For the longest time, the number one correction I got in any dance context other than ballet was, “It’s not ballet, Asher!”
Now, I’ve finally come full circle.
After rehearsal, L and I have been working on partnering stuff together, since we both want to get better at it. This has led me to realize that the sheer volume of non-traditional partnering I’ve done has been tripping me up in a ballet partnering context.
A lot of modern partnering is based in weight-sharing. You can share weight concentrically or eccentrically—in short, by pouring towards or away from your partner or partners—but either option involves a kind of nonverbal negotiation of balance.
Unless you know your partner really well and you’ve developed a strong rapport, you begin slowly.
If you’re “weighting-out,” you tentatively pour yourself away from your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite pull.
If you’re “weighting-in,” you tentatively pour yourself towards your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite push.
It’s this push-pull dynamic that gives partnering based in weight-sharing its beautiful fluid quality. As partners learn to work together, they practice conversing in a language of shared gravity—moving smoothly and silently from “weighting-out” to “weighting-in” and vice-versa.
As they learn to trust each-other and to know each-other’s weight and movement styles, the negotiation process can become so fast and smooth that it becomes invisible to the audience, but it’s always there and it’s always the same.
This is not how ballet partnering typically works.
In ballet partnering—and please note that I’m referring to the traditional, gender-specific roles for clarity, here—the girl isn’t looking for the boy to answer her weight with equal weight. She’s looking for him to be a rock-solid foundation; a kind of balletic buttress.
If you’re used to weight-sharing, you answer lightening with lightening: when your partner gives you less of her weight, you give her less of yours. Likewise, you enter into a pushing dynamic gently: it’s easy to pour too much weight into someone too fast and to knock the whole structure over.
In a ballet context, if your partner feels that you’re supporting her too lightly she tends to respond by taking her weight out of your hands to protect herself. If you’re used to weight-sharing, you’ll automatically respond by lightening and softening your contact, because that’s the typical process of negotiation.
The thing is, that’s not how ballet partnering works at all.
In ballet partnering, the girl offers her weight with the expectation that it’ll be met firmly—as if you, her partner, are a living barre.
Chances are good that if she hasn’t worked with you before, she’ll be light in your hand, so to speak: it is in her best interest not to rely too heavily on you until she’s sure that you’re up to the job.
So, basically, the least useful signal you can send in that moment is exactly the one you’re most likely to automatically send if the vast majority of your experience has been in weight-sharing.
If you respond to the lightness of her touch by offering light support, because the instincts developed through weight-sharing make you feel like you’re going to knock her over otherwise, she’ll won’t feel secure, and withdraw. If her withdrawal leads you to automatically lighten even more, she’ll also withdraw further.
It won’t take long to reach a point at which you’re not a support, but an obstacle: something she’s trying not to whack with her knee or her leg when she turns, for example, but which isn’t actually helping her turn. Needless to say, if that happens, you won’t be able to accomplish much together.
Be steady and firm, and she’ll give you more weight, so she can do the cool stuff that ballet partnering allows. She’ll also be more likely to trust you when you lift her.
Once you get past the negotiation bit, of course, things work pretty much the same way: you don’t want overpower your partner. You just want to be steady and lend her just enough of your gravity and (where appropriate) your momentum or force.
- Even in lifts: you can lift another human using only your own strength, but most ballet lifts work best if you work together.
The real difference is that in weight-sharing, every movement or sequence of movements begins with and depends on a negotiation that equalizes gravity between the partners.
In ballet partnering, there is an initial negotiation, but it’s a different one. The girl silently asks, “Can I trust you to hold me up?” and the boy must answer, “Yes, I’m here,” or things aren’t going to work.
The remaining negotiation process in a ballet context is, as far as I’ve experienced, more about figuring out the physics of your specific bodies. How do you get yourself out of the way of her knee? How much liftoff does she need to help you get her into an overhead press lift? Where is her center of gravity? How does she compensate for your short li’l t-rex arms?
So, anyway, that was the breakthrough of the week for me. It’s one of those things that seems like it should be bindingly obvious—and yet I had grown so accustomed to the process of weight-sharing that I didn’t realize I was doing this unhelpful thing until this Friday.
I don’t know if any of this will be all that helpful to anyone who doesn’t share a similar set of circumstances to mine—but I hope it’ll be at least somewhat useful.
This week, on Thursday, we began work in Act II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is, to say the least, a baptism by fire in terms of partnering. Act II is basically all about the “We’re all getting married and happiness is restored even in the fairy kingdom,” and here I am like, “Feck, well, guess I’m going to learn to not suck so much at partnered turns now.”
But, holy hell. The amount of new material I’ve crammed into my head and body in the past two days is … Erm. It’s a lot.
I’ve been frustrated with myself for not picking some things up as well as I could. I think just not having time to review last night was part of it, and of course just being kinda stressed makes learning harder, which makes you more stressed, etc.
Anyway, I have 3 weeks to look like I know WTF I’m doing, and I’m going to effing well make it happen.
But for now it’s rough, and today I was stressed out and generally mad at myself for the entire day.
So tomorrow will be better. And the day after that will be better. And in three weeks, I will have this down, and I hope I’ll be a partner worth dancing with.
Until then, I’ll try to remember to post my class notes from time to time, but it’s about to get real up in here.
There are so many reasons I’m glad that I auditioned for Gale Force, and right now one of the most significant is the opportunity it’s given me to begin honing my partnering skills.I wouldn’t say I’m great at partnering (yet: I might get there, who knows?), but I’m learning fast. I seem to be good at keeping my partners from hitting the deck when things go south,which is comforting, because honestly I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, still.
Anyway, of all the things I’ve learned about partnering thus far, the most important seems at once staggeringly obvious and perhaps a little surprising (which: remember the time you tripped over that brightly-painted curb that you’d noticed before but forgotten and immediately thought, “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?”).
And that most important thing is, of course, trust.
Last night, we started working on a new piece, and AA, the choreographer for this one, gave all of us leeway to toss in elements we thought might fit, including partnering stuff. At one point I looked at Dot and, perhaps because we’re both equally mad and utterly extra, I said, “Cradle to Bluebird?”
And she said something along the lines of, “Slay, Queen!” (Because, as I’ve mentioned, we’re both extra AF.)
And so we tried it, annnnnnnd:
I don’t know if either of us expected this to work on the first try: but we trust each-other, so we both dove in full-steam ahead, and it worked like a charm.
- Though if you know how this lift is supposed to work, you know she’s a little forward of her balance point in this shot, which was the result of my failure to sufficiently account for her skirt. D’oh! Obviously, we made it work.
I would say, “Obviously, you need good technique as well,” but I’m not sure that’s quite as important as it sounds. You need to understand how your body works and possess a feel for the laws of physics. If you’ve got those two things and trust, you’re most of the way there.
Ballet is great at teaching you to use your body. So are acro and gymnastics.
As for physics … People are forever observing that ballet dancers begin training early because it takes ages to teach the brain and body to work together to produce beautiful technique, but I think there’s another element as well.
Only experience can develop a gut sense for the way bodies behave in space. When you’re faced with the daunting task of grabbing your friend and tossing her up into a balance on your shoulder, you don’t have a lot of time to make calculations. You may be strong, but if you try to do it slowly, the laws of physics are likely to come out on top.
You have to be able to mentally spitball the physical process and the trajectory; to be able not only to visualize what’s going to happen, but to tactilize it, if you will: to imagine with your body how the forces involved will feel.
That way, when you attempt the actual lift, you’ve got a model already in place.You don’t have to consciously think it through–which is good, because lifting humans is a finicky business, and you need to be able to respond without delay of something begins to go wrong. You don’t have time for conscious thought.
If something starts to feel off, you instinctively call upon a lifetime of being a body that moves through space with power and freedom. The accumulated experience of that lifetime drives the inner mechanism that makes you shift your weight, lift your shoulder, step back just a little on one foot (all of which I’m doing in the photo above, to compensate for having placed Dot too far forward).
You don’t think about it; you just do it.
The unspoken knowledge that your body will figure out how to keep you safe when things go south is the foundation of the kind of trust that dancing requires. If you need proof, show a sedentary person a sauté fouetté or even a pas de chat en tournant and ask them to give it a try: they’ll probably respond, “Are you out of your mind? I’d kill myself!”
Partnering required that same trust on a different level: when you grab your friend, swing her into a cradle lift, and roll her up onto your shoulder, she’s trusting you to be able to make the necessary split-second adjustments that will stop her falling, and you’re trusting her to make herself as liftable as possible.
You’re tacitly agreeing that both of you operate from a profound applied understanding of gravity, mass, momentum, trajectory, balance…
You’re tacitly agreeing to apply that knowledge even if things feel a little shaky for a second here or there.
That last bit is crucial.
When we feel we’re in physical danger, our true, inborn instincts tell us to ball up and protect our vital organs.
That’s fine in cradle lift–in fact, the tighter your partner tucks, the easier cradle lift becomes, at least until she’s tucked so tightly that she cuts off circulation to one of your arms. Then you’ve got a whole new problem.
It’s not, however, true for any other lift in the repertoire, and especially not for Bluebird.
Excepting cradle, every lift in the classical repertoire involves some degree of extension–which means that the partner doing the lifting has to overcome gravity in challenging ways.
- One of the entry paths to shoulder-sit is also facilitated by your partner turning into a ball, but only for a moment. Also, purists sometimes argue that shoulder-sit isn’t part of the classical canon. I’m no authority on the subject, but my opinion is that while shoulder-sit is a circus trick, so are many of the showstopping elements in the canon: literally. According to Jennifer Homans’ exhaustive and authoritative history Apollo’s Angels, ballet really did adapt many of its steps from the circus. (#TheMoreYouKnow) At any rate, Serebrennikov covers shoulder-sit in his text on partnering,which is good enough for me.
If you’re attempting to sling your partner into a hip-balance (to borrow a term from the aerial arts) on your shoulder, she needs to trust you enough to unfurl herself into a profoundly vulnerable position in which she becomes, in essence, a see-saw.
If she doesn’t, at best, the beautiful bluebird lift turns into something closer to a dead-bird lift. Dead-bird lift probably has its place in tragic ballets and in modern dance, but it’s also a thousand times harder for you, with your feet on the ground, to support.
At worst, she’ll pivot around your shoulder and faceplant, and if you’re lucky she’ll kick you in the back of the head in the process and knock you out cold so you don’t have to live with the shame of having failed to save her (which is why it’s always the boy’s fault, in classical ballet: your job description involves making sure your partner doesn’t get hurt, since you’re the one with your feet on the ground). At least,not til you wake up.
Just about anyone can sling, say, fifty pounds of board lumber of a reasonable length up on one shoulder with relative ease. On the other hand, slinging fifty pounds of potatoes, loosely packed, is a much greater challenge (not least because you’re likely to take a potato or two to the jaw when you least expect it: potatoes fight dirty).
Now multiply that challenge by three, and you begin to see the problem.
Thus, as you’re merrily tossing or slinging or rolling or pushing your partner onto your shoulder, she has to tell her inborn instinct to fold up for safety, “Not now, we’re busy” whilst simultaneously listening very closely to the acquired instincts that help her do the astounding things that make up every ballet dancer’s bread and butter. She also has to listen to whatever your body is doing.
When she trusts her body, so to speak, and you trust yours, then you can trust each-other so much more easily. When you trust each-other, you try things that frankly seem a bit daft and they work.
Curiously, all of this happens without a great deal of talking. In fact,when it works, it’s about as close as I’ve come to experiencing actual, literal telepathic communication .
- Some people might argue that making love must be closer. I doubt any of them have tried dancing a pas de deux, let alone creating one from whole cloth. Sex is great, but if your version involves, say, bluebird lift or overhead press lift, it’s probably much more interesting than mine.
If you don’t trust each-other, at some point in the process, one or both of you will hesitate at a critical moment–and while I’ve yet to drop anyone, the experience that stems from that hesitation is always terrifying.
That moment’s hesitation is a moment in which your partner has no idea what you’re “saying” with your body or what you’ll do next.
Whether you’re the lifter or the liftee, this is akin to the moment in a relationship when Boo says, “If you can’t figure out why I’m so upset I’m certainly not going to tell you!” …Only with the added risk of catastrophic injury. You’re basically left with no way to predict what your partner will do next: you just have to guess and hope you get it right.
Someone with reasonable experience in partnering can often save a lift even then–but when you’re learning, if you’re the one doing the lifting, your goal instantly becomes simply to not drop your partner; to save them by any means possible.
Which, if we’re honest, can be scary as heck for both of you: for you, because suddenly all the responsibility is in your hands; for your partner, because suddenly they have no control and can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Hesitation can also render many lifts pretty much impossible: I’m pretty strong, but I doubt that I could slowly dead-lift, say, 140 pounds above my head.
When I press-lift someone, timing and momentum are crucial. Her jump overcomes enough of the pull of gravity to allow me to lift her past the part of the movement in which I’m weakest—the part where she’s above the level of my shoulders but not yet high enough that I can lock my arms out to sustain her weight above my head (which is totally a circus trick, in my book, but it’s a good one!).
For whatever reason, Dot and I seem to have developed a trust that prevents hesitations and allows us to overcome the inevitable glitches when we try new things together.
I think this stems in part from the fact that we’re both very game experimenters, natural-born crazy monkeys, if you will. But it also stems from familiarity: during our experiments, sometimes things do go sideways, and when that happens, I always manage to catch her, and she always manages not to kick me in the face. Then, I wouldn’t mind if she did: my willingness to risk a kick in the face is crucial to my ability to keep her from hitting the ground when we find ourselves at a sticky wicket.
Anyway, there you have it: the most important thing I’ve learned about partnering.
If you don’t have perfect technique, trust will get you through.
If you don’t have trust, though, nothing will.
This week, I did some stuff well, some stuff really badly, and a lot of stuff somewhere in between. I nailed the overhead press lift. I didn’t fall over, drop anyone, or knock anyone else over, nor did I kick the audience in our show last night (it was in our building’s performance space, which is more like a ballroom kind of thing, so the audience sits in chairs along the wall).
To be fair, I would have to have REALLY messed up to kick the audience, as I’m mostly in the back in the stuff I’m in right now.
I’ve made a deal with myself. I’m a trainee, really; a company apprentice. So I’m here to learn, and I have a LOT to learn. Every time I’m tempted to make an excuse, then, I stop and ask myself, “Okay, so X is a thing that’s getting in the way. How can I solve that problem?”
I am still shy in person: like many introverts, I have trouble getting to know new people most of the time, and especially when most of them already know each-other. I’ve been letting that get in my way a little. This week, I decided it’s time to step up and ask about the choreography when I haven’t caught something or don’t remember something. So far, nobody has rolled their eyes and gone “O FFS HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW THAT?”
I have trouble processing spoken language, especially when I’m doing something, and especially especially in a big, echoey room. It’s just a function of how my brain works. There’s a bit more of a delay for me than for most people between when someone says something and when my brain works out what it was they said.
In class, I can deal with the echoey room part by standing closer to Mr D when he’s giving us a combination. In rehearsal, sometimes he tosses choreography at us from across the room while we’re standing where we finished the last bit, so I’ll have to work out a different strategy for that. I think just asking my fellow dancers is a good way to go; often, they have similar questions. Sometimes we just all look at each-other and shrug.
I’m … erm … moderate at remembering choreography.
I’ve realized that I’m worse at remembering choreography in group pieces than I am in other situations because you can’t not look at people (when there are 20 of you in a circle, you have to use your eyes if you’re going to avoidd kicking each-other in the face). When I’m looking at my fellow dancers, I tend to automatically follow them, and things don’t always make it into my long-term memory for some reason.
This means that I need to review like crazy on my own either in the studio or at home. Fortunately, I have video of the main thing I’m working on remembering.
Steps-wise, for some reason, it’s still the petite Sissones that do my head in. And, of course, knowing that makes me nervous, which prevents me from picking up the petite Sissone combinations correctly. Feck.
So obviously I need to practice the hecking heck out of petite-allegro stylie Sissones on my own. Ditto brisées. Other stuff is mostly coming together on its own, including fancy grand allegro things that I don’t know I can do until I’m throw into the deep and and just do them.
I need to come up with a strategy for sticking a pin in parts of dances that I don’t have when I’m reviewing and I don’t have video. Historically, I’ve dealt with those bits by getting stuck, which only trains you to get stuck. I queried one of my fb ballet communities for suggestions, and one of the best was coming up with some kind shorthand and writing down the choreography as soon we learn it (or at any rate as soon as possible). I think that will help, and it will also hep me understand where I’m missing bits.
Double tours are progressing, though I sometimes get frustrated and start doing them like I’m angry and then Mr D says, “Easy …. easy.” But I’m remembering to spot them more reliably (it occurred to me that it’s impossible to count your revolutions if you don’t spot!) and to go Full Pencil most of the time.
I’m also remembering to jump from the ground up, which is a function of working on snapping into Pencil Mode. In case you’re wondering, attempting to disconnect your upper body from your lower body and toss it into the air under its own power doesn’t actually improve your jumps.
Repeat to yourself, “THE LEGS LIFT THE BODY.”
Like all jumps, double tours begin with pliés. Everything squinches down to load the sproings, and then the reaction of the loaded sproings launches the jump from the ground up. You let the legs lift the hips (this was a David Reuille thing). Then you let the hips lift the body, in part by keeping everything attached and not turning into a slinky.
I’m going to have to get with someone who is relatively fearless about partnering and work on assisted turns, because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.I would not have expected to be like, “Yah, the lifts are the easy part,” but actually they kind of are? I mean, as long as your partner doesn’t turn into a sack of potatoes. Lifting even 120 pounds of potatoes is about a billion times harder than lifting even 150 pounds of dancer.
On the other hand, I have rather a lot of experience lifting other humans and absolutely none spinning girls in pointe shoes around with my hands. I’m afraid I’m going to knock someone over. On the other, other hand, Mr D announced after Friday’s parade of all the boys spinning various girls in pointe shoes that we’ll be working on that a lot more. Also, I think I’ll be ordering the other half of the set of books on partnering of which I for some reason only have volume 2, which very reasonably assumes you already know how to do the basic stuff.
Also, I suck at the promenade version of the same, for the same reasons.
But I guess that means I can’t actually get worse at it, so there’s that?
If I was less shy, I would just ask S or C or L, all of whom know more about this whole partnering thing than I do, having actually been formally trained in it instead of just experiencing the patchwork of, “Here, do this,” and occasionally, “Oh, and you do it like this!” that makes up my partnering background ^-^’
I’m also working on solving problems like: I have sound upper-back flexibility, so why does my cambré derriere suck a lot of the time? Mr D demonstrated to me that I can basically fold myself like a napkin if someone just runs a hand up the underside of my arm, so … huh. I think the problem is that I get tense and wind up working against myself, so I’m going to have to figure that out.
Also, I need to get my head coordinated with everything. It’s still a bit intermittent, whereas it needs to be automatic. I need to train it so I don’t have to go, “Oh, yeah, use your head” (in the ballet sense ^-^’). Ditto my arms, which are getting better but still sometimes forget to do anything.
So there you go. All I have to do is learn the rest of how to be a professional dancer by the middle of December. No pressure ^-^’
Somehow, I had become convinced that the LexBallet intensive was in June (even though it has always been in July) and that PlayThink was in July (even though it has always been in June—my sister’s birthday coincides with it every year), and EVEN, even though I made widgets for this very blorg that list the dates.
Needless to say, knowing that The Time Is Almost Upon Us has me, as they say, a little shook.
Mostly because, for the first time, I’m teaching a workshop, and I haven’t even given said workshop a test drive like I meant to (because Golden Retriever Time, y’all).
Anyway. I think it’ll be okay, but my Imposter Syndrome is off the charts with regard to teaching. I’m like, HOW CAN I TEACH, I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW ANYTHING??!11
I’m sure everything will go just fine and nobody will die. And if anybody does die it will probably because Kentucky is ridiculously hot and humid in June and not because I’m a horrible, incompetent danseur and should never be allowed to teach anything, ever. But I hope nobody dies even then because that would really probably put me off teaching for a while (because I’m horribly superstitious deep in the cockles of my heart).
Regardless, I have a Plan (and not just a Goal) for the workshop and a 2-hour window in which to accomplish that plan, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to be okay. I’ll just, as Señor Beastmode likes to say, Stick To The Plan. Unless the Plan proves completely useless, in which case I’ll throw it out the window.
In case you’re wondering, the exercises I’m planning to use will be sequenced as follows:
- The Little Dance
- Invisible Catch
- City Streets (Solo Version)
- City Streets (Eye Contact Version)
- City Streets (Touch Version)
- Flocking (North, South, East, West)
- Mirroring (into Touchless Partnering)
- Leaning In
- Leaning Out
- Weight-Share Shape-Building
- Lean Tag
- Basic Dynamic Weight-Sharing
- 5-Minute Dances
- 5 minutes to draft a dance
- Brief showing (music: random)
- 20 minutes to revise
- Final Showing (music: random or dancers’ choice)
A lot of this is stuff I’ve learned from Pilobolus—stuff that I feel very comfortable doing, but possibly not like I have the earned authority to teach it. …Which is hilarious, because I’ve taught all of this at various points, with the exception of 5-Minute Dances, which is something you more facilitate than teach.
Ironically, I feel least qualified to teach in the dance idiom I practice the most (ballet) and most qualified to teach in the one I practice the least (modern partnering improv).
I would say that I’m not sure what that says about my faith in my practice, only I am: what it says is that ballet is a highly-technical, rigorously codified idiom, and teaching it incorrectly can really screw someone up. When I talk about the technical aspects of ballet, people routinely tell me I should teach—but I think it’ll take a few more years of learning, performing, and choreography…ing before I feel qualified to teach ballet.
I also need to start rehearsing “…Lover Boy” in earnest, because I haven’t really given that enough time.
Lastly, I need to NOT TAKE ON ANY MORE PROJECTS RIGHT NOW. I’m booked to the gills all summer, which came as something of a surprise even though in retrospect it seems fairly obvious that that’s what happens when you take two contracts and then load freelance gigs on top of them 😛
Not to say I won’t take a ballet job if someone hands it to me, because, you know, ballet.
I mean, like, literally.
I’m talking about weight-sharing, here.
When you weight-in, you pour your weight into your partner, who pours their weight into you. Ideally, you should find equilibrium: you’re not pushing Terry* over, and Terry’s not pushing you over.
*Our gender-neutral partner du jour
When you weight-out, it works the same way, except instead of pushing, you’re pulling.
This is the lovely thing about weight-sharing: it’s a style of partnering that depends on both partners carrying their share of the weight. If you’re distributing the load equally, you can do all kinds of crazy things that way.
The piece I’m setting to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (I’m kicking around the idea of calling it “Tenebrae”) combines traditional ballet partnering and weight-sharing, which makes for some interesting transitions: early in the piece, we fold from a shared arabesque en fondu through a moment of weight-sharing into a ballet-standard supported arabeqsue.
The challenge for K, as a ballet dancer who hasn’t worked in a weight-sharing modality before, is surrendering her weight into me at moments that it feels really counter-intuitive. She has the hard part of that move: basically, all I have to do is reach back with my free leg, set the foot on the floor, and get my arms to the right place at the right time so she can use them for leverage at one point in her end of things.
She’s tasked with the bizarre challenge of yielding her weight to me as I recover from the arabesque, rolling into my lap without bringing her working leg down, then fouettéing back into an arabesque.
She pretty much got it from the word go, which blows my mind. At first she wasn’t quite getting enough of her her weight down into me in the middle of all this, but it’s getting better and better. The fact that she springs right back into the traditional ballet mode with no difficulty is amazing.
Regardless, the more she pours her weight into me as we sit back together, the easier the transition is for both of us.
Anyway, the piece is going well. We’re well into the third minute of the dance. I’m not sure about the exact time because the last run we were behind the count and I left out a phrase that I’m pretty sure I want to keep. Regardless, given that we’ve put in about 2.5 hours, I’m very happy with how much we’ve built.
There will, of course, be some rebuilding involved once I start setting this with a larger cast—not least because right now we have the entire stage, and we use the heck out of it.
- Though, in fact, I need to dial back my travel … the space in which we’ll be showing it is smaller than the studio where we’re rehearsing, and there’s one point at which I’m not only off the stage but probably outside the actual building XD
We’ve started taking video of basically everything, because I have this habit of finishing the part we’ve already worked and starting right into the next section, and it can be hard to remember what, exactly, I did sometimes. Most of the piece is pretty clear in my head, but where it’s vague, I tend to just let the music drive and I, like, forget to remember.
Couple more for posterity 😉
This week I have one more rehearsal for this piece, plus one for Thursday’s show (ArtWorks) and about a million for Weeds, in addition to the usual class schedule.
Class, overall, is going well: I’m working on relying more on my inner thighs, working from my back down through the floor, and trusting my balances.
Oh, and also not doing dumb things with my hands or letting my shoulders creep into my ears when things get complicated. That, too.
Today I started setting my piece for CL’s upcoming collaboration with University of Louisville.
I tapped my friend L, who was my reader for Death Defying Acts and who I’ve had as a student in the Dance for Aerialists class that I co-taught for a while. I don’t remember exactly where the initial impulse came from, but it was a good one. She has time right now, and I think we work well together.
L doesn’t have a lot of dance training, but she’s an aerialist and she practices yoga, so she has the kind of “educated body” that dancers have.
I had two goals for today’s rehearsal: first, teach her how to Tall Ladies (the easy part!); second, set the first phrase of the dance. Both goals were achieved, and it turned out that L and I make really good collaborators. I put in, among other things, fish lift to fondu arabesque (ganked from BG’s piece :D); she added a sub-phrase developed from triangle pose that played really nicely with my instinctive “next thing.”
Choreographing this dance is going to be an interesting challenge. Since the musicians will be working within an improvisational framework (you’re right, that kinda sounds like an oxymoron), I’m programming a series of phrases that can either be used in a set sequence or mixed and remixed in an ongoing improvisation.
I came into this rehearsal with only the most basic sketch of an idea: start with Tall Ladies, set L down facing the audience, rise, work through a series of smooth, circular movements in which we appear to be working together to manipulate the ball (in fact, she’s doing all the ball work at the beginning of this phrase).
The lift grew organically out of the initial ball path: that was a cool discovery. L’s triangle sequence also came about on its own. She was experimenting to see where her body wanted to go from the arabesque (the ball passes from her hand to mine as she transitions out of the arabesque), and I liked what came out.
This is the first time I’ve actually set a dance that’s explicitly a partnered piece, as opposed to one in which bits of partnering occur incidentally to the greater momentum of the piece. I think I’m going to enjoy this particular challenge.
Coincidentally, this is also the first time I’ve partnered a girl who is significantly smaller than I am. L is legitimately tiny, which is both awesome and complicated. It’s awesome because she weighs next to nothing and is super easy to balance (she’s also great at engaging through her body, which really helps). It’s complicated because, in trying to be a good partner, I’m finding that I have to adjust a lot.
That’s actually really good for me, as a guy who enjoys partnering and wants to do more of it. The first three rules of ballet partnering for guys might be, “Don’t Drop The Girl[A],” but the fourth rule is Pay Attention to What She Needs.
Does she feel like she can get her leg under her coming out of Fish? No? Maybe you need a deeper fondu, then, doofus.
Anyway, I think the resulting piece is going to be pretty cool. L and I work well together, and I think we also look good together. That doesn’t hurt, either.
A. Appendix 1: The First Three Rules of Partnering
- Don’t drop the girl.
- DON’T drop the girl!
- DON’T DROP THE GIRL!!!
One of the things that I really, really appreciate about my amazing array of ballet teachers is that all of them have, in one way or another, taken it upon themselves to mentor the living daylights out of me.
At my birthday party, whilst being predictably extra for the camera (because I am the world’s biggest ham), I did one of those dive-to-the-knee moves that dudes do all the time in ballet, like this thing:
…only more dynamic, of course.
There are several of these in the choreography for this year’s Showcase piece (though I’m actually on the opposite line, open to the audience instead of closed).
BG said something like, ‘That reminds me! Be bolder about going to the knee.” And then we had a chat about that, and about why.
At one point, he said to me:
“No matter who you are in your daily life, on stage and in the studio, you should be the man every woman wants and every man wants to be.”
We went on to talk about what that means: about the genteel, elegant, graceful masculinity that remains a staple of the art of classical ballet, and how to embody it.
This was not, by the way, in any way intended to disparage my own particular way of being an androgynous kind of boy the rest of the time, or even the role of that kind of ambiguity in other sectors of dance. It was, rather, a question of the ideals of the classical form.
The example we talked about was actually L’Ancien, who is a lovely, very slender man, deeply genteel—but classical ballet is packed with examples. David Hallberg, who manages for all his lithesome beauty to perfectly embody every fairytale prince in the history of fairytales; Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is tiny and not, at first glance, what one typically imagines when one imagines Prince Charming, but who does the same; Rudolf Nureyev, a prince among princes for the whole of his career regardless of his late start, his fiery temperament, and reputation for obstreperousness…
- Like, he’s 5’6″. He’s smaller than I am, and I’m not tall. I kinda vaguely want a t-shirt that says, “Taller Than Baryshnikov” ;D … in case you’re wondering, it’s a quote from a conversation I had with one of my ballet girls ages back. I almost made it the tagline for this blog, but figured it was a bit too obtuse for that.
Anyway, the classical ideal of the danseur entails strength collected under the hand of gentility, fire cooled by courtesy, and boldness tempered by grace. It acknowledges raw, animal power—that’s what gets your grand allegro off the ground—but yokes it with beauty. It couples force with tenderness.
Regardless of one’s gender identity, that seems like a pretty good ideal.
At the end of the day, while you show off your strength in moments of bravura, you must also know how to use it in the service of your partner. Without the latter, the former won’t get you very far. And if you’re a dick, nobody wants to partner you, no matter how good you are.
- This directly informs my answer to the question, “Should boys be exempted from dress code requirements in ballet schools?” My answer is an unambiguous NO. If the girls are required to adhere to a dresscode, the boys should do them the courtesy of doing so as well (if nobody has a dresscode, then this is entirely irrelevant). This may be the very first lesson any danseur learns in the art of courtesy: yeah, you’re special because you’re a boy in ballet, but part of what you should do as a boy in ballet—an essential part of the job—is to treat every girl in ballet like she’s the specialest girl on earth. Besides: without every girl who loves the ballet, whether from the stage or from the audience, ballet would die a pretty swift death. The first lesson every danseur should learn is respect.
In an article that I wrote for an academic anthology, I observed that ballet has shown me the kind of man I want to be and is teaching me how to be that man. I said the same to BG the other night. He smiled: that smile that says, Cool, you get it.
One of the things I like immensely about BG, by the way, is that he lives that ideal. He may be his own kind of Extra; he may be a little crazy—but he approaches the world with strength, magnanimity, and grace. He believes in justice and stands up for it without resorting to coarseness or mudslinging. He’s the kind of person who takes the time to ask how you’re doing when you look a little off. Also, he stands up straight (that’s him in the green shirt in the photo above, by the way: you can pick him out pretty easily, since he’s the only other guy :D). He’s definitely on the list of people I’m glad to have in my corner.
All of this reminds me of an exchange I had with K while working on a partnering bit: after we ran it once, she said, “Give me more strength.”
I realized I’d been too soft—a little timid, actually. Not that I was afraid of her: rather, I was afraid of shoving her over or something. The next time I engaged a little more, and the whole thing went better on each subsequent run (except for the time that I came in at a weird angle and offered her the wrong hand: she managed anyway, incompetent partner or no).
On one hand (HA!) I love partnering; on the other hand (HA SQUARED!) it scares the hell out of me a little, because RESPONSIBILITY OMG. But, like, that’s part of The Thing.
In other words, part of being a danseur is understanding that you both literally and metaphorically hold others up.
There’s also knowing when to hold yourself together and when to let go. In that vein, I’m taking a rest day today. The next day off in my calendar is a week from Friday, and while I love Monday night class, I have a long show and two auditions this coming weekend in addition to the usual array of classes, so a day off seemed like a good idea. I’ll probably take class Friday morning to make up the gap.
Which reminds me of the other bit of mentoring BG did the other night. On our second drink, he explained an important rite of passage for professional dancers: taking class with a hangover. Also the universally-understood hand gesture that says, “I’m gonna keep it at a simmer to save the marley.”
Fortunately, I really don’t get hangovers, so while I wasn’t at my very best in class on Sunday morning since I was running on 5 hours of sleep, I at least didn’t find myself praying to Bilious all through class.
Just a couple of wee thoughts. We’re working so much and dancing so much and talking so much and just living together so much that I’ve been spending my alone time just reading and breathing.
Anyway, this intensive has been amazing for so many reasons, not least because it has put me in touch with feelings I haven’t really addressed in a long time.
First, it has forced me to very directly face my difficulty approaching people. Every day this week, we’ve spent the morning doing exercises with one partner or set of partners, then repeating or iterating them with another, then another.
I hadn’t realized how much it still freaks me out to choose partners. Yesterday I got seriously rattled by it—but I actually mentioned it to the person who chose me, and they helped me through that moment. It was amazing.
I realize I’ve been feeling like, “This person or that person probably doesn’t want to work with me,” which isn’t fair either to them or to myself. That’s their call. I shouldn’t try to make it for them.
Second, I’ve realized that one of the things I love so much in dance, and especially in this kind of dance, is the giving and receiving of touch in an atmosphere of deep trust.
To do the work we’re doing here, you need to touch your partners and you need to trust them. Somehow, the process we’re working with creates an atmosphere of immense trust. We are all safe here in each-other’s arms (or feet, or whatever).
I came to this understanding by a circuitous back route. There’s one guy here who I kept desperately wanting to work with—to dance with. I wanted to feel his arms around me and his body against mine, but in a way that wasn’t about sex .
- Or, well, mostly wasn’t.
I kept trying to figure out why (leaving out the fact that he’s beautiful in a very unique way) and finally I realized that it’s the way he partners: he’s solid and steady, and when he holds anyone—anyone—in his arms, you can feel the power and the tenderness of that connection from across the room.
I’ve worked with him a couple of times now. In one piece, I caught him and sank to the ground holding him in my arms (in that particular dance, he had just died).
It was an incredibly powerful moment. I’m not sure how to explain it, except to say that in that moment he trusted me with his body, and that trust felt like a sacred thing.
But also it just felt so damned good: just a human body touching my human body, which is so strangely important, without any need to be afraid or guarded or aggressive.
Rather the opposite: the dance involved me catching his wrist as he took a slow backwards fall, pulling him into my arms and collapsing to the ground with him. I couldn’t be afraid or guarded or aggressive; I had to be fast and strong, but soft. I had to get both of us to the floor without anybody getting hurt.
I don’t know how to explain how that feels, but it’s pretty incomparable.
Today there was a dance in which a girl trusted me to catch her mid-flight, redirect her momentum, and throw her halfway across the room; in which I trusted her to pull me straight to the ground out of an arabesque as I pulled her to her feet. That felt incredible. There aren’t many places where you get to feel that kind of thing.
Anyway, that’s it for now. The creative process here never ceases to amaze me. Groups of dancers who had, for the most part, never met a few days back are, each afternoon, creating dances I’d happily pay to see, working in groups as small as two and as large as six, with only minimum input from our teachers.
That, too, is an amazing thing.
…The Apollo jump (which I had seen, but as far as know had never done) and the last remaining piece of our dance, which is mine alone and involves a turn in second and said Apollo jump.
That’s about all of it: we finish the Noodle Experiment, I back away from the girls and throw in a turn in second, then I pause for a second and when everyone else is essentially running upstage, I do the Apollo jump downstage, land it, collect myself, and run a few more steps to my place for the end of the dance.
We might change up the first partnering bit, though we might not. We’ll see. I like the change that T and BG worked out, but it’ll be a question of whether the remaining two girls from that group are okay with it.
I’m fine either way. They’re worried about kicking me.
I mentioned that if they kick me, it’s probably my fault. That’s kind of how partnering works for boys:
- If the girl kicks you, it’s your fault.
- If you kick the girl, it’s your fault.
- If the girl smacks you in the face, it’s your fault.
- If you smack yourself in the face with the girl, it’s still your fault.
- If you drop the girl, it is Definitely Your Fault (and you will never live it down).
FWIW, yes, this is intended to be funny but it’s also largely true. If you’re dancing the (traditionally) male role, part of your job is being in the right place at the right time and accounting for glitches, because the person dancing the other part has enough to worry about already. You adjust.
And if she stops dancing, turns around, and punches you squarely in the nose?
That is also Definitely Your Fault, unless it’s Because Ancient Aliens.
PS: I was wrestling with keeping my waterfowls in a linear array in the turn from second because ATTAAAAAAAACK!, and BG was like, “Keep your chest up and think of it like … a hammer throw, only your foot is the hammer.”
Bizarrely, this worked really hecking well.
Important note is that you still have to keep the working leg hella engaged, especially if you have sick mobility in your hips. If you think of a track & field person winding up for a hammer throw, though, they stay really tight basically the whole time.