Diana Vishneva Leaves ABT

On Friday, June 23rd, I had the pleasure of watching Diana Vishneva’s final performance with American Ballet Theatre. It was a beautiful and emotional goodbye and the New York audience showed up in droves to applaud her.

This is not a review of the performance, but here are some good ones if you’re interested:

From Wendy Perron of Dance Magazine: Vishneva’s Farewell: A Great Ballerina Leaves

Haglund’s Heel Blog: Onegin: Passion Perfect

And this New York Times’ article, Flowers, Flowers, and More Flowers, has gorgeous photographs.

I love watching Vishneva dance; she embodies the qualities I work on with my dancers every day: fearlessness, confidence, and artistry.

Fearlessness

Diana Vishneva is fearless. I still remember vividly watching her descend the staircase in Romeo and Juliet, at the start of the balcony scene. She didn’t walk or even run down the stairs – she flew. Her feet touched every other stair and then every three or four stairs as she picked up speed. The audience gasped audibly. I remember raising my hands to my eyes, fearing she was going to fall before reaching her Romeo.

But she didn’t. Instead, she flew off the steps with a leap and ran across the stage, like a young girl in love: impetuous, free, and unthinking.

In a performance of Swan Lake with David Hallberg, her Odile piqued into an arabesque and tipped into the supported lean as her Seigfried was still crossing the stage. Again, audible gasps from the audience. But Hallberg made it, as she knew he would. And if he didn’t, her attitude seemed to suggest, she’d be just fine.

Vishneva is not afraid to take risks onstage and that makes for very exciting ballet. I have to imagine that fearlessness comes from her immense trust and confidence in her dancing body, as well as not getting stuck in her technique.

Confidence

As a former dancer and an avid watcher now, one thing that bugs me in professional dancers is a lack of confidence on their faces. You’ve seen it: that sudden drop of the performance smile when something technically difficult arises as if to announce, “I’m not sure I can do this!” Even at a company like ABT this happens.

But not with Diana Vishneva. Regardless of what she’s feeling inside, her facial expressions always register complete confidence. She is completely in her body when she performs, embodying the “flow” or being in “the zone” that strong mental fitness skills can deliver.

Vishneva has lovely technique, but it is not the first thing I noticed about her and it’s not front and center when she performs. It’s there like a skeleton or a scaffolding: without it, there wouldn’t be anything to “hang” her performance on, but it’s not what I pay attention to when watching her. Her body executes the technique, but it’s like speaking a language: I’m interested in what she’s saying, not so much how she’s saying it.

Artistry

Vishneva is an actress; she inhabits the characters she dances, body and soul. And that is part of what makes her so much fun to watch.

I remember watching company class onstage one Saturday and looking for her. I could not find her, although I was pretty sure she was there. Eventually, in the back, in a corner, I spotted her during adagio. I kept my eyes on her and was surprised at how tiny she looked. No matter where she is on the Met stage, my eye is always drawn to her, even when she’s not dancing much. But during class, she was just another body in motion up there.

I realized that when she performs, she PERFORMS: she’s an artist. Class is just that: class, a warmup, a way to get ready for the moment when it counts.

My Work

When it comes to my work, I want my dancers to watch people like Diana, who dance beyond their technique and who focus on the message of their dancing as well as the medium. That takes work and it takes trust. At some point, dancers need to trust in their training and let themselves go. And that takes a lot of confidence in one’s self and in the process of learning to dance and performing. That sequence of events – work, trust, confidence – is one that takes a career to master. But it is so worth every minute of work for it. Because the outcome is sublime. It’s a performance like Vishneva’s last at ABT: one that lingers in the mind’s eye for days and weeks later.

 

End-of-Year Meltdowns Got You Down?

It’s spring, so that means meltdowns and performances. (Haha.) Seriously though, it’s definitely performance time: most dance schools are having their end-of-year shows to showcase all the good work their dancers have accomplished over the year. So it’s a time of excitement but also nerves, often for teachers as much as students. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward (no pun intended), but the anticipation can stir emotions into a real frenzy.

If you’re still in the countdown to an end-of-year show and are either experiencing meltdown-inducing levels of stress yourself or dealing with them from your peers or teachers, here are some fun tips to keep you sane.

  • Perfection will not be achieved between today and the performance, so let go of that as a goal. How you’re rehearsing today is the best indicator of how the show will go, so start turning on your face muscles to get ready to glow onstage because…
  • Performances are the reason you work as hard as you do every day. They should be exhilarating, as well as fun. If you keep the focus on dancing your best and having fun, you’ll be happier.
  • If your teacher(s) is overly stressed, don’t take it personally; end-of-year shows are an evaluation of them as well as you, so they’re entitled to jitters. Remind yourself of that if those jitters become meltdowns: everyone is doing their best and some people cope better than others.
  • Be in control of yourself and only yourself. There’s no point in trying to fix everyone else’s problems because it won’t work. Turn your focus inwards to yourself: how can you be best prepared to perform well? Keep your focus there to feel less stressed.
  • Finally, mark the end of your school year with a celebration after the performance, however small. It’s important to mark the occasion with a dinner out or some other way to celebrate your accomplishments.

Don’t fall into the trap of letting stress overshadow your performance(s); learning to cope with pre-show jitters is a big part of becoming a happy performer. If you have tried all of the above and still can’t deal, email me. I can definitely help.

 

What’s Your Ideal Arousal Level?

I thought that might get your attention. (heh, heh)

Translated, that title is: What is the perfect level of energy for your best performance?

Sport and performance psychologists spend a lot of time examining this with their performers because it plays a major part in their success. Performers who have too much energy can go off the rails; inversely, performers with not enough energy can under-perform.

Energy isn’t really the right word. Sport and performance psychologists call it the “arousal” or “activation” level. Being “over-aroused” or having a high activation level can raise your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. It’s the butterflies in the stomach, dry-mouth, feeling nauseous experience that most performers are familiar with.

Over-arousal can really interfere with your performance in part because you rarely rehearse at that level of arousal. The brain and body are happiest with consistency and those symptoms are way outside the limits of how you usually dance. Consequently, they impact your dancing in negative ways.

On the other hand, being “under-aroused” or having a low activation level can have the opposite effect: a bored, lifeless performance that lacks excitement.

So what you want is to feel the way you usually do while training and rehearsing. Then, add in just the right amount of pre-performance jitters and that’s a recipe for peak performance.

If you’re feeling on board with the above, then your next question is probably, “How do I know what the right arousal level is for me?”

The bad news is, I don’t haver the answer.

The good news is, you do!

First, think back to the last performance or audition you did that went really well – where you felt excited but calm and gave a great performance. Then, start recreating those circumstances on a daily basis in class and rehearsal. Pay attention to when things go off the rails (over-arousal) and, conversely, when you feel bored or tired (under-arousal). We’re aiming for “just right.”

Finally, if you have an audition or performance coming up, follow your plan and then make careful notes about how it went.

  • Were you calm, but excited?
  • Did your body feel energized and ready?
  • Were you too nervous to learn the combinations?
  • Were you too tired to focus?

The answer is that only you can know what your optimal arousal level for peak performance is. You can find it through experimentation and mindfulness.

If you’d like help with this, or any other issues related to performing, auditioning, healthy eating or stress reduction, contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.

Superbowl & Ballet: Common Ground

I’m not sure if you watched the Superbowl the other week. It was kind of a big deal. I didn’t watch it because I’m not much of a football fan.

However, it was *on* in my house, and I tuned in once the score tied at the game’s end. (That had never happened before in the game’s history.)

So they went into “Sudden Death Overtime” which meant the first team to score would win the game.

The first thing they did after the announcement of overtime was what made me think of you all.

They did a coin toss.  

(You’ll see why that matters in a second…)

The Patriots called heads and won the coin toss, so they got the ball.

Once they got the ball, they showed up and played the game they’ve played thousands of times. They scored first. So they won the Superbowl, after having been seriously behind in points for the first three-quarters of the game.

What if the coin had been tails?

What if the Falcons had won control of the ball?

Would they have scored first?

The answer is almost certainly yes. The Falcons had been killing it all game long. They were dominating the Patriots. Chances are, had lucked smiled on them in the coin toss, they would have won the game.

One coin toss. One outcome. And that was that.

I was reminded of all of the times that luck played a part in my own career, and that of many of the dancers in my life. A principal dancer’s partner retired so I got promoted; I was the right height to wear the costume for an injured dancer; I was the only one in an eye-catching red unitard at a midwest audition… the list goes on.

Luck matters in your dancing.

Opportunities will come to you or to your peers, and sometimes the only real reason why is that you got lucky. (Or she did.)

There’s now way to control for luck or to predict it.

If that makes you feel a little queasy, it should. Luck is like that.

However, what you can prepare for is what happens right afterwards. If the Patriots had played badly after the coin toss, or had let the pressure get to them, they wouldn’t have scored when they needed to. Instead they played the way they knew they needed to play. They showed up and played their best when that door opened, and they won.

If you’re an understudy, luck might help get you the part, but how you perform is entirely up to you.

Luck might help you land a contract, but how you dance your first professional season is in your hands.

So remember that while luck plays a part in success, it never plays the biggest part which comes afterwards. Prepare for that part, so that, like the Patriots in this historic Superbowl,  you’re ready when luck finally smiles on you.

 

Disappointment: How to Deal

There’s no greater disappointment than psyching yourself up and performing your heart out only to get rejected by your school or company of choice. Or even worse, getting cut halfway through the audition, before you have had a chance to show them what you can do.

It’s so frustrating. It can really get you down.

Some dancers are tempted to take these rejections as final judgments on their dancing.

Please resist that temptation. 

For starters, you can’t say why you weren’t chosen. Artistic Directors have all kinds of reasons they choose and don’t choose dancers, from height and weight to hair color. If you danced well, then try not to worry about it too much.

Dwelling on why you didn’t get in when you can’t ever know the reason is a lesson in frustration. 

Instead, try to keep your focus on what’s coming up next.

If you’re doing multiple auditions, you may not have a lot of turnaround between one audition and the next. Here are some tips for dealing with your disappointment so that you can bounce back quickly.

  • There’s no rejection; there’s only selection. Think about it like this: directors aren’t necessarily saying no to you; they’re saying yes to someone else. When you’re not selected for any one thing, that means you’re available for something else. Keep looking.
  • Always walk away from the audition with *something*: a strategy to apply to your dancing, a style to try, a good correction to apply. You can always learn from the experience. Making that part of the process gives you a larger focus beyond just getting in or not.
  • Remember the bigger picture. You’re doing something you love and you’re working hard, and this is part of the process. Take what you’ve observed and bring it back to the studio. Use the experience to work smarter, not just harder.

If you’re having trouble quieting the part of your brain that enjoys reliving rejection, try some thought stoppage. Find a word or short phrase to cut off your negativity before it consumes you. For example, “Stop” or “Not now.” I like the Italian word for enough, “Basta.” My dancers find a word that silences their inner critic and they stick with it.

Then, you can try a little mental reprogramming to find words and cues to lift you up and keep your mind clear while dancing. If you could use some help applying this strategy, shoot me an email. It’s my speciality!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over-scheduled and Stressed Out

I just got this question from a dance mom on my website: “What would you suggest for the stressed out high schooler/ dancer? My son has so much on his plate and as a family we don’t get to see each other until Friday night.”

I hear this a lot. Although the specifics differ, the dancers I work with and talk to are living highly scheduled lives. They’re running from school to dance, then eating dinner at 9:00pm and doing homework until the wee hours. It can be hard to feel on top of anything at such a pace.

How do you handle this as a dancer? As a family?

There is no simple fix, but here’s a place to start.

First, determine what you need more of. 

  • Sleep?
  • Sit-down Meals?
  • Family time?
  • Alone time?
  • Time for schoolwork?

Yes, yes, and yes! I hear you, but for purposes of getting started, try to pick only one or two things. Then take a look at your average day and week. Usually, there’s some time in there, often in between two scheduled things, that could be better used.

Here are two concrete examples:

  • Maybe on the train (or car) ride to dance class, you could either do some schoolwork or use the time for self-care, like listening to calming music or doing a breathing exercise.
  • Maybe you’re a person who does homework with your phone next to you, inviting distractions and multi-tasking. Homework can take twice as long when interrupted, so try putting your phone in another room and applying your full mind to the task at hand. Most people find that when they focus completely, they work faster and more efficiently. If that’s true for you, then you’ve just created more time in your day.

More generally though, try these things:

  • Prioritize downtime: When faced with the option of adding another thing to your schedule, resist. Make sure you’re getting some unscheduled downtime every week when you can relax and recharge (in whatever way works best for you).

This includes dancing. It’s important to take at least one day off per week from dancing. Resist the urge to do class on a Sunday!

  • Prioritize self-care: Although we all can use more self-care, dancers need it more than most. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of training alongside an academic schedule can produce faster than normal burnout.

Be sure to make time for sleep (at least 8 hours/night), resting your body (legs up, couch time), and eating healthy meals three times a day. It sounds basic, but cutting any of these corners can make you feel even more stressed.

  • Minimize social media: yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this one before. The thing is, unless you don’t own a smartphone, you probably spend a lot more time on social media than you’re aware of. Start keeping track of how many times a day you pick up your phone to check a text message or Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. Imagine if you created mini-breaks from media to turn your attention to self-care or family-time? It’s an experiment worth trying. You might find you feel calmer and more on top of things.

I suggest adopting one of the above and committing to it for the next three weeks. See how it goes and if you feel any less stressed. Then move on to the next thing. Slowly, over time, you can build new habits for yourself and your family that offer little pockets of sanity. And hopefully, you’ll feel the difference!

 

Injured? Don’t Audition. Here’s Why.

So you’re all set to hit auditions and then you get injured. Not a major injury, but something painful enough that it’s got you thinking about whether or not you should push it. What do you do? To answer this question, consider the next scene.

Imagine you have the stomach flu. You are hanging over the edge of your toilet bowl all morning in agony both from the flu and the fact that you have an audition that afternoon. What would you do? Would you put your dance clothes in a bag, and storm the studio regardless of the fact that you probably won’t make it through class?

I’m going to make an educated guess here and say that in the second scenario, although you might wish otherwise, you probably wouldn’t even consider attending that audition. For one, you can’t predict how your body will react: you could get sick at any time. Secondly, you know you won’t be able to dance your best. Thirdly, well, really, there’s no need for another reason because those two are enough, right?

When sickness strikes, especially something unpredictable like a stomach bug, we tend to retreat. We recognize we aren’t in control and surrender ourselves to staying home and healing.

So, when it comes to injury, why would some dancers go to the audition anyway? 

I’m being overdramatic for effect. Of course there are reasons you would want to go:

  • it’s your dream school/company and you’ve been preparing all fall for this moment
  • not going eliminates this place from your options for summer/fall
  • the injury is probably nothing…surely it can’t get that much worse from one class?

Here’s the problem though, and it’s simple: you won’t dance your best.

This is true in part because you’d be making adjustments to avoid the injured area, which would inevitably affect your dancing. Your mind couldn’t be 100% in the moment and focused, so you might look distracted. So you’d be doing some weird technical stuff and looking distracted. But even worse, you would risk injuring yourself further, which would be the worst possible outcome.

Basic rule of thumb for auditions and injury: if you won’t dance your best, then don’t dance at all.

The good news is, you have options to be seen. Depending on who you’re auditioning for and the circumstances, I would have specific recommendations for you –  recommendations that have been met with success.

So if this happens to you, first, imagine it’s the stomach bug and ask yourself how you would make your decision. Then, reach out and find out what your other options are.

 

Audition Prep: Put Your Blinders On!

You may have seen horses with blinders on, or heard the phrase, “It’s like he had blinders on.” Blinders are a small piece of leather placed over part of the horse’s eye and do not blind the horse, but narrow its view to the road or track ahead. Often racehorses wear blinders to keep their focus on the track rather than distractions around it. When referring to people with blinders on, the image is used as a metaphor for a person who isn’t seeing everything that’s around them, or maybe has a narrow point of view.

When it comes to auditions, a narrow semi-blind point of view is exactly what you want.

Like horses, dancers have eyes that wander; you look at the other dancers in your audition as well as the artistic panel watching you. While this is completely normal, it’s also totally distracting and can negatively affect your experience.

The most common pitfall is that looking at others can cause a collapse in your self-confidence. There *will* be dancers who are more technically advanced than you, more flexible, and taller/shorter/stronger/weaker. None of those facts needs to have any impact on how you perform at the audition, but it will if you let your confidence erode at the sight of your competition.

A second pitfall is that dancers are so focused on seeing how they measure up that they miss nuances in the combinations. The result can be that you dance like someone who doesn’t pay attention to details. Not good.

Finally, if you are distracted, you will look distracted. Directors are looking for focused, serious dancers who are “in the room” mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. If you check out whether from loss of confidence or distraction, it will show.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know your habits. Prepare for potential distractions. Start putting your blinders on today, and practicing what it’s like to turn your focus to your teacher and yourself, blocking out anything and anyone that interferes with that.

Because like a horse in race, a dancer in an audition experiences nerves, excitement, and many distractions – you might as well be ready for it.

 

 

Audition Prep: Familiarity and Routine

“Last time I auditioned, I was up till midnight printing out my resume. I had totally forgotten to do it earlier.”

* * *

“Last year, I didn’t wear my usual class skirt to one audition and it completely threw me off.”

 

I’ve already started talking about how auditions can be scary, unpredictable experiences – see here– which upset your normal schedule and mindset. Your brain likes routine; it enjoys being able to predict what’s coming up. When it gets jostled by sudden last-minute changes, your brain can either get pumped at the challenge or totally freak out. Hopefully you know yourself well enough to know which camp you fall into. Either way, you can reduce anxiety by making the audition process as familiar as possible, before the actual audition.

What does that mean?

Stress and anxiety are born from many things, but some last-minute, unexpected changes to routine can be anticipated and controlled by you. For example, take the second quote and imagine this is you. Every day, all year round, you wear a similar outfit for class: a leotard and a skirt. You are used to seeing your reflection in the mirror with a skirt on. While it might seem like a minor detail to a non-dancer, dancers know that altering your own reflection can be as disorienting as dancing without a mirror. For the dancer quoted above, it proved to be a major distraction for the duration of the audition.

Distraction = lack of focus = stress and anxiety. 

The solution is simple: start dressing now the way you will dress for your next audition. If you never wear pink tights, but know you’ll have to for auditions, then start as soon as possible; get used to the reflection of yourself you’re about to see in the audition. It’s one less distraction and one less source of possible stress.

Another upset to your routine is the extras that come with auditioning: maybe you’ll have an extra long commute to the audition, or need to pack extra food; you’ll definitely need things like resumes, cover letters, and pointe shoes that are ready to go. Leaving these details until the last minute and then not expecting them to stress you out is a little crazy. (See first quote, above.)

So start planning now. If you’ll need extra snacks, figure out what and plan to shop ahead of time. If you don’t have a printer (or even if you do), get those final drafts written and printed at least two days before the audition. The sooner it’s done, the calmer your brain will be, and the less it will weigh on you.

Familiarity + routine = calmer, happier brain = calmer, happier you. 

Good luck to everyone auditioning this weekend!

Negativity: Wipe It Out in 2017

It’s a New Year, so you know what the means, right? You have to set a bunch of goals, make resolutions, and make it the best year ever!

Ugh. That’s not only a tall order, it also freaks a lot of people out. What if, instead, you decided to change the way you think about things. That, in turn, could lead to more control of your mind, with the eventual goal of being in a better place. What about that?

Everyone experiences negativity and negative thoughts. It’s part of the natural evolution: remembering negative experiences helps us protect ourselves from them in the future. But continuous rumination is not only unnecessary, it’s harmful to our health and wellbeing.

This New York Times’ piece from early January suggests starting with acceptance of your negative thoughts. Pushing them away or  telling yourself to stop thinking them will only make it worse. “Instead, notice that you are in a negative cycle and own it.”

For example, you might find yourself reliving a bad class. Tell yourself, “I am obsessing about my mistakes in class today.” Once you’ve accepted that, then try to challenge the reason why you’re obsessing. Two common concerns I hear about bad classes are “I’m a terrible dancer” and “My teacher probably thinks I’m not even trying anymore.”

But is that really true? Are you really a terrible dancer because you made a few mistakes? And just because you’ve had a bad class or haven’t been able to apply a correction means you’re suddenly lazy and don’t care? Unlikely.

It’s more likely that you just had a bad class. Everyone has bad days and even the professionals make mistakes regularly. End of story.

The Times article has more great suggestions like giving yourself the same advice you’d give to a friend and digging deep to understand what, if anything, you are accomplishing by thinking negatively. Read it for yourself and consider taking them up on their New Year’s challenge of quitting those thoughts.