Friday, August 29, 2008

OBT Exposed

If you haven't been down to the park yet, tomorrow's your last chance to see the unpolished inner workings of a dance company's daily routine. Class is first, followed by rehearsals for the new piece choreographed by David Justin on the apprentices and advanced students. In a nod to the fact that this is all happening on a stage of sorts, at the end of the day tomorrow there will also be a short performance of a ballet choreographed by Anne Mueller, one of OBT's longest-serving dancers. She made this particular piece last month for a performance at the Sweet Pea Festival of the arts in Bozeman, Montana, and it's wonderful-- a series of solos, duets, and trios set to the music of Patsy Cline.

I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but dancing out there under the tent in the park is fun. There's nothing like dancing outdoors in this beautiful late-summer weather, looking out at the trees and blue sky instead of staring at my own image in the mirror. And the feeling of camping out that comes naturally when a tent is involved lends everything a more casual air, which is a nice change. One of the very best things is watching the little girls, decked out in their finest ballet wear, dancing about on the rugs laid out in front of our little stage. That would totally have been me, many years ago.

Here's Brennan after class today:

And here's Olga:

Christopher always takes a minute or two to thank the sponsors who make OBT Exposed possible and answer a few questions from the audience:

Please come see us tomorrow and bring your questions!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In Defense of Ballet

The Portland Mercury is blogging today about ballet in general and OBT Exposed in particular.  You can read it here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Full Disclosure

And another season kicks off with our annual day camp at the South Park Blocks:

Full disclosure: this photo was taken during one of my previous OBT Exposed experiences in years past--- I wasn't at the tent today, but wanted to give you readers an idea of what to look for if you head down to the park sometime this week to watch class or rehearsals. It's the big white top at Salmon Street, near the art museum and the Schnitzer concert hall. This year, company class starts at 11:30 a.m. and is followed by rehearsals all afternoon for the choreographic project by our guest choreographer, David Justin. You can watch the process of creating a ballet all week and then come back on Saturday for an informal showing of the end results.

Across the river in our home studios, a handful of dancers have begun rehearsing the principal parts of Swan Lake. The full company will start next week, but there is so much material for the principal couples to learn and rehearse that it's a good idea to get a jump on it. Also, we're going to be a part of the Oregon Symphony concert this Thursday at Waterfront Park, so it is a good idea for some rehearsals to happen before the performance. You can get a preview of the white Swan pas de deux from Act 2 of Swan Lake if you make it down to the riverfront on Thursday evening. It should be magical--- outdoors, fresh air, symphony orchestra playing sublime music, and two stellar dancers to bring it all to life. All you need to add is a picnic and a blanket.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wading Back In

I'm green with envy after reading about Mia's tirp to France...

I had my own summer adventure in Paris several years ago, and hearing about Mia's experiences is bringing back a lot of wonderful memories. I went with a fellow ballet dancer friend, and through another dancer friend of ours (who is French) we enjoyed some neat plug-ins with the Paris Opera Ballet community. We saw the company perform (Serenade and Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring, danced on a stage covered with dirt-- real dirt, like from outside) and stayed a few nights at the apartment of one of the company dancers, who was able to get permission for us to take company class one morning. I was petrified and almost didn't want to go---- little old ME in class with the Paris Opera Ballet???--- but my friend was wiser than to let insecurity override the chance of a lifetime. We went (and this was also after at least a couple of weeks of no class, travelling around, totally out of shape), our magnificent hostess (who was a sujet with the company) gave us the insider's tour of the Palais Garnier backstage, and I will never forget it. Class was hard, hard, hard, but the dancers were wonderfully nice and so was the person who taught (I have no idea who he was). Since the company is so large there are two or three different classes given each morning to accomodate all the dancers, so there were only about 30 in the studio where we took, each stunningly gorgeous in their lines and technique. Afterwards we were shown around the building, which is just a maze of corridors, studios, offices, dressing rooms, all surrounding the stage itself. There must be dozens of studios, all different shapes and sizes, tucked away in various corners of that building. One that we saw was practically on the roof-- it was circular, with a domed ceiling, and the windows looked out over the rooftops of Paris. And I loved our guide's dressing room, which she shared with another sujet dancer--- since they train, rehearse and perform in that building pretty much year round, their dressing rooms become like second homes to them. Hers had a bathtub in the bathroom, a couple of couches, more of a Paris rooftop view, and was as cozy as a living room. I wouldn't want to leave it to go to rehearsal!

Anyway.... as Mia said, back to reality. Here in Portland, the company dancers are slowly trickling back from their various travels and adventures, and the apprentices and professional division students are officially back to work for this year's choreograhic workshop. Guest choreographer David Justin arrived today to look at the dancers and start trying out some of his ideas before working in full view of the public next week in the South Park Blocks. Class will be every day at 11:30, followed by rehearsals all afternoon, Monday through Saturday, so stop by and give us a wave.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dance in France.

After what's been the most adventurous and indulgent summer I can remember I find myself back in Portland.  It was my summer of travel; aside from my month in Europe (Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona and Paris) I spent a few weeks here and there visiting friends and family in Seattle, San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada.  Now that I've returned and somewhat settled back into my normal routine it's struck me how much I've missed dancing and how much I'm going to physically pay for not taking class for the majority of the summer.  Then again, I consider a long walk along the Seine on a warm Parisian night a very, very good source of exercise.  

During my ten days in Paris I had the opportunity to see not one but two ballet performances.  Both of them free of cost to yours truly.  I'll pause a moment for your jealousy and confusion to set in.

On Bastille Day the Paris Opera Ballet presented a free matinee of their production of Signes, a collaboration between choreographer Carolyn Carlson and set/costume designer Olivier Debre.  Set to music by Rene Aubry, the ballet was divided into seven movements, each with its own set and costume changes.  The piece was unmistakably a vehicle for Olivier Debre to showcase his work, which made for a very lovely lesson of Ballet as Artwork.  As complemented by the dancers, the sets became abstract and modern paintings that shifted and evolved.  Think Joan Miro, but on a grander scale and springing to life.  The dancers, all barefoot, echoed their colorful, structural surroundings with contemporary movement and clean, simple gestures.  Each dancer had at least seven costume changes, and judging by the costumes this wasn't an easy task.  One movement would have the ladies in a tight tube dress that stretched from shoulders to ankles, complete with a Calder-esque headpiece, while the next would find them in floor-sweeping sleeved gowns in varying black and white patterns.  The principal woman, Marie-Agnes Gillot, had to navigate herself into and out of a majestic yellow silk gown that fanned out across a quarter of the stage.  I had watched a clip of the ballet that was posted on the Opera's website, but aside from that I had no prior knowledge of who or what I was about to see.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The dancing itself wasn't too involved, no dazzling technical feats or dramatic bravura, but as a whole the piece was visually stunning.  The rest of the audience seemed to think so as well, as the dancers enjoyed curtain call after curtain call.  I should also note that people had begun lining up for the show hours in advance.  I arrived at the Opera Bastille two hours in advance, thinking to explore the premises and enjoy a leisurely lunch, and already the queue stretched down several blocks.  The French do love their ballet, and rightfully so.

Speaking of jealousy, upon leaving the Opera Bastille I snapped this picture of the poster for the Opera's next invited company.  Sigh.  Lucky ducks.

 My last day in Paris I received a phone call from a long-lost friend.  "My company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is in town, would you like to come see tonight's show?"  Um, yes.  Granted that I had spent the day battling the twenty-four hour flu, I didn't feel inclined to do much but sleep that evening, but it's amazing how my mind and body will rally when presented with a ticket to a show at the Grand Palais in Paris, France.  Funny how that works.

I don't have a program from that performance, as they were selling for ten euro apiece and ten euro is, approximately, fifty American dollars.  (I exaggerate.)  So, unfortunately, I couldn't tell you what I saw or who choreographed it, but I can say that it was fantastic.  The show took place under the dome of the Grand Palais once the sun went down, and with my dancer-comp ticket I had prime real estate in the third row.  Digression: I ended up sitting next to two other dancers from ODC/Dance in San Francisco.  I'm always astounded by how very small the ballet world is.  Anyway, no fancy sets or costumes this time, aside from a bucket of gold paint that five male dancers smeared on their faces and chests in one movement.  The dancing was intensely physical and wonderful to watch, and as a ballet dancer it's always fascinating and inspiring for me to see skillful, passionate dancers of another discipline.  I must also say how pleased and proud I was to see my friend, Karell Williams, dancing in his first year for Les Grands.  I first met Karell when we were finalists in the Arts Recognition and Talent Search (ARTS) held by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (NFAA) in 2003, when we had both just graduated from high school and were anxiously awaiting what the future held for us.  I went on to OBT, Karell joined Les Grands after four years at Juilliard.  The circumstances of our reunion couldn't have been better.

One last Parisian ballet anecdote: While basking in impressionist art at the Musee d'Orsay, one particular sculpture caught my eye.  I stared at it with the strong feeling that I'd seen these people, this pose before.  The sculpture, Maturity/L'Age Mur, is by Camille Claudel, but I gave it a different name after my mind lit up in recognition:

Dark Angel leading man away from Waltz Girl, fourth movement, Balanchine's Serenade, oui?  Of course the pose isn't exactly identical, but the similarities are pretty striking.  For one, there's the way the standing woman (the Dark Angel, for this argument) has her arms draped over the man's.  She looks down and the man looks away from the woman who reaches out to him pleadingly (the Waltz Girl, who in Balanchine's version is sitting on one hip and reaching with one arm).  While I think it's really a cape or a swath of fabric that she's wearing, it flies up and gives the impression of a set of dark, unfolded wings.  George Balanchine himself was no stranger to Paris, so it's very possible that he modeled that moment in Serenade after this work of art and thusly nicknamed that woman the Dark Angel.  I'm going to try to find a picture of this Serenade pose to post, but I'm certain that those who are well-versed in the ballet know exactly what I'm talking about.  I'm also keenly aware of the possibility that this Claudel-Balanchine interpretation is common knowledge and I'm congratulating myself on discovering something that has been well-known for quite some time now.

Any trip to Paris is beautiful and wonderful, for anyone at anytime.  A ballet dancer going to the ballet in Paris?  Chez elle, c'est tres magnifique.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Home Stretch, Sort of...

I'm back from my week of "getting away from it all", which wasn't on a beach on Paradise Island but was spent tromping the sidewalks of New York, visiting my family, and taking in the whole different scene and energy that is the city. I had a wonderful time.

But now it's back to business. Progress on getting me and my ankle ready to work again has been moving forward in fits and starts. After my little setback I'm feeling ultra-cautious a bit nervous about pushing it too much, too fast, but at the same time am acutely aware that the clock is ticking and I need to keep moving forward at a good pace. The main stumbling block seems to be jumping on my right leg. For one thing, despite all the gazillions of exercises intended to stave off just this problem, my entire right leg is just less powerful than my left. And the impact of landing on that ankle seems to be one thing it is reluctant to accept. I've been practicing in the pool a lot lately, which feels great and (I imagine) helps recondition my nervous system to understand the mechanics and coordination of accelerating and landing, as well as jumping in the studio with gradually more and more amplitude. Jumps on two feet are mostly fine, but traveling steps and pushing off one foot (namely the right one) are dicey.

My daily routine is still similar to what it's been all summer long, minus teaching class now that the summer course has ended. I'm in the studio every day, either taking a class or doing one by myself. What am I mainly focusing on? Everything. Super-correct placement and alignment, articulation, speed (both quick and slow), strength and control. I do extra releves at barre, working on springing up to pointe quickly, which I hope will translate into a quick spring action in allegro. An extra-long adagio is also super for getting back muscular stamina, though I wouldn't say it's fun. And strangely, I have to kind of recalibrate my balance to get used to spotting in turns again! If you haven't done consecutive turns for a while, like chaines, the first few times feel bizarre and wildly out of control.

After class I'll head either to the PT clinic for some manual therapy, pilates workout, a little bike riding, and balance and stabilization exercises, or to the pool for some laps and shallow-end playtime. My playtime is a little different from the kiddies romping around with their styrofoam noodles and the dudes playing water volleyball, but whatever... it's a big pool and we stay out of each other's way. I'm doing several sets of sautes on each leg,which must make me look ridiculous bouncing up and down like I'm a pogo stick, but so what.

Somewhere during the day I fit in all the other "accessory items" that are on the list of things to do, like stretching out after all that work (got to keep the calves loose-- they're readjusting to all this impact, too), icing my foot, massaging it with Traumeel. I've also got to get my feet used to being in pointe shoes for extended periods of time again, so (don't laugh, I'm not the only one who does this) I have taken to wearing pointe shoes around the house. No joke, it is a great way to build your feet back up! My feet are still baby's-bottom soft.... that has got to change or else my ankle problems will be overshadowed by toe pain of a serious degree.

And, finally, I can see those athletes in China cashing in on their hard work, which is definitely fun to see and inspiring as well. There was a time, back when I was about 10, that I wished ballet was an Olympic sport so I could go compete and win a medal. Thank heavens it's not, because now I know that I hate competing and would crumble under the pressure, but I still get a little push of energy watching other people do it!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Celebrities in Washington, D.C.?

OBT's very own Brian Simcoe with Senator Gordon Smith!

During OBT's Kennedy Center debut, the Simcoe family ran into the Senator just outside the Supreme Court building. While the Simcoe's were excited to see this Oregon "celebrity," it turns out the Senator was just as impressed with OBT and the glowing reviews and accolades we'd brought to the state of Oregon!

Well done dancers!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Wrapped Up

Another School of Oregon Ballet Theatre summer course has come to a conclusion. Saturday marked the end of the five-week program, which was one of the most ambitious, interesting, and productive that I've been part of. I taught a wide variety of classes, ranging from level 3B through to the advanced level and on to the adult beginners, and covered everything from technique to pointe to variations and repertoire. The students also had classes in modern dance, jazz, flamenco, yoga, pilates, and seminars about dance history, health and nutrition, stage makeup, and costuming. They even got to spend time in wardrobe making their own dance skirts and shorts!

It was a very gratifying and energizing summer session-- the students' enthusiasm and excitement was contagious and really did help feed my own inspiration to keep working back from my ankle surgery. My progress has generally been moving forward, though not quite at a steady pace. I made huge gains in strength early on but have had setbacks since then and am now a bit further behind where I would like to be. As my physical therapist said, the art of it is being aware enough to push yourself hard enough to make progress while still quitting while you're ahead so as to avoid overdoing it. That's the tricky part, tamping down the excitement at making progress before going too far. I was up to jumping on one foot in class, tentatively, but after a few days of that my ankle was so sore and jammed up that just releve-ing on it was painful again. So we back up a little bit...

I'm back to swimming laps and doing my funny little exercises in the water--- I've noticed some stares at the community center pool-- since I've been told that just being in the water is therapeutic for healing, and it's a great way to reacquaint my ankle with jumping without the full effects of gravity. That, plus daily barre and center work, therabands, balance board, more theraband... it will be thrilling to be able to pare down some exercises soon and just dance more.

I'm heading back east to see my family for a week tomorrow. This is my mini-vacation before coming back here to put the pedal to the metal and make it to the imaginary finish line, which actually the start of the new season. So the "finish" is the "start", but in reality is neither one at all because it's all an ongoing journey. I'll find some new classes to take in New York and will send you updates and things from there.
Happy August!