Performance Story: Once Upon a Ballet

The walls of the theater look like the walls of a castle, don’t they? And scenery is like the page of a storybook…

“She sleeps: her breathings are not heard
  In palace chambers far apart.
  The fragrant tresses are not stirr’d
  That lie upon her charmèd heart.”

-The Sleeping Beauty by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Stepping inside a fairy tale never gets old.

Growing up, I loved getting so lost in a book that I felt like I was in its story. I went on to major in English in college.

But, with narrative ballets, I discovered a more thrilling way to be lost in a story—by becoming a character in it.

I also love music, particularly classical music. So, I find it special that, in this form of storytelling, music plays a large role in creating your character’s feelings within you, sweeping you into the plot and inspiring expression in motion.

Sleeping Beauty is, thus far, my second favorite story ballet to perform in after The Nutcracker. I’ve been in it three times now, most recently this past winter when I entered the tale as a member of the royal court and as a villager.

 My costumes! Garlands and flowers for the village Kelly Milam as the Queen

 1. My costumes 2. Village garlands and roses 3. Kelly Milam as the Queen

Being absorbed into a drama is also liberating on a personal level, because, like many performers, I’m rather reserved in real life.

During rehearsals, it’s harder to come out of my shell and act in the studio than onstage. In the theater, the atmosphere of fantasy created with costumes, sets, lighting etc. helps dissolve feelings of self-consciousness. In the studio, that alchemy of elements isn’t present.

One little thing I found that helped the dramatic process this time though was giving my rehearsal look a makeover.

In the past, I typically wore everyday clothes to rehearsals for character roles. But it was time for a change. My fellow adult ballerina Kelly Milam usually wears a lovely, long dance skirt to practice in. I used her as my fashion inspiration.

I looked for character skirts online, but the reviews of most available styles said the sizes ran very small. So, I ended up purchasing a Body Wrappers worship dance skirt to wear with a leotard.

The movement of the skirt’s fabric as I rehearsed formed its own dance, simulating the sensation of wearing the kind of costumes I would wear in the performance. It helped me be more immersed in the story and feel freer.

A new look.

The week before we transitioned to the theater, I thought I knew pretty much everything I’d be doing in the show: attending a royal christening, birthday, and wedding, whirling through village merriment…

Then, I got a last-minute surprise.

I found out I was going to be dancing with one of the professional male dancers who were guesting from Madison Ballet in Wisconsin.

Phillip Ollenburg and I would dance together in a passage of the “Garland Waltz”– which just happens to be my favorite part of the ballet. (As Disney fans know, the song Once Upon a Dream is based on the music used in this scene.) Our dance was composed of balletic folk/historical type-steps: natural, uncomplicated choreography that allows you to enjoy the movement and the moment. Yes, it was as fun as it sounds!

Sleeping Beauty unfolded during the last weekend in February.

Yes, it was all over too soon, as always.

Inevitably, with any performance, there are things you wished you’d done better, but that’s the nature of live theater. And, by the end of the week, you feel like you’re ready for your own hundred-year nap! At the same time, you’re wishing you could come back and do it all again the next weekend and the next weekend after that.

Post-performance blues? Ouch, they hit hard afterwards. To any performer, I highly recommend Dance Spirit’s article Coming Down Easy. It’s a great breakdown of the slump you feel following a show, why it’s normal, and how to deal with it.

Still, coming out of that slump is different for each performance. This one proved more difficult than others. Well, I guess that’s a good thing. It means it was that much more enjoyable!

Hopefully, it won’t be long before it’s time for “once upon a time” again…

Interview: Jana and Abby of Ballerinas By Night

Adult ballerinas Jana and Abby created the Ballerinas By Night YouTube channel and blog for adult ballet students. Learn about their journeys in dance, their mission, their advice for struggling students, their dream ballet roles, and so much more!

Abby and Jana of Ballerinas By Night.

Abby and Jana of Ballerinas By Night

Tell us a little about your ballet backgrounds…

Jana: Despite being obsessed with ballet from a very young age (my parents had recorded Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker movie off TV), I didn’t start ballet lessons until age 8. My first ballet was a local production of The Secret Garden and I played a beetle 🙂 I went on pointe at age 12 and danced in various local ballets until age 16, when I put my social life on priority over ballet. Typical teenager!

At age 21, I found myself back at the barre, thanks to the encouragement of my then-future husband. At first, it was just a great way to get exercise and lose that college weight, but then I went back on pointe and started performing again! I met Abby at this time and she was in the process of opening her own ballet school. When she opened it, I started training with her and quickly realized how poor my technique actually was. Her teaching really clicked with me and I found myself feeling stronger and more confident with my dancing. The few years I had to train and perform with her before she moved away were some of the best years of my life!!

Abby at age 17

Abby at age 17

Abby: I grew up dancing from the age of 8, and started really taking it seriously in my teens. Alabama Ballet started a school when I was 15 and I traveled there 5-6 days a week for two years. It was amazing because my teachers had been high-level American Ballet Theatre dancers, yet our class sizes would often be 4 to 6 people, because it was the first year. The training I got was incredible, and in a more intimate setting than I could have possibly gotten any other way.

Alabama Ballet offered me a contract with the company my second year. I did correspondence school in my senior year so I could dance full time, but ultimately opted to go to college. Dancing in college was not a fit for me, so I left to get my academic degree.

Stepping back into the studio after 3 years off was like starting over. From there, I have just continued to plug away. I opened a studio, got teacher training, closed the studio, got back in shape, danced more, retired, and now I am teaching fairly full time.

What inspired you to start Ballerinas By Night YouTube channel?

Jana: Abby’s teaching inspired me to start our YouTube channel. There’s this stigma that adult students can’t achieve as much as younger students can. Abby doesn’t care about any of that. If you show up and want to work, she will help you achieve what you want – no matter how old you are or what shape you are in. She just sees potential! She helped me push myself to limits I never thought I could achieve. I got over the idea in my head that if something didn’t happen naturally then I couldn’t do it. If there was a struggle, she would take the time to break it down and figure out what wasn’t working. I learned so much from her and I knew there were other adults out there who feel just like me–no ballet career ahead of them, but wanting to train hard for personal fulfillment! Fortunately, Abby was on board to start the channel as she is passionate about spreading her love of teaching!

Abby: After I closed my studio, I used leftover materials to build a small studio in the spare bedroom of my house. Jana would come over 2-3 times a week and we would do as much class as we could (barre and some center). But, we felt like we needed more ballet in our lives and wanted a project to work on. Jana is very good with a camera and it was basically her getting it all started. All I did was sit awkwardly in front of the camera! Once I moved, we had more challenges–mainly that I am terrible at filming and Jana still has to do all the editing for me! Some people criticize YouTube as a place where people want to get famous, but I think we are both much more guarded. I rarely discuss the channel in everyday life. Our focus has always been to put information out there and hope there are people that want or need to hear it.

What do you find most challenging about ballet?

Jana: Currently, I find it challenging to build strength and technique and maintain it. Some of it is due to being an adult and not being able to make every class. Some of it is because my current classwork is just combinations and nothing building upon itself. I think that’s the hardest thing for teachers of adults–they can’t expect adult students to commit to class like young students, so that makes it hard to figure out what the group needs and how to build technique from day one, when every class is filled with different people. So, it’s challenging for me to remember to apply every correction, past or present, when, in one class we work on those corrections, and then, in the next class, I’m just trying to keep up with difficult combinations.

Abby: Ballet is hard to keep as a part time thing. If you do it part time, it’s hard to get where you want to be with it. If you spend more time on it, it can start to eat into your personal life.

For me personally, I’ve been a professional, but I regressed so much after being off for 3 years that I didn’t look like a professional anymore. I have gotten caught in between the worlds of being a student and being a professional because I haven’t always fit into a specific mold. I feel this constant struggle between claiming what I am and not feeling worthy of claiming it.

Jana in class

Jana in class

What do you find most rewarding about ballet?

Jana: The thing I find most rewarding about ballet is the feeling of accomplishment. Having the strength to do a difficult combination, be in control, and feel pretty while you’re doing it feels so amazing!

Abby: This is so hard to put into words, for me. It’s like one of those things you have to experience to “get” it. I remember the first time I really applied a correction and saw how much better I got–instantly. I was 11 or 12, and it was about my posture in my pliés. I realized that once I thought about posture, my pliés were so much better. I loved being in control of my progress and craved getting more corrections so I could apply them to every step I executed.

But, as time has gone on, it’s been more about the mind/body/spirit connection. It’s my meditation. Which is good, because, most of the time now my body does not cooperate, so I definitely do not feel in control of my progress like I did as a student. Now I think much less about the steps and the technique, but how the movement is produced. I think about my rib cage, and how it affects my limbs. But then I also think about my emotions and my spiritual life, and how to convey that to the audience (even if it’s just the teacher or other students). I just try to turn myself inside out, and that is now the most rewarding thing for me.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about adult ballet students?

Jana: I think the biggest misconception about adult ballet students is that they want to come to class only for exercise or social reasons. Some of us (probably those reading this blog!) want to build good technique, be challenged, and be pushed to be the best we can be.

Abby: The biggest misconception is that they just want to have fun, and don’t really take it seriously. I find that adults take their dancing more seriously than a lot of younger students because they are really invested in it. Unlike (most) teenagers, they are paying for their classes and are taking time away from something else to be at class. So, it’s serious business for them. I have had so many adults thank me for my teaching simply because I treated the class like they could move forward and would take time to explain things and really give corrections. If they just wanted to dance for exercise, they could go to Zumba (and yes, I have done that too!). They come to ballet for something else. I know that once I returned to ballet as an adult, I felt what it was like trying to find teachers to take you seriously. So, I’ve been there, and I just treat my students like I wanted to be treated.

What advice would you give to adult students who are struggling with their journey in ballet?

Jana

Jana. Photograph by Abby.

Jana: If you’re an adult student struggling with your journey in ballet, first of all, I feel for you. When Abby was living and teaching in the same city as me, my ballet classes were so fulfilling every single time. Since she moved two years ago, it’s been hit or miss with classes. It’s tough. If you can make at least one friend in class who’s on the same page as you, that helps. It’s good to have someone to talk to who understands ballet! That friendship could turn into staying after class to work on things together, or taking private lessons together. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for what you want in class when you’re not the only one who wants it. If you can’t make it to a physical class, give yourself barre at home! Also, hop onto Instagram. There’s a super supportive adult ballet community growing there! (start your search with #adultballerina)

Abby: First, give it more time. Dancing is something that happens a little at a time. Try not to get frustrated if it feels like things are not happening right away. Second, try to find ways to fill in the gaps of knowledge. That’s been a huge goal for our channel and a big part of our mission. Either you grew up dancing, but don’t remember certain things. Or, you were never really taught something. Or, you began class as an adult and got kind of thrown into classes and certain things were never fully explained. Whatever the case, we are trying to deliver content that will bridge any gaps adult dancers may have.

Who are a few of your favorite ballet dancers?

Jana: I adore Michaela DePrince, Ashley Bouder, and Daniil Simkin. Natalia Osipova is freaking amazing, of course. I love to watch powerhouse dancers because I am so far from being a powerhouse 🙂

Abby: Isabella Boylston is probably my favorite ballerina currently dancing. There is just something really special about her artistry and movement quality. I follow Catherine Hurlin because I saw her as a child when I was doing my teacher training at ABT, so it’s been fun to watch her grow up and move up through the ranks. My husband and I are both huge fans of Daniil Simkin. But, I also enjoy a good corps as much, or more, than lead dancers doing solos.

What’s your dream ballet role?

Jana: I feel like I don’t have the typical ballerina answer to this! Because music is what inspires me to move, I desire to dance in works where movement is inspired by music and not so much a story. I would love to dance in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering or Balanchine’s Serenade. But it would fulfill my childhood dream to be a Snowflake and the Peacock in Sendak & Stowell’s The Nutcracker! I finally got to see it live last year at PNB before they retired it and afterward I got to go backstage and sit in the Peacock cage! So close 🙂

Abby: Oh, so many! Kitri from Don Quixote, Aurora from The Sleeping Beauty, and almost anything from La Bayadere or Le Corsaire. The list could go on and on. But, I also have a deep love for contemporary ballet, and wish I had gotten more chances to do more of that. I’ve never been built like a classical ballet dancer, and often don’t feel like I fit into the traditional roles. Had I known about Complexions Contemporary Ballet as a teen I would have pursued that company and that side of ballet much more.

Abby. Photograph by Jana Carson Photography.

Abby. Photograph by Jana Carson Photography.

My Favorite (Ballet) Things with Johanna of Pointe Til You Drop

If you’re in the adult ballet community online, you’ve no doubt heard of the blog Pointe Til You Drop written by Johanna Aurava of Finland. We’re delighted she was able to talk to ABP about some of her favorite ballet things…

PTYD Johanna

Johanna

6 Favorite Ballet Dancers?

Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell, Elisabeth Platel, Sofiane Sylve, Isabelle Ciaravola, Mathilde Froustey, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Evgenia Obraztsova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Friedemann Vogel, Manuel Legris… Sorry, it’s impossible to narrow down to six! There are so many amazing dancers around the world, each with their own unique qualities. And I have seen only a fraction, live even less. I also want to give a shout-out to my fave dancers at The Finnish National Ballet: Michal Krčmář, Eun-Ji Ha, Tiina Myllymäki.

5 Favorite Ballet Steps?

Any steps that glide, bounce, soar, rebound, balance and suspend. Also pirouettes, even on a bad turn day.

4 Favorite Ballet DVDs ?

The first Paris Opéra Ballet School documentary which was made in the early 90s had a huge impact on me. I had all 4 episodes recorded on video, and watched it over and over. It’s been fascinating to follow some of the young students (Aurélie Dupont, Nicolas Le Riche) rising to the rank of étoile, and then retiring. Makes me feel a bit old though 😉 . Other favorite DVDs include: “Etoiles – Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet” (2001), “La Danse” (2009), “Dancer’s Dream: The Great Ballets of Rudolf Nureyev: Sleeping Beauty” (with Elisabeth Platel narrating and dancing the role of Aurora).

3 Favorite Memes You’ve Created for Pointe Til You Drop?

PTYD Memes
2 Favorite Personal Dance Strengths?

Picking up corrections, as I’m always eager to learn and to improve. I’ve been told that I have a natural jump, and I do like to bounce…

#1 Dream Ballet Role?

I would love to learn choreography from Balanchine, or anything from Kylian, Wheeldon, Elo, Ratmansky. Neo-classical or contemporary ballet. Some parts that would not be entirely impossible to dance, even if it’s just a short sequence of steps or port de bras. But if we’re talking dreams, I’d pick Tatiana (Onegin). Now, there’s a strong character to portray!

Pointe Til You Drop Blog

Pointe Til You Drop Facebook

Pointe Til You Drop Twitter

The Off Day Ballet Dictionary

Messy classes are unavoidable, despite our best efforts. So, perhaps we should make lemonade and think of off days as a unique subset of ballet with its own rules and definitions. (Apologies in advance to ballet teachers worldwide.)

Lemonade ballet 3

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image 1, Image 2.

Arabesque à la Seconde: The proper name for “a la sebesque”.

Hawaiian Rond de Jombe: Yes, it’s correct technique to include a little hula.

Petrushka Jumps: Pointed feet and stretched knees would just spoil the effect.

Port de Bras de Coppélia: The ability to move like an emotionless, mechanical doll can be invaluable.

“Reverse”: Dance historians now believe this originally meant “take a moment to freestyle”.

Degas Chicken Dance

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Runway Updo: A messy bun is fashionable after all.

Spotting: The critical skill of whipping your head around to see just-what-on-earth-is-everyone-else-doing-anyway.

Superman Penchée: Arching your back would ruin the streamlined look. So would lifting your leg above 90 degrees:

superman penchée

“Superman Penchée”. Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Tombé: The correct way to arrive on the floor…

Variation: As in your own personal variation of whatever the combination was supposed to be…

Vibrato: A sophisticated addition to any balancing exercise.

Zombé: Any step performed with an appropriately dead level of energy.

Zombe

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Adult Ballerinas in The Nutcracker

Performing in The Nutcracker isn’t just for kids or professional dancers. I’m excited to report that there were five adult ballet students in Birmingham Ballet’s 2014 Nutcracker! Meet the cast below. Maybe you’ll be inspired to try performing yourself!

ABP- KellyKelly Milam

Role: Clara’s Mother

How long have you been dancing ballet as an adult?

I took ballet classes as a child, but didn’t pick it back up until I was 26 or 27. I was assisting a teacher at the dance school where I now teach and decided to get back into ballet since I have always loved it so. I was excited to be in the recital numbers along with the teenagers. I just never revealed my age. I guess they just wondered. Now that I am 48, and have been dancing ever since that first recital, I still don’t reveal my age. I still want people “wondering.”

What inspired you to start performing in Nutcracker as an adult?

My mother saw a poster advertising auditions for Birmingham Ballet’s Nutcracker back in 1999. Knowing how much I loved to dance, she told me about the audition and encouraged me to attend. I was so excited to be a part of the performance and loved every minute of it. I was a party mom and encouraged a friend of mine to be a party dad. He only did that one performance, but I was hooked from then on!

Did you ever perform in Nutcracker in K-12 or college? If so, what were some of the roles you had?

I never performed in the Nutcracker as a child or teen, but I remember seeing it one time when I was about seven years old. I remember wishing I could be on the stage.

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