Pirouettes! En Pointe!

 

I have a friend who says, “I hate pirouettes. If there was any way to kill them, I would.” I think every one of us ladies has had the experience of putting on her pointe shoes while dreading the inevitable pirouette combination that will arrive to torture us. Unless you are one of the lucky few who is a natural turner, pirouettes on pointe are probably the scariest thing you will do all day. It happens to me all the time: the anxious “tombee-pas-de-bourree-oh-no-here-it-comes-help-me” feeling that always ruins my turn.

 

It seems that pirouettes, especially on pointe, are the last thing that anyone really masters. We practice them tirelessly, always trying for more turns, getting frustrated and tense when they don’t work out. Fear, though, is probably the most common denominator among dancers who have difficulty turning, and with good reason—it’s scary to push off and rotate up there on pointe.

 

However, there are a few simple cures for the common pirouette. Most of us know the physical rules to follow in order to perform clean, multiple pirouettes: Square hips and shoulders, strong relevé, coordinated arms, spot, engaged core, clean landing. I would say, though, that the mental rules are even more important. Getting over the fear of turning and making yourself stay up on pointe to finish your turn is paramount. Stay calm during turn combinations by not psyching yourself up for the pirouette at the end. Think of it like a recipe: “If I hold my arms and shoulders like this and plie and spot, etc., I am almost guaranteed to get the desired result.” Pirouettes are just a step that you can master just like you’ve mastered everything else. Nothing more. If you can calm your mind, next time you’re in class that anxiety will melt away, to be replaced by “tombee-pas-de-bouree-no-sweat-turn-turn-ta-da!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up, we were forbidden to wear nail polish at our studio. It was considered strictly taboo, as offensive as wearing a messy ponytail or a  necklace to class.

I remember I once had an audition just 3 hours before prom. I had to paint my nails in the car afterwards on the way to the dance because I was afraid that if I'd worn polish to the audition I would get cut. (I ended up getting cut anyways, but I think that probably had more to do with my being so distracted by what I was gonna say to my date that I couldn't pick up the combinations. I probably should have just skipped that audition...)

One of the joys of taking open classes nowadays is being able to wear anything I want: a skirt, black tights, leg warmers, and even nail polish. It sounds silly, but I love dancing with nail polish. Bright red, sparkly silver, or neutral pink, I don't care; I love having color at the tips of my fingers. During plies, I watch  a splash of color float through the air as my hands go from first to second position. My favorite is elonge. I love looking over my hand and seeing each fingertip perfectly placed in an elegant, classical position.

I understand why students shouldn't wear nail polish in class: It looks messy in a studio full of black leotards and pink tights, it undermines the discipline of the classroom and it's not something you should ever wear onstage. But at the same time, I know it helps me polish my port de bras  (excuse the pun). When my nails are colored I think about my hands more than I usually do, focusing on how I can use them more gracefully without becoming affected. I think there's value in breaking this rule once in awhile, if only to remind yourself to leave no body part ignored. If you aren't aware of where you are placing each limb, muscle and finger nail, it might not be going to the place you'd like it to.

What is it that makes certain performers magnetic?

This past weekend I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet perform at the Joyce here in New York City. I was taken aback by the bevy of beautiful bodies onstage. Almost every female dancer had exquisitely long limbs, ideal ballet proportions, feet to die for and even model-worthy facial features. They were Ballerina Barbie come to life—if Ballerina Barbie had been designed by George Balanchine.

And then there was soloist Rachel Foster. She was a few inches shorter than the other dancers in both of the pieces I saw her in (Twyla Tharp's Opus 111 and Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements). And while she's thin, instead of a delicate, lithe silhouette, she sports an athletic, muscle-y build. She does not have what most pre-professional ballet students think of as "the perfect ballet body."

But she was breathtaking. Every time she moved, it felt like she was literally speaking to the audience. You could almost hear a raspy voice as she powered through Tharp's jaunty choreography. Even when her arms sometimes landed in awkward positions, they looked completely real. They were in that less-than-elegant place because her body was doing something more important than hitting positions: it was really dancing. And it was fantastic.

She's got chutzpah, and it vibrates out into the audience. Every time Rachel left the stage I couldn't wait until she came back on, and when she did, I barely saw anyone else up there because I was so entranced by her movement.

Although sky-high developpés and triple pirouettes are nice, when you get onstage, the audience never notices 180-degree turnout. In fact, if you're really moving, audiences can never even tell if you have 180-degree turnout or not. What they do notice, however, is spirit. And even beautiful bodies can't distract them from the girl with the spark.


Yesterday Pointe had a photo shoot with a handful of super-talented dancers from Ballet Academy East. They were each fantastic: technically brilliant with strong, fit bodies and completely game for all of the crazy things we threw at them. (Be sure to check out the photos when our April/May issue comes out!).

I don’t want to give away the brilliant theme of the shoot—conceived by our always imaginative Style Editor Khara Hanlon—but suffice it to say I had the girls modeling a few different yoga poses. As they moved from warrior one to tree pose to upward dog, it got me thinking about how much yoga can do for dancers.

I started taking yoga classes as a way to improve my core strength. But over time I realized that for dancers the real benefits go way beyond improving your muscle tone. In yoga (especially vinyasa) I was finally able to find a feeling of fullness to my movement—something I had struggled to attain in modern class, but never quite “got.” Once I became used to finding length in every position during the slow flow through the poses, I could translate that sensation back to the studio, and became able to move bigger, with longer lines. Yoga taught me to really feel what was going on in my body, and to become aware of where I was placing it in space. The emphasis on intention and being present helped me find greater focus in the studio, and more importantly, onstage. Through yoga I discovered a feeling in my body and a connection to my mind, that for me, I don’t think I could have found anywhere else.

What have been your experiences taking yoga as a dancer?

As you might have noticed, a new cover girl has taken over our website: New York City Ballet's Kathryn Morgan. Read her story from our February/March 2010 issue here.

Even though she was still a corps member when we started talking about who we wanted to put on the cover of this issue, it was pretty much a unanimous decision by Pointe's editorial team to feature Kathryn. This girl has that intangible "it" factor that is simply magnetic onstage—you can't ignore her, even when she's one of dozens in the corps. Her lyrical, adagio movement is one of a kind in NYCB. And it reveals her sweet, no-nonsense personality. She consistently digs beyond the pure steps to find a deeper character or emotion to convey to the audience.

When I interviewed Kathryn last year for "In These Hands," Pointe's roundup of seven artists who we believed were moving ballet forward, she told me that she hopes to one day become a dancer who has her own unique style and puts her own stamp on the ballet world, like Wendy Whelan or Jenifer Ringer. "It’s more than what they do, but how they do it and how they put their individual take on everything," she said. Now that she's been promoted to soloist, hopefully Kathryn will be given more and more chances to do just that.

Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot here.

It’s Monday evening, and I’m just finishing barre in Marisa’s 5:30 ballet class. Things haven’t been going well tonight—my body is not listening to me, and I’ve felt off-balance, stiff and awkward the whole time. I know what each movement should look like, but to me, it looks as if I’m falling far short today, and frankly, it’s depressing.

As we move on to adagio (my biggest weakness) in the center, it only gets worse.  I can’t get control of my core, I’m wobbling in my pointe shoes and my legs look so low and turned-in. By the time we get to our pirouette combinations, I’m starting to hate what I see in the mirror; I’m angry at myself and am feeling like a failure. I haven’t been able to check the disappointment I felt at the barre, and prevent it from dampening my mood and momentum.

I was only too happy when class ended, and felt so bad about my performance that I approached Marisa and began to apologize: “I’m so sorry about tonight, it was so terrible." Marisa said to me “I see you looking at yourself when you dance, and you have a bad relationship with what you see in the mirror. You need to learn to focus on your strengths—if you have a beautiful right foot, show that right foot! If you have a beautiful port-de-bras, show it and say: ‘Look at me!’”

What Marisa told me that night is important for every ballet dancer out there to know: Draw inspiration and motivation not from an image of perfection, but from yourself. Look in the mirror and ask, “What do I do beautifully?” and not “What am I doing wrong?” Ballet is so hard, so physically and emotionally challenging, that we need to stop and be proud of ourselves from time to time, and of the wonderful things we can do. So what if you don’t have the highest extension? What about the elegant line of your shoulders and arms in first arabesque, your flying grand jeté, or precise tendu? Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that all movements are equally important. A well-executed ronds de jambe or fondu combination is just as impressive as sky-high grand battements, no matter how advanced you are. 

It’s easy to become discouraged when you’re trying to get better at something as incredibly difficult as ballet. So take it from someone who knows—next time you’re feeling down in class, take a breath and see yourself with fresh eyes, and you will dance with fresh joy.  

 

Last week, I was previewing a behind-the-scenes video I shot featuring San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova. Maria is all the things you would expect from a principal dancer at one of the nation’s top ballet companies—elegant, expressive, sophisticated, and thanks to her Bolshoi Ballet School training, technically uber-refined. However, there’s one thing about her that you wouldn’t expect, and certainly took me by surprise when I met her, which is that Maria is barely over five feet tall.  This made for quite a first impression, since I am 5’9”.  We were like two opposite ends of the ballet world’s height spectrum, and watching her photo shoot made me think about height in two different ways: the actual physical height of the dancer and the illusion of height created by their dancing.


There's not much anyone can do about your physical height, and life in the ballet world can be hard for dancers that are considered too short or too tall. 
I’ve gotten excited by seeing “Looking for female ballet dancers” in the title of audition postings many times, only to go on to read “5’2”–5’6” only” further on in the paragraph. Being told you’re wrong for the job right off the bat because of something you can’t help is disheartening, and I’ve often wished I were shorter and more delicate. On the other hand, if you’re very petite, it can be hard to feel authoritative onstage, and it can be a struggle not to get lost in the crowd. 


Watching Maria go through her poses, though, made me abandon my preconceptions about my own height and the height of other dancers. Her lines were amazingly long and completely unbroken, from her fingertips to her toes. When she hit a high développé in ecarté á la seconde, in the moment that the movement was at its apex, it was absolutely complete. The line from her side arm to her working foot was completely stretched but not static; it looked as if she was still reaching and extending her line farther and farther. Her torso was tilted and lifted over her standing leg just enough to make this illusion possible, but never broke her line or made it look un-classical. The overall effect was that she was completely filling up the space she was given to dance in, and left me without a doubt that she dominates whatever stage she is on.


By the end of the shoot, I had completely forgotten about her small stature, and admired her all the more because she had inspired me to think about height as an asset to one’s dancing, rather than something that works against you if it doesn’t conform perfectly. I’m now working harder to achieve the length she can, and extend my arms and legs infinitely in whichever direction they are pointing, instead of concentrating on keeping everything underneath me in an iron grip to look more compact. I’m already starting to see a lighter, brighter quality in my dancing as a result.  I know now that a beautiful line is a beautiful line, no matter how tall or short you are, and will definitely get you noticed. 

 

Oh, and what correction do you think I got in class today? “Use your height!!”

 

When I was at an ABT summer intensive years ago, one of my teachers told our class that the most thrilling pirouettes aren't the tazmanian devilishly fast spins, but they are the slow, smooth turns that look like they're effortlessly in control. This made a huge impact on me because up until that moment, I had always been trying to speed up my pirouettes to make them look more impressive—and also because immediately after listening to this bit of wisdom I performed my first quadruple pirouette on pointe.

This thought came to mind Friday night at New York City Ballet's performance of Swan Lake. For me, the highlight of the evening was Daniel Ulbricht as the Jester. I've always loved watching this boy jump: Just when you think he's hit the height of his jump his body seems to levitate a few inches higher. But I'd never really noticed his turns before. The Jester's choreography includes numerous pirouettes, and man, Ulbircht hit every one of them. I counted five rotations just about every time, but what was most awe-inspiring were his landings. At the end of his turn he would slow down to show the audience his passe for just a moment before quietly placing his foot down into a wide fourth position.

What made such an impact was the amount of control he had, making it look like nothing. An untrained eye probably would have thought it was easy. But the rest of us know that the calm, creamy quality of his turns is ten times harder to achieve than lightening-quick spins.

           In one of my former lives, I worked in a little suburban dance boutique.  One of the things we specialized in was fitting pointe shoes, and after learning the process, it became one of my favorite things to do.  I especially enjoyed fitting the young girls that came in for their first pair of shoes, with their proud mothers in tow.  These girls were always so excited to go on pointe, and their anticipation as they answered my questions about their feet and their training was almost palpable—after all, pointe shoes are the hallmark of the classical ballerina.  When I started taking those beautiful, shiny satin shoes out of their boxes and gave them to the girls to try, they stood on pointe for the first time totally absorbed in the newness of the experience, and the pleasure and pride of reaching this important level.  They loved being on pointe, but while I was watching them, I often thought of how quickly this feeling might fade, and instead become one of frustration born of the pain and difficulty of dancing en pointe.

           To me, and to many other long-time dancers I’ve spoken to, pointe shoes are no longer representative of our quality or ability as dancers, but rather, a roadblock to the true and thorough enjoyment of practicing ballet.  As we become stronger and more accomplished on pointe, the steps and choreography we are asked to do becomes proportionally more difficult.  Advanced pointework can feel extremely prohibitive in its complexity, which can be very discouraging.  It takes a long time and a lot of patience to build the strength and technique required for the famously tricky variations of the flagship classical variations of ballets such as Don Quixote and Swan Lake.  In addition, a lot of contemporary choreography asks us to depart from the classical form we’re comfortable in, and turn, jump, and partner on pointe in ways that can be frightening if you’re not totally confident in the strength of your pointework.  All this hardship, in addition to the often extreme physical discomfort of being on pointe, can result in a lot of fear and negative anticipation of putting on our shoes (or “boots” as I sometimes call them), and more often than not, many of us find ourselves wearing them less and less.  It is a lot easier and much more fun not to put them on, as we then don’t have to worry about simply being able to stand on one leg without falling over.  And although a dancer might have been on pointe for a long time, being three to four inches taller than you usually are, and having to not only stand, but dance on the tips of your toes on a slippery surface composed of only a few square inches is scary. 

              It’s hard to shake that fear and enjoy the instantly longer line that being on pointe creates, as well as the feeling of airy weightlessness that comes when you hit your balance. And as someone who has had substantial difficulty with pointework, from finding the right shoe to gaining strength and confidence on pointe, I can sympathize with those of you who have come to see your shoes as symbols of pain and disappointment.  However, I urge you to look past that and remember how you felt when you first went on pointe, and how proud of yourself you were.  And this was only for doing some pliés and rélevés twice or three times a week!  Be diligent about working on your pointe technique and enjoy the look and feel of your new line, and don’t be afraid of falling or of sore toes.  Conquering that fear of pain and disappointing yourself, in addition to faithfully putting on your shoes and dancing on pointe when it’s safe for you to do so, will get you much farther than you think.  Remember too that you’re part of an elite; you’ve accomplished something so few people on this earth can do.  So go ahead and tap into your beginner self, and love being up there, on your toes, in your beautiful satin shoes.

As dancers, we thrive on that ability to transcend the normal and become someone (or something) else on stage.  It places us among the lucky few people who have the opportunity to experience that intangible freedom of another world.

But aside from those precious moments in performance, we spend hours and hours in the normal classroom grind, preparing ourselves for rehearsal, where we’ll spend hours and hours preparing for the product—our performance.  The overwhelming majority of our time as ballet dancers is spent either preparing or preparing to prepare for time on stage, and naturally, we strive to make the most of it. 

But all too often, I find myself working so hard on technical improvements in class that I forget to perform, to live the motivation of my movement—which is, after all, one of the greatest gifts of dance and the reason I’m there in the first place. 

A couple days ago, I had the opportunity of taking a master class with Robert Fairchild, principal with New York City Ballet.  I have to admit, I was pretty nervous.  But as he began class, I was surprised by how relaxed, how stress-free (yet exacting) the atmosphere was.  He spoke to us as fellow students and artists, sharing his recent technical revelations (an image of lightning striking through the supporting leg in frappe) and his least favorite steps (his body isn’t a huge fan of arabesque).

He gave us a lot of individual attention and technical corrections, but most of all, he urged us to express through our eyes, to reveal the essence of who we are as individuals.  No vacant expressions or tense concentrating faces were allowed.  If he asked someone to show him a step again to improve the footwork, it wasn’t good enough until it was demonstrated with full artistic commitment and correct head placement.  The class became so much more than a technical struggle; it was, rather, an artistic experience.

Gaining the confidence to go beyond steps to express through movement the essence of my individual humanity was something that I struggled with as a young dancer.  It takes a lot of courage to do this, to really dance and become that vulnerable.  But that human connection is the reason why people come to see live dance—otherwise, all we’d need were computer-generated dancers on screen who could perform infinite pirouettes and balances without the struggles (and extraordinary accomplishments) of basic humanity.  It's so much more than just putting on a "performance face" while on stage.  It makes dance an expression of the heart and makes connection with the audience a transcendent experience.

My turning point came when I realized that even though my turnout isn’t 180 degrees, I’m human, and that gives me something worthwhile to express.  We are all valuable with something unique to share, and whether we are short or tall, flexible or muscular, thin or not, dance gives us the opportunity to say it through movement.  Of course, we absorb and work within the aspects of the choreography we are given, but the spirit in our eyes and a deep understanding of what we are dancing are what take us from the level of technician to artist.  Even if we spend very little time performing on stage, class is the perfect opportunity to do just that.  



I’ve never been a very patient person or dancer, and this has always been reflected in the kinds of classes I like to take.  I prefer a pretty fast class in which the barre just flies by so that I can get to center and really dance.  I love petit allegro, too—the faster, the better, and since I hate doing adagio, I prefer to get it over with quickly.  I enjoy a speedy and difficult class, and when I’m enjoying myself, I feel better about my dancing.  However, I’ve recently started taking a slower class twice a week, and it’s made me realize that the real test of your technique is not how fast you can dance or how many whip-like pirouettes you can do.  It’s about how refined your fundamental technique is, and I really believe now that this can only be achieved by regularly taking a slower class.

These kinds of classes may not be a lot of fun, and you may find yourself chomping at the bit to speed up, but it’s always worth it in the end. It’s a valuable opportunity to challenge yourself to make everything as perfect as you can, which in the end is a lot harder than flying through it without a second thought, because you don’t have time to think.  For example, take a simple movement like a passé relevé from fifth front to back.  Easy to do quickly, right?  After all, you just go up and down.  Now try it again, but stretch the descent of your working foot over eight slow counts without holding on to the barre, and without coming off relevé until that foot is in fifth.  It’s really hard to do without losing your balance, but if you practice it regularly, as I do in my slow classes, your pirouettes will definitely improve.  This is because what you’re really doing is practicing holding the retiré position and controlling your landing.  You’ll be able to do more and cleaner turns; not only because your balance will be more solid, but also because you’ll be more patient in staying on relevé or on pointe before putting your working foot down in fourth or fifth.  When I started doing this exercise, I was surprised at how much self-discipline it took not to get in my own way by slamming my foot back down on the floor as quickly as I could.

This is just one example of how a slower class can benefit your technique, but if you work correctly, everything you do in that class will benefit what you do in a faster class or in rehearsal.  Since you’ll have been able to identify and correct errors that you wouldn’t see in a fast class, your dancing will be cleaner and more confident overall.  More importantly, you’ll also learn to be more patient with yourself, and your work ethic will improve, which will not go unnoticed.

When you dance, do you do the movement, explore it or listen to how your body wants to perform it?

This weekend I took a workshop with Nathan Trice, a former Complexions, MOMIX and Donald Byrd dancer who now runs his own troupe. His movement style is kind of a modern dance-based version of contemporary ballet; it's slinky and line-driven, but much of the choreography is actively turned in. My body loved the it's amazing flow and kookiness. Yet the process by how Trice wanted us to move was incredibly challenging for me.

We'd been working on a piece of his choreography for about half an hour when he stopped everything to ask the room a question: "Are you doing the movement, exploring the movement or allowing your body to tell you what the movement is?" 

When I dance, I know I always try to "do." Coming from a classical ballet background, I've been trained to mimic what something looks like, to get it "right." Relinquishing control to my body's natural inclinations is not my greatest strength. However I know that my favorite dancers aren't the ones who muscle their way into movement, but seem to move the way do because they have to, because their body is telling them that's where they need to go in that particular moment.

For the next hour I tried to do everything I could to let my body tell me where it wanted, where it needed to go. Although I'm sure a lot of what I did looked pretty ugly, and I fell off my balance more than once, I started to find an deeper, more internal place to move from. I ignored the mirror and my own expectations of how I thought it was supposed to look. It was definitely a struggle. But there were moments where I felt that place of abandon, a freedom that was well worth the work—or lack thereof.

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