Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Round-up

Tamara Rojo and Osiel Gouneo
in Le Corsaire
Photo; Laurent Liotardo
This year, there are six diary blogs about my adult ballet learning adventure - going Back to the Barre and taking the RAD Intermediate exam. Also on Dance Musings is a review of English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer 2016.

Other writing:
A review of English National Ballet's Le Corsaire on Londonist
Three feature articles in Dancing Times - London Studio Centre ('Remarkable things', January issue), Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance ('Not a sausage factory', September issue) and a preview of One Dance UK's gala ('Together for dance', September issue)
And, lots of reviews in Dancing Times - Chelsea Ballet Schools (February), Verve (July), Performers College (August), Bird College (September) and the National Youth Ballet (November)

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Back to the Barre #6

It's exam time in my adult ballet learning journey... 

November 2016

The pressure is mounting as my exam date (15 December) looms near. I watch a ballet-specific Pilates DVD and start regularly practising the most useful exercises alongside some floor barre. I’m determined to build my strength as much as possible; I’d really like to get a distinction in the exam. 

I film myself performing exercises in class. It’s horrible to watch the videos at first (I don’t look as beautiful and poised as I feel!) but it really helps me to identify problems and make noticeable improvements. I spot (and try to correct) two particularly bad habits – looking at the floor and not pointing my feet on the transitions between steps. 

The classes at RAD HQ are going well and it’s lovely practising with a live pianist. On the last session of term, a dance-knowledgeable friend comes to watch and I ask her for feedback. She says I look strong at the barre but need to focus more on my posture in the centre. I also ask her for some tips for improving leg height in developpés to the front and side and she obliges with some super-difficult strengthening exercises that I can barely do! I decide they will be great to work on in preparation for the next exam…

I’ve noticed money has been tighter this year and wasn’t sure why – that is until I calculate the cost of doing ballet again. With classes, exam fees, syllabus materials, leotards, tights and shoes, I’ve spent around £800 in the last 12 months. Ballet is an expensive hobby!

December 2016

I thought my pirouettes were getting better, but they seem to have disappeared in the final days before the exam. Likewise, I’m being given lots of new corrections for silly things that I wasn’t doing before – such as turning the leg in when lifting it to the side and not curving the elbows in 5th position.

Luckily, everything seems to come together on the exam day (pictured) and I really enjoy the experience. I take the exam with a fellow adult from my Transform classes as well as a girl from another dance school, and we all smile at each other between exercises which is lovely. I make a couple of minor mistakes but am generally pretty pleased with my performance. I even manage – surprisingly and pleasingly – to get round on all of the double pirouettes. 

I won’t get the result until late January, but I’m confident I'll pass. I decide I’d rather skip the optional Advanced Foundation level and instead buy the more difficult Advanced 1 syllabus and DVD ready to start learning over Christmas. 

One of the unexpected benefits of going back to ballet is also that I’ve made a new friend – Chloe. Over the last few months, we've bonded over our shared difficulties performing pirouettes and love of wearing tutus. She’s decided to go onto Advanced Foundation so we’ll no longer be in the same regular classes but we make a plan to take some free classes together in the new year.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Back to the Barre #5

Here's the latest update in my adult ballet learning adventure... 

September 2016

My ballet assessment with the RAD teacher goes smoothly and she is happy to enter me for the exam. Apart from pirouettes, there's just one major problem I need to work on – my arm positions. Whether my bad habits are new or have simply gone unnoticed previously, I'm now placing my arms too far back in second position and frequently flexing my wrists. 

I feel disheartened – I had been feeling increasingly confident in my technique. But I reassure myself that there is plenty of time to practise and correct things before the exam. 

I also commence pas de deux classes with the London Performance Company and am pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and technical capabilities in the room. One woman is working towards the RAD Advanced 2 ballet exam and has flat turn-out, another takes ballet classes four times a week. There are also an impressive number of men (although the male-female ratio is still one to two). 

We learn the opening section of Hans van Manen's Five Tangos and my part includes a lift with both legs unfolding in front. I exclaim to non-ballet friends that “I get lifted really high – by a real boy” and they are bemused. I had forgotten the feeling of flying when being lifted by a partner. 

As rehearsals continue, however, I find I'm in little of the choreography and spend most of the sessions standing at the side either chatting or attempting single-leg relevés and hops on pointe (which are much easier with a real barre than my kitchen worktop!). I'm disappointed to be dancing so little. 

October 2016

I feel like a dancer again. Having two ballet classes each weekend and also trying to practise during the week, my life feels filled with ballet. I’m also excited about taking the RAD Intermediate exam (especially as the date has been confirmed for 15th December) and I’m now confident enough in the syllabus exercises that I can really enjoy dancing. I feel beautiful. 

I’m still getting lots of technical corrections but they’re minor improvements rather than major problems. I’ve got my misbehaving arms more or less under control, and they’re only going too far back during the toughest steps like brisés. Double pirouettes are still troublesome but I’m now almost always able to hold the retiré position even if I come down from demi-pointe or lose my balance. I’ve also got used to my demi-pointe shoes and can balance in them more easily. I’m pleased too that I’m getting regular praise about my performance quality and presentation.

I take a trial intermediate class at RAD headquarters and sign up for the rest of the term. It’s particularly enjoyable dancing with a pianist (rather than recorded music) and on a proper, non-slippery dance floor. The teacher gives me a lot of positive encouragement but tells me my ballet runs are like “an old man in slippers!”. I try lots of different running styles and find one that seems to suit me better. 

Unfortunately, my London Performance Company classes are going less well and I leave each week feeling increasingly frustrated. The choreography is undoubtedly tricky in itself, but what is most difficult is the lack of clarity over steps. We learn a section one way and then the next week, various details – such as musical timing, arm positions and partner holds – are changed, and then the week after, they’re changed again. No one seems to know the ‘correct’ version and I find it impossible to feel confident. Combined with a lot of time spent waiting rather than dancing, I decide to leave the classes. I know it’s absolutely the right decision but I’m sad that I won’t be performing onstage in 2016.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Back to the Barre #4

The latest update in my adult ballet learning adventure... 

July 2016

It's my final classes with Transform before the summer, and things are starting to improve. In particular, my pirouettes en dehors are getting better. 

I find that if I think 'strong' (and actually say the word to myself in my head) as I plié to prepare, I’m able to relevé into a better position, with my core muscles engaged, my spine lengthened and my arms at the correct height. I'm still not getting round every time, but it's a marked improvement.

On the last class of term, I speak to the teacher about when she thinks I might be ready to take the exam, and she says that I should enter as soon as possible (replying to my pirouette protestations with the words "pirouettes schmirouettes!"). I'm thrilled, but as she's not the teacher who actually enters students for RAD exams, I'll have to wait for an official assessment with the other teacher in September. All being well though, I'll be able to complete the exam before Christmas.

I take the rest of the month off from ballet and instead enjoy summer picnics, a day trip to the seaside and other fun activities. I feel guilty and worry that I’ll lose my technique during my time off, but I keep reminding myself that I’m doing ballet for enjoyment and not to be perfect.

August 2016

It’s time to start thinking seriously about the ballet exam. I realise – on reading the RAD Intermediate specification – that I need to wear demi-pointe shoes and so I order a pair online. I sew on the ribbons and immediately test out a few barre exercises (using my lovely kitchen worktop). My feet have to work extra-hard to extend and balancing on demi-pointe is much more difficult (which is ironic really, considering the name of the shoes). I’ll have to start wearing them every time I practise from now on.

I also order a fake bun (pictured) that I can clip in over my bob-length hair to look more professional ballerina-y. And I indulge myself by buying a practice tutu skirt too, which I can wear in the exam for the variation. I then focus my practice on being as 'big' as possible, a correction that has come up for me repeatedly during the Transform classes. I try to fill as much space as possible as I dance - using confidence, projection and strong arm lines.

I’m still enjoying learning the RAD syllabus but I really want to be back onstage again. I audition to be in an amateur musical and am unsuccessful, which I take as a sign that I’m best sticking to ballet. I research adult ballet companies and find that there are very few. When affordability, location, rehearsal time and level are factored in, there’s only one option that’s suitable – the London Performance Company. I sign up for its Sunday afternoon pas de deux classes starting in September, meaning that my weekends will now be filled with ballet (with the continuation of RAD Intermediate classes on Saturday mornings).

We’ll be learning Hans van Manen's Five Tangos ready for a performance in December. It’s a quirky contemporary ballet piece set to tango music, but I have no idea how much of it will be taught or whether it will be adapted/simplified. In any case, I’m excited about getting ready to perform again.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Back to the Barre #3

Here's the latest update in my ballet-learning adventure...

May 2016

This month starts well as I’ve signed up for syllabus classes commencing in June. Unfortunately however, my knee injury has returned, so I’m forced to go back to my physiotherapist-recommended strengthening exercises and avoid jumping.

After a couple of weeks, my knee feels better and I learn the last two syllabus exercises – pirouettes en dedans and révérence. The former has the challenges of double pirouttes en dedans – without the help of a handy fouetté foot motion – as well as a sequence of seven posé pirouettes at a dizzyingly brisk pace, and it’s the examiner (and not the dancer) who chooses whether they’re performed to the right or left. The latter, however, is a lovely combination of running, courus, and of course, curtseys.

My pointe work is improving, thanks to my leg press training at the gym. I’m finding the centre exercises less tiring and now have the energy to focus on the accompanying port de bras and head movements rather than just my feet and legs.

I’m rather enjoying my ballet journey so far. In fact, I’m enjoying it so much that I feel inspired to pose in arabesque in the beautiful countryside of Box Hill. I post the photo on Facebook and Daria Klimentova (former principal ballerina at English National Ballet) even jokes that it’s a better arabesque than hers. I reply with lots of ‘crying with laughter’ emojis.

June 2016

The classes I’ve signed up for are with Transform, and are for two full hours on a Saturday morning in a small group of just four students. I’m looking forward to this intensity of training and want to make the most of it, so I practise as much as I can. I also teach myself the syllabus variation, a dancey solo that is more like stage choreography than a technical exercise.

There are two choices, so I watch both on the DVD and prefer the more lyrical variation A. With floaty harp music, it feels like a Sleeping Beauty prologue fairy or Don Quixote dream sequence solo. I enjoy the challenge of learning it, but find the choreography somewhat disjointed with the more technical movements interspersed with lots of classical running. Perhaps I should try to imagine myself wearing a glorious tutu and imitating a beautiful ballet fairy in flight?!

Starting classes is nothing short of revelatory. There are a thousand things I find that I’m doing wrong, from silly syllabus mis-learning to bad technique habits that I’ve picked up during my years without training. My most frequent correction is to look up rather than at the floor – something I never had problems with in the past and which is probably representative of the fact I feel much less confident in my skills than I did as a teenager.

While I’m making gradual improvements with all the other exercises, pirouettes are still my nemesis and I’m only getting round on doubles about 10-20% of the time. My teacher offers various suggestions as to where I may be going wrong – not ‘spotting’ effectively, having the arms too low in first position, not turning out the working leg enough, not pulling up through the centre body line etc. My summer homework is definitely to practise, practise, practise!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

ENB Emerging Dancer 2016

Cesar Corrales in Diana and Acteon
Photo: Laurent Liotardo


Emerging Dancer, English National Ballet, London Palladium - reviewed on 17th May

Dance competitions are always problematic as it's impossible to compare like for like. Even if all dancers perform the same solos, the repertoire will suit some more than others. If they choose different pieces, how do you judge a dancer who performs eight pirouettes in a virtuosic Petipa variation against someone who excels in a lyrical, dramatic or contemporary work?

Cesar Corrales
Photo: Laurent Liotardo
In spite of these reservations, English National Ballet's annual Emerging Dancer competition holds a particular fondness for me, as it was the first show I reviewed as a dance critic five years ago. It's also been interesting to see how the event has become bigger and better each year, with developments including the addition of duets, an increasingly diverse judging panel, and a move to perform in large West End theatres.

At the London Palladium on Tuesday, there was one dancer who was in an entirely different league to the rest. Whilst everyone else had at least a few wobbles, junior soloist Cesar Corrales was immaculate in both his dynamic Diana and Acteon pas de deux and his less choreographically-exciting Contrabajo para Hombre contemporary solo.

Corrales' multiple pirouettes were superbly-controlled, his leaps sky-high and his partnering confident and secure. He was therefore very deserving of the Emerging Dancer Award, and it was unsurprising that he was also selected by ENB audiences to win the People's Choice Award.

Isabelle Brouwers with Erik Woolhouse
in The Talisman pas-de-deux
Photo: Laurent Liotardo
One other notable performance came from artist Isabelle Brouwers. In  relatively un-virtuosic repertoire, she stood out for her light, delicate and effortless technique and sunny stage presence. I spotted her a few years ago in the Young British Dancer of the Year competition where she was the most captivating performer onstage, and she radiated just as much joy in her dancing this time. She was also thoroughly engaging in the torso isolations and striking arm poses of Charlotte Edmonds' new solo, Pelican.

ENB's Emerging Dancer is important not just for the winner but for all the competitors, who have the opportunity - early in their career - to learn and be seen in repertoire typically reserved for soloists and principals. It's this chance for them to grow that is exciting, as well as the way in which the competition showcases and celebrates the talent and commitment of the company's hard-working lower ranking dancers. 

ENB director Tamara Rojo took the celebration a step further this year, with a Corps de Ballet Award given to artist Jennie Harrington who has "gone beyond the call of duty" in her involvement with the company's outreach work (on top of an already heavy schedule). Harrington's tears on acceptance showed just how much it means to be recognised.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Back to the Barre #2

Here's the latest update in my adult ballet learning adventure...

March 2016

I'm learning more of the RAD Intermediate centre exercises, and the recurring theme is speed! The centre practice involves tendus, grand battements and pirouettes with quick changes of weight and little time for preparation. My single pirouettes are just about passable, but my doubles currently involve a lot of hopping/falling/faking.

Likewise, the second allegro exercise is all about rapid footwork and changes of direction. I feel like my feet are getting tied up in knots, so I’m practising with a slower alternative music. Particularly trying are the brisés that conclude the exercise. Mentally I know what I’m trying to do, but my body seems incapable of bending over my legs and I frequently find my feet landing one on top of each other rather than side by side in the perfect fifth position I intend. 

On the plus side, I have the opportunity to practise in front of a mirror for the first time while staying in a hotel. I'm pleased with how things are looking and am able to give myself a few minor corrections, such as ensuring my arabesque is right behind me. 

I also teach myself the third (grand) allegro, which is a lovely dancey exercise full of hops in lots of different positions. It's tiring in a wonderful way (I feel like I've really worked hard by the end of the exercise) and finishes with two grand jetés and a free jump. I choose a pas de chat and chassé taking one arm to fifth and one to my hip to give a satisfying Don Quixote feel (and match the Don Q music!). 

April 2016

I'm focusing on adage and pointe work. The RAD Intermediate adage exercise is extremely challenging with long-held leg lifts and tricky timing, but it has some lovely moments and I can feel my strength building each time I perform it. 

I've now learnt all the syllabus pointe work and my favourite exercise is the posé and coupé fouetté raccourci, though I don't really have enough space to travel it along my kitchen worktop! I particularly enjoy its rapid pas de bourées piqués. 

The centre pointe work is pretty exhausting, with four repetitions of each exercise (twice on each side) and I struggle to land my relevés through the foot each time. I mention this to a friend who works in dance heath and she suggests I add rises onto demi-pointe into the leg presses I already do at the gym. 

I go to a free ballet class and get some advice on those pesky pirouettes. Apparently I'm holding my arms too high in first position which is forcing my weight back and knocking me off balance. Next month, I'm signing up for syllabus classes. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Back to the Barre #1

This year, I'm taking a step back from reviewing dance to focus on dancing myself. But unable to stay away from writing completely, I've decided to write a monthly diary about my progress – hope you enjoy reading! More entries to follow...

January 2016

One of my 2016 resolutions is to take-up ballet again. It's been 10 years since I left dance school and apart from a brief stint in an amateur adult company (seven years ago!), I've stayed away from the barre. But I now go to the gym regularly and am feeling fit and healthy, so I think I’m ready to get back into it. I want to rediscover the wonderful sense of enjoyment in dance whilst also building up towards performing onstage.

I start the new year well – attending a class on 4 January at Central School of Ballet. It's not too tiring, and I don't look as horrific in a leotard as I have feared. But my right knee isn't happy and I sustain a hamstring injury during a jump.

I take two weeks' rest to heal and think more about what I want from ballet. I feel like I need a goal – something achievable but challenging to work towards. My last ballet exam (taken in 2004) was ISTD Intermediate. I decide that working towards the RAD Intermediate exam – which is now open for adult candidates – will be ideal. I watch all the exercises on the syllabus DVD and make a mental note of the greatest challenges – pirouettes and pointe work are going to be really tough.

My knee is still niggling, so I see a dance-specialist physiotherapist. He explains that my hamstring has been overworked repeatedly over the last few months (in my intense gym workouts) and needs to build up strength through various exercises. Luckily, my injury isn't serious – I can start dancing again right away but need to avoid jumps for four weeks.

New pointe shoes
February 2016

I start teaching myself the RAD Intermediate barre work. I perform the exercises while watching the DVD and then try again without to test my memory. They aren't too difficult technically, but I struggle to remember the varied endings.

I particularly love the pliés music from The Pharaoh's Daughter. I can feel my strength build up as I repeat each exercise – the balances, leg lifts and rises to demi-pointe are gradually getting easier. 

I'm worried that my feet have lost all their strength, so I decide to face my fears and go shopping for pointe shoes. I expect the fitting staff to be judgemental of my age and less-than-perfect ballet figure but they are lovely. The woman who helps me also takes adult classes herself and recommends a teacher at Central School of Ballet. I stick with Gaynor Mindens (my shoe of choice from 10 years ago) and can't wait to sew on the ribbons.

I try some gentle rises and relevés holding onto the kitchen counter and am pleasantly surprised. I feel – and probably look – like I’m wearing a pair of bricks, but I can do more than I thought I’d be able to. I can even do some echappés and slow courus in the centre (of the kitchen).

I spend an hour teaching myself the syllabus port de bras, trying to understand the written syllabus and then checking the DVD. There's a huge sense of satisfaction when I'm finally able to perform the whole exercise. I feel beautiful bending and curving my body into those familiar ballet shapes; I feel like I'm really dancing again. But I'm very sure there are a million things I'm doing wrong, so I start researching adult syllabus classes. My next step is to get a teacher's opinion.