About Susan

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mind over Body

Today's ballet technique class was taught by Laura, whom I'd never taken class with before.  She mentioned she had recently returned from a decade or dancing and teaching in Amsterdam and was now mostly teaching at Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and at the ODC in San Francisco, which was exciting to hear.  Her class did not disappoint - it was full of class-strict, classical staples, but yet wonderfully influenced by a slightly contemporary edge.

What really got my attention was Laura's singular focus on the influence the mind has over the body.  After we finished a combination at the barre that ended in a front passe balance, she asked us what our thoughts were as we got into the balance.  To be honest, my thoughts were something like: "Okay, balance coming up.  HUT!" and as a result, as Laura helpfully pointed out to me, my chin was lifted a little too high, and my chest, neck, and shoulders tight.  Was I even breathing?  Probably not enough!

Now I'm pretty proud of my strength and the balances I'm able to execute.  But does that mean I can't improve or make it easier?  As I found out, I certainly can make it easier, and present a more beautiful presence at the same time.  Laura exhorted us to think very positive thoughts as we embarked on our balances.  "I am so ON today!" she exclaimed gleefully as she pulled up into a passe balance.  We all laughed, but when we tried it from there and throughout the rest of the class, I was humbled by the difference it made.

In addition, I received another crucial correction from Laura: I'm pushing my chest out too soon when hitting a balance, especially at the end of a moving combination.  I was to pique up into a back attitude en releve (step onto the ball of the foot, with the other leg bent behind me), and I was giving the full "Ta-DA!" with my upper body way too soon.  "If you give it all at the beginning, there's nothing else left!  Save it a little, then when you know you've established the balance, then show it all off!"    

The result of these two observations was that I felt I could balance for longer, with less tension in my upper body, and it was just ... less effort.  As I stepped into my attitude balance, it was not about "nailing it", it was about establishing a presence and then blooming into the full movement.  I hesitate to even call it a pose - when I tried her correction, I was constantly moving, evolving.  I felt elegant and beautiful, even!

Laura's consistent reminders and excited exclamations of "Yes!" whenever someone incorporated her corrections were very encouraging, and made me work that much harder.  I wanted to receive a "Yes!"  (I did get a few :-)

"Have your mind be a witness to your body," Laura concluded about the positive thoughts concept, and I was struck by how powerful this statement was.  It also made me realize just how much dancers must overrule the natural tendencies of our bodies in order to hone our art, to constantly gird ourselves psychologically to master limb and muscle.  But the way Laura described it, I suddenly felt that it's less about overcoming our bodies, but about observing and encouraging.  Our bodies are, after all, our prized instruments - I've only got the one, and it's irreplaceable.  It's time to stop fighting it and to work with what I've got, imperfections and all, and to make the best of it!  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

I was volunteered recently to collaborate with a few photographers who had no experience working with dancers, and I gladly obliged since it's always interesting to see what results from working with photographers.  A photo shoot is always a neat opportunity to try out new poses and movements as well as go with the tried and true.

When I received some of the photos, I was dismayed by what I saw were unflattering angles and broken lines.  Did I really look that bad, or were the photographers just not capturing the moment?  But then I realized that this was 'working as intended' - the images I'd received were what the photographers considered the cream of their crop.  What I expected to see was obviously not their ideal.

Take the image here: I was disappointed because I'd worked so hard, jumping countless times (on a concrete floor!), to create the look of the bottom leg folded beneath my body while the other was behind me towards my head. So why did the photographer insist on framing the moment just as my bottom leg nearly made contact with the ground for landing, rather than to seize the jump at its greatest height?  

You can imagine my surprise when the photographer beamed proudly at this image, explaining how he'd captured the symmetry of my legs in opposition, "like a yin and yang symbol."  I'd never thought of it this way, and began to see his point despite my dismay.  I find I've warmed up to the image ... a little.

More important, this interesting experience made me realize how insular the dance world is and how much we take for granted the definitions of correct and incorrect in terms of classical lines.  We scrutinize ourselves in the mirror every day and take pains (literally) to learn what the "correct" positions feel like on our bodies.  But, upon seeing the collection of images from three non-dance photographers, I'm beginning to understand that beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.  To know that someone sees something perfect and lovely in what I consider to be a complete miss is, to be honest, really refreshing!  It kindles hope within me that even I, with my flawed body and limited facility, can provide a perfect moment in dance for someone.