A Dream Deferred

Until I was around twelve years old, I wanted to be a ballerina.  This is not an uncommon dream for many little girls, but I was slightly more serious than most of my ballet slipper-wearing counterparts in the town where I grew up.  I used to check out as many ballet videotapes as I could from my local library while also building my own collection thanks to birthday and Christmas gifts from my parents.  I’d spend hours watching Swan Lake, the Nutcracker (with MacCaulay Culkin riding his post-Home Alone 90s fame to the New York City Ballet…odd choice), Giselle with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and my very favorite: Romeo & Juliet starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.  I had at least twenty different books about ballet technique from the Ballet Book with Darcey Bussell and the Royal Ballet School to Stories from the Ballet to my favorite which was a tattered copy of A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz.  This last book chronicles the life of a ten year old student at the School of American Ballet and her role as Marie in the Nutcracker back in 1976 (hence the tattered cover).

I figured myself a ballet expert by the tender age of seven years old.  Many of my friends didn’t exactly understand my obsession with tights and leotards, dancing princes, and supernatural stories, but I didn’t care.  Whenever a touring company would come through to the University of Missouri, my mother would put me in the car and we’d drive thirty minutes to see my favorite ballets performed live, much to my (and also her) great delight.  I can still remember the way the dancers in the Corps seemed to just float across the stage on pointe with their bourrees in Act II of Giselle.  It was magic.

Though I already possessed a great love of dance at an early age, my parents didn’t enroll me in classes until I was five, wanting to make sure I was truly serious enough to pay attention in class and actually learn the technique.  So at five, I was put into classes at a local studio where I went once a week to learn to dance.  Though it was an all-inclusive studio in terms of styles, we naturally started with ballet.  I learned things quickly and thanks to my intense study of my favorite dancers at home, my technique was better than anyone else in class.  When I was around twelve, my mom enrolled me in a pointe class at a separate dance studio in town, and I soon became accustomed to the blisters, calluses, blood, and agony that is the beauty of dancing on pointe.  I was also extremely tall at twelve, standing a head above most of the other girls in my class.  By the time I graduated high school, I had reached my current height of 5’10”.  Tall for a ballet dancer usually means about 5’7″ and I was well over that by the time I started pointe.

My height wasn’t the first sign my career in the ballet wasn’t meant to be.  I loved dance and with the studying of other styles, I began to love tap and modern.  Oh that first modern class was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Other interests took over too: acting, singing, playing instruments.  And I kept reading.  The more I read about the ballet dancers I loved so greatly, the more I realized how intense and time-consuming their training truly was.  If I wanted to be a professional ballerina, I should have been in class six days a week for at least 3-4 hours a day at a serious studio in a bigger city.  Dancing is not only a profession but a lifestyle because of its grueling physical exercise coupled with a restrictive, healthy diet.  If you decide to devote your life to ballet, you really don’t have time to do anything beyond that.  I wanted to be free to explore all my artistic avenues, so my ballet dream began dying like Giselle’s weakened heart.

Or Juliet after stabbing herself.  Or the Swan Princess.  You can pretty much take your pick of any of ballet’s heroines.  For the most part, it just doesn’t turn out well.

It was sad giving up my ballet dream.  I know if I had grown up in a bigger city with more studios, I could have had the opportunity to enhance my technique and possibly progress further.  My turnout would be better.  I’d be more flexible.  If I worked hard enough, I could maybe have danced in the corps de ballet of some company somewhere.  But none of that came to pass.  Whenever I’m at Lincoln Center, I look a bit wistfully on the young girls leaving ballet class at the School of American Ballet (the feeder program into the New York City Ballet, which has been my favorite ballet company since birth).  I’m so jealous of their opportunity to study at the place that George Balanchine built, but more than that, it’s like looking at an alternate reality of me.  I could have been one of them in another life if some things had gone differently.  Some of those girls will dance roles I love, some of them will be in the corps, and some of them will turn out like me: pursuing other passions with equal diligence and love as they did dance careers.

I still have such love and respect for the ballet and its dancers even though my little girl dream never turned into a grown up reality.  I think part of me knew I’d never truly become the next Fonteyn or Kirkland or Farrell, but it was fun to pretend that I could.  Perhaps this is why I chose acting instead: because I loved make-believe and fairy tales and I was already so good at pretending.  All the lessons I learned from ballet and studying it (whether in class or on my own at home) can be applied to acting: posture, physicality, composure, elegance, discipline, respect for the art-form.  I’ve always been graceful and had a natural ability for dance, but I think deeper dreams have always existed inside of me, even if I never started unearthing them until I was a little older.

Although I’ll never dance for NYCB or ABT, I still take ballet classes once in awhile at Ailey here in the City.  It feels familiar, like an old friend, when I start my pliés and tendus at the barre.  There is a comfort in the structure of ballet: the barrework, petite allegro, adagio, grande allegro, turns, reverance.  Even the aches and pains afterward feel familiar and not altogether unwelcome.  For a few minutes, I am the realization of my eight year-old self’s dream: I am a ballet dancer in New York City.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I was just a little girl in the middle of Missouri dreaming of becoming a ballerina, but it’s close enough.

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20: Shuffle Ballchange

Wednesday, I helped my best friend Nicole teach the tap routine I came up with to her students at the dance studio where she teaches.  They were having company auditions tonight, so in addition to helping teach (and choreograph, I might add), I also was a guest judge.  The girls are ages 12-16, and though they’re not quite at the level they should be, they work hard and do pretty well.  It wasn’t the easiest combination, but they stuck with it, and overall, I was pleased with their assimilation and progress.

I never really wanted to be a teacher, but I will say that I genuinely enjoy teaching dance classes.  It forces me to hone in all my creative energy into a structured environment (i.e. an actual class) to make it approachable for others to learn.  I like encouraging others to study and work on their art, especially when it’s something I can actually help with.

That still doesn’t mean I want to be a teacher, oh practical-minded extended family members of mine.

16 & 17: My Summer MUST List

It’s Memorial Weekend here in the states, which for many people (and especially Hollywood), signals the beginning of summer.  Despite the cooler, somewhat dreary weather here in my part of Missouri today, I can’t help thinking about the things that excite me most about summertime.

My Personal Must-List for the Summer

1. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part II  (out July 15) This is my biggest MUST.  Sadly, this summer brings the official end to all things Harry Potter with the last film of the series.  It’s highly emotional for me because I’ve spent more than half my life with Harry.  I graduated from high school the same year the last book came out, and now the last film comes out the summer after I graduate from college.  I’m not sure how it worked out that way, but it’s really beautiful.

2. Super 8 (out June 10) This film, directed by J.J. Abrams and exec-produced by Steven Spielberg, is going to be the film people talk about all summer long.  The plot has been kept extremely secret by everyone involved, but from the trailers, it looks like the Goonies meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The film has an old-school Spielbergian feel.  I’m digging the trailers and the use of mostly no-name actors (save for Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame).  This is a must-see for me.

3. So You Think You Can Dance (Wed & Thurs 8/7c on FOX) I don’t watch a lot of TV in the summer, preferring to hit the movie theatre instead, but my can’t-miss-it-TV-show is So You Think You Can Dance.  I haven’t missed a season since this show started.  As a dancer, I love the way it celebrates all styles of dance, introduces America to some of the world’s best choreographers, and showcases some of the best, hardest working dancers I’ve ever seen.  Not to mention I love host Cat Deeley and judge Mary Murphy.  All aboard the Hot Tamale Train!!!

4. Mad Men season 4 (on DVD) I usually don’t have time to watch this when it actually airs on AMC, and because of lengthy contract negotiations, season 5 is on hold until 2012.  That being said, I’m using this summer to catch up on the fourth season of my favorite TV drama.  Why Jon Hamm hasn’t won an Emmy yet for Best Actor baffles me, and in this season of change both personally and professionally for Don Draper (and his Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad firm), Hamm is at his most superb.  There isn’t a better-written, better-acted, more stylish show on television.  Period.

5. Born This Way by Lady Gaga (available now) I fully admit to being a “Little Monster,” and I am always intrigued and excited to hear and see what Gaga has come up with.  I admire her not only for her musical abilities but also her dedication to her craft.  No other musical artist out there pushes more boundaries.  She is a true performance artist.  Love her or hate her, you can’t deny she has a complete vision for her art.  The track I’m most digging?  The 1980s saxophone-tastic “Edge of Glory” featuring Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band.

6. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares (in stores June 14) At age 22, I am not even remotely embarrassed to want to read this fifth entry in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book series.  This book checks in on the fabulous Tibby, Bridget, Carmen, and Lena ten years after the fourth Sisterhood novel.  The Traveling Pants series has always been one of my favorite summer reads over the years, and though this new novel may not exactly be marketed to my age group, I’m still planning on catching up with my girls this summer!

7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (available now) It’s the book series (and future movie series) everyone is talking about.  I figured this summer is the perfect time to investigate this dystopian novel trilogy about a girl forced to fight for her survival.

8. JAWS (available on DVD) Summertime always makes me think of Spielberg movies, and this is one of my all-time favorites.  Everyone knows it’s all about a shark that terrorizes a resort-town, but it still never ceases to thrill and engage me.  And who doesn’t love Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw chasing down the giant killer shark while drunkenly singing not to mention John Williams’ epic score?

9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (available on DVD) My all-time favorite summer movie.  It has everything: action, adventure, romance, mystery, John Williams music, shirtless Harrison Ford, and Steven Spielberg’s masterful eye behind the camera.  The opening sequence with the idol and the rolling stone ball is absolute perfection and STILL one of the best action sequences ever filmed.  Indiana Jones never disappoints.

10. Now & Then (available on DVD) One of my favorite movies growing up in the 1990s.  I still get nostalgic watching this movie about four friends coming of age in the early 70s one summer.  From Roberta’s first kiss with Scott Wormer and Chrissy getting bird poop in her hair to Sam and Teeny’s treehouse confessions, I think anyone will find it hard not to think back on their own adolescence without laughing and maybe a few tears.

I Forgive You for Star Wars, Natalie Portman

It’s pretty hard to find a moviegoer out there who hasn’t heard about the deliciously macabre and incredibly riveting (though slightly disturbing) film Black Swan. In the often brutal world of ballet, director Darren Aronofsky has found a perfect setting for his particular type of psychological drama.  In Natalie Portman, he has found the perfect combination of exquisite frailness, intense dedication, and extraordinary talent necessary to make his leading lady ballerina, Nina Sayers so immensely alluring, yet frighteningly unstable.  Portman is a force to be reckoned with; one only needs to see her dance sequences towards the gasp-inducing climax to see how she tackles the physical and psychological demands of the character with ease.  I was blown away.

Now I should make an admission: I used to loathe Natalie Portman.

After seeing the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, I thought she was commanding onscreen, yet still approachable.  She handled it well.  Then came the atrocious second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones, where Natalie was given silly dialogue and forced to act opposite the block of wood that IS Hayden Christensen. By the end of the third Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith, I found myself completely disenchanted with her altogether.  I wanted to like her, I really did, but I just couldn’t.  She let sentences trail off in her voice, her emotions seemed over-exaggerated, and her delivery was choppy.  I should have blamed George Lucas’ scripts and direction, but what geek would go against one of the gods of modern-day sci-fi?

A couple years later, I saw a small independent film from France called Paris Je T’aime, and Natalie had a part in one of the shorts.  It was intriguing.  I wanted to like her, but all I kept seeing and hearing was the Star Wars prequels.

I never had anything against her personally, I just couldn’t get into her acting.  As a person, I found her well-spoken, well-educated (she went to Harvard!), incredibly smart, and extremely fashion-savvy.  She seemed down-to-earth.  It was just her acting that bothered me.  I couldn’t get past Star Wars.  It seemed everyone else had moved on, but I just hadn’t.

When I saw V for Vendetta, something changed.  The film had a very good script, great directors, bleak cinematography, and a solid cast.  I watched Natalie closely, hoping to find yet another reason not to like her, but the only thing I found was how much I envied her for being able to shave her head, wear a burlap sack, and still look extraordinarily beautiful.  Her acting was good.  I had no reason anymore to not like her, but something inside of me STILL wouldn’t let Star Wars go.  I couldn’t admit to myself I liked her acting.  I mean, she was even nominated for an Academy Award for Closer, but I still couldn’t let Star Wars go.

Then about a year ago, I started reading about this little ballet film Darren Aronofsky was making about rival ballerinas.  As a ballet enthusiast and dancer myself, I was immediately curious.  Aronofsky said it would be a companion piece to his Oscar-nominated film, the Wrestler, but more psychologically intense.  Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had been cast.  I instantly thought of Star Wars, but ballet has a hold on me stronger than George Lucas, so I knew that no matter what, I would be seeing this film.  The more I read about Black Swan in the months leading up to its release (its phenomenal critical reaction at film festivals, the trailer, the YouTube clips), the more I became obsessed.  I knew THIS would finally be the film to break my Star Wars Acting Curse.  So when I finally saw Black Swan, I went into the theatre hoping and praying Natalie would once and for all make me like her.

Not only did I like her, but I fell in love.  So powerful was her presence, so nuanced was her acting.  It was thrilling to watch.  Gone went the last bits of Star Wars from my brain.  Here FINALLY, I found Natalie Portman a force to be reckoned with onscreen.  I couldn’t get enough of her descent into madness.  It was brilliant.

So Natalie, I sincerely apologize for wrongly judging you based solely on your work in the Star Wars prequels.  I forgive you for those awful scenes; it wasn’t you, it was George Lucas’ script and direction.  I now know that you did the best you could with what you had.  It wasn’t your fault.

So go get ’em at the Oscars.  And to quote Senator Palpatine from the Phantom Menace, I’ll “be watching your career with great interest.”

Fancy Footwork

Nothing puts me in a better mood than watching an old, movie musical, especially one starring either Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly (whom George Balanchine himself called them two of the best dancers he’d ever seen).  This particular clip comes from Broadway Melody of 1940 and features a lot of fancy footwork from Astaire and tap legend Eleanor Powell.  It doesn’t get much better than this, kids.