This past Friday Diablo Ballet presented the opportunity to partake in an experiment that would propel ballet into the Brave New World… by tweeting live during a performance. I’m a big fan of Twitter; composing interesting ideas in 140 characters (or less) is a fun creative challenge. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of combining dance and technology in a new way…. And it gave me a chance to see a wonderful local ballet company for the first time.
The program included excerpts from the following 4 ballets:
1. West Coast Premiere Pas de Deux from Mercurial Manoeuvres, by Christopher Wheeldon, set to Dimitry Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor.
2. World Premiere of Back in the Day, featuring the music of Frank Sinatra by Diablo Ballet’s David Fonnegra.
3. A Path Of Delight Or… by Tina Kay Bohnstedt, set to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major.
4. The Escaping Game, by KT Nelson, set to music by Zap Mama.
The show was given at Shadelands auditorium, an intimate setting that seated about 200 people.
The cast of characters tweeting live from the Tweetdeck (which was the back row of the theater, so as not to disturb the rest of the audience):myself @griercooper, Ethan Teng @dancingfoodie, Saumirah McWoodson from Dance Daze @dance_daze and Stef from @fLO_Content with @LaMorindaWeb adding to the dialogue from afar.
The idea sparked a fair amount of controversy beforehand. Smuin Ballet started a dialogue on February 24th, and Diablo Ballet’s Facebook page was flooded. However, it generated quite a bit of press for Diablo Ballet. The Contra Costa Times ran an article and Dan Meagher, the company’s director of marketing, was featured live on KGO radio.
For those of us who participated, the evening was a blast – an experience to remember, both for its novelty and ingenuity. Here are my thoughts about the evening…
• It was fun to share dialogue live, both with other Tweeters and the larger internet audience.
• It gave us a way to share the experience with others who couldn’t attend the performance.
• We were able to dialogue with the dancers of Diablo Ballet in the aftermath.
• We gained exposure for Diablo Ballet.
• As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to multitask tweeting and watching a show.
• It takes time to type and craft an exact 140-character idea.
• I only caught pieces of the ballet, in between typing.
• Auto correct turned “pas de deux” into “pas de feud”!
Some favorite tweets of the evening:
dialogues: 6:42 pm (moments before the show) @LamorindaWeb: Don’t you wish you could just execute a beautiful jete over that traffic? @ dancingfoodie: I’m on my way, bridge traffic be damned! @griercooper: able to leap tall buildings and nasty traffic jams in a single bound!
@griercooper: Derek Sakakura has his work cut out for him. Mercurial Manoeuvres starts with tons of lifts. @thesakibomb (Derek Sakakura): lol, yes it’s very good! The hardest part is trying to make the transitions seamless.
@griercooper: …Costumes remind me of Star Trek. @thesakibomb (Derek Sakakura): maybe it’s appropriate since we’re now using “futuristic tech” in ballet! Lol!!
Tweets by individuals:
@dancingfoodie: reading the other tweeters’ thoughts added a really interesting dimension to the live experience…. I missed maybe a third of the performance, but I didn’t mind, really…The moments where your entire being vibrates to the music, that’s what I live for…I was first exposed to dance in my late 20s. I always think, what if?… But, I dance everyday, and even though it’s just in class, I derive such joy from it…“Nothing to prove, only to share”. I only wish that was a more universal sentiment among dancers…. I will never take a live orchestra for granted again.
@fLO_Content:the whole experience was a blast. Tweet or no tweet. I’d def recommend @DiabloBallet !…Most dancers seem to have known they wanted to do it since childhood…Wow you can see those girls sweat! This is intimate even from the back…My experience with ballet is limited . But this I want more of in my life… Amazing lifts. Flips. Precision, joy. Girls transfixed
@LaMorindaWeb:Admit it, u were inspired by tweet-night! …Wonder if the @DiabloBallet dancers will read these tweets after the performance? Would love 2 know what they think of the tweets… Ballet in our own backyard. So glad to have the arts so close to home….We salute @DiabloBallet for making the arts accessible to the East Bay community, and doing it in an innovative way tonight
From @dance_daze: “Is there a point at losing yourself in the dance? And, is that important?” – Audience Question…Love this. I want this song for my students’ Brain Dance music!! …So many lifts and spins with Mayo Sugano and Derek Sakakura… almost like figure skating!…How fun! I want to get out of bed each morning dancing the way Edward Stegge just danced! …I love the variety in this music. Makes me want to go do some math homework, or watch a movie that was filmed in Paris.
@griercooper:If you don’t have the technique, you can’t execute the choreography: David Fonnegra… Some of my best performances weren’t technically my best… Must learn about choreographer Tina Kay Bohnstedt. The piece was gorgeous…. But were the most heart-felt. I was committed to the art+ choreography…Rosselyn Ramirez is sultry, smoky and ultra-smooth… Choreography is ballet meets social dancing. Fun… Go girls… I love watching dancers when they’re on… Especially during turns….Piano was also live… Pianist Michael Schmitz knows his stuff… Only realized at bows that the music was live…Problem is there are 2 guys, one girl.. Which will she choose? Smart girl- she chose both!
Personally speaking, it was an honor to be a part of Diablo Ballet’s newest chapter. Does Twitter replace the actual experience of seeing the show? Of course not. But it does offer a new way of sharing thoughts about dance. It’s highly unlikely that Twitter will become a regular part of ballet, but what’s the harm in a little experimentation? While I wouldn’t ordinarily want to tweet during a show (except when invited to as a guest) it did offer Twitter followers the opportunity to follow and get up-to-the-minute insights on the action. After all, honesty and memory often work best in the moment.
Not everyone would agree with my sentiments. What do you think?
The world of ballet holds an air of mystery and magic for all dance fans, from elementary school children breathlessly awaiting their first performance of the Nutcracker to 80-year-old grand dames who have supported the ballet for decades. But the mystery of how the magic happens has always remained exactly that… a mystery. Bestselling, prize-winning author Stephen Manes has changed that with his book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet, an exploration of the work behind the art in all its dailiness and frustration, generosity and triumph—and considerable drama.
Manes spent a year in rehearsals, classes, meetings, auditions and performances following the life of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of America’s top ballet companies and schools. He also visited venues as celebrated as New York and Monte Carlo and as seemingly ordinary as Bellingham, Washington and small-town Pennsylvania.
Anyone who has ever marveled at the Nutcracker will love getting a behind-the-scenes peek at how much work goes into the production, especially rehearsing and preparing the flocks of young dancers that play such a vital role in the ballet. It’s hilarious to read about the difficulties of dancing in piles of paper snow… and just how much work it is to keep it clean!
Readers are taken backstage for a wide-ranging view of the ballet world from the wildly diverse perspectives of dancers, choreographers, stagers, teachers, conductors, musicians, rehearsal pianists, lighting directors, costumers, stage managers, scenic artists, marketers, fundraisers, students, and even pointe shoe fitters—often in their own remarkably candid words.Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet brings readers the exciting truth of how ballet actually happens.
photo by Stephen Manes
Stephen Manes has had a long career making arcane worlds accessible to the uninitiated. He co-wrote the bestselling and much-acclaimed biography Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America. His long-running columns on personal technology have appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, PC World, PC Magazine, InformationWeek. Manes is also the author of more than thirty books for children and young adults. His Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! won kid-voted awards in five states and is a curriculum staple in American and French schools. The sequel, Make Four Million Dollars by Next Thursday!, quickly became a Publishers Weekly bestseller. The books have won commendations from the National Science Foundation and the Child Study Children’s Book Committee, as well as International Reading Association Children’s Choice awards.His writing credits for the screen include programs for ABC Television and KCET/Los Angeles, as well as the ’70s classic 20th Century-Fox movie Mother, Jugs & Speed. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Susan Kocik. He is a terrible dancer.
1. You aren’t a dancer yourself, so why did you write this book? How did the partnership with Pacific Northwest Ballet come about?
Hereby stipulated: You don’t want to see me dance. Ever. But my wife and I love ballet and have been subscribers to PNB for more than twenty years. As a native New Yorker who saw all the ballet greats of her era, she got me interested in the first place.
Early in 2007, I took a sabbatical from my Forbes magazine column on personal technology. Not long after, the company offered its donors a backstage tour. It brought home how much is involved in creating ballet performances—not just dancing, but everything from the special responsibilities of the conductor to the $200,000 annual budget for pointe shoes, not to mention doing the laundry between shows. Fascinated, I went looking for a book to tell me more, but couldn’t find one. So I decided that to learn what I wanted to know, I’d have to write my own book.
I proposed it to PNB, and at a meeting a few weeks later, Artistic Director Peter Boal and Executive Director D. David Brown welcomed the idea. A few minutes later Boal urged me to follow him to a studio where he would be teaching a section of Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels to a group of male summer students. That was the beginning of being granted what turned out to be unprecedented access to the inner workings of a ballet company.
2. How did you come up with the title?
I was standing in the wings at a Nutcracker performance when a Snowflake flew offstage spitting salty fireproof-paper snow. The next thing that came out of her mouth was a loud obscenity. I knew instantly I had a chapter title: Where Snowflakes Swear. Eventually I realized that some variant might make an apt title for the book itself.
3. What surprised you most about The Land of Ballet?
There’s a whole book full of those surprises—and many more that I saw but couldn’t fit. I can’t begin to rank them. Every day I saw something I’d never seen before, be it a dancer calmly walking across the studio on pointe or a stagehand coming up with an elegant solution to a technical problem.
Follow PNB Corps de Ballet dancer, Jessika Anspach as she performs a grand total of THREE roles in ONE performance of the Nutcracker!:
4. How long did it take you to research and write “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside The Land of Ballet”? Describe your process.
I spent a year researching, mostly at PNB, but also at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and School of American Ballet and a few other venues, before writing a single word. I went in to PNB or the theater virtually every day; during classes and rehearsals, I’d sit at the front of the room or the stage and take notes on a little notebook computer. When I could pry some time from people’s insane schedules, I’d interview them privately with a voice recorder. I ended up with many megabytes of material, and then spent two and a half years figuring out how to make sense of it all.
Watch Pacific Northwest Ballet company members perfecting their jumps in class:
5. What are Peter Boal’s greatest strengths as Artistic Director? How has the company evolved under his leadership?
Peter’s long history of stardom at New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet gives him access to just about everybody in the Land of Ballet. On the job, his knowledge, self-assurance, and sly wit are remarkable and translate into tremendous authority without a hint of being autocratic. His composure is remarkable: The job comes with the constant stress of trying to please conflicting constituencies—dancers, funders, musicians, stagers, audience—but I don’t think I saw him raise his voice more than once in the year I was there.
Unlike many artistic directors, Peter does not see himself as a choreographer, which has made for a major change from the Kent Stowell era at PNB. But because Boal’s tastes and knowledge are wide-ranging, he has brought in a stunning array of choreographers and works, both well-known and otherwise. His tenacity has brought Seattle a reconstruction of Giselle and Alexei Ratmansky’s version of Don Quixote, but also very quirky modern pieces by choreographers like William Forsythe and Marco Goecke.
Lecture Demonstration with Christopher Wheeldon and PNB Artistic Director, Peter Boal:
6. Please share any favorite moments or anecdotes you have about your experiences creating your book.
The most charmingly personal one involved Bruce Wells, who as a young dancer in the ’70s was featured in Joseph Mazo’s book Dance is a Contact Sport, which looks at part of a year at New York City Ballet back then. Today Wells teaches and choreographs at PNB, and he took me aside to remind me with mock imperiousness exactly what he told Mazo about how to get a real sense of the company: “We’re in this together. If we stay, you stay.” When I repeated this to my wife, she suddenly recalled taking open adult ballet classes from one Bruce Wells back in those very ’70s. The Land of Ballet can be very small indeed.
7. Which clichés about The Land of Ballet were proven to be untrue?
Most of them. Outsiders simply have no idea what ballet life and ballet people are really like. People often believe that because dancers typically don’t go to college, they must be airheads. Actually, the dancers I know tend to be incredibly smart and astoundingly focused. And though the competitiveness that ballet fiction always emphasizes is certainly not absent, the ballet world is far more generous that most outsiders realize. I wrote about that here.
8. What are the most important qualities for a dancer to possess? Which dancers left the greatest lasting impression on you and why?
Talent. Artistry. Focus. Tenacity. Generosity. Grit. Luck. And virtually every dancer I saw made a strong and unique impression. Watching the struggles of students, apprentices, and corps members trying to prove their worth was every bit as stirring in its own way as seeing experienced principals give spectacularly polished performances.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘New Works’ Trailer for 2012:
9. What were your greatest challenges in creating this book?
This was a major departure for me. I had never written about ballet before, and I’d never done this particular type of long-form reportage. But the hardest part was figuring out whose voice would carry the book. In the end I realized that the voices of the dancers and others in the Land of Ballet were so articulate and strong that they deserved to be heard as much as possible, and they provided a welcome counterpoint to my descriptive reporting.
10. How have your views about ballet changed since writing this book?
I’m more knowledgeable, I’m more critical, and I’m more tolerant. One thing most members of the audience don’t understand is the way dance is created on deadline; rehearsal time is precious, and choreographers and dancers don’t always get enough of it. Another thing I’ve discovered is the importance of stagers. The difference between a great performance and a good one can often amount to how well the stager knows and transmits the work, particularly if the choreographer isn’t alive or otherwise available to clean it up at the end.
Excerpt from ‘Caught’, choreographed by David Parsons:
11. You had the opportunity to watch some of the top names in ballet and choreography, such as Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, Susan Stroman, Edwaard Liang, Jaime Martinez, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt and Carla Körbes at work… are there any unifying characteristics to this group and in what ways were you impressed, amazed or horrified by their behavior?
I’m always impressed at how much laughing there is in the rehearsal studio. To an outsider accustomed to choreographers in the movies, who inevitably scream at and humiliate their dancers, what’s striking is how real-life choreographers and stagers tend to get what they want through gentle repetition, charm, and praise. One obvious reason: They’ve all been dancers themselves and remember their own experiences facing the mirror. My favorite locution came from Maillot, who often began his corrections with the phrase, “I think it’s nice if . . .” when he could easily have shouted “Do this!”
12. Is there anything else you would like to share?
Those who prattle about the “death of ballet” should put away their mourning clothes. Particularly in the United States, this art is almost certainly more vital than ever before. New works are being created all the time, and fine companies and schools are dancing up a storm all over the country.
To find out more or to purchase copies(s) of When Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside The Land of Ballet, visit:
“ Ballet companies are notoriously closed-mouthed about things like politics, budgets, salaries and injuries because ballet’s history demands that everything look effortless. . . . PNB artistic director Peter Boal was brave to allow Mr. Manes virtually free rein during his third season. . . . there is something for everyone to learn in a book that covers so much territory. “Snowflakes” should appeal to both ballet fans and professionals who have the same level of passion Mr. Manes exhibits.” Jane Vranish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Stephen Manes has written a remarkable account of a year in the life of a professional ballet company and school. . . . His love of dance with an outsider’s amazement are constantly displayed on every page. I encourage everyone with a real-life under-the-microscope curiosity about the world of professional ballet to take the time to read this marvelous edition. –Bruce Wells, choreographer and teacher
Stephen Manes has given us a thorough and accurate look at the day-to-day workings of a classical ballet company and its school. He has also thoughtfully incorporated the individual stories of the artists and employees involved in the process of bringing work to the stage. This is a rare look behind the curtain of the performing arts. –Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet