Ballet Diary 3: The jig is up

A stop-gap space for NWDP, a talk with the teacher, and the challenge of self-conscious creation

Now…which door is open after hours? And…which floor is the classroom on?

You’d think that by my third week of journaling a beginner ballet class for ArtsWatch (week one | week two) , I’d have fallen into a steady routine, slinging the same bag with the same camera and slippers over my shoulder, heading to the same studio to go through my gradually-improving motions. But this is a particularly dynamic time for Northwest Dance Project; they’ve just uprooted from their space of 10 years on Mississippi and Shaver and moved their summer activities, including my class, into PSU’s Lincoln Hall. For me, this replaces the last two weeks’ short drive to Northeast with an hour-long walk to downtown…which is a good warmup, actually. Probably something I should have been doing anyway.

Ballet students warm up in NWDP's temporary studio at PSU's Lincoln Hall.

Ballet students warm up in NWDP’s temporary studio at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.

Lincoln Hall is silent and slightly spooky, but a foamcore poster of dancer Andrea Parsons points to the stairs. As I head up the dim, echoey stairwell, a couple of buoyant Flashdance types bounce down. (Here a jaunty bandana, there an exposed shoulder.) They may be student dancers from NWDP’s LAUNCH Project summer intensive.

In addition to the new space, the third week of beginner ballet proves full of other “firsts.” It’s the first time fellow students have chatted with me before class; they seem to be getting a little less petrified, more flexible, more open to connect.

“After my other class, I have to go across town and let out my dog, and then come back here,” one fellow student reveals. I picture it. Dog whines as woman fumbles for keys which have fallen deeper into her bag between her ballet slippers. This is nice. We all have outside lives.

In contrast, instructor Renee Meiffler seems (for the first time) a little bit flustered. Has she read my dance diary? I suspect so. Throughout the class, she shows little hints: She’s quick to pull a student out of the “mirror crack” position that hides one’s body, which I wrote about last week. She mentions that “we all have a delinquent leg”; I’ve explained mine both weeks. A couple of times, she seems like she’s about to share a story, then stops herself, as if thinking better of how it might sound in print. I have no desire to torture my lovely teacher, but I do find the change in her behavior philosophically interesting.

How are our artistic endeavors altered by a sense of being watched, assessed or recorded? How do we react under the threat—or the promise—of being covered in the press? What’s the difference between what we do in the flow of our art, and how we summarize what we do when we’re on the spot?

In mainstream culture, we’re inundated with “behind the music…behind the scenes…the making of.” Even in hyperlocal efforts, artists often replicate this form: “I’m videotaping my performance for my residency. I’m verbalizing my process in my grant application. I’m publishing my project’s budget on my Kickstarter.” Do such efforts merely document the creative work you’d be doing anyway, or do they fundamentally change the way you approach your art?

More to the point: will I be learning ballet differently today—and will Meiffren be teaching differently—now that we both know that one of us is about to write it all down? Demystifying art has long since become its own form of entertainment, even or perhaps especially here on ArtsWatch. And while analysis often enhances our understanding of art, it also sometimes dulls and distances our senses during the experience. Maybe my pliés would be deeper, my posture better and my leaps higher, if I weren’t busily filling my head with mental notes. Maybe my ballet countenance would be cleaner and milder, my brow less furrowed…less sweat and more glow…if I didn’t have to overthink it all the time. Guess we’ll never know…because I do. Have to overthink it. All the time.

We’re working on ronde du jambes, where the toe of one foot draws a (theoretical) half-circle from back to side to front (en dedans), or vice-versa (en dehors, which I immediately know I’ll remember as “on the hours,” or “on the clock,” or from the right foot, clockwise). “Draw an actual circle!” encouraged Meiffren. “Pa-ress that toe into the floor!” On the gray marley flooring under the feet of the woman in front of me, wispy white scratches describe a perfect circle. Huh. Evidently, it can be done. No circle under my feet yet; maybe when my balance is better, I’ll push harder.

At home in the last week, I’ve been writing at my standing desk with my feet in first position (turnout). In my kitchen, where there’s a big mirror, I’ve practiced hopping up onto one foot from 5th position, switching sides like we tried in unison during Meiffren’s attempt last week to have us approximate a corps de ballet formation. (Outside the ballet classroom, this move reminded me of Riverdance, and I realized how much the Irish “jig” resembles the corps de ballet.) We don’t do the corps formation this week, which is fine…it brings a mingled feeling of camaraderie and pressure not to let down the team that in all this other newness, I didn’t need.

I walk back across the Hawthorne Bridge. On the balcony of a brick building where a lot of bands practice, a punk drummer I kind of know is having a smoke. Should I make a spectacle? The ballet girl yelling down from a bridge to get the attention of the punk rock guy, like some deleted John Hughes scene? Nah, I’ll leave it, I decide. Punk Rock Drummer goes to a lot of theater; I’m sure I’ll see him around when I’m more myself.

When I get home, I email Meiffren, explaining that it seems like she’s read the blogs, and that while I don’t want to influence the class, I want to offer her access to me and a say in how we proceed. She responds warmly. She has read and enjoyed my posts, but also doesn’t want the coverage to change the class dynamic. “It’s probably better that I’m not 100% sure who you are,” she says, and “I’m trying to completely forget about it while in class.”

However! She does have further comment about ballet bodies (something discussed last week).

“Your [ballerina] friend was right, weight is important with regard to being lifted…but I agree that the jumping thing depends on each individual person and their own personal physics and musculature.”

For example, she mentions that her former football player friend “can jump higher than anyone [else] I know.”

So partnering prefers lightweights and jumping favors muscle? This puts modern ballet practice at a crossroads. Let’s give Meiffren the last word this week:

“I think in order to keep ballet relevant in popular culture it must open itself up to body diversity, which would mean the development of the unique dancer and the careful cultivation of each dancer’s gifts, instead of adhering so closely to some invisible, sometimes impossible, ballet body ideal that can sometimes be damaging. The precious, jewel-like quality of the unique individual dancer can sometimes go unappreciated and uncared-for amidst such an ideal. I want that to change.”

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    That’s a very interesting question you raise about verbalizing the project on a grant application, or videotaping for a residency or publishing a budget on Kickstarter changing, affecting how the art itself is created. Such specificities can hamper improvisation and stifle the exploratory nature of making a dance. And certainly make the artist self-conscious in ways that are not necessarily productive. Glad to see a photo of PSU’s new studio incidentally; it’s been a long, long time coming.

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