Saturday, June 30, 2007

Steps: Good feet

Hang around balletomanes long enough, and you might wonder if they all have a foot fetish problem. It seems no ballet dancer can escape having their feet judged and commented upon by knowledgeable fans.

And can how we blame them? Great ballet dancers have feet that are as expressive as their hands, and fans have been known to rhapsodize at considerable length about their favorite dancers' feet. So what makes a good ballet foot, and how can we recognize it?

According to this post on Ballet Alert's very interesting and worthwhile Details blog, there are three important factors for a good foot:
  1. A high arch
  2. A high instep
  3. A flexible ankle
While the Details post does an admirable job describing these factors, a picture is worth a thousand words. We've marked up a photo of a very nice foot to better illustrate these points.

In the first picture, the red curve under the foot shows the arch, and the arrow shows the height of the arch from the bottom of the foot if the foot was standing flat against the floor:

The foot's arch

In the dance world, the instep of the foot refers to the top of the foot. The curve following the top of the foot shows the instep, and the arrow shows the height of the instep from the foot's unpointed, flat position:

The foot's instep

Ankle flexibility is the angular range of the foot from the ankle. In the following picture, the angle the foot makes with the leg is compared with the bottom of the heel:

The ankle's flexibility

However, as we hinted earlier, and as the Details post we linked very carefully points out, having a good foot isn't enough. Dancers must also possess the experience, coaching, good taste, physical strength, and about a million other things in order to use their feet to best serve their performance. A good-looking foot is a useful, desirable tool, but it is only a tool.

Dancers on stage are trying to express and project something in their mind to the audience, and it's the dancers' job to figure out how to do that with the tools (ie. the various parts of their body) they have, whether the tools are good, just adequate, or even sometimes unavailable, like when they're dancing with an injury. The best dancers always find a way to do this despite their body, because, with perhaps one exception, no one has a perfect body for ballet.

So now you know what makes a good-looking foot, and you may find yourself watching your next ballet performance from a new perspective as you try to spot the nice feet on-stage and how they're used. And there are still plenty of summer performances left if you're impatient to apply this new knowledge!

Monday, June 25, 2007

News: State Street Ballet Summer Intensive begins

The State Street Ballet Summer Intensive kicked off today, and will culminate some 4 weeks later with a performance on July 22 at the Lobero Theatre. A summer intensive is a 4- to 5-week simulation of a professional dancer's life for up-and-coming dance students between 12 and 21 years old. It's a great way to not only see what a professional dancer's life is like (and decide whether it's right for you), but also a good way to improve your technique significantly since you're taking a large number of classes.

For 5 to 6 days per week, students start each morning with a normal ballet technique class followed by one or two more classes concentrating on specific aspects of ballet or other forms of dance. These extra classes include partnering, modern technique, and, for the men, male-specific deportment and technique. After classes, students then have several hours of rehearsal as they start to learn the various pieces they'll be performing at the end of the intensive session.

Ending some time around 5 PM, intensive students have been dancing since 9 in the morning. They have a chance to relax in the evenings, though some of the more energetic students may take another technique class then as well.

Another important aspect of summer intensives are the friends and contacts students make that can help them later on in their career. Whether it's fellow students that they may work with again in the future, because the dance world is very small, or the teacher who remembers how hard a particular student worked in class or rehearsal, and may want to work with that student when their paths cross again in the future, an intensive can have a significant effect on a dancer's career.

Intensives are a vital part of a ballet dancer's training, and each summer brings us new students full of promise as we wonder where we will see them practicing their art in the future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Features: Where can I see great dance in Santa Barbara?

Maybe you're new in town, or your curiousity about dance's been piqued, or maybe you're just hoping to see something like this. Whatever reason you want to see dance, we have a great new resource for you: the all-new, all-singing, all-dancing map of Santa Barbara's dance venues.

Opinionated, and spilling the dirt where there's any, we tell about you the good, bad, and smelly bits of each venue. Go in better informed, and hopefully better seated.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Company: Where in the world is our Artistic Director?

What do you get if you combine the skills and talents of a professional ballet dancer with the knowledge and schooling of an MBA-level education? If you add to that the iron stomach to consistently balance razor-thin budgets for 15 years, and the energy and enthusiasm to find and meet current and prospective donors at all hours of the day and night, you'll find someone approaching the modern-day Artistic Director (AD) of a professional ballet company, like Rodney Gustafson, founder and AD of State Street Ballet.

Being an AD is a never-ending job: during the season, he (or she) will be busy rehearsing upcoming shows, and now, during the off-season, he'll be busy setting the ground for upcoming and future seasons. One part of this is deciding what ballets to perform next season, and another, less visible part is networking and keeping up relationships that may help the company in the long term. In addition to meeting potential donors, the AD will also be travelling to meet with directors of other companies and other people in the dance world. Many dancers often hear about job openings through these sorts of connections well before job listings appear in the trade magazines, and these connections let SSB get early access to very desirable dancers. After SSB finished its season in April, Rodney's schedule wasn't going to let up all summer.

One of two ADs selected to adjudicate the Educandance Festival's dance competition, Rodney spent a snowy week in April in Calgary, Canada. Competitions are great ways to see new dancers, and to meet other directors who are also there to scout out the talent.

On May 17, Antioch University, where Rodney earned his Master of Arts degree in Organizational Management, presented him with the Horace Mann Award for service to the community and being an outstanding Antioch alumnus. Because many of the big arts and non-profit movers and shakers of Santa Barbara were going to be present at the ceremony, it was also a great way to reach out to potential donors who haven't seen SSB before with a live performance of excerpts from ballets in SSB's repertoire. All reports indicate that attendees went away very impressed with our company.

Later that day, Rodney flew to the North Carolina School of the Arts, who had invited him along with five other nationally known ADs for the NCSA's Dance Arts Exchange on May 18. The program lets ADs see NCSA students in class and performance, as well as meeting them to give them candid career advice from a professional point-of-view. It's also a great way for ADs to spot rising talent.

After flying back from North Carolina, Rodney flew out again (on his own dime!) the next week to New York City for American Ballet Theatre's alumni dancer reunion for past and current members of the company in New York City on May 26. Many ABT alumni are now directors and teachers, and are great resources for everything from finding dancers to costumes.

Rodney Gustafson (left) and Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of ABT

More pictures of the ABT reunion can be found here: ABT, 1940-2007, Alumni Reunion, May 26, 2007, Metropolitan Opera House. See if you can spot Rodney. (Hint: he's in this picture.)

In addition to having danced for ABT, Rodney is also involved with ABT's summer intensive program in Texas, running the program along with teaching and setting choreography on the students. A summer intensive is a 4- to 5-week immersion in ballet simulating a professional dancer's life, with 5 to 6 days of a week filled with classes and rehearsals from morning to evening. It's one of the best ways of finding future dancers because any ballet student with professional aspirations will always go through one of these intensives.

What's up next for our plane-hopping AD? SSB is about to begin its own summer intensive on June 25, culminating in a performance on July 22, so lots of last-minute, behind-the-scenes preparations are going on to get everything ready.

Of course, Rodney will be teaching at the ABT Texas intensive later this summer, and then rehearsals for SSB's 2007-2008 season will start right after that. Where did the summer go?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Events: Summer Ballet

Is June gloom getting you down? Or maybe you just need a dose of ballet before State Street Ballet's season begins again in the fall. One of the many great dance performances coming up in Southern California, and some very worthwhile ones further away, will easily cure you of either ailment. Imagine a vacation capped off with a world-class ballet performance, and you'll understand why some balletomanes love summer.

In Southern California, both the Music Center of Los Angeles and the Orange County Performing Arts Center are closing out their seasons with a pair of sensational companies. First up, performing June 22 through 24, is Shen Wei Dance Arts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The New York City-based company describes itself as "founded on a fusion of the art forms: dance, theater, Chinese opera, painting, sculpture, and a unique hybridism of Western and Eastern cultures." We will just say that they'll show you images and worlds you've never seen before. They're a bit off the ballet path, but are well worth seeing.

Shen Wei brings his Connect Transfer to Walt Disney Concert Hall

American Ballet Theatre returns to SoCal for two weeks starting on July 12 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with two programs (a mixed repertory program of excerpts from many ballets, and Lar Lubovitch's Othello). They continue on to OCPAC, July 17, which will host the west coast premiere of their new Sleeping Beauty which recently premiered in New York City. Sleeping Beauty, despite its truncated third act in ABT's staging, is our pick if you can only see one show. Sleeping Beauty is the apotheosis of classical dance, and its many dances, like the Bluebird pas de deux pictured below, really show off ABT's impressive roster of dancers.

Sarah Lamb and Yohei Sasaki as Princess Florine and Bluebird in the Royal Ballet's production of Sleeping Beauty

Further away and much sooner are the closing programs of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington, on stage last week and this week. Belonging to the top tier of important American ballet companies, PNB is always worth seeing, but this week is even more special because PNB is saying good-bye to Patricia Barker, a ballerina of very special qualities, as she retires after 26 years of dancing with the company. One of a tiny handful of ballerinas still dancing today who credibly deserves the title "prima ballerina", Patricia Barker's last performance cannot be missed.

Patricia Barker in Kent Stowell's Firebird (photo by Ben Kerns)

England's Royal Ballet, one of the world's top ballet companies, and who unfortunately has not come to the west coast in many years, continues to visit cities in America east of here. This summer, they'll be bringing their recent production of Sleeping Beauty to San Antonio, Texas from July 5 through July 7. For the enthusiastic fan, it would be fascinating to compare and contrast their Sleeping Beauty to ABT's. ABT personnel were seen at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC last summer when the Royal Ballet first brought their new Beauty to America.

The Royal Ballet continues on to Philadelphia from July 10 through 13 with Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, which continues to be a great inspiration for many dancers, and a Swan Lake considered closer to the original than other versions recently seen in America. Ballet fans will celebrate its lack of a jester, and its true-to-the-original sad ending.

Finally, if you want to indulge yourself, why not fly to Paris, and enjoy the Paris Opera Ballet's first ever production of Frederick Ashton's comic ballet La Fille mal gardée starting on June 22 and running through July 15? If seeing the best ballet company in the world perform the classic comedy ballet, replete with Ashton's characteristic intricate steps and quintessentially English deportment, isn't enough to convince you to go, we're sure you can find some other reason to visit Paris.

Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta in the Royal Ballet's production of La Fille mal gardée