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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 fouettĂ© 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* 🙂

Technical Mistake #1: Sickled Feet

A sickle, used for harvesting grain crops, is not the shape you want your foot to be in when dancing!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I so appreciate my lovely students, Emily, Sophie, and Irena, for agreeing to model both the incorrect and correct positions for this blog! Thanks, you guys!

This is the first entry in a series of posts on common mistakes in technique. Anyone who has competed in dance knows that a huge chunk of the potential points awarded to you by the judges is in the category of technique. For more on what technique is, check out my blog entry entitled “What is technique, anyway?”

Today’s topic is probably the most common fatal flaw among dancers. Sickled feet are probably one of the ugliest mistakes a dancer can make on stage and, unfortunately for the dancer, it is readily noticed by the judges. To any dance professional, seeing a sickled foot is like hearing fingernails run down the chalkboard.

Emily in a sickled coupe. (I asked her to demonstrate the WRONG thing to do!)

Picture this from the view of a competition judge: A new young dancer takes the stage. She enters with a couple chaĂ®nĂ©s, and then settles into a B+ to wait for her music to start. If that back foot in the B+ is sickled or turned in or both, she just lost MAJOR points for her technique score and she hasn’t even started dancing yet! If she keeps up the sickling throughout her routine, especially on those steps which are the most sickle-prone (arabesque, tendu, attitude, or on the passĂ© foot in pirouette, she will continue to lose points every single occurrence.

Irena demonstrating an ugly, sickled, tendu (because I asked her to for this blog!)

Not only are sickled feet hideously ugly to dance professionals, but they only act to get in the way of the dancer. Try to imagine dancing pigeon-toed, for instance. You’ll fall all over the place!

So, how do we fix sickled feet in dancers?

I have found that the first step in ridding a dancer of the habit of sickling their feet is to take the time to make sure that the student understands what you mean by “sickling.” Make them do it! Actually make them sickle their feet and then make them correct it. Then, again, make them sickle, and make them correct it so that they can develop a sense of the control they have over their own ankle and foot.

Second, I ask the dancers to stand facing directly to the side of the studio so that they can see themselves in profile in the studio mirrors. I then ask them to place the foot closest to the mirror into sur-le-cou-de-pied at the ankle of the supporting leg. Sur-le-cou-de-pied is a French term translated into English as “at the ankle” (the phrase “cou-de-pied” literally translates as “neck of the foot,” which is the French term for “ankle”). In this position, they place the heal of the working foot directly up against the shin of the supporting leg and then wrap the working foot around the supporting ankle so that the big toe comes to wrest around the back of the ankle with the toes pointed as much as possible.

Sophie in sur-le-cou-de-pied, with her heel in front, toe wrapped around to the back. This is the shape we are striving for.

Emily in sur-le-cou-de-pied

I tell the students to remain in this position for quite a while and ask them to memorize what it feels like to have the heel pressed that far forward and the toes pressing back. Then, from sur-le-cou-de-pied, I have them take that working leg, without moving a single muscle in that foot, and ask them to extend it into tendu, often front, side and back, all the while having the dancer watch themselves in the mirror to make sure that the foot not only doesn’t fatigue and go into a sickle, but also that it stays in that elegant and beautiful “anti-sickle,” as I call or it, or, as I also refer to it, as the sur-le-cou-de-pied foot. Many of my students experienced an “oh wow!” moment the first time I tried this exercise and they commented on how pretty of a shape this is.

Irena in tendu forward, maintaining the heel-forward shape from her sur-le-cou-de-pied.

Sophie, maintaining the sur-le-cou-de-pied shape as she extends in tendu, creating the lovely heel-forward look.

I do this in every technique class, and, once you have a term for the correct shape of the foot that the dancers can recognize, it becomes easier to correct it later on in class. And you MUST insist on them correcting sickled feet whenever they occur. Eventually it will become second-nature and they will begin to experience the nails-on-chalkboard sensation when they notice other dancers sickling their feet!

Let me know how this works out for you!

Best of luck!

What is “Technique,” Anyway?

Dorrie in tendu about to pique en pointe

Dancers hear the word all the time, Abby Lee stresses it among her students, many studios offer entire classes and workshops on it, and more likely than not, it is the largest chunk of possible points to earn at competition—that’s right . . . I’m talking about that common, yet all too elusive concept of technique. Despite technique’s obvious importance, many young dancers haven’t the slightest clue what it is! So, what is it, anyway?

Technique, put very simply, is HOW a dancer executes a certain step or maneuver. Specifically, it refers to HOW a dancer executes that step within the established and accepted traditions that govern how we expect dance to look.  The simplest example is that, in most cases, audiences expect a dancer to point their toes on stage and to avoid ugliness such sickling a foot in B+, tendu, or arabesque. There are certains ways we expect dancers to present their feet to the audience. It’s that certain dance “look” that we like to see on stage.  All forms of dance have their own techniques, but classical ballet mostly informs the technique we see in ballet itself, lyrical, modern, and even jazz and hip-hop, although all to varying extents.

In classical ballet, flexed feet and hands are a no-no, but are acceptable in contemporary forms which "bend the rules," or can be considered very beautiful in forms such as Classical Indian Dance, shown here.

But even beyond creating the expected dance “look,” technique can have a more precise and objective purpose: one that is more based in functionality (something useful) rather than in aesthetics (what looks pretty). When a dancer begins to learn more complicated and difficult maneuvers, let’s say pirouettes, fouettĂ©s, or tours Ă  la seconde, for instance, technique—or HOW the step is executed—becomes much more important. Rules have been established over the last several hundred years, not only to ensure that the dancer can perform these steps in an attractive way, but also in a successful and effective way.

Turning your smooth, clean, single pirouette into a double, triple, quadruple, or even a decuple (with ten rotations, which I’ve only seen once when I was judging a competition in Pittsburgh, PA!), requires precise, exact, and disciplined technique. In this case, technique refers to the set of rules, particularly those of human anatomy and physiology as well as the laws of physics, to both balance in the passé relevé and also to exert enough force to initiate the turn and to develop enough momentum to sustain the rotations. All of these rules make up what we call technique.

I like to think of technique as kind of the grammar of dance. Just as grammar is the set of established rules that govern how we communicate through spoken and written language, technique is the set of established rules that govern how we communicate through classically-based dance.

When someone speaks with incorrect grammar—”I ain’t got nothin’ for ya,”—we can still understand what they are trying to communicate, however, when someone does use formal grammar, they send a message of being properly educated and present themselves as an articulate and elegant individual.

Using your technique, therefore, not only allows you to present yourself as an articulate and elegant dancer, but will also help you perform those awe-inspiring steps that will get you even more respect in the eyes of your audience!

Feel free to ask questions or comment! 🙂

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Special thanks to my Wednesday night pointe class: Dorrie, Melina, Kristina, and Tiffany, and to my “choreologist” Hannah Kohinke (whose idea it was to write this blog), and to Ariana Sacco for being so encouraging!

Following a technique workshop I taught at Sophisticated Productions' Nationals in Wildwood, NJ, dancer and choreographer Ariana Sacco, framed one of my quotes as a gift!

Join Me on a Virtual Field Trip to Paris!

Let’s visit Paris, the City of Lights, which has been the cultural capital of Western civilization for centuries and is the capital of the French Republic. For this trip, however, you don’t need a passport or to learn French (although that won’t hurt ya!) and I’ll be your guide. We all know the Eiffel Tower…so let me share with you some of the other sites that made an impact on me. I hope you enjoy our little trip! Bon voyage!

One of the first things to strike you when you first arrive in the City of Lights is its incredible age and rich history. Our country is only 235 years old and many of our oldest historic sites aren’t much older than 400 years. The city of Paris has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years! The city itself is named after the Parisii, a tribe of Celtic people, first living on the spot along the river Seine.

Now that you have deboarded the 777 jet that took you from the US to the Charles de Gaulle Airport and you have all your luggage and have smoothly passed through French Customs, lets visit some of my favorite sites! Hope you get goosebumps! I’ll include the pronunciations so you can imagine me saying the words with a French accent! Bon AppĂ©tit!

La Défense  (lah day-FONTS)

La DĂ©fense is the most modern, architecturally new section just on the margin of Paris. It’s rapidly expanding because it provides space for new developments and large buildings and sky-scrapers that cannot fit within the historically preserved center of town. It is home to many corporations and serves as an important center of business for the city. Stunning at night, this modern section of town still preserves the vibrant energy of Paris.

Musée du Louvre (mew-ZAY doo LOOV-reh)

Not many Americans have ever visited a real-life Palace. No, I don’t mean just a beautiful home, but the actual residence of a King and Queen! While, a fortress for the king has been on the site since the 1100’s, the Louvre as it appears today (minus the pyramid, of course) was completed in the 16th century and is a gorgeous example of French Renaissance architecture. It is now the most famous–and one of the largest–art museums on the planet.  You will be struck first by how massive of a complex the Louvre is. As our bus was taking us to the Louvre, we recognized the famous facade and the rows of Renaissance windows seemed endless, then we turned a corner, and it continued! Just when you thought the Palace must be an entire city itself (I swear my hometown could fit inside of it!) We entered the complex through a real-life portcullis (those scary spiky gates that come down from above like on a castle!) and reached the central courtyard that you see above. The glass pyramid was added in 1989 and was the pet project of then President François MittĂ©rand. The contrast between the modern pyramid (despite it’s ancient shape) and the Renaissance palace behind it remains controversial to this day. In fact, this is how French people torture American tourists: they will ask “Do you like our pyramid?” If you reply that you do, they will act disgusted and tell you that Americans have no taste. If you say you don’t like it, they will act disgusted and offended that you dare insult their national monuments! It’s a Catch-22!

The Louvre houses some of humanity’s greatest artistic treasures. Despite the sheer size of the collection alone–if you spent one minute admiring each artifact 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would still take you six months to see it all!–the artworks are so valuable that they are considered to be exalted beyond all price. Security is tight, they will search and X-ray your belongings before you are permitted to enter the galleries–and thats after walking down the longest hallway of your life, with continuous Greek columns on both sides. If you ever want to be so overwhelmed and utterly impressed to the point of breathlessness, visit the Louvre Palace.

Here are some of the artworks you CANNOT miss during our visit:

Leonardo daVinci's masterpiece, "The Mona Lisa" (called La Jaconde in French) is the most visited work in the Louvre Antonio Canova's sculpture, "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss"The Venus de MiloAfter you have marveled at these masterpieces, it is time to exit the museum and on your way, we will pass a small little taste of home--The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York operates a gift shop right there in the Louvre! Thanks for visiting with me! On to our next stop... Le Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris (leh cat-ay-DRALL deh NO-treh DOM-eh deh Pare-EE The Cathedral of Notre Dame (Our Lady)

You’ve seen Disney’s Hunchback, right? Here is the legendary cathedral where the Victor Hugo novel took place. What’s especially breathtaking about this church is, not only its exquisite detail, but its age. The cathedral was finished in the 1300’s after roughly 200 years of construction. That means that generations and generations of laborers worked on building this structure knowing that they, and even their children, would never live to see it finished.
As we enter the cathedral through the ornate door called “The Portal of the Virgin” you will notice the detailed scupture above the portal of the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady,” to whom the church is dedicated. Once inside, you are expected to remain silent. Men must remove their hats, and women must have their shoulders covered.

Interior of Notre Dame

Respect and reverance is a must because of how special this church is. It was here that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and the actual Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus during the crucifixion is held in the reliquary.
Before we depart, feel free to leave a donation and light a candle. I paid ten francs and lit a candle for my grandmother who had cancer at the time.
Now, on to our last stop…
L’OpĂ©ra Garnier (low-PARE-ah gar-NYAY)

Le Palais Garnier, the home of the National Opera of Paris

 We CANNOT leave Paris without visiting my favorite—The Garnier Opera House. Moving from the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Phantom of the Opera; this opera house is the home of the legendary phantom! This structure is inscribed with the words “Academie Nationale de Musique et Danse” (National Academy of Music and Dance). Can you guess why it’s my favorite on the tour? The facade also includes likenesses of the goddesses of lyric poetry and choreography. I think our recitals will be held at the OpĂ©ra from now on!

Thank you for joining me on our tour! I wish we had time to see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides, the Conciergerie, the MusĂ©e d’Orsay, and the National Library. I also wish that I could treat you all to a crepe or croissant! Next time!

Merci et au revoir!

Paris and the River Seine at Night


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