Friday, April 30, 2010

Top Ten Ballets - Coppélia

Here is Swanhilda's variation, while she's standing outside Dr. Coppélius' house, looking at the life-like Coppélia, with whom her fiancé is infatuated.

The story of Coppélia is a about a life-like doll; her creator, Doctor Coppélius; a man named Franz who is infatuated with Coppélia; and his fiancé, Swanhilda. Coppélia is so lifelike that Franz, a village swain (or redneck in today's society!), is infatuated with her, and sets her aside his true heart's desire, even though he is engaged to Swanhilda. Swanhilda becomes very jealous of Coppélia, not knowing she is just a doll. So, she and her girlfriends sneak into Dr. Coppélius' house to meet Coppélia. There they find a room full of mechanical, life-size dolls, and discover that Coppélia is just a doll.

In Act II, just as they are about to leave, Dr. Coppélius returns to his house, and Swanhilda quickly hides behind a curtain. Then, Franz arrives at the doctor's house to meet Coppélia. The doctor gets an idea, thinking he could kill Franz and use his life to make Coppélia come to life and no longer be a lonely bachelor. He offers Franz a drink, in which he has put a sleeping powder, and Franz falls asleep. Meanwhile, Swanhilda is changing into Coppélia's clothes and comes out of the closet, pretending to be the doll to show Franz his folly and to rescue him from the crazy doctor. Seeing Swanhilda dressed as Coppélia, Dr. Coppélius believes his magic has worked! However, Swanhilda awakens Franz and shows him Coppélia is just a doll.

Finally the two are married, but Dr. Coppélius interrupts, demanding compensation for the damage Swanilda caused. She offers her dowry, but her father intercedes to pay. The village joins Franz and Swanilda in celebrating their wedding. Even Dr. Coppélius can share their joy!

Coppélia Trivia
  • Originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. Restaged by George Balanchine in 1974 for the New York City Ballet.
  • First performed in 1870 at the Théâtre Impérial de l´Opéra, with Giuseppina Bozzacchi in the principal role of Swanhilde, in Paris, France. 
  • It eventually it became the most-performed ballet at the Opera Garnier in Paris.
  • It is of the romantic ballet genre, and is also a comic ballet, unlike the tragic ballet of Giselle
  • (Excerpt taken from Coppélia is probably the best-known comedy ballet, and certainly it's the most often performed - but it's much more than just a funny piece. The premiere was attended by the leading figures of Parisian society. A breakaway from the sad, Romantic ballets of the day, Coppélia was an immediate success with its humor, vigorous national dances and brightness. It was created at a time when Paris was slipping from its position as the dance capital of the world, and the popularity of ballet was declining. Coppélia was the last hoorah for the Paris Opéra before it fell into decay.
Elisa Celis and Garry Avis in Ronald Hynd's production of Coppelia for English National Ballet
© Daria Klimentova

    Thursday, April 29, 2010

    Top Ten Ballets - Cinderella

    This rags to riches story is very well-known, but here it is again, as promised!

    Cinderella lives with her wicked stepsisters, until a beggar (who reveals herself to be a fairy) comes, and rewards Cinderella by giving her a coach and a new look. At the ball, Cinderella falls in love with the prince. She stays only until midnight, when the spell wears off. But, she leaves her slipper behind, which the prince uses to find her again.

    Cinderella Trivia
    • Based on the fairy tale, Cendrillon, written by French storyteller, Charles Perrault
    • First appeared in 1893 in Saint Petersburg, Russia and was danced by the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
    • Choreography by Enrico Cecchetti (Act I and Act III) and Lev Ivanov (Act II), under Marius Petipa's supervision and counsel (Marius is "must-know" ballet choreographer)
    • The most popular, modern version of the ballet was recomposed in 1945 by Sergei Prokofiev (a "must-know" ballet composer)
    • Cinderella's stepsisters are sometimes played by men
    • In the original story, there is no beggar, or seasonal fairies
    • The glass slipper is played by a regular ballet slipper
    Cinderella - Svetlana Zakharova with the stepsisters - Anastasia Vinokur and Lola Kochetkova
    Copyright : John Ross ©


    Top Ten Ballets

     Do you ever wonder which ballets are considered the masterpieces, the ones every teacher and dance nerd should know? Well, if you do, you're reading the right blog! Most of these ballets you most likely have heard of, and some you may have even seen or know the basic plot. Today will begin a series where we'll focus on each of the most important and popular ballets, with a plot synopsis and images.

    Top Ten Ballets
    Don Quixote
    La Bayadere
    La Sylphide
    The Nutcracker
    Romeo and Juliet
    Sleeping Beauty
    Swan Lake

    Other Important Ballets to Know
    Le Corsaire
    La Fille Mal Gardee
    Le Sacre du Printemps

    Photo credits: Alastair Muir of the Telegraph

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Test Your Ballet Knowledge

    I found what I thought was a easy, little ballet quiz on But to my surprise, the questions were not terribly easy! Take the quiz and see how well you do, then Google the things you didn't know. Thankfully, I knew that croisé devant is a position of the legs, that fouetté means whipped, and that Serenade is not a ballet of the Romantic era (remember - it's a Balanchine ballet).

    Here are some things you may not know...

    What was Lincoln Kirstein's relationship to New York City Ballet? 
    Have a guess yet? He was a writer, art connoiseur, and cultural figure in NYC who then became the Managing Director of the Ballet.

    Which composer worked most closely with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes?
    I guessed Igor Stravinsky, just because he's the one of the most well-known ballet composers, and got lucky, because it was right!

    Where did the Vaganova method originate?
    If you guessed Russia, you are correct! It was started by a woman named Agrippina Vaganova.

    Choreographer William Forsythe is celebrated for which style of ballet?
     Contemporary. He is quite a prolific choreographer and is still living today.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    Ballet is Cool Again

    The leading men of the American Ballet Theater, posing with a model for Elle Magazine

    According to a blog post on, ballet dancers have been appearing in all kinds of publications lately. Modeling in Elle Magazine, J. Crew, and Martha Stewart Weddings. Even super model Kate Moss is learning plies and tendus - she is set to learn a pas de deux with Mikhail Baryishnikov for the Sex and the City Movie. All I can think is - it's about time! Ballet dancers are some of the most graceful people in the world, with bodies that Michelangelo himself would choose as a subject for a sculpture. With toned, lean bodies that are able to move and bend in ways high fashion models could only dream of!

    Do's and Don'ts to Improve Your Arch

    Svetlana Zakharova  Photo Credits: Pascal Perich for The New York Times

    We all want feet like Svetlana Zakharova, but it is almost freeing to know that for some, it just isn't physically possible. So, for those of us who aren't born with fantastic, archy feet, what can we do to get the most out of what we do have?

    In this article from Dance Magazine, writer Kristen Lewis offers exercises and stretches that can improve your arch, no matter your bone structure. Check it out some of the highlights here, or click on the link for the full article.
    "If you have less than perfect feet, focus on how you use them rather than obsess that your arch isn't high enough," says Dana Hanson, a teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Here are some do's and don'ts to help you maximize your potential.

    * Do stretch your feet after barre in ballet slippers.

    * Do wear your pointe shoes longer. And wear softer shoes to strengthen your legs and feet.

    * Do work the arches of your feet with a doming exercise. 

    * Do use a Theraband. 

    * Do work at three-quarters. Try with both legs, then one leg.

    * Don't allow anyone to stretch your feet--unless you've both been properly coached or are being supervised by a qualified teacher. Overstretching will strain the tops of your feet and do nothing to improve your pointes.

    * Don't put your feet under the couch or piano. Extreme stretching can lead to injury.

    * Don't take your pointe shoes off when it's time for allegro. Concentrating on fully pointing your feet as you jump off of the floor, and rolling through demi-pointe as you land. You can also do it in shankless pointe shoes.

    * Don't get tunnel vision. It's OK to focus on your feet, but they're only part of the picture. Hip and core strength are directly related to foot alignment and balance.

    * Don't wear pointe shoes before your teacher says you're ready.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010

    Dancer Tip: The Art of Warming Up

    Ballet dancer Edward Villella, star of New York City Ballet Company, doing warm-up exercises at theater before a performance. Photo: Bill Eppridge.

    We all know we're supposed to warm up before a performance, but how do you do it properly to be ready to dance your best and avoid injuries? In this article from Dance Magazine, by Lana Russo, 5 professional dancers tell how they prepare themselves for their moment in the spotlight.

    Like some of the dancers in this article, I've found that yoga is an excellent way to raise your body temperature, release any performance anxiety like nervousness,  and limber up your muscles and joints. Some of the other ideas include Martha Graham contractions, releases, and sprials. Of course, doing a ballet barre is always an excellent start, but be careful about going too far in combre positions before you are really warm.

    (Here's my skinny version so you don't have to read the whole article!)

    ...Warm-up exercises prepare the body for larger, more taxing movements and decrease tension in the muscles so you can move without stress and strain. Your goal is to limber up and gradually increase your body temperature to optimal working level--and to avoid injuries. Dance Magazine spoke to five dancers about what works for them.

    Holley Farmer, a Bessie-award winning dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, approaches her warm-up methodically. "Being calm and being able to concentrate is essential." She starts on the floor with ab work, Pilates-based back exercises, and external rotator cuff and abductor exercises. "I need to feel centered and balanced. A lot of us use Merce's center warm-up to prepare. I'll do leg circles on the floor and in the air. You have to have your spine fully articulated as well as your legs to perform Merce's choreography. I'll also do small jumps and go across the floor to get used to the stage surface."

    ...For Elizabeth Auclair, a principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, warming up is a time to transition from the outer world to the inner world, get deeply connected to her body, and align the mind with what will happen onstage. "If my back is very tight I will begin with a series of slow, deep roll-downs from a seated position, progress to abdominal work, then roll back so my legs go over and behind my head."

    Auclair also does Graham floor work, which includes deep contractions, releases, and spirals. This, she says, "opens and warms up the muscles of the back and utilizes deep abdominal work. It also integrates the legs with the torso." Next, she does a series of yoga poses to open the hips and the back further. These might include Downward Facing Dog, Pigeon Pose, Seated Spinal Twist, or Ankle-to-Knee Pose. "If things seem to be going well," she says, "I will move on to a pretty standard ballet barre, involving forward bends and arches." She warns that if you have a tight back, stretching back into cambre too quickly can make it feel tighter, or even throw the muscles into spasm.

    Auclair's guiding principle is to warm up from the center outward, addressing the torso area and then progressing to the extremities. "It makes you use your center as your power base so that you move from the core."

    Jenny Mendez, who dances with Pilobolus, incorporates Pilates, yoga, and Gyrokenesis into her warm-up. "I do my tendues and degages, but I really just listen to my body and see what it needs," she says. "Sometimes, I merely stretch, other times I go so full-out that I feel I've just run a marathon! I also love to listen to my iPod and jam out."

    She gears her warm-up to the repertory of the evening. "If I'm doing the Pilobolus signature piece Day Two, I warm up my feet and ankles really well, as it entails a lot of jumping. In Megawatt, I take extra time to warm up my neck. For Symbiosis, I warm up my back and do deep squatting exercises." Since Pilobolus is all about supporting each other, they have a special group warm-up. "We have what we've termed 'circuit training,' where we'll wrestle each other, hold handstand contests, do the infamous 'level seven spins,' and four-legged races--after all, we're Pilobolus!"

    Jennifer Tinsley, a soloist in New York City Ballet, is a self-described workhorse. She says that for dancing the Balanchine rep, you need to be ready to change direction fast, leap effortlessly, and turn on a dime. Skipping warm-ups, she says, might be something you can get away with when you're younger, but you will pay physically eventually. "When you're young and in the corps, you take class in the morning, rehearse all day, and before you know it, it's time to get ready for your show and do your hair and makeup. But I always make the time to warm up. I put on my sweats, wrap myself in a shawl and do a basic barre." She makes sure to warm up her toes before putting on pointe shoes.

    How does she get in the mood? "I love to listen to the orchestra," says Tinsley. "I know some people like to 'get in the zone.' But for me, listening to whatever music is going on in the theater is relaxing."

    Sara Webb, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet, knows what can happen if you don't prep properly. She incurred a serious back injury when she was only 20. "It was a difficult injury to overcome," she says. "But by learning how to warm up properly and train my muscles to stop compensating, it became possible for me to keep dancing."Because of that injury, Webb always pays special attention to her back. She starts by stretching on the floor for 20 minutes, taking care not to overstretch. "When my hamstrings are tight, it indicates to me that my back is taking a lot of stress and I need to keep it loose and relaxed." Then she does a series of ab exercises to strengthen her core and to "make my body and mind aware of the muscles I should be engaging--kind of like tightening the screws on a machine before turning it on to ensure it will run better." Then, she says, "I do a nice and easy barre that works every muscle we use in ballet. If I continue to remind my body what dancing is, then there won't be any surprises onstage."

    More Tips From the Dancers
    Holley Farmer "The two things I never skip: I never opt out of icing whatever is problematic, even if I have to strap it on under my evening dress. And, no matter what time it is, I'll take another bath once I get back to the hotel."

    Jennifer Tinsley "I stand on a calf board and use the foot roller. It's just what my body needs after the show."

    Elizabeth Auclair "I need to get in a hot shower right away. I find that my nervous system is very activated and sitting down to a good dinner--sometimes with wine--is the perfect way to allow everything to settle down and rebalance."

    Sara Webb "There is so much adrenaline in your body after a show that it can be hard to relax. But for me, just sitting down in my dressing room and taking a breather starts the process. Also, sleep."

    Jenny Mendez "Massages are a must and we try to get them as often as possible! My advice to other dancers is to really listen to your body--tune in and treat it like the temple it is

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Dancer Tip: More on Extension

    Extension is to a dancer what agility is to a basketball player - you just gotta have it to look like a dancer. I don't know about you, but I am always looking for tips to help improve my extension and flexbility, since it doesn't come naturally to me. I found this excellent article from Dance Magazine, by Kristin Lewis, that gives very practical tips and exercises to help to lengthen your muscles and get that arabesque penchée closer to 180.

    Here's my skinny version, in case you'd rather not read the entire article.
    The principles of mind-body awareness, such as focusing on your breath and remaining present in movement, can and should be applied to all stretching endeavors. "Many dancers think of stretching as sitting in a split while they talk to their girlfriends," says Amis. "What is required is concentrating on your breathing, thinking about the muscles lengthening and softening, in this private, active mind."

    So what is the best way to lengthen muscles? Among the many theories, the most favored by dance medicine specialists is called reciprocal inhibition, says athletic trainer Megan Richardson, who works with dancers at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City. In this approach, a dancer alternates between stretching and contracting a muscle. For example, lie with your back on the floor. Bring your straightened right leg toward your face until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. Hold it for 15 to 30 seconds until you feel the muscle release, then resist against your hands by pushing that leg away from your body--your leg won't actually move because you'll hold it in place. After five to eight seconds, release and gently stretch your leg toward your face again. Most often, the muscle will stretch further a few degrees. This cycle of stretch and contract can be repeated three to four times.

    Static stretching is also effective, but don't let the name mislead you--it's still an active process. In a static stretch, focus on feeling the muscle gently release, which usually happens after 15 seconds, at which point you can go a little farther until you feel that gentle stretch again. There should never be pain, popping, or snapping. "Stretching should be a very progressive, slow process. If the muscle doesn't release, don't push farther," advises Richardson.

    The best time to stretch is right after class, not only because it prevents muscles from tightening, but also because the body is warm from within. Bundling up in leg warmers or sitting on a heating pad doesn't count. Movement increases blood flow, which carries oxygen to the muscles and makes for more productive stretching.
    Set aside 10 minutes after every class to systematically stretch your entire body. In addition to the common areas--hamstrings, the quads, and the glutes--stretch in parallel, particularly if you spent class working turned out. "A lot of times when dancers have imbalances or pain, they have forgotten to work in parallel," says Boston Ballet School teacher Kathleen Mitchell. "Several yoga stretches are terrific for that because they are parallel and really balance the sides of the body."
    Most stretches should be held for 30 to 60 seconds--longer isn't necessary. Several recent studies show that holding a stretch for longer than a minute doesn't increase range of motion. In some cases, it can even be counterproductive because the muscle will start to rebel.
    ...As you increase your range of motion, a strong core is necessary to show it off. "Strong abdominals and back muscles provide a solid foundation for the working leg to move away from the midline of the body," says Richardson.

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Shout Outs!

    Here are all the girls, on our fun night before the competition

    Here I am with Co. B, just before their lyrical/modern dance, Pandora's Box, which I choreographed
    This is a belated shout-out to my girls at En Avant School of Dance, who did a superb job at their Dancer's Inc. competition at the end of March! Company A's lyrical dance got High Gold (which is the highest award given) and placed 4th overall, Company B's lyrical got Gold for my Pandora's Box dance and got a special award for "thinking outside the box" (we had a box that they danced in and around), and Co. A and B jazz got Gold and looked really sharp dancing to Queen's "Body Language".

    It was a fantastic weekend - our hard work paid off, girls! Keep up the good work and our next competition at the end of this month will be a slam dunk! I'm proud of you and your teamwork. Stay focused these next few weeks and you'll be happy with the results!

    Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Wanna Dance Like Jakob Karr (from "So You Think You Can Dance")?

     Jakob Karr from "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 6

    Wanna dance like Jakob Karr, runner-up from "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 6? Well, you need lots of ballet technique, according to a great article in Dance Teacher Magazine this month featuring the dance studio where Karr danced and trained. The owner of Shooting Stars School of Performing Arts dishes about competitions, the importance of ballet technique, and advice for teachers. Check it out here or read below!

    High Five

    By Alison Feller
    With Melissa Stokes of Shooting Stars School of Performing Arts

    Melissa Stokes started out on the competition circuit 18 years ago with four dancers. Now she boasts a roster of more than 100. Last year her studio, Shooting Stars School of Performing Arts in Clermont, Florida, earned recognition when former student Jakob Karr was named runner-up on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6.

    How do you turn out such technically trained dancers?I teach more ballet than most competition studios, so when my kids win, it’s because of their technique more than anything. I don’t care what the latest trend is in choreography or on the convention circuit—I care about keeping the kids in ballet class.

    For four months, starting in August, I teach solid technique. We don’t even begin learning the choreography for our competition routines until the last week in December. Then, as soon as competition season ends in May, we get back into the serious technique classes—including a ballet camp—before we go to Nationals. 

    What do you do with an exceptionally gifted dancer—like Jakob Karr—to keep him or her challenged and growing?If you want them to grow, you as the teacher have to continue to grow. You have to challenge yourself in order for your studio to prosper. I do that by taking classes whenever I can. Over the summer I go to NYC to take classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway. I also bring in guest teachers for my students, so we can all stay on the cutting edge. 

    As a teacher, what do you find to be the most rewarding part of competition?The reason I first got into competition was to make my dancers more serious so I could take them to a more experienced level. Competitions teach the students discipline and focus, and, if you handle your team correctly, they help form tremendous friendships.     

    What are the biggest mistakes studios make at competition?They can let it become too competitive and, as a result, lose their focus. You can’t let go of your technique. So many studios also focus on following the latest trends and suddenly everyone is wearing the same thing, performing to the same song and looking identical.  

    What is your advice to teachers for their first competition?Don’t go in expecting to win. Sit, learn and watch the other dancers at each event and really keep your eyes open. Get a feel for what competitions are like and understand that hard work will pay off. Competitions are also subjective. The results at any given event are one group’s opinion. It can simply depend on the group of judges you have that day

    Finis Jhung Instructional Videos

    I really enjoy watching Finis Jhung's instructional videos. He is a famous teacher who has devoted his post-dance career to teaching professional dancers in New York City. He has an amazing ability to break down ballet into simple, easy to understand steps so that everyone can learn. I am considering attending his weekend workshop this August in NYC.

    Here's his bio from his website - Since 1972, Finis Jhung has been one of New York's most sought-after teachers because of his singular ability to make ballet accessible to dancers of all talents, ages, and body types. His innovative teaching techniques are based on years of studying the world's best dancers in performance and on video and finding that these extraordinary artists prepare for balances, turns, and jumps in ways not taught in the traditional ballet class.

    Here is a video teaching partnering techniques for the Nutcracker grand pas de deux.

    Here is another, breaking down center work, showing how even beginners can do more interesting floor work than standing in one spot and repeating.