Sunday, August 9, 2009

New games, new rules

There were all kinds of little things I had to keep track of when I was living in Europe - coins that were the size of quarters but worth more than dollars, bus/subway passes, grocery store cards, travel sized tissue packets, used and unused minute re-charges for your cell phone, and like the cherry on the sundae, my brand new id card for the dance school. It wasn't shiny and plastickey or anything, in fact, it was just a slip of colored cardboard, but it was my ticket to the dance world. My husband had translated the sign in front of the counter of IALS a few days before, "You must show your card to pass this point."

I was ready. Walking through the crowded hallways, lithe and beautiful dancers in their baggy sweats and mismatched warm-ups lounging all over the place, I held my card up in front of the counter. The apathetic lady with glasses, didn't even glance at me. I kind of flashed it again, before she noticed and snapped, "What?"

At the time, my ability to communicate in Italian was limited to, "Hi. One coffee please! Yes, no, and May I?"

The question, "May I?" was usually accompanied with a hand gesture indicating that I wanted to pet someone's dog (there are dogs all over Rome). So the lady behind the counter was waiting for me impatiently, and I smiled back at her in the hopes that she'd smile back - niente, nada, zip. "What do you want?" she asked me again.

"Ciao." (hi.) I pointed to the schedule showing Raciti's class, and she just pointed down the hallway, resuming her very busy work of ignoring people. "Ciao!" (bye!)

I walked into studio 7 cautiously, anxious. I hadn't danced "real" ballet before, and had a few lessons from this elderly British lady in a small town when I was a teenager. I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting myself into. One thing I knew, almost all the ladies in this room were starting their stretch routine with splits and other feats of flexibility. Crap. I reached awkwardly towards my toes to no avail.. had my toes always been so far away? Marcello walked into the class, casually took a seat, and I found my place at the barre next to an older lady - she's bound to have bone density issues, and she's probably merciful to the plight of a beginning ballerina right?

Wrong. She definitely gave me the stink eye for encroaching on her corner. Before the teacher notices me, we get through our first set of foot exercises, then during the plies he leans on the barre in front of me and just watches. Demi plie, straighten, demi plie, straighten, grande plie, ports de bras forward, cambre back... second position -

"Italian words Italian words Italian words something blah blah blah?" He asks me.

"Um... Ciao. Sono Mattie." (Hi. I am Mattie.) I respond.

He just grins and then in perfect English, says, "Ah. You're American. Did you learn rahd?"
Rahd? I scanned through my miniscule dictionary of Italian and English words alike.. what could he mean by rahd? He continued, "Royal Academy. Ballet, did you train in R.A.D.?"

Ah! Lightbulb! He was talking about my style of ballet. I blushed, happy to know that the few ballet lessons I had before were paying off. "Yes! Yes I did. Royal Academy of Dance style, yes."

"I see. How terrible." And then he proceeded to imitate my movements according to his perception, "It's so careful, this RAD method. Now, you are learning new ballet, how to dance! It's a new game with new rules, and if you don't know the rules, you can't play the game."

I blushed a little harder and he went on with class. Was it me, or did I just get kicked out of my first class? I decided that due to language barrier, I should just stick around and keep flinging myself across the dance floor like a broken puppet - hey, he hadn't said 'ciao' yet! It wasn't so bad though, in the first day I managed to gain pity from some of my fellow classmates, and eventually I'd break the ice with the old lady who hated me for no reason. The teacher seemed amused enough, and at the end of class, instead of the typical good bye, he had the kindness to say, "See you later."

All in all, it was the perfect way to start my addiction to ballet.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Week 1, Miss Victoria of Kirov

I have this theory that we work extra hard in ballet class just as a means to get to the end - reverence. I love reverence. To me, reverence feels like no matter how physically painful, humiliating, or crap the class felt, one can still stand in front of the mirror and bow graciously to the imaginary audience. It's a part of class that makes a dancer feel so beautiful, graceful, and calm. Each time I bow or curtsy during reverence, I really do think, "Thank you (insert teacher name here), I learned so much from you today."

Then I definitely look at the mirror and swoon over my fake audience, loving that they paid magic money for tickets to watch me stumble through class. I imagine that it must be like Czerny's Etudes - performed by cripples! So that's what the end of each class feels like.. a grand bow in the grandest of theaters to the grandest of audiences. I'll suffer through anything to get there.

So, week 1 of our intensive starts. Apprehension mixed with excitement hangs in the air as we eagerly await the first technique class from a newish teacher (some of us have had her before, so she's not completely new), Miss Victoria. Miss? That's right, Miss. Just using a formal and polite title in front of someone's name is enough to smack the obedience back into you, y'know? So in walks Miss Victoria, full of grace and composure as one would expect from an ex-Kirov principal. "Hello, I'm Miss Victoria. We're going to start class a little differently from how you're used to with a reverence."

*Record screech* What? We're starting with the reverence? Huh? What do I have to work towards then? What if the rest of the class goes the way it normally does (falling, tripping, failing, flailing) and I have to end on that note? Does this mean that my imaginary audience left early? In my head I could hear the awkward coughing in the non-existent theater, the rustling of purses and programs being gathered up as quiet feet shuffled through the aisles trying to inconspicuously reach exits.

The music starts, and she shows us her routine reverence, the music ends. The music starts again, we obediently get into position and start our curtsies, the music ends. The music starts again, we curtsy again.. and again. Apparently, when there is no spectral audience, the real person standing at the front is a lot less forgiving and a lot more demanding. You can imagine how the rest of the class went after that.. it's no wonder we got the inflated part of ballet over with in the beginning. Of course ballet involves both physical and mental prowess, but after a week with Miss Victoria, I think my brain either expanded or melted a little. I've never had to think so hard about all the information and tiny details in something as common as a pirouette and tendu, or as easy reverence for that matter.

Friday, July 3, 2009


Thank god for iMovie letting me pick only the less-crappy bits of my 50 second variation. Of course, I imagine that no one's ever satisfied watching themselves, but I swear it's not the dancer's heavy sense of self-criticism. After having worked on this variation 4 times this week, the glaringly ugly parts of it have been pointed out to me by my teachers and peers. The low quality recording only reminds me of what I need to fix. Here's to hoping that the next time I post a video I'll be much improved! I'm not holding my breath though.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Staunch fortitude

Listen! Listen! Do you hear that? That sweet chirp-chirp-chirruping over the wind rustling the graceful leaves? Could it be my handsome prince come to have long random conversations with me in the form of a bluebird? Yep. That'd be him all right.

How surreal can fairy tales get? Think beautiful princess, locked in tower, prince not allowed to court her, he gets transformed into a bluebird, flies to visit her in the tower nightly until more obscure events occur, then years later Princess Florine tracks him down and they end up getting married. Throw in some sparkly voodoo by fairies and you've got yourself a century old story that could have been (maybe should have been) lost in history. Mix in 2 parts more popular fairy tale, add some obligatory celebration dancing and you've got yourself The Sleeping Beauty Ballet. Leave it to Vsevolozhky and good ol' Petipa to re-incorporate these random characters like Bluebird and his lady love Princess Florine into the ballet version of Sleeping Beauty. I'm sure it was considered turn of the century marketing. Is that like the modern day equivalent of cameo appearances and product placement?

I admire Princess Florine's tenacity. Because of her determination and commitment, I decided that I would represent her this Friday by dancing her variation from The Sleeping Beauty ballet. It seemed fitting that, despite all the pitfalls of taking on ballet at such a late age and still plodding on, I should choose to dance her variation. That's right.. Go Florine! You're dedicated and fabulous, you raised your hand to your ear each depressing night in that tower - waiting, listening, resigned to be with your bluebird prince. That's the kind of ballet heroine I want to be!

Of course it was natural when Jeff, our awesome teacher from Ballet Hispanico, asked "What variations are you each choosing for Friday?" I would chirp first, before everyone, loud and clear, "Bluebird, Princess Florine!"

The kids and Jeff considered my choice for a second, as he nodded approvingly. Then the grumbling and complaining swept through the young group of dancers as some moaned, "Aww man. That was the shortest variation on the list. I wanted that one."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wk II, SF Ballet's Tiit Helimets arrives

"Hey, I'm from California too! Do you ever eat at La Jardiniere? It's the place to go when I'm feeling spendy and in the mood for some sultry jazz. Yeah, but I still go to my mainstays like Panta Rei for down-home Italian trattoria cuisine. We should hang out sometime when I'm back in SF visiting my dog. My husband and I'll come see you onstage, afterwards, you and your wife should come have a drink with us."

That's the kind of dream talk that I imagined I'd say to our guest teacher, San Francisco Ballet principal, Tiit Helimets. After a week of 4 hour daily classes with him, I managed on Friday to say, "You like the Giants? Me too. *awkward pause* Thanks for tolerating me in class. Uh, have a safe trip back."

Remember how good it felt as a kid when your parents or teacher, any authority figure, would compliment you over the most mundane thing? "Oh, Matt! Good job, you didn't walk yourself into that glass wall again! Good work!"

It felt awesome. In retrospect, I kind of realize that the compliments didn't always warrant the puffed up pride I had as a kid. Perhaps they were even kind reminders like, "Great, you missed the wall this time! Once out of five... hope you don't make it six! Concussions hurt!"

Still, I delighted and exulted in every compliment Mr. Helimets had for us, even the remarks like, "There's no excuse for dropping her, she's tiny!" Did I hear that right? Did Mr. Helimets just call me tiny? Hee hee hee! Even if I had to have some say.. unexpected dental work from face planting into the floor, I would probably still be enthused over a non-compliment like that! Fortunately, Isaac caught me right before the floor rose up to hit my face, but still! Tiit called me tiny!

I'm not sure what makes me happier after that week with Mr. Helimets. Maybe it was the fact that I learned new lifts, that I overcame a lot of my reluctance in partnering, gained confidence in triple and quadruple pirouettes on flat, learned two variations (one of which I thought I would never be able to even attempt), and worked with a dancer I'm star-struck by from one of my favorite companies. Maybe I was equally ecstatic when my partner caught me mid-fall during some un-choreographed flailing; Tiit Helimets would glance over and say, "Good work."

I done good! Yay!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Excuse me, I don't speak Ballet.

Everyone knows the story of the ugly duckling, right? Whatever happened to the other egg? You know, the actual ugly duck; did it get adopted and accepted into its graceful surrogate swan family? Or is it still blundering over its webby feet, getting equally teased by the swans the same way its pseudo duckling switch was abused by the duck family on the other side of the lake?

If I am that bad egg, or ersatz swan, I'm happy to admit that at least my swan family in Utah is treating me well. Maybe it's not unlike the special student in class that everyone likes, but the teacher insists that if you point out their limp or speech impediment you'll surely burn in detention. Frankly, it's quite the opposite in my classes. In this case, it's the teacher pointing out my flailing while the students rally around and encourage me to flail on.

I'm not sure how I made it this far since February 2007 in Rome. Walking into IALS (Istituto Addestramento Lavoratori dello Spettacolo) beginning ballet class was the first step, not understanding the language and the potential sarcastic self-esteem crushing jabs was the second. I remember being given the schedule of classes by the receptionist the first time Chris took me to visit. The next day, I showed the foreign list of teachers and hours to some of my friends with dance experience at the National Film School. Determined to try and make some sense out of it, I disregarded the fact that my friends didn't speak much English either. Picking classes from the list soon turned into pointing at certain names on the crumpled paper with one of two motions: 1.) *point into open mouth* Gag, barf noise, or 2.) two thumbs up and a big grin and nod.

I squinted at the the names and times, repeating outloud, "Marcello Raciti, Danza Classica, livello principianti" and flashed the same thumbs up. Little did I know that he was only the start of my first physical introduction to the world of Russian/Vaganova ballet.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The second weekend

My two blisters have just started to heal, but remain sensitive to the touch still. I can't believe that I'm still awake at 11:10 PM. Let me rephrase that, I can't believe I'm going to be back on the dance floor at 9:00 AM tomorrow. I have a feeling that the blisters aren't about to disappear anytime soon.

I'll try to be as organized as possible on this site, but there's a creeping sensation that tells me the posts here are going to be random and not in chronological order. I've realized after reading my husband's old travel journals that recording experiences, past and present, should be important to everyone. It's so easy to lose track of daily life, and even easier to file your old memories away and eventually forget them entirely.