“Feet with potential”

My feet have “got potential” – not my words but those of my dance teacher Holly.

That’s the good news. Sadly it seems that at the other end of my body my brain has more work to do.

I’m finding that coordinating the top half and the bottom half of my body is one of the ballet beginner’s knottier challenges. I choose my words carefully…you quite often find yourself almost literally tied up in knots as the head, arms, core, legs and feet try to work together to create balance and poise.

Today was the end of term and, aside from last week’s skivolitis, progress is definitely being made. The jumps are getting slightly better, the pliés slightly deeper, the arms slightly less ungainly.

But it’s time to shift up a gear, so next week I’ll be joining my local gym to try and build up the strength in my legs and my midriff…I’m noticing that as we get more advanced in class, and rely more on the strength of just one support leg, I’m beginning to shake like an autumn leaf every time we’re required to “go monopod”.

In other news, it’s been a busy old time at work. I experienced an interesting contrast last weekend, watching on Sunday afternoon a gaggle of very talented teenagers compete for the RAD’s annual Phyllis Bedells bursary before going onto the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing dinner dance later that evening. Despite the painful experience of squeezing myself into the dinner suit I last wore aged 21, I enjoyed a day full of very different dancing – from the bursary competitors’ regimented ballet variations, through the UK ballroom dance champions’ swoops and sashays (not to mention FIVE costume changes!), to a young couple performing a contemporary duet to Paloma Faith.

And all of that before the week even began!

In short, it’s high time for a holiday…so happy Easter one and all.

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Skool Daze

I’m skiving.

I apologise, but I’m skiving.

I went to the pub instead.

Look, what good are lessons if you can’t skip a few every now and then?

General update to follow later in the week by way of compensation (sorry Holly).

Boy, oh boy, oh Balletboyz

So to begin today here are a few things I’ve learned a month and a half into my new vie de ballet:

  1. it’s lovely to learn something completely new as an adult – I’d encourage anyone to give this a go.
  2. having live music in the lessons (thanks to pianist Jenny) is a real luxury…it means our teacher (Holly) can really tailor the lesson to our particular needs.
  3. to be any good at ballet you have to train your hip bones to twist in their sockets, which I guess is one reason ballet has so many advantages for older people (where hips are vulnerable).
  4. you have to strain every sinew in your feet to get them into the habit of being able to ‘peel’ off the floor…the toes, like an over-exuberant party guest, are the first to arrive on the floor after a jump, and the last to leave it.
  5. manipulating your own body weight and your centre of gravity is critical (I practice this on the Tube in London, which demands good balance if you’re travelling ‘hands free’).
  6. it’s all about the line you create with your body…the quest to create that perfect silhouette.

As part of my ongoing search for inspiration I took a trip to see the Balletboyz this week. They’re a sort of ballet equivalent of a boy band…let me put it this way: body fat percentage is not an issue for these boys. (Miine seems to be keeping pace with my age, rather like one of those tracker mortgages.)

Anyway they performed a couple of very exciting works, using ballet movement in a very contemporary way (you can see a preview on their website).

As they tumbled and pirouetted and leapt and created one tableau after another, I thought to myself “I’d like to do that”. But first perhaps I’ll focus on getting my port de bras right.

A highland fling

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Dear readers: sorry this week’s update has been so long in coming.

It’s mainly because I’ve been in Scotland, venue for this year’s Genee International Ballet Competition, which is RAD’s flagship event.

Last year the Genee was held in Wellington NZ, the previous year London, and before that Cape Town, Toronto and Hong Kong to name just a few. In 2013, it’s Glasgow’s turn.

Around 60 15-19 year olds will compete in September for one of the prestigious Genee awards…often a stepping stone to a career in dance (Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Steven McRae is a former Genee medallist).

I spent a couple of exhausting days darting about town checking out venues and hotels and potential sponsors and all the accoutrements that come with staging a big event like this.

First appointment of the day was with Scottish Ballet, one of the partners we’re working with this year. After a productive meeting, I was given the guided tour of their new premises in a converted industrial building called The Tramway.

It’s now an extraordinary facility that houses every element of staging a ballet, from performance spaces to dance studios to set design and storage vaults.

I was particularly struck by the costume department. Scottish Ballet manufacture and store all their costumes on site…this apparently is something of a rarity. So they have separate rooms for making, fitting, dyeing and laundering and the whole place is strewn with visual treats like the rooms which are equipped with both fluorescent ‘task’ lighting and more glamourous stage-style flood lighting to show the costumes in – literally – their best light. The costumes reveal their detail in the former, but truly sparkle and shimmer in the latter.

My favourite image of the day was the box of ‘mouse tails’ from an archive performance of the Nutcraker. Carefully archived of course, and in transport-ready containers so going on tour isn’t too much of a chore.

The lessons continue of course and I promise next week a fuller update on my progress to date. I was listening to Desert Island Discs recently though, and the castaway was Jonathan Agnew, famous as the cricket pundit who collapsed into uncontrollable giggles with Brian Johnson when he observed that “Botham just couldn’t quite get his leg over”.

Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I tried to master my battement tendu (an exercise in which the leg is extended to the front, side or back ) I couldn’t help but feel for Botham.

Write-up of Great Gatsby preview

Write-up of Great Gatsby preview

Some great pictures here of last night’s Northern Ballet preview that I attended – inspiring, non?

Inspiration trumps perspiration

I didn’t strap on the black wonders tonight…I went instead to watch other boys and girls strut their stuff in a special preview of Northern Ballet’s upcoming production of The Great Gatsby.
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Here are some of the reasons the director gave for choosing members of his cast:
  • “unbelievable articulation of his body”
  • “you just can’t miss him”
  • “unique way of moving”
  • “masculinity and presence”
  • “a spark on stage”
  • “you have to look at him”
Honestly, it felt like looking into a talking mirror!
The dancing was thrilling, the music engaging (written by Richard Rodney Bennett, who you may remember scored Four Weddings and a Funeral) and – even performed against the blank canvas of a rehearsal studio – the decadent feel of the Roaring Twenties filled the room.
Afterwards, the director talked us through his process for turning a book renowned for its evocative words into an art form that is, of course, completely wordLESS.
The key, he said, was assembling the right cast, comprised of dancers who are able to inhabit a character completely, to bring that character to life through only movement and physicality, and to thrive on a challenging music score.
Put that cast to work on a choreographical interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously precise and beautiful words, and you can tell the story through dance with nary a word spoken.
Fascinating, and inspiring.
But next week it’s back to gazelle class.

White men can’t jump

At least this one can’t, as lesson two has revealed. Can’t YET, I should say.

For the time being I seem to have an issue getting my leg to go in the direction I want it to. When I jump it wants to go backwards, not forwards and under my body as per the instructions.

I’m discovering – as no doubt many have done before me – that ballet ruthlessly exposes the little quirks that each of our bodies exhibits after 21 years* of daily wear and tear. It’s a mental, as well as a physical, challenge to change the habits of a lifetime.

By way of inspiration I went to see the new production of Chorus Line in the West End on Monday. It focuses on the backstory of a group of singer-dancers, and is set in the audition room as they are whittled down from 20 at the start to just eight at the end.

How those boys get their legs to do what they do I simply cannot fathom. YET. Watch this space.

* this may be an exaggeration

Schoolboy error

I should, of course, have used “Called to the barre” as my last post, forgive me.

Now that I’m in receipt of “The Foundations Of Classical Ballet Technique” – pictured below – it won’t happen again.

I promise, Dame Margot.

PS – I have foot ache.

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Called to the bar

floor-mounted-double-ballet-bar-500x263There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the human foot. I suspect I’ll be able to identify them all by pain in a couple of days…my feet have taken a battering: yes, dear reader, I’ve had my first ballet lesson.

I’ve missed four weeks’ worth of classes so there’s quite a learning curve, but the A level French comes in handy – French is the lingua franca of classical ballet. Merveilleux!

I enjoyed myself, and part of the challenge I think I’ll relish most is learning to strike a balance between the technical skills and the artistry that add up to great dance. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…much of the time I felt like a graceless gazelle leaping (stumbling) across the studio…it’s early days yet.

In the mean time, if the pain hasn’t subsided by Saturday, it might be a case of calling in on a very different type of bar.