DVD Review: BALLET 422

by Rachel Hellwig

BALLET 422, a documentary by Jody Lee Lipes, offers a behind-the-scenes look the creation of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, his third ballet for New York City Ballet and the company’s 422nd new work.

Without the use of voiceover narration or intermittent interviews, the film shows scenes of Peck dancing alone in the studio for a phone camera, making sketches of steps and formations for the ballet, using his computer as an aid, and giving directives in rehearsal–“isolate the elbows”, “it’s not crispy enough”. But if you’re looking for more detailed insight into his choreographic process and the ideas behind Paz de la Jolla (as a well as filmmaking process), you’ll want to turn on the commentary by Peck and Lipes in the Special Features section. You’ll have to do this on your second viewing though, because will be layered over the film’s sound. I found the commentary enriching and I do wish it could have been incorporated instead being a supplement. Nonetheless, there is an effective, quiet drama evoked in the minimalist approach.

BALLET 422 also features backstage scenes, Peck’s collaboration with costume designers, discussions with lighting director Mark Stanley, and work with the late Albert Evans, former NYCB dancer and ballet master. As for the dance scenes, they give glimpses of the unique qualities of the principals of Paz de la Jolla: the athletic, lightning-speed sprightliness of Tiler Peck (no relation to Mr. Peck), the rebounding energy and charisma of Amar Ramasar, and the understated sophistication of Sterling Hyltin. Moreover, the dance scenes and performance clips capture some of the most exciting elements of Peck’s choreography –the Balanchinian propulsion of speed extended into a digital-age pulse and the prose poetry in his manner of melding contemporary and classical.

Magnolia Pictures, 75 minutes.

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Review: Dance Inspiration Cards

by Rachel Hellwig

Dance Inspiration Cards Photo

Seeking inspiration for improvisation and creative dance exercises? Then you’ll want to check out Sari Eran-Herskovitz’s “Dance Inspiration Cards”.

Eran-Herskovitz, an artist with a master’s degree in psychology, has designed 29 cards with illustrations featuring animals, nature, and abstract images. The collection also contains one blank card on which you can draw your own picture or simply use as “a joker representing any image you choose during the game”. The instructions explain that “the aim of the game is to allow experimentation and expansion of the range of self expression through movement”.

Suggestions are offered for different types of group games and the use of background music is encouraged, but there are many ways to use the cards. I enjoyed just going through the deck at home and improvising on my own. In class, teachers may want to stick to the cards depicting animals for younger students as movement ideas will be more readily apparent. For older students, including the abstract images will enhance the challenge. The cards could also be used as prompts for more formal choreography exercises and projects.

Regardless of how you employ them, the “Dance Inspiration Cards” will be a helpful, creative tool in group settings or in individual artistic exploration.

Beautiful idea. Beautifully created.


DVD Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

by Rachel Hellwig

Alice in Wonderland PicThe opening of the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland interposes a psychological basis for Wonderland. Alice (Lauren Cuthberton) is not a little girl in this version, but a young teenager who shares an infatuation with the gardener’s son Jack (Sergei Polunin). But, tsk tsk, this is the Victorian Era and Alice’s mother (Zenaida Yanowsky) disapproves of this class-disparate romance. She takes the opportunity to dismiss Jack after she erroneously believes he stole a tart. Not surprisingly, Yanowsky returns in Wonderland as the Queen of Hearts and Polunin returns as the Knave of Heart who “stole tarts”. The premise of dual characters is carried farther as family friend Lewis Carroll (Edward Watson) reappears as The White Rabbit, and tea guests such as the visiting Rajah (Eric Underwood) and Magician (Steven McRae) later morph into The Caterpillar and Mad Hatter.

Video projections are appropriately used to portray Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In the sequences that follow, a combination of projections and more traditional theatrical effects help create the famous “Eat Me” and ”Drink Me” episodes (where Alice grows and shrinks) as well as the “Pool of Tears”. All of these scenes are fun to watch, although, if you haven’t read the book in while, they might be hard to follow in places. “The Pool of Tears” is actually the most visually effective though it’s also the most conventional – dancers “swimming” in between rows of stationary scenery painted to look like waves. While suggesting just enough of reality, it retains the charm of a storybook illustration – something that is not as easy to accomplish with video projections.

A challenge in adapting Alice in Wonderland for a non-verbal medium is the fact that much of the story’s potency comes from wordplay and parodies of poems and songs. The wordplay, of course, can’t be translated into dance, but there is a perhaps a nod to it in some of the projected backgrounds which feature skies of scrambled letters. The element of parody though does find an interesting parallel in Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography which incorporates spoofs of classical ballet, most memorably in the Queen of Hearts’ botched Rose Adagio. Elsewhere, Wheeldon employs a mix of non-satirical classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and, occasionally, other styles of dance. The Mad Hatter is in fact reimagined as a tap dancer, an effect which works remarkably well.

As for the music, I admit I have mixed feelings about the original score by Joby Talbot. Of course, it makes sense that a soundscape for Alice in Wonderland would express the madness, confusion, curiosity, and even violence that are integral to the story. However, whether or not you enjoy Talbot’s approach to this will depend on your taste for modern symphonic music, which, of course, doesn’t shy away from dissonance and percussion-heavy moments. At the risk of sounding like a throwback, I think it’s harder to pull off effective dissonance than it is effective melody. So, to me, the score is most compelling when it sticks to the latter. During these moments, such as Alice and the Knave of Hearts’ courtroom pas de deux, the music takes on an engaging cinematic quality which enhances the already engaging visuals onstage.

Speaking of engaging visuals… the costumes, colors, scenery (with a small caveat about out-of-place grimness of the kitchen set with its sausage maker and pig carcasses), lighting, and overall composition of each scene is top-notch, sometimes to the degree that the designs begin to compete with the dancing for your attention. The courtroom in Wonderland just might be the best for its geometry, full prism of costumes, and a giant house of cards looming in the background.

When that house of cards literally and figuratively falls and Alice awakens in reality, we notice that she is now wearing a modern-day dress. The Knave of Hearts/Jack, sitting nearby her, is sporting a t-shirt and blue jeans. Yes, as it turns out, this story wasn’t about a Victorian youth dreaming of madness, love, confusion, and discovery based on her real-life experiences. It was instead a dream about a Victorian youth who had such a dream. Hmm… I’m not sure this conclusion is quite as interesting as the scenario seemingly set forth at the beginning.

The dancing, of course, is world-class all around, as you would expect from the Royal Ballet. As Alice, Lauren Cuthbertson is like a music-box ballerina in her seemingly effortless precision, line, and musicality – her technique so pure it’s almost startling. She also possesses a natural girlish playfulness and lightness that are ideally suited for the role. The other standout is Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts. Her acting is spot-on, and, even more impressively, her classical grace radiates so thoroughly through her every movement that you’re simultaneously in awe of how well she embodies her comical character and how she makes it so beautiful to watch — without dampening the fire of the satiric choreography.

This OpusArte DVD of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is from 2011. Since then, the Royal Ballet has revised and extended the production. I haven’t yet seen the updated version, but Sarah Crompton of The Telegraph wrote that the changes were all improvements. I truly believe that this ballet has masterpiece potential, though, as with all art, it takes time and revision to achieve that end.

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Review : Shashi Socks

by Rachel Hellwig

Shashi socks. STAR style in Sugar Plum.

Shashi socks. STAR style in Sugar Plum.

Shashi socks are designed for pilates, yoga, and barre-style workouts. They sit low on the ankle and feature slip-resistant grippers on the bottom and mesh panels on top. Mine also had a sprinkling of sparkle sequins on the mesh – the STAR style.

I loved the streamlined feel of Shashi socks and enjoyed just wearing them around the house. But, more importantly, Shashi socks achieve their objective of keeping your feet cool while you do pilates, yoga, or barre-style exercises (not traditional ballet barre exercises of course, as the grippers would interfere.)

Shashi socks require a little care when washing. The Shashi website says, “Machine wash warm inside out. Gentle cycle. Line dry.” My pair are purple (sugar plum) so I decided to wash them on a cold, delicate cycle. I noticed that a couple of sparkles came off in the process, but, other than that, they held up well. I dried them overnight (about 6 hours) and they were ready to go for a morning workout.

Overall, I really like this product. It fills the need for exercise footwear that falls in between sock and dance slipper.


Book Review: STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea by Bill T. Jones

by Katie C. Sopoci Drake

STORY/TIME: The Life of an IdeaSTORY/TIME is a three-part book that also serves as a companion piece to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s live production of Story/Time that will appear at New York Live Arts on November 4-8, 11-15 at 7:30pm. More information:

After the lengthy acknowledgements to many honored academics, distinguished artists, and an impressive list of foundations and trusts, the first thing to strike the reader soundly across the brain is a preface that warns you that what you are about to experience is really a structured event, “a performance yearning to be a document, a book” that serves as a “record of a needy, angry, and confused man” with a need “for a tradition, an intellectual home”.  After a description of the book’s layout, a hint at how you might best take in the information (an “invitation to play” or “reorder if you will”), and properly braced with what contradictions may present themselves, you delve into the first of three sections of the book.  

This first section, titled “Past Time” plunges you into Jones’ experience within the 1970‘s dance scene. You witness him meeting with the ideas of John Cage, the growing importance of his ideas on Jones’ own artistic inquiries, and are confronted with random stories and images that evoke place and history. Jones’ feelings of exclusion from the intellectual community of scholars and artists of the time surfaces within the narrative providing fire behind Jones’ evidently voracious appetite for inquiry and the contradiction within himself between “comfort” and “provocation” within his own methods of creating live performance that “reveal the most personal aspects” of himself.  

The second section, “Story/Time”, “a response to John Cage’s 1958 Indeterminacy,” is laid out like a score with dashes and brackets marking the time and random order (with the help of of 60 one-minute stories. These nuggets of prose, with words that are nudged and pulled apart on the paper to mark the passage of time, span the range of Jones’ own history and memories. Some having to do with art, some with family, some with characters from his life, certain stories swim back to the surface after their initial appearance in the first section of the book “Past Time”. Here they are washed clean of their previous context, and elevated to the status of art.STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea 

“Story/Time” begs to be read out loud. At the end of the previous section, “Past Time”, Jones gives us hints at his approach in performance which certainly invites the reader to try one or all stories in their own tongue. 17 unsentimental performance images accompany this leg of the journey giving the viewer a setting for the stories and reminds us of Jones’ questioning of his own interpretation of Cage’s theories assigning “a higher priority to the author’s intent or choices of presentation than to the audience’s capacity to interpret that intent.”

In “With Time”, the final section of the book, you read Jones’ thoughts on the direction of dance as an art-form with the benefit of having read about both his own journey towards this end and experiencing a sample of what his deep artistic inquiry has rendered. In it, he offers yet another twist in his journey in the form of praise he received from his niece in 1999 after a performance of We Set Out Early… Visibility Was Poor. Jones reveals that at that moment, she had represented another “community I had — justifiably or not — felt estranged from.”  This revelation brackets a series of “provocations” that keep circling back around within the book: detachment from emotion in art, exclusion from intellectual society, estrangement from community, the class context of searching for identity versus the search for meaning, the role of history and personal experience in experimental art. 

STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea

In a final interview with Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust, John Cage, Jones’ “icon of modernism”, is partially laid bare. Kuhn relates a story of Cage being so detached from society that he didn’t realize Jesse Jackson was black. The story doesn’t seek to embarrass the man, but to reveal a consequence of a philosophy that separates the artist from society. Directly after the interview, Jones identifies his desire to reconcile the community he grew up in with the artistic community he is immersed in and the contradiction of “choosing to engage seriously with such a socially ‘unengaged’ artist who seems to hard back to an era when the only artists who mattered where male and white. And yet engage with John Cage I must.”

As a written document, this book is clearly organized, quickly read, and dense with musings that can be dissected by dancers and non-dancers alike. As a piece of art, it is both process and product in one. The engagement and participation of audience member might be enhanced if the book is read and discussed in a group setting which makes me curious to see how it will fit with the live performance and how many people will pair the two. The experiment in creation, design and performance certainly poses many questions that, identifying as a dance artist, I found myself musing in the context of own work. Likewise, as an academic, I found I was concurrently dissecting the book for use in a future class. I found the “provocation” of personal context and its link to the audience’s experience of art particularly poignant when my thoughts swung back around to a quotation of Michel Auder which was, perhaps, not so randomly selected to end “Story/Time”: “’You motherfucker! You were thinking about yourself while watching my work!’”.

STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea 

By Bill T. Jones

Performing Arts, Dance, Memoir

108 pp. Princeton University Press. $24.95

Katie Sopoci Drake Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Katie Sopoci Drake
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Contributor Katie C. Sopoci Drake, MFA, GL-CMA, is a Washington D.C. based professional dancer, choreographer and teacher specializing in Laban-based contemporary dance. Holding an MFA in Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Graduate Certification in Laban Movement Analysis from Columbia College – Chicago, and a BA in Theatre/Dance with a minor in Vocal Performance from Luther College, Sopoci Drake continues to take classes in as many techniques and practices as she can handle to inform her work and life as a curious mover.

Katie has been on faculty at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nova Southeastern University, Miami Dade College-Wolfson, Miami Dade College-Kendall, Carthage College, and Lawrence University.  She currently guest teaches and gives masterclasses around the D.C. area and wherever her travels take her.

As a performer, Sopoci is described as a “sinuous, animal presence of great power; watching her dance is a visceral experience.” (Third Coast Digest).  Company credits include Mordine and Company Dance Theater of Chicago, Momentum Dance Company of Miami, Wild Space Dance Company of Milwaukee, and Rosy Simas Danse of Minneapolis.  Katie has also made appearances an an independent artist with many companies including Brazz Dance, Your Mother Dances, The Florentine Opera, and The Minnesota Opera.

Katie’s choreography, described as “a beautiful marriage between choreography, music and poetry” (On Milwaukee), arises from her fascination with the idiosyncrasies of daily life, and the flights of fancy that arise from ordinary inspirations.  Her work has been performed by numerous companies, colleges and studios across the country and her latest collaboration, Telephone Dance Project, will take her to states up and down the East Coast while investigating long-distance creation and connecting far-flung dance communities.


CD Review: Reimagined For Ballet Class: Pop Volume Two

Reimagined For Ballet Class: Pop Volume Two
Andrew Holdsworth

by Emily Kate Long


When REM and RAD collide, you get a mashup like Reimagined For Ballet Class: Pop Volume Two. In this 2014 release by British composer Andrew Holdsworth, many of the pop tunes (Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” or David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) are so well disguised they almost disappear—a plus for a pop-themed ballet CD, where too-obvious melodies can easily overwhelm. That isn’t to say most songs don’t jump right out, but more than many pop CDs I’ve encountered, Holdsworth’s keeps the music functional for a ballet class setting. I also found humor here—nobody would mistake Katy Perry for Strauss in the “California Gurls” waltz, but the transformation in style for this and other tracks is pretty tongue-in-cheek.

In terms of content, the disc has music for a full ballet class, plus longer versions of the allegro tracks and some samples from Holdsworth’s Classical series. The tempi are well-suited for an intermediate to advanced-level class. If you’re looking for a pop-meets-ballet CD, this is one of the better selections out there.


DVD / CD Review : Sur Les Pointes avec une Etoile and Ballet Class Music

Sur Les Pointes avec une Etoile
Ballet Class Music
Sylvain Durand, pianist
Andrey Klemm, producer
Isabelle Ciaravola, dancer

by Emily Kate Long

Sur Les Pointes

This DVD/CD pair highlights the articulate pointe work of Paris Opera etoile Isabelle Ciaravola and the exceptional musical talent of accompanist Sylvain Durand. In the 72-munite Sur Les Pointes DVD, Andrey Klemm leads Ciaravola through a fast-paced, advanced-level barre and center. The accompanying CD features all of Durand’s music from the DVD, 52 tracks for 39 exercises.

Klemm’s combinations showcase Ciaravola’s exquisite footwork. The barre is quite typical, but several center exercises are a pleasing hybrid of Russian and French style, which the Bolshoi-trained Klemm discusses further in a short interview.

Sur Les Pointes post photo 2

Sylvain Durand plays passionately throughout, and the fact that the CD was recorded live gives it tremendous energy. The sensitivity and attention to the subtle differences in dynamic is stellar, especially for the barre and allegro selections. Unfortunately, the short tracks limit the album’s overall usefulness. Only ten are longer that ninety seconds, making longer combinations or reversals inconvenient. In center, there are just a handful of pieces long enough to accommodate more than one or two groups of dancers without restarting the music.

Durand and Klemm both have other music and DVD releases available. This is their only collaboration to date.


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