by Cara Marie Gary
As a young ballet student or aspiring professional dancer, some big challenges in life usually center around getting into a top summer program, performing well in a competition, or landing that first contract with a professional company. These were certainly part of my experience, but now as a professional dancer with some seasoning and experience, the challenges that I face on a daily basis are different, but just as important.
One of the top challenges in my life as a dancer is dealing with and learning to appropriately manage pain. Fortunately, I haven’t had any major injuries while dancing professionally, but aches in my body are a daily struggle, as an average five-day rehearsal week consists of approximately 38 hours of dancing. Each morning I wake up refreshed, but often with minor aches and pains, and over the years, I’ve found some helpful remedies for this challenge. I often consult with my physical therapists about the pain I’m experiencing and they always offer specific strengthening exercises for weak areas that could be linked to the source of pain.
It’s simply part of my daily routine for my joints to snap, crackle, and pop, especially in the morning, and even though I’m used to these noises, I try to make monthly appointments with a chiropractor for proper treatment. I’ve also learned to explore and experiment with alternative techniques and have discovered a lot about what works for my body. For example, I tend to hold a lot of tension and stress in my upper back and neck. I’ve found that the best remedy for this area of pain is a technique called “cupping”. It’s an ancient form of alternative medicine that uses cups and heat to create a suction that pulls the fascia tissue towards the cup, ultimately mobilizing blood flow to promote healing. The cups are normally left on for about fifteen minutes, and once they are removed I feel an immediate release of tension and have a noticeable increased range of motion in my upper back and neck areas. This technique creates dark circles where the cups where placed, and often times my co-workers joke that it looks like I got attacked by an octopus, but I don’t mind, because cupping works miracles for me!
When my calves or hamstrings are hurting, I’ve undergone a technique called “dry needling”. This is a process similar to acupuncture, but a little more invasive, because the needle is inserted into the skin and muscle. Sometimes, the sensation of the needle hitting a trigger point makes me almost jump off the table, but the certified physical therapists are quick and efficient. At times I’ll be a little sore the next day, but the overall result pays off with lasting relief in the areas that have been targeted.
My favorite treatment, of course, is a massage – but not one of those gentle, relaxing, soft-music-playing-in-the-background kinds. I find that deep tissue massage is the best to help release knots and improve circulation. In contrast, my least favorite treatment is the ice bucket. Although it is effective, I tend to hold off on using this treatment until I can no longer stuff my swollen feet into my pointe shoes (Nutcracker season is often the culprit). Everyone has a different pain tolerance, but it’s important to not just push through the pain. Instead of continuing to torture my body, I’ve learned how important it is to deal with pain intentionally, and to find specific and effective ways to care for myself.
Personal vs Professional Life
Another challenge I face as a dancer is separating my work from my personal life. Although I’m passionate about dancing, I’m normally in the studio eight hours a day, five days a week, and I feel it’s important to focus on other interests and activities once work is completed for the day. To tackle this challenge, my roommate (also a dancer with The Joffrey Ballet) and I came up with some “house rules”.
First, we are intentional about limiting talk about work when we’re at home, and we also make sure to leave “work duties” at work – that means no bringing pointe shoes home to sew! Instead, we focus our attention on other aspects of our lives. For example, we try new recipes and often cook together, and instead of watching dance-related videos, we might turn to Netflix for a less-connected escape from reality.
We both enjoy art in other forms and have unashamedly bought into the growing phenomenon of the therapeutic adult coloring books, and I sometimes paint while my roommate designs and sews clothing for herself and others. I also enjoy crocheting, (I usually have a project or two going at a time), and on weekends I like to add brunch or a Bikram yoga class to the mix. As dancers, it’s important to recognize that we work in a very unique artistic bubble, and I’ve found that it’s healthy (and fun!) to develop boundaries and a balance between my work and my personal life.
Adapting To Change
A final challenge I face as a dancer is learning to adapt to change. I’ve found that it’s necessary to be versatile in all aspects of what my job demands. The beautiful thing about our art form is that it is constantly evolving, and dancers often have to learn to adapt to new choreography and styles as ballet and dance continue to push boundaries. It’s important to not be timid and learn to be bold when exploring new styles of movement. l try to watch and learn from fellow artists and apply corrections from ballet masters and choreographers, and I’ve found it always goes a long way to be polite and respectful to the people surrounding you as you learn together.
Dancers also have to adapt to occasional disappointments at work. Like any other job, there will be good days and bad days. Sometimes you show up to work and feel great when you’re completely on your leg and feel like you’ve had some really productive rehearsals or successful performances. Other days you might deal with situations like dealing with a painful ache, experiencing unwanted casting changes, or not seeing your name next to a desired role. I think it’s important to avoid focusing on the drama or negative feelings on those bad days. Instead, it’s important to open up your horizons to inspiration not only in the workplace, but also outside of that “ballet bubble”. That could be through studying something new, getting involved in organizations about an issue or community that matters to you, or simply getting out in your city and appreciating what makes the world around you unique.
As humans, we’re often creatures of habit and resist change, but I’ve come to realize that change is the only constant in life. Accepting this fact and learning to move forward has been an ongoing task, and I find that I deal with this challenge most successfully by choosing to adapt and learn from each experience.
Though the challenges that I now face as a professional dancer are different than my days as a young student, pursuing this career has certainly always kept me pushing myself to learn and improve in new settings and environments. Since the opportunity to dance as a career has become my daily reality, I’ve learned that challenges will always keep coming, but life is too short to not enjoy each moment. I challenge aspiring dancers to not be discouraged by the challenges they face, but to find something positive in every day, and use that determined perspective to keep moving toward their goals.
Contributor Cara Marie Gary is a native of Belton, South Carolina. She joined The Joffrey Ballet in July 2012. Prior to joining The Joffrey Ballet, Ms. Gary danced with American Ballet Theatre’s ABTII and was an apprentice with Orlando Ballet. Ms. Gary began her formal ballet training at International Ballet Academy in Greer, South Carolina, under Hennadii Bespechnyi and Vlada Kvsselova. Ms. Gary received additional training at summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre, Brianskv Saratoga Ballet Center, Ukrainian Academy of Dance South Carolina Governors School, Ballet Spartanburg, and Chautauqua Institution. Ms. Gary graduated with honors from Belton-Honea Path High School and is currently pursuing a Business Administration degree online through North Greenville University.
In 2010, Ms. Gary was a competitor in the IX USA International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi. She was a top twelve finalist in the Youth America Grand Prix National Finals in 2008 and 2009. She also received the overall Grand Prix Award in the 2009 YAGP regional semi-finals. In 2006, she was awarded a Diploma of Laureate at the VI Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition held in Kiev, Ukraine.
Ms. Gary has had the opportunity to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Ms. Gary has performed the title role in classical ballets such as The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Don Quixote, Paquita, Markitanka pas de six, and Coppelia. Her repertoire with ABT II includes roles in the Flame of Paris pas de deux, Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, Antony Tudor’s Continuo, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Stars and Stripes pas de deux, Jessica Lang’s Vivace Motifs, Roger Vanfleteren’s Pavlovsk, Jodi Gate’s A Taste of Sweet Velvet, Aszure Barton’s Barbara, and Edward Liang’s Ballo Per Sei. Ms. Gary has performed roles in new choreography by Robert Hill. Her repertoire with Orlando Ballet also consists of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake.
“If you will patiently dance in our round
And see our moonlight revels, go with us.”
In 1962, New York City Ballet premiered George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on Shakespeare’s comedy of love and magic. I remember thinking how ingenious this ballet was the first time I saw it.
I first became involved with the classic love story while training with Boston Ballet. At age 16, I performed as a hound dog, a member of the court, and an epilogue fairy. Needless to say, it was an exciting and eye-opening experience. Also, it was my first time working with Boston Ballet.
Now, 10 years later, I am revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my professional career. This time, I have been given the opportunity to learn a variety of roles, including Hermia, Act II Divertissement, and Fairies.
The ballet was set in June 2015 by Sandra Jennings. Since then, we have been coached on various sections of the production. As the performances approached, Sandra put the final touches on the show before it opened in March.
Along with revisiting the ballet, I am also revisiting working with Sandra Jennings. When I first performed the production with Boston Ballet, Sandra was staging it. At the time, I was training with Sandra’s mom, Jacqueline Cronsberg, and continued to work with her for many years. It has been a rare opportunity to work with both of them in my career.
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
– Lysander to Hermia
During the staging process, I spent time reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream so I understood the characters on a deeper level. Most importantly, I learned that Shakespearian comedy is different from modern-day comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies are stories with happy endings–their main purpose isn’t to make the audience laugh, although they often contain many incidents of humor.
Once rehearsals started, I was able to shape the characters by what I read, especially Hermia. MCB Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez, who danced the role of Hermia’s rival Helena during her career, coached Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander along with other characters in the ballet.
Lourdes also brought in playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney to help us act out conversations and misunderstandings between characters. Our narrative is visual, so learning how to lay out a conversation without words for the audience can be tricky. But challenges like these are among the many things that make this art form so rewarding and exciting. I look forward to continuing my journey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream during our final weekend of performances.
Nor spell nor charm
Come our lovely lady night.
So good night, with lullaby.
– Fairies’ song
Miami City Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale from April 9-10, 2016.
New dance medicine book to share! “Safe Dance Practice” is written by three British colleagues of mine in the dance medicine world, Edel Quin / Sonia Rafferty / Charlotte Tomlinson. All three are involved with IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science), Safe in Dance International (SIDI), and are all MSc graduates of the Dance Science program at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London UK). They have been long-involved in dance medicine and science, aka Dance Wellness, aka Safe Dance Practice (a British term), and have put together their invaluable knowledge and experience in writing this book – giving teachers and dancers a solid grounding for training healthy dancers who will be better equipped to dance many long years, in the best possible condition. The book is a great addition to your dance medicine and science library – Please pass it on!
by Sonia Rafferty, Charlotte Tomlinson and Edel Quin
What It Isn’t!
The term “safe dance practice” often conjures up the vision of a checklist of boring, restrictive, and often unnecessary health and safety regulations. As dancers, choreographers, and teachers, we certainly don’t want to be held back in our artistic endeavours by recommendations that we think will limit our creative risk-taking capacity.
Fortunately, the upsurge of interest and increasing knowledge in safe dance practice will help us to do exactly the opposite. We can support artistic challenge by helping dancers to train and work at their best, but also heed the potential reasons for the high injury rate that has been observed in a wide variety of different dance styles.
Who Is It For?
Safe dance practice is important for dancers of any age and any ability. It is not simply for the elite “racehorse” of a dancer, at risk because of high-level demands, or the dancer who perhaps could be seen to be more prone to injury because of lack of technicality or physical ability.
Knowing how to work safely and effectively is relevant for everyone – for dancers themselves who can take responsibility for protecting and maintaining their readiness to dance, and for teachers who are trusted with instructing the dancing bodies. Add to that list the choreographers who use the expertise and abilities of dancers to create innovative and challenging works, and the artistic directors and managers who rehearse those dancers and organise their schedules.0
by Grier Cooper
You work hard during ballet class because you know your hard work will pay off. But how do you know what’s working and what isn’t? Aside from occasional comments or critiques from your teachers, you don’t. But you can change that! By implementing this simple journaling process, you can track your progress so you have a clear idea.
You’ll be doing some writing so you’ll need a small sketchbook or journal (choose a pretty one!) and a pen. Be sure to give yourself a few minutes before and after class to read through the questions and write down your thoughts. This process is just for you, so keep it light, simple and fun.
Before class begins, do the following:
Set an intention
Take a few moments to set an intention. An intention is a purpose, or a desired action or result. Close your eyes and ask yourself what your intention is for this particular class. The answer may come as a thought, feeling or vision. Write down whatever comes to mind, even if it’s just one word. An example might be wanting to feel centered and grounded throughout class. Setting an intention can be quite powerful because it helps us focus on what’s most important.
Choose your goals
Next, write down 2-3 goals. Keep them simple and achievable. You may be struggling with en dedans pirouettes, for example. While you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to pull off a triple turn by the end of class, your goal could be to ask your teacher or a friend to watch your turns and help you determine what’s off.
After class is finished, set aside a few moments to jot down responses to the following questions. Since this is a self-assessment, be honest (and fair… dancers are often their own worst critics) when you answer.
- What did I do well?
- Where do I need to improve?
List at least three answers to each question and make sure it’s a balanced list with the same number of things for each category. Remember: it’s just as important to acknowledge what you did well, perhaps even more so, since this area is often overlooked–most dancers are too busy being hard on ourselves.
Taking a few minutes every day to work with this journaling process is a powerful tool will help you stay focused and give you a clear picture of your performance in class. Work with it regularly and you’ll never leave class again wondering how you did. Over time you’ll be able to track your results and achievements.
Grier Cooper left home at fourteen to study at the School of American Ballet and has performed San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and others, totaling more than thirty years of experience as a dancer, teacher and performer. She blogs about dance and has interviewed and photographed a diverse collection dancers and performers including Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman, Glen Allen Sims and Jessica Sutta. She is the author of the Indigo Ballet Series ballet novels for young adults. Visit Grier at http://www.griercooper.com0
I’ve known Peter Quanz since our ballet training years at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet Professional Division. I have always admired Peter for his courage as a choreographer in taking on supreme artistic challenges and creating inventive, thought-provoking art. It has been a joy to see Peter succeed in what is an incredibly demanding and difficult career path.
I was thrilled that Peter agreed to share with 4dancers readers a bit about his life-changing adventures; his passion and drive for creating cutting edge choreography; and of course, his lovely humanity in connecting with artists across vastly different disciplines and languages. We spoke for about an hour over Skype while he was on a break from rehearsals. – Karen Musey
KM You have had an illustrious career and have explored many different avenues of work as a choreographer. What has prompted you to branch out?
PQ I’m very excited that I’ve been working as a choreographer now for over 20 years. And that has given me an incredible life, with experiences that I’d never expected I would encounter. I’m looking forward to more.
I’ve really tried to choose projects that scare me. If I don’t face a project in sheer terror with the feeling of “I’m not skilled enough for this”, then there’s an excitement that’s going to be missing.
KM You make bold choices and continually seek out opportunities to collaborate – how have these different experiences informed your perspective as a choreographer?
PQ I am currently collaborating with Montréal Danse for the creation of a new piece. To spark the creative genesis of the piece, Artistic Director, Kathy Casey proposed a question to me – “How would you make a dance if you didn’t consider the audience?”. That flummoxed me, because for me, one of my hang ups is trying to gauge what an audience is going to relate to. But if you always try to make something an audience will like, soon you will end up only sitting in the audience with them.
We started out with an initial two week rehearsal period. We spent the better part of it figuring out different ways of connecting as a group of people, when I suddenly realized that what was most interesting about this collaboration was the bond that we had as a team. The idea became how to find a way to create a social connection with the audience: essentially, a “social experiment”.
We are now building a durational production where the whole audience is animated the whole time through technology. They will be using their phone and their signals will be turned on. We are playing with people’s connection to their phones. We are seeing the phone as an extension of their bodies, as an extension of themselves. We are playing with the idea of how we can be drawn together through this immediate technology while not getting so disconnected from ourselves physically that it ceases to be dance.
KM An interesting paradox.
PQ Oh it’s been fantastic! We are finding ways of using the phones to show us our bodies and our movement in ways you can’t see in a normal performance. We are using video that is taken live, utilizing different perspectives to see parts of an image; using the settings on the phone to both create light or diminish what you see in an image. This is how we build “community” in this performance; and we risk in being brought close together with an audience in an artistic relationship, which is very exciting.
No one on our team has ever done a project like this. We are learning how to define what is happening without over defining things, because this choreography is not about steps. One of our dancers coined the phrase “aesthetic of the situation”.
I’m interested in revealing how artists think in spontaneous ways, how they make choices based on their knowledge of movement and performance; I’m curious about dancers themselves being the vulnerable material from which our experience emerges.”
The work with dancers I have in Montréal requires a sensitivity to an ever shifting relational dynamic – between the artist, their relationships to technology and the structure we have all defined as a group. In contrast with that process, I’ve gone off to work with very classical ballet companies setting choreography that is highly determinate of the music and relates closely to architectural structures in movement, which of course has to be very precise.
KM What are you currently creating with your company, Q Dance?0
by Alessa Rogers
Mixed repertory programs can be a tough sell for ballet companies. Audiences are more willing to shell out money and time to see something familiar; like the story ballets Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, of which they already know what to expect and are thus more comfortable. Marquis productions are what bring in the money with their splashy titles, character-driven works, happy or not so happy endings. But there is a younger sibling to the more traditional full-length narrative ballet that deserves just as much audience respect–the mixed repertory program.
Mixed rep defined
A mixed rep show is a stylistically diverse program of multiple shorter works–generally 3 or 4 pieces, each around 15-30 minutes in length, and usually all by different choreographers. Some follow a narrative arc where others are movement for movement’s sake. Unless an artistic director has chosen a unifying theme for the program the pieces stand-alone and are unrelated which leads to a surprising, fresh and exciting program.
In this day and age of instant gratification, a mixed rep show may just be what an entry-level balletomane needs. A 20 minute piece followed by a break to check in to the theater on Facebook and send a few selfies in your theatre-going finery followed by another 15 minute burst of culture a couple more times? Yes this is what 21st century audiences can do at a mixed rep show! No need to buckle your seatbelt for a 3 and a half hour show of the same tortured heroine (though that is perfect for some people). The commitment is less but the pay off is still great. It’s like being served 3 of the most exquisite appetizers and not even needing to order an entrée because you are so satisfied from that.
But besides the practical logistics of maintaining your social life while gaining some culture cred, mixed reps offer something really special. I did a little bit of market research while writing this post, i.e., I asked my boyfriend what he thinks about mixed reps. He is a typical young American male engineer who likes watching basketball, playing chess and not going to ballets (until he met me that is–now he is horrified that he might have missed out on all those Nutcrackers!) Turns out, mixed rep programs are his favorite shows to go to. “They are good for people with short attention spans and there is more of a chance to see something you really like because there are three distinct pieces. Sometimes a piece might be weird and polarizing but in the end that makes it more exciting. And you are exposing yourself to the most density of dance experience in a short amount of time.” (Did I mention he has a Ph.D.? He is very smart and should be trusted.)
21st Century ballet
Mixed rep programs are fun because you never know quite what to expect. This is not stereotypical ballet. In a single show you might see classical ballet, neoclassical, contemporary, a blurring of all of these, or something completely different. There was one mixed rep at Atlanta Ballet that had not one single pointe shoe the entire evening. There were cowboy boots and jazz shoes and bare feet but nary a pointe shoe in sight. This is ballet? Yes, this is ballet in the 21st century and it is glorious. Mixed reps are where ballet evolves and grows up and changes with the times. This is where performers and audiences stretch themselves to the limits, breathing new life into an old art form.
In a mixed rep program at Atlanta Ballet the audience is treated to some of the world’s greatest choreographers, like Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Jorma Elo. These in-demand dance makers from all over the world are heading South with their ballets. Atlantans don’t have to travel to places like New York and Europe to see these masters. They are coming here. At the same time, many companies use mixed reps to foster their budding in-house choreographers. In a 2014 mixed rep program, I was fortunate enough to be in pieces by internationally acclaimed choreographers Alexei Ratmansky and Ohad Naharin, but it ended up being Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee’s premiere that was most special to me. There is a different dynamic in being choreographed on by a fellow dancer. She knows everything about me as a dancer, what I’m good at, what I’m bad at (and still cast me!), and it formed a kind of trust between her and her cast that was so strong.
In the program Atlanta Ballet is currently preparing for, all three works were world premieres on Atlanta Ballet at one point or another. When new pieces are being created, the studio is fecund with creativity, energy and excitement. Mixed rep shows are where we get to work with choreographers we have always dreamed of working with. I think at Atlanta Ballet this is really where we shine–in collaboration and in versatility. Working with these choreographers in such varied styles is how dancers become versatile artists. Young dancers often get their first chances to be featured and shine alongside virtuosic veterans. It can be hard on a body to go from Possokhov’s Classical Symphony to Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s El Beso in the same night because the qualities are completely different but we crave the challenge. It fills us up. Mixed reps are where we find and push our edges. Even if there is one piece we don’t particularly like or isn’t suited to us we can work on growing in that one and really enjoy the next. There are extremes and there is balance and there is, always, beauty and joy.
When it comes to mixed rep programs, there are plenty of reasons to attend. Choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano shares some thoughts on the value of experiencing a range of different contemporary dances:
Atlanta Ballet’s 20/20: Visionary program is a mixed rep offering that runs from March 18th through March 20th, 2016. Tickets are still available.
Contributor Alessa Rogers began her dance training with Daphne Kendall and left home at fourteen to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. Upon graduation she spent one season with North Carolina Dance Theatre II before joining Atlanta Ballet where she has been for the past eight years.
Favorite roles at Atlanta Ballet include Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, Margaret in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s The Exiled, Lucy in Michael Pink’s Dracula, Ophelia in Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, Lover Girl in David Bintley’s Carmina Burana, and Princess Irene in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin.
She has performed works by Jorma Elo, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin, Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Hampson, Dwight Rhoden and Tara Lee. She has been a guest artist with the National Choreographers Initiative in California and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, N.C.
In her spare time she likes to read, write, cook vegetables, meditate, travel and rock climb.0