“THE NUTCRACKER” BALLET – A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Life Lessons Learned Performing the Timeless Holiday Classic

“THE NUTCRACKER” BALLET – A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN:

Life Lessons Learned Performing the Timeless Holiday Classic

It’s clear – the holidays are here! Amid the hustle and bustle of the shopping season, most important are those annual traditions that bring us all together – as families and as a culture. For me, nothing signifies the start of the season like the return of “The Nutcracker.”

Appreciation for this holiday classic spans generations and borders. In fact, for the next few weeks, versions will fill stages across the country – and the world. Joyfully, the performances will feature dancers of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels. How many promising dance careers were launched in the warmth of a theater in December, as young sons and daughters were inspired by the artistry and athleticism on display?

Children are not alone in being captivated by the choreography in “The Nutcracker.” The music is familiar and irresistible —certainly a few parents would admit to trying to pull off a few steps when they thought nobody was looking. If you accidentally kicked over some furniture or tweaked a hamstring – don’t be discouraged. Every journey begins with a single step. However, it’s usually best not to start with the hardest one.

As a teacher of adult beginners, I encourage my new students to focus on the long-term benefits of dance, and not on “looking pretty.” Ballet will make you stronger, more graceful and improve your balance – in everything that you do. My own experiences in performing “The Nutcracker,” however, are proof that this success isn’t always overnight:

“It was Christmas in ’55 and all through the house, Finis was fuming, not even a mouse.” – I vividly recall sitting alone in the dark in the theater at The University of Utah, watching a dress rehearsal for the “Nutcracker” and feeling as lonely as could be. It was Christmas, and we just didn’t have the money to fly me to my Mom in Hawaii. Meanwhile, I wasn’t even ready to be a mouse in our production. And I felt just that small.

Still, I was determined to work harder to grow my ballet technique. Only three years later, I danced the “Snow Prince” plus the Spanish and Russian dances in our production. What great preparation for later in life, when I would be a father, teacher and student – all at once. My adult beginners, too, understand the complexities of balancing many roles with energy and passion. The versatility and perspective that adult beginners bring to dance can speed progress and understanding.

The biggest obstacle to achievement for the adult learner is sometimes vanity. I know this too, from experience. In 1960 I performed the Russian ribbon dance in “The Nutcracker” with Michael Smuin of the San Francisco Ballet. Trying to keep up with Michael, the best jumper and turner in the company— doing double air turns across the stage while holding beribboned batons with both hands high above my head—had me bouncing all over the vast opera house stage. Repetition and practice – my usual solution – failed to correct the issue and left my confidence shaken.

My mental block was cured only when I realized that I was focused on trying to look text-book perfect (forcing my turnout and pulling up so much I looked like I was dancing on egg shells), instead of using my body as it was built and the correct body mechanics I had learned from Bill Christensen at the U of Utah. I was working outside of my own body!

It took several years to overcome the mental block of falling all over the stage, but by 1965 I had regained my technique. While dancing with the Harkness Ballet of New York in Cannes, I successfully performed sixty-four double air turns over the course of a single weekend. Four performances, without a hitch – occasion enough for the director to give me a bottle of champagne to celebrate as he thought I had set a new record for double air turns.

I offer this advice – learned by performing in the Nutcracker – to both students and teachers this holiday season:

  1. Take the time to celebrate your own personal and professional accomplishments
  2. Fearlessly pursue new challenges, especially those that promise to bring strength and balance to your life
  3. See “The Nutcracker” ballet! The music is glorious and the story is timeless. I promise you will be truly inspired

RISING ABOVE – OVERCOMING SETBACKS ON YOUR UPWARD TRAJECTORY

RISING ABOVE – OVERCOMING SETBACKS ON YOUR UPWARD TRAJECTORY

A life devoted to ballet offers many chances to be graceful – just not always in the ways you might imagine

 

My spirits should have been soaring. It was 1965 and The Harkness Ballet of New York was making its official debut in Cannes, France. I was a soloist in a company of 40 dancers, fulfilling my humble dreams as a small child in WWII Hawaii. Even so, I was not a happy camper. Of the 18 works in our repertory, only three were classical – my passion and forte. Worse still, I never got to dance them onstage.

Much of ballet is centered on strength and grace. I found it hard to exhibit either limited to supporting roles as “exotic” characters. In fact, it was hard for me to take ballet seriously at a time when much of my time on stage was spent on the floor wearing knee pads rather than soaring through the air. It was particularly difficult to exhibit grace as the better parts went to other dancers. While I had great respect for their abilities, I felt with proper rehearsing I could do as well as they.

Luckily for me, our guest star was the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. He was the recognized “King of Ballet”— a living legend with phenomenal technique and extraordinary grace and beauty. He helped me to understand that what separated the elite performers from the merely remarkable was not ability, but approach. Great stars always work overtime. Erik took me under his wing and became a mentor – let me sit in his dressing room while he made up his god-like face (and hair); let me do the pre-show warm-up with him; and coached me during rehearsals. In all things, he showed me how to do my best.

Erik also taught me the importance of repetition – applying the same process to achieve the same result – day after day. Essentially, how you practice is how you play. After working with Erik, I was no longer concerned with what roles I had, but concentrated on perfecting my technique in preparation for better parts. Which did come with changes in our repertory the following year.

Since then, my own experiences as a teacher have taught me that the world is a better place when every individual is inspired to reach his or her fullest potential. Working with adult novice beginners is especially gratifying, as our sessions aren’t only about improving technique but also enhance the quality of life.

Whether you are a banker, doctor, lawyer, stay-at-home parent or billionaire CEO – the principles apply: discoveries in ballet lead to discoveries in life. Deeply immersing yourself in the movement process can lead to new life-changing thoughts in daily life.

With dedicated repetition of the fundamentals, both student and teacher steadily move forward with knowledge, grace, vitality and strength.

 

 

 

 

Private Class with Finis

Balance Your Arabesque

How to place the first arabesque

Beginner Ballet Movement Skills. Lesson 2.
For detailed instructions, see my video, Basic Ballet Movement Skills, Lesson 2.

The beauty of the arabesque depends on the correct placement of the head. The head must be centered on a high chest with energy going up the back of the neck. Stand in front of the mirror in first arabesque on the right foot. Your left arm is in second position, your right arm is extended forward defining the first arabesque position. Do not tilt your head to the right towards your right shoulder and arm. This is why you fall forward when you attempt a piqué arabesque (stepping directly on the half-toe). When you pose in arabesque on your right foot, use your left arm for balance. Reach out and towards the back with your left arm as you extend your R arm forward. Keep your shoulders level with the floor as you press down on the air with both arms. Standing on the right foot, think of listening to the music with your left ear. The rule of balance: Ears Back!

The Demi-plié & Your Feet

It is important to remember that the demi-plié in ballet dancing differs from the plié in contemporary dance. In ballet, our movements are usually upward, quick, and light—the dancer must rise from a plié into a pose, turn, or jump and therefore a high center of gravity is required. In contemporary dance the movements are usually horizontal or downward, and weighted—the dancer works with a low center of gravity since there are frequent descents into prone or sitting positions on the floor.

Please don’t relax your demi-plié during your barre exercises. When you have a deep relaxed plié, this will force you to pull yourself up out of it and in doing so this will tend to set you back on your heels and make you behind the music.

At the ballet barre, and as much as possible in center floor when working slowly, always remember you are going to do something with that demi-plié whether it be a pose, turn, or jump. Therefore, when you demi-plié in each exercise, initiate the plié by clawing the floor with your toes and gripping the floor. You want to connect with the floor. You want to feel the muscles in your toes, instep and ankle fully engaged. You are preparing the ball of your foot and your toes to extend, spread, and take all of your weight when you relevé. Make sure you feel a muscular connection from the tips of your toes to your hip—you are spring-loading your feet so that you can push down on the floor and propel your body upwards.

Start and end each demi-plié with your toes and you will improve rapidly. As much as possible (if music and the choreography allow), use this kind of plié in center floor before you pirouette as well as to initiate jumps from two feet.

TEACHER TALK

TEACHER TALK

Yesterday at the Ailey Extension I gave the adult absolute beginners the Ballet Barre for the Adult Absolute Beginner followed by one of the short dances from The Ten-Minute Ballet Break.

We used Exercise 1 from the Ballet Break #2. (There are four different ten-minute breaks, each with four different dances.)

You can catch a glimpse of this in the video trailer: http://finisjhung.com/shop/ten-minute-ballet-break/

Fast forward to 1:29 and you’ll see Antonio Carmena, NYCB soloist demonstrate it. I love this music!

The class was full with 35 students, so it was a challenge to teach them all how to do this dance which reinforces the idea of using opposition. For most, it was a totally new experience to tombé in second position on half-toe, so I I used Sophie Ono, who is a regular and continues to improve like a house afire, but who at first did not understand the movement. To help her balance the tombé to the right, I pulled her left arm and shoulder away from her right foot, and told her to keep the weight of her head on her left shoulder. Voila! That demonstration of opposition helped most of the class understand how to work their bodies and after that most could do the exercise with grace and fluidity. We also worked this idea forward and back. I love to see dancers dance!

If you are a teacher, this video will give you lots of short dances you can use in class. If you are an adult student, get the video and do06_10MBB these simple dances in your living room. On with the dance!

 

 

You are a Star!

A star has 5 points. You have 5 points: Energy flows from the center of your body down through both legs and feet; up through your chest and out through both shoulders and arms; and up to your head and out of your eyes.

You are a star forever!

TURNS HAVE 2 COUNTS

Last night after class Ari practiced her outside pirouettes to the right. She was able to do at least two or three but then fell off. I pointed to my left knee and said “One” and then to my eyes and said “Two.” (All turns have 2 counts: plié on the 1, spot on the 2) She smiled, followed my instructions, and performed 5 beautifully placed controlled pirouettes finishing on half-toe. On-looking students were amazed. (So was she, as she was jet-lagged, having just returned from 10 days in Japan). ONWARD—WITHOUT A DOUBT!

Nail Those Turns!

You Can Turn!

In class last night, every center combination was based on the pirouette en dehors from the fourth position. We began with a slow promenade in retire followed by single pirouettes, upping the tempo gradually. As the exercises progressed and advanced, we combined the pirouettes with pas de bourrées, passé par terre, piqué arabesque, a tombé pose, changements, and sissone fermé. By the end of class, all I had to do was remind some of the students to keep both hips forward over the supporting foot and —voila!—they finished their turns perfectly balanced on half-toe. They were quite surprised to learn that in seconds they could correct a faulty turn simply by standing in “number one” with hips forward over the toe, pushing down into the floor, spotting sharply, and then closing the arms.

If you’re having trouble with your outside turns, you will improve with my video Pirouette Class 2 which breaks down all the component parts step-by-step.

http://finisjhung.com/shop/pirouette-class-2/

INTEGRITY OF MOVEMENT

A thought for today: Do you bend back to show you can bend your back or do you bend back and reach back so that you can step forward and push down into a relevé or jump?