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.

 

Meals: Four to Add to Your Rep

When it comes to meals, what I have found is that all of us need a few simple, easy recipes in our repertoire. Recipes that require no thought, almost no preparation, and deliver a good nutritional punch. These are four standby meals from my kitchen; I always vary the side vegetable depending on the season. Sometimes I add a whole grain like wild rice or a risotto, depending on how hungry we all are, but the basic meal is here.

 

Salmon with Green Beans and Almonds

Salmon

  • Rinse salmon fillet in water and pat dry with paper towel
  • Place salmon (skin side down) in frying pan
  • Squeeze lemon juice on top (or skip it if you don’t have any)
  • Add salt and pepper
  • Cover with lid and turn heat to medium.
  • Set timer for 15 minutes.

Beans

While that is cooking,

  • place 2 inches water in a medium saucepan
  • Turn heat to high
  • Rinse green beans
  • Add to water when boiling
  • Cover with lid and set timer for 4 minutes

In the meantime, open package of sliced or slivered almonds.* Plate salmon when cooked. Drain beans and return to pan. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a bit of olive oil, and salt to taste. Toss with almonds.

*If you’re really feeling fancy, you can toast the almonds: just place them in a small frying pan without oil on medium heat and toss regularly till lightly toasted. Toasting really brings out the flavor. 

 

Cod Fillet with Spinach

I like either Italian breadcrumbs or Panko for my cod. They both produce a nice thin crust that fancies up the fish just enough.

Cod

  • Place a pat of butter or oil (peanut and olive are nice) in frying pan over low-medium heat.
  • Rinse cod fillet in water and pat dry with paper towel.
  • Place fillet in breadcrumbs and turn to coat well.
  • Place fillet in frying pan and set timer for 3 minutes.
  • Flip cod and reset timer to 3 minutes.

Spinach

  • Place another pat of butter or oil in a saute pan.
  • When melted, add prewashed baby spinach.
  • Toss until all is wilted.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

The cod can be eaten as is or with a spritz of lemon juice or ketchup or even tartar sauce if that’s how you like it.

Salads

Meals don’t have to be on plates with separate components; sometimes our evening meal is a giant salad in a bowl. It’s a good idea to always have some salad or leafy greens in your fridge for just this purpose. I like the prewashed ones because… it’s easy! If you’re hungry for more, there are some great boxed soups out there these days that can be heated up in a few minutes. Here is one of my favorites.

Protein-Packed Salad Bowl – version 1

First, toast pumpkin seeds (and/or walnuts) in small frying pan on low-medium heat

Then,

  • Place prewashed salad greens (or baby kale, baby spinach, arugula, whatever) in large bowl
  • Add chopped tomatoes
  • Drain and add canned cannellini beans
  • Add leftover grains from fridge (quinoa and any rice works great in a cold salad)
  • Add raisins or dried cherries
  • Crumble blue cheese over top
  • Add toasted seeds/nuts
  • Toss with balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Protein-Packed Salad Bowl – version 2

  • Place prewashed salad greens (or baby kale, baby spinach, arugula, whatever) in large bowl
  • Add drained canned tuna
  • Add leftover grains from fridge (quinoa and any rice works great in a cold salad)
  • Add chopped cherry tomatoes
  • Add kalamata olives (buy them pitted)
  • Add chopped cucumber
  • Crumble feta cheese over salad
  • Toss with red wine vinegar and olive oil
  • Add a pinch of dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 

 

 

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.

 

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!

Auditions: More Prep is Better

Dress the part.
Arrive at destination.
Put on a number.
Enter a room with hundreds of people who want what you want.
Audition (i.e. Dance your heart out.)
Do your best.
Hope for the best.

It’s enough to freak anybody out, right? It can feel like jumping off a mountain! Everyone says not to worry, just dance, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. While that’s partially true, it’s not all there is to being prepared.

In my opinion, more is definitely better when it comes to preparation.

That’s why I created an Audition Package, just for you.

Here are some of the things that I address when helping my dancers prepare for auditions.

  • Rationally assess what’s expected of you beforehand.

Too many dancers don’t think this one through and get bombarded by all kinds of emotions when the audition is already underway. Instead, I like to anticipate these emotions and explore what’s coming up. Who expects what? Can they meet the expectations? What would it mean if they did or didn’t?

This kind of pre-audition thinking can relieve a lot of pressure during the actual audition.

  • Work on getting self-talk as positive as possible.

I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but it’s still true: what your dancer thinks about while dancing can make or break her. Let’s be sure it’s positive, constructive, and helpful, rather than the contrary. No one but she can turn things around mentally in the middle of an audition. And it does take some practice to build up good self-talk.

  • Have a do-or-die routine in place that will drown out the noise and confusion of the audition.

All performers need routine: it helps calm the mind and body when we can go on auto-pilot before an audition or performance. A routine can include how a dancer packs her dance bag, what she eats before the audition, and how early she’ll arrive to warm up. (In my next newsletter I will write more about how to create this routine.)

  • Focus only on what you can control.

The dancer next to you has legs that go on forever and perfect turnout? The one behind you turns for days and the one in front jumps like a gazelle? Why have you even noticed those things?

It is too easy to get caught up in watching other dancers or in bemoaning conditions that are beyond your control, like a slippery floor. Mindfulness is key in an audition, but it can’t be built overnight. Together we’ll work on combatting distraction and narrowing your focus to only those things that make you dance your best.


All of these topics and more are covered in my Audition Package. If you think your dancer could benefit from my support, please head over to my website to schedule a Discovery Session with me. We can get started on this and many other tools to help your dancer be perfectly prepared for auditions this winter.

Considering Meditation? The Path is Curiosity

If you are considering, or have ever considered, meditation, then these wise words are for you. They are from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, whose practical advice and unusual perspective are always spot on.

The path of meditation and the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we’re here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later. People often say to me, “I wanted to come and have an interview with you, I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to call you on the phone, but I wanted to wait until I was more together.” And I think, “Well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!”

So come as you are. The magic is being willing to open to that, being willing to be fully awake to that. One of the main discoveries of meditation is seeing how we continually run away from the present moment, how we avoid being here just as we are. That’s not considered to be a problem; the point is to see it.”   Pema Chodron.

Meditation is a tool, and learning to use it is like learning to use any tool: it takes time and it’s a process.

Pema’s quote tells us to start wherever you are; don’t wait until you’ve reached some “magic” place where you are perfectly poised to meditate. It will most likely never come, and then you would miss what meditation is for: it’s for day-to-day life; it’s for helping you get to a better place.

And the good news is, it doesn’t cost anything or take much time. 5-10 minutes a day of slow breathing while sitting still can make a huge difference in your stress levels (lowering them) and in your ability to focus (improving it).

For more information on Pema, check out her website. (Yes, even Buddhist nuns have websites!)