The Gift of the Ballet: My Visit to NYCB’s The Nutcracker

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier in NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier in NYCB’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Yesterday, I had a dream come true as I traveled with my mom into New York City to meet up with my sister Katrina, who, as a fantastically thoughtful Christmas gift, treated us to a performance of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at NYCB’s permanent home–The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The Nutcracker, as a ballet, has always meant so much to me ever since I was cast simply as a boy at the party in Act I when my dance studio staged the ballet when I was eight years old. The next year I was thrilled to have graduated to the role of Fritz, as well as a soldier, and then as a clown in Act II. Once I had opened my own studio, I also founded a nonprofit performance company and we staged the ballet in Deposit, NY in December of 2010. All of these experiences culminated in The Nutcracker always invoking in me a sense of warmth, joy, and deeply affirming nostalgia.

Seeing The Nutcracker performed by New York City Ballet was even more significant, as NYCB is my favorite company on this planet. The famed company’s co-founder and first Ballet Master, George Balanchine, is a god in the history of dance, and he is arguably credited as the founder of the phenomenon that is American ballet. His technique is that which I grew up learning and studied more seriously academically as I grew up. His brilliant choreography is characteristically expressive, ethereal, and energetic. His work possesses deep classical roots, ever so perfectly spiced by the import of modern aesthetic sensibilities–a sacred regard for the textbook that somehow still forgives deviance as long as it’s for the sake of exquisite beauty and touching human expression. It’s that fusion of deep tradition to an ever-so-slight experimentation with technical transgression–a serious art form that allows itself a half of a dip into the “bad-ass”–that makes Balanchine’s artistic identity so distinctly American. Which, after all, was his inspired vision.

The Nutcracker I saw yesterday was impressive and entertaining. I love to see The Nutcracker performed with so many children as their inclusion helps remind the viewer that this is indeed a children’s ballet, both in the sense that it was intended to entertain all ages as well as to provide the chance for young ballet students to be given important performance opportunities. I say “Bravi” to the young dancers for showing such discipline and professionalism. I hope they had the time of their lives up on stage.

I do have to admit that my favorite act of the ballet was the second, in which there was less pantomime and more technique. Truth be told, for me the second act was comprised of surreal moment after surreal moment, eliciting wave after wave of goosebumps and tempting me multiple times to let the tears of inspiration roll down my cheeks no matter how much I might get ridiculed for it!

Some highlights for me were:
The pas de deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier. Balanchine was particularly gifted at arranging and choreographing complex pas de deux sequences that appeared effortless, seamless, and rendered the female dancer with a lighter-than-air ethereal quality. I could watch his pas de deux work all day long.

Pas de deux

Pas de deux

The Arabian dancer provided an exotic interlude, which I believe to be Mr. Balanchine’s nod to The Nutcracker’s historically “orientalist” preoccupation. Completely breaking with tradition, the Arabian displays her midriff, slides down to the floor, and meddles in contortion. In contrast to the ballet’s overwhelmingly family-friendly atmosphere, she momentarily conjures an aura of mystic sensuality from which the viewer must “snap out” following her exit.

The Arabian dancer

The Arabian dancer

One aspect of this particular performance of NYCB’s The Nutcracker that left me a bit disturbed was the behavior of the audience. I realize that far from most of the audience members were dance professionals or had any degree of dance education, but I did experience just a twinge of dismay when, during the first act, we witnessed a triple pirouette gorgeously executed by the candy cane that seemed to remain unacknowledged by the audience. Also ignored was the Sugar Plum Fairy’s fouetté turn. This same audience then erupted with astonished applause when they watched the mechanical marvel of the Christmas tree’s growth from twelve feet to forty feet. Of course the company’s technical crew and engineers deserve recognition for their work, but I wanted to ask “Really?! This is what the audience is applauding? An inanimate object that doesn’t even know whether it’s acknowledged or not?”

The tree magically growing from 12 to 40 feet

The tree magically growing from 12 to 40 feet

I felt similarly toward the end of the entire ballet when I was once again brought to new heights of artistic inspiration by the final coda, feeling so humbled and yet so alive to be in the presence of so many immensely talented and brilliant dancers. I wanted to applaud them and never stop. The rest of the audience applauded loudly, though, when the sleigh took flight above the stage. I don’t mean to take anything away from the mechanical triumphs of the performance, but I just wish the audience had had the education or the elevated taste to be so dramatically moved by the artistic and technical achievements of the dancers–who, by the way, are some of the very best in world!

The sleigh takes flight at the conclusion of The Nutcracker

The sleigh takes flight at the conclusion of The Nutcracker

I will be thinking about this ballet for a long time as I left feeling inspired, alive, and newly re-dedicated to this brilliant art form. *sigh* 🙂

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Hometown Heroes: Ed Swartwout

The first person I’d like to honor with my Hometown Heroes Series is my high school gym teacher, Mr Edwin Swartwout (I know…I know…it’s “physical education”). I’m sure that many–even people who know me very well–are shocked that Mr Jesse-Who-Hates-Sports would choose his high school gym (ok, ok…PE) teacher among his heroes, but here it is and indeed deserved.

I first met Mr Swartwout when he was a long-term substitute for about six weeks when I was in fifth grade. I remember him as being a nice, warm, and dedicated teacher. In fact, even though he had been studying to become a PE (see? I got it!) teacher, he saw that all of us 10-11 year olds were struggling with reducing fractions, so he went back into his old college textbooks and prepared a lesson for us on how to tell when a fraction could no longer be further reduced. It worked and it helped us. More importantly, it showed on his part that he was always thinking about his students and trying to help us understand. His lesson worked and I never forgot it, not even 18 years later (wow, can that really be?!).

But perhaps more importantly, Mr Swartwout was hired as the permanent high school phys ed (is that what they call it?) teacher when I was in eighth grade. I felt comfortable with him since he had been our long-term sub three years prior, so PE was no longer something I dreaded as a horrible class full of personal embarrassments as a result of my athletic aversion and indisposition. Rather, Mr Swarwout, focused on assessing us in terms of our “attitude,” our willingness to TRY. And at that, I was quite good. I tried everything and I did so happily. I even had a few good times. I was good at riding a bike. I was more flexible than most guys in my class. And I won at darts! I never gave him a hard time and I never appeared reluctant. If I had been assigned any other teacher, I probably wouldn’t have been as inspired. But, Mr Swartwout had the gift of being an educator who knew how to get the best out of his students. I’ll always remember one day when he–probably unknowingly–revealed his ultimate philosophy: “I just really enjoy people.” I believe him and I decided that day that I was going to live according to that philosophy, too.

Mr Swartwout was also a beloved softball coach, a position that I believe was his dream come true. He loves athletics, he loves teaching and coaching, and my sister, a dedicated athlete, loved being coached by him. He played a major role in many of her successes. And, perhaps, one of the most interesting and extraordinary things about Mr Swartwout is that he knew both my sister and myself. One was a gifted athlete and one was a “princess dancer.” I’m sure you can guess which of us was which! He treated us both extremely well, and I always felt like he valued us for our unique talents and on our own terms. Certainly, such a rare and undervalued characteristic, but one that this world would benefit from.

Years later, when I was elected to the Board of Education, I was again impressed many times over by Mr Swartwout’s genuine devotion and commitment to the position to which he had risen by that time: athletic director. He always fought for opportunities for kids and remained steadfastly committed to the notion that athletics are important because of what they can offer to young people. I supported him the best that I could, and I made it a point to praise him for his efforts, by which I was extremely impressed. Mr Swartwout is one of those people who was born with certain interests and certain abilities and who found his true calling. I admire him for finding the unique path that led him to fulfill his potential as a person–the same path that has bettered the lives of countless youths in our community.

Mr Swartwout stands out in my memory as someone who was always kind, always understanding, and took the time to figure me out. He knew sports weren’t my thing, but he made me feel like that was okay. And because he did that, I was able to grow and learn from him.

Who is the miraculous person that could actually inspire Jesse Katen to actually try at sports? Only Mr Edwin Swartwout, “Coach,” could do that. 🙂

The Transformative Power of Dance: Part I: Is Dance Important?

Is Dance Important?

If you are a serious devotee of the art of dance in any capacity, you have probably experienced the frustration of discovering at various points in your life that the general public, perhaps even people close to you, might not understand your world or the depth of its importance to you.

It’s common and we all experience it. I recall back in high school being told by an athlete–who was actually trying to be helpful in his own way–“Dude, you gotta do something besides dance.” I remember, very clearly, thinking to myself, “No, this is it for me. This is all I want.”

I’ve also been told, perhaps more offensively, by a dance parent, “Well, we really only want her to dance when she’s little until it’s time to do sports.” At which I smile and set my judgmental thoughts aside (or try to) and realize that they probably didn’t realize how offensive such a statement could be. What I heard was “dance is only supposed to be fun and cute and disposable and something to do before we can do the really impressive and more serious activities.”

Or, perhaps more subtly, I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached by people in social settings who begin the conversation with almost giddy excitement, “Jesse, you’re a dance teacher?! That’s so cool! I’ve been trying to get my boyfriend to do ballroom dance with me. Can we take lessons from you?” Of course, when I reply honestly, “Well…I don’t do ballroom dance.” The look on the person’s face always hovers somewhere in between disappointment and confusion as if they are debating whether not to ask out loud: “Well, then what on earth DO you do at your studio?” As if concert dance, or classical dance, or traditional dance–there really is no completely useful or inclusive title for what we do–is so unheard of that it’s not what they imagined when meeting a dance teacher for the first time.

I’m not enraged by these misunderstandings. . . most of the time. Rather, I just find myself feeling truly astonished that this world of dance–this stunningly beautiful, impossibly demanding, and so satisfying ancient artform doesn’t mean the same thing to the public at large that it might mean to me or to the dance people I love and respect.

When I say with both humility AND pride, “I am a dance teacher,” I imagine all the years I spent spending hours at the studio every day growing up, all those competitions and travels; I imagine all the dreams I’ve held since I were little, acting out the entire Nutcracker by myself in the kitchen after I was given the score on audiotape; I imagine how dance is what I spend my days working on–that I have created and built a business and career on it. I imagine the young students who are just starting to develop enough traction to progress really quickly as a result of my efforts. I imagine all these things and so it feels like a slap in the face when I realized the person with whom I’m speaking didn’t imagine any of those things, but rather thought of someone like Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing. Of course, I don’t entirely object to that image either! But I’m sure you get my point.Image

So back to my original question. . . Is dance important?

To us it is. And so it is.

Tune in for my next topic: What does dance offer us?

As always, comments are welcome and appreciated 🙂

My Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 2)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. Here are numbers six through ten!

6. I’m Not Sure What That Was Supposed To Be!

Quite often, I have heard myself say during my critiques, “I’m not sure what that was supposed to be . . .”  I don’t say it in a cruel or frustrated tone, but rather one that is simply straightforward. What I mean when I say this is that I’m left totally uncertain with what that particular piece of choreography was supposed to be. I’m completely fine with experimental choreography, especially in the contemporary or open categories, but in most of those instances, I can tell that a certain maneuver or gesture was intended to be the way it was performed by the dancer. However when I see choreographic ambiguity or awkwardness that is indicated by a lack of clarity of movement on the part of the dancer, I will make a comment stating that I simply don’t know what was intended. This mostly occurs when, for instance, in a ballet or lyrical piece, I can’t tell if a turn was intended to be a pirouette in passé or in coupé because the dancer the position in which the dancer had placed the leg lacked definition and precision. The solution to this problem: be clear, specific, and explicit in both choreography and in execution to avoid a “muddled” performance.

7. Look at Us!

I cannot understate the importance of maintaining eye contact with the judges while you are onstage. When you look the judges in the eye (try to make contact with each one of them throughout your performance), you are creating a human connection with them that draws them more into your dance. This is an extraordinarily easy way to distinguish yourself from other contestants and to make the emotional charge of your piece all the more blatant. Also, since a big chunk of your score is likely to be based upon stage presence or personality, judges are much more likely to score you favorably if you demonstrate the confidence and presence that comes with being bold enough to look them in their eyes and express whatever your piece is intended to.

8. Don’t Let Mistakes Show In Your Face!

We are all human and we all make mistakes, including when we are dancing. Judges understand this. But, if something goes wrong in your dance, the best thing you can do is to just keep going and never let on that it ever happened. Try not to grimace or look upset, but rather maintain the stage face that was intended to be held during the piece. Making sure that your mistake never shows in your face and that you never break character accomplishes two things for you: first, you can minimize your mistake by not drawing any more attention to it at all, and two, you can demonstrate your show-biz professionalism by proving that you can keep it all together and that you have mastered that “show must go on” mentality. Turn your mistake into an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism!

9. Stay Together!

Whenever you are dealing with more than one person in a dance, togetherness and timing must become high priorities. The only way to master these is the choreographer’s insistence of precise timing during rehearsal and the dancers listening to their music every moment and every time the dance is rehearsed and performed so that the necessary degree of precision becomes second nature. This is particularly essential in tap numbers where the judges are able to not only notice a lack of togetherness with their eyes, but it is reinforced by what they hear with their ears. Hours of drilling the number and correcting timing variances, as well as the dancers constantly using their ears while performing, will help maintain that impressive togetherness.

10. Don’t Look Nervous!

I find myself saying this often with younger dancers, but when a dancer of any age appears nervous or doubtful on stage, it evokes feelings of nervousness and apprehension in the audience and among the judges. We want to feel reassured by your facial expressions and your demeanor onstage. If you appear that you know exactly what you’re doing, most likely, anyone watching you will assume that you do. For the younger dancers, we want to see them having an absolute blast on stage, absorbing all the fabulous attention the audience pours on them for looking so cute! We don’t want to see a dancer onstage who looks like they’re being tortured! So stress with your youngest students to keep up that smile! A huge, exaggerated smile is so much better than the “deer in headlights” look!

There you have it–my ten most common critiques at competition! As always, I wish you the best of luck and look forward to hearing from any interested readers! And send me topic ideas!

Coming up next: Perfect Pirouettes!

My 10 Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 1)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. In this two-part blog entry, I will share with you ten of the most common thoughts I find myself voicing into the microphone at competitions all over the United States.

1. Sickled Feet

This is probably the most common dance technical error of all time. It’s so easy to relax that foot and let it turn in, making the shape of a sickle. Even on very advanced and accomplished dancers, I catch sickled feet, usually in B+ or during pirouettes. Having consistently sickled feet can be detrimental to your technique score. Try to fix it in the classroom before you ever enter the stage. See my previous blog on Fixing Sickled Feet for some strategies to be rid of this particular mistake.

2. Straight Supporting Leg

I often joke that I should have a button on the laptop at competitions to say this phrase for me since I use it so often during critiques. Probably the biggest impediment to a smooth and flawless turn (pirouettes, attitude, pencil turns, and even fouettés and tours à la seconde) is a bent supporting leg. When you are balancing en relevé in your turn, unless the choreography is expressly contrary, your supporting leg should be absolutely straight with the knee locked. I think the reason that dancers often neglect to ensure the knee is straight is because of the basic human instinct to sink into the floor with bent knees when one feels unbalanced. When balancing in a turn, however, you’ll want to find that instinct, remain lifted and keep the knee locked! Especially in turns that are virtually endless (such as fouettés and tours à la seconde), when you pop back up from the plié portion of the rotation, make sure you straighten that supporting leg! Not straightening that leg all the way will not only throw off your balance, but will actually work against you. Only plié the supporting leg when you intend to smoothly land the turn. If you ever hear me cry “straighten the supporting leg!” into the micrphone, you’ll know what I mean now!

3. Place Weight on the Supporting Leg in Preparation for a Turn

Whenever a dancer prepares for a single-leg turn, especially from the lunge position, they should be placing most (at least 90%) of their weight on the leg that is going to serve as the supporting leg. Since this is the leg that will ultimately be carrying all of your weight, you will have a more stable and effortless lift out of the preparation if most of your weight is already placed on that leg in the first place. I should note that this is a matter of style and personal preference and I do know some teachers who encourage their students to prepare in a fourth position plié (bending both legs). I have found students to have greater success, however, by placing all their weight on the supporting leg (usually the front leg depending upon the preparation) before they lift to begin the turn. Go from a deep plié and pop up onto a straight supporting leg en relevé

4. Don’t Turn on the Heel!

I will usually tell competition dancers in my critiques that it is better to land a smooth, clean single turn rather than to complete a double or triple by dropping back onto the heel. It’s very obvious to the judges and makes your turn much less impressive. Also, you will lose points on your technique score for turning on the heel! It demonstrates to the judges that you haven’t maintained your weight at a point where you can balance all the way around or that you rushed or or were careless in your preparation or execution. If you feel unbalanced, it will be more professional and impressive to cut your losses and land the turn in a smooth and controlled manner before we catch you dropping back onto your heel. It’s a lot to think about all in that one moment, but if you can at all help it, remember, that the judges will be impressed with a perfect single rather than a sloppy, hoppy, double turn spun on your heel.

5. Support Your Arms from Underneath!

Poorly placed or droopy arms are becoming more and more common, it seems. I’m talking about probably the simplest and most common arm position there is: the first position. Arms should be held out away from you and almost straight, with just enough bend to give them that round shape. The tips of your middle fingers should be about two inches apart and directly forward from the belly button and hands should not droop downward. I will tell my students not to have “zombie hands!” The shoulders should be pressed down and back, but the elbows should be lifted, pressing up! Your arms will retain a beautiful shape if you are sure to accomplish these two seemingly contradictory things: the shoulders pressed down, but elbows pressing up. You will feel the tension and effort in your arms, but that’s a good thing! Dance isn’t supposed to be easy! If you can memorize what this tension feels like, your first position arms will be perfect every time. Most importantly, don’t let the elbows sag. One of my most common critiques is “droopy elbows!”

Thanks for bearing with me through these first five of my most most common competition critiques! Stay tuned for the next five!

As always, I adore comments and suggestions for future topics!

Break a leg, dancers!

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