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Why performance footage doesn't match up with how it feels to dance.
You know those digital tablets where you have to sign your name, maybe at a counter, or to receive a package at your front door? The last time I used one was when I opened a bank account in Berlin; I signed my name on that small dark screen about five times. At the end of the appointment, the agent handed me a printed packet with all of my information, including all of those digital signatures. Each one looked different, and not at all what I had pictured while I was writing it.
When I see videos of myself dancing, it’s really hard not to perceive the recording in the same way I view those digital signatures. Just like the signatures, the result goes against reason: I know how to sign my name, and it looks the same every time. I have an idea of what I want to communicate, and how I want the result to look. It’s the same with dancing. So then why isn’t the footage true to the performance experience? A single thing separates dance from the other visual arts: it is a passing moment - a three-dimensional, living, breathing, expression. The way I dance is my signature.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately learning how to articulate what it’s like to watch other people dancing. That’s because after all of these years, I am still a die-hard ballet enthusiast. Of watching footage of myself dancing, I can only say it’s less than enjoyable. Sound self-deprecating? I don’t know another dancer who feels much differently. To try to explain the divide, I offer a glimpse into what it feels like to dance. I think it is this sensation that separates the experience of live performance from the film’s dull aftermath.
When I stand at the barre, feeling my body forming the positions that I’ve painstakingly trained it to make, a tingling sense of weightlessness creeps into the back of my spine, right between my shoulder blades. It’s a freedom that comes from years of developing my own extreme body control. I feel the familiar alertness trickle across my shoulders and down the backs of my arms, raising the hairs as it moves. Energy radiates out of my fingertips. The same energy extends out of the top of my head, through the center of my body, down through my feet into the floor, and in front of and behind me, radiating in all directions.
Of course I don’t stay at the barre, but that’s where I collect the energy and organize how to use it. Then, in the center of the room, I face the challenge of letting go. This can be hard for me; there are so many details that I’m working on all the time, and I’m afraid that if I don’t think about everything constantly, my movements will come out looking like that dreaded digital signature: pure chaos. Releasing into the movements, though - really giving in - usually helps me let the energy do its job.
The energy has a mind of its own - if I gave it complete control, I’d whirl off-course. But over time I’ve learned to harness the energy by channeling it through the music that I hear. Dancers from different schools have different relationships to the music, but my background taught me to anticipate just enough to be able show what the music is doing. If not, it would look like I’m dragging behind, or just not listening - the most inconsiderate of offenses. But that’s just my opinion.
I play a game of catch and release: throw the energy in a direction, let the music carry it through. The game takes practice, but it’s fun and there’s always something new to try. There are so many possibilities, even within the structure of choreography with set counts. And nobody can say that the expression isn’t mine if the choreography is someone else’s. It’s my body, my signature, my expression.
The greatest moment for me (and I’m sure you’ve heard it before) is the first performance after a rehearsal period. So much about the long process has been about figuring things out: fitting with the others, building strength and endurance, pushing past aches and pains. I like to think of this phase as gathering our collective energy. In the performance, though, we let go. When we’ve prepared for it, the weightlessness creeps in, picks us up from underneath our shoulder blades, and carries us through. The experience has exactly that other-worldly quality; how else do you explain why a half hour onstage feels both like ten seconds and ten years at the same time?
When I look back at the footage, there will probably be some moments that I enjoy (mixed in with the cringe-worthy ones). Mostly, the positive moments will trigger the memory of what it felt like to dance those parts: The complete stillness before the music began; running onstage from the wing at full speed, feeling the air parting around me; the inhale I took before falling backward, trusting that someone would catch me before I hit the ground. The live audience will have experienced all of these moments with me. They may not have been able to see the energy spurting out of me, but they’ll know that something was there. And they’ll know what my real signature looks like, or at least the energy-charged gestures that produced it.
You can’t capture that kind of energy on film. Well, I haven’t seen it done yet. I'm happy to have the chance to play around with words, even if in this case, they construct something that seems more like fantasy than reality. But the dance is meant to lift the viewer away from reality, at least for the duration of the performance. And if words can help in the process, then I'll keep trying.
Dancer Corina Kinnear leads a project at Tanzfabrik studios in Berlin Kreuzberg
What happens when you take a group of dancers who have never worked together, provide a studio space, and ask them to assemble a dance piece? Since experiment seems to dominate the Berlin dance scene, I am in the optimal place to find out what happens when dancers are itching to move!
I entered Studio 3 at Tanzfabrik on a Sunday evening not knowing what to expect. I had never been to those huge and airy studios before, and immediately felt inspired by the wide open space. Invited guests sat on benches and cushions in the front of the studio. We were friends of the performers, and friends of friends.
I first met the American dancer Corina Kinnear in Lyon during an audition tour in 2011. We connected over career-path similarities, and spent a wonderful afternoon together high up on a hill overlooking the city. When I learned that Corina had moved to Berlin, I was excited for the chance to see what she was working on.
With a residency granted by Tanzfabrik, Corina gathered a very diverse group of freelance dancers who met for three hours every day over the span of 10 days. (Since I wasn't a part of this creation process, I can only speculate how the group approached the project.) I can imagine the dancers first getting to know each other, maybe through a series of improvisation exercises or ice-breaker movement tasks. When I am in such a position, I usually begin with my “safe” way of moving - something that I know looks kind of interesting, that I know I can execute easily, and that gives me a sense of control over what my body is doing. I stick to what I know, because if I lose my train of thought or branch out from my comfort zone, I'll feel insecure.
Each of the six dancers had an opportunity to show what I considered their “safe” movement within the boundaries of the piece. Interestingly, the safe zones were all different because the movement of each dancer was so different. One person’s safe zone could have been another person’s nightmare.
The piece was constructed within a frame of Corina’s light and relaxed choreography. And then, she pulled the rug out from under us; each dancer was challenged in some way to break from her “safe” movement. Yoko, a trained ballet dancer, sang a song while dancing a waltz (a phobia for most dancers). Corina performed a monologue about organizational outlining while moving her arms like a marionette. Tim repeated a gyrating breathing exercise that continued for so long, I thought his gasping might make me faint. Yuri danced until she dropped, dragging herself across the floor and breathing hard. Lea seemed to control dancers against the wall with her gaze. Iliana slowly approached us, the audience, holding uncomfortably long eye contact.
Sound nerve wracking? It was, sometimes, but also thrilling to be included in the game. We witnessed people taking risks and exposing themselves as artists. There was something for us to love, and something to make our skin crawl. Even the music, wide ranged offerings provided by the dancers, produced contrasting reactions. Each time a dancer was pushed to an emotional extreme, I asked myself, “do I like this? Am I comfortable? And why do I care?” For every strong reaction, positive or negative, I think that Corina succeeded in her task. Using "intuition and insisting," a phrase used by one dancer, Corina created a space for dancers to learn something new about themselves. And the more they knew, the more we could find out.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only visitor who wasn’t sure what she had just witnessed. After the performance, one audience member hoped for an exact answer to what the “experiment” was that she had been promised. Her critical mind must have reeled when the answer came: a simple “we don’t know yet.”
I don’t know, either. But I’m delighted that we’re trying to find out. I think that dance becomes interesting when it successfully communicates emotion (of any kind) to an audience in a unique way. This particular experiment gave a wide range of dancers the chance to raise questions. Thanks to this type of work, we might just find our own answer.
Photos by Jörn Kaspuhl
A look at the past year,
playing the odds, and
living in the present moment.
At a cabin in the Austrian mountains, we played Kniffel around the dining table. [Each player has three chances to roll five dice. From what I can tell, Kniffel is basically the same as Yahtzee, except that a player can only get the fifty-point bonus for rolling a Kniffel (five of a kind), one time.] This didn’t seem fair to my mom, who rolled two Kniffels and thought that she should receive two bonuses. I, who didn’t roll any Kniffels, was fine with the rule.
Johannes didn’t roll any Kniffels either. He kept score and made lots of witty comments throughout the game. His parents, one physicist and one chemistry teacher, weighed the odds and tried to play strategically. In the end, though, it all boiled down to chance.
My sister won the game and was dubbed the Kniffelmeister. Later, when Johannes had traveled back to Italy and only I was left to translate, she excitedly set out to explain how the odds strategy that she had been using turned out to be wrong, as shown by this mathematical equation, and this logical train of thought...
I was five years old again, playing word games in the car with my dad and sister. They always tried to include me, but they were just too fast. For “France Pants,” you had to know so many country and city names right off the top of your head, and be able to find a relevant rhyming word. Then, you had to think of a question which included the rhyming word. (Example: Question: Where is a place where they don’t wear any pants? Answer: France).
While I was translating for Johannes' parents, I had to be fast enough to impart all of the urgency and humor in what my sister was saying. I'm not sure if I succeeded or failed, but we all laughed a lot.
Back home in Berlin, I’ve been thinking a lot about playing the odds. The weather, first of all, has been all over the place. One second it feels almost like spring, with birds chirping and tiny buds popping out of the ground- and then, Bam! It’s ice cold, with sludgy snow on the ground, and people slipping on the sidewalk. People check the weather on their phones multiple times a day because it changes so frequently. I say, why bother? I wear layers and pack a rain poncho, because I never know what’s going to happen.
I’ve done two ballet company auditions so far in 2016, and I see that I can’t apply the odds to the dance business at all. Of course ideally I want to believe that if I invest the work, train regularly, take care of my body, and make a good impression, then it is more likely that I’ll get the job. But that just isn’t always the case. I might have a horrible class, feel terrible about myself, dislike the teacher, and receive a call-back. Maybe I have a good class, push myself to the front, feel good about my performance, and I’m not chosen. At the professional level, I don’t always see a rhyme or reason to who gets chosen. I don’t even know what the odds are. I just keep showing up to play the game.
2015 has been a very eventful year. In the beginning of March I sat with two of my sisters and Johannes at a bar in New Jersey and explained that sometime in the distant future, I could imagine being a dance critic. I sent an email knowing full well that it would probably result in rejection. This February, my fourth article will run in Dance Europe Magazine. l am finding a sustainable balance in completing assignments, pushing myself creatively, and staying active as a dancer. It’s not easy, but it’s very satisfying.
We moved to Berlin, the city of my dreams. Before we moved the furniture into the apartment, I rubbed olive oil onto the dull and un-treated wooden floors - two coats over two days. Now the floorboards are warm and alive, and I’d rather be here than anywhere else. We’re on the road a lot; on Wednesday I’ll take the train 10 hours to the north of Italy to see Johannes’ premier of Lulu, returning on Monday. In our line of work, it's pretty common to not know what will happen three months into the future. But I like my life, and am excited to see what happens next.
At midnight on New Years Eve, we stood high on the mountain, looking over the surrounding cabins and far away tiny towns, and watched fireworks. It’s funny - I stood there trying to think about the past year, but was constantly slung into the present moment. A crash course on being in the here and now: the rush of the frosty air in my nostrils, the colorful blasts all around me, my gloved fingers freezing around the stem of my champagne glass, snowflakes falling into my open eyes.
The future is bound to come, whether we’re ready or not. You can try to apply strategy as you go, or you can pack a poncho in your bag and see what happens.
Sam Feldhandler involves the dancers so deeply in his process, down to deconstructing the notes on the page, that the work takes on a whole new, and may I say fascinating, design: he wants to show, literally, the music.
Every time I have been a part of a new dance creation, the process has been similar: the choreographer comes with music already chosen (usually), has already worked with the music to whatever extent he or she is accustomed to (dancers don’t always learn to read music), and has already planned out ideas, small movement phrases, or sometimes entire dance sequences to build on. The choreographer then communicates these normally pre-determined factors to the dancers during the rehearsal process. If the choreographer is good, he will be open to the spontaneous things that happen when dancers experiment; then, it will feel like a collaboration. If he is bad, it will be a tedious surgical operation, met with resistance and lightning-quick eye rolls.
Samuel Feldhandler does not fit this description. Well, technically speaking, he does; he has chosen music, planned movement phrases, and works with the dancers who in turn execute the steps. But the major difference in Sam’s choreographic procedure is how he involves the dancers so deeply in the process, down to deconstructing the notes on the page, that the work takes on a whole new, and may I say fascinating, design: Sam wants to show, literally, the music. I visit the Lake Studios in far-east Berlin to see what that looks like.
The piece is called ohne Fugue, (without fugue). Three female dancers occupy the space. The first begins by performing a simple movement phrase, mainly by moving her arms in a clear pattern. She continues as the next dancer begins a few measures later. As the third dancer joins in, they are off, providing hints of the first musical phrase as they bend and rotate their bodies, their bare feet skidding them across the floor - before my eyes, the dancers become the music. I only register some minutes into the piece that there is no music playing.
Sam’s concept is to build a dance in the same way a composer builds a fugue, through repetitions of a basic theme - the subject - and its persisting accompaniment - the counter-subject - as they move through various harmonic changes. In ohne Fugue, a phrase of movement is the theme, which is repeated and altered by the dancers in various ways throughout the dance. Harmonic changes are determined by the dancers’ placement and relationship to one another in the space.
I notice one dancer, Eva, as she counts through her movements. Normally dancers have the music to determine their timing. In this case, they only have each other. I watch Eva more closely, trying to keep the other two dancers in my peripheral vision; they are watching each other very carefully. I see that the timing to their movements is not arbitrary. Not only is each dancer in charge of executing her own material to a designated tempo, but also of maintaining how her material is related to what the other two are doing. Watching the three dancers becomes like watching musicians rehearse; they are making the music, not dancing to it. Sam does experiment by playing various music on top of the movement, but the foundation is an already determined, silent compostion.
Creating a motif of steps on which to build upon is true of most dance makers’ processes. What is remarkable about Sam’s is how well studied and true to the musical guidelines his work is. First I see him bent over a chart, which I later learn follows the musical score of a fugue, clearly notating the timed actions of each dancer. Later I observe the dancers following the same method; they huddle in a cluster, pulling out identical charts, talking through their actions as a group. Sam even keeps time, conducting them as they mimic their motions. Maybe it’s because I just read Harry Potter, but I picture wizards huddled around a spell book; you just don’t see dancers working like this every day!
Sam’s work is also broad and ambitious. He explains to me that in addition to building a fugue, ohne Fugue also explores Bach’s use of gematria, assigning a specific letter to a number allowing music and text to have significant connections. He accomplishes hints of gematria in ohne Fugue by assigning certain letters in the alphabet to certain movement phrases - thus spelling out words.
It’s a lot of information, and not necessary, or even recommended, for the audience to keep track of all of it. I see these elements as glimmering hints into the interesting background of the choreographer, whose components work together, intertwining and changing course throughout the piece, and inarguably making the work more interesting to watch - whether we know why or not.
A musical education has been perhaps more influential than a dance education to Sam’s work. Growing up in Freiburg, his mother is a viola professor (Sylvie Altenburger), at the Freiburg Music Conservatory, and his father is a contemporary composer and percussionist (Jean-Christophe Feldhandler). (Music education is normally not a major aspect of a traditional dance training. Of course, schools recognize that musicality is essential to dance; but it is taught in a secondary way: a semester of piano lessons, or a few-week-long general music course). For Sam, a musical education has been key; if it’s any support for how an exposure to music has influenced how his brain processes information, he is trilingual, speaking French, German, and English fluently. He graduated in 2015 from the Modern Theatre Dance Department at the Conservatory of Arts in Amsterdam, where he developed a curiosity for finding ways to incorporate his musical background into his work as a dancer. And excitement for the experiment continues to draw Sam into the studio.
Despite his intellectual working method, there is an easy feeling in Sam’s rehearsals. He works with three schoolmates from Amsterdam: Anni Kaila, Eva Honings, and Lena Schattenberg. The dancers play a large part in determining what is and isn’t working in the piece. Eva asks “does it look good when I do it that fast?-” and relies on the input of the other three to decide her tempo; and when Sam is deciding whether to let an awkward-seeming leg-kick section go, Lena boldly says “maybe it could die already today.” Well, bold to me, grown up in the classical ballet world of “yes please, thank you.”
But the work remains focused and dedicated, despite the friendly exchanges. The dancers perform the first fugue section, reciting “one” repeatedly as they keep time together, counting the rest of the beats in their heads. The “ones” become louder, more breathy, and fatigued as the dancers continue. I find the moment incredibly touching. It’s not a kind of provocation toward the dancer, like asking her to sing onstage or recite text. Counting the “ones” out loud is a reflection of what happens inside the dancer all the time while she is dancing. She is constantly keeping vigil on her timing with the music (hopefully). She is exerting her body, usually with the requirement of looking as if she is not. And she is sacrificing a piece of herself in order to give something to the audience.
I am very interested to follow Sam as he continues to find his own choreographic voice. I consider his open collaborative process and remarkable grasp on complex musical ideas, with his ability to transform them into approachable visual sensations, a very positive approach toward dance making. Even though plenty of significant dance work will continue to be made without such a process, it’s the kind of thing that is worth taking note of.
The former Hamburg Ballet dancers now tour internationally as guest teachers. They tell me about working with John Neumeier in the early years, developing their own teaching ideals, and how they work to preserve and propel the art of classical ballet.
I recently had the opportunity to work with ballet teachers François and Robyn Klaus when they taught in Berlin for a week at the Deutsche Oper. They were stopping by before continuing their guest-teaching tour at Béjart Ballet in Lausanne, having just come from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Standing at the barre, we dancers smiled among each other as François fiddled with his iPhone to get the stereo to play - just as our parents might. But after the music had been sorted out, and we had completed the first few exercises, I knew that nothing else about the class was old-fashioned. My body felt correctly placed, lengthened, and able to react to any musical dynamic. From that first class, whatever the couple had to say, I wanted to hear.
“The best sign that professional dancers enjoy your class is how they are jumping at the end,” François tells me later in the week. We are sitting around my dining table drinking coffee. The former Hamburg ballet principal dancer still looks princely, with broad shoulders and a chiseled jaw. “First of all, it’s a good sign if most of the dancers are still there at all,” he says, smiling. Robyn finishes the thought. She has delicate features, and emphasizes what she says with very expressive hands: “But, assuming that they are still there - if their jumps have energy and attack, then they are enjoying themselves.”
Growing up in Townsville, Australia, (Robyn), and Cannes, (François), the two dancers came to Germany at a time when nobody spoke English, and where ballet did not yet have a long-standing tradition. They learned from great teachers like Truman Finney, who built their aesthetic for clean and musical dancing. They worked with choreographers, primarily John Neumeier, whose goal was not to preserve a classic or please a board, but to make dancing relevant to their audience. I was thrilled that they accepted my invitation for a coffee, because I was fascinated to learn about their experience. As they recounted stories and memories, I realized that their critique of today’s ballet industry could help support why I consider the art form relevant today.
Both François and Robyn admit that they weren’t yet fully formed dancers when they met in Munich as new members of John Cranko’s company. “The year we came, Cranko fired eight dancers, and hired eight new international dancers, including us. There were big differences in all of our techniques, and no good way to really bridge the gaps.” They both consider their artistic development to really begin when they joined Hamburg Ballet, where John Neumeier would arrive as director one year later. Here, they explain, the real discovery of the craft started.
Two teachers, Irina Jacobson and Truman Finney, greatly inspired the two dancers and influenced their understanding of ballet technique. Jacobson stressed logical coordination and cleanliness, demonstrated through perfectly constructed combinations. I think back to Robyn in class during the week, suggesting that we pinpoint our bad habits, using the barre exercises to bring our technique back to the basics. The simple and logically coordinated exercises that Robyn used to emphasize this point seemed to mirror her description of Jacobsen’s class.
Truman Finney, on the other hand, is remembered for his tangible passion for rhythm and musicality. “I think (Finney’s) energy and love for the music must have been an extension of what it was like to work with Balanchine,” Robyn says. “And he just loved Tea for Two; it was his most ideal music for ballet combinations.” The couple smiles, remembering. I think of all the teachers I have worked with who seemed to share this fetish for Tea for Two - Peter Martins, Thordal Christensen, Peter Bo Bendixen - and it occurs to me the great influence that Truman Finney has indirectly had on my own musical sensibility, and how it affects my dancing.
Over the years as directors and teachers, François and Robyn have found the words to articulate what they learned from Jacobson and Finney. And the result: they are not interested in technique alone, but argue that having the technique to express something creates a foundation for the dancer to create the magic that we see onstage.
I am interested in hearing more about this onstage magic. During the eighteen years with Hamburg Ballet, the couple was part of countless creation processes with Neumeier, originating numerous title roles in his ballets. “Those early days were very exciting, and Neumeier really involved everyone.” François tells me. He describes a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet in which Neumeier gave each cast member a name and a character. “Each dancer knew exactly who he was, and approached even a minor role with a defined purpose. You don’t always see corps dancers given that much guidance anymore. But Neumeier always gave a why in his story ballet interpretations,” he points out.
“When Petipa choreographed Sleeping Beauty, he was a contemporary choreographer of his time.” Robyn explains. “The Finger Fairy, who initiates each movement by shooting her pointer fingers, is meant to represent the new invention of electricity. It was exciting and relevant to the audience!” Her face glows as she recounts the story. She and François credit Neumeier for continuing to think progressively about the classics.
Already in those early days in Hamburg, Neumeier found ways to give classical ballets their contemporary relevance. François shows an example: In Neumeier’s Sleeping Beauty, Prince Desiree lives in modern times and wears jeans. He witnesses Princess Aurora in her kingdom a hundred years ago as if it were his dream. He sees her as a precocious child running wildly around the kingdom. He watches her on her sixteenth birthday, unable to react when she pricks her finger on the spindle and gradually loses consciousness. By the time he and princess Aurora meet, marry, and dance the traditional wedding pas de deux together, the audience has used Desiree's visions to develop their own emotional connections to the story. Most of the choreography remains true to the Petipa version, but we become much more involved.
Neumeier was able to give new interpretations without destroying the tradition and beauty of the classics. “His stagings really attempted to refresh the classics with the relevance that they had when they were conceived,” Robyn explains. “And the classics are not famous for nothing; they’re great pieces! But if they are to be incorporated in today’s culture, companies need to do more than just present “their version” of a classic. Most choreographers today have lost that logic. If you can’t give it a real meaning anymore, then don’t do it.”
The couple has found that giving the meaning begins with technique class. If you can give reasons how and why the body executes movement in a certain way, you can just as easily approach the bigger picture. It isn’t a new phenomenon for an older generation to bemoan the fading of times past. But François and Robyn do not fall into this trap; they see their job as one moving forward: to simultaneously preserve and propel the art of ballet. Dancers are better now, they say. And there are so many more of them. Reviewers often complain that dancers are moving in a technical direction, leaving the artistry behind. François and Robyn articulate how they have tried to keep the artistry alive through their own classical ballet stagings.
As director of Queensland Ballet in Brisbane from 1998 to 2012, François followed Neumeier’s example by continuing to prioritize modern relevance in his own classical choreography. He and Robyn set more than one hundred ballets for the company, taking efforts to provide the dancers with background information to build their own emotional connections to the work. This process, they uphold, provides a whole new dimension to the audience experience. For François' A Streetcar Named Desire, an actress coached the dancers through a process that involved reading and understanding the text. In his staging of Romeo and Juliet, dancers spoke in the Act II duel scenes until the dress rehearsal in order to help personalize conflict and make struggles more real. François describes the difficulty, but ultimate positive result, from pulling dancers out of their comfort zones: “They are afraid of looking stupid trying to interpret a role, and try to cover it up with an air of ‘I don’t care right now, I’ll be able to do it once I’m onstage.' (But) you learn as much, if not more, from your mistakes as your successes, and this is what makes you grow.”
By now I’ve observed how considerate the two are with each other, always giving the other person room to express a thought without contradiction. When I ask how they found a working dynamic in the studio, I’m surprised at the answer. “At Queensland Ballet, we never worked together until right before a production opened,” François explains. He choreographed the ballets and coached dancers, while Robyn ran separate rehearsals as a ballet mistress, and organized the school program. Assigning these specific responsibilities permitted the couple to maintain a harmonious personal life.
And how do they work together now, I ask, expecting the pair to explain the development of their cohesive teaching aesthetic. “We haven’t,” Robyn laughs. “He likes coordination, and I like lines.” But by each maintaining an individual preference, they explain, they have been able to find and hone the most well-rounded dancers possible. “If I ruled a dancer out in an audition who didn’t instantly show good coordination," François explains, "Robyn might point out something special about her line that I had missed. In that way, it’s always been positive that we are two sets of eyes.”
With that, our time is up - they have to catch a cab to the airport. Always on the move, I think to myself. It all happens in a blur; I help them carry their suitcases down the stairs, wave goodbye, and the cab drives away.
* * *
In the days that follow, I am constantly reminded of François and Robyn. There are the technical reminders in ballet class, of course: François explaining how the height of a kick is determined by the impetus of the take-off; or Robyn demonstrating how arms can tighten around the body’s axis to sustain a turn. And then there is a bigger-picture idea about dancing: how musical interpretation is just as important as technical ability, and one can’t exist without the other. I’m very inspired by this reminder.
I am also inspired for the future of classical ballet. Even though there is a demand for dancers to be better, stronger, learn more styles, and push themselves further, there are also teachers like François and Robyn to remind us of the beauty and pure logic of classical ballet. And luckily, there are still choreographers asking why. I think that Christopher Wheeldon has admirably refreshed some stories with his unique ballet vocabulary, excellent musical understanding, and great sense of humor: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Swan Lake are a few favorites. I am also grateful that John Neumeier is still creating new works today, pushing the boundaries of classical ballet by broadening the audience’s sensibilities for which stories can be told without words; Peer Gynt and Duse are a few recent endeavors.
Stopped at a red light during my bike ride home one evening, I see a poster for a drama production of Woyzeck which François and Robyn had seen during their visit to Berlin. They were blown away by the show; everyone onstage had a purpose, they said - each soldier had a motive. And the audience was completely immersed in the drama. That, they had explained, this all-encompassing, multiple-sensory transformative experience, was what theater should be. And they were waiting to see it again on the ballet stage. I make a note of the next performance date, December 20th. The light turns green, and I continue on my way.
First, a note to readers. Then, a short description of the first attempt to translate my writing into German. Hint: it was really frustrating.
I’ve been writing a lot lately, and I love having a place where I can share my work with you. This week, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the purpose of this forum. I hope that my life as a dancer living in Berlin, with all of it’s quirks and learning curves, is interesting for you to read about. I am very squeamish at the idea that a blog is just a very egotistical diary. That’s why I try to produce content that I hope readers will enjoy. I also try to write about things that interest me as a way of learning more about them myself.
So far, my favorite types of projects have been interviews and the analysis of various dance styles. Of course, I have the most experience with dance, but I am also interested in other areas of the arts, which could include visual arts, music, and basically anything else I feel like writing about, really. I think it's an interesting task to try to articulate how the artist thinks, and how these thoughts translate into the work he or she creates. I hope that this type of evaluation can make the arts more accessible to people who might not know much about them.
At the moment I’m working on two pieces for this blog: an interview with international guest ballet teachers François and Robyn Klaus, former dancers with Hamburg Ballet and former directors of Queensland Ballet, Australia; and a portrait of dancer and choreographer Samuel Feldhandler, who is working on a residency for his piece ohne Fugue with three other dancers in Berlin. I hope that you will enjoy these upcoming articles.
I've tried to stick to my promise about posting something every Wednesday, but this week I didn’t make it. I will continue to post new material every week, but I hope it's ok if it's not always on the same day. Finally, I want to thank you very much for all of your support! I have received so much encouragement from people in the last weeks, and I really appreciate it. As I move forward, I am very interested in your feedback. Please let me know what you would like to read about. Share, comment, and keep an eye out for what’s to come!
A tough writing critique:
For the December issue of Dance Europe magazine, I have written an article on Stuttgart Ballet’s Kylián/ van Manen/ Cranko program. This is my first published critique, and it was a really fun project to work on. I’m so excited to receive the magazine in the mail next week!
Since submitting the piece a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on producing a sample German translation. (The original idea was that while I live in Berlin, it would be great to be able to offer my work in German as well as in English). It took a few hours to write the first draft. I translated each sentence as well as I could using the rules I’ve accumulated in the time I’ve spent learning the language. I have a good enough German vocabulary now that I can figure out a way to say most things. The problem is, it’s not always the way that other people say things. People usually know what I mean, but in writing that's not really good enough; things that you can get away with in spoken German might sound clunky in written German. So, I sat down at the kitchen table with my German boyfriend Johannes, and we went through the piece together. We analyzed each sentence, defining what was I was trying to say, and how it would best be articulated. (Thank you, Johannes!)
Translating the piece has been an extremely humbling endeavor. On the one hand, I’m sure the process will improve my German. On the other, I realize now that I have such a long way to go before I could offer German translations of my work - maybe even years. The process has also forced me to look at my writing with an extremely critical eye. Inconsistencies interrupted the flow - not only in German, but also in English. I think that in English, you can get away with more; it’s easier to chalk some imperfections up to “artistic license.” In German, you just don’t make sense anymore. Thankfully, I’m more careful now about the words I use. But, analyzing my work that hard gave me such a headache! (It would be a nightmare to try to translate that sentence).
Sitting in a Berlin cafe, illustrator Jörn Kaspuhl tells me what it's like to draw for a living.
Jörn Kaspuhl says that he’s a pragmatic decision maker, and not really an artist at all. He doesn’t feel an urge to make art, like needing oxygen to breathe. He says that he could even imagine a future without drawing. “It would be nice to produce something that I could hold in my hands,” he says. “I tried a pottery class last month, and it was amazing to physically hold a finished product. The last step to illustrating is always sending off a computer file. I never get to hold anything in my hands.”
When I look at Jörn, I see somebody with such an intuitive understanding of his subject that he can create life on a blank page. He doesn’t need air to draw because he is the oxygen. Granted, I’m not that objective - Jörn is a good friend of mine. But anyone can see that his work is extraordinary. We sit at a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, and he tells me what it’s like to draw for a living.
Jörn says that the ability to draw was always inside of him. “As a kid, I drew what was going on inside of my head. I started with my favorite comic figures, like the Ninja Turtles,” he says. The reminder spreads a smile across his face. A mixture of excitement for the projects, and positive reactions from people, encouraged him to keep drawing. And he’s still drawing, producing multiple graphics every month for magazines, exhibitions, movies, books, and the list goes on.
He has the process of executing an illustration down to a science, usually finished within a matter of days. When an offer comes, the client has typically seen his work before, so already knows his general style. Jörn asks for references to his other pictures to get a more specific idea of what the client wants.
The first sketch is a digital drawing, made on a tablet. At this stage, the client can request changes. Jörn usually draws the final picture with pen by hand, then scans it into the computer. Finally he adds color, often only splashes, collected from a previously scanned handmade catalog: his own color palette.
I think that Jörn's individual style becomes instantly recognizable. His careful attention to detail allows for every strand of hair, fold of material, or glimmer of moisture, to be perfectly positioned. He gives credit to the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg for teaching him how to draw accurate proportions. But his subjects show so much more than accuracy. A hand dips into lapping water; crossed elbows cover an embarrassed face. These people are moving. They have feelings and thoughts. Jörn captures a moment in his images, but it is never static.
Here the conversation veers from proportions in art, to statues in Rome, to traveling to distant places. Instead of trying to get back on target, I watch Jörn's excitement as he discusses themes that inspire him. I realize that the most remarkable thing about his work is not that the images are beautiful, but that they are a highly observant mind's expression of the spirit inside of the subject - a spirit discovered through an inquisitive outlook on every aspect of his life. And then it's Jörn who brings us back on target. "You can also purposely alter the proportions to convey a different state of mind," he explains, "or to produce a different sort of impact."
Jörn admits that his work develops the most when he takes a break from assignments to work on his own projects. Most recently he has done a series of animals called Spiritual Warriors including an owl, a wolf, and a buffalo. I ask him about the element of fantasy that I notice in these images.
“I’m not so much trying to create fantasy as I am trying to illustrate the elements that define each specific creature. I use symbols from the non-human world to identify these characteristics. I’m fascinated with animals’ strength and inner calm - the owl’s wisdom, for example. They all have this amazing purity and unfaltering instinct. There’s no room for human pretenses like arrogance; animals cannot play a character. Sure, they have their own sort of characters. But they are very honest - they are what they are. And, from a practical standpoint, I love drawing the shapes that I find in nature - feathers, fur, scales - they are all sources of limitless possibility."
I wonder if this means he doesn’t see a development in his commercial work. “I do, but it’s more gradual,” he says. “I try to deliver what the client expects from me, so there’s less room for creative exploration. But over time I do see some changes. I’ve been drawing for GQ for six years now - that’s over sixty illustrations. When I look at all of them together, I see that the work has become more detailed, more refined somehow. And I’m really happy about that.
Jörn has spent the past few months away from his native Hamburg. I wonder how Berlin’s change of pace is affecting his work. “So far, it’s been harder to concentrate,” he admits. “I want to experience the city, and make time for things besides work. I think Berlin is inspiring in a different way, which right now seems less productive. But I’m looking for an office space in Prenzlauer Berg so that I don’t have to work from home."
He goes on to describe his biggest problem with the business. "Sometimes I find myself in a horrible routine where I have to be an idea machine. I feel the expectation to constantly produce and be creative, and I become blocked. That’s the problem: I’ve been so lucky to make a career from my hobby, but now I don’t have a hobby anymore. I need time and space to formulate truly creative ideas. I hope Berlin can give me that space.”
It's exciting to consider what the result could be. Jörn mentions a few recent projects that stand out as the most fun to have worked on, and both are collaborations with friends. “I created images for singer Johannes Held’s WinterreiseStaged set design, and made a poster for director Patrick Siegfried Zimmer’s film Anhedonia. The excitement that my friends bring to the process really inspires me, and reminds me why we do these creative things. But in the end, those ideas belong to them, and not to me. I'm waiting for my next big idea."
Jörn describes a project that he made during his time at university. “I came up with this idea of turning small drawings of animals into a mural of one big animal. Every day I went to school and worked on this project. It must have been two or three months of work every day, and it gave me so much energy! I wanted to make the time for it. When it was finished I got to present it in an exhibition. I was so proud to show this thing that had come from inside of me."
One afternoon last summer, I watched Jörn draw. I don't know if it bothered him to have someone sitting next to him. He didn't say much. I'm pretty sure he went somewhere else in his mind. He held the pen with such care and grace, as if it was an extension of his own hand. I watched the hand move across the paper, and forgot about the pen altogether. The hand guided each nuanced mark onto the page, never second-guessing its path. Eventually I looked down and saw a creature there, divined with glittering eyes and a wet nose. I could feel its warm breath, and wanted to plunge my face in its thick fur. I couldn't hold the wolf in my hands, but it was probably the closest I would ever come. This image has stayed with me ever since. I watched someone create something from nothing, and it took my breath away.
Observations from a dancer: William Forsythe dances in "Solo," music by Thom Willems, filmed by Thomas Lovell Balogh
and Jess Hall.
People who watch William Forsythe, or Bill as dancers call him, performing Solo might wonder at first, why that man in socks is having a seizure in front of the camera. It is definitely provoking to see for the first time, even for many classical ballet dancers. They are used to Forsythe’s neoclassical ballet style, where the world’s most famous ballerinas lunge off balance in pointe shoes, thrust their hips, and whack their legs. That, we say, is fabulous— but what the heck is this?
The video is shot in black and white, with over-exposed lighting that emphasizes Bill’s eyebrows, and casts intense shadows that accentuate the crevices of his eyes and cheeks— adding to the alien feel for the first-time viewer. Violin music by Thom Willems plays adjacent to the movement, but doesn’t really accompany. The music and the dance are two separate entities; they support each other, but aren’t co-dependent.
At first glance, Bill is moving at full speed, we couldn’t say for how long. We see his head and arms writhing, and then proceed down his body. We pause at his feet, which make contact with the floor in different ways, causing him to rock, tremble, and shoot through the space. The light seems to reveal the flecks of dust kicked up from his feverish movement, but maybe that’s just my imagination. The camera scans his body from different perspectives, observing the various ways that movement is channelled through his body— even from a birds-eye-view. His chest turns and flips, his head moves in an opposing direction, and his arms rotate on a new axis. All the while, his feet never stop moving, propelling him to unexplored areas of the space.
You can hear his breathing in the silences between notes. This dance is not meant to look easy, and Bill lets the effort influence his movements. He is a living being, fully invested in the present moment of drawing movement possibilities in a three-dimensional space. The work is not intended to entertain, or even impress us. It might do these things, and even provoke some— but that’s the result, not the goal. Bill is inviting us to witness his creative process, and we can take it or leave it. At the very end, he slows way down, and someone off-camera speaks cues that dictate his last arm movements: “tap,” “move,” and “press.” There seems to be a method to the madness.
The movements that Bill executes are not random— they are derived from his own improvisation technique that explores the infinite ways in which the body can move through space. Forsythe improvisation requires a fair amount of freedom and openness from the dancer, but still uses the frame of classical ballet to establish structure. Look closely and you’ll see Bill step in and out of fifth position and other classical transitions like passé and tendu. The full extension of his foot-line is pointed, just like in ballet. But his pointed foot is a projection of energy, a means to an end, and not a steadfast rule.
Forsythe has used his improvisation technologies to develop his choreography, the neoclassical as well as experimental, for over thirty years. He shares the technique with colleagues who use it in their own creative processes, passing it along to other dancers. This fall, Forsythe has joined the faculty at USC Kaufman School of Dance, leaving his directorship of his Forsythe Company (formerly Ballet Frankfurt), which he held since 1984. It’s a tragedy for Frankfurt, but a great step for the development of dance and dance education in America.
As a dancer, I am fascinated with the way that Forsythe improvisation tools combine with a body’s natural movement style to produce a truly individual movement experience. Like anything else, the technique requires practice. But developing these tools increases the body’s awareness in space and time, making the sensation of dancing feel more perceptible. With this increased consciousness, it becomes easier to communicate ideas to an audience.
Most often, I hear non-dancers say that they don’t understand enough about dance to know whether something is good or not. It’s true that understanding comes from watching dance regularly. But I think that Forsythe’s approach can also be useful to people who don’t know much about dance. In Solo we are invited into Bill’s world, not kept at a distance by tutus and sparkles. Not everything is for everyone, but at least with Solo we’ll have spent a few minutes watching one of the greatest dancemakers doing what he does best: making dance.
On life in Berlin, and how
awareness shapes our
dreams and memories.
The changing leaves seem exceptionally beautiful this Autumn. It’s like I’m in a dripping golden dream, where colors combust around me wherever I go. I could be inside a Baz Luhrmann movie. The other day, I drove through a woods outside of Stuttgart. As I rushed past endless surges of fireballs, I couldn’t draw the line between reality and fantasy anymore.
I live in Berlin, a city whose creative possibilities remind me of the 1930's Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin romance in Paris. There’s this contagious feeling that anything is possible. At home Johannes and I listen to records by Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Gérard Souzay. (It took me awhile to learn how to work the turn table, because it doesn’t have an on-switch; it turns on automatically when you move the needle over). The music works it’s magic, whisking me back to a time when we sent letters in the mail to friends and weren’t attached to our cell phones; and didn't rely on on-switches.
We have friends over for dinner a lot. Lately we’ve been cooking from a book called Jerusalem. One of our favorite recipes is chickpeas cooked in curry and cumin, mixed with rice, raisins, cilantro, dill, and fried onions. It’s simple food that always surprises you because you can’t believe how perfectly the tastes combine. It’s exactly the kind of “high-quality fuel” that I referred to in my last post, Ballet: on body image and healthy competition. I always look forward to trying recipes from this book, and I've never been disappointed.
I write in a notebook as fast as I can for about half an hour almost every day; something my dad showed me how to do. He fills books with words written so densely on top of each other that they form pictures. At first these books made me uneasy because the pictures confronted me with what was probably happening inside his mind all the time. I thought that he was going crazy. But as I began to approach the free-writing myself, I found that it loosened the fetters in my brain, and creative impulse began pouring out. Suddenly I had more ideas, was a more confident person, and even a better dancer-- all because of the creative outlet. Plus, I think the result looks pretty good.
I spent a night last weekend with Johannes’ four and seven-year-old nieces. When we woke up in the morning, the youngest told us all about her dreams. She groggily rambled every detail about her elaborate fantasy world, and just couldn’t get it out fast enough. I wonder why we lose that impulse to let it out. Our fantasies are still urgent and exciting, even if we've forgotten to look at them that way.
Today the studio for my yoga class fell through. I didn’t want to cancel, because I’m just starting to build a Wednesday-night following. So, we invited everyone to our apartment instead. We’ll cook from Jerusalem, put a record on, and do the class in the living room. If we shove the sofa and table into the bedroom, there’s plenty of space for everyone-- that good old Berlin creativity.
I’m not quite sure why I don’t remember the Autumn leaves ever being this beautiful before. Maybe they are like this every year, and I forget about it when the snow comes. Either way, this time I have to convince myself that I’m not in a dream. This is real life, and it’s even more exciting.