For those times when you just can’t make it to St. Petersburg for opening night at the Marinsky Theater or you’re double booked for top-notch Canadian choreography and your budget doesn’t allow for cloning yourself there is an option: dance on film. While some might call it second best it beats missing out entirely, plus you can watch it in the comfort of your own home.
FIlms are always better with snacks. Make sure to break out the popcorn. Drizzle liberally with olive oil, garlic powder and spices. Dig in.
1. Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. Disregard the somewhat odd title of this movie because I promise this film will be well worth your while. The story follows a widowed man whose life turns upside down when he embarks on a journey to find a dying man’s long lost love… hint: dance is the catalyst of change.The stellar cast includes John Goodman, Robert Carlysle and Marisa Tomei.
2. Mao’s Last Dancer. Based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin. At the age of 11, Li was plucked from a poor Chinese village by Madame Mao’s cultural delegates and taken to Beijing to study ballet. In 1979, during a cultural exchange to Texas, he fell in love with an American woman. Two years later, he managed to defect and went on to perform as a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet and as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet.
3. Ballerina. French filmmaker Bertrand Norman follows the careers of five Russian ballerinas in their career path from the acclaimed Vaganova Academy to the stage of the famed Kirov Ballet. Using magnificent perormance footage, as well as behind the scenes shots and candid interviews, Bertrand gives audiences am insider glimpse of the extreme discipline and dedication demanded of ballerinas.
4. Bringing Balanchine Back. Under the guidance of Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins, the New York City Ballet travels from its home base in Manhattan to St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, to perform at the legendary Mariinsky Theater, where George Balanchine, a founder of the acclaimed NYCB had begun his own career. This documentary captures some spectacular sequences of the New York City Ballet’s performances of choreography by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins.
5. LaLaLa Human Steps’ “Amelia”. Quicksilver footwork. Chic elegance. Spidery sets and black net costumes cool enough to belong on the cover of Vogue. La La La Human Steps is where ballet and high fashion collide; where traditional movements are redefined into present-day relevance. The choreography is an interplay of speed and extremes, physical challenge blended with lyricism that has brought the Canadian ballet company to international renown. But it is their unique blend of innovative dance vocabulary, contemporary music and cinematic effects that differentiates them from other ballet companies of their caliber.
Happy viewing! I leave you with a quote from Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School:
Dance is a very powerful drug Mr. Keane. If embraced judiciously, it can exorcise demons, access deep seated emotions and color your life in joyous shades of brilliant magenta that you never knew existed. But, one must shoulder its challenges with intrepid countenance if one is ever to reap its rewards.
A lot of people ask me what it takes to be a ballet dancer. Here’s what George Balanchine said about it:
“Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that because policemen don’t have to look beautiful at the same time.”
Mr. Balanchine was right. It isn’t easy to be a ballet dancer. These days ballet is in the spotlight, with films like Black Swan and TV shows likeBunheads and Breaking Pointe creating a national obsession. It is every little girl’s dream to become a ballerina. However, for most people, this dream will never come true. Why? Because ballet is one of the most demanding and competitive fields in existence. Only a small percentage of people have what it takes to make it.
Here are the three things that all dancers must have in order to succeed:
• internal characteristics
• external characteristics
• an action plan.
We’ll start with the most obvious first: the external. A dancer must have the proper physical build. Dancers are slender and swan-like, with long, lean limbs and perfect proportions. They can’t be too tall… or too short. Basically, they are perfect.
There are other, not-so-obvious physical traits that ballet demands: flexibility (for those high kicks and gravity-defying leaps) turnout, or outward rotation of the hips, and supple, beautifully arched feet… every dancer knows how important it is to have “good feet”. The wrong kind of foot looks like an unsightly ham hock while the right kind of foot completes the line beautifully.
Equally important is what’s going on inside. Obviously there is a burning desire to dance… that is true for all dancers. The desire lights the fire, but there’s got to be a whole lot more than that to keep the flame burning against when the going gets tough. What keeps the flame alive is what I like to call the three D’s of dance: determination, dedication and discipline.
Determination means that defeat is eliminated from your vocabulary. You know deep in your core that you will never give up. Trust me, all dancers come up against plenty of discouragement. Determination means you keep on going no matter what.
Dedication means commitment to a task or purpose… practice, practice, practice because it must be perfect, perfect, perfect… but dancers must take dedication to a much higher level than most people realize: in order to be a dancer, dance comes first, often to the exclusion of many other things. Most of the hours of your days are devoted to classes, rehearsals, strength building and even private coaching, if necessary. More importantly, dedication to ballet means sacrifice: sacrifice of time and sacrifice of activities like skiing and horseback riding, a few of the things list of Forbidden Things for dancers… it’s a pretty long list …
Discipline means applying yourself, training by regular instruction and exercise… or to bring about a state of order and control. Both are true for ballet dancers.
The final piece of success is an action plan. Once a dancer decides to pursue to a career (usually during the early teens) it’s time to map that plan. Of course, the plan can change over time and often does. First choose a professional ballet school. Many ballet companies run professional ballet schools to train up and coming generations of dancers. These schools accept students by audition only and the competition is fierce. Many dancers start by taking summer intensives at these professional schools. If all goes well, they are invited to stay on as a permanent student.
When a student reaches the advanced levels in a professional school (usually anywhere between 15-18 years old) it’s time for more decisions. Sometimes the parent ballet company will invite students to apprentice with the company. Apprenticeships last about a year and are stepping stones to becoming a full-fledged company member.
More often dancers attend open call auditions to get work. Make a list of the companies that interest you and find out when they are holding auditions. Most dancers have a love/hate relationship with auditions because they are nerve-wracking and crowded. But they also represent opportunity and you never know which one will pan out.
Some dancers call companies directly to see if they are hiring. If so, they can arrange to take class with the company as a sort of informal audition.
Either way, it all boils down to making choices. You aim, you shoot… and hopefully you’re hired. If not, you keep trying until it happens.
As you can see becoming a ballet dancer is not simple… or easy. But if a dancer has what it takes: the proper internal and external characteristics and an action plan, they have the best chance for success.
NYCB’s Kathryn Morgan. Notice what she says about success.
The pre-travel pep talk they gave us before we left for Ecuador was full of warnings: don’t brush your teeth with tap water (use bottled), don’t eat any uncooked fruits or vegetables and for God’s sake keep your mouth closed when you take a shower. This was the first visit to a third world country for many of us and the company needed us to stay healthy.
Still, who wouldn’t want an all-expenses-paid trip to Ecuador? That’s what I thought until they informed us that we were going to have to take malaria pills to prepare for our trip to Ecuador. As I gulped down the first pill I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.
I soon forgot all about it. Nothing beats the excitement of going on tour with your very own shiny, new tour case with your name boldly emblazoned on its pristine surface… it’s the dancer’s equivalent of having your name in lights (off-off-off Broadway, of course).
But Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, located at an altitude of 10,000 feet (far above the sea level we were used to in Miami) presented an entirely new challenge. The simple formula of higher altitude=less oxygen meant trouble – and we were performing Concerto Barocco, one of George Balanchine’s most strenuous and aerobic ballets. Oh yes. During this ballet the corps dancers never once leave the stage.
In the spirit of proactive thinking, oxygen tanks were installed in the wings on either side of the stage. Even though they told us not to worry, knowing that there were oxygen tanks waiting in the wings did little to reassure anyone. Nor was it ever explained how we were supposed to get oxygen if we really did need it. Instead they remained a troubling reminder of all that could go wrong.
Though we all did our best to be careful, many dancers ended up with digestive issues – and all those desperate runs to the bathroom made performing logistically complicated and frequently interrupted rehearsals. Some dancers were forced to sit them out altogether, waiting until the stomach cramps passed.
The night of our first performance finally arrived… along with heightened anxiety. We did what dancers always do – went through the motions as if it were any other night: warm up, put on makeup and costumes, warm up again backstage, practice tricky moves onstage until final curtain call, breathe, pray.
The music started and so did we. Somehow things always work out once the music starts. Some primal part of the brain takes over and you begin. One count at a time. This move and then the next. The music for Concerto Barocco (J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins) is particularly beautiful and inspires full-out dancing with abandon. I’ve always felt like it brings out any dancer’s beauty.
Halfway through the first movement, the corps dancers move in patterns around the stage, striking bold piqué arabesques as they circle one another. Music mimics movement, reaching to a crescendo with each arabesque. It is our one moment during the ballet to shine, front and center.
A flurry of notes announced my moment had arrived. My feet swept me into my place, front and center. I struck out into my bold arabesque. This was my moment to shine center stage.
The Universe had other plans. In the middle of my bold strike, my supporting foot slipped. Like I had piquéd onto a banana peel. In a split second I ended up on my hands and knees. Front and center.
My shining moment.
The heat of shame and humiliation flooded my body as I quickly picked myself up. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I swept back into place and continued dancing, my limbs shaky from shock, willing myself to finish while stifling the urge to cry.
The 2nd movement was my chance to recuperate a little; in this section the corps creates a series of tableaus, each dancer striking a pose and holding it for long periods. I caught my breath enough to calm down completely before the 3rd and final movement, an all-out no-holds-barred aerobic section with no less than a million hops on pointe, jumps and turns. And it’s fast – so fast it’s almost hard to whip your body around quickly enough to keep up.
But keep up we did and finished with a flourish, drenched in sweat to the point that our white leotards were transparent in multiple places. My chest felt cold, so cold. I am sure this was due to oxygen depletion. It was the only time I ever wished the audience would stop clapping, for Pete’s sake.
Immediately after the curtain went down, Edward Villella, our Artistic Director, came backstage to talk to me. He gently reminded me that falling happens, even to the best dancers, which I found heartening. His support meant a lot in that very humbling moment.
I am happy to report that my love for Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins was not in any way diminished.
Zippora Karz is a former soloist ballerina with the New York City Ballet where she performed from 1983 through 1999. She was featured in a variety of roles choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (The Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker being one of her favorites) as well as works choreographed for her by such choreographers as Peter Martins and Lynne Taylor Corbett. Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1987, just as she was being featured in solo roles, she found a way to continue to live her dream despite her illness. She now serves as a teacher and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing and staging Balanchine’s choreography for a host of national and international dance companies. She is also a diabetes spokesperson and educator who regularly addresses major diabetes conferences and organizations worldwide. In addition to her memoir, The Sugarless Plum, published in 2009, Zippora writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
photo by Mark Harmel
Which tools have been the most helpful during your most challenging moments?
I have always been passionate about health, physically and emotionally, long before I was diagnosed with diabetes. So when I was diagnosed I set out to learn everything I could about how to take care of my body. But equally important was learning to accept the things I could not control, as my life took an unexpected turn and I felt my dreams slipping away. It was a very long process, one I am still on, desiring to fulfill my personal potential, but having to redefine what that potential might encompass. For example, my potential as a ballerina before diabetes was different than my potential after my diagnosis. I had to learn to let go of the perfectionist voice in my head and heart that wanted to be the best I could be as I was before my diabetes, even though everything was now different. My new best would have to be good enough.
Describe the happiest moment(s) of your dance career.
I’m not one to get ecstatic over certain experiences. A sense of peace came about when I accepted my situation and found myself able to maintain my life as a soloist with NYCB, and as an insulin dependent diabetic.
But I will say that those youthful “happy” moments, if I looked for them, I would have to be before I joined the company, my school years at SAB (official school of NYCB). George Balanchine was still alive, as were many of the great teachers on faculty, like Stanley Williams, Suki Schorer (still there today) and Alexandra Danilova. Every day, in class, I felt inspired. The future held unlimited possibilities. It was a magical time in the ballet world. As that generation of greatness passed away, I felt personally less inspired.
How has your background as a dancer helped you with the work you are doing today?
The life of a dancer is full of discipline and rewards for hours of practice and focus. Dance teaches us that it is the process that is important. That the transition from one step to the next, not just how high you jump or how many turns you do are important. And so in life, it is the moments in between, not just the big events that hold great meaning.
How did you find the strength and willpower to continue dancing while you were struggling with diabetes?
My struggle was for many years. In part denial fueled my strength, and in part my passion for dance kept me going. In the beginning years I had absolutely no idea what I had ahead of me. Once I accepted my diabetes and realized how difficult it was to try to perform and dance all day on shots of insulin, even though I often wanted to quit, I just couldn’t. I had to try everything I could before saying I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to regret chances not taken. To dance was to live.
What are some of the key points that you share with people during your public speaking engagements?
I talk about my denial and the ways it put me in harms way, mis- judging how to manage my diabetes. How my denial affected my ability to properly discuss my struggles with my doctor. How vitally important it is for us to tend to our physical and emotional health. And of course how important dreams and passion are in life, and that by taking care of our health we can better achieve those goals.
Do you use dance when you work with people who have diabetes? If so, how do you use it?
Not always, but sometimes I do little routines, simple exercise that get people up and moving. I like to remind them how fun it can be to move, exercise does not have to be something you have to do, and are in trouble with your physician if you don’t. It can be fun and a joy! Of course the kids love to move, so with them I like to challenge their balance and also push them with some fun yet difficult moves.
How did you deal with feelings of fear when you received your diagnosis? How were you able to move past those fears?
I was in such denial I didn’t really feel fear in the beginning. And when the denial wore off I didn’t feel well, so I’d say I felt more defeated and overwhelmed than fearful. It was daunting to imagine how I’d ever get back to feeling strong enough to dance the schedule demanded of me. Of course that changed as I learned to manage my diabetes and get my health in some semblance of control. Once I was on track the fear was in the form of a low level of worry, could I maintain this life as an insulin dependent diabetic? Everyday I wondered that.
And then, when I had a low blood sugar attack while performing the fear was much more immediate, throwing fast acting sugar in my mouth between entrances hoping I would not pass out on stage.
In your opinion, what are the most effective ways of dealing with diabetes?
Anyone with diabetes must check their blood sugar levels, take their medication (insulin or pills), eat a healthy diet, and tend to their emotional health. I find people have trouble sticking to a program, often due to emotional issues. The clearer we can be with what is in our hearts, the more we will be able to follow what our brain knows is the right path. But keeping close to normal blood sugar levels is important to avoid the devastating complications related to diabetes.
How and why did you decide to write the Sugarless Plum? How long did it take you to write the book?
I’d been sharing my story for about 10 years, and been told so many times I should write a book, that I had it in my mind to do one day. But it was only after my mother was diagnosed with Cancer that I sat down and began writing. Watching her go through many of the same issues, the denial, the mis-diagnosis, all the conflicting information, and the emotional confusion, I realized my story is not just a diabetic one, that the issues involved are universal.
Finding an agent who believed I had a story took 2 years. Actually I wanted to write a diet and exercise book, but could not find an agent. When I met my agent, she said she could not sell another self help book, but she could sell it as a memoir. The actual writing process took about 1 ½ years.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Finding a passion in life, something that makes us feel connected, that has meaning and value is important for us all. And we must take care of our physical bodies to be able to experience that magic that life can offer.
To find out more about Zippora or her book, The Sugarless Plum, click here.