L’Ancien continues to rebuild us.
Today was not my best dancing day, but it was acceptable at times. Weather fluctuations are leading to mold blooms and so forth that make my allergies crazy. Ears are connected to noses and throats; all three of mine develop problems.
My hearing gets iffy. I miss bits of combinations (L’Ancien delivers his combinations very quietly, which makes us all listen as ahard as we can) and I start to get stressed out and tense, even though L’Ancien tells us over and over again, “Don’t worry if you do the wrong step. This is class. This is an exercise. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
He’s really not. He cares less what you do; more how you do it. An approximation of the exercise done beautifully will make him happier than a perfect log of the steps done without feeling.
But still, sometimes I get nervous when I feel like I can’t hear.
Still, there were good things: the petit allegro combination in which we did fancy pas de bourrees of a kind that none of us (not even Killer B) had learned because evidently almost nobody teaches them(1)—that is, pas de bourrée a quatre pas and –a cinq pas—coupled to entrechats quatres. My entrechats are a thousand times better for L’Ancien’s insistence that we JUMP! and show essentially a second position in the air around the beats.
- They’re taught in RAD Advanced 1, apparently, but RAD syllabus programs aren’t exactly a dime a dozen around here.
It’s not just switching the feet: I can do that all day. It’s launch STRIKE! beat STRIKE! land fifth.
Last year, I learned to prevent “flappy feet” by thinking about my beats happening higher up in my legs. L’Ancien is transforming them into something worth looking at.
…Which is good, because apparently my assumption that I’m not built for petit allegro is incorrect.
After class I thanked L’Ancien for reviewing and clearly explaining petit battement. He pointed out that the configuration of my pelvis, which is rather shallow, is good for quick batterie.
I suppose I should’ve figured this out earlier, as I was the first member of my first childhood ballet class to nail down entrechats and so forth.
A few weeks ago L’Ancien mentioned our dancer RS, who does a stellar Bluebird (so much so that when my brain chooses to reboot and I can’t get his name to come to mind, I refer to him as “our Bluebird”), and how his shallow hips and relatively short torso make him well-suited for petit allegro. He said the same thing to me today, about my own body.
This is one thing I really appreciate about his teaching style: he teaches to his individual dancers, and not to some nonspecific imaginary dancer, as much as he can.
It’s worth noting that he does this not only by pointing out our weaknesses, but also by pointing out our strengths. By ballet standards, I’m a muscly kind of boy (which always results in a frisson of cognitive dissonance when I’m moving in cirque or modern dance circles, where I’m borderline dainty).
Too often, as dancers, we find ourselves lamenting what we don’t have (in my case, David Hallberg’s “imperially slim” build, with its endless, beautiful lines) instead of celebrating what we do have (…what K calls “that Bolshoi body,” with the enormous, ridiculous Legs of Power and square shoulders that let you do Bluebird left like it’s NBD).
- If you know this poem, you know that it’s beautiful and also a tragedy. I’m not calling Hallberg a tragedy; I just like that phrase. It sounds like him.
In the end, we have to learn to work with the bodies we have: to make the most of them. I think I’ve touched on this before.
Up until now, I have been learning technique—building the elements of movement—but perhaps haven’t learned my body as well as I could have.
By way of analogy, this is like painting in watercolors and being frustrated that they don’t behave like oils. I’m rather a good watercolorist, and that’s partly because I understand how watercolors are and I work with them accordingly.
As a dancer, then, I need to begin to understand how my body is and to work with it accordingly.
I suppose that, once again, it comes down to this basic principle: start where you are.
That means don’t force your turnout, but it also means, discover your gifts.
If you only ever know what’s not great about your body, you’ll never optimize your training as a dancer. Quietly, gently, firmly, L’Ancien says to us, Learn what is great about your body. Every body is different. Every body has gifts.
But also start where you are. Know your strengths; know your weaknesses; train accordingly.
I’ll try to remember all this tomorrow at the BDSI audition, though I’ll also try to just have a good class and enjoy the singular pleasure and specific torture of Vaganova technique.
I hope that I’ll make the cut—not so much because it would make me feel good about myself as a dancer (though I’m sure it would), but because I think two weeks of Nothing But The Vaganova, imparted by a roster of master instructors, is enough to make anyone a stronger, better dancer.
And, possibly, a good way to learn to optimize on one’s strengths.
L’Ancien is away this week, so HD made a guest appearance in Advanced Class.
I let her know early on that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through class, but I would probably at least get through barre.
In fact, I hung in there until it was time for jumps, when I chose to call it a day. I’m much, much better, but I’d say that I’m really at about 60% of my typical capacity, and with the BDSI audition and the start of rehearsals for the Culture of Poverty piece looming next weekend, it made sense to start getting tuned in again but also not to risk injury.
Speaking of the Culture of Poverty, I made B cast, which is great. I don’t think I would’ve made the cut for this piece last year: stylistically, AS is a very different kind of dancer than I am, and while I’m confident that I’ll absorb the movement style and vocabulary over the course of the rehearsal process, I know that in auditions I still have a tough time setting aside the mantle of ballet.
Anyway, back to class notes. At barre I found myself reflecting on a thing.
Background info: I’m a little taller than Killer B (when I stand up straight 🤔) and a few inches shorter than TM, who stands behind (and then in front of, and then behind…) me at barre.
My legs, meanwhile, are about as long as TM’s, so he’s quite a bit longer in the torso than I am. Killer B’s proportions are much like mine. Both that said, both Killer B and I have higher extensions than TM (who is quite a beautiful dancer and doesn’t actually need to be able to scratch his ear with his toes; he’s naturally princely and looks a lot like Steven MacRae).
I think it harkens back to something L’Ancien said a few weeks ago: you work with the body you have, and every body has different strengths. Like L’Ancien, TM has deep hip sockets, which means that high extensions and the quick, fluttering beats that make petit allegro sparkle don’t come as readily to him.
- In fact, they have almost exactly the same build.
Meanwhile, I—with my irrefutably square shoulders and profoundly elastic back—will have to think harder about how to create a lovely, unbroken line through my upper body and arms. Oh, and will spend the rest of my natural life quietly muttering, “Pull up your suspenders,” since that analogy makes me stop swaybacking like a retired dairy cow.
Which is a round-about way of saying this: in ballet, almost everything can be a blessing or a curse.
My feet are what EMM (who has finally joined advanced class!) calls “roundy feet,” which means that both my feet and my ankles are extremely mobile. They can do profoundly beautiful things to the lines of my legs, and ultimately they’re really good for banging out solid balances … once I’ve managed to stack all those piddly little bones correctly, and if the muscles agree to do their job.
But I will be challenged for my entire life to keep them strong enough to counter their natural elasticity, and the beauty of my arches is a completely moot point if I’m not quicker in petit allegro than my friends with less “roundy” feet.
A half-baked point is a half-baked point, and getting feet and legs like mine fully straight and pointed is actually rather a lot of work.
TM’s feet are nice, if not quite as fancy as mine, and he consistently makes them look good. At the end of the day, that’s really what matters.
It’s not about having the perfect body for ballet: there’s probably not a single asset that comes without a price (my thighs, y’all—they might make my grand allegro pop, but they also make my 5th position suck sometimes).
It’s about making the most of what you have.
True, there are some traits that seem to be perpetual winners in the ballet world (TM’s incredibly graceful shoulders; my “roundy feet”). But for every working dancer with an aristocratic neck and feet like bananas, there’s a stocky little dude with biscuits who has learned to make the most of what he’s got.
In fact, probably ten, because ballet ultimately belongs to those who work the hardest, and often those who work the hardest are the ones who feel that they have something to overcome.
One last thing. Today, it occurred to me to think about why we move slowly, painfully through fondus even though we still have to get there and show the world that moment of breathing stillness (the “picture,” as it were).
What we’re doing is building strength and endurance.
Yes, you can piggyback on momentum and flash-developpé your leg to the level of your eyebrow—but that doesn’t matter in that moment when you emerge from a soutenu through a graceful, elastic fondu developpé into a balance effacé devant and must then hooollllddddd for a rubato breath before you dive into tombé-pas de bourré-etc.
If you try to throw your leg there—that is, to simply harness momentum—you will find it difficult to muster control, and either you’ll fall out of the balance or you’ll fall into the tombé and make yourself late.
I can’t say I didn’t already know this, exactly? I mean, I know we’re not supposed to just throw our legs—even a jeté requires connection and control.
But somehow today it occurred to me that I need to remember the feeling of the balance between control and momentum; that I am eternally training my body to do things it would probably rather not do with muscles that would probably rather do something else (regardless of the fact that my body is both very biddable and highly suitable for ballet, ballet insists on using muscles and joints and bones in rather creative ways).
L’Ancien often makes us do grand battement with slow counts on the down: half a count to hit the apex and show the free leg, then a full count down—controlled all the way, through tendu. It’s the classic, “And ONE! And two. And THREE!…” in which the entire action of the upstroke happens in the blink of an eye. You could, in fact, count it faster and make it, “And ONE! two, three, four and TWO! two, three, four and THREE!…” but almost nobody counts like that in ballet because it would make our heads explode and screw up the phrasing•.
- This is a challenge when I dance to a piece I’ve played, sometimes—often, for ballet purposes, we count at half the time signature, transforming 6/8 into 3/4 or 4/4 into 2/2, then divide everything by instinct into phases of 8 or 6 counts.
Anyway, back to ballet-standard counts. So in this slow-descent exercise, the first “And” is just a breath. The free leg shows at its apex a split second later. The rest of the count is spent carrying the free leg back down, rotating the supporting leg against it the entire way.
The descent is infinitely important: it strengthens all the things; it teaches us to counter one leg with the other. It allows us to really figure out how to lift out of our hips so we can close in a clean fifth.
It also looks really cool. There’s something superhuman about an entire ballet class snapping their feet up to face level, then thoughtfully returning them to the ground.
In aerials, when we’re not yet strong enough to overcome gravity doing a skill going up, we practice the reverse skill—that is, the same skill coming down.
Can’t do a smooth pullover mount on trapeze? No problem. Drape yourself over the bar, fight your way into a handstand, and roll down as far as you can before you just drop. Each day, you’ll get a little further. Soon, you’ll find that when you try your pullover mount, you’ve nailed it.
Barre is basically the same kind of thing. Every time you close with control or choose a slower, smoother (and possibly lower) developpé, you’re making yourself stronger.
Full disclosure: sometimes it’ll hurt more when you’re doing it, and sometimes it’ll hurt a lot the next day.
But that’s ballet for you.
It takes a lot of grueling work to become a magical bluebird that flits weightlessly through the air, y’all.