“Take Those Wads of Cotton Out Of Your Ears!”

When I was 9 years old, I was allowed to take some Summer classes with the teacher of my teacher, Mr Hideteru Kitahara (北原秀晃氏), a top dancer of Japan in his days and a principal dancer and later artistic director of Tokyo Ballet Company.  When I turned 12, I was allowed to go and join his regular classes as one of the very first child protegees he has ever taken on. Aside myself, there was one other girl who was a couple of years older, and the rest of the dancers were pre-professional high teens to professional dancers.

It was a very intimidating and scary, yet fantastically inspiring experience. I danced next to some of Japan’s top dancers, with young dancers who then went onto become truly great dancers later. I learned so much from him, especially what it is to dance. And he already treated us all as (pre)professional dancers. So we learned what to expect, and what we are expected to do, as professional dancers, which helped me enormously in my later career. I would like to share some of the experience I had in his classes little by little.

Here is one of the earlier episodes.

This was while I was still only going to his special Summer classes. I believe I was 9 or 10. Mr Kitahara was an exceptional dancer and a very very strict teacher. I used to find him terrifying. As well as the strictness, he was the teacher of my teacher. I thought she was so good and beautiful, and yet when he was coaching her, he would often get very cross with her (or so it seemed!). So I was already nervous. And I was the youngest in his classes, even in the Summer course that was meant for younger dancers.

One day in this Summer course, Mr Kitahara was getting very cross with us all for not being musical. As he was walking among us, he was telling us it was no good moving after we heard the music, we should move with the music, and that we were all dancing as though we had some cotton wads stuffed inside our ears. He suddenly stopped right in front of me, looking me in the eyes, and shouted “Take those wads of cotton out of your ears!” and stuck his hand in front of my face as if he was expecting me to give them to him. I was either 9 or 10, and although he was not a very tall man, he seemed enormously tall, and his hand looked as though it was bigger than my own face. I thought very hard. I was certain I did not have anything stuffed in my ears. But he is expecting me to produce something! So I lifted my hands to my ears, took out the wads of cotton that I could not see, and placed them in his palm. I did not mean to mock him, I did not mean to be funny. I was told to take them out, so I just did what I was told. I must have looked absolutely pathetic and petrified. As Mr Kitahara burst out laughing and could not stop for a while. I felt mortified. But he laughed for a while, got into a better mood and kept on with the class.

I do not know whether that was the reason or not, but he always looked out for me and although he was at times frustrated by my not being the genius that he was, he never gave up on me. He also recognised how I could “dance” and that I was very musical, so much so that he would stop the class of professional dancers (including my teacher and some of Japan’s leading dancers of the time) and tell them off for not performing properly, stating that even this little girl (i.e. me) was doing far better than them.

Although I did not think I was particularly musical, as I got older I started realising that maybe I was a bit more musical than many others. Maybe I actually did take the wads of cotton out of my ears that day which allowed me to hear the music very clearly.

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Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema – The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty has all the requisite elements of a classic fairy tale. A princess, a king, a queen, suitors to the princess, good fairy, bad fairy, magic, a prince who wakes the princess up with a kiss! And in the ballet, a hand-full of characters from other fairy tales come to celebrate the wedding of the said prince and princess.

Despite all the right elements, it never really became my favourite ballet. However, in recent years I started to realise that this was probably because there have been surprisingly few performances of The Sleeping Beauty I truly enjoyed. There were, of course, a few really wonderful productions. I grew up watching the video of an amazing production by the Kirov Ballet (today’s Mariinsky Ballet) with Irina Kolpakova, Sergey Berezhnoi and Lubov Kunakova. I saw a video of Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora and I was also fortunate to get the chance to see the great Ludmila Semenyaka in The Sleeping Beauty on stage. In comparison to those, most productions I saw since seemed dull and colourless.

For a long time I thought it was because I had got somewhat bored of the ballet having watched it countless times on our old fashioned laser discs. But more recently I started to notice that it was due to the fact that the so well-known and loved music of the Sleeping Beauty is deceptively difficult to dance to. The third act grand pas de deux of Aurora and Prince Desire particularly so. It is not “difficult” as such in terms of time signature or change in tempo, buy there is a very clear rhythm depicted under the fluid beautiful melodies. The difficulty for the dancers is that they need to embody  both rhythm and melody in order to look at ease and brilliant at the same time.

Bolshoi Ballet’s live transmission of this ballet to cinemas around the world was a very pleasant surprise. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin both have a brilliant musicality that makes them look as though they are creating music by their own bodies. Their technique is flawless but neither show off in any vulgar way. Smirnova was an innocent and shy Aurora who was excited at her party, a translucent and dreamy vision, and a radiant and happy bride. Chudin was noble and yet determined to save the beautiful vision he saw, and a very secure partner who in turn knows how to make his partner look at her most beautiful.

Yulia Stepanova did not really live up to expectations. She did not manage to portray the essence of the graceful yet regal Lilac Fairy. Alexei Loparevich’s Carabosse was also disappointing. He seemed a little like a comic dame. It was a complete contrast too the former Kirov (today’s Mariinsky) Ballet dancer, Vladimir Lopukhov, whose Carabosse was portrayed as a bitter old woman who had nothing left but her magical power.

Artemy Belyakov, who danced the roles of Bluebird and one of the suitors, had caught my eye a while back. He rapidly became one of my favourite Bolshoi dancers, especially after I saw his Evil Genius in Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake when Bolshoi Ballet was performing in London last Summer. He was given this big role within three years of graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet School (Ilya Kuznetsov’s class) and is proving to be a well rounded dancer with a true panache. With his strong and high jumps that make him look as though he is hanging in the air for a moment every time he leaves the floor, his steady pirouettes and sense of control that makes things look so effortless, I dare say he is on his way up to the rank of a principal dancer.

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Artemy Belyakov as the Evil Genius in Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake. (Photo: Bolshoi Ballet)

Yuri Grigorovich first staged this current version in 2011. He has cut a fair bit of the music to make the ballet – that usually has three acts and a prologue – into a two-act ballet. Although it is noticeable that some of the music has been shortened or omitted, the cuts do not seem to affect the flow of the story and certainly keep the audience’s fidgeting  to a minimum. To my delight, he kept the Prince’s entrance solo which the legendary former Bolshoi star Vladimir Vasiliev danced at Asaf Messerer’s 80th birthday tribute in 1982. It makes the character of the prince a lot more solid and vivid.

All in all, Smirnova, Chudin and Belyakov restored my love for fairy tales, and made me fall in love with the Sleeping Beauty all over again.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Below is a lovely review on our last show, A midsummer Night’s Dream by Weasel Features. Thank you!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Read the plot for the play here

My decision to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed live inside of a year was made on 23rd April 2016 – the 400th anniversary his death. If I’d thought about it in advance there would have been more time to plan. I would have kickstarted this challenge with a play that day perhaps, or at least one that week. Given that 38 plays in 52 weeks works out as a play every 9.6 days, there’s no time to waste. It was an impulsive decision however, which meant that I didn’t end up seeing any Shakespeare until June – whoops!

I want to see Shakespeare live, but I don’t just want to see traditional performances. The beauty of Shakespeare is that over the centuries his words have been ripped apart, edited, played with, interpreted and presented in so many different permutations that there is no wrong way to ‘do’ Shakespeare. I want to enjoy that variety to the fullest by watching plays, operas, recitals, ballets and dance performances by professionals, youths and amateur dramatic societies. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND), a play I know well, I leapt at the opportunity to see it done in a new way; I went to see an amateur ballet.

On Friday 3rd June 2016 I enjoyed a surreal Friday evening as I watched AMND performed by the Yuka Kodama Ballet Group at Wychwood School. Part of the reason I wanted to see a ballet version is that I don’t hugely like AMND. I find the mechanicals’ plot time consuming and tedious, the women of the play are fairly meh and when Titania shows a hint of defiance towards Oberon, she is punished by being made to fall in love with a donkey. It’s not Shakespeare’s finest, nor is it hugely funny, yet AMND seems to be the most popular of his plays with dozens of performances this summer across the UK. I could have gone to a promenade version by Creation Theatre but the ballet appealed to me as something different.

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©Susan Taylor Photography

The Yuka Kodama Ballet Group AMND cast was composed of adults and children and the audience was composed almost exclusively of their friends and family. If there’s one thing this challenge has taught me, it’s to learn to embrace watching theatre alone, often surrounded by people who know the cast members (wait until you hear about the Richard II I saw…). So I sat on my own in that school auditorium in June, watching children and adults dance in front of proud parents, siblings and friends whilst trying desperately not to look too out of place. That was play number one, by now I’ve stopped caring!

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine

– Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 1 ll. 249-252

The sad thing about the ballet is missing out on Shakespeare’s beautiful language (see quote above). The great thing about the ballet is watching the physicality of Shakespeare’s characters come to life. If there’s one thing I love about AMND it’s the otherworldly elegance of the fairies – particularly the impish Puck – which lends itself so perfectly to dance. The cast were brilliant, especially the adults working alongside much younger students. Puck was played by Yuka Kodama’s son with mischievous ebullience. I know next to nothing about ballet and it was lovely to sit back and watch the action without analysing the language (or trying to avoid the occasional mind wander during long speeches).

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©Susan Taylor Photography

All in all, I spent an enjoyable evening doing something I wouldn’t have done otherwise – this challenge is certainly pushing me to explore new plays, places and performances!

Thank you to Susan Taylor for allowing me to use her photos in this article.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Teaching Young Children and Adult Beginners

Every time I hear someone say something along the lines of “I don’t know ballet enough to teach advanced ballet, but I can teach beginners/children” it makes me cringe so much that I can find it very difficult to conceal it.

I have been teaching a while now and I have taught from very young children to adult, from complete beginners to professionals. The classes I find most demanding and satisfying at the same time are the ones for those who are just starting ballet for the very first time, regardless of the age. The new pupils know very little about ballet. This, however, does not mean that the teacher can get away with knowing little. The teacher has to have a very sound and extensive knowledge in technique and history of ballet, of actual ballet repertoires, anatomy, injury prevention, different methods and how they differ from one another, and the ability to see and offer different advice and corrections depending on the individual pupil.

YKBG Class ©YKBG

YKBG Class
©YKBG

New pupils often have many questions about all sorts of things related to ballet. Many often come and ask what to do when they have stiff muscles or when something does not feel quite right from different physical activities they might do. It is imperative that the teacher can offer appropriate advice in order that they can work pain free and injury free, and maximise the speed of their improvements.

Many of my dancers who have been to other dance schools as adults (especially beginners and those with fairly little experience) told me that their former teachers hardly ever corrected them in adult classes and generally left them alone. They often find it astounding that I would touch their legs or arms to teach them the correct positions. I am yet to come across someone who does not improve even if they started ballet for the first time as an adult or are already fairly mature, and I simply cannot understand why some teachers do not bother teaching them properly.

I have also seen and heard so many dance schools, and not just in this country, letting young and inexperienced teachers or teaching assistants teach young children’s classes. The time when they are just starting out to learn ballet is the most important for child students and this is when they are at their most impressionable. Poor and ill-informed teaching at this stage might well be destroying the development of potential future ballet dancers. I see plenty of students who learned ballet at a young age carrying their old habits ten or twenty years later and finding it extremely difficult to break them.

It saddens me to hear stories like this.  Of course, there are many many fantastic teachers and dance schools where they teach everyone everything they can, where pupils are inspired and encouraged to continuously improve, and where very strong bonds between teachers and pupils are forged. If you are planning on starting learning ballet, or sending your children to learn ballet,  make sure you shop around and find a conscientious, knowledgeable and experienced teacher.

When It Comes To Pointe Shoes, Be Pedantic!

Internet shopping has no doubt made our lives so much easier and given us far wider varieties of choices. There are certain things, however, one should not purchase online.

When it comes to shoes, it is very difficult indeed to know whether they are comfortable or fit well. Shoes, even different pairs of the same design, are all differently cut and sewn so that it is very difficult to know how they will feel. They might rub in the wrong places, they might not be quite the right shape.

Pointe shoes are not something one should buy without trying them on with the help of someone with proper knowledge. Pointe shoes should fit like gloves. Ones toes are not supposed to be able to move around inside but at the same time they must not be overlapping. When one stands in the first position, there should not be any space above the toes either. The back of the shoes should be properly aligned with one’s feet. Even when all these criteria appear to be met when standing flat on the soles of one’s feet, things can and do change when one goes on pointe (stands on the tip of their toes). One’s feet often slip inside when the fitting isn’t precisely right. Because different makers’ shoes change in different ways as they are broken in, one has to have danced in them before becoming certain they are the right pair indeed.

This article is not to instruct people about how to fit pointe shoes themselves. This is to raise awareness as to how important it is to have well fitted pointe shoes both for the sake of technical improvement and the health of one’s feet. If the pointe shoes do not fit well, it is not simply a case of one’s feet sliding around inside and producing blisters; there is the potential to cause structural damage to one’s feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, spine… the whole body.

It is appalling to see how many dancers can go to even the large and well-known ballet shops and come back with ill-fitted pointe shoes. The fitters employed by these shops tend to follow a given a set of instructions but if they have not themselves danced on pointe properly before, and not tried at least a few different shoes from the major makes, it is very difficult for them to make a sound judgement. Different pointe shoe makers can produce shoes with noticeably different characteristics and fits. The shops have to accept the fact that the pointe shoes they carry, no matter how good they might be for many, may not be suitable for certain feet types. They also ought to have enough knowledge in order to advise when the dancers are not quite strong enough for pointe work and recognise if they are not standing straight.

Do not plump for an “easy” option when it comes to pointe shoes. Make sure you find someone who knows, really knows pointe shoes and pointe work. Try on a few pairs from different makes. It is, after all, for your own good. Many dancers are amazed at not only how much less pain they are in when the pointe shoes fit properly but how dramatically their technique improves.

Related reading: “How to Choose Well-Fitted Poite Shoes”

https://kodamaballet.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/how-to-choose-well-fitted-pointe-shoes/

Lovely pointe work by Vaganova Academy's pupils.

Lovely pointe work by Vaganova Academy’s pupils.

Maya Plisetskaya, One of the Greatest Ballerina Dies at Age 89

Splisetskaya dancing Dying SwanMaya Plisetskaya, my idol and inspiration, died of a heart attack on 2nd May, 2015 at her home in Munich, Germany.

She was born in 1925 in Moscow and trained at the Bolshoi Academy, joined the Bolshoi Ballet and quickly climbed the ladder to the rank of a principal dancer.

This article is not dedicated to talking about the details of her life though. There is an interesting obituary by Sophia Kishokovsky on NY Times that gives a good overview of her life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/arts/dance/maya-plisetskaya-ballerina-who-embodied-bolshoi-dies-at-89.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

Plisetskaya was one of the first dancers I have ever seen, and certainly had the greatest impact on my life. Through her I learned that technique should be merely a means of expression rather than the goal, and so many other things besides.

A while ago I wrote an article about Plisetskaya and how meeting her affected my life. Please click on the link to read it.

https://kodamaballet.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/maya-plisetskaya/

“May she rest in peace” somehow does not suit her. She will keep on dancing forever in my heart and in that of many others.

Review by David Bellan for Yuka Kodama Ballet Group Annual Show 2013

David Bellan, the dance critic for the Oxford Times gave his permission to publish what he wrote for the Oxford Times on our page.

This is about the Yuka Kodama Ballet Group annual show in 2013. We put on our own version of La Fille Mal Gardee and a short suite Shared Dream, which music was composed specially for the group.

 

YUKA KODAMA BALLET GROUP         WYCHWOOD SCHOOL

 

31.05.13             Review by David Bellan

 

 

This is a highly trained amateur group who put on a show that was a pleasure to watch. They’re based in Oxford, and trained by Yuka Kodama-Pomfret, a former Japanese dancer who has appeared in all the big classics, but has long been based in the UK.

The first work of the evening, “Shared Dreams” is a new piece by Kodama, set to a specially commissioned piano suite by Hiroaki Tokunaga. The music is at times percussive, at times quite light-hearted, and proved a good introduction to the varying talents of the company.

Shared Dreams Photography by Susan Taylor

Shared Dreams
Photography by Susan Taylor

Shared Dreams Photographs by Susan Taylor

Shared Dreams
Photographs by Susan Taylor

Shared Dreams Photographs by Susan Taylor

Shared Dreams
Photographs by Susan Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor

“La Fille Mal Gardee”, best known in this country for the famed Ashton version with it’s popular clog dance, was a hit. Kodama tells a sunny story of love and frustration among country folk. Lison loves Colin, but her mother wants her to marry Jean, a rich miller’s son . Jade Shelton makes a lovely Lison, dancing well and putting her feelings over clearly in a performance of comedy and charm. She was partnered by Charlie Byers who last year was so unexpectedly impressive in “Le Corsaire,” after only two years of dance training. Byers had damaged his foot, but bravely came on as a warm and likeable Colin, but without his planned big solos. Kevin Stead

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor

had never danced until last January, but gave a remarkably assured and amusing performance in drag as Madame Rigotte, Lison’s mother. David Hanvidge danced the dim but likeable Jean with a mixture of misplaced self-confidence and a lot of physical comedy, as he tottered about intending to show off his

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor

dancing. A nice touch in Kodama’s version is that, after losing Lison to Colin, Jean gets a girl of his own. Tiny Isona Kakuchi sparkled while playing a boy, Jean’s little brother Firmin, egging Jean on to success, but also concerned that he will mess it up. Young though he is, Firmin is a cool hand at chatting up the girls, including Dona-Maria Sandu, who produced some classy solos throughout the evening.

 

 

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee Photographs by Susan Taylor

La Fille Mal Gardee
Photographs by Susan Taylor