Thursday, February 22, 2007


Dear Hulles,

I’m going to start my response to your post about the ballet with this paragraph:

Basically, there are two kinds of dance: classical ballet and weird modern shit. The weird modern shit could be anything from Lucinda Child dancing in a square over and over and over again to a Philip Glass recording (yes, I saw her perform it, and no, I don't want to talk about it); to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which is a bunch of fat guys dressed in tutus (really); to the breathtaking agile magic of Pilobolus.

Most of the time, I am partial to the WMS over the RFBCC (really fucking boring classical crap). In respect to watching RFBCC, I often want to creep out of my seat because it is predictable (Balanchine) and uptight (everything else). WMS can be exhilarating, fresh, wacky and usually has much cooler music. In respect to performing WMS? Way better. Let me tell you why. RFBCC has been performed over and over again for years and years by every bunhead and her dog. How individual can you truly make your Giselle? What kernel of originality can you stamp on an Esmeralda? The steps are what they are, everyone has to do them the same (basically) and you spend most of your time trying to live up to the best performance you’ve ever seen or heard about. Me? I prefer the WMS because you can make it your own. The choreographer is more often than not creating something on you directly, you are a part of the process, your mistakes and stumbles can result n the most amazing movement or mood, you live inside what comes out in the studio…not on top of it. Don’t get me wrong. There is a certain pride in doing a classical role (I was very pleased to become a part of the Sugar Plum Fairy alumni in the mid ‘90s), but to have something choreographed for you, on you, about you? Brilliant. You are the pace-setter, not the chaser.

An aside: The Trock? Hilarious fun – just don’t make it the first foray into the ballet world. It might scare one off. Must see companies? Pilobolus, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, ABT, PNB, NYCB, SF Ballet to mention a few. Ballets that pop into my head immediately? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Val Caniparoli’s Bow Out, L’Homme at la Mort, Gaite Parisienne, The Moor’s Pavane, Carmina Burana, etc.

The women are really really skinny. But even if the female dancers you see are blimps compared to the way they used to be, they will still look really thin to you. Some of this has to do with simple physics: your gay male pas de deux partner (see below) can't lift you and hold you in the air with one arm if you weigh 180 pounds.

Our director used to have a saying, “Gentlemen, push-ups! Ladies? Lettuce…” I was always mistaken for an anorexic dancer, but I never was. It’s just really hard to get the fuel to energy output right. We never had enough time to get the food in – we were always working so hard. Oakland Ballet was a great place because the director liked his men to look like men and his women to look like women. Curves and muscles were totally acceptable, preferred in fact. I was the anomaly there – I had a tiny pinhead and was very thin – more like the Balanchine outline.

p.s. Hulles – not all the men are gay. Point of fact, most men go into ballet so they can be up close and personal with all the half naked, sweaty, and for the most part, liberal (meaning sexually loose) chicks. Whoo-ah! It’s basically a straight man’s heaven.

But it is very unlikely that you will attend a performance where it is all classical ballet, at least in the U.S. Whether this is pandering to imagined American taste or simply because the classical repertoire is so small is something I don't know. It might just be that an all-classical performance would be too physically taxing for most companies. I'll try to find out the answer and let you know.

I have to think that most companies don’t do all classical repertory in an evening because it is RFBCC (emphasis on the RFB). From the performing stance, classical ballet is actually easier, in my estimation, to do because it is reserved, there is a lot of restraint and it follows a certain pace, a certain breath. WMS is more taxing because of the athleticism and unconventional pacing – you can be on stage for the entire performance, or go like a bat out of hell for ten minutes only to appear back on stage after a brief breather for another ten minutes. You can also go completely apeshit on this style of the dancing - sweat is permitted, use of breath is permitted.

In the second segment I'll talk about some of the dance terminology you should know, what to watch for in a performance, how female dancers smell, what kind of shit the dancers are wearing when you see them, and what it's like to be a little girl growing up and wanting to be a ballet dancer.

Truth be told – some of us (I’m not saying who) smell like smoked chipped beef after a show. A little sweat, a little exertion, and a little drying time can conjure up all kinds of pititude.

Actually, the proper term is balletomane, but that sounds even more gay than "ballet aficionado" plus I don't know how to pronounce it, so let's just stick with the former appellation.

Balletomane? Bah-lett–oh-main.

When I left you you were just sitting down in your decent seats in the auditorium about to see American Ballet Theater perform Miscellaneous Weird Modern Shit, Intermission, then the classical ballet Giselle. You're in for a treat. This is a fantasy performance, so Martine van Hamel is dancing Giselle as well as a pas-de-deux or two in the first part's MWMS.

I preferred Martine as Myrtha – holy hamstrings that woman could jump. She leaped like a man – therefore she was another hero. Jumping was my forte…couldn’t turn for shit, the scoliosis you know (Yay Heather!)…but in my ballet days, “jumping for joy” was not just an overused phrase. Jumps elated me, literally and figuratively.) I never Myrtha-ed but I did do one of her sidekicks…Moyna? No, Zulma…Moyna? I don’t know. Whatever. We boureéd a lot. And kicked Albrecht’s ass.

Toe shoes are the funny pink shoes the female dancers wear in classical ballet. They cost $14,000 a piece at your local Capezio store and most people need two of them, so as you can see ballet is not a poor woman's avocation. Toe shoes have wooden plugs in the toe to allow the dancer to spin like a top as she's dancing, hence the name.

Hulles and I have already addressed this, but for those of you not in the know, there is no wood in pointe shoes – sometimes I wished there was because it would last longer than the burlap, canvas, satin and glue that really makes up a toe shoe. Various materials + glue + sweaty feet + two hour performance + a little blood = soggy tissue paper. You can dry out the shoe, stuff it with newspaper, pray to the capezio fairy and hope for a useable shoe in the morning, but it almost never happens. Recently, various shoe companies have been experimenting/utilizing plastic in shoe tips, but really it diminished the ability to “roll-through and in my opinion, leaves the dancer looking clunky and a bit uncoordinated. I’m a Freed snob (Freed is the largest, and oldest I think, pointe shoe company).

The corps (pronounced "core," this is important, write it on the back of your hand before you go) is short for the "corps de ballet." These are the dancers that flutter and swarm here and there during the course of the ballet, always in groups. After all, that's why she gets the big bucks, somewhere around $700 a week for a major company for a 36-week season. It works out to about $25000 a year, to save you the math. And bear in mind that this is in the Major Leagues of the dance world; these are the top pros in their field.

This is true if they are in a union company – for those poor sots (me and plenty like me) that were in non-union companies, not so much...starting salary was 350 – 400 a week. I never made 700 a week, even when I was a principal dancer and by the time I retired, we were down to a 12 week contract. This is a year y’all…12 weeks at 6 fiddy. Do the math because it depresses me too much to do it for you. When I first came to the company, we had a 42 week contract and lots of touring (extra per diem money to save!!) Whopeee!). 13 years later, attention to the arts had diminished so much that even the Principals had to hustle with extra teaching, guesting and summer jobs. I became extremely proficient at house painting. My specialty was the five-story outdoor scaffolding. Almost fell off once, but that’s another story (no pun intended…)

The last terminology you will learn is two French words, "jeté" and "plié." I can no longer recall what these words mean but they are ballet terms used to describe various stylized dance movements that occur during the course of the performance.

Jeté – to leap
Plié – to bend
I can go on and on Hulles – let me know if you remember more terms and need an interpreter.

Male dancers suck. They are never well choreographed, they have totally lame moves and don't go en pointe, and they seem to exist solely as foils for the female dancers. Fine. Who gives a shit? The female dancers are cracking good and they more than make up for the sorry-ass male dancers.

Hey, hey, hey. We couldn’t do it without them – those boys were a necessary fixture. We liked our forklifts and bike stands. They did a fine job most of the time…unless they had been out drinking the night before and were sweating Absolut all over you. Or smoking pot that day just to round out the week/month/year. Or were just plain stupid and could never remember the steps. It was like being pregnant with those types…you were definitely dancing for two! On the whole though, my guys were outstanding. I was never dropped and the sacrifices were always on their part.

If you would be lucky enough to find yourself in the dressing room after the performance, you would quickly notice that God's own deodorant and antiperspirant couldn't begin to make a dent in the, shall we say, closeness of the atmosphere. What did you expect? Dancers sweat. Men and women perspire, horses and ballet dancers sweat. Look at what they were doing out there, for crying out loud. Of course they sweat. And they don't smell like smoked chipped beef either, no matter what some would have you believe. They smell like victory.

Well then, I smelled like victorious smoked chipped beef.

I welcome specific questions and will be happy to answer them if we care to continue the ballet convo. If not, I will join you shortly with my life’s ramblings. I should really promise an account of our time in Wine Country, but I am so sick of grape juice at this point that it would probably make me feel ill.


cK said...

Wonderful entry, friend. Thanks. I think you're precious.

(Now this is my second attempt to comment, so I think the problem I'm having with posting here may be the problem you've had posting on some other blogs: being on opposing sides of old/new blogger. Did you ever transfer your blog to the new blogger format? Yours remains the only blog for which I have to formally sign into blogger in order to comment on...even though I'm technically already signed in. Huh.)


Hulles said...

I loved your post. As I was writing mine I kept thinking you should really be writing it but you were/are a long way and the threat of a beating if you don't write the post loses credibility somehow. It was really really fun to hear your perspective on dance.

I hope you know I was mostly joking about not liking WMS, much of it is wonderful and I can only imagine what working with a choreographer would be like. You described it very well and I wish I could annex your post somehow to what I wrote. Nice wordsmithing, and if that isn't a verb it makes me look stupid twice over.

Although I still like RFBCC. Do you know what I really like about it, other than the normal grace and beauty tripe? The mistakes and the flaws. That's really what makes every performance different, in my opinion. It makes the performances human works of art that strive toward but never achieve perfection. Now that I'm thinking about what you wrote, the fact that there is so little room for variation is what makes the flaws more obvious, sort of the opposite of what you were saying about improv enhancing the WMS stuff. I think RFBCC succeeds or fails solely as an entire work more often than not, as opposed to being the sum of individual performances within it. Whew. I almost felt impassioned and articulate there, somebody give me a Bud Light.

Truthfully I don't exactly recall what role I saw Martine dance in Giselle. I do recall what I felt though, which was elation at a remarkable performance.

And yikes! I know not all the men were/are gay. I suspect based on last names you might have been related to one of them to some degree or another and might know better than I (I did my Lollie research because I was interested in your career, not because I'm a creepy stalker type or anything. Except in the movies, and that was only a role, honest). I really could care less who those men sleep with as long as it isn't me. And they don't all suck as dancers either, I know that too. Probably not even most of them most of the time. But I always thought it was a shame that they were never choreographed better than they were to take advantage of their assets as opposed to turning them into those one things you called them, lampposts and handcuffs or something like that. I was exaggerating for effect in my post, trying to make light of the way things are and of myself in the process. Another Bud Light, please.

I detest the SF Ballet. Well, not really, but any company that makes whats-his-names Rodeo thing their signature piece deserves to be excoriated. I HATE that Rodeo thing, and they always did it every time they came to town. I wanted to bring a six-gun to the performances and show 'em what cowboys would really do if the SF Ballet showed up on the old K-Bar-Z ranch. This is the ballet I referred to that I disliked so much. Was it Copeland that did the score? I hate Aaron Copeland's music too. Just saying.

I knew the salaries I quoted were high and I hoped by saying what I did that I would provoke you to tell it like it really is. Apparently my evil ploy worked, heh heh. I read a quote by some pro baseball player yesterday that went something like, "Sure, you hear about players that have $12 million contracts but most of us only make $500,000 a year." Poor fucker. My heart bleeds for him and his potbellied overpaid cronies.

Victorious chipped beef? If I ever meet you the first thing I'm going to do is sniff you.

Whew. I can't remember if I had more to say but I'm willing to let it drop if you are. Thank you so much for interacting with me on this whole thang. I find all of this very very interesting, and I love dance even more since reading your stuff.

Hulles said...

And did I mention I'm really glad you're back? I am. I missed you.

Hulles said...

"a long way" should have read "a long way away," and "victorious chipped beef" should have been "victorious smoked chipped beef." Much better.