Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers

 

Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.

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These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?

Aiming PAST your partner’s hand when you swing. You don’t reach out to slap their hand and then pull back; that’s called a “shy-five.” Instead, you wanna slam your hand into theirs with exactly enough force to either stop it, or keep going. That’s the source of the gesture’s smack-power. Battements (as in battle, French for “beating”) are the same way. You have to push your kick to go all the way. If physics and hip flexibility didn’t stop it, your leg should theoretically swing up and kick you in the head.

Despite the challenges of perfecting my form, I continue to enjoy the fitness benefits of trying. Posture should be the simplest thing in the world for homo erectus; still, it’s incredibly hard to do well consistently. Most people think of posture as something you practice whenever you think about it—but it’s actually something you practice constantly. You always have either good or bad posture, and it’s always either actively helping or harming your body. (Did you just stand or sit straighter? I thought so. Me too.)

Since beginning ballet, my torso-slash-core is tighter, braced by the real and imagined stability of what Meiffren calls “your muscular corset.” My gut feels like a taut cushion with my bellybutton tacked to the back by a sturdy string. I’ve also dipped down about 10 pounds in as many weeks. It occurred to me that this might happen, but I didn’t want to jinx it by hoping or push it by changing my other habits. If I lost weight while only adding the ballet regimen, I reasoned, I would know for sure who to thank. I can now probably safely credit the ballet.

Honestly, if you’re interested in both fitness and Portland arts, you should probably consider taking dance classes from a local dance company as a viable, or even preferable, alternative to joining a gym. It’s the farmers’ market shopping of fitness—a way to support the more small-scale, lofty-principled producers of the things you love to consume. And if you sprang for courses from a company member plus season tickets to that company, I imagine you’d maximize your audience appreciation. “I know that dancer!” you could say to yourself, “and that’s the move they tried to show me!” (This is not a paid endorsement.* It’s just a decent idea.)

Of course, “hardcore” ballet fitness has pros and cons. The superhuman demands the discipline puts on joints, muscles, and poor little piggies are well acknowledged, giving dancers their own special set of health concerns. I recently discussed this with Emily Running (founder of DanceWire and dancer with AWOL) when we ran into each other at Heidi Duckler’s Whistling in the Dark. As we settled in to watch a plaid-shirted Paul Bunyan character and a gauzy green fairy trip a precarious pas de deux over Disjecta’s rooftops and railings, she mentioned her personal ordeal with major injury and excruciating pelvic reconstruction surgery (about which she’s penned a book, Anatomy Riot). “I hear from dancers all the time that doctors don’t know how to work on our bodies,” she said. “With my own  injury, the doctor only initially aimed at making it so that I could walk again. I really had to advocate for myself, like, ‘I want to do a lot more with my body than that!'”
For us weekenders and come-latelies, a light dance practice can be energizing or painful, depending on the day. Michael, the only man in our class with perfect attendance, enrolled in beginner ballet at age 52 with a rod in his leg from a cycling injury, and he’s found the moves both challenging and therapeutic. “Sometimes when I lift my leg off the floor, I can really feel the rod,” he admits, but contends generally the class has improved his flexibility, posture and overall fitness. I can relate. Some classes limber and relax my bad ankle; others swell and stress it. So many factors influence this that I can’t find a reliable pattern. In any case, Meiffren’s last-ditch effort to break our bad habit of “sickling” (turning toes inward, pigeon-style, while the foot is lifted) seems pointed at me. When swollen, my ankle appears to be sickling, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Like “bitchy resting face,” I have “sickle resting foot.” It isn’t what it looks like, but it still gets me in trouble.

All that’s about to be over, though, as I prepare to finish this class, finally talk with Meiffren in person, “out” myself to the class as the secret reporter, and close this Ballet Diary.

Every week, we’ve ended class roughly the same way: facing the mirror and copying Meiffren’s freestyle choreography, then posing and bowing as if to an audience. This is the part of the class that’s intended to inspire our ballet fantasies of performing on a stage, absorbing applause, and even, as Meiffren has pantomimed once or twice, accepting flowers.

I know from my ballerina friend that flowers at the end of shows are a big deal, practically protocol. On our last week, I almost figure everyone will bring them. I’ve got sunflowers from the Hawthorne Farmers’ Market, perked up with a few things from the yard. I schlep them across the bridge in my backpack and hide them in the bathroom, and as the class warms into its final song, I sneak out and retrieve them. When I return, everyone is taking bows. I skitter (gracefully and theatrically) up to Meiffren and present her with the bouquet, bowing. The whole class seems excited by the real-life flowers, a final flourish in our collective curtain call delusion.

Meiffren invites us to join her for Thai food, and three of us do. Michael, a fine art installer (whose favorite local artists include Jill Torgerson, Mark Diamond, Terry Bostwick and Therez Murdza, thanks for asking) has been following and sharing the ballet diary avidly…but never suspected me as its writer. Another student, a financial planner by day, gushes that the lessons are well worth her Wilsonville commute, the highlight of her week. Both are considering either enrolling again with NWDP, or following Meiffren. The restaurant is having a hard day and only offering takeout, so we carry our food back to campus and wolf it down on a bench under a streetlight. After the clean, bright classroom, all of this is startlingly human.

The End, of course, invokes reexamination of The Beginning. Why did I undertake these ballet lessons and write this dance diary in the first place? The other day, DanceWire’s founder was about the millionth dancer** to tell me that the Portland dance community feels underrepresented in local culture coverage and critique—at least compared to music, theater, and visual art. If that’s so (and I’m sure a million** critics would argue that it isn’t) it should not be construed as a lack of respect from reviewers. Dancers, to us, look like Gods of the Arts—the most obvious literal embodiment of humankind’s long-term dedication to cultural expression. Even so, dance reviews are hard(est?) to write. In the spirit of the oft-cited Isadora Duncan quote, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it”—many dance-world denizens view their craft as, at the very least, adamantly nonverbal, and sometimes even pointedly non-narrative. Such artists shake writers’ words off of their bodies as if bucking an itchy cloak that’s obscuring perfect lines. And yet, they’d like some press…

These dual impulses seem to call for writers who are educated enough in dance that they won’t offend, and these are rare hybrid animals, indeed. Dancers too often fall mute when they get to the marley—in part because the Duncan incantation also works in reverse: “If I can dance it, I don’t have to say it.” In keen defiance of this tendency, Carla Mann’s How The Light Gets In, part of NWDP’s Summer Splendors, recently asked dancers to deliver monologues chock-full of provocative philosophical questions…so maybe that pattern is changing…

For now, it seems, most dance coverage falls to us klutzes, and what we lack in dance training, we hope to compensate for with our laser-sharp powers of observation and verbal articulation. We like to believe we can tell dancers what the audience is and isn’t seeing, and tell the audience what to look for to enrich their appreciation of a performance. But the things we call out will inevitably be skewed from the ephemeral intricacies dancers strive to nonverbally express. Luckily, ArtsWatch’s narrative voice and critical factions are better-developed than my arabesque—but if we ever seem to be struggling, we trust the Portland dance community will keep us in balance, and on our toes.

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet

*ArtsWatch pays writers, but the opinions expressed are independent.

**rounding up to the nearest million

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A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

4 Responses.

  1. A noble endeavor and a good rationale! Thanks for the series, which has been an enjoyable read. I spent much of my youth in ballet class and even got my pointe shoes, though truly, I sucked. I’m trying to sit up straighter in my recliner at this very moment, and am still laughing over “sickle resting foot.” 🙂

  2. A.L. Adams says:

    Thanks, Rachel!

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading. Beginning at my age has been a predictably humbling, but surprisingly enlightening experience.

    Your comment also reminded me to link to the “BRF” video for those not familiar with the reference.

  3. Hahaha! BRF and RAF: such misunderstood diseases. I swear, I get more BRF with each passing day…

    I’m way impressed you ballerina-ed. And glad you shared it!

  4. Martha Ullman West says:

    This critic agrees with the Portland dance community that it is seriously under-represented in the press, with the exception of ArtsWatch. Apart from that, I have followed A.L.’s diary with interest and amusement, and respect. Perhaps she would like now to keep a journal of studying modern technique, just as grueling in its own way! Thanks, A.L., I’ve been covering dance one way or another for half a century, but I learned a lot from your journal.

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