Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ballet Arts at City Center: A Haven in Midtown

Ballet Arts occupies the sixth floor of an art deco building on W56th St. To enter, you walk through a nondescript door across the street from the backside of Carnegie Hall. Beside the door, a plackard reads "City Center stage entrance only", and you feel like one of the privileged few allowed entrance to the theatre’s inner sanctum. Then you wait for the elevator, watching the 1930's needle tick down the floors as it traces a slow semi-circle to ground floor. You step into the wood elevator, musty with the scent of decades of dancers.  You slowly rise past the floors of administrative offices, until you finally arrive at the safe haven of Ballet Arts.

At Ballet Arts there is no computer system, no minute plastic cards that are easily lost in your handbag and that reduce your identity to a bar code. Here, though the lounge where dancers stretch before class is small, the studio is one of the largest in NYC, a vast art-deco space where one can really move. Here, a German woman, quiet and gentle, sits at a small wooden table. She collects class fees (cash only), places them in a metal box, and writes your name with a pencil in a college-ruled, spiral bound notebook. She quickly gets to know you. Here, the man who runs the place greets you in a Russian accent. He re-stocks the coffee table with oreos, apples, grapes, and potato chips, free to dancers for snacking before class (who says dancers don't eat?) Here on the cozy couches lining the walls, you are not pushed aside by the crowds in the glitzier NYC dance studios. From the roughly sketched paintings of dancers (you suspect they were crafted by a friend), to the teddy bears comfortably slouching on the sofas, to the red roses sitting beside the drinking fountain, to the goldfish tucked away on a shelf, to the Nutcracker that has recently appeared, there is a friendliness that has welcomed me back into the fold.

The teachers at Ballet Arts have trained at famed institutions like St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy and the School of American Ballet. They have danced, some as principals, with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Joffrey, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. They have worked with Rudolph Nureyev, Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey. Though they have reason to act otherwise, they are patient. It's that kind of place, one that inspires and nurtures art.

I discovered Ballet Arts two years ago, while trying to summon the courage to dance again. In my mid-thirties, I had berated myself (what are you thinking, ballet is for little girls, not for grown women). But I had danced in childhood, the dance had never left me, and the pull was too strong. It was not that I wanted to wear a tiara and prance around in a tutu (I wear a simple black leotard and lime green tights that have snagged and run beyond repair, and that are cut off above the ankle because my legs are too long for normal tights). But one day two winters ago, without second guessing myself, I secretly bought a pair of pink ballet flats. Without telling anyone, I stepped back into the studio. I was sore for three days. But my body remembered those old moves, though my brain strained to remember their names, and my childhood addiction for dance returned in full force.

When I saw a pair of pointe shoes on sale at Sansha for $20, I nabbed them (though my legs were not yet strong enough). Then I began looking for a studio that felt like home. That's when I found Ballet Arts. It reminded me of the old, cavernous studio in which I danced as a child, and which to me was a cathedral. Ballet Arts has that grungy feel that all dance studios should have, and the waiting room that invites communing with other dancers. Many of the teachers at Ballet Arts teach classical Russian technique, which is the style I learned as a child and which my body remembers best.

Most dancers are quiet people. It's the expression through movement that allows us to come alive. When I enter the dance studio, I leave the outer layers of myself behind: life's petty jealousies, the insignificant (in retrospect) slights, the confusions and worries, the occasional belly aches. All that falls away, and I am simply myself. I love the concentration of ballet, the body consciousness, the attention to every muscle (even those tiny foot muscles, usually ignored and abused), the obsessive attention to body position, the emphasis on height and lengthening, the opening of oneself to the audience (apparent in the dancer's forward stance-- one cannot balance without an open heart). Ballet has been called the "science of behavior toward others" and "the body divined". Perhaps that's why some think ballet is an inner club: most cannot understand divinity and steer clear rather than risk failing.

Ballet is freedom through movement. I have expressed myself through movement since childhood, when I put on the Mary Poppins record, rolled up the rugs in the sitting room (the better to spin and slide on the wooden floor), and danced until I fell down with joy. I'm not alone among women in this feeling. In her recent history of ballet, Jennifer Homans (dance critique for the New Republic, and former dancer for the San Francisco Ballet), speaks of Marie Taglioni's fame. Born into a family of Italian dancers in 1804, Taglioni is widely recognized as the first truly successful ballerina. Homans refers to Taglioni as a "woman's dancer", and links this to the mores of the time, when "'Decent' women had to settle for a subdued and controlled life, but underneath they were desperate to abandon their ‘soft and calm existence' for 'storms of passion' and 'dangerous emotions'. Taglioni lived what they could only dream: a fully expressed life." In ballet, women are the stars of the show, one in which the overarching aim is emotional expression within the constructs of the story.  Is this why some are still uncomfortable with this art form?

Ballet demands patience and sacrifice. Last summer I went back en pointe. I did one impatient releve and now have a black toenail that is still healing four months later. Since then, I’ve worked on proper form and developing my leg strength. In the last month my hamstrings have grown progressively tighter. Yesterday, while stretching before class, I said to my teacher, the more classes I take, the stiffer I become. He smiled and said, that's good, that means you're getting stronger and you're training correctly. Have you ever seen how NYC Ballet dancers walk? They're stiff. That means they're strong. But, I said, what about my flexibility? Splits and backbends? Well, you have to stretch, he said.

Ballet is constant challenge and self competition. What keeps me hooked is when my body works as it should: when I do a pirouette with correct form (and sometimes a double, and soon a triple); when, while doing pique turns, I am able to keep my eye on the spot and traverse the entire dance floor without becoming dizzy; and when I can get my leg just that much higher in an arabesque. That’s when I feel most connected to myself, to the music, to the imaginative audience for whom I am dancing, to the mystery of expressing myself through dance. In a world whose sharp edges stifle creativity, and whose brash assertions of self subvert beauty, in ballet I am finally allowed to express myself through a form that glorifies the feminine. I have great admiration for the masculine, but today’s world is over-balanced with it. Ballet turns that order on its head. In explaining its popularity with women, it seems to me that Balanchine correctly said: “Ballet is woman...Woman is the world and man lives in it."

That might explain the facial expression of the quiet Korean woman who I met a year ago. Now in her mid-twenties, she is learning ballet for the first time. Late on a Tuesday evening, after class at Ballet Arts, she sat on the floor of the lounge and, bending over to sew the ribbons on her pointe shoes, looked at me with pure and radiant joy.

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