Archive for the ‘Dancing in the North’ Category

Nutcracker Season

December 3, 2011

There are three more chances to see the North Star Ballet’s Nutcracker this weekend.  Today at 2 and 8 and tomorrow (Sunday) at 2 in Hering Auditorium.


I have been watching the dancers of North Star Ballet for twenty-five years, since the afternoon my son, then seven, insisted that he go to the audition, and Norman, then and still artistic director, looked at him and said, “Well, you’re kind of small but we can find a place for you,” and assigned him the role of boy cherub, trailing behind the Sugar Plum Fairy as she made her entrance onstage.


I’ll be going tonight and tomorrow afternoon, watching another set of girls swoop through the beautiful snow scene or dance crisply through the Marzipan.  Nutcracker season is when those who follow our ballet can see the developing potential in the North Star dancers.  A girl who was a gawky soldier one year becomes a graceful snowflake the next.  The girls in Marzipan sparkle their way to Snow Fairy or Dew Drop.  And always, there’s the dazzling Sugar Plum, the one whose dance characterizes the ballet and forms an apotheosis in her pas de deux with her Cavalier.


We’ve been having Nutcracker weather, too, the past few days—a warming trend bringing fat flakes of snow falling like pillow down through the dark light.  We’re heading to the darkest days: sunrise at 10:19 and sunset at 3:01 yesterday, the morning and afternoon a long twilight, tinged with pinks and oranges, and a slaty light in the evening sky.   We’re eating more chocolate and oranges now, and driving at slower speeds.  If it weren’t for the toad, work, as Phillip Larkin once said, we’d all be sleeping most of the time, or sitting in a comfy chair curled around warm coffee or tea.


Except for small community that forms around the ballet every fall—a hundred parents and volunteers bustling backstage painting on Mouse and Soldier makeup, tying Cherub pinafores and Party Boy ties.  The older dancers are lining up on stage for warmup as I write this, stretching on the barre, getting ready for plies and tendus, stripping away sweats and leg warmers as their muscles begin to loosen under the stage lights.  There will be notes after warmup, then they will bustle off to the crowded dressing room to be ready to be Party Parents, or Snowflakes in the first act.


I never get enough of it.  Sitting in the dark auditorium with my neighbors and friends and all the four-year-olds with tiaras on their heads and dazzled eyes and all that luscious music filling the space around us, I can feel the year turn and a sweet nostalgia for each minute that passes. The dancers are so beautiful on stage, so mature in the gesture and posture of the dance; the moments are so fleeting, like Clara’s childhood entering the Land of Sweets.  I don’t even try to fight the tears that always come.


After this weekend, I’ll be ready for the season, the deep dark, the warmth that endures through friendships and holiday meals shared, the slowly returning light, just a few weeks away.



Dancing in the North

March 25, 2011

Spring Gala White on White

Tomorrow night, the North Star Ballet dancers will perform in their annual Spring Gala—a little early this year.  They will be performing Snow White—a ballet set to a composite of music, retelling the story in a way that allows the Senior Company dancers to take on more roles.  There’s a cat, complete with tail, who leaps about, bossing the dwarves around.  And there’s Snow White, herself, and the wicked stepmother Queen.  I’ll go Sunday to see the final performance—tomorrow is the John Haines memorial—but I’ll really be waiting for the second half of the show.

It’s not a bait and switch, exactly, but it has always seemed to me that Norman does the choreography that really engages and stretches him and the dancers in the second half of the Spring Gala.  While the story ballet in the first half lures in the parents with kids who want to dance, the second half demonstrates just how technically developed and with how much range the North Star dancers are.

This year, the company is doing John Luther Adams’ “Dream of White on White”—a ballet in unitards to Adams’ geography-inspired music, spare, luminous, with chime-like tones inspired by the Aeolian harp which make tones as the wind blows through it.  As the dancers move, the lighting changes—the ballet provides a chance for Kade Mandelowitz to use washes of colored light as integral to the play of sound and motion.

I have seen this piece several times before, but when I heard the first notes through the thin studio walls one night as I was doing plies in Adult Ballet, I felt happy with anticipation.  The next week, as I was changing and the girls were in the dressing room preparing for rehearsal, I asked them how they liked it.

“It’s interesting,” they said.  One even said it was cool.  These are ballet girls, used to dance that imitates flight, that defies gravity, poised and tall on the small square-inch toe of a pointe shoe.  Often, ballet trained dancers don’t adjust to the earth-hugging Modern style, but these kids do.  They go at it with all the precision of a ballet dancer—and the dance reflects their ability and their connection with the place they live.  They are all Alaskan kids, after all.

There are other pieces in the second half, including the technical, fast-moving Tarantella.  At the end of Sunday’s performance, the kids will gather behind the curtain and hug each other and cry.  Their parents and friends will take photos of them, clustered together, mascara streaking below their eyes, clutching roses and carnations.

There are a few seniors graduating and moving on, but coming along behind them are a larger group of younger dancers, mid training, with lots of North Star performances ahead of them.  They may get teary-eyed, too, not knowing why, but I do.  They have the chance to dance to the work of a living composer, moving to choreography set just for them.  It’s an opportunity so rare that they won’t fully understand it till years later.

But those of us watching will.

Come watch these dancers and hear John’s music tomorrow, March 26 at 2 or 8pm or Sunday, March 27 at 2pm.

Dancing in the North

December 11, 2010

More Nutcracker

On Facebook, a friend posted a You Tube video of a Glass Armonica recording of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This music is unavoidable this time of year and in many bad renditions, but this one, played by rubbing wet fingers across spinning half globes of glass, caught the magic, the delicacy, and the precise optimism of the music.

I’m always brought back to the deeper threads of the Nutcracker at this time of year.  Last week, watching our Nutcracker, I paid special attention to the progression of Fairies in the piece.  First the Snow Fairy, in her crisp white tutu, surrounded with dancers in Romantic tutus—calf-length, floating with each movement.  The music swirls them along, and the pas de deux is energetic and full of anticipation.   Everything sparkles as Clara watches, and snow filters down on the bare backs of the swirling snowflakes.

The Snow Fairy is pristine, innocent, hopeful, glamorous—a young girl’s naïve dream of her adult self.  The Cavalier is gallant, lifting his white-tutued partner in shoulder-sits and jetes.  The choir joins in—angelic, anticipatory—and the Snow Fairy leads the group on through the spangled winter scene to all that lies ahead.

Then, after intermission, the Snow is gone, and we are in springtime—warm light, dancing flowers, and the busy flitting about of the Dew Drop Fairy.  I once heard Norman, directing a Dew Drop Fairy, say that she is his favorite role in the ballet—she is liquid, bursting with life, bringing the flowers to bloom.  And, at least in our version, she dances alone, touching the flowers as she passes, diverting their motion by her touch.  She welcomes Clara to the Land of Sweets with her newly humanized Prince (who’s no longer a wooden grotesque, the Nutcracker), and she introduces them to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court.

For Clara, Dew Drop represents a path she could, but ultimately does not take—a solo female role, powerful in all the traditionally female attributes (the ballet is rooted in the 19th century, after all)—nurturing, creating order, displaying beauty in the flowers and in her own gorgeous tutu.  In our ballet, her tutu is a rich dark green with tear drop pearls and sequins on the crisp flat skirt.   She is self sufficient, but alone.  But Clara already has her bond with the prince and the puzzle of the second act is how she will fulfill the potential of this gift of a partner.

The Sugar Plum holds the key, and she presents Clara and the Prince with a series of alternatives: the sultry Spanish dance, with its intimations of the bull ring as the dancers pass and parry; the erotic Arabian dance, with its exploration of power and allurement and ultimate submission; and Mother Ginger, drawn from the Commedia del Arte image of the comic prostitute, the Old Woman in the Shoe, who has so many children she doesn’t know what to do—a cynical vision of adult womanhood that is comic in its cross-dressing exaggeration.  Clara and the Prince watch all this play out, and we move through these phases with them, the music subtly working on us to prepare us for the final choice—the Sugar Plum.

We are ready for her when she appears, having been soothed by the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dew Drop’s ability to restore order to the scene after the chaos of Mother Ginger’s appearance.  There is a pause in the music, and the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier appear.  The music darkens; at least it darkens beneath the upper registers, which still seem sparkly.  There is a longing, a poignancy to the music.  You sense that the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier have earned their moment in the ballet through some past series of sorrows and joys.  The lifts, turns, carries are done to rising themes in the music, as if they have triumphed, and the consequence of the triumph is the trust they display in their pas de deux.  They are both the feminine and masculine of experience—the sparkling, twirling Sugar Plum and the leaping, lifting Cavalier.  When the dance is finished, they present themselves to Clara, as if to say, “Here’s what a fully developed human life is like—incorporating the opposites of joy and sorrow, strength and delicacy, passion and restraint.”  The company dances the celebratory apotheosis, and Clara and the Prince stand together ready to accept the kingdom of Sweets as their own territory, ready to step into adulthood.

And we, the audience, watching the ballet in the coldest, darkest time of year, can be rejuvenated, as well, and sent back into the path of our own lives reminded of the possibility of living them so well that we incorporate the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier—sweetness and strength—into our own lives.  In the crisp, unforgiving cold and the perfect whiteness of snow, we remember spring and all there is to long for and nourish in the days to come.

Dancing in the North

December 5, 2010

The Nutcracker: a Prelude


A brief word on the Nutcracker, since our last performance will be today at 2 in Hering Auditorium.

Last night’s performance was radiant.  This year’s cast is a mix of upcoming North Star Ballet dancers, a couple of returning dancers, and guests at different stages of their careers.  Although the sets have been the same for over twenty years, they still remain fresh to me–it’s like entering a beloved childhood home, slightly distorted in the manner of dreams.

I have long wanted to write more on the Nutcracker, having written publicity articles on our local version of it for nearly 15 years now.   Since the Nutcracker season everywhere can extend from now to New Year’s, I’ll post a few meditations on the story and its archetypes and significances–at least as I see it.

Mostly, don’t dismiss the Nutcracker.  At the end of last night’s performance, I thought of how this ballet, unlike, say, Swan Lake, contains no tragedy (unless you are a mouse, that is), and that this lack of tragedy allows some viewers to dismiss it.  But for me, the ballet represents a rite of passage–for the dancers, for Clara/Marie moving from childhood to adulthood, and for us, the audience, watching this ritual ballet as we head into the darkest time of year.  Who wouldn’t want to go to the Land of Sweets and be ushered into the future by the ever-competent Sugar Plum Fairy?

I’ll be there this afternoon, tearing up as I always do–the gorgeous music with its dark undertones and its possibility of light and hope–and defending my bid on the ten-pound bag of organic carrots at the silent auction!

Dancing in the North

December 4, 2009

Tonight, as I sit sipping tea and grading student papers, I hear the strains of the Nutcracker in my mind.  Over at Hering Auditorium, the cast is running through its second full dress rehearsal for the young dancers of Cast B.  At 8pm, I hummed the sprightly music of the opening scene, which in our performance features young elves tidying up the drawing room of Clara’s house and spreading magic for the evening.  Later I heard the chorus of the Snow scene, my favorite, with the white romantic tutus—the long calf-length tulle gowns—and the crisp short tutu of the Snow Fairy as she is lifted through the falling snow by her cavalier.

This year, dancers who’ve gone off to start dance careers—including my son, Ira, who started as a seven-year-old boy cherub with a quiver of arrows—are returning to dance together again as professionals.  The younger girls of the corps de ballet—the snowflakes in those gauzy gowns and the flowers swaying in the breeze—are precise and beautiful.  The returning dancers give them something to aspire to.

It’s the deepening of the dark time of year.  We still remember summer, but in a couple of weeks we’ll be at the darkest day, winter solstice.  The Nutcracker with its sparkly music and comic second-act bits counters that darkness, somewhat, though if you listen closely, you can hear Tchaikovsky’s acknowledgement of darkness in the bassoons and deeper bass notes throughout.  The part where I tear up is always the Sugar Plum pas de deux, so full of strength, inspiration, yet deep longing and nostalgia.  In their perfection, the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier represent the best young Clara can aspire to as an emerging adult, yet we sense in the music the sorrow, regret, toil, and pain it takes to reach that point.  The Sugar Plum offers all that richness to a young girl in love with a wooden soldier doll, then offers her the Kingdom of Sweets, a real prince, and a chance to find out for herself.

To me this is the metaphor of Nutcracker: the younger dancers reaching and reaching for the “plum” roles and the older dancers returning, some of them year after year, to mentor them to reach that point, just as Clara is mentored in the various possibilities of her womanhood-to-be by all the dances of the second act.

And behind it all is our Drosselmeyer, Norman Shelburne, who patiently teaches the young dancers the roles in a year-after-year progression till they, too, go off to their own adult Kingdom, with memories of all this sweetness and tunes of the Sugar Plum in their heads forever.

So, if you’re in Fairbanks, don’t miss it this weekend—Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.  See you there.

Dancing in the North

April 1, 2009

Last night, the tech rehearsal at Hering Auditorium. It had been a lovely day–the air above freezing, warmer in the sun, snow glistening in the brilliant way it gets right before it truly starts to melt. Redpolls and chickadees flit through the woods, flocking in a feeding frenzy before their mating season. Sam is shedding so much that ravens swoop down to the corral to lift clumps of white hair for nests–or for play.

So, it was hard to drive to town to spend the last hours of the afternoon sitting in a dark theater watching the rehearsal, but I’m glad I did.

A tech rehearsal can be boring for anyone not rehearsing, but I love the loose quality of it. It’s the first time the backstage folks interact with the dancers and everything is fine-tuned. For Les Sylphides, there is a drop–a large canvas backdrop painted to look like a Gothic scene–in the 19th-Century sense. Two large bare trees frame a scene of a lake or tarn lined with bogs with wisps of mist rising in the moonlight. In the background, dark hills and a ruined castle or cathedral–the epitome of “the picturesque” combination of nature and antiquities, which the Romantics were so fond of. The moon, a circle of white, dominates the drop.

As I sat there, I watched the business of the rehearsal take place. Kids in leotards and sweaters sat in the theater doing homework or chatting with friends. Men, former parents who run the stage crew every year, shuffled around the stage, pointing at lights at the drop, at the floor, mulling how to light the dark scene hanging there. First a blue wash–a chilly night–then a bit of yellow, some red to warm it, and finally white along the bottom of the drop, which brought out the filmy quality of the mists–the ethereal sylphs themselves.

Finally, the dancers came on stage, still in rehearsal dress–black leotards and pink tights–and took their places. Since Saturday, they have refined their precision, and, with the backdrop, the dreamy quality of the dance has evolved. Only the principals wore full costumes, and it was lovely to see how the tulle of the dress floated with the movements and lifts of the pas de deux. I can’t wait to see the whole company filling the stage with long white tutus, transforming these kids to a Romantic ideal–and in a ballet that is pure dance, using the choreography of Fokine.

After the rehearsal–the Flower Festival pas de deux, and a lively dance to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony choreographed by Norman Shelburne just for the company–I went back stage to talk to the graduating seniors for an article for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner’s Latitudes page. (It should be out Friday.) As one might expect, they had a wide range of feelings. For some, this will be their last dance performance, as far as they know, and they are sad to leave the home they have made for each other in the studio, but eager to go on to new challenges. One girl, planning a career in medicine like her father, said that dance had taught her to strive for perfection, even if she wasn’t perfect.

Nick Read in his blog Mindbody writes of the drive of the performer, concluding that those so driven eventually need to step away and learn to focus on the human things–family, friends, ordinary life–for their mental health. Yet some dancers, like one I talked to last night, feel they are born to dance. The boy I spoke to told me that when he first saw dance, he knew that was all he wanted to do. He flies through the air and has the entrechat six and temps de fleche or cabriole of a polished dancer. Watching him move with his long-time partner and on his own was to watch him fill the theater with joy of movement.

If you see me Saturday night after the performance, I’ll be wiping away tears. I’m long past the stage of pretending dance–and all it means to these young people and to those who watch, teach, and encourage them–doesn’t move me. These kids, and Norman and Sue who have given them the context and training to do so, are reaching for the perfection of dance. They make us believe–at least for a moment as brief as a balance en pointe–that it’s possible to come close to our dreams.

Performances are Saturday 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm-for those of you in Fairbanks.

Dancing in the North

March 31, 2009

Saturday, I sat in the studio at North Star Ballet and watched the Senior and Junior companies rehearse for their Spring Gala next weekend. The Junior Company is performing Carnival of the Animals and the Senior Company is taking on the “white ballet,” Les Sylphides.

Fifteen years ago, I performed in one of the first performances of my adult ballet career as a sylph, a member of a rag-tag corps de ballet that ranged in age from seven to forty-six. I was one of the older dancers in the performance, without the background of a young studio dancer in picking up choreography and in giving my movements over to the direction of a choreographer. I loved the lush music of Chopin, the romantic poses, the stillness of the corps, forming a gauzy backdrop to the lively movements of the prima sylphs in their solo roles. It was when I truly came to love ballet and understand its power over dancers and audiences.

The dancers at North Star are well disciplined in their technique by Norman Shelburne and Sue Perry and the Spring Gala performance is the time when the company shows off what the dancers know and offers a challenge to the senior dancers in their last company performance. The kids in the studio have all grown up together since their creative movement classes, and a few reach this time of year poised to go off and try their luck at a ballet career. This year Jarrin and Sophia, who have been partners for all these years each are in the process of auditioning and weighing their options–college or apprenticeship? The path in dance is fickle. Some, who are determined, genetically lucky, and accident-free can make a life of it. Some who might otherwise have been beautiful dancers for many years to come are derailed by injury, lack of confidence, unlucky choices, or other paths.

Watching the girls and Jarrin dance to Chopin’s romantic etudes–the sylphs floating across the floor in bourre or light frothy leaps, the “poet” leaping for joy at their beauty, beating his legs in mid air, I wanted to hold the moment. The corps was not yet perfect–they practiced staying still in their poses, the poet and his sylph missed a few steps. All were tired, but persistent. And this moment in the studio, just before the final corrections, the last stitch of the costume, when these are all still teenagers about to become for a brief time the epitome of all that’s possible for a human to be, at least in our imaginations, is the moment in dance that I love best.

Tomorrow night I’ll go to tech rehearsal and get a few comments from the seniors. Saturday I’ll go to the performance and watch them float in the lights and share the moment of joy that audience and dancers share sometimes. I’ll go back stage and hug the ones I know well and watch them wipe streaks of eyeliner from their cheeks where their tears fall. Then we’ll all go out into the night air. It will be April, finally, a hint of light lingering on the northern horizon already, a breath of the warmth to come.

If you’re in Fairbanks, the performance is at Hering Auditorium, Saturday, 2pm and 8pm and Sunday 2pm. Don’t miss it.

Dancing in the North

January 21, 2009

(I’m going to branch out in the weeks to come and write some short pieces on life around the North Star Ballet studio as the kids prepare for this year’s ambitious performance of Firebird.)

Finally, after a long break for the holidays and the deep cold followed by a thaw and black ice, I made it back to ballet class last night. For years now, my weeks have been bracketed by Sue Perry’s adult ballet classes–Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In the closed world of the studio, we relive our past dreams of dancing. Some of us have danced on stage; some have never had a dance class before we walked through the door. But in class, we are moving toward a mutual goal–to become that ideal of lightness and grace that we imagine dance to be, to defeat gravity where it overtakes our bodies first–arms, legs, back, bellies.

I had been dancing for some time before I met Sue, but I started as an adult and adults progress through the forms of ballet at a different rate than children do. My son and I started together, me at 34, he at 5. Now, he is a free-lance dancer who has performed in four countries; I’m a permanent adult intermediate dancer. When I walked into Sue’s class, it was as if I had started over as she systematically took me back to the good habits I should have developed in the first place. Sue, however, treats each adult as if her or his potential is unlimited and as if whatever level we ultimately reach is a level worth reaching and worth working hard for.

Last night, I noticed how my right and left arm move differently. I was dancing at the front of the class and watching my port de bras in the mirror when I realized that my left arm–my writing arm–moved back down through the arc of the movement faster than my right one, which stayed floating longer. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them to move at the same rate and still concentrate on the echappes that we were doing. I realized that this is also a problem for me in riding: one side of my body reacts faster than the other; one side stays in balance better than the other and it makes the horse move stiffly to balance me out.

It’s like this blog–to me, all the things I’ve listed in the heading are connected, and each is an art in itself. As I read around the blogosphere, I notice others working on the interrelation of the arts–and we each have a different set of arts to interrelate. More on this in the days to come.

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