A Dancer’s Musician: Christopher Ferris

Two years ago, I tweeted about and backed a Kickstarter project by Christopher Ferris. Ferris, an artist, composer and performer with a gift for improvisation, works with the Evergreen City Ballet school and training company as an accompanist. I absolutely adore Christopher’s story on his first experience playing for a ballet class –  it was part of the first promotion video about the project here. Ferris became in time a dancer’s musician, able to create just the right mood and perfect tempo for every step and moment.

Working with dancers eventually inspired Ferris to create his own class album, and during the funding push he made some nifty videos where he thanked his backers to his own live music. It was just delightful to hear my own name. Sadly, the project did not reach its goal – but Ferris didn’t let that stop him. Like the true artist he is, Ferris doubled down his commitment to his work.

Today, Christopher publishes this inaugural album, Music for Ballet Class: Syncopé, available utterly for free to listen to here, or for purchase on CD or MP3 files. This body of work represents an enormous effort by the artist, the team at Lake Union Recording, photographer Tim Aguero, designer Ryan Obermeier, and the artistic staff of Evergreen City Ballet, including two former principal dancers with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Plus, it’s beautifully played on a spectacular concert grand piano.

It’s beyond generous for this music to be available free of charge to listen to. Check out the album, and if you like it – for gosh sake’s support the arts and these artists by ponying up for the CD, MP3, or iTunes version!

Congratulations to Christopher and all the artists involved in the making of this beautiful ballet class album. May you inspire dancers and dance teachers around the world.

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Ballet in Print: Raising the Barre

RaisingtheBarreAnyone who knows me knows that it doesn’t take much for me to quickly have my fill of all things Nutcracker. So I couldn’t have been more surprised than to absolutely love Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, chronicling the author’s crusade to dance with a professional company in Nut after being deterred from the profession years ago as a child (by a teacher who’s name most of you will recognize.) Lauren Kessler is a fabulous writer, and on this journey she takes every advantage of the humor and drama that come along with her goal.

What makes this book so great a read for a dancer in training for the profession – aside from the very funny and thoughtful philosophies she points out about what we do – is the candid and fascinating insight into the mind of a ballet fan. Balletomane is an out of fashion word, but it absolutely applies to Kessler and the many devotees that consistently support the art – your future fan base, if there is to be one for ballet. And to learn how they view dancers, the ballet, dance companies, and what dancers are is nothing short of invaluable for someone who does or hopes to one day create that art. Her love and passion for understanding how and what professional dancers’ do what they do leaps off the page.

Raising the Barre is just the right prescription whether you’re burned out from performance (especially Nutcracker!) or just need some new fresh motivation to tackle your never-ending classes. This is actually one of the most interesting and entertaining books I’ve read about the ballet world, and I have definitely read way too many. Pretty surprising that it was written by someone from outside of the ballet world, though she’s certainly in it now!

2016 Summer Dance Intensives Update

Students of Ellison Ballet

Ellison Ballet SI 2012

I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for the annual list of summer intensives. While unfortunately the vast majority of programs that I typically include have not yet updated their 2016 information, the major top programs in the US have. So I thought I’d get those up here for your reference now.

Once most of the other programs have their houses in order, I’ll post the usual mega-spreadsheet with details like ages and dates. For now, in no particular order (and please don’t try reading into who I’ve included and excluded, though I know you guys love to do that!), here are the top US programs who have posted their 2016 main summer program details:

School of American Ballet (NT)

American Ballet Theatre (NY+)

Bolshoi Ballet (NY/CT)

Pacific Northwest Ballet (WA)

San Francisco Ballet (CA)

Ellison Ballet (NY)

Boston Ballet (MA)

Houston Ballet (TX)

French Academie (NY)

Kirov Academy (DC)

The Rock School (PA)

Let me know if this is helpful either in direct message or down below in the comments. Remember there are plenty of resources here on BalletScoop (starting here) to help you decide where to spend your time auditioning and how to find the best training for your needs. Merde to all!

Building a Dance Studio

2009.0142A number of students and colleagues of mine have recently decided to open their own studios. This was never my goal – I love the freedom of teaching without worrying about the hassle of owning a building or harassing parents for their tuition payments – but if your goal is to own your own studio one day, one of the biggest concerns will be how to build it properly.

Rory Foster’s excellent book, Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching (highly recommended for any aspiring ballet teacher!) has some wonderful tips on this as well as John White’s Vaganova-focused Teaching Classical Ballet. White has some useful comments on studio structure, making sure you have ample space for students to do homework, parents to observe, etc. If you are considering opening a dance studio, do yourself a favor and take a look at what these two books have to say about it.

For the dancing space itself, there are many demands: tap shoes, ballet shoes, pointe shoes, rosin lovers, bare feet… We all know what a great dance studio looks like – big windows, wonderful lighting, high ceilings, sprung floors covered in marley and preferably pretty and stylish! If you haven’t danced in one, go find one and do it. It’s like nothing else. One of my favorite studios that I’ve seen (only in photographs sadly, since it no longer exists) is the studio of famed New Orleans teacher Harvey Hysell, pictured above.

Fortunately there are guidelines available that go beyond the guesswork and which provide specifics for measurements, structure, and fabrication. If you are hoping to build your own dance studio one day, visit the website of the British National Dance Teachers Association, or NDTA, and take a look at their Studio Specifications. After years of experience, they have thought of virtually everything! Ventilation and HVAC, piano space, acoustics, lighting, accessibility, barres and tons of details in between. Lucky enough to have an architect? Harlequin Floors has a whole resource section just for them.

If you have dreams of owning your own school one day, make it the best it can be! Having and safe, beautiful, spacious dance space is incredibly inspiring for dancers and will make a big difference in their experience in your studio.

 

Summer Intensive Handbook on Sale!

Julian Amir LaceyFrom My Son Can Dance, the Summer Intensive Handbook is one mom’s effort to help guide parents and students through the process of preparing for a choosing their SI. Nina Amir, mother of Julian Amir Lacey (pictured left) knows all to well how much information is out there for you to sift through. Take advantage of her experience through this publication, available through Kindle, as a PDF, or for any other ereader.

Offered for a limited time at a discount using the code at the bottom of the linked page, this very affordable handbook is a handy reference for summer intensive research and advice. Check it out!

Bolshoi Ballet Academy: An All-Encompassing Opportunity

Bolshoi SI studentsRina Kirshner is the Vice President of the Russian American Foundation and directs the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive. I was fortunate to speak with Ms. Kirshner recently about the program’s features and the many opportunities it provides, as well as what they are looking for in auditions.

JD: Was the BBASI your brainchild? What inspired you to pursue cultural development specifically through ballet?

RK: Actually, the program first came to the US many years ago through a partnership with the Ford Foundation. They would come to the US for 1-2 weeks in the summer as an elite full-scholarship program. Ten or fifteen years ago, the program ended, but someone who believed in the program later brought it to our attention because they believed the Russian American Foundation was an organization that could support the initiative successfully. This was almost seven years ago. We felt right away the value of the program not only as pre-professional training but from a more global perspective. To really understand Russian classical ballet you really also need to be aware of the culture, language and people. So we positioned the program early on to be an all-encompassing opportunity.

JD: The Bolshoi Academy is known for developing students with a highly intensive program from a fairly young age. How do you condense that syllabus down for US students who often experience a comparatively diluted regimen over their years of training?

RK: I believe that the program has served great value to all parties involved and not just the participants. Many stereotypes were adjusted and broken from both sides. When we first started, the thought was that only students with perfect form could be professional dancers. It was discovered that American students who may not be subject to a strict regimen or have that form are also very talented students that can benefit from the program. We now have 50 students, two that have joined the Bolshoi school, and one that joined the company. Our students are embraced by the teachers and other Bolshoi students as hard workers. It’s been transformational for both sides.

The Academy has grown to respect the dedication of American students. Maybe I would have answered this very differently seven years ago. But these American students are not at a disadvantage. There is a natural amount of talent that is required, but we’ve had students that are shorter or don’t have the typical body. Some work even harder because they are catching up in comparison with the students who have been available to the Bolshoi teachers from such a young age. The fact that the pace in the intensive is much faster and more rigorous than the academy is fact.  The fact that students not normally subject to the Russian regimen can maintain that pace with those who are speaks volumes.

JD: I notice that for your advanced NYC students, only males are scheduled to have variations class, while only females have rep class. Presuming that the former is solo-based and the latter a concert repertoire, what is the philosophy behind this curricular structure?

RK: This just evolved as a natural evolution of what the male dancer needs. There’s still about 5-6 variations taught throughout the program to everyone. Usually this is what the male dancers perform or what they will perform in competition. Some perform in small groups in the performance and some as solos. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students to have a top coach and we’ve heard feedback on how valuable that has been for them. To answer your question though, both classes are basically the same. They learn variations as a group and then may perform them as a solo or group.

JD: What is the immersion scholarship program in Russia?

Bolshoi SI studentsRK: Three years ago, because of how the cultural aspects had affected students and inspired them to learn Russian, we petitioned the state department to take a select group of dancers for six weeks to continue this education at the academy but also have the cultural and language immersion. The state department funded the program as part of NSLI (National Security Language for Youth). The last few years it’s been 15 students each year from the group. Those are selected primarily on academic achievement. So in addition to being great dancers, they have to be good students. In addition to maintaining an intensive dancing regime, they have to spend four hours a day learning Russian.

JD: How about the 2 week scholarship gala program?

RK: We select one leading female dancer and one leading male for that. They train for 2 weeks and that is purely based on recognition for their dancing ability, so there is no academic component like there is for the group program.

JD: This is a competitive summer intensive, no question. What is the atmosphere like for students? How do you ensure it remains healthy?

RK: We actually discuss that up front because we think it’s important for the dancers and parents to understand this up front. For us, once they are accepted, it’s very important that they know we like good people here. We have certain behavioral rules that must be adhered to. Once in the program, we do not tolerate any competitive negative behavior. In the New York location we are state certified on the level of a regular camp, so we have a complete staff that oversees that aspect. I personally pay a lot of attention because the students are expected to work so hard.

In Connecticut especially we try to make sure it’s just a fun summer for the students, and they have activities that promote a positive atmosphere. We want them to know that you will need to work very hard, but being unconstructively competitive is a different thing. One of the things families should know is that we’ve instituted a change this year. We’ve noticed that in the past the level structure 1, 2, 3, 4 was so emotionally unhealthy. So this year each group is assigned a lead teacher because any time spent on emotional competitiveness is wasted time. We don’t believe that unnecessary, “Why is he or she in this level?” is useful. So we make a speech up front where we present our view on this.

JD: The marketing for the BBASI emphasizes dancers who graduated from the Moscow year-round program. Do you have any statistics yet on the number of US summer intensive students who have achieved professional careers?

RK: Two to top Russian companies were accepted this year. Many students don’t follow up to let us know where they are. We have students accepted to Penn Ballet and ABT, but those are only the ones that report back to us.

JD: What can students expect to get out of the program that sets it apart from many quality programs now available in the US?

Bolshoi SI studentsRK: I believe two things set us specifically apart. We recognize that there are many top programs here and we believe we are a very good supplement to those programs during the year. First, we have a whole system here. Every one of the teachers is trained and works year round as a team. Most were students of the Bolshoi Academy, danced as the company, and trained to teach there. They have dedicated their whole lives to that technique, so every step and class is part of a holistic program of master teachers in one purified approach. That works amazingly to achieve individual progress, and I think that’s what we’re known for.

For the younger group, we have the same dedication to making it an enjoyable summer experience, and we have a professional, fun staff which we hire to run other activities. That makes it a great summer experience compared to other programs that don’t have the same structure, facilities or supplementing to remember the kids are having a summer. Obviously, our dedication to introducing students to the culture is paramount and that is the second point. It’s the holistic system of training as well as expanding their personal horizons in Russian culture and language.

JD: What qualities are most important to your adjudicators?

RK: Desire and ability for the student to work hard. That can be seen in the hour and a half that we are there auditioning. Students that think they can succeed anywhere are not necessarily going to succeed in our program. We want students that understand that our program is about working hard. We say one of the issues all teachers try to address is that the dancers need to show the audience how much they love to dance. As much as we say it to them there aren’t many who are able to achieve it. If they are not as strong technically but they are glowing and you can see their desire to dance… We just need to see their heart and dedication to hard work.

JD: Have behaviors ever been exhibited that have disqualified students?

RK: We don’t tell anyone to leave right away, but if someone is not paying attention, that’s a sign of someone that’s going to be like that, and we will get frustrated, so those are red flags that we watch for. Sometimes students can’t survive the whole audition and they leave. Those are rare cases, but they happen. Most of the dancers that come to audition now know what they are getting into.

Bolshoi SI studentsJD: Have exceptions ever been made for the age minimums or for the age maximums?

RK: No on the minimums. For the age maximums, sometimes for Connecticut, but it’s determined individually. If we believe they won’t be sufficiently challenged, that’s what we’ll say. We have some professional students in their 20s that come to New York.

JD: Would you consider New Orleans for future auditions? We have an underserved demographic of talent in the area.

RK: We’ve never been to New Orleans but would consider it in the future.

JD: Finally, what has been the high-point for you, being a part of this incredible initiative from the start?

RK: Luckily, there have been many high-points because the program has had so many challenges! Being responsible for other people’s children is huge. The thank you letters that we get have cited not only transforming people on the dancer level but also the new opportunities, the global awareness. That has really moved me, as a mother. I love that this program keeps me going. When we first started, the New York Times dedicated a reporter to covering it for five weeks. There were so many stereotypes in there that were painful. When they published the new Joy Womack article, it was very classy and sophisticated.

It has changed not only us but the Academy. How excited the teachers are to see returning and new students! Even the Russian Ambassador to the United States said we are one of the great success stories of the Russian American dialogue.

Thank you again to Ms. Kirshner and the Russian American Foundation for bringing this wonderful program to the states! For more information and audition tour dates, please visit http://www.bolshoiballetacademy.com/.

Dear CBT: Help for Broken Pointe Shoes?

Dear CBT,

It’s been eight months since I last bought a pair of pointe shoes and my left pointe shoe is already starting to die. My right shoe is completely fine but my left shoe is becoming soft and hard to get onto for pirouettes. I had my teacher check them, and she said my left shoe was dying and that its a good idea for me to start breaking in another pair. I just wanted to know if their is a way to strengthen just my left pointe shoe to get a couple more months out of them. Thank you!

There is a way to use jet glue or hot stuff glue to give pointe shoes a bit more strength. Check out this video by Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman to learn how:

As an added bonus, Maria shows how to find the arch point for your shoes, an important part of proper pointe shoe break-in. However I don’t recommend breaking the shank as she does, but gently bending them repeatedly instead.

I wouldn’t want you to think you can get too much time from one pair of shoes though – I went through a pair a week at my training peak. Ballet can be a sadly expensive pursuit! The important thing is to determine if one shoe is breaking in too fast compared to the other one and why. If there is a dramatic difference, it could indicate either an anatomical difference or a technique issue or both. Technique issues, fortunately, can be controlled to an extent. Talk to your teacher about whether you are working optimally on both feet. It’s possible that you are either not “pulling up” properly (shaping the foot with your own muscles and not letting the shoe take over) on the left or that your right foot is not working hard enough.

If this turns out to be only an anatomical issue, you may have a technique solution anyway, so ask your teacher about that as well. If there is not a sufficient technique solution to it, you have a superficial solution of purchasing two pair of pointe shoes – one pair with a shank suitable for the right and one with a harder shank for the left – and pairing them with each other so you have two pairs with a harder shank on the left than on the right. You want to make sure both feet are properly supported.

Thanks for reading and take good care of those hard-working feet!