Monday, August 25, 2014

A Fly On The Rehearsal Studio Wall

Jacques d'Amboise with Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
If you love dance, the most wonderful place in the world to hang out is a rehearsal studio.
I've spent hours watching patient (and not so patient) stagers and choreographers at work. I love to see how most dancers use the skill and experience stored in their bodies to replicate an idea, to make the dance bloom.

When you sit up close, you get to see all the hard work that goes into learning and perfecting a dance. By the time they're ready for a public performance, the dancers have practiced steps and gestures, polished and refined them, so that everything looks almost (almost) effortless to the audience.

Usually, rehearsal sessions involve a lot of movement; this is dance, after all. But recently I spent an hour watching a master transmit not so much the physical as the spiritual aspects of a dance; the all but intangible details that transform craft into artistry. It was fascinating.

Most ballet fans know the name Jacques d'Amboise. He danced for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet for more than three decades in the 1950's, '60's and '70's.  After his performing career ended, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, a school that was documented in the Academy Award-winning film "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'."

Last week,d'Amboise was in Seattle to coach the Pacific Northwest Ballet company members for their upcoming performances of Balanchine's "Jewels." This is a dance d'Amboise performed often; it's one he helped Balanchine to create. "Jewels" is embedded in d'Amboise's long muscle memory bank.

Jacques d'Amboise is 80 years old now. His hair is white, his posture just a tiny bit stooped. But as he stepped over to the barre on a recent sunny afternoon, his feet in sensible brown shoes, the man's vitality flooded out through his broad smile and enveloped the whole studio.

D'Amboise didn't concern himself overly with the "Jewels" choreography. After PNB principals Carla Korbes and Bakhturel Bold briefly ran through a section, d'Amboise stopped the action and gestured them and the six other dancers to his side. He pulled over soloist Jerome Tisserand and asked him to stand in first position, heels together and toes pointed out. "Don't look at the floor," d'Amboise admonished. Tisserand grinned as he flowed through a series of basic barre exercises.
Jacques d'Amboise with PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch and Soloist Jerome Tisserand
photo by Lindsay Thomas

"I don't have anything to tell you, except that this is a performing art," he told the younger dancer. "Take the stage for others to look at you perform a skill they don't have."

Then d'Amboise demonstrated what he was after: a lifted chin, eye contact with an imaginary audience, an assured sweep of an arm upon entering the stage. And, when the final jump is landed, a shared moment with that same audience, an acknowledgement of what has just transpired.

"Be proud," d'Amboise told the dancers, who by now had re-donned fleece jackets and leg warmers, certain they weren't going to be moving around much during this particular rehearsal hour.

Corps de ballet member Steven Loch's turn came next. d'Amboise placed a folded dollar bill on the floor at Loch's feet. He asked the young dancer to jump and land crisply on that bill, feet held tight in fifth position. When Loch mastered that single jump to d'Amboise's satisfaction, the mentor asked his pupil to execute a series of four jumps around that dollar. Smiling, Loch did.

D'Amboise regaled his audience with tales of Balanchine, of the legendary choreographer's intentions, and about his experience taking Balanchine's work beyond a mere repetition of steps to create something bigger, an experience that would remain with the audience long after they filed from the hall. Remember, he told the PNB dancers, to "carry yourselves with a modesty that springs from the knowledge of what you are." In other words, a confidence in training, in experience, in abilities.

That confidence is what makes a particular dancer transcend the ordinary, what makes him or her stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, d'Amboise told the group, it's what transforms all the jumps and steps and waving arms from mere movement into art.

Jacques d'Amboise hobbled back to his chair at the front of the studio, a bit winded from his demonstrations, but his smile still broad, eyes twinkling.

"Okay," he said. "Now who's going to run through this next? Without looking at the floor?"

Everyone laughed.
PNB Principal Dancer shares a laugh with Jacques d'Amboise
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet's season opening performances of "Jewels" begin Friday, September 26th at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Guilty Pleasures And Other Summer Diversions

Contestants on Fox TV's "So You Think You Can Dance" photo courtesy Fox
Wow, summer is whizzing by and I haven't written a word since early June. I can only blame my lack of focus on Seattle's persistent sunshine. But, while it's true the Pacific Northwest is pretty much heaven on earth this time of year, I confess I have also been diverting myself with other, shall we say, less wholesome pastimes than enjoying Mother Nature.

For example, I find myself inexplicably drawn to mystery novels in the summer. Actually, I love them all year long, but summer means swimming followed by a leisurely read at the beach. This year, "The Silkworm", Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) latest offering, was a great diversion.

But reading sounds downright virtuous compared to my other vice this summer.

I confess.
I've developed an unhealthy addiction to a television reality show.

Every Wednesday evening at 8 you will find me glued to the latest edition of "So You Think You Can Dance."
"So You Think You Can Dance" routine; courtesy Fox Television

I tuned in the first time out of curiosity. I love dance, and a beloved cousin recommended I watch this program. And then, I kept watching. And watching. I consume this show the way I consume a bag of kettle corn-I just can't stop. And I watch with equal parts fascination and fury.

For those of you who have somehow missed SYTYCD (seriously, that's how they refer to it in print), the show works like this. A large pool of dancers auditions for a three-judge panel. From that pool, the judges select a group for the series competition. Each week, two of those dancers are paired up to perform what the show calls a "routine". These are bite-sized morsels of choreography, everything from ballroom to hip hip to tap. Each routine is set to a pop song, and none is longer than 3 or 4 minutes.

Each week two dancers are eliminated, voted off the dance floor if you will. That ouster is based on an online popular vote tally, and on input from the judges. For most of the summer, one of those judges was American Ballet Theater soloist (and Under Armour viral video star) Missy Copeland. If nothing else, Copeland's knowledgeable feedback was a great counterpoint to that of the semi-hysterical judge with the ballroom dance background.
Oo la la, it's ballet! Contestant Jacque on "So You Think You Can Dance"
photo courtesy Fox

As I write this, the dancers have been whittled down to six semi-finalists. And now, I have my favorites. Contestant Jacque has a ballet background. And recently they actually let her wear her pointe shoes and perform a teeny tiny contemporary ballet "routine." The audience, usually whooping with delight every time one of the contestants executes a grand jete, was stunned into silence at the end of this mini-ballet. The performance was lovely, however brief. The judges had nothing but praise for it, but poor Jacque didn't get the audience nod that night. Alas, I don't think my ballerina has a shot at winning.

Not to say the other contestants are chopped liver. One guy who came to dance later in life (we get to see snippets of their bios throughout the series) has amazing line, a sort of feline stage presence, and the seeming ability to perform whatever is thrown his way. I can't help but wonder what kind of ballet dancer he would have made.
"So You Think You Can Dance" contestant, courtesy Fox TV
Now that I think of it, SYTYCD reminds me a lot of that reality show set at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, "Breaking Pointe." That series had an endlessly tedious story line about relationships, cattiness and backstories. I just wanted to see the dancing. Which is kind of how I feel about SYTYCD. I want more dancing, producers!

I've found myself wondering if shows like this cheapen dance as an artform. The New York Times last year called SYTYCD "feckless" and "ignorable." With all the pop music, glittery costumes and makeup, and the brevity of each piece of choreography, it's a little like watching the fast food version of what I know can be a delicious meal in its full form.

 On the other hand, millions of people tune into SYTYCD every week. They're exposed to at least a taste of an art form that seems to baffle so many. Isn't there some way to build on that audience? I keep thinking that dance companies around the country should somehow ask their local Fox Television affiliates to sponsor tie-ins. "You like our reality show," a Fox host might say. "Well, check out Zoe Juniper at On The Boards. Or, what about Whim W'him? And hey, Seattle area, Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting an entire evening of work by choreographer William Forsythe next March. If you liked this hors d'oeuvre, you'll love the banquet!"

Lucky for me this guilty-pleasure summer has just about run its course. I will miss the sunshine, the beaches and the delectable mystery novels. But long after the contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance" have faded into distant memory, I've got a calendar full of live dance performances penciled in for this fall. And next spring. And, as Buzz Lightyear says, to infinity and beyond!

I can hardly wait.