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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.

 

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.

 

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!

Unleash Your Personality onto the Stage

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching the Pina Bausch company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, dance at BAM. The performance was fun, strange, disturbing, and delightful. But what touched me most were the strong personalities of the dancers onstage, particularly the women.

Joan Acocella’s review of the performance noted as much, that the dancers’ demeanor was “comfortable, unleashed. They want to be onstage.” Their diverse looks and personalities kept my eyes glued to the stage, even in moments when I felt the choreography was thin or discordant. It almost didn’t matter as long as I could keep watching them communicate with us.

I cannot remember the last ballet performance I saw where true personalities shined brighter than the choreography. It makes me wonder why that is. Why is it that ballet dancers often show glimpses of who they are onstage, but those moments are fleeting- almost like we’ve been let in on a little secret and then- poof, it’s gone. The person disappears behind the ballerina, the danseur, or the choreography.

What about unleashing who you are and letting that fill the space? What about letting the dancing be a vehicle for your full-fledged personality? It’s definitely not necessary to cover up who we are in order to be ballet dancers. The truly great dancers of the past were great in part because they unleashed their personalities on the audience and we wanted more: Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Maya Plisetskaya, to name the obvious ones.

It has been my experience that students wait to get onstage before they work on their stage persona. This is much too late. Who you are must come through the technique- it is not separate or distinct from what your body is doing.

YOU are the vehicle for both who you are and the dancing itself; YOU are the reason people will buy tickets to your performances and will love watching you.

I would love to hear from some of you: how do you think about this challenge? Do you find it difficult to express the full range of your personality in your dancing?