Barefootblogger: thoughts on dance

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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Spring Season

We just finished our spring season here in Minneapolis and as usual after a good run I am empty and full at the same time. I will miss the ballet “Serenade” in particular (refer to previous blog: Serenade and a Solo), the perfect companion piece to “Awedville”, James and Sally’s collaborative, character-based prop-monster of a touching piece.

In “Serenade” I have a solo that settles on my heart a little more with each performance. In dancing it I somehow feel as though I’m conquering hang-ups I’ve long cultivated as a dancer. It’s no secret that I struggle with classical ballet and yet I am fairly adept at double pirouettes, have decent feet and a solid pointe technique. I nevertheless clam up at the thought of me, en pointe, doing anything by myself. It was with this frame of mind that I entered into the creative process with James. He began by having me improvise to different sections of the music, Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24. This was sort of like torture: me feeling like I was doing the same old thing, falling into the same old movement patterns, my feet killing me. But on the day we actually started crafting James had settled on a piece of music and I could open my heart. I loved it from the start and the way the piece begins, me building up to standing on one leg, progressively lengthening and unfolding my limbs and finally turning my head, is musically and choreographically perfect. That opening passage is a movement haiku.

Why do I love it so much? It is quirky without falling into cloying or cuteness. The quirks become character and I feel more creature than human…so that when a human gesture finally arrives, me pushing down my arm and looking straight out into the audience, it is extra potent for the lack of it prior. There are a lot of looks straight out into the audience. This was fun for me to play with, to dare myself to do with frank straightforwardness. The creature image came in handy here; I was looking out not as myself but as this other being.

The solo is long enough, four minutes or so, that when inevitable imperfections occur I can make up for them later; I can redeem myself. This is rare. In a classical context one is given a minute-long variation and if it doesn’t go perfectly the audience and performer are left with a less-than-satisfied taste in their mouths. Not so with this neo-classical solo. James told me to play with it, to explore timing and execution. And so I felt free, nervous, but free. I felt the sort of nervous that is perfect: just enough to get my adrenaline pumping but not enough to debilitate. I looked forward, with butterflies in my stomach, to dancing it. What a gift.

In “Awedville” I play a sad little clown that wants to be a ballerina. I enter in a fat suit, am made fun of and tortured, ending with the revealing of my little yellow tutu with pom-pom balls on it. This could not be cuter or sadder. I love this character. I also love the collective end of the ballet. We have all stripped away our costumes and thus our “character flaws”, and strive together toward a bare neutral where we can feel safe to do nothing but be ourselves, all together. We revise individual movement motifs and then begin to dance in unison as the music swells, tipping our invisible hats to the grand idea that is “Show Business” and all that it represents. We whirl individually, boureeing in circles as we listen to the secrets the universe has to tell, our hands cupped around our ears, raptly listening. One by one we pile onto one another in an image reminiscent of Matisse paintings: flesh bodies against a blue backdrop, intertwined and innocently sensual. The curtain slowly closes as the Bernstein score still, unbelievably, continues.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Striving Toward an Easy Virtuosity

In class today I marveled at what it is we do, every day. We take this ballet class and when we get a certain amount along in the ranks we get fewer and fewer corrections. The daily experience becomes largely about self-care: self-correcting and self-acceptance.

Right now, as I continue to negotiate my back, I begin by concentrating on correct, unforced placement. Since my injury manifests where spine meets pelvis, I’ve lost some flexibility and ability to rotate in my hips. (Not that I had much to start with!) My first position is a defiant L if not an outright V. No straight lines for this girl, and interestingly, I can get in touch with my turnout faster and can begin to better use what I have. From this conservative physical place I have a fighting chance of “working it”, of cultivating increased and healthy turnout throughout the class. I am thankfully in a company where I can do this, where I can be trusted to give my body what it needs. This is not the ballet tradition.

As dancers (as women specifically, I think, as we are a dime a dozen in this art form) it is ingrained in us not to question but to simply do! And so we have the potential to remain childlike in the workplace, taking orders and stifling our thoughts. (This is the ballet tradition.) Great inner lives are cultivated in this way but it is not my cup of tea.

My goal is to forever be a student, to maintain an attitude of open-minded receptivity. Simultaneously, I give myself permission to take some things with a grain of salt, to see the other side of an opinion. Here’s the catch: balancing being a student while retaining the physical clarity that one is a professional: one must be oneself; one must commit to individualisms, singularities, quirks. I’ll never forget my summer in NYC studying Taylor. Mary Cochran suddenly yelled out, “You guys aren’t weird enough!” This is the challenge, the balancing act, of the student who is professional.

I must muster the confidence to keep my sights on my own potential, to believe in my dancing through the inevitable bleak patches. There are many plateaus as we ebb and flow between studio and stage. The many one-night stands we do on tour are gratifying in their way but are immensely draining, sapping us of consistency. We must therefore develop consistency internally, being true to ourselves and the dancers we, hopefully, know ourselves to be.

So in class today I didn’t get much in the way of external attention but I was ok with that. Today I was at peace with that because I was able to give attention to myself. I remained calm and I danced with ease and simplicity. Increasingly these are my goals. Yes, I want to continue to strive toward virtuosity, but mostly I want freedom and ease, to be able to fill out a still moment and not feel anxious, like I should be “doing something”. I want to simply stand on my own two feet and not wobble. I want to take barre barefoot and put pointe shoes on for center and have this transition, this earthquake of a change, feel seamless and organic. I want to be able to curve my spine and swing my head and in the next breath stop on a dime, fully erect and “balletic”. I think about these things as I take class. They take practice and patience and persistence. Some days I have all those things, some days none of them. But I keep going anyway, traversing whatever plateau I’m now one, hoping to spy the next one higher up.

The ultimate hope is that these skills will transfer to the stage: ease of feeling, patience, self-acceptance. From my vantage point, for what it’s worth, I see that I am slowly, with the pace of a turtle, (my first word!) beginning to incorporate these ideas, these ways of being and thinking, into my performing. I want performing to be like daily life, not so pressured and precious but an everyday kind of ritual with depth instead of pomp.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


As I sit outside in my backyard with a view of the Minneapolis skyline I am restlessly content and reflective. JSB returned from New York at the beginning of the week and has resumed work on ballets to be performed here in town next weekend. What of NYC? Success…

… amongst hardship and even a little tragedy. Our schedule was gruesome as we had multiple events a day. (On opening night we had tech/dress and a photo shoot.) And yet we were prepared for this. We put ourselves onto the top of the rollercoaster and controlled the inevitable fall as best we could. Sara arrived with a hip aggravation and left with a stress fracture. Thank goodness she didn’t dance beyond opening night. I’m so glad she trusted saying no. Sometimes saying no is actually saying yes, to a bigger plan, further away.

The sky turns pink as I write; it is almost 8 PM.

We left a cold and rainy Minneapolis and arrived in spring-like NYC. I lucked into the right side of the plane for seeing the skyline prior to landing. Ain’t nothing like it and it always conjures nostalgia and longing; a deep, primal energy wells up. I lived there from 1989-1994 with many summers pre and post. It has been a home to me and a part of my heart will always reside there. To return and perform at the Joyce is like a homecoming of sorts. I feel cocooned by friends and family. (My mother lives there as well as friends who are, indeed, family.)

So Sara took care of her body and the rest of us rose to the occasion of filling in her parts. Three of us mainly did this: Sally, James and I, and so Wednesday became about triage. Sara supported us the whole way, negotiating the terrain between the wings, the dressing rooms and the house. We performed with our hearts and got better with every run. I think we were perceived as a company with heart, humanity and humor.

I remained an extra day to spend time with my mom. We had a great time catching up; I had a great time being a pedestrian. We went to the Eduard Munch exhibit at the MoMA which was magnificent. His work is very touching as he so completely wears his heart on his sleeve. He is known to have said something like, “ I don’t paint what I see; I paint the memory of what I see.” I love that. That sentiment leaves room for personal reflection, for subjective influence, for impressions. Therefore specific moments aren’t so precious. The pressure to create an exact replica is lifted.

That’s what I aim to achieve as a dancer. I am no longer aiming to duplicate or imitate. I am engaged in the life-long intention of giving my impression. That’s where the art comes in for me.

It is night now. The buildings sparkle and reflect into one another. I think about NYC, how much I love it, even long for it at times, but know that here is where I am truly home. I came here and became an artist. Here is where I learned (am still learning!) that it is safe to take a breath and stop imitating. Here is where I met my amazing husband who can do his art in a way not possible elsewhere. Here is where we have our house, our 1925 stucco that has a backyard view of the city. Here is where my heart is though pieces will forever remain scattered.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Beautiful Spine

As we of JSB embark on our second run at the Joyce in as many years, I am reflecting on then, now, and the state of my spine.

During a lay-off a few weeks ago I got an MRI to finally know what’s going on in there. The deal is I have degenerative disc disease between L5 and S1 (essentially where spine meets pelvis) and also an annular tear. Scary words but I have been assured that this is somewhat par for the course and to “let pain be (my) guide”.

This is a tricky negotiation as the pain differs widely day to day. I am also trying to be drug free; alas, I am going back on Celebrex for the Joyce. Thank goodness it exists.

Prior to the MRI I had basic x-rays taken. They revealed nothing as the damage is in the soft tissue. But here’s the gift: I saw my spine and it is beautiful. It is straight and gracefully curved with perfect spaces in between the meeting points of bone. It was pure white, solidly white on the translucent x-ray film. I carry that image with me into this physically intense and emotionally demanding week at the Joyce (the pinnacle venue of its size for regional companies like ours).

All of us have something going on, either physically, emotionally or both. In that sense we are all in this together. We have the power to carry one another, quite literally, through these performances safely and with the utmost integrity and artistry.

“Anagram” is first on the program and its’ first movement is like threading a needle. It is not the super-hero like beginning of “Moving Works”, our opener last time. This is a delicate revealing, with James soloing and improvising on material from the highly crafted piece. He brings us out one by one and we commence our lemon chiffon dance. My goal is to use my head with abandon, nail my double pirouettes, and keep my face sincere and full of light. The second movement is sublime, a trio for Benjamin, Sally and Justin. (Refer to previous blog, “Inheriting Roles-Implicit in Ballet.) The final movement is fast and slow, a true re-cap, a cool down. My favorite moment is laying down in a swoon.

Here’s the hard part: we have a five minute pause in which to strip pointe shoes, pink tights and dresses and peel on skin-tight, acid green unitards with long sleeves. These things are hard to put on in any circumstance, let alone a sweaty one. We’ll all be staying upstairs for that quick-change; modesty can resume next week. This is preparation for “Involution”, our polar opposite of “Anagram”, our effort to connect with ourselves, each other and the audience, every time. The piece is special in that it is a genuine experience. We embark on actual physical struggles that lead us into isolation. We hit rock bottom and slowly, like the beginning of new life, we bubble up, new yet experienced. The ending is always different and always startlingly perfect.

Intermission then “Guy Noir: The Ballet”, a character piece with a Garrison Keillor voice-over. (Yes, he collaborated with us, revealed his red socks, and brought us chocolate.) I play Martha Isadora, an over-the-top modern dancer/drama queen. The best is when Justin, Nic and I can’t keep straight faces for laughing at one another. The scream in the blackout is mine.

That’s our program. It couldn’t be more varied. By the end, the audience will know each of us. My hope is that they won’t believe that we’re the same dancers James brought onstage two hours ago. We want to bring them on our journey and let them leave with a piece of each of us.

To those reading between April 4th and the 9th, send energetic and healing thoughts our way. Here we go…