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Oedipus Rex Essay

OEDIPUS REX: Tragedy in Drama and Dance

                Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles, tells the story of a man from Thebes who kills his father and marries his mother despite valiant efforts to escape this horrible fate. The play is a Greek tragedy in which fate is predestined and controlled absolutely by greater forces. Oedipus, our protagonist, was doomed by Apollo’s oracle to commit sins of murder and incest from his birth:

And to Laius and his wife Jocasta a son was born.

Before even a name had been give to this infant…

His life was clouded with the presage if disaster…

He was destined one day to kill his father,

And to become his own mother’s husband. (23)

The story is a struggle between Oedipus and his destiny as he attempts to flee from the path that had been placed before him. He leaves Corinth, the home of his adopted parents, to thwart the predicted events from occurring, but in doing so walks closer to the very fate he is trying to avoid. Three terms of tragedy reflect the tragic irony and imminent destiny that is the core of a classical tragedy.  The devastation of a hero obliviously trapped in the hands of the gods can be explained through the terms hubris, irony of fate, and catastrophe. These elements present in the script are also found in Martha Graham’s modern expressionist ballet, Night Journey, which expresses the play from Jocasta’s point of view.

Hubris is the fatal flaw of pride that gives Oedipus the bravery to fight the oracle’s prophecy but also blinds him from seeing the truth, therefore eventually leading to his downfall. Oedipus’ pride in defying the gods creates false assurance of his success in evading his fate, and this security allows Oedipus to seek his identity with confidence. Despite warnings from Teresias, Creon and his own mother, Oedipus continues his search, ignoring and insulting those who are essentially trying to protect him. Because of his pride, he fails to understand the intent of their warnings and assumes other reasons for their guarded behaviour:

(To Creon): “Have you the face to stand before my door,

Proved plotter against my life, thief of my crown?” (40)

(Regarding Jocasta): “Go, someone; fetch the shepherd. Leave the lady

To enjoy her pride of birth.” (55)

Oedipus accuses Creon of plotting to steal his throne and dismisses Jocasta as an arrogant noble, scared of discovering her husband as slave-born. In the ballet, Oedipus’ superiority is presented as he climbs the steps made by the sculptures to stand magnificently at the summit. His high status of king is established when he stands above Jocasta, putting his leg over her shoulder, and by the draping robe that displays a powerful stature. The dramatic length and folds that serve this purpose ironically also represents Oedipus’ tangled situation as he pulls and wraps the circular fabric around his arms to find the material overwhelmingly twisted. His difficulty in collecting the infinite fabric of the robe that represents his royalty is also a foreshadowing of a dark, underlying secret. Ultimately, the flaw of pride in Oedipus’ character causes his insistence in proving the stars wrong as well as his ignorance in refusing to realize the truth, until it is too late.

The fact that Oedipus is completely unaware of the implications of his search and that other characters, the chorus, and the audience or reader comprehend more of his fate than he creates irony. After determining that capturing Laius’ murderer would absolve the nation, Oedipus states the punishment that awaits him:

No matter who he may be, he is forbidden

Shelter or intercourse with any man

In all this country over which I rule…

Expelled from every house, unclean, accursed,

In accordance with the Pythian oracle. (32)

Pronouncing this sentence of banishment, Oedipus seals his own future; he enforces the will of the gods yet he himself is the one who defies them. By capturing his enemy, he unknowingly captures himself. In Night Journey, irony of fate is found in the use of a prop that symbolizes the relationship between the king and queen, and its curse. In slow and precise movements, Oedipus and Jocasta use a rope to entwine themselves in poses of affection and sensuality, signifying their union in marriage. In contrast to their dance is chaos presented simultaneously in the music and the choreography of the corps, or chorus. The women jump to crashing chords, perform series of sharp rolls and contractions, and cover their eyes as if to shield themselves from the horror of the contemporary pas de deux. The interlacing rope is an interpretation of another relationship: that of mother and child, connected by an umbilical cord. This same cord is later the tool used to commit Jocasta’s suicide; the double bond between her and Oedipus proved fatal. When perceived differently from reality, certain actions and situations gain significance as they can cause a change of fortune and reversal of fate when the truth is revealed.

The weakness of pride and dramatic irony in both play and ballet lead to the catastrophe, the devastating defeat of the hero. In fighting destiny, Oedipus ends up completing it. This unconscious self-condemnation is also performed by the character Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The two protagonists possessed hubris, were influenced by supernatural forces, and believed in their abilities to change their fates – Oedipus denies the oracle’s prophecy while Macbeth follows the witches’ predictions. However, despite these similarities, their circumstances differ: Macbeth deliberately chooses to commit murder against his conscience but Oedipus has no idea of the true consequences of his actions. While Macbeth is therefore responsible for his terrible conclusion, in a Classical tragedy, the hero is powerless and will meet his destiny regardless of his choices. With no chance of exonerating himself, Oedipus accepts his misfortune and in a final act of desperation punishes himself to a most awful death, destroying his own eyes to forever wander the earth.

Where is there any beauty for me to see?

Where loveliness of sight and sound? Away!

Lead me quickly away

Out of this land. I am lost,

Hated of gods, no man so damned. (63)

The classical tragedy of Oedipus Rex portrays the impossible battle between man and his destiny. Time is inevitable, and so is the fate that with all certainty will be fulfilled. In Night Journey, Teresias, the blind prophet, is the last character to be seen, crossing the stage with his staff. The steady pounding of his stick demands authority in the complete silence following Jocasta’s death. It is the last, echoing sound, symbolizing the advance of time, sealing of the prophecy, and continuing power of fate.

Published from June 14, 2012.

(To my email followers: I’m sorry if you receive duplicate emails; I had publish this earlier but something happened that caused it to be turned into a draft again. Sorry for the hassle.)

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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Filed under Academia, Dance, Poems, Essays, and Things

Sometimes I forget. And I need to remind myself.

thebookybunhead

Who asked you to train so hard to be able
to stand in turn-out by changing the natural
way our bodies are supposed to function?

Why choose to end up being exhausted,
with sore muscles, and battered up feet
at the end of the day?

How to continue your journey when many
people not part of your world don’t understand what you do
though they think they do, and base their judgment
and words on what they think wrongly
right?

What makes you want to spend years on
the same old thing just to try to perfect
technique that cannot ever be fully perfected?

How to go through all the sweat and
tears, to get to the dream that you know
many other people around the world have
too?

Who came up with the idea to make
something very apparently not easy, seem
effortless in front of the outsiders?

In…

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The Four Seasons & Emergence: Ballet Review

Emergence by Crystal Pite; photo by Bruce Zinger.

The neoclassical The Four Seasons by James Kudelka and the very modern Emergence by Crystal Pite by the National Ballet of Canada complemented each other surprisingly well and showcased a diverse movement vocabulary. This double bill was, for lack of a better term, short and sweet, and so this review strives to be the same.

First up, The Four Seasons. It is choreographed to the famous music of Vivaldi and tells the story of a man through the years and changing seasons. The joy of spring, passion of summer, melancholy of fall, and harshness of winter parallel the evolution of life from the spontaneity of youth to maturity, and finally the reluctant acceptance of death. It is a little ballet very true to Mr. Kudelka’s style, very musical and fun. Though everyone performed well, it was principal Greta Hodgkinson dancing as ‘Summer” who enchanted the audience with her articulate artistic nuances, musicality, and daring in the fast paced, high flying partnering sequences. Here is an example of the professionalism that comes with experience, it was the best I had ever seen her and I feel very lucky to have witnessed the original ‘Summer’ dance before her retirement; her performance will be the one that I remember when seeing the piece again.

Greta Hodgkinson in The Four Seasons; photo by Andrew Oxenham.

After intermission, we watched Emergence, which according to the company’s website: “explores the notion of dance as an evocation of the broader, inherent human tendency to socialization”. While the piece does centre around the interactions of a large groups of dancers, it is presented with the inspiration of insects (I remember reading this somewhere). It begins with a one dancer in a skin-coloured leotard extending her limbs slowly from a curled position on the floor and being carried by a partner, as if a helpless larvae that has just entered the world. Like a colony, dancers emerge from a portal and swarm around the stage, and throughout sections mimic sharp twitches and tentative fluttering. The music is hard to describe, but reminds me at times of the droning of bees and the clicking of bugs feet across the floor. The movement quality is very intriguing and shows the extreme capabilities of the human body.

Dancers with the National Ballet of Canada present Emergence. Its large cast evokes a subterranean insect world, devoid of human romance or free will.

Emergence photo by Bruce Zinger.

As a female, I am reluctant to say this, but I believe that this is generally a guys’ piece. The girls are undoubtedly very strong, but the power of thirty or so men dancing the same inhuman, almost mechanical, movements together or in syncopation is unreal.  Ultimately, it the unison of the entire company that delivers a visual kick that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. (Literally, since I was sitting in 5th ring – which actually gave a really cool perspective of the piece – and was leaning out to see down to the stage.)

It is funny to see how taste changes within a couple of years. I declared that Emergence was my favourite modern piece back in grade 7 or so, and though I still love it, this time it did not knock my socks off as much as I anticipated. The Four Seasons, on the other hand, I liked with mediocre appreciation before, but enjoyed much more this time, being able to follow the intertwined emotional and musical themes. Nevertheless, the contrast between both ‘ballets’ makes for a refreshing viewing experience with good choreography and execution, so this mixed program is a winner.

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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Romeo and Juliet: Ballet Review

Love at first sight. (Applies to that dress as well. )

When I attended the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet last year, I was blown away. My viewing this past Friday was not as exhilarating – I’m sure the fact that it wasn’t my first viewing had something to do with it – but I am definitely still a fan. The tale of two star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, is not necessarily my favourite Shakespearean play, but definitely holds a special place in my heart, and this new ballet is no exception.

Creating another version of an existing ballet is risky, but especially when both Kenneth Macmillan’s and John Cranko’s own Romeo and Juliet are still performed today and considered classics by many. So Ratmansky cleverly avoided comparison altogether, with a production that is fresh, exuberant, and with unique style. I would still call it a classical work, but with undertones in the choreography, costumes, and sets of modern movements and abstract concepts that really set this ballet apart.

One word to describe this ballet is vibrant. Bright colours, dynamic movements, and -oh my goodness- the music! I am at a loss for words to describe just how amazing the score is. It tells the story in itself with strong and endearing themes that are so enjoyable to listen to, and if you’re sitting high enough to see the orchestra pit, it would be a ballet with a symphony concert experience too. Thank you, Mr. Prokofiev. Ratmansky has also unleashed his creativity with mind-bogglingly acrobatic passes and clever details that make us fall in love with the characters and the world created for us.

Costume choices such as these headresses are strange and delightful at the same time. (Image courtesy of http://www.thecoveteur.com/)

Storytelling can be under-appreciated sometimes, but here I must mention it because in addition to traditional mime were some very innovative techniques. For example, when Romeo meets Juliet they do not dance together but with their partners. While everyone is traveling around a circle, the pair are lifted into the air, spinning around as the rest of the party, but ‘spotting’ or turning their heads constantly to find the other. Similarly, after the death of Mercutio, Romeo’s rage is interrupted by a vision of Juliet (who has slipped onstage to be lifted above a crowd, reaching out to him), reminding of the consequences in dueling Tybalt-who-is-now-family, and giving the audience a peek into the protagonist’s thoughts. Another sweet effect is when the plan using the potion is explained. Behind a scrim, the scene of Juliet falling asleep, being deemed as deceased, and reuniting with Romeo is played by her double as both Juliet and the friar sit watching, as if with the audience. Here, we don’t imagine, but know exactly what the friar is telling Juliet; it’s neat as entire plots or speeches cannot always be so clearly expressed through movement.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the entire ballet, I do have my favourite parts. Generally, they are all the pas de deux’s, especially the balcony scene, but in this particular show my choices are different (I will explain why later). The trio of Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio has a very fun section showing genuine friendship and kidding around which really builds them up as the good guys. Mercutio’s character is probably my favourite because of its whimsicality and mischievousness (maybe also because he was my role in our abridged grade 9 production of the play). Similarly, the carnival men that entertain in the town square add brightness to the tragedy, and gives the dancers a chance to show off some impressive tricks and turns. Overall, what was really impressive this night was the solidarity of the corps de ballet who danced as the people of Verona. At the beginning of the first act, I felt tears in my eyes over the grief of the women for their fallen husbands. Yet I did not feel this much emotion for the deaths of our hero and heroine…

Mercutio the clown is very charming and catches everyone’s attention; his personality shines through in his solos.

At this point you may be wondering why I have not commented on the love story; it is called Romeo and Juliet after all, isn’t it? Let me explain. Both Romeo and Juliet are great dancers and presented their characters well; however, I did not feel much chemistry between them. Something that was a bit distracting was the fact that in the first portion of the ballet, I was aware of Juliet acting the sweet, young, girl. The ballerina is very experienced and maybe it was this maturity that did not fit perfectly with internalizing the character. That being said, in an unfortunate incident Romeo became injured and after pushing through was replaced by another dancer for the last two acts. It made it hard to examine continuity, so all I can say is, for such an abrupt change, it was well done.

One of the funniest moments in the performance was not meant to be funny at all. In the scene where the Juliet’s parents open the curtains of her bed to find that she has died, Lord Capulet fails to fasten the fabric securely to a bed post. As they crouch in front of the bed, mourning over Juliet’s inanimate body, the curtain swings closed onto their heads (and blocking the audience’s view), ruining what was truly a sad and touching moment. The father tries to refasten it, hold it up with his hand, and when all fails, finally stands up and leans on it with his whole body. When the bed rolls offstage, the long fabric clings to Lord Capulet and peels of his wig at the very last moment. Silent laughter in our row for a good half minute, I think.

The third act was the best part of the night for me, despite an accidental comedic discovery of Juliet’s ‘death’.

Romeo and Juliet by Ratmansky has only had a life span of one year, and it is definitely one that I want to see again. There were some things I liked more now, and some things I enjoyed more last year – every live show is different so this is often the case. What I saw last Friday was not spectacular, but it was good. The company’s previous Cranko version of the production still holds the spot for making me bawl my eyes out, and Macmillan’s for my favourite recording of the ballet; Ratmansky’s neoclassical version definitely has a place of its own. I appreciate and love all the productions, classical and neoclassical, and I’m sure Shakespeare would too.

EXTRAS:
If you have never heard this score, you must. Just have a listen to this opening theme (skip to about a minute in), and enjoy the rest of this medley, if you want:

The Royal Ballet (Rojo and Acosta) in my favourite balcony pas de deux:

All photographs courtesy of Bruce Zinger for The National Ballet of Canada, otherwise noted.

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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Neumeier’s Nijinsky: Ballet Review

Last Saturday I watched the Canadian premiere of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a biographical ballet about the famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who eventually spirals into madness. It is an ambitious, dramatic production that overflows with ideas and high physical and emotional demands for the entire company. From my experience with The Seagull, the other Neumeier ballet that I’ve seen live, I thought this ballet might be equally confusing and long; however, though at times it is overwhelming, I found myself enjoying this ballet quite a lot. Here’s why:
Firstly, an homage to one of the greatest male dancers of all time hits a sentimental chord with all of us in the ballet world. It consists of a mixture of classical and modern styles with so many references to ballet history that give us pride in being a part of that legacy. But besides that, Nijinsky’s life is told through flashbacks and hallucinations that meander between the past and the present, in a way that is visually appealing and intriguing for all audiences.

(Photo courtesy of russianballethistory.com)

The beginning of a synopsis in the program written by Neumeier himself:

On January 19, 1919 at five o’clock in the afternoon in a ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, Vaslav Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time. He called this performance his Wedding with God.

My ballet Nijinsky begins with a realistic recreation of this situation. The choreography which follows however, visualises his thoughts, memories and hallucinations during this last performance.

One of my favourite parts is the boat pas de deux in which Nijinsky remembers meeting his wife. It is actually more of a pas de trois because a vision of himself dancing the role of a faun who fell in love with a nymph joins in the dance and mirrors Nijinsky’s realization of his love for a woman. It it beautifully choreographed to beautiful music, really filling you up with warm feelings. Another part that has imprinted itself in my mind is the scene pf internal madness in which the corps, dressed in army jackets, move to quite harsh music as Nijinsky yells counts at the top of his lungs on a chair. In the same section, dancers are told to laugh maniacally in shrieks and hoots, creating a truly scary, chaotic atmosphere for Nijinsky, and for us. The emotional states that this work asks its performers to reach and is able to stir inside us, the audience, is something that is truly special and touching in my opinion.

So the choreography was great, as was the set and costumes, all designed by Neumeier (not to mention the music as well). But what about the dancing? Is is great to see The National Ballet of Canada take on a neoclassical work of such a large scale; the energy was infectious. Especially in the second act, the dancers matched the intensity of the orchestra impressively and were a solid ensemble. There were a few noticeable slips in the first, but these are easily forgiven in the abandoned interpretations of several dancers that left us breathless. As this ballet is new to the company’s repertoire, I think it will be exciting to trace how the interpretations develop as it is performed through the coming years.

Painting by Vaslav Nijinsky. The theme of circles in his art inspired the set.
(Courtesy of dancelines.com.au)

I feel I have more to read and learn to fully appreciate the underlying themes of this work and until today am freshly fascinated by the creativity of its concept. It’s a presentation of ballet history, a dramatic tragedy, and a celebration of dance and the capacities of its artists all rolled into one. The depth of thought in Nijinsky makes it a ballet that is so rich that you cannot see everything in one show, and probably will not ever see the same things twice. I’m glad it was brought to Toronto and look forward to seeing it again.

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

(All images of the Hamburg Ballet.
Courtesy of Holger Badekow otherwise noted.)

EXTRAS:
Link to NBoC’s production:
http://national.ballet.ca/performances/season1213/Nijinsky/

Excerpt from an autobiography of Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950):
http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/n/nijinsky-diary.html

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“Everyone has a happy ending, if you’re not happy, it’s not the end.” -The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Coffee Chats at the Bulldog:

Degas

Eight of us sat closely around a table exchanging quotes, laughter, and our plans for the coming week of break. The vanilla mint tea latte sat in front of me with its drizzled chocolate sauce, daring me to chug its steaming contents in one gulp.  A month had passed of rigorous practice for our ballet exam and after the high rush of performance, the degree of our tiredness was starting to sink in.

Deciding we were all exhausted and unfocused with the idea of a week break to be productive, we spent class stretching for a few minutes, sharing videos including a cat playing piano (link down below), and absorbing our teacher’s enlightening words of wisdom before she brought us here, to Bulldog Coffeehouse, a few minutes walk maneuvering around dog bombs and slipping around mounds of frozen slush. We toasted to a great half a year, relaxing rest, and an even better fresh start to next term.  We were only missing each other’s company for ten days, but it felt like the simultaneous conclusion and beginning of something much bigger. Many of us will be going on exchange this summer to dance across the border and sipping our foamy drinks, we talked about traveling the world and the diverse experiences that are waiting out there in our future.

the perks of being a wallflower

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” -Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Looking at my teacher and all my friends with whom I’ve shed blood, sweat, tears with and whom I’ve shared uncontrollable laughter and encouraging war cries with, I felt so lucky to be a part of a family of such inspirational artists. We may not know where we will end up after we graduate, but we can enjoy every step along the way knowing that there is so much to explore and so much that we can offer to the world as individuals. Life isn’t perfect, but we should never forget why we dance or what brings joy into our lives. Because the more we love life, the closer we get to our happy ending.

Thanks for reading,
-thebookybunhead

Cat piano concert video we watched in the studio, gathering around a little iPhone screen:

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A most human art form

A painter has a canvas, a musician, an instrument, an athlete, a ball or a puck, but a dancer? Dancers have their own bodies. Living, breathing art.

ballet

Dancers have nothing to hide behind, what they do is a pure expression of themselves – just people and their movements on a stage. Their work is fleeting, it passes through time and exists in the present – a dance cannot be captured fully, just as a portrait photograph is only a fragment of a breathing, human being. Dancers expose themselves to the world, placing their very identity in a most vulnerable position under the world’s eyes. And yet they are powerful, a celebration of human strength and artistry. Maybe that is why dance strikes a chord in nearly everyone, because there is such depth and sincerity in what can be expressed through the human body.

Ah, but with the pride of a dancer comes a challenge. A body changes, a person changes, and your work along with it. Every day a new balance must be found, muscle memory joggled, flexibility and stamina renewed. One day my pointe shoes are a size 4 1/2 the next day a 5. I can feel the backs of my legs engaging to solidify my ankle alignment, and in the future I may have trouble finding the same sensation. The body is very capable of adapting to situations dancers put them through, but sometimes it needs help in concentration and discipline to reach the perfection that all dancers envision in their dreams. It is a constant journey to discover the utmost potential of our bodies and the truest artists we can possibly be to ourselves. My ballet teacher taught me that. I feel very privileged to be a part of this art form for sharing the simplest joy of expressing myself through myself, as myself, in ways that words cannot explain.

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” -Martha Graham

Read, dance, and don’t forget to smile,
-thebookybunhead

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Angst: What future?

Have you ever reflected upon life and become panicked or overwhelmed with emotion? Okay, maybe that’s just me, but on a sick day there isn’t much you can do other than think. So I do, only to find that the meditative practice reveals to me the enormous scope of things unknown or out of my control and successfully leaves me feeling mentally paralyzed, or just utterly confused.

In the last years of high school, all thoughts seem to drift towards the future that is both exciting and terrifying. It will be a new adventure with new experiences, but I don’t know even the remotest direction I will be taking on this journey. Course selections must be handed in and career planning has started with lists of potential professional companies – so many options and yet it still feels like limited opportunities because you can’t have it all. Preparations are due and the most difficult choices are deciding between what is smart, what you need, and what you want. All these questions offer no easy answers and all I can do is shut my eyes in hoping the future stalls for a while longer and say, “I don’t know.”

angst
Of course I would love to pursue dance directly from graduation, but at current times we have learned how probable that perfect situation is. When asked what company I would be interested in, I can’t help but think, “It’s not about the companies I want, it’s about what companies want me.” And in truth, that’s pretty much how auditions work. But you still have to plan what programs to take to target certain companies and it’s hard when you simply don’t know, yet.

The future for dancers I think is a particularly scary thought because:
a. Shorter preparation time (once you graduate, it’s off to job searching you go!) and b. Requires 100% health, more or less (injuries, mental and physical stresses can upset your career quite easily). For this a Plan B is required. And this is where academic choices join the chaos brewing in my mind.

Being in a non-conventional school makes planning for university a bit different. Because there are only 20 students in every grade, scheduling desired electives can be very tough. And often I feel so out of par when hearing of other high-schoolers’ achievements in extracurricular clubs, overflowing numbers of credits and volunteer hours, and highly articulated plans for entering the Ivy league university of their choice. I had trouble deciding courses, and still don’t know what branch of study I would focus on, much less the university I would pick as my home for several, educating years.

Dance, school, work, the future. It all feels both so close and far away at the same time. Flurries continue to fall on Toronto leaving behind a fresh, new layer of white covering the rooftops, tree branches, and lawns of the neighbourhood. I see the clean, blank, white sheet the way I see my future. There are no expectations, self-help directions, or hints of the season to come. But there is every opportunity and chance, you just have to find them underneath all the fluff.
.

In the end, the future will always be unknown and we will always be waiting for the next surprise that life will dish out, so we might as well enjoy every moment for what it’s worth and forget to dwell on anticipated events determined by external forces. Life unravels as it wants, and sometimes we gotta just hang on, grab a buddy, and go with the flow.

After all, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”

(If you know the origin of this famous quote, do not hesitate to let me know in the comments 🙂

Thanks for reading this madness.
Have a nice day,
thebookybunhead

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Skipping, Falling, Smiling: An early holiday ballet memoir

You know people have been in The Nutcracker when they can dance to practically the whole score of music from the ballet or hum all the tunes from the top of their heads. With three casts and over a hundred children in every rehearsal, we repeated the same steps and heard the same music so many times that it is nearly impossible for us to not remember our parts for the rests of our lives.

In sixth and seventh grade at my school, I was chosen to be Marie, the Russian equivalent of Clara, in James Kudelka’s production of The Nutcracker. It was a long journey to play this role, or any role in this ballet for that matter. Thinking about my experiences as Marie brings back a flood of memories from both the studio and stage. And so, after looking through these, I begin yet another piece by a former Marie:

“Watch the food table!” the whole studio chanted as we scurried up an imaginary staircase, right behind each other’s heels.

“Behind the servants!” everyone shouted as we finished our zigzagging running sequence and braced ourselves for the long and somewhat dreaded girls’ dance. We smiled and twirled through our burning calves and feet as Ms T, our rehearsal director, gave us a torrent of corrections and the other casts watched from the sides. Night after night we had practiced this same dance, and yet there were always more details to remember, more lines to straighten, more toes to point.

Rehearsals in the late evening were long, and as young dancers we lost focus and determination more than once, which made it quite a tiring process. But no matter how stupid we acted, Ms T persisted in her efforts to teach us all our roles and never gave up on our abilities. An extraordinary director not only teaches you what steps to execute, but more importantly in a storyline, explains why and how your character does it. Ms T was such a director.

We were taught all the events and sequences of the ballet; but more importantly, Ms T gave us a complete background of our characters while giving us a chance to explore. She brought out the playful and feisty Marie inside all of us so that we could express her through ourselves. We were prepared inside and out to perform.

One of the hardest things that took a surprisingly good amount of concentration to do was fake crying. It wasn’t challenging enough to expect little girls to make bawling faces without bursting out into giggles; we also couldn’t look like we were just covering our faces and bobbing up and down. Marie and Misha are not the most agreeable pair, and another challenge was performing the fighting scenes with true ferocity. We shoved and pulled, and had to synchronize our cues so that a facial expression of surprise happened at the same time as a fake slap on the head or a leg goes out at the same time as a deliberate dive.

The first time we laid eyes on the nutcracker for real was pure excitement; however, actually holding it in our hands was a different story. It was very heavy and big to wrap our hands around, so dancing with it for the first time was quite nerve-wracking. I was terrified to drop or rip apart the fellow at the end of the little solo, because Misha and Marie grab hold of either end of the Nutcracker, and they swing around twice before she is flung to the floor. Ms Toto also brought in tiny foam tangerines that we had to secretly hide and reveal during Uncle Nikolai’s ‘present giving’. She repeatedly cautioned us so we weren’t hiding them behind viewable backs or throwing them to places unknown to our hands. The dancing too definitely had its challenges; but we were more accustomed to the pressure of learning new dance steps.

The battle scene was short but especially hectic. Our beds glided around; dogs, cats, and rats were running around with giant swords, bows, and horses; and a rooster and goat popped out of the old fashioned stove behind our beds waving around maces and flags. Of course we first only heard about the scene and practiced with mats for beds; pretending to jump over and around things. The cues were particularly difficult in this section because the music was very busy and there were many things we could only picture in our minds. Seeing how many people participated in this section made our heads spin because there were so many patterns that could easily collide with our paths with a little timing mistake. We had to flatten ourselves to the stove as cats whizzed over our bed and jump down from the toy chest right after they passed or we would get cut off by a stampede of either dogs or rats.

After over two months of intense rehearsing, we finally made our trip to the centre where we would put the pieces together with the company. We were star struck about being in the same room with the dancers that we saw onstage and in the newspapers. We clung on to Ms T’s words in the studio; we did not want to disappoint and get in the way of the pros. And practice really did make perfect, by this time we rarely dropped oranges and I wasn’t scared to skip around with the nutcracker anymore.

Naturally, we started with the overture, in which Peter the stable boy is sweeping the barn for the children’s party, and we make our entrance. We had only jumped and imagined the lift before, so actually getting swept up and sitting on a principal dancer’s shoulder was absolutely breathtaking. Just having the full cast around us built up an exciting atmosphere, and we were fired up for the dress rehearsals. At last we had arrived at the final stretch of finishing touches.

“If there is global warming, why is it so #!$*@ cold?!” said black Sharpie writing on a piece of paper taped to the door of the hair department. Underneath the daily question, the lone response in pencil read “what do you expect in Canada?” Unable to answer the question, I headed in to get my hair curled with hot rollers. Charles did everything from hair curling to wigs to fake beards; he always hummed to his playing iPod during his bustling hour of preparations.

It was half an hour before the start of Share the Magic dress rehearsal, and by this time I had laced up my lavender boots, finished half my makeup, and had set up my nightgown and slippers for the 90 second quick-change. My hair’s refusal to curl seemed to decrease that day and coming out from underneath my bonnet was a mass of black, shiny curls. At the 10 minute call, we all got into costume: pantaloons, petticoat, and then dress. The woolen fabric made everything poufy and the dress weighed heavily on our shoulders. The enthusiasm backstage was tremendous and I could feel everybody buzzing inside as the curtains opened and the orchestra began to play the very familiar music.

The first steps onto the stage were the hardest, but after being completely underneath the lights, I forgot everything about myself and became Marie. I didn’t have to think about any steps because my body was on automatic; all I had to do was perform, perform, perform.

As I fell backwards during the fight scene, I felt a jolt of pain in wrist, but continued on like it never happened. As we inched our way to girls’ dance, my legs felt like blocks of lead, and my head was broiling from underneath the bonnet and lights.

“Behind the servants!” a voice recited in my head as we hopped down the stairs, carefully tracking our way behind the dancers.

We danced with all our might; our big dresses offering a bit of drag and throwing us off from our spins; and grinned harder as we felt heavier underneath all the costume. ‘How in the world did I think it was hard before?’ a flash of thought came to my head as we heaved ourselves to the finish and got ready to sneakily accept the clementines from the boys. And so the show continued, but not without any first experiences and interesting incidents.

As I ran offstage for the quick-change, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw the children playing the poor family grabbing and nibbling some arrowroot cookies that were placed on the food table by the awesome stage crew before I left. Three women helped me; one took off my bonnet to reveal the pink ribbon that was neatly rolled underneath, one was undoing my dress and rehooking the lighter and airier nightgown, and one was tediously working on my boots.

We ran back onstage and lay boiling underneath our blankets as we waited for the battle scene. When we saw the Christmas tree grow in front of our eyes, I was amazed by its size and grandeur; with ornaments bigger than my head and pine needles covering the entire span of the stage. But that moment was soon replaced by the panic of the battle scene as I tugged on my pillow that a cat was unknowingly standing on and that I was supposed to be hitting the rat king with at that very moment. I was late, but managed, and we sat down on the bed for the transition to the beautiful snow scene.

The bed glided to the side of the stage and we smiled. And smiled. We heard the voices of people whispering their shouts to get the curtain moving, and I realized that it was stuck. The snow queen’s feet could be seen doing bourres through a little gap and the orchestra stopped playing after a while. “Darn, it felt like a real show,” my partner Leo said. Well, what are dress rehearsals for.

After the little mishap, we restarted the scene and continued. Being on the charming blue remote-controlled boat while paper snow floated down on us was truly magical. I saw the unicorns in their white leotards and pointe shoes, with their faces and backs covered in white and realized that I had it pretty easy. They would have to put more base on top of the white afterwards for the next act, and had about twenty minutes to accomplish it without much help.

I was disappointed to find that my hair had fallen flat after the first act, but enjoyed a good run of the second act in the Land of Sweets. We did less dancing, but got to watch everything from the best seats in the house: onstage. In the bows, I still find it unbelievable that Marie and Misha get the final curtain call; it was too generous and too special a thing to happen to me, but I was so very grateful that I got the experience.

The show was over in a blink, and I soon found myself in a lot of pain from my wrist. I could not move it sideways or up and down without wincing and our chaperone told me to ice. By the time I got home, my left hand was purple and was swollen to the size of a large kiwi; so my parents took me to the hospital. I hoped with all my soul that it would be ok and fortunately, after an x-ray it was concluded that I had a badly sprained wrist. I was sent off and told to just tape my left wrist for the performances.

I had two successful shows, both in which we had to switch handholds for some of the scenes due to the injury. A day later, my mom told me she got a call from the hospital saying that I actually had a fracture in my wrist and that I had to get a cast. I was horrified. Once again, I put all my mind power into positive thinking for this situation. I asked the doctor to please let me dance in the shows. After a long discussion, he mentioned that they had a new product for a removable splint that I could try out. It was covered card that was velcroed together and could be taken off at any time and still keeping your arm still for healing. I could dance as long as I wore the splint the whole rest of the time. I was so happy! When I arrived for the next warm-up in my blue arm, people gasped and were shocked at what the outcome would be, until I valiantly declared that I was able to dance in all my performances.

That is what I believe happened in my debut of the Nutcracker. There were many more incidents in my shows to come, most of the funny, some painful; and some maybe a tad bit embarrassing. The following are a few accounts of the untold stories of Marie.

One time after the overture, we were in the balcony at the top of the stairs and our Baba started making her way down. I followed after her, and the most unfortunate slip happened as my foot slid across the third step and I fell on my rear. To make matters worse, the momentum carried me down the narrow staircase and I went bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump all the way down on my bottom in probably two seconds flat. Leo was laughing behind me and Baba was a bewildered woman, asking me if I was all right. I smiled, and patted my petticoat as I explained, “Padding.”

I soon found out that the nightgown that is so pretty, has a nasty habit of tripping underneath you when you jump. I attempted a two feet jump into bed, but the gown had its own ideas, therefore my feet got caught and my shins ended up taking the impact from my jump onto the edge of the wooden frame. As we ‘slept’, I rocked myself as discreetly as possible on my side to get rid of the pain. On that same show, during battle scene, I ran around a bed and found myself in the midst of a dog parade. One of them was apparently blind because it swung its jousting stick across and I almost yelped as it caught me right on the back of my head.

The crazy waiters during the feast bring out a tiny purple table, and then pull it out so it extends all the way across the stage. As fantastic as it is, this scene can cause a number of problems. A lever that one of them engages makes two candelabras and a silver covered platter pop out from the table. When the candles usually got stuck, I gave the stick a little slap as I ran to the fake turkey in the platter so that the rest of it bounces out. On this occasion, nothing wanted to appear so we had to reach our hands into a black hole in the middle of the table, and pretend that we had magically found a drumstick. During the food fight, we threw plastic broccoli and potatoes across the stage to be picked up later. It was a good system. This time however, one of my edible ammunitions had managed to direct itself at somebody backstage and I could see their reaction as they were pelted with what I believe was a carrot. I had to hide my laughter behind a mask of anger as Marie and Misha were having another quarrel. It was one of the hardest things I had to cope with onstage.

Last but not least is another nightgown predicament. In a part of the second act know as the Lamb Dance, the twins have a duet together. The series of steps goes something like this: coupe, pas de chat, passé attitude derriere. Now this had to be executed very quickly and this certain show either my costume was feeling extra clingy or I didn’t hold up my dress high enough. I jumped the pas de chat, anticipated what was going on with my dress, and basically landed in a grand plie on one foot. The result was an extremely loud “thunk!” when I landed. Once again, Leo was laughing at me. Later Ms T asked me if I was ok because it could’ve sounded like I broke something and my mom told me she heard my “thunk!” from the back of the fifth ring. Oh, how I loved that nightgown.

Performing this show never got boring because no matter how prepared you were, there were always little things that went wrong in a show whether you liked it or not. There have been countless experiences that I have gained with Marie. I am so grateful to have been given an opportunity to perform in the Nutcracker with the amazing dancers that I have for friends. And I believe that even as Al, Liv and I have moved on into grade nine, we will always have a piece of young Marie with us.

As the holiday season nears, we have caught many glimpses of younger students rehearsing for their part in the tradition that is The Nutcracker. It is all very nostalgic and reminded of this, a memoir of dancing as Marie, written by me three years ago. (Names were changed.)Thanks for reading.

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“See the music, hear the dance.” -George Balanchine

So we all know Balanchine was a genius. But apart from his achievements of irreversibly changing ballet vocabulary and staging (he doesn’t ‘create’, God does) one of the most diverse, lasting repertoire of ballet works today, he was also a man of character – of passionate drive, and nonchalance.

“George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker” written by Robert Gottlieb documents the illustrious development of his career and works, and attempts to explain his deep philosophies of dance and music; but possibly most fascinatingly, allows us a glimpse into daily life of the man, compiling true and intimate memories through people who actually knew him. It is one of many biographies about this amazing artist, and a rather nice short and light one to start off with.

It is truly a remarkable story, spanning across the globe from Russia, to Europe, to America; and in different fields, from operas, to ballet companies, to film and Broadway. It is easy to speak of Balanchine’s successes and label him a superhuman; however, this story reveals the hardships and failures that went along with cultivating his talents. Funny to think he was not interested in dance when he was first accepted in to Mariinsky. It is always inspirational to learn the story of how someone seemingly ordinary can become so extraordinary. Though there are discrepancies regarding his own dancing as written in the opinions of the book, there is absolutely no doubt of Balanchine’s choreographic merit.

In addition being a talented musician Balanchine integrated dance and music in intricacies that were never seen before. His works can be seen as simple and yet rich simultaneously.  He had great relationships with as well as respect for his dancers, and it shows in the final product onstage. Mr. B, as they called him, inspired them in every rehearsal, specific to his esthetic but always willing to explore, sometimes even using mistakes for the piece. As much as he admired beauty, especially that of the female ballerina, he valued musicality, dynamics and agility in a dancer. For him, dance in one word: energy.


(with Stravinsky, a life-long partnership)

In spite of his vibrancy, Balanchine was, I dare say, a quiet man. And it is predictable considering his childhood isolation from basically being dumped at the school by his parents for his better future and leaving his home country at teenage years only to not see most of his family again. He certainly loved his family, but did not speak of them often, which leads me to a thought, how special is a blood relation? Sure, family is family, and the bonds are irreplaceable and infinite, but do between parent and child, or sibling to sibling, they need to be built just as in any other relationship?

Of some similarity was a sort of disattachment in his marriages. Balanchine had several muses, five of whom became his wife at some point in their lives, and when he loved he was truly passionate. He put women on a pedestal in a sort of veneration, which is not suited for everyone. Often it was a splitting in their professions that caused drifting between the couple as Balanchine needed a muse for creation and inspiration.

Dismissing any eccentricities that I must admit defines every artist, Balanchine was a generous man to the ballet world. He pushed the boundaries of an existing art form while remaining true to its core and virtuoso. I can only imagine from this reading what it must have been like to be taught by him, meet him, or simply to have a peek of him in the studio.

(Photos from two of my favourite Balanchine ballets: Serenade and Apollo)

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