Sunday, May 20, 2012

I blinked and a year went by

Or at least that's what it feels like. I last posted about two weeks ago. And it feels like no time has passed at all. That same feeling extends across....well, life. You never believe it as a kid, but time goes fast. It's easy to miss life as it speeds by. I'm beginning to learn that. And as a dancer, that is a very frightening prospect.

Dancers don't have time. You have to spend all day every day or it isn't going to happen.You have until your late teens, early twenties to be ready for a job. And IF you get a job (which is near enough impossible in today's market), your career is likely to last you ten or fifteen, twenty AT THE MOST years. Time is of the element.

I was going to move on to the topic of performing in the Patel student recital and Swan Lake. But I've decided that that topic deserves it's own post, and so I save it. However, to save this post from vapidity, I am using it to make announcements for things to look forward to:

  • Obviously, a post about the excitement of the recital, and more importantly; Swan Lake
  • Photos from YAGP, the recital, and Swan Lake (possibly videos too)
  • An advisory portion of the blog; so this can become useful to any ballet boys who might need a resource for anything from attire, training, personal work ethic, etc.
  • Homages; little diddies for those who've helped me on the way
  • How personal life can effect being a dancer, and vice versa
  • The plan for next year
  • And finally, what will become the continuity of the blog for the next few months; the SUMMER

As to why this post is being written at 2am, honestly, I don't know. Sometimes I just can't sleep.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

To say that I've been busy

Would be a huge understatement. With an AP World History exam looming in something like 10 days, and Swan Lake next weekend, life has been hectic. Rehearsals til 8:30 or 9 every night, then coming home and studying. I've barely had time to sleep, let alone blog.

And though it's been a busy couple of weeks, I've really enjoyed it. In class, Mr. Peter did the usual and pushed down on me when I was in a split. And I slid right down into one. Now, I still can't get quite to the floor without added pressure, but it's none the less an encouraging development.

In Swan Lake, I will be performing as a Court Gentlemen in the matinee and evening shows, and a Czardas dancer in the matinee. Performing in the show is half of the equation, and the other half is just being able to watch the rehearsals. Watching this epic ballet with Eddie Tovar and Hannah Bettes starring is inspiring beyond words. With the grand music and heartbreaking choreography, it's really one of the most beautiful ballets there is. For those in the Tampa area, I would encourage you to come see the show. It's going to be amazing and tickets are selling out fast.

The night before Swan Lake, I will be performing my YAGP solo in a showcase, which I'm really looking forward to. Having the opportunity to practice my variation again has been great because I've improved since I started, and have a fresh perspective on it.

I would write more, but I've got some more of that studying to do. I'll update as things happen. The year is beginning to come to an end. And that brings in a whole new era for ballet life.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Gradual progression is progression none the less

And the past week has been a testimony to that. I haven't suddenly slid down into an oversplit, press lifted anyone, or done an extraordinary number or pirouhettes. And I'd be lying if I didn't have that sort of expectation in the past. The thing about this sort of progress is that it's gradual. And things become easier indirectly. Trying again and again to pirouhette for the sake of a number is never going to get me there. But working on my balance will. Like I said, this week has not been filled with any revolutionary change or fantastic improvement. But it's been said that it's the little things in life that count so I'm going to go with that.

My experience in class varies class to class. The work I put in is pretty consistent, but sometimes it just depends on the luck of the draw. Which reminds me that multiple people have said to me that the luck of the draw principle is what separates students from professionals. Professionals make mistakes to, but the assumption is that our best day is their everyday. That they are completely consistent. I agree with this. It is a separating factor. But the only way to get to that point is to swallow your pride and push through. It's a good feeling when you happen to be doing well in a class. But it's an even better feeling when you start out the class feeling inhibited, and work through it so that by the end you ultimately had a good class. It's tempting to deceive yourself. But it's rewarding to surprise yourself.

In partnering class, after I had finished a combination with my lovely partner, Mr. Peter said, "That was good, Michael. You've improved". And I knew it. The improvement wasn't extreme. I still have trouble with a lot of lifts, but I have improved a little. And there's nothing more encouraging than that.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Putting in the time

Is a lot easier when you just allow yourself to do it, rather than force yourself. When I stretch, I'm often limited by my outlook towards stretching. It's work. It's something that has to be done. And therefore, I struggle against it and procrastinate. But today, I seemed to turn a corner in my desire for self improvement. I woke up feeling unusually energized, and decided to do various upper and lower body exercises. School went by with the usual level of mild intellectual stimulation, and being a Monday, my schedule gave me plenty of time to warm up before Mr. Richard Sias' trainee A class. Mr. Richard had quite a career as a professional dancer, and great teacher at the National Ballet of Canada. He is retired, and only teaches on Mondays, but I cherish his class. I worked hard, and got a lot out of the class, my most notable correction to lengthen my body in positions so as to take advantage of my proportions.

In the next class, a partnering class also taught by Richard, we learned part of the Bluebird pas. I worked with a friend of mine, a tall girl, who I've been working with increasingly due to my height. Today, I felt really good about my partnering class, and having a good partner really helps. And this is not always about ideal size, etc. One of the best things about my partner is that she feels free to give corrections, which is great. Getting constructive criticism from a partner is the best way to learn that I've discovered.

After that, I spent just under an hour of my break stretching in an empty studio. This was a really rewarding experience. By the end of the day, after this extra application, and a ballet class and men's class with Peter, I asked Peter to push on my hip while I did my split, and I got to the floor. My back leg is still a little bent but I'm closer than I've ever been. Some more days like this one, and I'll have my splits before I know it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The weekend was full of performances

By both my classmates and a professional company. On Friday, I joined several students, parents, and teachers in the audience of Ferguson Theater at the Straz Center for "On the Edge", the contemporary show our studio was putting on. It included younger level hip hop recital pieces, contemporary ensembles choreographed by our resident contemporary teacher; Glynn Owens, and solos by those of us who had contemporary pieces shown in the Youth America Grand Prix. It was a really great show. The hip hop pieces were cute, the ensemble pieces were enjoyable, and the solos were personally my favorite. Everyone performed fantastically. I mentioned before the importance of learning from one's peers, and there are few opportunities to do so better than in performances. In a show; improvement, competition, and perfection fall to the side, and all that matters is selling what's there. Doing as many pirouhettes becomes landing whatever number of pirouhettes you do, and concentration is hidden by a smile. Pleasing the audience is more important than pleasing yourself, and the determination to finish on a good note is the main focus. And my fellow students did that well.

Saturday night was spent in the larger theater, Morsani, at the Straz Center. As a privilege of being a trainee, we were given free tickets to watch the Joffrey Ballet perform three contemporary pieces. This was again a great learning experience. Observing some amazing technique and performing by the specific dancers was ofcourse fantastic, but equally interesting was observing the overall. What worked and what didn't. What lines looked appealing and what looked confusing. The effect of lighting and costuming. The first of the three pieces was an interesting piece which seemed to me to be about a woman's journey through life with unanimously costumed men and women partnering her or dancing around her. I really liked the corps dancing in this. The formations and cannons that the men formed and the way the lead woman interacted with them was unlike anything I've ever seen before. And a reprisal of the opening choreography at the end struck home for me as a great way to tie it up. The second piece was darkly lit, and all the dancers were costumed in green shirts and green or black tights. The general mood and music of the piece seemed imperial, like something from George Orwell's 1984. A society of uniformity leaping at the chance to express something unique. This was probably my favorite piece, but there was one major obstacle which stopped me from allowing myself to love it entirely. The music, though I liked it, was too repetitive. The monotony of the beat and accents flowed smoothly into an effect which caused one's consciousness to drift into a blank state, and it required concentration to take in the dancing. In contrast to the first dance, this was comprised mostly of women, with only three men. I would be lying if I said that as a male dancer I did not find watching men dance generally more interesting and educational, and the men's dancing in this was exquisite. There was one dancer in particular whose efficiency and strength was specifically impressive, and the duet between him and one of the ballerinas was breathtaking. The third piece was inspired by the Victorian era. The stage had huge, heavy velvet curtains draped across the back and sides, and the dancers were clad in white pettycoats and corsets. And while the classical music of this piece was my favorite of all the music in the show, the costumes were my least favorite. The men wore white shorts with white sleeveless pettycoats and they looked incredibly strange. And the women were in skirts so long that they hid the positions of the legs, and later in skirts that didn't look period due to their shine. The corps choreography in this was also my least favorite, with extremely repetitive waves and lines. Once the piece broke down into solos and pas de deux though, I was hooked. The main pas de deux was the most memorable partnering of the night, host to dramatic moments and breathtaking choreography.

Overall, the Joffrey Ballet's performance was really great. I didn't care for some of the repetition, etc. but as a whole, I learned a lot from it and enjoyed it thoroughly. And as I sit on my bed this Sunday night, updating the  story of my life, I feel only excitement for the week to come, because I will be able to think about what I've learned, and more importantly; apply it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

There are some days

When you feel fantastic. Today was one of those days.

I woke up in a state not uncommon to myself, and I guess not uncommon for most teenagers. Tired. Aching. Completely unenthusiastic for the day. School was okay. Not horrible but not spectacular. Today's a day that school gets out at 11:15, leaving only fifteen minutes to get the entire carpool group from school to ballet and change in fifteen minutes. Not my favorite. Got to Julio Montano's trainee A (the lower of the two trainee levels, in which i reside) class just on time. Good class. Julio is a Cuban teacher and certainly has la passion. His barre is very technically challenging and is one that I've had to learn the hard way to be especially studious about learning the combinations. His center often revolves around pirouhettes; all pun intended, and a particular style to his petit allegro and across the floor combinations akin to that of the ballet "Don Quixote". It was in his class that I first accomplished a consistent number of triple pirouhettes on my left (and least favorable) side. He's a brilliant teacher and I'm extremely lucky and thankful to have him. I felt alright in his class but the foot that I rolled over was bothering me and made turning and jumping on it an unpleasant experience which distracted me from my ability to work efficiently after barre.

Following his class, I had a rehearsal for "Aida" with Peter. He adapted the choreography of the men's section and it looks even better than it did originally, and frees up our mobility so that the opera director can make changes as needed. My foot was still hurting but not as bad now.

After that, i had a fairly long break. So I stretched, changed into my ordinary clothes, did some homework, read some of my book; Plato's "Symposium", and went for a walk with some friends, enjoying the sun. I had enjoyed the past two days of near breakless scheduling, but I was happy for the chance to relax.

Then it was another technique class, this one with Peter. Peter's style is much different to Julio's. Julio's combinations are long and part of the difficulty is learning them fast and remembering them while still focusing on technique; a useful skill. Peter's combinations are shorter, and simpler, but because of his stress on technique and the Balanchine inspired speed that he often applies, they are still very effective. I struggled in Julio's class in the morning. But by now the swelling in my foot had gone down and I was in the top of my game. My feet seemed to point more, my leg seemed to go higher, my split seemed closer to the floor (with a little help from Peter), my turns felt better, and this encouraged me to push harder. I was drenched in sweat before barre was over. I went with both groups during center combinations. Before getting water during our barre-center break, I did a few reps of pressing the center barre, which I repeated after class. Peter commented to some parents observing the class;

"Good, Michael. As you can see, Michael is going to be getting the tall girls. And you can make a career out of that. Press lift the tall girls and do a double toure and you're set."

Some times, work can be drudgery. You put everything into it and nothing seems to come out. But those moments when you begin to see the tiniest benefit from only a small portion of the work that is to come? That is inspirational. I didn't do a new trick or leap to a new height. But today, my leg seemed a little higher and a little more turned out in a developee and it seemed easier to push myself to maintain that. And that's a start.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The past four months have been a roller coaster ride

And that roller coaster ride started the very same day that I last updated my blog. On Tuesday, December 21st, after typing the last word (which incidentally was "week"), I got ready for my first volunteer ballet class at my old studio; Ithaca Ballet.

My mum being not a long time out of the hospital, my dad arranged with family friends to be at the house whenever he wasn't, so that someone could help her in case of an emergency. 24/7. A friend who used to work with my mum arrived at my house minutes before we left. Once we were a minute or so from the studio, my dad received a call from this friend saying that my mother had just passed out. She came to, and was alright. I took my class, was picked up and taken to the hospital. If memory serves me, which it admittedly might not as I'm not as studious of the technical side of my mother's condition as my father, than this passing out was an episode of ventricular tachachardia.  This led to discussions and consultations and decisions and the end result was my mother being driven in an ambulance to Westchester Medical Center, where my father would go in the morning. Christmas break was spent in the Intensive Care Unit. My mother was in good hands, and so at the end of the break, I flew back down to Florida to resume my schooling and ballet.

Preparation for 'Nutcracker' gave way to preparation for 'Gaspar; a Pirate Fantasy', a show that some Patel students performed in with dancers from a local company called 'Ballet Fleming', run by Christopher Fleming. I was to play the part of a militiaman. There was some character dancing, but the real highlight was of course the scene in which the militiamen and pirates engaged in an epic duel with our swords. I'd taken three years of fencing in middle school, so I was familiar with foils, but none the less excited to be doing some stage combat; something completely new. I learned the positions and sequences and choreography, and the novelty of it was fantastic.

A huge part of this time was also dedicated to preparation for the Youth American Grand Prix. I had been practicing the classical variation from "La Fille Mal Garde", learning the technique and character of it and rehearsing it constantly to perfect both. It was coming along, and I naturally thought that it wasn't enough. But Peter Stark said something that really impacted me;

"Michael, it's not perfect. There are some things you need to work on. But it's improved a lot. I don't care if you make it to New York. Because two months ago, you couldn't do this variation. And now you can. And that's what matters. That's why we do this. So, to me, you've already won."

I didn't have any expectations, but I was none the less excited to perform.

Some time, probably two weeks after I arrived home in Tampa, and Jackson (18 year old Patel student, whose house it is I stay at and whose family I am forever grateful to) and I were driving home from ballet with another ballet boy who was staying with us for the week. I got a call from my dad saying that my mum had suffered a stroke and it wasn't looking very good. You can never prepare for how you're going to react to things like that, there are very few times that my reactions aren't.....underwhelming. I listen to what's been said. I think about it. And yet it seems to take time for the impact to sink in. So I went home. I ate dinner. Did my homework. Went to bed. I was awakened by the sound of my phone's vibrating scratching on the wooden windowsill by my bed. My father told me that the situation with my mother had worsened and she had a 40% chance of surviving the weekend (this was Thursday evening, or I suppose technically Friday morning). I woke my host father and he drove me to the airport. I flew up. And the next week is among the worst of my life.

My mum did survive the weekend. And despite a seemingly nonstop list of inhibitions creeping into any hope of stress release for the following week, she survived that too. She came out of the 8 day period in which the risk for serious brain damage from the stroke was finally ceased. Her immediate heart problems were under control for the moment. So on Wednesday night, the details for my return to Tampa were arranged. I flew in Thursday morning, going literally from the airport to the Patel Conservatory, immediately starting on my first ballet class in a week. My muscles were cold and I felt like it had taken no time for my muscle memory to be slighted. After several intensives, classes, and a slightly absurd mix of calm and stress, Thursday and Friday passed. I never did get to perform in Gaspar, but this obviously was not a concern at the time. But Saturday was the day of the Youth American Grand Prix Regionals in Tampa. I wasn't as ready as I would've been without the break, but I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I performed my solo with my best effort and enjoyed the experience. The time surrounding it required adjustment. It's always strange when everyone around you assumes that air of courtesy, when people's sympathy comes out in unusual niceness. It's not something I minded, and I appreciate it, but it was strange to be aware of the deliberate thought process that was undertaken in people's behavior towards me.

But my performing, social, and academic life had all had the volume taken down. I had spent a week expecting the imminent death of a loved one, and after that I felt like not doing the absolute best I could've in a competition was something not to be taken heavily. I was pleased to simply be there and that was enough.

Sunday was the gala, and is beyond description. Jeffrey and Lia Cirio returned to the stage here in Tampa, joined this time by some of the best dancers in the country, coming from a variety of companies; Boston Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet. They were also accompanied by outstanding teen dancers who had previously won the YAGP, and came from all over the world. I'm not ashamed to say that some of the dances brought tears to my eyes, and all of them left me gasping for air and my hands sore from applause. And oddly enough, seeing everyone from a 13 year old boy to a principal artist dance spectacularly didn't have the effect that I might have predicted. Rather than feeling insecure, and discouraged, I felt inspired. The "one day I could do that" feeling spread as the dream was dangled in front of me. It takes work. No one on that stage was born with that ability. Genetics help. "Being a natural" is a commonly misapplied dismissal, but there are exceptions. Some people are born with the bodies that make it easier than for other people. But that only goes so far. Beyond that, dedication is key. I'm skinny as a rail. My body is tight and inflexible. But I'm unusually tall (I've grown in the past few months, and I've reached a solid 6'2'', near enough 6'3''), and my long legs in comparison to my body are ideal. I have a chance. But that's up to me.

(Jeffrey Cirio in a photo often used as a promotional picture for the YAGP)

Once again, I refer to Peter Stark's inspirational words; "What you put in is what you take out."

It's simple. But it's the truth. If I don't work on my splits everyday, then I will never get them. If I don't work my muscles everyday, I will never improve them. Procrastination is self pity and work is self empowerment. And that's what I took from the gala.

A week after YAGP, I got a call from my dad again, this time right before a ballet class. This was the best news I'd received on the subject; they had found a heart for my mother. I flew up again. She had a heart transplant. They monitored her progress. I don't know exactly how long I was there. A few days. My mother continued to get better and the assurances were that everything was going to be fine. My mind was put at rest for the first time since the Tuesday before Christmas. By now, it's early February.

During this jumble of medical issues and ballet performances, the height of the summer program audition season was happening. The months of January and February contained weekends spent solely at the Orlando Ballet; the site of many auditions. My results were as follows:

Not accepted into the School of American Ballet.
Accepted into the American Ballet Theater School, but without scholarship.
Accepted into the Pacific Northwest Ballet School with a half tuition scholarship.
Accepted into the Miami City Ballet School with a full tuition scholarship.
Accepted into the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School with a full tuition and housing scholarship.

The fact is that year round and summer training depend entirely on scholarship opportunities. With that said, I have chosen to attend the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School Summer Intensive this year, and will be returning to the Patel Conservatory Next Generation Ballet here in Tampa for the year next fall.

February 9th comes around, and I turn 16. And for the first time in awhile, I have an extended period of time in which normalcy reigns. I get caught up in school. I have the time to work on ballet for real. We begin rehearsing for "Aida", an opera being performed locally that requested we dance in. It is an Egyptian theme, and I will be one of several gold statues. The portraying of this is simply the men spray painted gold, clothed only in a dance belt. I'm not really uncomfortable with this, except that I want to work on my abs more before performing.

Days become weeks. Spring break comes and goes. My mother's recovering fantastically, and will be able to go home this week. Now that her health is no longer the same kind of issue as it was, the normal turmoil of family life returns. My reactions are once again underwhelming.

I begin to notice changes in myself. I've gotten taller. And despite the fact that I am still extremely dissatisfied and insecure about my muscularity, I've gotten stronger. I can press the center bar, something that when first attempted in a men's class several months ago, I couldn't do. I work with two 20 lbs weights everyday. I work as hard as I can in dance and delight in every little improvement. It's gradual progression, but it's progression. The other day in partnering class, I was able to lift a girl into what's called a "bluebird". Again, this is no great feat. But it's something that I couldn't do before and I guess that's something. A change which is perhaps more important is my approach to ballet mentally. I watch more. Someone in class today got appraisal from Peter about how they held their torso during pirouhette. So I watched how he turned, and I held my torso in a similar way. And when I turned that way, the turn was a little easier. I've come to practice what I already understood in theory; that watching what other dancers mistakes and talents can be hugely helpful to correcting my own technique.

During my spring break, I took a class at Ithaca Ballet. It was a good class. I became aware of differences in training, and the largest is intensity. Doing it six hours a day is meaningless without applying one's self. And I was sweating buckets after the first combination. I also found the floor incredibly difficult to work on. It wasn't sprung and it was slippery. Turning was difficult, and all of your weight sunk into the ground when you landed from a jump. Which might not have helped me when I did so, and rolled onto my foot. It's been four or five days and several packs of ice, and the pain in my foot is only now beginning to ease.

Yesterday, I had my first men's class with Peter in possibly over a month (what with my absences in family crisis and his own trip to another dance competition in South Africa with another Patel student; Hannah Bettes, who is famous for her talent in the ballet world, despite being only 15. By the end of the unusually short half hour session, all of the boys, even the strongest, were unable to do a single pushup. Complaints about sore arms were not uncommon by the boys today. Yet I'm already feeling the benefit from working that hard on things like that.

Another event was the arrival of a new boy in our trainee program. He's a 14 year old. Very good and very strong. All of the boys challenge each other to turn more, leap higher, be more flexible, be stronger. Another addition to that is only a positive thing.

And with that, I conclude the first of what I intend to be a much more frequently updated blog. The last four months have been a roller coaster ride. But that's over now. Today is the twentieth of March. Now, I'm free to work and improve. Now I'm free to dance.