The adult ballet class at Tulsa Ballet’s Center for Dance Education has turned out to be a surprisingly rich source of introductions of one local dancer to another. For instance, Portico Dans Theatre’s Jennifer Alden and Valeria Cordero met in one of these classes, started talking, and before long found themselves launching a dance company together. And several of the dancers in that company’s recent “Super Suite” were asked to join the Portico crew after being spotted in class by Jen and Val.
When I started taking class at TBCDE, after many years of not dancing at all, it was a very different experience — in ways both delightful and discouraging — than it was when I danced as a teenager. I go whenever I can, because there’s something about practicing ballet technique that lets me open up to fully three-dimensional movement. The strong center axis … the carriage of the upper body … the defined angles and planes of the lower body positions … all of this was what made me fall in love with dance in the first place, what made it come to life. Today, many of us who take ballet class regularly are doing other, wildly different sorts of dancing at other times — dancing based in Martha Graham technique, or Laban Movement Analysis, or the work of Jose Limon, or countertechnique. We are all learning from each other, and many of us still find a great deal to learn from ballet.
Two years ago I published a piece in The Dance Insider about going back to class, thinking about what it is about technique (here specifically ballet technique, but it applies to all kinds) that can turn a regular old body into an instrument. Here it is, with apologies for some mega-geekery forthcoming.
For years I learned about ballet by training in it. In the years since that training ended, I’ve learned by watching, reading, talking, and writing. Having been on the outside for so long, I’m going way back inside this year, into my very own body, in part to reconnect with why I fell so hard for ballet in the first place. I want to put some flesh (as it were!) on various ideas about why ballet is so compelling — about how it works when it works. Here are some preliminary results from my experiment (tentative title: “How to Make a Stupid Body Smart”).
The working dancer’s body is vital, intelligent, alive. Mine, despite having all the same parts with all the same functions, is currently slow, earthbound, and unintegrated. What does a body that can do things in dance — express ideas and emotions, become a conduit for music, and the like — know that my body doesn’t? Why can’t I *move*? The more classes I take, removed as I am now from the pressures of pre-professional training, the more I appreciate the physics of ballet — its general theory of elasticity, if you will. What enables a regular body to be transformed into a body that can, say, stay steady on one leg while whipping the other around itself? That can give us, if the dancer is an exceptional one, a glimpse of something sublime in such standing and turning? It’s not magic; it’s mechanics.
The class I’m taking, at the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education, is taught by Alberto Montesso, a demi-soloist with the company. Onstage, Montesso is the kind of dancer who looks like he could move any way in the world he was asked to move, without batting an eye. His body is free. As a teacher, he’s unsentimental — 100% about the absolute fundamentals of technique. Once he spent a good five minutes explaining the reason why, in a certain combination, he had us put the right foot instead of the left in coupé back. It was because we came from an échappé that started with the right leg in front. He didn’t stop there. He drew an invisible box around himself. Showed how “en dehors” works within the box, then how “en dedans” works. (According to the structure of ballet technique, that right foot could not but end up in that place— and the step became beautiful instead of awkward when it worked within that structure.)
Another illustrative moment: working out in slow-motion the transfer of weight that happens in a soutenu [a kind of turn]. Another: “Let your arms help you! They are your friends! But keep them still. The help comes from the muscles between the shoulder blades.” And then he’ll say things like, “Don’t think about it! Just do it! Let your body move in a way that is natural.” Mmm-hmmm. The only movement that’s natural for me these days is bending down to pick up teeny tiny Legos off the floor.
When I stop rolling my eyes and start opening my mind, it starts to make sense. The purpose of a young dancer’s nonstop training is to ingrain all those details of technique so perfectly into his or her body that they no longer need to be consciously recalled every time a combination is begun. They become amplifiers of — perfecters of — the body’s natural movement. A dancer’s parts aren’t free just by being there. They must be engaged, brought to life through opposition to and harmony with each other. That is the function of technique. It changes nature into something that reaches beyond nature.
Here, I think, is where “how it works” begins to shine a light on “why it speaks to us.” The dynamic of harmony and opposition within the physical frame — much like the continuum of pitch and time in music — can punch a hole through the ceiling that our creatureliness lays over us. In an essay in Standpoint magazine earlier this year, the English tenor Ian Bostridge wrote the following about music, and it seems to me to apply to dance as well:
“It’s no coincidence that the great age of music as metaphysics — Schopenhauer above all — coincided with the construction of larger and more complex forms in classical music. These brought a specialised form of rationality, musical rationality, to the subjective experience of time, through both the eked out, endless melody of Wagner, and the great symphonic structures of Bruckner and Mahler. 19th-century music’s ambitions for itself were in many ways as cosmic as the Pythagorean vision of an art form in tune with the construction of the universe itself, the music of the spheres. It wanted to mirror the ebb and flow of being itself.”
All this from going back to class? What can I say? Dance is transformative. I will never forget the words of Sarkis Kalkatchian, late the director of the TBCDE, at the beginning of a class he taught this summer: “We are here to make art. Enjoy your time! You are doing something not many people have the chance to do.”