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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


There’s nothing like taking class in a new city that makes me feel more welcomed and part of the soil. When I took Josie Moseley’s Limon class last Monday I was more here. (Portland) I appreciated her giving me corrections right off the bat. I especially appreciated being in a low stress setting filled with humor yet utter seriousness at what we were learning. (Plus there’s a terrific pianist.) The blend of play with information delivered makes me want to work, to investigate. I find there is room for me and the stuff I bring that is all mine.

Yesterday I took her class again; I loved it even more. Everything Josie says is informed by her physically (and spiritually) experiencing her craft. And she’s generous with the information. It is not held back; she willingly gives us the tools we need, and she rewards us for it. Hers is a serious class for folks who want a modern technique/style steeped in a rich history. I’ve always been a sucker for classical modern, in fact it’s often more “where I live” than the ballet world, and I must find a consistent way to scratch this itch in Minneapolis.

Taking class was a gift. I did not want to get up in the morning, and yet I know myself well enough to know that I’d feel so good if I trekked the ½ hour to the studio. I already knew where it was and the general drill, and as my opera call wasn’t until 7 PM, I coerced my exhaustion with the notion that I’d take a nap in the afternoon. (Indeed I did, lazy me.)

I am reminded that I love being a student. Perhaps more so after these two weeks of teaching and generally being in charge. It is so nice to be on the receiving end. (I do receive when I teach, it’s just different, and the energy output is intense.) I remembered today how much I simply love to move, to dance. There’s a rightness to it, a peace that it sometimes brings, and when I’m in that zone, the whole rest of my life falls simply into place like a skeleton’s hanging bones.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No Elephant

As reflected in my passion for old movie musicals, I love the behind the scenes goings-on of putting on a show. Excepting Broadway or Cirque du Soleil, I’d be hard pressed to find another setting where there’s more backstage business and interest than opera.

It’s quite something to be a part of a production as enormous as this staging of “Aida”. True, there is no elephant, but there is a massive twelve-step rotating staircase with a giant golden falcon up which several dancers and singers walk. (Yes, as it rotates.) Super cool, magnificent even. Nothing is more sublime than the closing of Act 1: Scene 2 when the deck rotates as the music swells, the chorus gathers round, arms outstretched, their faces skyward. The principal singers counter the music, entering into and out of it seemingly at will, as perfectly as Verdi deemed.

The dancers and I, at work next door on a flat studio floor, are getting called into the staging studio with increasing frequency to work a scene with the singers. My heart thrills for them as I watch them rotate. The music, (still just a piano), those voices and the subtle movement of the set combine to strike the perfect visual note. The first time we put all the elements together every single dancer’s face was shining.

When it was done we went back into our room for notes. I prefaced by asking, “Wasn’t that exciting?” Beth, one of the two fierce women playing a man, exclaimed, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” I still get teary as I relay the story. Folks like her, with attitudes like that, keep the rest of us from slipping into jadedness. (Beth in particular, who almost left the audition when I started giving a ballet barre. I persuaded her to stay, to audition for a male part, and here she is, having rocked that audition with everything she had.) (Me, auditioning dancers! Talk about an about-face. Well, that’s another blog.)

In the front right of the staging studio sits, of course, a grand piano. The Maestro’s podium is next to it, centered with and facing the set. The Director’s stool is in front of the podium and slightly left. Then come two long tables with, in order, the Assistant Director, the Production Stage Manager, the two Assistant Stage Managers (stage right and stage left), and the Production Assistant. The Assistant Conductor/Chorus Master sort of nestles behind the long tables as space allows. I too kind of crouch on a back bench, dangerously close to Maestro’s baton. The Assistant Stage Managers run up and down the steps, near the edges where the wings will be, giving cues to the singers. (To the dancers too, but usually dancers are on top of when to enter.) It really is fascinating to watch. Opera at this level runs like a well-oiled machine. Folks are here to make the artists’ jobs easier.

Though foremost a performer, I love being on this side of the fourth wall. It is so satisfying for me to help the dancers integrate into the whole, to see them click into a moment and safely negotiate a stair or a spear or their spacing. I love taking notes and giving them later, working out and fine-tuning the rough spots, creating our own well-oiled machine.

Tomorrow is a blessed day off, though I will miss the dancers (and the production in general). Jack and I will venture out: to the coast, a vineyard, a small town…In the evening we’ll see Oregon Ballet Theatre perform. I bartered opera tickets for ballet tickets. I love this business.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Counts

I am in Portland, OR setting James’ choreography on the Portland Opera. They’re remounting the “Aida” production that JSB did with the MN Opera in 1998. I danced in that original cast. The production has been subsequently done numerous times, by other opera companies and with other dancers, here in the states and in Canada. This will be its last run, and I am thrilled and honored that the timing worked out so that I could be here. I am having the time of my life.

(I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to say that on so many occassions. It’s the healthy combination of work and fun that does it for me, the feeling that I’m contributing something valuable while living up to my potential and yet learning. Yep, that’s it.)

The JSB season ended with tears last Sunday (only a week ago!). They started to roll right after class onstage when James played Tori Amos during our five. But it was good, necessary to face the hard facts of a few more of us moving on. (Not me) I find that I am at a loss for sufficient words to talk about all the change. JSB is such a part of my DNA that ably articulating its dynamics and nuances is like trying to peel off my own skin: “ouch” and “impossible”. And so I’ll put that aside for now as I dive into this new project.

Every day I walk 25 minutes each way to and from the opera center. It’s right across the Willamette River from my hotel. If I had a rowboat I could get there in five minutes, but as it is I walk up 10 minutes to get to the nearest bridge then walk back down the other side. But it’s great, walking briskly in the perverse Portland weather that’s sunny one minute and hailing the next. It’s colder here now than in Minneapolis. Ironic, but who’s counting degrees?

I brought Geko (my cat) with me and so feel at my ease. She’s so happy here, despite the rather harrowing airport security check and the plane ride “under in the seat in front of me”. She wants to be with me more than anything and so settled right into our suite, checking out all the vantage points best suited to keeping tabs on me. Her green eyes look up at me with such love and trust (when she’s not sleeping).

Another pair of loving green eyes comes soon for a long weekend. Jack arrives Wednesday night, just in time to help me spend my first real day off in seventeen days! It doesn’t matter a bit what we do, though I would like to finally venture out and see this gorgeous part of the country.

When not at the opera center I’ve been “doing homework”. Alternating four DVD’s, I study the three scenes I’m responsible for, notating each dancer’s movements. This has taken hours and is really the only way to do it. Labanotation, the written recording method of dance, is absolutely impractical here (and I’d hazzard to say in general). It’s great for reviving something that’s been recorded thusly, but to recored a dance that way now ain’t gonna happen. And so I thank the universe for my laptop and my DVD’s. I study my 10-year-ago self and record my own counts. I study the 10 men (with spears!) and rewind until I can decipher what they’re doing: what’s in unison? what’s in cannon? what’s individual? (Men! Sloppy beasts!)

The wonen’s trio was a breeze. The music is countable in 8’s for one thing, so it was much more straightforward than the men’s priest scene with its 8, 12, 12, 6 and 10 that retards. That’s just their entrance.

Aside from pulling my hair out over this, I’ve gotten a perverse thrill from it all. This task has reminded me that I am capable and an able translator. The dancers and I have bonded over the counts, the juicy movement, our mutual desire for precision. When I came in February to audition these folks, I came away knowing that they would be good and able. They have exceded my hopes. They are tremendous dancers, and it’s because they’re such great people. Each one is a gem, an individual, a character, yet team players all. I couldn’t be happier with them. We are having so much fun! My heart swells.