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Posts Tagged ‘ballet’

In one of the Rhode Island English classes where I volunteer, there’s a former soccer pro. I do not know if he’s following this blog, but I would love to hear from any soccer player about the topic for today: ballet for sports agility and strength.

From an article by Toby Bryant in the Irish Times: “It’s November 29th, 2020, and Manchester United are 2-0 down at Southampton. Bruno Fernandes skews a shot goalward, it’s off target. Defeat seems inevitable.

“Out of nowhere, gliding across the box unnoticed with long black locks flowing, Edinson Cavani springs into the air and nods the misfired shot into the back of the net. With movement so stealthy and so swift, you’d easily mistake Cavani for a ballet dancer.

“As it happens, two months earlier the striker had swapped the football boots for the pointe shoes of ballet to train in his homeland of Uruguay at the Ballet Nacional de Sodre (BNS). … The images shared by the ballet company had soccer fans’ heads turning when they emerged. Such a sports star dabbling in ballet may have seemed unheard of, but it wasn’t a new trend.

“In 2017, over in the United States, St Paul Ballet and Element Gym’s boxers formed a partnership. The premise was simple: the ballet dancers box and the boxers dance ballet. Not simply as a social experiment but, for the boxers, to enhance footwork and balance. …

“American Footballer Eddie George spent hours forcing his 245lb body into demi-pliés and spins so it would become second nature on the field. England women’s rugby star Zoe Aldcroft spent her formative years balancing rugby with ballet and is now the Rugby Players’ Association England player of the year. … Former England rugby league international Darrell Goulding now coaches Wigan Warriors’ under-19 squad, another group who have dipped into ballet in the past.

“ ‘The season before we started we had quite a lot of ankle injuries and stability issues, so it was something we were keen to look at.’

Goulding tells the Irish Times, ‘Obviously our lads are not built for some of the ballet work, so a lot of the delicate stuff we didn’t progress to, but we used a lot of the simple drills to focus on that ankle area.’ …

” ‘Pound for pound, ballet dancers are the strongest athletes you will find,’ remarks ballet physiotherapist Luke Abnett, who believes the cross-sport benefits that ballet can offer are evident. ‘In ballet, there’s a need to not only have strength of movement but precision of movement. It’s a combination of the strong movement muscles with the fine-tuning stability muscles. …

“ ‘When you get to more advanced levels of ballet skills, you’re working on jumping, turning, pirouettes, control and rotation,’ Abnett says. ‘Landing in interesting positions and transferring your weight as you move into the next step – all of that would apply to situations like that.’

“Injury prevention is another benefit. While ballet can’t help stop the collisions that come with sports such as rugby and soccer, its muscle development can reduce the risk of any overuse injuries.

“One study compared basketballers, prone to ACL problems, and ballet dancers. Even though dancers would land at more difficult angles, their training meant they suffered far fewer ACL injuries. …

“ ‘Cavani’s movements have always been sharp but at his age and with the physical demands of the Premier League, it’s impressive,’ one fan tells the Irish Times. ‘Cavani’s spatial awareness and manoeuvrings are so incredible, it has me wishing he’d make ballet a thing in the United dressingroom too,’ another admits. …

“As well as the physical benefits, mainstream sports stars are entering the ballet studio to improve mentality and actively combat stereotypes.

“When speaking of his Wigan Warriors youth team, Goulding believes that ‘people only grow when they are outside of their comfort zone.

“ ‘As you can imagine, the idea of these physical rugby lads from tough working-class areas is a total contrast from ballet and how graceful it is. From the first session there was a lot of embarrassment – it wasn’t a comfortable situation for the lads. They grew a lot of respect, even from just trying the basics. They came back really sore and couldn’t believe some of the muscle they used.’ ”

More at the Irish Times, here.

Photo: ESPN.
Manchester United fans’ hopes of seeing … Edinson Cavani dancing through Premier League defenses may be helped by the striker’s passion for ballet,” says ESPN.

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Photo: Le Lac St Jean.
Jean-Daniel Bouchard (left) in a 2011
Nutcracker. Bouchard now divides his time between ballet and his family’s farm.

I like reading about independently minded people who make surprising decisions that are perfect for them. In this story from Canada, a successful ballet dancer realized during the pandemic that keeping his family farm going is just as important to him as ballet.

CBC has the story. “A farmer in the Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean region of Quebec is striking a fine, if unusual, balance: running his family dairy farm by day and working as a classical ballet dancer by night.

“Jean-Daniel Bouchard started dancing before he turned four, and after high school he decided to try to make a career of it. His dancing took him to Banff, Alberta, British Columbia, Toronto and Montreal. In all, Bouchard spent almost nine years more or less constantly on tour. …

“But eventually, his rural Quebec upbringing as a sixth-generation farmer in St-Bruno started to call him home.

Map: Wikimedia Commons
St-Bruno, Quebec.

“Bouchard told Quebec AM that he was looking for more stability, to settle down, and his two older brothers were not especially interested in taking over the farm.

‘I thought it would be really sad to lose this family treasure,’ he said. ‘So I thought I could do both — I could come back here, start a company and dance, and do the farming with my dad.’

“Bouchard said although his twin passions may seem like something of a contradiction — farming can be gruelling physical labour and involves plenty of financial mathematics, versus an art form that depends on imagination and creativity — they help him find balance.

” ‘I think this is the perfect match for life,’ he said. ‘You have more stable work and then you can let go of the stress with dance.’

“Plus, there are physical benefits. Bouchard said farm work makes him stronger, which helps with his dancing, whereas the repetitive movements and stretching he uses for ballet help him prevent injury in the barn.

“With theatres closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bouchard is both taking and teaching virtual dance classes. …

” ‘We can’t wait for the studios to open again so we can get back into a full dance ballet class, and to be able to move from a space in the studio to the other end,’ he said. …

“Bouchard said he sometimes misses touring and will dream he’s off dancing somewhere else, but he’s happy with the life he chose as both a farmer and a dancer. … ‘The point should be to be happy,’ he said.”

More at CBC, here. I can’t help wondering how Bouchard will manage when his father is no longer able to work. Somehow, I’m confident he’ll figure it out.

Video by Romy Boutin St-Pierre

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Photo: New York City Ballet Archives.
Maria Tallchief in the title role in George Balanchine’s ballet “Firebird.”

When I was a child, I was taken a couple times to see “The Nutcracker” at the New York City Ballet. I went backstage to see the ballerinas after the show and got autographs on slips of paper that, of course, I managed to lose. I got Patricia McBride. I got Maria Tallchief. Recently, I read an obit about Tallchief that filled in some blanks in her remarkable history.

Jack Anderson reported at the New York Times, “Maria Tallchief, a daughter of an Oklahoma oil family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century, died [in April 2013] in Chicago. …

“A former wife and muse of the choreographer George Balanchine, Ms. Tallchief achieved renown with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, dazzling audiences with her speed, energy and fire. Indeed, the part that catapulted her to acclaim, in 1949, was the title role in the company’s version of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird,’ one of many that Balanchine created for her. …

“A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the state nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas. …

“She was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on Jan. 24, 1925 in a small hospital in Fairfax, Okla. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a 6-foot-2 full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized. … Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, met Mr. Tall Chief, a widower, while visiting her sister, who was a cook and housekeeper for Mr. Tall Chief’s mother.

“ ‘When Daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land, and overnight the tribe became rich,’ Ms. Tallchief recounted in ‘Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina,’ her 1997 autobiography written with Larry Kaplan. …

“She had her first ballet lessons in Colorado Springs, where the family had a summer home. She also studied piano and, blessed with perfect pitch, contemplated becoming a concert pianist.

“But dance occupied her attention after the family, feeling confined in Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when she was 8. The day they arrived, her mother took her daughters into a drugstore for a snack at the soda fountain. While waiting for their order, Mrs. Tall Chief chatted with a druggist and asked him if he knew of a good dancing teacher. He recommended Ernest Belcher.

As Ms. Tallchief recalled in her memoir, ‘An anonymous man in an unfamiliar town decided our fate with those few words.’

“Mr. Belcher, the father of the television and film star Marge Champion, was an excellent teacher, and Ms. Tallchief soon realized that her training in Oklahoma had been potentially ruinous to her limbs. At 12 she started studies with Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who had opened a studio in Los Angeles. …

“Tatiana Riabouchinska became her chaperon on a trip to New York City, which, since the outbreak of World War II, had become the base of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a leading touring company. She joined the troupe in 1942.

“Nijinska, one of its choreographers, cast her in some of her ballets. But Ms. Tallchief also danced in Agnes de Mille’s ‘Rodeo,’ a pioneering example of balletic Americana. It was de Mille who suggested that Elizabeth Marie make Maria Tallchief her professional name. Her sister, who survives her, went on to achieve fame mostly in Europe.

“In the summer of 1944, the entire Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo served as the dance ensemble for ‘Song of Norway,’ a Broadway musical based on the life and music of Grieg, with choreography by Balanchine. And Balanchine remained as a resident choreographer for the company. …

“Balanchine paid increasing attention to Ms. Tallchief, and she became increasingly fond of him, admiring him as a choreographic genius and liking him as a courtly, sophisticated friend. Yet it came as an utter surprise when he asked her to marry him. After careful thought, she agreed, and they were married on Aug. 16, 1946. …

“Balanchine wanted a company of his own. In 1946, he and the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein established Ballet Society, which presented a series of subscription performances; it was a direct forerunner of today’s City Ballet. … Ms. Tallchief was soon acclaimed as one of its stars. …

“Ms. Tallchief remained closely identified with her Osage lineage long after she found fame and glamour in Paris and New York, and she bridled at the enduring stereotypes and misconceptions many held about American Indians. Recalling her youth in her memoir, she wrote of a dance routine that she and her sister were asked to perform at Oklahoma country fairs. …

” ‘It wasn’t remotely authentic,’ she wrote. … The performance ended with Marjorie performing ‘no-handed back-flip somersaults. In the end, [we] stopped doing the routine because we outgrew the costumes. I was relieved when we put those bells away for good.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here, and at the Library of Congress, here.

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Photo: Alexander Izilieav /Miami New Times
Miami City Ballet is one of the few national ballet companies this year putting on a production of The Nutcracker.

Holidays go on, one way or another. On Friday, our church had an online carol sing (secret of success: only one person unmuted at a time), and I was able to see my grandchildren in two different states mouthing the words and dancing. Someone else I know watched her friend’s son perform (virtually) as the Prince in a local Nutcracker. In Miami, another Nutcracker is taking place outdoors.

Gia Kourlas reports at the New York Times, “Lourdes Lopez, the artistic director of Miami City Ballet, is facing a new unknown. It’s a fear she’s never had. And it stresses her out.

“ ‘I just hope that at the last minute that they don’t close us down,’ she said. …

“Against the odds during a pandemic, the company will present its reimagined production of ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ this month. Normally, Ms. Lopez said, her worries would fall more along the lines of, are the costumes going to be ready? …

“Now she is thinking about the backstage choreography of the crew and the dancers, since masks will not be worn during performances. ‘We have to make sure that when you’re exiting, no one is in that wing,’ she said. …

“ ‘The Nutcracker’ ” is more than a beloved holiday staple. For ballet companies across the country it’s a financial lifeline that supports the repertory for the rest of the year. This year, most productions have been relegated to virtual offerings, but Miami has something that some other cities, like New York, don’t: warm weather at holiday time.

“The company’s production of Balanchine’s 1954 classic already pops with an abundance of color and heat. In 2017, it was given a vibrant Miami makeover, with designs and costumes by Isabel and Ruben Toledo and projections by Wendall K. Harrington. …

“Miami City Ballet’s production is, Ms. Lopez noted, a true community effort. ‘Think of a hospital, a government agency, a real estate investment firm and a ballet company somehow coming to the table,’ she said. ‘Never in my wildest dreams would I ever, ever have thought of that.’

“She hadn’t planned for this to happen.

‘This is not because I’m a visionary,’ Ms. Lopez said. ‘It was just opportunities that arose and it came, honestly, from a “What can we do?” ‘ …

“It was Ms. Harrington who, over the summer, suggested to Ms. Lopez that the company should present a ‘Nutcracker.’ … ‘I’m not like the hugest fan of “The Nutcracker” in all the world, but I do know of its healing effects,’ she said. ‘And right now we need a little Christmas, as the song goes.’ …

“The company has teamed up with a health care partner, Baptist Health South Florida, and abides by a stringent testing and safety protocol. Masked audience members will be seated in socially distanced pods that accommodate up to four people each. The intermission has been cut to five minutes — more of a pause — and the idea is to get people in and out efficiently.

“Ms. Lopez credited early actions that the Miami City Ballet organization took when the coronavirus forced a shutdown in March. It quickly formed a Covid task force, which led to engaging an industrial hygienist who examined the studios for safety. …

“Ms. Lopez was able to hold the school’s summer course — an indoor, in-person program for 100 students — for five weeks in July. ‘We were biting our nails because Florida in July was a red-hot state,’ she said. ‘And we didn’t have one single case in those five weeks. We sent the staff home. You couldn’t come into the building if you weren’t part of the school or faculty.

“ ‘And so there was a real sense that we could do this, that we knew how to do it safely in the building. That’s really how it started.”

“When Downtown Doral Park became available, Ms. Harrington refocused her thinking. … ‘I had to look through the ballet and figure out how the storytelling can continue without the numbers of people that you would want in the party scene and the battle scene. … One big change is an Act 2 overture in place of the young children who usually play Angels. For it, she created a journey from the snow scene that ends Act 1 to the beach, ‘because it’s Miami,’ Ms. Harrington said. …

[Ms. Harrington] was always baffled by the abrupt change in setting, from the Act 1 snow scene to Act 2’s tropical Land of the Sweets. ‘It was snowy and now there’s a pineapple onstage,’ she said. … ‘It was within my grasp to fill in the gaps. …

“ ‘I felt like this could be a thrill. I hope I’m right. I believe in theater and art. … I just needed it to happen.”

More here.

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Back in January, I read Michelle Herman’s Slate column about taking up ballet late in life, and I’ve been wondering if she’s kept it up during the pandemic. Even professional ballet dancers have found it challenging to practice.

Here is how Herman got into ballet at age 62.

“The dance studio had just opened on my corner — I didn’t even have to cross a street to get there. So what I asked myself was just how lazy I would have to be not to try a class. I had fond, if vague, childhood memories of the weekly modern dance classes I took for five or six years at the famous Marjorie Mazia School in Brooklyn. …

“It had left its mark: The thought of a dance class did not fill me with despair or fury the way a Pilates class or the contemplation of a gym membership would have. Plus, I enjoyed dancing at parties. So maybe this would be fun, I told myself. Maybe I wouldn’t hate it.

“I didn’t hate it. I didn’t hate it so much that almost right from the beginning I was in tears. … There is no reason it should have felt so right to have one hand on the barre as I extended a foot that I was concentrating very hard on simultaneously turning out and pointing — concentrating not only on that pointed foot, but also on muscles throughout both that leg and the other leg, the one that was supposedly just standing still. And on my right arm in second position.

“I believe what happened that day was that I fell in love.

“There were only four of us in the room that first day. Three students (two old, as in over 50, and one young, as in under 20) and Filippo Pelacchi, the teacher (who was very young himself, although not in dancer years—he had just turned 28).

“If I cannot recreate every one of the 75 minutes of that first adult beginner class I took in the summer of 2017, it’s because by now I’ve spent approximately 84,000 more minutes in that studio—that is, 1,400 hours, something like 950 dance classes plus rehearsals for performances, and those minutes run together in my mind. But I do know this—that in that very first class, …  I had a moment of what seemed like perfect clarity: My body and my mind were working as one. …

“I’m a writer and a teacher, so all my work is mental work. But in ballet there was what seemed to me a remarkable twist: I was living that mental work in my body. In my body — with which, even more remarkably (even more improbably), I was making art. …

“In ballet, there is no separating the body and the mind. I have to think hard to create the shapes, to make the movements, of ballet. Even standing still in first position — which to the observer doesn’t look like anything — requires the engagement of muscles that will not turn on without my express command, muscles that do not engage reflexively the way my muscles do when going about ordinary tasks. There is nothing ordinary, nothing of the daily life, about ballet. …

“And there is this: Almost from the start I saw that ballet would fulfill a longing I’d had as far back as I could remember, a longing that accounts for the pleasure I take in hosting and leading a Passover Seder although I am a firmly nonbelieving Jew. …

“Sometimes the ballet advice sounds a lot like life advice.

  • Build a solid structure, Filippo tells us, and then find the open spaces where you can experiment, be yourself, and make it your own.
  • With stability comes freedom. If you are strong in your center, the rest can move freely around it.
  • Everything is connected. Everything you do is informed by what you have done before.
  • Commit to the transitions, he urges us. Even though they are not the highlights, they are the platform for the highlights.
  • And: No matter what happens, stay in it. Even if you forget or make a mistake, keep moving. “Here I am!” Own it. And then find your way back in.
  • Search every moment for what is there. Especially in the pauses, you have time to find something new, the next thing.”

More at Slate, here.

Art: Natalie Matthews-Ramo

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Six-Foot Tutus

Photo: Tyrone Singleton
Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers rehearsing in their socially distanced costumes.

Never underestimate the power of artists to work around obstacles! In today’s story, a dancer, a choreographer, and a costume designer figured out a socially distanced way to get dancers back to dancing. Anna Bailey reported the story at BBC Radio.

“Acclaimed Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta says ‘it feels great’ to be venturing back to staging indoor performances for a live audience in the UK after months of being prohibited from doing so because of the pandemic.

” ‘It feels great because we’ve been in lockdown for far too long and it’s a kind of career where if you don’t exercise your body for a week you go back and pay for it,’ says Acosta. …

“Acosta and the Birmingham Royal Ballet are following in the footsteps of The Royal Ballet in London which recently performed in front of a live audience in a reduced capacity auditorium.

“But Acosta is going one step further by introducing socially distanced costumes in the form of extra wide tutus for the brand-new mixed bill Lazuli Sky.

“It is the first one-act ballet commissioned and presented by Acosta since he took over as director of the Birmingham company at the start of the year. It is also due to be performed at Sadler’s Wells in London at the end of [October and online Nov. 1].

” ‘When we started, we wanted a piece where nobody would touch each other and so the dancers will be wearing elongated structures that are not static but are constantly moving and creating different shapes, evoking your imagination,’ explains Acosta about the spiral-shaped costumes. …

” They’re great in terms of aesthetic and a record of the time that we live in,’ Acosta adds.

“He has devised Lazuli Sky with the help of his designer Samuel Wyer and the award-winning choreographer Will Tuckett.

The influence for their costumes came from the crinoline skirts worn by fashionable women in the 19th Century to protect themselves from smallpox, cholera – and unwanted male advances. …

” ‘The tutu has always been a socially distanced piece of clothing; a stiff skirt that sticks out half a metre from your body. So it’s taking that idea and going “let’s just push it a little bit further,” ‘ says Tuckett. ‘The movement is dictated by them and the dancers have been fantastically adaptive and collaborative. Both male and female dancers wear them and so far there have been no upsets.’ …

“In Tuckett’s production the tutus with [6.5-foot] trains will also act as part of the set, as the production crew are unable to move props during performances due to the risks of the virus.

” ‘We’ll be projecting images onto the skirts,’ says Tuckett, ‘and when the dancers come out on stage it’s hypnotic and other worldly. They also look like sails and flowers when they all open out, they completely fill the space.’

“Nature is at the heart of Lazuli Sky, which stands for ‘bright blue sky’ and focuses on the upsides of the pandemic, such as open skies and birdsong, rather than the downsides. …

” ‘It’s incredible, there were no planes flying, levels of contamination and pollution dropped, and I got to see the beauty of it all,’ says Acosta [of his time in quarantine]. ‘I just hope that people will take notice of this and try and find a solution to help the planet. We want to give people hope.’ …

” ‘It’s unnatural for human beings not to touch and we have this tribal aspect of who we are to be social beings and our art form has always been about interaction physically,’ he says. ‘If you take that away from us, I’m not sure what kind of art form you would get if you’re not able to do Sleeping Beauty touching each other.

” ‘But we will wear masks on stage if we have to, and the dancers and musicians are very disciplined, we take ourselves very seriously in that regard.’ …

“So, is he the man to champion bringing ballet back during the pandemic, particularly having overcome his own challenges growing up in Cuba?

” ‘Well yeah, I just want for the people, especially those in Birmingham, to try and break the stigma that ballet is yesterday and something distant,’ he says. ‘My story, everybody has heard it and what ballet has done for me, and I want to bring that same enthusiasm to everybody, challenge people’s perceptions and do the best I can to achieve diversity and a healthy turnout of audiences from different backgrounds.’ “

More at the BBC, here.

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Few things equal the joy of dancing, as I keep learning from my 5-year-old granddaughter and the videos Suzanne and Erik send of her living-room performances. They make me want to get up and boogie, too.

A teacher in Africa who loves ballet thought, Why not? There may be no ballet in Nigeria, but kids need to dance.

As Noor Brara explains at the New York Times, “In June, a minute-long video featuring a young ballet student dancing in the rain began circulating on the internet. As the rain falls, forming puddles between the uneven slabs of concrete on which he dances, Anthony Mmesoma Madu, 11, turns pirouette after pirouette.

“Though the conditions for such dancing are all wrong — dangerous, even — he twirls on, flying barefoot into an arabesque and landing it. …

“The wide reach of the video — it has been seen more than 20 million times on social media platforms — has turned a spotlight on the unlikely story of a ballet school in a poor suburb of Lagos, Nigeria: the Leap of Dance Academy.

“Founded in 2017, the academy has transformed the lives of its students, affording them a place to dance and to dream. And in the last few months, it has inspired influential people in ballet to lend a hand. Seemingly overnight, a world of opportunity has opened up: for the students, scholarships and invitations to attend prestigious schools and companies overseas; and for the school, sizable donations, which will allow for building a proper space, outfitted with a real dance floor.

“For now, the Leap of Dance Academy is housed at the home of its founder, Daniel Owoseni Ajala, in Ajangbadi, Ojo, on the western outskirts of Lagos. Every day after school, Mr. Ajala’s 12 students walk to his apartment, where he pushes aside his furniture and spreads a thin vinyl sheet over the concrete floor for class, throwing open the doors and windows to let in the light. …

“Much of this is filmed and posted to the school’s Instagram feed, where the students’ joy is evident in each video, their movements precise and praiseworthy — as the comments, hearts and trembling star emojis left by their fans attest. …

” ‘In the beginning, people kept saying, “What are they doing?!” ‘ Mr. Ajala said. ‘I had to convince them that ballet wasn’t a bad or indecent dance, but actually something that requires a lot of discipline that would have positive effects on the lives of their children outside the classroom. I always say, it’s not only about the dance itself — it’s about the value of dance education.’

“When Mr. Ajala, 29, founded Leap of Dance three years ago, he was a self-taught recreational dancer with a dream: to open a ballet school for students who were serious about learning the art form and possibly pursuing it professionally one day. …

“As a child, Mr. Ajala became obsessed with ballet after watching “Save the Last Dance,” the 2001 movie about a lapsed ballet dancer (Julia Stiles) who moves to the South Side of Chicago after her mother dies …

“Mr. Ajala said he was captivated by the movement he saw onscreen and, perhaps even more, by the discipline and sacrifice that was evidently required to master it. Ballet appealed to him for another reason, too: It wasn’t widely taught or practiced in Nigeria. ‘I wanted to be different,’ he said. …

“Mr. Ajala’s role in the lives of his students goes beyond dance; he is invested in their whole development. One day a week class is dedicated solely to academics; the students come to the academy with their homework, with Mr. Ajala providing one-on-one tutoring as needed. They practice speaking, reading and writing in English together. And between lessons, which run from mid afternoon to early evening, he cooks them a meal. …

“Recently, too, the students have begun learning conversational Spanish, Italian and Chinese from their ballet teachers abroad, like [Thalema Williams, in St. Croix, and Mary Hubbs, in Brooklyn, Mich., who gave him lessons online to improve his technique]. ‘I want the kids to be able to relate to people internationally,’ Mr. Ajala said.”

At the Times, here, you can read how he manages to keep the ballet classes free. Very inspiring story.

Photo: Stephen Tayo for the New York Times
Anthony Mmesoma Madu, left, with fellow students from the Leap of Dance Academy, in Ajangbadi, Ojo, Nigeria.

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kitty-photo-by-russell-haydn-for-sod

Photo: Russell Haydn
Kitty Lunn, New Orleans ballerina who refused to let paralysis stop her.

Lately, I’ve seen a number of articles about incorporating more artists with disabilities into the theater and dance worlds. Ballerina Kitty Lunn didn’t set out to be an advocate in that movement, but after a paralyzing accident, she took charge of her future in way that helps others.

As reporter Erika Ferrando says at 4WWL television in New Orleans, “A ballerina embodies grace, control, and beauty. It takes years of practice and few are ever able to dance as a profession. For dancers, that’s the dream.

“What if that dream was achieved, then stolen? What if it no longer seemed possible for a dancer to dance? That’s what happened to Kitty Lunn and it’s been her mission ever since to overcome.

‘Life is a choice. We can either live while we’re alive or wait to die,’ said Lunn, who is now almost 70-year-old.

“Life is full of choices. Lunn always chose to dance even when it seemed she had no choice but to give up her dream. …

“Lunn trained in her hometown of New Orleans until she was 15, when her work here led to a scholarship with the Washington Ballet. She was living her dream. …

“She was 36-years-old, preparing for her first Broadway show when it all changed. …

“Lunn slipped on ice and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck and back. The accident put her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

” ‘I was very depressed because I had been a dancer since I was 8-years-old. I had to find a way,’ Lunn said.

“She had just started dating the man she would marry, Andrew. …

” ‘Andrew said, spoken like a true non dancer, said if you want to dance, who is stopping you? I was stopping me, fear was stopping me,’ Lunn said. …

 Photo: Dan Demetriad

kittylunn226-1

” ‘I went back to class I put my money on the table. They had to let me in, I had the ADA behind me,’ she said. …

“Surrounded by world class ballet dancers, she was forced to break down barriers.

” ‘They said ‘well you can come in, but you’re on probation. If anyone complains, you’ll have to leave. Many people have complained and I didn’t leave,’ Lunn said.

“In 1995, Lunn founded Infinity Dance Theater in New York. It’s a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with and without disabilities. The company performs all over the world. …

“Kitty Lunn visited New Orleans this month to help launch a program that keeps veterans moving. The New Orleans VA partnered with the New Orleans Ballet Association for ‘Freedom of Movement’ classes. The program is for veterans, wheelchair-users or not, teaching them to keep moving and dancing.

” ‘It helps me move joints that are a little difficult to move,’ veteran Tina Boquet said. ‘Although I may not be able to do things like I did before my accident, I am still able to move.’

“Now Lunn travels the world teaching others to move, despite anything trying to hold them back.

” ‘I learned that the dancer inside me doesn’t care about this wheelchair. She just wanted to find a way to keep dancing,’ she said. “I think I’m living the life I was born to live. That was an accident, this is a choice.’ ”

More at 4WWL, here, and at Infinity Dance Theater, here.

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snowflake1110

Photo: Brian Feulner, Special to the Chronicle
Joan Vickers, 92, was a snowflake in the first production of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” in 1944.

I was surprised to learn that the “Nutcracker” ballet — which my youngest granddaughter and thousands of little girls and boys around the world were part of this past Christmas — was first performed in the United States in 1944. I guess I thought it was eternal. How could there ever have been a time that the “Nutcracker” was not performed at Christmas? But such is the case. And every ballet company that performs it now does something different to make the event its own.

Sam Whiting reports at the San Francisco Chronicle, “It was wartime 1944 when San Francisco first felt the magic of a Christmas Eve snowfall. It lasted 10 minutes, and Joan Vickers remembers it clearly.

“Vickers was in the first full-length ‘Nutcracker’ to be staged in America, a San Francisco Ballet production at the War Memorial Opera House. Act 1 ended in the Land of the Snowflakes, according to the program, and there were no special effects. There was only a 17-year-old Vickers and 15 other corps members dressed in white. They each held a stick with a white star at the tip of it, and they waved them around like sparklers.

“ ‘We became the snow,’ said the now 92-year-old Vickers, from her home in Alameda. ‘The audience was amazed and in awe.’

“Bay Area audiences continue to be in awe as the holiday tradition continues, and the snow scene has only intensified over the decades. ‘Nutcracker’ has been updated four times — in 1954, 1967, 1986 and 2004 — with the last revision orchestrated by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who took the setting from snowbound 19th century Europe to 20th century San Francisco … when a jeweled city rose straight out of the sand to form the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

“Despite the Mediterranean climate, the snow still falls, though in this production, it comes in the form of 600 pounds of confetti dropped from the fly space by a six-person crew. …

“ ‘As a child (in Iceland), I was always amazed at what a snowstorm can look like and how monumental and beautiful they can be,’ said Tomasson by email from Copenhagen, where the company was on tour. ‘I wanted to re-create that personal memory for San Francisco.’

“The snow falls with a ferocity probably unmatched by any other production of ‘Nutcracker,’ which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 with an original score by Tchaikovsky and is now revived in some form each Christmas season by just about every ballet company.

“The ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ is so beloved that it has its own YouTube category. … In San Francisco it comes down like it does in the film ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ which is to say once it starts it doesn’t stop. It gets in the hair and the eyelashes of the dancers, and piles up on the floor to slicken the stage. …

“Jasmine Jimison, a 17-year-old member of the corps de ballet, said it can be arduous to dance upon ‘the snow’ each night, even with caking her slippers in rosin to take the stage.

“ ‘Dancing in the snow scene is an experience like no other. It’s scary and exciting at the same time,’ said Jimison, also reached in Copenhagen last week. ‘There’s always the stress of not slipping or having enough stamina, especially once the snow starts falling really hard toward the end. I’m so exhausted by that point that my legs feel like Jell-O and I can barely see, but adrenaline helps push me through, and the escalating music adds to it.’ …

“Artistic Director Willam Christensen designed [the first US ‘Nutcracker’] as a one-season production inspired by a San Francisco visit by George Balanchine in the fall of 1944. Balanchine had danced in the full-length production of ‘Nutcracker’ in Russia and encouraged Christensen to create his own. …

“The restrictions of the war effort necessitated that budgets and materials were tight. There was only $1,000 allotted for costumes … so all of the red velvet for the outfits came from the curtain of the Cort Theater on Ellis Street, which had been demolished. … The opera house was under a blackout order, and air raid wardens were in the audience ready to blow their whistles.

“The production then went on the road to Oakland, Sacramento and Stockton, and that was to be the end of it. The following Christmas, Christensen mounted ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘it was a failure,’ Vickers said. They tried other productions, but nothing else worked, so in 1948 Christensen brought back ‘Nutcracker’ for good.”

More.

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The woman above, who participates in a New Zealand prison’s ballet class, says the dancing made her happy. She says she plans to take some of her new skills into her future on the outside.

In New Zealand, officials in a women’s prison have found that ballet may not only provide structure and discipline to people who need help with self-control: it may also provide happiness.

Caroline Williams writes at Stuff, “Barbed wire fences, concrete cells and a focus on hard punishment are a thing of the past at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility. Instead, it’s open spaces and restorative rehabilitation in the form of classical music and contemporary ballet.

“Since 2017, inmates at men’s and women’s prisons in Wellington and Christchurch have enjoyed a more refined approach to restorative justice, thanks to a Royal New Zealand Ballet [RNZB] initiative to make the art form more accessible.

“Before prison, some of the women had had to ‘be staunch’ their whole lives, RNZB corporate development manager Diane Field said. The ballet program had allowed them to feel free and feminine.

“[In October], the first group of women to take the course in Auckland graduated in front of an audience of RNZB representatives and prison staff, with choreography including repertoire from past RNZB productions Megalopolis, Cacti, Artemis Rising and Black Swan, White Swan.

“The seven women beamed with pride as they completed the performances with few mistakes — a pretty good effort for only 10 and a half hours of practice spread over eight weeks, with a week lost in the middle due to a measles scare. …

“One said the certificate given to her at a graduation ceremony made her feel like she’d accomplished something. … Another said the classes had shaped her into ‘a totally different person’ after never having engaged in sport or dance before her conviction.

“While the dancing ‘made her happy,’ she accepted it was part of her punishment and would take something from the experience into her future. She hoped to pursue a career in fitness upon her release from the facility. … ‘Little things from outsiders make a big difference for us.’

“All the inmates interviewed by Stuff said they would like to take dance classes again and would encourage other inmates to have a go.

“RNZB senior dance educator Pagan Dorgan taught prison programmes in Wellington and Christchurch, but said the women in Auckland had a particular flair for movement.

‘Every week you can just see them become more confident. With confidence comes the drive to want to get better. They’re very engaged and very present.’

“Dorgan, who usually taught dance in schools, … adjusted her teaching style to accommodate for the inmates, including allowances for chatter and freedom for the women to work in their own groups. But she insisted she hadn’t made it easy for the women.

” ‘The more you see them develop, the more you can push.’

“Prison director Steve Park said … [it’s a credit] to the women to put their name forward for the programme.”

I had thought of “restorative justice” as an effort on the part of a wrongdoer to “restore” what they had taken from someone else in committing a crime. But of course, it’s also about restoring criminals to their better selves. Good to know that ballet can help.

More at Stuff, here.

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Photo: Thomas Armour Youth Ballet
An unusual ballet company in Miami provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals as needed.

In the fall, my younger granddaughter will start ballet lessons in Rhode Island. “I’m going to be on the stage,” she announced to my neighbor. I’m not sure what, at age 4, ballet classes mean to her, but they have a mighty big aura.

In Miami, an unusual ballet company has been growing an even bigger aura. Thomas Armour Youth Ballet offers dance lessons, yes, but as I learned from this Miami Herald article by Rodolfo Roman, its goals extend well beyond dance.

“When sports journalist Claudia Chang Trejos faced a difficult period in her life, an after-school ballet program helped her overcome obstacles.

“Now, her daughter, Glades Middle School student Sophia Chang Trejos, 14, is following her mother, attending the after-school program at the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami.

“The program provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals [and] delivers professionally taught dance classes in multiple genres, at little or no cost to 500 students ages 5-11.

” ‘When she started, I was going through a nasty divorce,’ Claudia said. ‘We were broke. I had no one to help me out with Sophia, so this was a place she could go to, and go with her peers. I went to work and I had a peace of mind.’ …

“ ‘Ballet is not for everybody,’ said Sophia, who credits the program with her getting into the New World School of Arts, the Miami-Dade arts magnet high school, where she will start in the fall.

“ ‘You can start when you are 4 and love it, but when you grow, the technique gets harder and that’s when people quit. What I like about ballet is it’s a different way to train a person. I like the music and the way people are when you are dancing. It is like a movie.’ …

“Director Ruth Wiesen said the program’s goal is to be a vehicle of success.

“ ‘Every now and then, I step back and I am shocked we are able to see these kids succeed and coming back to Miami,’ she said. ‘That is the biggest thrill. They come back, settle down and act like role models.’ …

“No matter what her future holds, Sophia said the program will always have a place in her heart.

“ ‘I plan on coming back when I am older, and teach classes to give back,’ she said.”

More at the Miami Herald, here.

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Photos: The Plié Project
Annalisa Cianci of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma models a paper tutu for a project highlighting diversity in dance.

Did you ever see the intriguing documentary by Vanessa Gould called Between the Folds? It’s about origami masters, and my husband and I heard about it because Vanessa’s parents lived in our town.

I have never advanced in origami myself — folded fortune-tellers are about as far as I go — but I have great admiration for artists practicing the craft. And not long ago I read an astonishing story about a project involving origami ballet costumes.

Leah Collins wrote at CBC Arts, “On paper, it’s a partnership that doesn’t immediately make sense. Pauline Loctin (a.k.a. Miss Cloudy) is an origami artist and self-described ‘folding warrior.’ Melika Dez is a photographer, one who specializes in capturing dancers in action. And around this time last year, the Montreal-based artists began collaborating on something they call the Plié Project: an ongoing series of photographs featuring dancers from internationally famed companies, all wearing original, hand-folded costumes by Loctin.

” ‘Paper is kind of fragile, but at the same time, it’s a very strong material,’ says Dez. Beauty and strength and fragility, all in one: that’s how you describe a dancer, right there. But who gets to be those things? …

” ‘In a world where the ballerina “has to look” a certain way, we decided to showcase the beauty of these unconventional but extremely talented dancers and break the boundaries of stereotypes.’

Amanda Smith, Daphne M. Lee and Yinet Fernandez Salisbury of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dandara Amorim Veiga of Ballet Hispanico. 

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“Both artists have personal ties to the ballet, which partly explains their interest in the message. Loctin’s previous career was in classical music. The ballet, she explains, was always connected to her work. Dez is a dancer herself, and as a photographer, she shoots companies around the world, including the Black Iris Project in New York City.

” ‘In my work, I’m used to working with diverse people,’ says Dez. ‘There’s a wave of change that is happening in the dance world and it was important to me to push it forward because I myself, I’m a mix.’ …

” ‘There is a paper colour for every girl. … It was just an important message for me to put out there. For little girls to know that anything is possible no matter if they’re Black, white, Asian, Latina — anything is possible. They can do whatever they want as long as they put their heart into it.’ ”

More at CBC, here. There’s a terrific array of photos at the site.

Mai Kono of Les Grands Ballets. 

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Photo: Dezeen
A new prosthetic leg allows an amputee ballet dancer to go on pointe. The designer imagines whole dances on pointe.

Generations of little girls in my family have taken ballet classes, and probably each of them has spent more than an hour or two dreaming of life as a prima ballerina. After a while, though, little girls get interested in something else or the challenges become too daunting.

Now imagine just how daunting it would be for an amputee who is determined to dance.

Ali Morris writes at the design magazine Dezeen, “Pratt Institute graduate Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthetic leg that allows amputees to perform ballet like never before.

“Unlike regular artificial limbs, which are designed to mimic the human body, the Marie-T enables amputee ballet dancers to enhance their performance.

“Made up of three components, Marie-T features a weighty foam-injected rotational moulded foot, with a stainless-steel toe and rubber grip that help provide the dancer with balance and momentum during rotations.

“In mainstream ballet, dancers typically move in and out of the pointe position – when all body weight is supported by the tips of fully extended feet within pointe shoes.

“However, because of the immense strain on the foot and ankle of a performer, it is impossible for a ballet dancer to constantly perform in this position.

“Jae-Hyun An, who studied on the Pratt’s Industrial Design programme, designed the carbon-fibre Marie-T to enable amputees to dance on pointe throughout a performance.

“New York-based An said the design, which is named after 19th-century Swedish ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, could encourage amputees to develop a new choreography that has never been achieved by mainstream ballerinas.

” ‘I wanted to explore what would happen if you could allow a person to perform on pointe 100 per cent of the time,’ said An, who developed Marie-T over the course of four months. …

“During research, An realised that a weak ankle can twist and cause a ballerina in pointe position to wobble. In response, An designed a strong and stable ankle area that helps the ballerina stay in balance.

“The ankle connects to a slightly curved carbon-fibre limb which helps absorb the shock from the impact of the ballet dancer stepping forward. The limb is topped by a 3D-printed socket with steel round head screws.

“Ill-fitting prosthetic limbs can cause blisters and rashes on dancers, so An designed the Marie-T so that the parts can be easily switched out when they become well worn or need to be resized. …

” ‘In my research I came across Viktoria Modesta and she re-interpreted performance with her prosthetics. It was visually so powerful and opened a completely new area of prosthetics for me. I fell in love with the idea of designing something that could expand the artistic and cultural scene of a community with prosthetic users.’

“To continue developing this project in the future, An hopes to collaborate with an amputee dancer who has their own vision for prosthetic ballet.

” ‘The design of the prosthesis will change to fit the dancer, but also to match the specific movements of the newly developed choreography,’ he explained. ‘However, until I meet this dancer, I will continue to develop as a designer.’ ”

More at Dezeen, here.

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Photo: James Glossop
Scottish Ballet expands Dance for Parkinson’s classes to cities across the country.

The class that comes right before my Essentrics stretch class on Thursdays is for people with Parkinson’s. The participants seem to enjoy it. One man, who is said to be over 100, routinely leaves the class with a smile on his face.

Exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s are not new, but there are always new locations offering them and new techniques to help people keep moving. Consider, for example, this report from Scotland, where the Scottish Ballet has a program.

Jeremy Watson writes at the Times, “Research has shown that dance can help people with the degenerative disease physically, mentally and socially. [At the Scottish Ballet,] staff and volunteers help participants develop movement skills with particular emphasis on fluidity, balance, co-ordination and posture. The sessions include activities focused on problem solving, improvisation, vocal skills, memory and multi-tasking.”

The Scottish Ballet website adds background. “Established in 2016, the Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland programme supports those with Parkinson’s to experience the benefits of dance and creativity — improving balance, spatial awareness, confidence and fluidity in movement. Every week, around 75 participants take part in sessions delivered by Scottish Ballet in Glasgow and Dance Base in Edinburgh. …

“The warm and informal Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland classes feature elements of ballet and contemporary dance with a focus on Scottish Ballet’s repertoire. Using the themes and movement from current productions, specially trained Scottish Ballet and Dance Base Dance Artists lead participants to develop movement skills with particular focus on fluidity of movement, balance, coordination, expression, posture and rhythm.”

The Edinburgh Parkinson’s site says that the aims of the classes “are to

* wake up stiff muscles and improve flexibility,
* encourage mind-body connection,
* improve co-ordination and balance, and
* increase self-awareness and self-esteem
* in a supportive and joyful environment

“The social time at the end of each session is a chance to make connections and feel part of the dance community. … The teachers have a wonderful sense of light-heartedness and fun which they bring to the classes. Live music is an essential ingredient, and we have a talented pianist, Robert Briggs, providing the accompaniment, so the music is used flexibly to encourage movement and development of sequences. …

“The original concept, arising from collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group in New York, is now increasingly practised worldwide among the Parkinson’s community.”

Patients’ partners and caregivers attend the class that I’ve looked in on, and they are welcome to participate and get some exercise, too. The musical selections are great, but unlike in Scotland, there is not a live accompaniment.

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Photo: Social Candy
Milwaukee Ballet dancer and teacher, Janel Meindersee, tries out a wheelchair herself as she teaches her students. Parents watch with pride.

Heartbreaking as it is to see anyone make fun of a person with a disability, which does happen in these harsh times, it’s important to remember the advice that the mother of Mister Rogers gave him long ago: “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

In Milwaukee, some unusual helpers are found in a dance company.

Amy Schwabe writes at Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, “Nine-year-old Namine Eiche may be in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her from being a ballet dancer. That’s thanks to Tour de Force, a partnership between Milwaukee Ballet and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin that’s been providing ballet classes to children with disabilities since 2014.

“Just last year, the opportunity was opened up to children in wheelchairs through the ‘Glissade’ class, very appropriately named since ‘glissade’ is the French word for ‘glide.’

“Janel Meindersee, a Milwaukee Ballet dancer who teaches Glissade, explained how the children are able to dance.

” ‘We teach a lot of the same things as a normal ballet class — how to spot your head when you move, the quality of arm movements, how to count music and how to stay in line when dancing together,’ Meindersee said. …

“Meindersee said that seeing kids in wheelchairs in other Tour de Force classes was the impetus for Glissade.

” ‘There was a girl in a wheelchair coming to one of our other Tour de Force classes,’ Meindersee said. ‘She was able to get out of her wheelchair sometimes, but she was most comfortable in her chair. We thought there had to be other kids who can’t even get out of their chairs at all. …

“After having taught two sessions of Glissade, Meindersee is ‘blown away’ by the skill, talent and strength of her students — especially when she gets in a wheelchair herself to try out the dance moves. She laughs with her students, pointing out that she’s not as skilled in wheelchair maneuvers as her students are.”

More at the Journal Sentinel, here. Just imagine the joy and self-confidence of these young dancers take home with them after a class. Perhaps some will join one of the professional wheelchair ballets someday. Or start their own company.

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