Learn By Pas-De-Deuxing
Every once in a while, you have an idea and you think, “Well, this might be a terrible idea, but it might be a great idea,” so you give it a go.
When I asked my (ballet) partner if she’d like to do FSB’s Nutcracker with me, there was a certain degree of that feeling. Like: I at least had some partnering skills … but doing the Grand Pas was going to be a sink-or-swim crash course in lots of partnering skills, including ones I’ve struggled with in the past.
Anyway, we’re now a couple weeks into really working on things, and while I don’t want to jinx us by speaking too soon, I’m rather pleased with how well it’s going.
Bit by bit, I’m learning to do the things. Just as importantly, I’m learning how to troubleshoot my own partnering problems.
We had a rough day on Wednesday. The floor was terrifyingly slick, we were both nervous as a result, and things that had worked in the past suddenly weren’t working. Our excellent pas de deux coach was there, but it was only her second session with us, so she wasn’t sure what was up either.
Somehow, somewhere in the midst of the struggle, one of the steps worked, and I realized that the difference was that I simply wasn’t standing as close to my partner as I has been all day. It was near the end of our rehearsal, so I applied that thought to the bit we were working on, then tucked it away.
Yesterday, we didn’t rehearse because my partner had some stuff she needed to do. I washed the floors so we’d feel safer, then walked trhough the dance by myself to cement some chances we’d made to the choreography, then dragged myself home via 2 hours of ridiculous rush hour rerouting (this, of course, is why I try to avoid traveling at rush hour). I reminded myself to stand a bit farther from my partner.
Today, faced with a very compressed rehearsal schedule and a studio that refused to warm up (the thermostat was working, but the furnace wouldn’t turn on o.O), I applied my idea from the outset … and it worked!
In fact, there were things that only kinda worked before that suddenly worked pretty darned well [1, 3] simply because I stood a little further off.
- Even with both of us stumping around in warm-up boots.
- You haven’t lived until you’ve successfully done an arabesque promenade with your partner en pointe with warm-up boots over her pointe shoes.
- See: “Ballet: it’s easier when you do it right.”
Obviously, “just stand further away” has its limits–but I think it’s probably a useful idea for a lot of people learning partnering.
Our instinct tends to be to get closer. It makes an instinctive kind of sense: if dropping your partner or knocking her over is bad, you want to be close enough to prevent it, or to rescue her if it does happen. This is probably especially true if you’re a T-Rex and your partner is relatively close to your own height: like, I’m pretty sure part of my tendency to stand too close boils down to instinctively understanding that my arms are short, yo.
But, as it turns out, sometimes that doesn’t work.
Anyway, we both left today’s rehearsal feeling more confident about the adagio movement of the Grand Pas (there’s some partnering in the coda, but it’s nowhere near as long or complicated).
And I left feeling more confident in both my current partnering abilities and about my potential for being a good partner.
This whole process has also reminded me, yet again, that when I’m calm, I’m actually pretty good at learning choreography. And that I’m capable of learning in general.
I’m lucky to have, as a partner, a ballerina who is kind, thoughtful, game, technically sound, and a fine teacher (and also a redhead … as someone who’s effectively a dark ginger myself, I’m quite partial to gingers!).
And we’re lucky to have the support of not one, but two good coaches, both experienced dancers with decades of performing between them.
I was very heartened the other day when E, who’s Coach #1, said she feels confident that we can do this, and do it well. Honestly, that reduced my ambient imposter syndrome level by quite a bit.
- And while this appellation has a specific technical definition, I feel comfortable using it here. Not only is she dancing a principal role and being a leader and stuff, she’s a highly accomplished dancer in her own right.
It’s a pretty cool thing to feel like you’re actually making real progress in the calling around which you’ve shaped your life. Which, in fact, I very much do.
Asking my partner to join me in this endeavour was a risk–but it was a good one, I think. I was hoping we’d both come out of it more confident and with a performance we could add to our CVs, and that I’d come out of it a more useful and employable dancer. Thus far, it’s looking like that’s the way things are moving.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the next time we get a chance to dance without our warm-up boots.
- Which will be Sunday evening of this week. I can’t wait!
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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).
- 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.
Pas De Done
There are waypoints, if you will, on the path of life as a dancer … the first audition. The first job. The first show. The first featured role. The first pas de deux.
I fumbled my way onto this path with a fairly simple goal: basically, I just needed to dance. It would be enough to find myself a corps spot somewhere.
I never expected to find myself among the principal artists of any company, and certainly not now.
Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you, though. You find the thing that makes you tick, you keep your head down, you do the work … And maybe you find yourself in a place you never expected to be.
Gale Force is a brand-new company. They didn’t have to roll the dice on me: but apparently, when I auditioned, Shannon saw something in me that maybe I don’t always see. She made me an A-company dancer: which is to say, more or less, a principal. She handed me a solo piece, several featured roles, and a pas de deux.
When I got that email, back before we started rehearsals, I just about exploded (in a good way).
That said, my undying case of Impostor Syndrome definitely made its influence felt.
Part of me was all “I BELIEVE I CAN FLY!” Another part, of course, was like “CHECK YOSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOSELF.”
I didn’t exactly tell that second voice to GTFO, but I did ask it to kindly please step back behind the yellow line, sit down, and stop distracting the bus driver.
Needless to say, there were more than a few moments at which Impostor Syndrome stood up and said, “EXCUSE ME, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, MR. BIG STUFF?”
But basically I’m too much of a coward to say, “I think you should demote me out of this dance because I can’t learn,” so instead I had to actually learn the dances and go on being an A-company boy.
Anyway. The bus finally made it to its destination: the show.
We played two Saturday nights.
During the first date, on the 27th of July, we all caught a highly-contagious case of the Galloping Nerves … including your humble host, who never gets stage fright and thus had literally no idea what to do about it. Those nerves were multiplied by the setting sun during the first half and blazing lights that sat exactly at eye level during the second half, both of which meant we were essentially dancing blind, and by the lack of a stage monitor,which meant that at times we couldn’t hear the music.
Have you ever tried to dance a pas de deux when you can’t hear the music and have only had about four hours to learn the dance together?
In case you’re wondering, it’s about as stressful as it sounds.
Apparently it looked okay to the audience, but there were long moments that EM and I stared into each-others’ eyes and tried to look romantic as we attempted to figure out by telepathy where in the dance we even were.
Probably the only thing that saved us was the fact that we knew the order of the lifts (which is more important than it sounds: when your partner leaps at you, you’d better already know which arm is going where), and could remember which one we did last.
Well, that and the performer’s instinct to just go stolidly on in such a way that the audience never knows you’re completely lost.
The whole company trembled its way through the first show and came out on the other side genuinely delighted that nobody fell down or died. Sometimes, you just have to adjust your goals on the fly.
During the second show, everything changed.
A quarter of the way into the first number, whatever it is in my brain that loves performing and knows no fear once I hit the stage clicked on. I remembered that this is what I love; that this is where I live. My mojo returned.
The pas de deux came third on the program and was my second piece for the night.
We stepped out onto the stage, locked eyes and smiled as the music began, and something magical happened: which is to say that the pas de deux happened. We didn’t just know the order of the lifts: we knew the steps; we knew the story: and for those few minutes we lived the story, and the audience loved us.
When the most artistically challenging piece goes well, it’s easy to feel confident about the rest of the night.
Not to say that I didn’t make a single mistake. In fact, I almost knocked myself over during the jazz piece, and again during the final pas de trois (our portable floor gets slick in humid weather, and I should have re-rosined my shoes 😶). It just so happens that I’m really good at saving myself from potential falls. Likewise, I left out a step here or there, and probably added a few without even noticing, as is my wont.
But overall the show went well. My solo piece was staggeringly well-received even though I had to walk back some of the most impressive choreography because I was dancing on a sprained ankle. I neither forgot entire segments of dances nor swapped the order of phrases.
I also got a nice surprise when I first saw our bios: I’ve joined the faculty at FSB. I love teaching, so that’s a solid step in the right direction.
We have a faculty meeting on Wednesday: the first, I hope,of many faculty meetings to come in my life as a dancer and teacher of dancers.
A while back I realised that somehow, against all odds, I’ve become the person I wanted to be when I was there years old.
Or, well. I mean. I haven’t actually turned into a horse, a dinosaur, unicorn, a cheetah, or a giant shark.
But that three-year-old me that sat up in the balcony and watched the Russian dance in the Nutcracker and said, “I wanna do that!” … Well, that’s the me I’ve become. Which is actually only slightly more probable than transforming into a horse or whatevs, and honestly rad AF.
I’m old enough now to grok that the book or movie that is your life never coasts into the credits … Or, well, not ’til you die, and I’m pretty sure I’m still alive, philosophical wranglings notwithstanding.
But I do feel pretty comfortable saying that this feels, to me, like the close of the first chapter, the first section of the book, or maybe even the first book in the trilogy. Like, I’m standing here at the end of my origin story (or at least this origin story: perhaps the greatest human capacity is that of reinvention; of starting over) and looking out for that moment when you, dear reader, finish reading this sentence and turn the page.
- Though, come to think of it, I have been licked and nibbled by any number of horses, who undoubtedly then digested some of my skin cells, which then went on to become part of them, soooo … Win on that one, too, I guess 🤔