Tuesday, February 13, 2007

For Lara and Isabel

Welcome back to Part II of the Introduction to Etc. Etc. When I left you you were just sitting down in your decent seats in the auditorium about to see American Ballet Theater perform Miscellaneous Weird Modern Shit, Intermission, then the classical ballet Giselle. You're in for a treat. This is a fantasy performance, so Martine van Hamel is dancing Giselle as well as a pas-de-deux or two in the first part's MWMS.

We'll leave you sitting in the auditorium for a bit and make you have some out-of-body experience that as an analogy is quickly becoming cumbersome so screw it, here are some ballet terms you should know to enhance your enjoyment of the dance:


A pas-de-deux is two dancers, a man and a woman, performing solo except that there's two of them. In the process the male partner invariably lifts the female partner (this is called a lift) and holds her over his head then he spikes her into the stage and kicks her in the head and stomps off in a rage. Okay, okay, I'm kidding about the spike. If you really want to seem like you know your ballet shit, emit an audible gasp as the guy lifts the woman, then break into wild applause even if the whole thing sucks and the guy wobbles and shakes like you did at the altar when you got married the first time. This is just being polite.

Toe shoes are the funny pink shoes the female dancers wear in classical ballet. They have long pink ribbons that wind around a dancer's legs and serve no purpose whatsoever other than to distract you from noticing that the dancer's calves are like hams. They cost $14,000 a piece at your local Capezio store and most people need two of them, so as you can see ballet is not a poor woman's avocation. This sort of makes sense when you realize that the Capezio store only sells ballet shit, which means they only have six customers during a good year so they have to suck 'em dry while they can.

Toe shoes have wooden plugs in the toe to allow the dancer to spin like a top as she's dancing, hence the name. When she is up on her toes it is called being "en pointe." It looks very graceful and there's no way in hell you could possibly do it no matter who you are unless you're a dancer yourself. This is why dancers' calves look like hams. Ballet dancers invariably stick cotton on top of the wooden plugs to cushion them somewhat. No one is really sure why they keep doing this since it doesn't help even a little bit. As a result, the feet of a new ballet dancer are bloody mangled wrecks for the first twelve years or so of her career. Then her feet finally adapt to them, by which time she's too old to dance anyway and she becomes a Ballet Mistress and who cares what her feet are like.

The principal dancers of a company are the big names, the stars. These are the people who get fancy bios in the program with little glam pictures on them. If you want to seem cool, clap for every third one that appears on stage for the first time. "Balletomane!" people will say behind their hands to each other. About you, you dope -- don't you remember from last post that it means "fan of ballet?" Sheesh.

The corps (pronounced "core," this is important, write it on the back of your hand before you go) is short for the "corps de ballet." These are the dancers that flutter and swarm here and there during the course of the ballet, always in groups. If they traveled singly they would be principal dancers. In the ballet you are about to see, the corps dances, among other things, the townspeople and later the Wilis, my personal favorite. You can amuse yourself by looking for the one loser in the corps that is slightly out of synch with everyone else and make a "Tch!" noise and shake your head sorrowfully when she fucks up. You do this even if the reason that is she is fucking up is that she's dancing with a strain of flu that made her sit up all last night puking on the bus that was taking her company to your town because she didn't want to let her pals down and get yelled at besides. After all, that's why she gets the big bucks, somewhere around $700 a week for a major company for a 36-week season. It works out to about $25000 a year, to save you the math. And bear in mind that this is in the Major Leagues of the dance world; these are the top pros in their field. The sick corps member that is fucking up has danced nearly every day of her life since she was eight years old to get the chance to be in the corps and make that 25 grand. Hmm. Seems I went off on a tangent. Well, she shouldn't have fucked up in the first place for me to have singled her out. The corps is not the place to display individuality. I will have words with her later.

The last terminology you will learn is two French words, "jeté" and "plié." I can no longer recall what these words mean but they are ballet terms used to describe various stylized dance movements that occur during the course of the performance. The first word is pronounced "zhyuh tay", sort of like "Je t'aime" but with an "ay" sound where the "em" sound is. And of course you know how to pronounce "Je t'aime," you read me. The second word is pronounced "plee- yay." Sort of. The way you use these words is to sprinkle them at random in your sentences after the performance is over like you know what you're talking about. Like me, people will recognize the words but have no idea what they really mean so you can use them pretty much anywhere, also like me. Try this one: "A plié should be chewy and lugubrious, and so-and-so's definitely was not." Ain't it great? (Thanks to Lara for that one, btw.)

Whew. So much for terminology. Let's go back to you in your seat at the auditorium. You got through the first segment of the program with the MWMS and saw who Martine van Hamel is. You were sort of underwhelmed because you didn't understand much of the dance, but it looked pretty and it was colorful. Fair enough. But now the orchestra is tuning up -- did I forget to mention there's an orchestra? It's one of the special secrets that no one tells you beforehand, and you're pretty happy about it because you like listening to live orchestras (hey, it's my blog and I say you do). Anyway the curtain is about to come up, and you are about to discover that...

Male dancers suck. They are never well choreographed, they have totally lame moves and don't go en pointe, and they seem to exist solely as foils for the female dancers. Fine. Who gives a shit? The female dancers are cracking good and they more than make up for the sorry-ass male dancers. Let the guys hoist 'em and fling 'em about and act like mannikins while the ladies spin, then the men can go off stage and take a smoke break for all I care. This is true for every male dancer I have ever seen, by the way, including Baryshnikov; the single exception is Mel Tomlinson. I won't mention much about him here other than to say that he is phenomenal, or was when I saw him dance with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and later with New York City Ballet. Once again, the exception proves the rule I guess.

As you watch Giselle, the magic of the ballet will transport you. Martine is exquisite as Giselle, even you can tell that, and damn if these dancers in the corps don't work their (cute) little asses off. They are athletes, you think to yourself. Well, you're damning them with faint praise -- most athletes couldn't begin to do what the dancers do routinely, performance after performance. Especially Tony La Russa. (Inside joke, sorry, won't happen again.) The corps is marvelous (it is ABT, after all), the principals are spot on, and you've now fallen in love with Martine van Hamel just like I did. Also like me, you have developed an unspeakable obsession with Wilis and will want some for your own personal use. Congratulations on your first ballet. I bet it really didn't hurt all that much and that the bleeding soon passed.

If you would be lucky enough to find yourself in the dressing room after the performance, you would quickly notice that God's own deodorant and antiperspirant couldn't begin to make a dent in the, shall we say, closeness of the atmosphere. What did you expect? Dancers sweat. Men and women perspire, horses and ballet dancers sweat. Look at what they were doing out there, for crying out loud. Of course they sweat. And they don't smell like smoked chipped beef either, no matter what some would have you believe.

They smell like victory.

At this point I must apologize. I promised some other stuff in this post, and I would still love to write about it if you want, but I think I have to put this entry to bed now and get some other things done. Sorry. Let me know if you want a Part III. It will include some comments about a couple of ballets, including the one I detest, and will also talk about growing up as a little girl who wants to be a ballet dancer.

I will, however, give you a teaser, an excerpt from the forthcoming post if you should choose to clamor for it:

"...the other little girls, any one of whom would gleefully stick a rusty fork into your back and watch you die a slow and agonizing death of sepsis and then spit on your lifeless corpse and steal your toe shoes. I am given to understand by those who know that not only does this behavior not go away as one matures in the ballet world, it gets worse."

Good stuff, eh? Let me know if you want Part III. If you don't, that's fine too, I'm getting a little crispy myself.

-- Hulles

8 comments:

Hulles said...

Meh, whatever that means, I almost forgot: I have to write Part III. You need to hear about "The Surrender," and you need to hear it from me, so if anyone knows the story, please don't tell. It's just way too good, and I intend to do it justice.

cK said...

Guh-gah!! You've left the first comment at your entry! That's devastatingly clever, Hulles. To the deuce with you!

I'm enjoying this ballet riff.

And I recommend the Swedish documentary film THE DANCER with Erland Josephsson (famed for his roles in many Bergman movies). Fascinating ballet documentary. It rarely focuses on the overall performance. Rather, it uses tight shots on faces during rehearsal. A dancer is practicing spins and all you see is her face growing red. You see numerous close ups of feet being stretched. It's really a different approach to looking at the training. Little explanation; just a lot of focus on the ass-kicking work.
-cK

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I haven't seen much ballet, but I've enjoyed it.

Or, rather, I've enjoyed the idea of it. I have the same problem with ballet that I have with opera (especially after the third day of Wagner). I fall asleep. Awfully embarassing to start snoring during the Magic Flute right at the Queen of The Night Aria.

It's not that it's dull per se, it's just... not very exciting. Bear in mind that I don't find football particularly exciting, either. Hockey sometimes, if there's a fight, and roller derby. Especially if they're in bikinis.

Every dancer I've known has had a body that can bounce bullets, especially if they're fired at their buttcheeks. It's incredibly athletic, fluid and beautiful what they do. It's just not violent enough.

Now if they had prison shanks, or maybe tasers, then I'd be down there hootin' and hollerin' with the rest of you. Make it a cage match, and not like that Ultimate Fighting crap, a real cage match. With steel-tipped whips and a gladius. Maybe some tigers. Or a baboon. A baboon would be cool. One that drops out of the ceiling after being slapped around by a gimp in a zippered mask for half an hour.

Just picture it. Lithe bodies, fluidly sliding their way through space, spinning back and forth in a dance of death and blood. Cries of, "Plié THIS, motherfucker!" and "I'll battement tendu jeté your crippled ASS!"

And all the while the crowd is chanting, "Chassé! Chassé!" and rattling the bars with their copies of Pointe. And then, BAM! out comes the baboon, titanium capped fangs tearing into the one dancer who just couldn't quite get her feet into fifth position in time.

Now THAT'S ballet.

Hulles said...

cK, thanks lots. I would really like to see the film you mention. I tend to buy movies rather than rent them but I'll look for it when I can next afford one. It sounds like something I would like lots.

Mr. Blackmoore, you ignore the coatimundi, always a mistake but understandable in your case. While they may be illegal in California, here we call them "hog nosed coons" and raise them on special ranchs to attack and destroy ballet dancers on sight.

We start them out on cloggers and square dancers at first. Only after months of unremitting savagery and a diet of Slim Jims and Red Bull do we introduce them to ballet dancers and vice versa.

Some bleeding heart tree huggers here in Minnesota have protested at the hog nosed coon ranches, but I figure these are just people who have never been to a ballet before.

I can't believe you and I aren't making a documentary about this as we speak (or, more properly, as I write). We'd be famous and get to wear red tennis shoes whenever we wanted to.

Oh and P.S. I always aim for the buttcheeks. See Part III when I write it.

My favorite comment of yours so far, btw.

LaCosta (Lollie) said...

Alright, I'm eating lunch at this godforsaken conference so I'm recharging everything...my laptop, my brain, etc. I have time for a quick quip.

Wow.

I need to address Ballet I and Ballet II in depth - I have some agreements, some disputes (wood in shoes? C'mon now!) and some funny additions to the fabulous world that is dance. My last attempt to leave a comment ended in disaster (long-ass paragraphs that were eaten by the blogmonster - grr) so I think I will answer sometime this week on my own blog.

Extensively.

Hulles said...

Just so you answer. I'll keep an eye on your blog.

And bear in mind it was roughly twenty years ago when I last held a toe shoe. There's something hard in there that clunks, and I remembered it as wood. Now I suppose I'll have to find out what it really is myself since you're probably back in the conference.

Have as much fun as you can; hope your headache's better.

LaCosta (Lollie) said...

Potato-sack-type burlap and glue. They do this on purpose, those shoe makin' bastards, so that when you sweat through the shoe a few times, it starts to feel like you're dancing on a snotty tissue. Guess what? You need new ones! That'll be 85 bucks please...

Hulles said...

And by the way, I don't claim to be an expert on any of this, not even a fan per se, just somebody who likes dance and wants to encourage others to like it.

All this is to say please let me know where I'm wrong about stuff. You certainly have the background, and more people than just me would love to hear the real scoop from someone who fought in the trenches. I just watched.

So there. More feedback.