Category Archives: technical notes
Last week, or maybe the week before, I was watching Killer B do turns in class and had this revelation about her back.
I don’t quite know how to explain it: her back, like, goes straight up and down, like the proverbial elevator car that probably everyone’s ballet teacher has harped on about at some point when teaching relevés. Nothing changes. Everything just spins together, lovely and open, on an invisible axis (seriously, she spins like Baryshnikov).
I thought about how that would feel, physically—the back open and traveling straight up and down—and decided to try to work on achieving that feeling.
But what really made me get it, to be honest, was last night’s modern class.
We did and improv at the beginning that was all about different qualities of movement. We began frozen in concrete, wiggled first one part, then another free, then the concrete slowly transformed into thick, heavy, sucking mud. Eventually the mud gave way to buoyant ocean water, where we could swim and float. Then, slowly, we reversed the process.
Later, LWF gave us a visual that related (in a way) back to that: she asked us to imagine holding two heavy buckets of wet sand, and to feel them pulling our arms and shoulders down and open even as we allowed the back-tops of our heads to grow taller.
This made perfect sense to me, because it’s exactly the way I accomplish that kind of thing in real life. There’s something in my nature that refuses to look downtrodden—so when I’m asked to carry heavy buckets (or suitcases, or what have you), I engage through the lats and traps and so forth but let my chest and shoulders stay open, and I reach for the sky with the place where my occipital and parietal bones come together while keeping my head level.
Anyway, I did that last night (though for some reason, in my mind’s eye, the buckets morphed into suitcases?), and suddenly everything started to make sense.
This morning, Killer B said halfway through our Fondagio®, “Wow, your back is completely different today! What are you thinking about there? Keep doing it!”
I was able to tell her that it was, in fact, her back I was thinking about (and managed to do so without losing track of the combination too badly).
She then said, “You have so much more freedom in your eyes, too!”
And I said, “Oh, that’s Bruce!”
…Which got a chuckle from everyone who’s ever taken class from L’Ancien.
So, anyway: for me, the best answer for my back has been a combination of Killer B’s amazingly beautiful turns, the suitcases-full-of-sand image, and also Señor BeastMode’s instructions to pull up my suspenders (which counters my tendency to stick mah booty out) and to be strong.
I think the suitcases-full-of-sand thing might have a pretty universal utility. We’ve all carried heavy stuff at one point or another.
The weird part was how strangely observable the difference was.
Usually, you change something critical to your technique, and it’s so infinitesimal that your teacher will only catch if it she’s using that special eye on the back of her head* under the light of a super blue blood moon and walking widdershins around the Grave of Giselle or something. Usually, it’s clear that you’re dancing better, but not quite as clear exactly a how.
So, anyway, there you go. If, like me, you’re a Leaner, a kind of Overaged Teenage Sloper, you might give the suitcases-full-of-sand image a try.
In other news, K and I worked through a partnering thing after class, and since BG was there he gave us some pointers. By the time we got done, it was looking really great.
I also pulled off this beautiful, controlled, super-high developpé à la seconde en relevé completely at random while thinking out loud with my body about a note that BG gave. He looked at me and said, “Just like that!”
I don’t actually do that developpé there, but I think I use it later in the piece, so I’ll have to keep it in my back pocket … Or stuffed into the waistband of my dance belt (wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve kept there :P).
For whatever reason, I feel like I’m growing by leaps and bounds (gahhhhhh, sorry) as a dancer right now. It’s a good feeling, after working so long just to come back from the surgery and regain what I lost while I was on the bench.
*Speaking of this … I’m teaching a workshop at PlayThink this year. Do you just wake up one day with that extra eyeball? Because I might need it.
L’Ancien is away this week, so HD made a guest appearance in Advanced Class.
I let her know early on that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through class, but I would probably at least get through barre.
In fact, I hung in there until it was time for jumps, when I chose to call it a day. I’m much, much better, but I’d say that I’m really at about 60% of my typical capacity, and with the BDSI audition and the start of rehearsals for the Culture of Poverty piece looming next weekend, it made sense to start getting tuned in again but also not to risk injury.
Speaking of the Culture of Poverty, I made B cast, which is great. I don’t think I would’ve made the cut for this piece last year: stylistically, AS is a very different kind of dancer than I am, and while I’m confident that I’ll absorb the movement style and vocabulary over the course of the rehearsal process, I know that in auditions I still have a tough time setting aside the mantle of ballet.
Anyway, back to class notes. At barre I found myself reflecting on a thing.
Background info: I’m a little taller than Killer B (when I stand up straight 🤔) and a few inches shorter than TM, who stands behind (and then in front of, and then behind…) me at barre.
My legs, meanwhile, are about as long as TM’s, so he’s quite a bit longer in the torso than I am. Killer B’s proportions are much like mine. Both that said, both Killer B and I have higher extensions than TM (who is quite a beautiful dancer and doesn’t actually need to be able to scratch his ear with his toes; he’s naturally princely and looks a lot like Steven MacRae).
I think it harkens back to something L’Ancien said a few weeks ago: you work with the body you have, and every body has different strengths. Like L’Ancien, TM has deep hip sockets, which means that high extensions and the quick, fluttering beats that make petit allegro sparkle don’t come as readily to him.
- In fact, they have almost exactly the same build.
Meanwhile, I—with my irrefutably square shoulders and profoundly elastic back—will have to think harder about how to create a lovely, unbroken line through my upper body and arms. Oh, and will spend the rest of my natural life quietly muttering, “Pull up your suspenders,” since that analogy makes me stop swaybacking like a retired dairy cow.
Which is a round-about way of saying this: in ballet, almost everything can be a blessing or a curse.
My feet are what EMM (who has finally joined advanced class!) calls “roundy feet,” which means that both my feet and my ankles are extremely mobile. They can do profoundly beautiful things to the lines of my legs, and ultimately they’re really good for banging out solid balances … once I’ve managed to stack all those piddly little bones correctly, and if the muscles agree to do their job.
But I will be challenged for my entire life to keep them strong enough to counter their natural elasticity, and the beauty of my arches is a completely moot point if I’m not quicker in petit allegro than my friends with less “roundy” feet.
A half-baked point is a half-baked point, and getting feet and legs like mine fully straight and pointed is actually rather a lot of work.
TM’s feet are nice, if not quite as fancy as mine, and he consistently makes them look good. At the end of the day, that’s really what matters.
It’s not about having the perfect body for ballet: there’s probably not a single asset that comes without a price (my thighs, y’all—they might make my grand allegro pop, but they also make my 5th position suck sometimes).
It’s about making the most of what you have.
True, there are some traits that seem to be perpetual winners in the ballet world (TM’s incredibly graceful shoulders; my “roundy feet”). But for every working dancer with an aristocratic neck and feet like bananas, there’s a stocky little dude with biscuits who has learned to make the most of what he’s got.
In fact, probably ten, because ballet ultimately belongs to those who work the hardest, and often those who work the hardest are the ones who feel that they have something to overcome.
One last thing. Today, it occurred to me to think about why we move slowly, painfully through fondus even though we still have to get there and show the world that moment of breathing stillness (the “picture,” as it were).
What we’re doing is building strength and endurance.
Yes, you can piggyback on momentum and flash-developpé your leg to the level of your eyebrow—but that doesn’t matter in that moment when you emerge from a soutenu through a graceful, elastic fondu developpé into a balance effacé devant and must then hooollllddddd for a rubato breath before you dive into tombé-pas de bourré-etc.
If you try to throw your leg there—that is, to simply harness momentum—you will find it difficult to muster control, and either you’ll fall out of the balance or you’ll fall into the tombé and make yourself late.
I can’t say I didn’t already know this, exactly? I mean, I know we’re not supposed to just throw our legs—even a jeté requires connection and control.
But somehow today it occurred to me that I need to remember the feeling of the balance between control and momentum; that I am eternally training my body to do things it would probably rather not do with muscles that would probably rather do something else (regardless of the fact that my body is both very biddable and highly suitable for ballet, ballet insists on using muscles and joints and bones in rather creative ways).
L’Ancien often makes us do grand battement with slow counts on the down: half a count to hit the apex and show the free leg, then a full count down—controlled all the way, through tendu. It’s the classic, “And ONE! And two. And THREE!…” in which the entire action of the upstroke happens in the blink of an eye. You could, in fact, count it faster and make it, “And ONE! two, three, four and TWO! two, three, four and THREE!…” but almost nobody counts like that in ballet because it would make our heads explode and screw up the phrasing•.
- This is a challenge when I dance to a piece I’ve played, sometimes—often, for ballet purposes, we count at half the time signature, transforming 6/8 into 3/4 or 4/4 into 2/2, then divide everything by instinct into phases of 8 or 6 counts.
Anyway, back to ballet-standard counts. So in this slow-descent exercise, the first “And” is just a breath. The free leg shows at its apex a split second later. The rest of the count is spent carrying the free leg back down, rotating the supporting leg against it the entire way.
The descent is infinitely important: it strengthens all the things; it teaches us to counter one leg with the other. It allows us to really figure out how to lift out of our hips so we can close in a clean fifth.
It also looks really cool. There’s something superhuman about an entire ballet class snapping their feet up to face level, then thoughtfully returning them to the ground.
In aerials, when we’re not yet strong enough to overcome gravity doing a skill going up, we practice the reverse skill—that is, the same skill coming down.
Can’t do a smooth pullover mount on trapeze? No problem. Drape yourself over the bar, fight your way into a handstand, and roll down as far as you can before you just drop. Each day, you’ll get a little further. Soon, you’ll find that when you try your pullover mount, you’ve nailed it.
Barre is basically the same kind of thing. Every time you close with control or choose a slower, smoother (and possibly lower) developpé, you’re making yourself stronger.
Full disclosure: sometimes it’ll hurt more when you’re doing it, and sometimes it’ll hurt a lot the next day.
But that’s ballet for you.
It takes a lot of grueling work to become a magical bluebird that flits weightlessly through the air, y’all.
“The dance is in the stillness between the steps.”
I’ve been trying to think of a way to think about this ever since I returned to dance.
That’s it, guys. Right there ^^
Without the stillness, dance is just chaos. In modern, sometimes chaos is the goal—but even in the most chaotic moment in the most chaotic ballet, you’re always showing the audience a series of living stillnesses.
This is why, even at the barre, the moment of full extension in tendu is important, but so is the moment when you stand in fifth.
The stillness between the steps is where ballet lives and breathes.
Incidentally, this is why my group had to do the first grand allegro twice: we didn’t really show the arabesque in the air in our temps-levée arabesque.
We thought we were getting there, but we weren’t. We were still moving through from point A to point B instead of reaching through the stillness of the arabesque as we soared
We also got called out for not really jumping: I have begun to suspect that L’Ancien would rather see me really jump and be a little late than not really jump and be exactly on time. I’m built for big jumps. I should really use them.
Anyway, we fixed ourselves on the repeat. I have no idea what my TLA looked like because, for once, I was using my eyes correctly.
After class, L’Ancien said to us, “You’re completely different dancers than you were even two weeks ago.”
And then he said these three beautiful words:
“Very, very good.”
That is the best possible way to close out a ballet class on your birthday.
This afternoon and evening: trapeze class, audition, dinner, party.
I tried to write a post this morning.
In fact, I wrote a post this morning. Like, 1,500 words’ worth of post.
And it was, honestly, probably a little boring.
I mean, it was exciting to me. I wrote about the fact that I seem to be getting over this sinus thing now (huzzah!). I wrote about last night’s class (great correction for my arms: elbows in front of shoulders; fixes things a lot, w00t!). I wrote about last night’s rehearsal (BG set more of our dance! I get a cool solo bit!).
I wrote about this weird ballet dream I … actually, there’s no way I’m going to compress Post-Apocolyptic Warehouse Summer Intensive and the ensuing Dance Belt Crisis into a parenthetical phrase. I think that’s probably an entire post in and of itself, but I’m not writing that one right now.
See, I realized that I really wanted to get around to writing about some BOSU videos, and my earlier draft was just WAY TOO LONG, even for me. So it will very possibly languish in my Drafts box forever, and in its stead, here’s the post I promised you with some BOSU arabesques.
This video begins with a very slow rise at coupé.
It’s not terrible: my elbows could stand to be a little more lifted, and my chin is drawn back a little—in short, I’m drawing back into myself as I fight for my balance instead of drawing up and forward.
If you give it a pause at 0:16, you can see this. I’ve just started to sort of get with the program, press forward, and lift the back of my neck a little bit, but my my jaw is still drawn back.
I’m lifting my arms, here, in a way that draws my shoulders forward, which pushes my sternum back. There’s definitely room for this particular movement pathway—but it’s in modern dance, rather than in ballet, and you use it when you want to contract rather than lifting.
Because my weight is distributed in a kind of weird, snaky pattern, I can’t bring my free leg up slowly and with control.
This costs me when I begin to unfold around 0:22. Between 0:22 and 0:24 I’m forced to redistribute my weight rather abruptly. As such, this phase takes about half as long as it should: I kind of throw my leg and catch it, instead of carrying it smoothly. My arms can’t keep up without unbalancing me, so they’re late to the party, sweeping through to first arabesque when the free leg has, in effect, already arrived.
At 0:26 – 0:28, however, I sort myself out fairly substantially. My right arm is a bit far back and a bit high, but I manage to carry my sternum forward, untuck my chin, lift the crown of my head, and the free leg floats up just above 90 degrees.
The interesting thing about this recovery is how effectively it restores control. I’m able to recover my weight evenly and return to and hold a the first arabesque at 45 degrees on relevé. As I reach to allongé, though, I lift my gaze by lifting my head back, which unbalances me. It doesn’t exactly knock me off my leg, but I do think the close and dismount could have been better-controlled had I lifted my gaze up and forward instead.
This all illustrates one of the really important points L’Ancien frequently mentions: your head is one of the heaviest parts of your body. Its placement matters immensely to the success of your balances.
There’s more wiggle room, so to speak, in first arabesque at 90 degrees because of the way your weight is distributed. In fact, it can be helpful to pull the upper body back a bit when you’re working at 90 degrees en relevé. This particular arabesque is successful because I’m drawing my back and my leg towards one another, allowing the leg and body to pivot freely around the hip of the supporting leg.
This is the result:
Progress from here on arabesques will depend, for me, largely on figuring out how to engage my core and back in such a way as to allow more freedom to lift my sternum.
Progress on balances in general—especially those that aren’t counter-balanced—will require me to keep working on carriage of my head, arms, and chest.
This second video is shot from a slightly different angle and involves a different approach: I step into coupé derièrre, then immediately begin to rise to retiré.
My placement looks a little better here: if you watch my arms, you can see that I begin by rotating the humerus—in other words, lifting the elbow—without disengaging my lats. My neck, sternum, and back remain lifted and open. After 6 seconds floating in retiré, I begin to extend.
This is where things fall apart a bit. I start to carry my knee back, but then I lose control of my turnout and the knee briefly dips.
If you pause the video at 0:20, you can see part of the cause of the problem: my right shoulder is no longer connected to my left hip, so to speak. Instead, I’m extended along a long diagonal that begins to pull my weight towards the outside of my supporting leg. The free leg scoops downwards, then lifts again, in an attempt to compensate.
The resulting balance (though it’s really pretty) is really looks more like the middle of a reversé: I suspect that if I drew my knee in to attitude, the balance would be forced to pivot.
On the upside, I’ve done a much better job keeping my back up, here, Partly, that’s because I was “warmer” in this video; but it’s partly also the result of experience. I’d been experimenting with these for roughly half an hour when I shot this, as opposed to maybe five or ten minutes when I shot the first one.
Because of the angle of my back, the arabesque in this video looks a prettier than the one in the first video. That said, I’m not entirely sure it’s actually a better balance. I thought it was until I sat down and really looked at these in depth.
Now, I’ve concluded that the first one, though it’s more awkward at the outset and never quite matches this one in terms of beauty, is probably technically better: in short, my control is better through the latter half of the exercise.
So there you have it: my nitpicky examination of a couple of BOSU arabesque videos. What did I say I’d do next, fondus?
*Now with music!
When you’re a kid, you might experience adults as mostly functional, mostly giant walking disasters, or some combination of the two—but you probably don’t experience them as people quite the same way you experience yourself and your friends as people.
- There are some exceptions: my riding instructor was one of those rare adults who are phenomenal at connecting with kids on a very human level without being a total wishy-washy pushover, which you can’t be when you’re teaching 50-pound 7-year-olds how to handle half-ton beasties front-loaded for panic.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Nothing at all. It so happens that kids and adults in most of the Western world move in fairly separate spheres, and that the developmental worldview of childhood tends to be a bit solipsistic for entirely developmentally-appropriate reasons.
But, anyway, the upshot of this is that an awful lot of us reach adulthood without having the faintest idea how to, like, adult.
…Which is evidenced by the fact that “adult” is now a verb as well as a noun.
I think maybe this wasn’t always the case. Like, up until pretty recently, people were pretty explicit about training up a child in the way he (or she) should wash the ding-dang-darn dishes for crying out loud (and turn down that racket).
Then my generation came along, close on the heels of Gen X but a bit more computer-y, learning from day one that we were supposed to, like, Follow Our Dreams and self-actualize our unique snowflakitude, but also learn math and science a whole lot, and how to do things with technology, and also how to ballet or football/soccer or handegg or violin or speak seventeen languages or be a Mathlete and a representative in the Model UN or pwn all the Mock Trials.
In short, we were so busy getting a First-Class Education and becoming (in many cases, anyway) Well-Rounded that we never had time to absorb some of the critical secrets to Adulting.
Like, to be honest, COFFEE.
I’m just gonna admit up front that even my Mom will tell you she’s almost never sick. I think germs are just way too scared of her. I remember her being actually sick exactly once during my childhood, and it was totally miserable for about a week, and she confirms the same.
HOWEVER. Given that she worked a billion hours a week and sang in at least one choir at any given time and was (for several years) also working on a Master’s degree and somehow found time to design, plant, and maintain an absolutely lovely garden and did at least some of the carting around of a ridiculous kid who somehow thought it was a good idea to jam ballet and horses and gymnastics and choir and skiing and ice skating and the violin into any one week … anyway, what I’m trying to say is that my Mom was almost certainly crazy tired at least part of the time (though she also has the “can sleep any time, anywhere” super power).
And, somehow, I never quite grokked how spectacularly helpful coffee can be in those circumstances.
At least, not until now, when I’m definitely ill but probably on the mend, and I can’t stand the fact that there are three days worth of dishes piled up in the kitchen, but also not sure I can just plain stand long enough to wash them, because frankly one of the major symptoms of Whatever I Have (probably yet another sinus infection) is knock-you-on-your-keister fatigue.
I don’t usually drink COFFEE after noon, because frankly it’s a terrible idea if you’re already a night owl but you’re also a dancer and you regularly have to be able to function in class at 9 AM. In fact, I usually drink exactly one coffee per day, in the morning, less for the caffeine (though that helps when I’ve had to take a sleeping pill, because see above re: night owl) than for the ritual of it.
However, when one is definitely not well enough to go to class (blargh) but also not ill enough to remain in bed without going crazy, one cup of coffee will help one wash some dishes.
So there it is. COFFEE is tasty, but—used judiciously—also one of the secrets of adulting.
I feel like I really should’ve figured this out before.
It’s probably not a secret at all to vast legions of people my own age and younger than my own age who are simply less, like, insular. I am also the kind of idiot who insists on using a hand-cranked kitchen mixer partly because the electric ones are fecking loud, partly because my inner hipster finds it satisfying, and partly out of sheer cussedness, so draw your own conclusions.
But, anyway, I guess this is a thing I know, now. If you need just a little help adulting, a cup of coffee might do the job. So there you have it.
Anyway, if you came for teh balletz but you’ve had to sit through my long digression into the magic that is COFFEE, my apologies. Anyway, here comes the bit with teh balletz in.
A couple weekends back, I shot a bunch of video of balances on the BOSU balance trainer at Suspend. I posted a couple of them to the Instas, then promptly failed to get around to uploading them to the YouTubes so I could toss some music in and easily post them here and critique my own technique.
Belatedly, I have now uploaded a handful (which is to say, three) videos and slapped a little music on them. The actual soundtrack of gleeful cackling from people working on stuff nearby was pretty amusing, but also pretty distracting.
Now they’re running loose on the Tubes. Sort of. (Okay, so they’re currently unlisted, because people like to be mean—by which I do not mean ‘critical, but fair,’ but instead ‘douchy jerks’—in the comments, and I’m mean enough to myself for about five people, thanks).
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the first one:
…This one hasn’t been on the Instas yet.
Here, I’m working left, which is currently my stronger side balance-wise—which is to say that my right leg is better at the “supporting leg” role and my left leg is better at the “free leg” role.
- L’Ancien favors these translations from the Russian over the usual English “supporting leg/working leg” dichotomy: he points out that the supporting leg, really, is the one doing most of the work, and says things like, “And which leg do you imagine flamingos think about?”
If you watch closely, when I first step onto the BOSU trainer (and then promptly step off), you’ll notice one of my most constant and worst ballet habits: I lead with my freaking hips, like I think I’m on a catwalk in Milan or something.
Ballet is not a catwalk in Milan, you guys.
The shirt I’m wearing (half my costume from Death Defying Acts) makes it hard to see, but at the very beginning my sternum is behind the point of my hip. This is so problematic (and, on the BOSU trainer, so bleeding obvious) that, at 0:05, I step back down so I can basically fix my entire approach.
If you pause the player at 0:07, you’ll notice that I’ve corrected pretty reasonably. I haven’t really turned on my turnout yet (it’s easier to mount the BOSU trainer, then turn on the turnout), but I’m much more squarely balanced over my supporting leg.
At the same point in time, you can also see that my knee is roughly over the arch of my foot: I’m shifting my weight towards the ball of my foot on the supporting side by shifting through the entire leg as well as my body. This allows me to keep my hips level from side to side (at 0:10, I actually tap them with my hands to remind myself to stay level and pull up).
Given that I’m still working in kind of a half-baked turnout, the passé balance that follows is pretty decent. You can see me actively resisting the urge to pull up and back (one of the things that makes passé easier for me than coupé is that you typically bring your arms up to third/en haut, which—as long as you keep your elbows lifted—helps keep your weight forward).
I also correct the height of my passé in the midst of the balance—it still wouldn’t be high enough for BW, and neither would my relevé, but in this video I’m still getting used to the BOSU trainer, here, so I’ll give myself a pass on those. It’s high enough for just about any application, anyway, and lifted correctly from behind and beneath, allowing for increased height without a hip-hike.
It’s when I begin to extend that things go a bit pear-shaped.
The legs themselves are rather nice, I think: I carry the working knee up and out, as one should, and though I lose a couple of degrees and wind up at full extension just a little above ninety (for a split second), the overall mechanical process is fine.
I totally fail to adjust my upper body to counterbalance the weight of my leg, which is considerable (the average human leg apparently weighs 40 pounds, which is nearly 1/3 of my entire weight). This actually has a lot to do with the loss of elevation on my extension: any extension requires a fair bit of counter-balancing, and those above 90 degrees require quite a bit more counter-balancing than we tend to realize.
Usually, we effect the counter-balance by shifting the weight away form the free leg. Often, this means performing the complex ritual of simultaneously pulling towards the free leg (to engage the muscles that will help it stay up) and away from the free leg (to counter-balance its weight).
In this video, I do absolutely nothing to counter-balance my free leg. I’m thinking too hard about keeping my weight forward, and so I fail to shift it back just a little. As soon as my free leg begins to move through croisée, I am powerless to resist the pull of gravity, and it “knocks me off my leg,” as we say.
In this case, I should have allowed my shoulders to open slightly in opposition as my arms transitioned to allongé. This is accomplished, more or less, with the breath: you breathe in and allow the breath to lift your sternum until it can’t go any higher, so it has to go back a bit, and while this happens you stay engaged so you don’t turn into a sway-backed cow.
Instead, I kept them exactly as they were.
While, to be honest, I find that fairly impressive in and of itself (I’m forever doing crazy stuff with my upper body and actively, rather than passively, putting it where it shouldn’t be), it’s not very effective if you want to balance that extension.
So there you have it.
Also, rather a nice sustained passé balance (or, well, technically retiré, since I’m not really changing my leg from back to front; it seems that way, but really it’s an artifact of mounting the BOSU).
What works best, here, is the lower-body transition into the extension: I keep the hip open as I extend, rather than allowing it to turn in, then extending from parallel. Also, it blows my mind how flat-out steady I am through much of this. Placement: it works.
What doesn’t work is the failure to counter-balance the extension, which in turn costs me both the height of the extension (which I begin to lose immediately) and the duration of the extended balance. Also, my free-side hand:
I do finish my rather graceful emergency dismount with a nice, deep, turned-out, knee-over-toe plié, at least, though I immediately let go of my turnout as I swing my right leg around and step toward the camera.
Next time: a comparison of two first arabesques, followed by a comparison of two penchés (one that kinda works; one that kinda knocks me off the BOSU).
Tonight JMH gave us a really useful note about beats, especially the ones that don’t change the legs:
Beat on the way up, not on the way down.
This reminded me instantly of the weird sissone-thing at the beginning of Albrecht’s variation, in which you essentially launch as if you’re going to soubresaut yourself into orbit, then open in mid-air (I’ll see if I can find video of this in the morning; there are other versions that use a sissone failli or something battu or whatevs—men’s variations are really, erm, variable).
Anyway, running the combination, this made all the beats (which were legion) feel so, so much better*.
*When I was doing the right combination, anyway. We did one that went, echappé 4th, jump – beat; echappé 2nd jump – beat, and so on all the way round, and I kept reverting to a combination BW gave us this summer that went echappé 4th, jump – beat – 2nd; jump – beat – 4th; etc all the way round, which was both wrong and harder than what we were supposed to do. I also “opted” to put fecking extra entrechats and royales into an exercise designed to leave room to rest.
Regardless, this will also help with cabrioles—you want to beat the bottom leg against the top and throw the top leg higher, which is easier if you’re beating on the way up in the the first place. Also helps prevented bad landings.
In other news, I hate royales, and today we were required to do them A LOT, and I eventually found myself doing what one might call “velociroyales,” with my arms in full-on Jurassic Park mode.
To my defense, I was having a rough time in the breathing department, and pretty much had a choice between using my arms and using my legs—so what begin as a acceptable first position collapsed into despair.
And this is what happens when your asthma acts up during class, but you hit that inhaler and keep going anyway. Specifically, you get through class, but sometimes you look really dumb for entire combinations at a time.
I also ruined my really nice grand allegro by making Effort Face the whole time 😛 In my case, this seems to involve leaving my mouth open, then tucking my lips behind my teeth. In case you’re wondering, it looks exactly as balletic as it sounds >—<
I didn’t do going left (that I know of…), but only the entrelacé and the last leap (I chose pas de chat Italien going left, of course; on the right, I threw a beautiful, lofty regular pas de chat with my face like this: :||) were anything to write home about on that run.
The combination in question, by the way way, went:
sauté arabesque, failli, assemblé, sissone failli, assemblé, sissone failli, assemblé
piqué arabesque, chassé, jeté entrelacé, tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, leap of your choice
…So not hard at all, but lovely, unless you ruin it by making Broken Robot Face.
Something I can’t recall just made me think about a jump we used in Orpheus.
It was a variant on the barrel turn that traveled through the air: you launched yourself facing one direction, then tucked the knees as you turned in the air to face back where you started. That is to say, it resembled a barrel turn, but the axis of the turn was vertical (meaning that you execute it horizontally … this is all quite confusing, written out like this, isn’t it?).
The overall effect was that of gliding through space, pivoting as you go.
Which is, if you think about it, very like a tour as well, excepting the fact that tours don’t travel. Or, well, they shouldn’t, and they try not to.
- Clearly, this is why the Tour de France is always in France and not, for example, Costa Rica.
- The fact that it travels around France is completely immaterial, and if you disagree with me, you’re wrong, so there 😛
Anyway, I never had the least bit of trouble executing that given turny jump, which we’ll call a “floating barrel” because it amuses me. Indeed, it was quite easy enough to milk it for an extra revolution and a half, since you had a great deal of time as you sailed sideways through the air.
What made executing that jump so painless was simply that one executed it as three basic steps:
Just now, I realized that I have, in point of fact, probably been screwing myself out of a solid double tour by conceiving of it as this rather desperate one-step process:
It might, in fact, help immensely if I thought of it just as I thought of our floating barrel:
- then turn
I am going to have to try this. Between that and not throwing my head back (which has never improved anybody’s ballet technique), I’m hoping I’ve got this licked.
On the balance (see what I did there? :P), class went well today.
I felt a bit asleep at the wheel for the first half of barre, then found myself able to count with my brain but not with my feet, then finally got it all working at once, so by the time we came to center I was wide awake.
We had a lovely adage that looked like it would begin croisée right but in fact shifted immediately to the left instead—one picked up the back foot and turned the hips, devloppéed to the front, then lifted up and through into first arabesque before closing back and developpéing the front leg to écarté. From there, if I remember correctly, it closed back, shifted the facing again, extended to third arabesque, fondu-ed to attitude, came around via tour lent (aka promenade) just to the opposite corner, fondu-ed to allongé, came through pas de bourrée to fourth, turned en dehors, and began again on the opposite side.
- Killer B goes by the definitions in which it’s only promenade when partnered, which I also prefer.
I might be missing something, but it was a really nice combination. The constant shifts in facing meant you couldn’t let your body get behind you: on the first run, second side I did, and wondered why everything felt so heavy and awful. I fixed it on the repeat, and it was like magic.
The real magic, though, was our petit allegro—nothing complicated, just:
…but the first time it felt heavy and disconnected.
Then Killer B said, “Think of each jump as preparation for the next jump,” and a little lightbulb turned on in my head.
We ran it again, and suddenly it felt light, free, and easy. I found myself inhabiting the physical memory of doing petit allegro as a kid. That, you guys, was a profound pleasure.
For what it’s worth, it’s not that I didn’t know that petit allegro should be done this way. There are many things that we, as dancers, may know intellectually without really knowing them. I hadn’t realized that I was executing each step of each petit allegro as A. Separate. Entity. Unrelated. To. The. Next.
But I was. And the times that petit allegro has felt good? Those were the times that I forgot myself, got out of my own way, and did it right anyway. The times that I let myself dance.
So, strangely enough, it seems as if maybe I don’t actually hate petit allegro. I certainly didn’t hate it today. In fact, to be honest, I kind of loved it.
We also learned how to correctly execute temps levée battu from jeté (presumably also battu): assuming that you’re not doing the weird reverse jeté that closes coupé devant, you spring off the leg you’ve just landed on, beat front as if in sous-sus in the air, then bring the working leg back to coupe as you land.
THIS LOOKS REALLY COOL.
Honestly, it’s one of things that always blows my mind when I fire up the YouTurbos and watch the Royal Danish Ballet.
In fact, here:
This clip is supposed to start at 0:55, where two of the boys break out that beautiful Danish petit allegro that always seems, to me, like a visual representation of the song of a canary. It might not start there for you (the preview keeps starting at the very beginning), but if it doesn’t, that’s where the really impressive bit takes off.
In other news, I had this very intense dream in which I smelled smoke and thought the house was on fire, but it turned out that someone was burning a stubbled field just down the road. I wasn’t myself—I was some random blond boy living in a farmhouse with my sisters, and we were all very afraid until we understood what was happening.
I woke to the persistent smell of smoke, but not “the house is on fire” smoke—more like that scent of burning dust that you get when you fire up your forced-air furnace for the first time in any given winter, but much, much stronger than usual, and much more persistent.
It turned out that what I was smelling was the bearings of the furnace fan burning themselves out.
D, fortunately, knows how to fix stuff like that. I continue to be impressed with him. In all honesty, while I sometimes enjoy lifting heavy things (like other human beings or myself), I am Not That Gay Guy. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, that was definitely a consideration when we were courting. He had me at “I can do most plumbing and electrical work myself.”)
So as I write, D is replacing the fan in the furnace that blows the hot air around so I can get out of bed with only two shirts and a hoodie on instead of with three shirts, a hoodie, and a parka (because we both refuse to turn the temperature above 65 degrees Fahrenheit but I’m a dancer so I get cold).
Speaking of dancers, back to the Royal Danish. There are some lovely moments in the coupled petit allegro that immediately follows the boys’ little variation wherein they’re folding and unfolding their legs in this way that is, for some reason, one of the things I love most about ballet. I love ballonés, ballottés, and temps de cuisse in part because they employ these folding-and-unfolding sequences, and so often when I catch sight of myself in class and thing, “Ah, I look like a dancer right now,” it’s in the midst of some developpé or balloné or ballotté.
If, by the way, you could use a little guidance on the difference between balloné and ballotté, Ballet Webb has a good, short article on exactly that.
Needless to say, the technicalities of ballotté are high on BW’s nitpick list. It drives him crazy when he catches us doing ballonés instead.
PS: I used the heck out of the “Look! A Foot!” cheat during the sissones. It worked like a charm, though then I got excited and kept sissone-ing to like 90 degrees. Mental note: CALM DOWN, IT’S PETIT ALLEGRO!!!
I was maybe seven when I first learned how to sissone.
I assume that I learned what to do with my arms, because frankly my childhood ballet teacher was not about to let you get away with not learning the arms at all. I might not have regarded them as particularly important, but that didn’t mean I could entirely weasel out of using them, either.
Regardless, I’ve effectively been doing sissones off and on for, like, basically my entire life.
…And yet, I persist in forgetting what the heck to do with my arms—by which I mean, really, basically everything above hip level when doing those sproingy little petit allegro sissones.
Anyway, today’s petit allegro was all about the sissones. Like:
sissone à droit
sissone à gauche
sissone simple[see note]
tombé-coupé assemblé (medium)
On the first run, I struggled with the timing. I realized that was due to the fact that my weight was always in the wrong place—and, in turn, that my weight was always in the wrong place because I was doing the wrong freaking thing with my arms.
So I sucked it up and queried the BG, who said, “Just look at your foot–like, you’re showing off your foot, especially if you’ve got those crazy ABT feet like you do. It’s like, ‘Look, a foot!'”
You’ll notice that the arms are in a configuration that is effectively the opposite of the one you use with jeté: if you brush your right foot out, your right arm will be in first (or, potentially, even en bas) while your left arm will be in something like second allongé.
This means that your body inclines slightly towards your working (in this case, right) leg, which basically gets you out of your own way, which in turn allows you to execute the choreography faster.
You guys, so much of petit allegro is basically just getting the heck out of your own way.
The other thing that this particular port de bras accomplishes is to sustain the element of surprise that makes sissone such a delightful step[1, 2].
- Temps de cuisse employs this same element of surprise and, unsurprisingly, essentially the same port de bras.
- Thisi s actually the source of the second problem I have with sissones. If there’s literally even one other person in class who has a better sissone than I do, I can’t stop being surprised and delighted. It’s very distracting.
One hopes that one will also create better-looking lines than my poor stick figure there. Ironically, stick figures aren’t always great at lines, even though they’re literally made of lines.
Also, I’mma have to admit that I interfered with my stick figure’s lines by being too lazy to draw him with any incline through the body (his shoulder’s also failing to épaule correctly). So, yeah. My bad, Danseur de Bâton.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that, for your garden-variety petit allegro sissone, the standard port de bras counterbalances your lower body.
And if you’re having trouble remembering how to achieve that effect, all you have to do is think, “Look! A Foot!”
A Note on Sissone Simple
Sissone simple has been a source of confusion to more than one dancer. It helps if you think of it not in the most frequently-used sense of the word “simple” (as in, easy: “It’s simples, silly!”), but in a more technical sense: like a simplex versus a complex.
All sissones are jumps from two feet to one foot. This variant is simple in the sense that it’s essentially a single piece: you spring off of two feet and bring whichever leg is the working leg to coupé, and you leave it there as you land on the other foot. You see it quite a lot in the Bournonville style.
Compare this with your garden-variety sissone (ouvert or firmé), in which you either plié and simultaneously brush one leg out whilst springing off the other or a spring off two feet through a soubresaut, then open one leg straight out (this one shows up in most versions of Albrecht’s variation).
Yesterday, I posted this picture of my “Itty Bitty Cambré Committee” cambré derrière:
I shot it in our bathroom, and I wasn’t exactly attempting excellent technique, but I figured I’d go ahead and make an example of myself anyway.
- My usual cambré derrière is pretty deep—like, shoulderblades-parallel-to-floor deep, basically. This is, more techically, a really bad high release. My modern teacher would poke me in the ribs.
- To wit: it’s surprisingly hard, actually, to hold the mobi in one hand and execute cambré derrière with the other arm en bas, or wherever the hell my arm actually was (maybe I left it in the other room?). I should at least have gone for what BG calls the “Margot Fonteyn,” with the free arm in a nice, languid romantic fourth.
You can’t see much of my back, here, but I can tell you based on the fact that my ribs aren’t locked down that I’m doin’ it rong.
That said, I’m not going to focus on my back (in no small part because so little of it is visible): instead, I’m going to focus on One Weird Trick… erm, I mean, one key point about cambré back that I’m demonstrating all the way wrong, here, and that’s this:
Avoid The Dreaded Noodle Neck =:O
When you first start learning cambré back (formally: cambré derrière), your teacher will almost certainly tell you to bring your working arm to fifty-third … I mean third … I mean fifth … ah, feck it, en haut and to turn your face towards its elbow before you begin to bend your back.
This is not solely because it looks cool, though it does. In fact, turning the head towards the working arm serves a practical purpose—it’s mostly a preventive measure.
What, then, does it prevent?
Glad you asked. What it prevents, my gentle reader, is the dreaded Noodle Neck.
“Noodle neck” may or may not be a technical term I laboriously translated from the Russian (шея лапшой … okay, okay, so I just ran “noodle” and “neck” through Google Translate and swapped the order because Assumptions About Grammar). Regardless, it’s a kind of “indicator species” fault that suggests a whole litany of problems further down the chain.
Simply put, it refers to the habit of letting one’s neck arch (or “crunch”) when performing the cambré back.
As you can now easily see thanks to my use of Ultra-Modern Technology, in the photograph above, my neck is definitely arched (Even though my head is turned! I’m talented, y’all.).
- AKA MSPain(t)
Instead of continuing to pull up through the crown of my head, I’m flopping languidly about like the heroine of some outdated romance novel, presumably waiting for the nobell laird to decide he’s had enough of murdering the MacAuleys and come ravage me instead. Or, um. Something like that.
Not to say languidity doesn’t have a place in the art of ballet. It totally does. If you’re not sure, the next time the Bolshoi does La Dame aux Camélias in its HD broadcast series, you should really go see it. The Bolshoi really knows how to get its languid on, and there’s a lot of opportunity for “languiding” (as a friend of mine from CirqueLouis calls it) in that particular ballet.
However! In cambré derrière, one must languid judiciously. It’s poor form to let the head dangle, and besides, it usually means you’re not really engaged all the way down (QV my embarassingly-splayed ribs).
Noodle Neck is also often a sign that one is attempting to initiate or artificially deepen one’s cambré by crunching the neck rather than lifting up through the full range of motion—which, in my experience, usually results from not actually knowing how to execute cambré derrière in the first place.
If you’re wondering what cambré derrière should actually look like, here:
There may be some small measure of Noodle Neck happening, there, but overall it’s quite a good cambré derrière.
You’ll notice that our intrepid danseur‘s ribs aren’t sticking out like jocks at a fandom convention, and that you can draw a smooth arc from his hip through the top of his head with no precipitous drop-off near the top. There is no “crunching” at any point along the way—speaking of which, a “crunch” most often shows up in the lower back or the neck (or, distressingly, both at the same time). I, on the other hand, like to crunch at the point right where the ribs end, because I’m special.
Both BG and BW would, of course, yell at notre danseur mystérieux for letting his hips drift forward of his feet—but it’s better, in cambrés as a whole, to drift forward than backward.
Ultimately, although turning the head to look at the elbow is a useful shortcut when one is beginning to learn cambré derrière, only technique will prevent Noodle Neck.
What, then, is the technique in question?
Simple (HA! note that I did NOT say “easy”):
You should not, at any point, cease to lift through the very tippity-top of your head (or, if you will, your “cheetah eyes“). Sure, if you’re flexible, you can do a full-on back bend just by flopping over backwards—but a floppy backbend is a recipe for injury in the long run. It also isn’t ballet.
“Lift,” by the way, is really shorthand for “Engage All The Things!”
Cambré derrière looks like it happens from the top of the head, but the engagement involved runs all the way down to the floor.
The action of lifting comes primarily from the muscles of the core. (Sadly, though mine continue to try, the eyebrows have little to do with it.) There is not, in fact, an invisible hook in the top of your head; rather, you’re technically pushing up rather than pulling up. It just looks and feels like pulling up. As such, I find it helpful to think in terms of lifting rather than pulling.
LWF describes the action of high-releases and cambrés derrières in terms of roller-coaster cars on a climb: the are lifted smoothly, each car drawing the next in its wake. All the cars remain connected, and they move together smoothly up the track.
You definitely do not want the lead car (that is, your head) to fall off the track. That’s a good way to get sued.
How, exactly, you wrangle all of this mentally in order to achieve the right process may vary—but I’ll be happy to blether on about the mental image that works for me (the one that I patently did not execute in the picture above):
- Lift through the top of the skull whilst sending the weight down through the heels (or, if on demi-pointe, through the appropriate metatarsals and toes)
- Lift the sternum (without letting the shoulders creep up)
- Keep lifting THROUGH THE CORE until there is nowhere to go but back
- Convincing the sternum to act independently of the shoulders is one of the most difficult challenges for many new dancers. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out an effective way to explain in words exactly how to achieve this feat of human dexterity.
Because the human body is shaped the way it is, if you try to lift UP as you send your weight down, you will eventually be forced to bend your back through a smooth curve.
It’s that or tear yourself into two pieces, which never actually happens in ballet classes. Or, well … hardly ever.
So, in review, here are some things to know about cambré derrière:
- Connect from the top of the head right down to the flooor
- Send the weight DOWN
- Lift the spine UP starting from the top of the head (NOT the back of the head)
- Allow the body to carry itself over an imaginary roller-coaster climb
- If you notice a point where you’re “crunched” in your spine, it usually reflects a point at which you’re disengaged in your core
One last note: a really deep cambré derrière demands both flexibility and strength. If you’re bendy by nature, but not particularly strong, do not be surprised if your cambré derrière is quite shallow at first.
This doesn’t mean you’ve lost your flexibility; just that you have a good teacher who allows you to take your cambré derrière only as far as you can support it correctly.
Don’t despair. Depth will come with time, as you develop the strength to support your inborn suppleness.
If, on the other hand, you’re strong but stiff, you will probably develop greater flexibility over time, but you probably won’t be surprised if your initial cambré derrière is nothing to write home about.