who made a guest-appearance as teacher in today’s Advanced Class) said the word “GOOD!” to me not once, but like three or four times, and as many of us who dance know, that is basically a recipe for disaster.

That said, class started out well.

I haz a turnouts, etc. Plies were fine. Tendus were fine. Degage/jetes and piques and frappes were (at least mostly) fine. Even ronds-de-jambe were fine.

Then we fondu-ed, only I basically fondidn’t. I mean, I was more or less doing the movements? And my legs were fondu-ing? Only the rest of me was … ugh. Just, ugh. My eyes were like, “Oh, look, the floor,” and my arms were like, “We’re supposed to stay behind your shoulders, right?” and my clavicles. Oy. Let’s not even talk about my clavicles.

I discovered on the right that I couldn’t seem to hold my core together. I opted for the non-releve approach on the left, which helped a bit, but frankly I was still a mess.

After anxiously faking my way through the battement combination that I kept doing wrong (because See Excuses 1 and 2), we took a quick break and then did adagio.

And mine was turrible.

Basically, the part where I couldn’t balance or keep my core engaged really came home to roost. So I knocked myself over in simple developpes, then again in a tour lent (when my tour lent/promenade is good, it’s good; when it’s bad, it’s baaaad). Then I forgot the end of the combination and did that thing where you’re watching the guy in front of you so you can follow him and that throws your balance off. Side-eye is not the way to ballet, y’all.

I should probably add that I was less horrible on the repeat. But, still.

Let this be a lesson to all of us. In short:

Don’t get cocky there, kid.

Because the Ballet Gods in their hallowed halls (which, I hear, have really excellent floors) will notice and will put you firmly back in your place (apparently by waking you up at 5:30 when you really need, like, three more hours of sleep).

I feel that I kinda-sorta redeemed myself in turns and terre-a-terre, and my petit allegro was less bad than it could have been. Some of it was even good, only once again I totally failed at remembering the combinations, so whatevs.

Anyway, I’m planning to skip out on my usual Thursday activities to take Company B’s class this coming week. The following week, I’ll be in Lexington doing their ballet intensive.

Perhaps before then I’ll manage to assemble my waterfowls in a linear array and actually get some sleep.

 

Turn, Turn … Er, Ah, Oh Yes, Turn

Somehow, I’m suddenly working for reliable triple turns.

Today’s were sketchy. Too much 1, 2 … and a half … 3. First two revolutions would be fine, but I’d lose my momentum in the third somehow. Once I wound up getting halfway through the third revolution and having to kind of do this embarrassing little hoppity-hop thing to get the rest of the way around. The next time I launched too hard from the foot, like I was trying to do a tour en l’air at passé. Oy vey.

I think the problem is one of confidence. I know I can do doubles, but I’m still not sure about my triples. I get anxious and lose focus, my spot slows down, and so … does … everything … else. Clearly, the answer is to go for quadruples — the best triple turns I’ve ever done were ones that wanted to be quads.

On the other hand, turns and terre-a-terre were otherwise good. Suddenly I have nice doubles from fifth, nice tombé-piques (I’m no longer trying to launch them into space), and arms that do things related to the combination and not just random crazy stuff. Also, my adagio glissades are da bomb.

I felt tired halfway through petit allegro, though the first combination went very well, and very much phoned it in throughout grand allegro. Some of my jumps were lovely, some were just plain wrong because I missed part of the combination (thought the second chain involved entrelacé and fouetté when really it was two fouettés; fixed that going left).

The linking steps were an unmitigated disaster (in short: I could only remember half of them), though I worked to make it look like I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. There was a whole coupé-tombé-pas de bourré that I replaced with a chassé, which meant my saut de chat, though decent, was hella early. Frustrationne.

This, by the way, is my new ballet strategy: Don’t know the whole combination? Just pretend you do and really commit to whatever game version you invent.

I’m out of Adderall right now, and I feel it in advanced class. The combinations are long, and I tend to fail to keep my concentration engaged while receiving them. I would be like, watching watching watching huh, I wonder if I should take my legwarmers off, D’OH!, watching, watching…

That said, I’m doing surprisingly well remembering and executing adagio right now. Occasionally I find myself in a position that I can both execute and watch in the mirror, and it’s neat to watch my legs just unfurl themselves while my body stays still and upright.

My arms mostly seem to know what they’re doing now, as well, though once today they tried to do something weird (I caught them). My head is slowly getting with the program. There was less eye-rolling today.

Also held a right attitude balance arrière that blew my previous records out of the water.

Felt like I could’ve stayed up there forever. Came down in complete control — allongé, arabesque balance, close to sous-sus, plié. First time, probably, that I’ve chosen to come down from a balance because the class was getting ready to start the second side! (Usually I choose to come down when it starts to feel like things are thinking about falling apart.)

Left was nowhere near as good — too much thinking — though the exit was similarly controlled and graceful.

At barre, B commented on how far I’ve come since January and added, “One day I look up, and there’s this dancer in front of me.”

I suspect that has a lot to do with it, in a way — I think of myself as a dancer, and I think that shapes things. As dancers, we tend to embody our inner visions of ourselves. What we visualize, we do.

Of course, quite literally being stronger and fitter than I have ever been and just plain getting to class reliably make a huge difference, too.

As does finally being able, once again, to trust my body. It’s more and more like an exquisitely well-trained horse: horse people will understand the feeling of riding a horse that seems to read your mind; even to know what you want before you do.

It may seem strange to describe one’s body that way, but the sense of trust and unity and satisfaction is the same. I know where my arms are now in a way that I didn’t six months ago.

One more detail before lunch.

Looking at pictures of Nureyev (who apparently had ridiculous knees like mine) in fifth and sous-sus, I realized that I can probably nail mine tighter if I really max my turnout and pull my inner thighs tighter than I feel is physically possible.

This should help get my giant, bony knees out of the way. I’ve been kind of cheating lately, given that my turnout is really close to 180 in first at this point. I keep doing the thing where you plié and rotate your front knee back and  heel forward simultaneously, but then having to reduce turnout a bit to get my knees in or out in tendus, etc, because they’re in each-other’s way.

If I engage my inner thighs more effectively, I think I should be able to pull the knees past each-other rather than against each-other. Heretofore, I haven’t been doing that because Male Dancer Reasons, but um, suffice it to say that there’s at least one painting of Nureyev in the nude, and he had bigger (ahem) reasons than mine, so to speak. In short, I should trust my dance belt to do its job.

So that’s it for today. Lunch, splits challenge, and then … Honestly, who knows?

Coincidentally, this should also help me make my petit allegro quicker, since I’ll have to work on making the same set of muscles stronger. It will also stop me getting yelled at about my lazy assemblé and soubresaut 😉

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