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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

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” ‘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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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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1570912830780Photo: Chris McKeen/Stuff
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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plie-project

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. 

plie-project

“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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