… Five, Six, Seven, Eight …

Understanding the summer dance intensive

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PCPD Intensive dancers with instructor Kelly King, 2016. (Photo: Soho Images)

Dance training often begins as early as three years old with a training year of classes mimicking the school schedule. In June, recitals signal the culmination of study and show off the hard-won skills in a public dance performance.

But then what?

Cue the summer dance intensive, an integral part of a dancer’s training that, hopefully, offers new styles and experiences outside of the dancer’s home studio—and sometimes out of the home town or even the home state.

Most of the top tier dance companies offer summer intensives through an audition process. Take a quick Google search of “summer dance intensive,” and you’ll see what’s on tap at Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet (NYCB), Hubbard Street, Alonzo King, Paul Taylor … everybody who’s anybody offers a summer intensive with their company members to expose young dancers to their style, culture and methods.

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Auditions for the 2016 Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Intensive. (Photo: Soho Images)

Today, with the greater demands placed on dancers for versatility, it behooves a ballerina to explore a contemporary or hip hop intensive or a contemporary jazz dancer to gain experience in classical ballet. Foundations in modern dance are becoming more and more in demand for contemporary dancers, so a summer intensive with the Martha Graham Dance Company or with the Merce Cunningham Studio provides excellent instruction for a well-rounded dancer.

The Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center has an internationally recognized dance program with two professional dance tracks: one for ballet headed by Philip Neal, a former principal dancer for NYCB, and another for popular, or commercial, forms of dance, headed by Kelly King, a former Rockette.

We caught up with King to get the inside scoop about the Patel Conservatory Popular Dance summer dance intensive starting next week at the Patel Conservatory.

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Kelly King was a Radio City Rockette for 12 years and has performed extensively for television, stage and film. (Photo: Soho Images)

“Dancers know they have to build technique,” she says. “So intensives are for dancers who either want to make a career of it or who are very serious about their study of the craft. For an intensive, you can’t just sign up for it. You have to audition, and we are looking for dancers with a strong technical background. We want to work with dancers already at a certain level who know they want to dance in college or in New York.”

“Technique” often refers to ballet technique in footwork, alignment, turn out and proper execution of basic steps, leaps, extensions and turns, although other dance styles build on this technique and/or invent their own. “Technique is important,” King says. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a ballerina. I didn’t have the right body type; it wasn’t where I was going as a dancer. But I took ballet because I needed the technique for my career. Our intensives provide a way for dancers to study ballet technique with some of the instructors from Next Generation Ballet [the pre-professional company of The Straz] and also work with other professionals.”

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PCPD Intensive dancers with instructor Kelly King, 2016. (Photo: Soho Images)

The Patel Conservatory Popular Dance (PCPD) program has grown a lot under King’s leadership, and this summer’s dance intensive contains 25 dancers from all over Florida and one from Colorado. “Intensives are what happens in summer,” King says. “Dancers need to be open-minded to all kinds of intensives, styles and teachers. That’s how you become more well-rounded and how you learn to take a critique and not take it personally. You learn to appreciate that a teacher notices you and tries to make you better. We only have three students from the Patel in the intensive. The rest are students coming from elsewhere to learn from us.” Some of the yearly PCPD dancers chose intensives with other schools and companies to take, as King advises, the opportunities to expand their minds, their facility and their bodies.

The PCPD dance intensive focuses on Rockette repertory, jazz-funk fusion, contemporary, jazz, musical theater and ballet technique. Dancers begin at 9:30 a.m. with ballet then advance throughout the day in a curriculum of different styles and teachers with a break for lunch. The day concludes at 4:30.

At the end of the intensive, the dancers perform a full concert of works, some prepared during the intensive, but others pieces are self-choreographed solos prepared ahead of time and coached by King during the two-week immersion. A $10 ticketed event, the final concert is open to the public, which is an excellent opportunity for Tampa Bay area audiences to glimpse the emerging talent and trends in dance.

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Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Intensive Showcase, 2016. (Photo: Soho Images)

“The intensive focuses on developing all types of techniques, all the styles we can fit in two weeks, and exposing the dancers to exceptional quality of classes and a diverse set of teaching styles. We all teach differently. The intensive is not about creating choreography for a showcase, but about giving professional training to serious dancers. But we are excited to be able to perform work at the end, and we are very excited to have their solos interspersed throughout the show. We encourage anyone who is interested in dance to come out and see the show.”

Want to see the end-of-intensive performances? For Next Generation Ballet, your chance is coming up this Friday night, July 21. For PCPD, you can go ahead and get your tickets for their spectacular showcase on August 4.

Manual Transmission

Dance lineage is a big deal. A very big deal. So, when Next Generation Ballet got a descendant of Jerome Robbins, who was guided by George Balanchine, who was instructed by Marius Petipa, the Straz Center leapt for joy.

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Philip Neal, dance department chair and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet, instructing students during the summer intensive.

Philip Neal, the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet, came to us from New York City Ballet, where he worked as a principal dancer for more than twenty years. When you take into account that his main choreographer and teacher was none other than the Jerome Robbins, you can begin to understand what a tremendous, unparalleled gift we have sitting right here in the Patel Conservatory. (For you non-dance folks, just imagine if we told you we had a rock guitar teacher who learned from Jimi Hendrix. Same.)

While most people recognize Robbins’ work from West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins was first and foremost a ballet choreographer, hailed as the first dance maker to invent a singular, artistic American ballet style. (Robbins’ mentor, Balanchine, was the father of American ballet.) In 1986, Robbins spotted the then-19-year-old Philip Neal in Philip’s very first rehearsal with NYCB. Impressed, Robbins called Philip to solo in “Jerry’s” latest ballet.

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In addition to many ballets, Jerome Robbins choreographed Broadway productions including On the Town, Peter Pan, The King And I, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and more.

“For the next year,” says Philip, “I worked with Jerry on that ballet. He called me to understudy for every one of his ballets. Jerry sourced from Balanchine, who sourced from Petipa. Today, when I choreograph for Next Generation Ballet, I find myself teaching and thinking ‘I stole these steps from Balanchine’ or when I teach my students to use their full arms and say ‘paint your sky with a paintbrush’ they don’t know that I’m saying to them exactly what Jerry said to me.”

Dance is passed down manually, almost always without notes or a written record. The art transmits from teacher to student through class and rehearsal, each student taking the master’s work and either passing it to the next generation in pure form or building on the tradition by incorporating his or her own style.

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Maruis Petipa was ballet master and principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet (precursor of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet) from 1871 until 1903.

The root of Philip’s work is Marius Petipa, the “granddaddy of classical ballet,” who was born in France in 1818 and eventually came to fame with Russia’s St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre. Petipa more or less singlehandedly created the school of Russian ballet. Every ballet you see has Petipa’s influence somewhere on it.

In 1904, George Balanchine (neé Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze) was born in St. Petersburg. He enrolled in Petipa’s Imperial Ballet school and performed his first work on stage in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in 1915. As Petipa had left France for Russia, so Balanchine left Russia for America. He partnered with Lincoln Kirstein to create a ballet company that would rival the best of Russian and French ballet. Ergo, New York City Ballet. Balanchine dancers included Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella.

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George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, (left) and Arthur Mitchell.

“Balanchine adored westerns, the films,” says Philip, who did not study with Balanchine but did see him on occasion during classes or rehearsals. “He loved Americana and captured the essence of New York—to be fast, to break rules, to turn structures on end. It was so American, so beautiful. He edited out Petipa’s pageantry and could do three hours of steps in 25 minutes.”

In 1948, Balanchine received a letter from a dancer he’d worked with on Broadway, a young man of quite some fame named Jerome Robbins. By 1948, Robbins was already a big time star from creating the heroic, titillating wartime ballet Fancy Free which became the Broadway musical On the Town. In almost no time, Robbins’ talent and charisma inspired Balanchine to promote him to associate artistic director of NYCB.

Enter our Philip Neal in 1986, a tall, elegant dancer who trained at NYCB’s school, and the rest is history.

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Philip Neal danced with New York City Ballet for more than 20 years. (Photos: Paul Kolnik)

Except, of course, that dance history never ends. The continuation of this preeminent legacy now germinates in the classes and rehearsals of our very own Next Generation Ballet. In a bold and exciting move, Philip—a repetiteur of both Robbins and Balanchine, which means he has exclusive permission to stage their dances on other companies—decided to bring this legacy to life in this year’s spring program, Masters of Dance, a program that includes Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, which Philip performed for NYCB, Robbins’ Circus Polka, a whimsical dance for 48 (not a typo) girls from nine to 12 years old. The performance concludes with Petipa’s extraordinary final act of Don Quixote.

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Philip Neal teaching Next Generation Ballet dancers.

For the first time, Tampa audiences can see the direct lineage of this extraordinary ballet heritage offered by a direct descendant of Petipa to the dancers in our resident company.

“I’m serious,” says Philip. “It’s going to be a milestone performance. I’m in total disbelief that we are going to be able to do something like Circus Polka and Donizetti Variations. My colleagues in New York know what is happening down here, and they are paying attention. We’re only going to grow and go on to bigger things. We are building our own legend with this ballet school.”

Masters of Dance: Balanchine and Robbins plus Petipa’s Don Quixote Suite runs May 13 and 14 in Ferguson Hall.

Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target:

Practice Makes Perfect

Inside Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker rehearsal

img_7571Dance rehearsal smells like feet and moist leotards. There’s nothing elegant about it. When the dancers work hard, improvising corrections on-the-fly from choreographers and ballet mistresses, there is a locker-room funk suspended in the air from sweat-dampened dance clothes, breath and many bodies moving in one studio classroom.

So it was the night we caught up with Next Generation Ballet midway through their Nutcracker rehearsal schedule (which started in September) in room 302 of the Patel Conservatory. We sat in on a first run-through of Act II: Land of the Sweets (you’ll know it as the dance-of-the-sugar-plum-fairy part if you’re not familiar with the ballet) where all levels assembled: the adorable tots performing roles of caterpillars, the beginning and intermediate dancers in corps de ballet roles supporting the advanced dancers in solos (you’re in for a treat with the technical skill of the female NGB dancers) and more challenging small group parts (as the quartet of males performing the knee-punishing “Russian Dance”).

Rehearsals highlight the behind-the-scenes grit and grind that comprise a dancer’s life. In rehearsal, we see the dancers fall out of a triple pirouette, spinning to their shins. They slip on their red ribbons, create slapstick traffic jams exiting the stage and grimace as ballet mistress Ivonne Lemus yells corrections over the music, pushing dancers to extend into a higher diagonal in a leap. Artistic Director Philip Neal, decked out in the official NGB Nutcracker t-shirt, bobbed his head in time, barely blinking as he assessed timing, execution, phrasing, and technique during the deceptively organized chaos.

img_7598The excitement of catching a rehearsal at this stage—the moves and sequences are there but not quite mastered to perfection—is witnessing the work it takes to make a dance, with its stories and characters carried on a platform of technical physical challenge, congeal. As patrons of the arts, we’re often privy to the finished product, the flawless execution of art at the point where the dancers make the moves look easy.

Ellie Borick, 16, dances the Snow Queen and Dewdrop. “I love doing these roles. It’s challenging artistically and technically, but I have to get the role right and look beautiful doing it,” she laughs. “I’m excited to see the whole ballet come together. There’s so much color and life. When we finally get to put on our costumes and see each other in costumes, it gets very exciting, and I can’t wait for that.”

Eliot Wallace, 15, performs as one of the Chinese Dancers in the international section. In NGB’s interpretation, they incorporate 7-foot long red ribbons, which they must also twirl in a separate choreography to match their ballet sequences. “At this stage, we are working out not getting the ribbons tangled with each other, to make sure we keep the ribbon moving,” he says. “Right now, we know everything we have to do. But we still have kinks to work out, and we have to add a layer of expression to our performances.”

“Tonight is our first night running through the whole Act II,” says 17-year-old ballerina Amy Wilson. “We’ll be working to make it smoother. Timing is a focus at this point, making sure people know when to go on, how to get off stage.”

The dancers, unflagging in their spirits about fine-tuning an exhausting and demanding full ballet, draw together as a company, often applauding each other for particularly tough sequences (gawd the fouettes and pirouettes), and erupting in amazement at the jaw-dropping tumbling passes by the Acrobats. (We, too, were agape. See video above.)

Luke Guiterrez, 11, takes on several roles throughout the ballet, and you will see him first as Fritz, the little brother, and later as a Soldier and as part of the Polichinelle, the children who scamper around the Mother Matroyshka Dolls, the always delightful life-sized Russian nesting dolls. He is something of a cherished younger cast member and sums up the experience rather well:  “When you have a bunch of practices together and work so hard, when the show ends you wish it would keep going.”

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Left to right: Amy Wilson, Ellie Borick, Luke Guiterrez and Eliot Wallace.

Leotard, Check. Make-Up Kit, Check. Valve Oil? Check.

The Patel Conservatory Gears Up for Another School Year

There’s no such thing as summer break for the faculty and staff of the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory. We spend the summer months steeped in a camps, classes, workshops, performances and pre-professional productions like this year’s impressive mounting of an almost full-scale Les Miserables. So, we have just enough time to clean the mirrors and sweep the floors before we welcome our next season’s spate of students when the official school year starts Monday, Aug. 29.

While other school years start with a backpack full of composition notebooks, the Conservatory school year starts with small duffel bags stuffed with leotards, hairpins, dance shoes, make-up kits, music, reeds, valve oil and water bottles. No matter what class you’re taking, everybody needs a reusable water bottle. Our students also need plenty of traditional school supplies: paper for notes, pencils and three-ring binders.

In case any of our incoming students forgot what they’ll need for dance, theater or music class, we asked the tireless faculty to let us publish the must-haves for your first day of school.

So, scan these handy checklists to make sure you’re prepared for another exciting year of friends, rehearsals, creative challenges and unforgettable moments.

 

DANCE

  • Dance bag
  • Appropriate dance attire*
  • Appropriate dance footwear*
  • Personal hairbrush and hair spray (boys and girls)
  • Personal bobby pins, hair net (to match your hair color), hair ties (girls)
  • Performance make-up (refer to handbook for make-up suggestions)
  • Water bottle

*See your specific class information sheet

dance shoe collage

Did you sign up for ballet? Or tap? How about jazz? Maybe Flamenco? There’s a shoe for that.

dance - bobby pins

You can never have too many bobby pins. Ever.

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Our handbook has lots of helpful hair and make-up suggestions to get you show-ready.

 

THEATER AND MUSICAL THEATER

  • Performer bag (small duffel or backpack)
  • Pencil w/eraser
  • Folder or binder for sheet music & script storage
  • Highlighter
  • Scrap paper for notes
  • School appropriate movement/gym clothes
  • Jazz shoes or sneakers
  • Water bottle (healthy snack for classes/rehearsals longer than 2 hrs.)
  • Recording device (phone or tablet)
  • Personal hairbrush/comb & hair ties
  • Make-up kit for productions
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A highlighter will make marking your script much easier.

theater - movement clothes

Make sure you are dressed ready to move.

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Bring your make-up kit for dress rehearsals and performances.

 

MUSIC

  • Black, 3 ring binder (preferably with a matte finish that does not reflect light on stage)
  • Pencils (many!)
  • Water bottle, especially for singers
  • Extra paper for notes
  • Extra reeds for woodwind players
  • Valve oil for brass players
  • Rosin for string players
  • New set of strings
  • Scale and arpeggio sheets
  • Method books
  • Make sure your concert attire is clean and ready to go
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A black, 3-ring binder keeps all of your sheet music neat and tear-free.

music - Strings, rosin, pencil

Extra strings, rosin and a pencil are very important to have in your string instrument case.

music - method books, scale and arpeggio sheet, practice sheet

The one day you don’t have your book is the one day your teacher will ask you to take it out and use it in class.

For life-long learners in the adult classes, you can find similar information on the Straz Center website.

If the notion of arpeggio sheets, jazz shoes or two hour rehearsals get you as excited as it does us, know that it’s never too late to sign up for Patel Conservatory classes for yourself or your family and friends. View classes and register here.

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Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get in Formation

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Former Next Generation Ballet Trainees. (Photo: Michelle Revels)

Ballet conjures images of tutus, tights, impossible-looking turns on tips of toes and gravity-defying mid-air leaps. If you’ve never taken a ballet class or had a little ballet beginner, then you may not realize those tricky combinations of flicks, kicks, twists, tippy-toe steps, glides, bends and hops emerge from a seriously old set of schematics precise and infallible enough to impress the most demanding engineer.

And those schematics depend on five simple foot positions.

“The ballet positions not only create a foundation for technique but are crucial for the linking of movement, so ballet appears seamless,” says Philip Neal, Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet.

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When skill at European court dances (ballet de cour) became so popular in the 1500s, instructors needed a technique. The court dances relied on the dancer being nimble, with the hip rotators turned so the feet shifted from face-forward to out-to-the-side. With feet and toes pointed outward and the hips rotated, dancers had a greater, more controlled, more fluid range of motion. They created, with this simple adjustment of hips and feet, something quite titillating: possibility for moving and moving across floors.

Eventually, a Parisian choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp, codified “turnout” of the hips and the five basic foot positions to improve strength and flexibility in turnout in the 17th century. Beauchamp’s boss, King Louis XIV, appointed Beauchamp and twelve others to set the artistic standards of classical ballet as we know it today. And did they.

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2015 Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive dancers in class at the Straz Center. (Photo: Stormy Sea Studio)

Thus, ballet begins—not with 5, 6, 7, 8!—but with first, second, third, fourth and fifth. These five basic positions of the feet on the floor relative to the dancer’s body serve as the building blocks for every subsequent step, combination of steps, phrase, leap and combination of leaps and phrases. Next time you’re at a classical ballet, watch: every movement and pose begins and ends in one of these five steps.

Lest these simple-looking positions—feet together, feet apart, feet apart at a different angle, feet together again—belie their difficulty, first let us talk a little about what a dancer is going for in these basic positions. The trick is interior mastery of muscles and groups of muscles, connection with one’s center of gravity, execution of proper alignment and stance in which the pelvis and shoulder girdle must be in line with invisible vertical, horizontal, saggital (left/right) and frontal (front/back) planes. And, she or he must remember to “hold” the body with these particular but unnoticeable-to-the-audience forces:

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So, when you practice these positions in your class or you see dancers “working through the positions” in warm up or catch a glimpse of these building blocks in your next viewing of Swan Lake, know that there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, simply standing in first position using proper technique engages more than 20 muscles: the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, adductor gracillis, gluteus maximus, deep six lateral rotators, sartorius, rectus femoris, biceps femorus, quadriceps vastii, spinal extensors and transverse abdominus.

Plus you have to do all this while breathing and keeping a pleasant look on your face.

First position:

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Balls of the feet turned out completely, heels touch. Dancer attempts to create a straight line, or a 180-degree angle. “At barre, we begin with first position to establish turnout in the hips. It’s important not to force turnout from the knee down but rather at the pelvis,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Second position:

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Similar to first, but the heels separate by a length of 1 1/2 times the dancer’s foot. “Second position, a wider open stance, helps prepare stability and strength for jumps and larger scale movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Third position:

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Here, one foot is in front with the front foot touching the middle of the back foot. “Third is hardly used anymore, except perhaps in character movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

 Fourth position:

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Same as third, but feet are apart by a space of the dancer’s foot-length. Neal says, “It’s crucial as a preparation for turning.” (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Fifth position:

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Both feet touch with the toes of each foot reaching the heels of the other foot. “Fifth is the most valuable position of all, and the hardest to perfect,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Tip from Neal: “I teach that fifth position should be like a Ziploc bag. Each leg is color-coded like a sandwich bag, one leg is yellow, the other is green. In fifth, a tightly closed position, yellow and blue seal to make green, to seal in the freshness of the position! Think of the legs like crossed beams in a structure providing stability to a building.”

 

In any given classical ballet class worth its salt, instructors take dancers through several series of exercises working the feet, legs and hips through these positions. These building blocks define the placement of the feet on the floor and, eventually, define the placement of the dancer in the studio and on the stage. Proper technique from these five positions makes pushing from the floor for leaps and turns possible, and the extensive vocabulary of ballet begins with learning these five simple—but not easy—steps. To get ballet, you’ve got to get in formation.

Paper + Glue + Satin = Athletic Equipment

You Can Tell A Lot About A Woman By Her Shoes

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Photo by Soho Images.

Ballet, with its emphasis on gracefulness, classical music and tutus, is subject to a bevy of cultural misunderstandings, one of the most glaring is the conception that ballerinas are fragile dancing fairies, or Queen Faeries, depending upon the role. Not so. Just take a look at their only required equipment: the pointe shoe.

Let’s get this straight: Ballerinas are not nymphs, no matter how they appear in all those layers of twittering tulle. They are physical ninjas, gliding along the stage in endless bourres or whipping around silently in such things as Odile’s legendary 32 fouettes for Swan Lake (and then American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy insanely mixed it up with additional pirouettes, as if it needed to be more challenging?).

Unlike male dancers, who perform in ballet slippers, ballerinas must perform en pointe in a shoe constructed of little more than paper, glue and satin. In this shoe, she will balance all of her body weight on the tips of her toes, mostly between the big and second toes. She will endure bunions and broken nails, blisters and stress fractures, possible osteoarthritis and tendonitis and any number of wonky injuries to the Achilles tendon complex. She will execute a force up to 10 times her body weight on the platform of the shoe. Why? Because pointe shoes create the illusion of floating, of magic, of a lithesome otherworldly spirit who simply cannot remain earthbound, of the impossible being possible. Thus: ballet.

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To be fair, the early ballerinas, the ones emerging in the dance courts of Catherine de Medici and, later, of the impresario of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, Louis XIV, did not wear pointe shoes. In fact, they wore heels. After the French Revolution, the heels disappeared, but it wasn’t until a pivotal moment in 1795 when Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers to their toes that the first inklings of en pointe emerged. Audiences responded so strongly that choreographers began to incorporate more toe work into their dances until they and the dancers wanted to be uplifted wire-free.

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Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot’s ballet Zephire et Flore. Hand colored lithograph, circa 1831.

Then, it happened.

Marie Taglioni, Italian ballerina extraordinaire, danced La Sylphide in 1832. During parts of her solo, through nothing more than the strength of her feet and legs, she lifted herself to the tips of her satin slippers, exhilarating the audience and causing European ballet-philes to receive her with Beatles-esque verve. So beloved was she of the Russians that they reportedly cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce. Regardless, she changed ballet forever.

At the end of that century, the late 1800s, the “box” (the sturdy square tip) was added to satin slippers, and the basic pointe shoe design was set. Today, there are several tried-and-true makers of pointe shoes, and most of them make every single pair by hand. Yes, by hand. This attention to craftsmanship means that no two pair of pointe shoes are the same, and each set varies depending on the size and strength of the craftsman’s hands and the amount of glue he or she used. Freed’s of London makes more than 250,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year, each of these constructed individually.

When a ballerina receives a new pair of pointe shoes, the shoes are not yet fit for dancing nor do they come with the ribbons attached. Ballerinas must sew on their ribbons themselves to accommodate their ankles and foot shape, and they must “break in” the shoe, which means softening it just enough for dancing but not too much. Dancers can flex the shoe with their hands, slam the box in a door or pound it with a hammer, and scuff up the platform. However, when the shoe becomes too broken in, it is then “dead,” and the ballerina must use a new set of shoes. Some professional ballerinas may even use several pairs of shoes during one night’s performance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater notes that a professional ballerina can go through 100 pairs of pointe shoes in one season, and their company spends at least $100,000 on pointe shoes per year. That’s astounding, but not as shocking as London’s Royal Ballet, whose pointe shoe budget averages $400,000 per year for around 8,000 pairs of shoes.

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An afternoon pointe class at the Patel Conservatory. Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.