Wednesday, November 20, 2019

In Conversation with Firefighter-Ballerina Duncan McDougall

Through grueling hours of rehearsing and performing, injuries, setbacks and pushing their bodies and creative minds to the limit, dancers stick together. They support each other, emotionally and physically. To be part of a cohesive group where you’re one of many, moving and breathing in connection with everyone around you, is an amazing experience. You’re not alone; you’re in a community, surrounded by others with the same love and passion for music and movement.

I like to think that’s why a large group of dancers is called an ‘ensemble’, the French term for ‘together’.

The boy in question was Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While reporting on the many subjects the 6 year old prince would be taking this year at school, Spencer pulled a face when she mentioned Prince George “loves ballet” and told a laughing audience, while laughing along with them: “Prince William, we’ll see how long that lasts.”

That’s right: a grown woman with a huge public platform made fun of a little boy for enjoying a dance class. Her derision insinuated it’s wrong for a boy to love dancing and her laughter perpetuated the attitude that it’s okay to mock and make fun of boys who dance. In 2019, an era that’s post-Glee, post-Billy Elliot, where films like La La Land and Bohemian Rhapsody feature male leads that sing and dance, it’s disappointing this kind of backward-thinking, ignorant behavior is still prevalent.

So it’s not surprising Spencer’s comments raised an even bigger stink than unwashed tights at the bottom on your dance bag and the response from the dance world was as swift as the grandest grand-battement. Dancers from across the ballet world took to social media to both defend Prince George from those insensitive comments and condemn Lara Spencer for making them:

New York City Ballet Principal Ashley Bouder, a mom to daughter Violet and fierce champion of gender equality in dance and beyond wrote:  “I am outraged by Lara Spencer’s comments…you’ve just bullied thousands of boys around the world.”

Actor Dulé Hill credited his roles in The West Wing and Suits to his dance training, and voiced his support for young boys who dance: “Dare to dream, dare to dance…and you know what? Boys dance too.”

Former So You Think You Can Dance and current Shaping Sound dancer and choreographer Travis Wall posted a video to his Instagram where he called out Spencer for “bullying a child and being a bully” and captioned it with “Wake up. It’s 2019”. It has over a million views. 

Former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Robbie Fairchild also joined in online, telling Prince George “I hope your love of ballet lasts forever”.

Remember when I said dancers stick together?

Wall and Fairchild then partnered up and taught a huge master ballet class in Times Square, in full view of the GMA studio, to over 300 dancers. Spencer eventually reached out to them and they were joined instudio by Joffrey Ballet dancer Fabrice Calmels, where they all shared their experiences growing up as dancers with the outdated, narrow views Spencer expressed regarding boys and dance. In the end, Lara Spencer apologized for her remarks, those great male dancers accepted and hopefully, the message that it’s NOT okay to belittle and make fun of anyone who dances will finally sink into the greater societal conscience.

To me, the most positive thing to come out of all this was the opportunity to keep these conversations about gender expectations/bias and dance going. I recently caught up with my cousin, Duncan McDougall, via WhatsApp and he shared his own perspectives on being a male dancer and balancing all the different sides of himself.

Duncan dancing in Paris.
Photo credit: Duncan McDougall, Facebook

EM: Let’s start from the top: How old were you when you started dancing?

DM: I was 8 years old. I remember my Dad made it sound really fun and he also said something like,  ‘do it, girls will love it/you!’, which in hindsight, is interesting that he felt he had to ‘spin it’ that way to get me to buy into it…I started with tap, ballet and hip hop.

EM: Why did you start dancing?

DM: Well, I was already taking gymnastics, so it was just another way to blow off energy. We’re a performing arts/artistic family: my dad (Dave McDougall), is a drama teacher and an actor/director with community theatre here in Camrose, my mom used to do the costumes for the shows. Musical theatre is a familiar world to me.

EM: I remember one time when I was about 16/17 years old and I showed your dad a video of one of my solo performances from competition and you were super jealous! And then not long after that, you started dancing.

Dancing at 'That Tower'. Keeping it in the family.
Photo credit: Duncan McDougall, Facebook

DM: Oh yeah? That’s funny! Well, I guess there was an element of competition or “spite”: my cousins did it, so I wanted to do it and do it better! (Laughs) I think I wanted to rebel a bit too, get attention, be a different kind of boy, not a jock.

EM: Did you have a favorite style when you younger/getting started?

DM: Well, I didn’t love tap, I only did it for about two years. And it felt like I just had too much energy for ballet…for me, it was always hip hop, and then modern too.

EM: Why those styles?

DM: I think they’re the most versatile; the styles that are big crowd pleasers, which is a lot of fun, the entertainment aspect. For me, Hip hop is the best for working off steam, just letting it all out: anger, joy, etc. It’s where I feel it’s the most important to be aware, to be moving in space with other people. It’s a release. And I love the music of hip hop. It’s just fun; it’s the most freedom in dance.

EM: Now to get down to the serious stuff: what was it like to be a male dancer in Camrose, Alberta?

DM: Well…Camrose is a small town with a really strong hockey culture… there were definitely people who just didn’t understand why I liked dancing. But it wasn’t an issue to the people who really knew me. I did hear stuff, I put up with a lot of homophobic comments because people can be ignorant and they don’t understand, or try to understand and it made me angry for sure…there were anti-bullying programs in school but honestly, I just had more friends who were girls. I didn’t hang out with a lot of other guys because of that close-minded mentality/toxic masculinity.

EM: What did you think about Lara Spencer’s comments about Prince George and ballet?

DM: I was annoyed, like when I heard about it, I was like “Seriously? This is still a thing?” It was big on social media.

EM: Why did you stop dancing?

DM: Honestly, Erin, I was just tired of the dance studio politics. I just wasn’t fun anymore, so I quit when I was in Grade 10.

EM: What brought you back to the dance studio?

DM: Well, I realized I’d missed it for some time. I went through some stuff, I lost my good friend PJ in 2011 who I danced with, I needed to deal with other losses: like Grandma Ar [our grandma took her own life in 2011], my aunt Cheryl died in a car accident, my parents got divorced. I also got into firefighting, which can be super intense…So I went back to dancing in 2015. I was post-break up. I just went to St. Albert for a class at 3rd Street Beat with a teacher who taught PJ and I connected with Luke, the teacher after class. We talked for a long time afterwards and it was like everything just made sense. I even got back into competing; and I got back on stage at the Jubilee Auditorium, which was just awesome.
I just had to find a way to let out my emotions/feelings. I needed a way to express myself, work stuff out.

EM: What’s your greatest strength as a dancer?

DM: Stage presence, charisma. I know how to “sell it”. My confidence.

EM: What’s your greatest challenge?

DM: Um…patience, definitely…everyone learns at different speeds. That kind of thing.

EM:Tell me about your Instagram account, firefighter_ballerina. Why that name?

DM: Well, it’s two things that are important to me. I’ve given a talk at the U of A about masculinity and  masculine ideals. There are positives to both for sure. It’s about how to balance strength and vulnerability. For me, dance is an outlet to express vulnerability.

I think “be a man” are the three scariest words anyone can say to a boy. They just squash those feelings, that vulnerability. It makes them feel wrong; like they’re not good enough. We need a better balance. Firefighter-Ballerina is who I am: both things balance each other. Firefighting is a super masculine profession; dance makes me an artist, someone who expresses himself.

EM: How is dance part of your life today? Goals for the future?

DM : I teach drop in classes in Camrose, which are so fun. I’ve also done choreography for The Church Mice Theatre productions and I’ve worked with people with special needs with the Centra Cam Vocational Training Association. I’m a proud almun of the Esks Force [the dance troupe for the CFL Edmonton Eskimos], I’m doing some dance/animation classes in Edmonton. I want to get involved with dance in the Netherlands, where my girlfriend lives. She’s a ballet dancer.

EM: Last question: what would you say to a younger version of yourself or to other young male dancers, ones who might be struggling with outside comments/expectations?

DM: Well, first I’d like to think I wouldn’t say much because I’d want to listen to what they have to say. I guess I’d want to tell them they should dance because they want to; the rewards of it pay off; you’ll learn so much/how to take in information. Don’t listen to the ignorance; do what you want.

EM: Thank you so much, Duncan! I’m so proud of you!

DM: Thanks, Cousin. I’m proud of you too.

Original Duncan McDougall choreography
 Posted with permission from Duncan McDougall


Proud is an understatement.

Dancers stand together and dance brings people together. 

To any young dancers, especially young boys, reading this post, you are part of a beautiful art form and it is made better because you are part of it. Remember the love when you're up against adversity. Remember Travis Wall, Robbie Fairchild and Fabrice Calmels once stood where you are are. Remember Duncan McDougall is standing among the many great male dancers you can look up to on your journey. 

Dance on, Dancers Abroad!

You can check out more of Duncan’s dancing and choreography on his Instagram, firefighter-ballerina.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Backstreet Boys in Paris

“I’ve been to Paris…”

Cue the screaming of thousands of Backstreet Boys fans that drowned out the next line of their new song, No Place. I think it’s something about Rome but who cares? The Boys were singing about Paris, our city. And there they were IN PARIS! Singing to US!

Among those screaming fans, shamelessly reliving their youth and singing their hearts out at the AccorHotel Arena, fitting in perfectly with the early to mid-30s demographic, was me. I even wore the same leather jacket I bought when I was 16, because something that classic never goes out of style.

As another boy band would say, oh what a night.

The late 90s/early 2000s nostalgia was super thick; the pre-show music may as well have been lifted from the VHS tape I’d once made of all my favorite music videos: Brandy and Monica’s The Boy is Mine, Jennifer Paige’s Crush, TLC’s Waterfalls, and Aqua’s Barbie Girl, etc. etc. Then those three unforgettable notes dropped – Da Da-Da – and everyone was chanting Oh Baby Baby right along with Britney Spears.

Wait – didn’t her loyalties lie more with NSYNC, than BSB? Whatever. It was a fitting musical choice regardless that got the crowd going.

As my friends and I bopped along to this high school soundtrack and offered the occasional guess as to what song they’d play next, we had the all-important discussion of which BSB member was our favorite. I had two: Brian, who always felt like the lead singer, and Nick, because he bore a striking resemblance to the guy who lived across the street when I was in high school and who I – surprise! – had a crush on. Brian was a favorite among my crew but most of my friends expressed more of an interest AJ, the one with all the tattoos and the bad boy reputation, than Nick. I neither liked nor disliked AJ, but since he didn’t have Brian’s voice or Nick’s hair, 16 year-old Erin just wasn’t that interested.

Then the lights dimmed and The Boys finally danced their way out and back into our teen/middle-aged hearts.

The DNA Tour doesn’t have the spectacle of their arena shows from the early 2000s heyday: no band, no backup dancers, no pyrotechnics or flying from the rafters – think their video for The One. But what it lacked in glitz, it made up for in grit as they performed for two straight hours. That’s 33 songs, a mix of their old classics like Get Down and Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely, and new hits like Chances and No Place from the DNA album.
And boy, do they still have the moves.

Anyone who remembers all the words to their mega-hits will also recall the choreography and they gave us exactly what we wanted: ‘hat dance’ from All I Have to Give, and the Thiller-esque sequence from Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). But one notable sequence was missing from their dance greatest hits: the ‘chair dance’ from As Long as You Love Me. Oh well; I wasn’t the only one doing the arm movements in its absence.

Speaking of As Long as You Love Me, I have to hold that one up as a prime example of lyrics that have not aged well:

I don’t care who you are,
Where you’re from,
What you did,
As long as you love me.

I know my teenaged self was all “aw, that’s so sweet and unconditional and accepting!” but my 35 year old self thinks “I do care what you did and about who you are and since those things are influenced by where you’re from, I actually do care about that too”.

There’s also this gem:

Doesn’t really matter if you’re on the run,
Seems like we’re meant to be.

Um, what?! It DOES matter if you’reon the run”. It matters a great deal. Why are you “on the run?” On the run seems like it would earn a very big checkmark in the ‘Not Meant to Be’ column, if I were to make a list of such things.

But who thinks of that when there are cute boys singing and dancing with hats?

Their voices held up almost as well as their moves throughout the show. They took turns having solo chats with the crowd where they apologized for having limited French and spoke slowly as though they wanted to make sure everyone could understand their English. There was a particularly funny entr’acte where Kevin and AJ bantered with the fans while changing their clothes onstage, tastefully, behind a set of folding screens and even tossed their (sweaty) underwear into the crowd.

They got a warm reception from their new fans but that paled in comparison to the cheers of the fans “who’ve been there with us on this journey for the past 26 years”; a very nice way of saying ‘the old fans’. Thank you, Brian!

Then I thought about it – 26 years of the Backstreet Boys. Which puts me at age 11 when they came on the scene in 1995. Jeez, Brian, way to make me feel old. But I got over it when they sang their acapella song Breathe, followed by the new hit, No Place.

No Place is a grown-up ballad where instead of making the grand, sweeping promise I’ll Never Break Your Heart (which they also performed), it celebrates coming home to love, family and everyday life. The music video mirrors this perfectly with scenes of the Boys spending time with their wives and kids; the Mom-Porn equivalent of getting drenched in the rain circa Quit Playing Games with my Heart. They did that one too, with the entire arena singing backup on the ‘na-na-nas’.

When they took their final group bow at the end of I Want it That Way, it was euphoric.

“It’s everything, isn’t it? They sang it all,” I yelled to my friend beside me. I was all screamed out and exhausted, for me and for them. “What’s left to encore?”

“Larger than Life, baby!” she yelled back. She was right and we scream-welcomed them back for their encore.

And did my two favorites stand the test of time and a two-hour performance? I have to say, I get it now: I am Team AJ.

It’s not because he’s the best looking – outside of his best, first outfit of leather jacket, sunglasses and hat, he wore weird combinations of floral prints and plaid, which made him look like he let his kids dress him – it’s because he’s the most talented. He's got the voice. He sang lead on most of the hits and he was incredible. Team AJ!  That’s the way I like it.

I never thought I’d get to see the Backstreet Boys in concert; much less in Paris. It was the perfect mix of classics, new stuff and old-school dancing, shared with a great group of friends.

The whole night had it going on. My inner-16 year old wanted it that way.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Edmonton, AB, Canada: BooTy® Fitness Class

Strong are bonds of friendship forged in dance class and it was such a joy on my most recent trip home to the True North Strong and Free, to reconnect with a friend in our natural habitat: a dance studio.

At La Girandole dance studio, in Edmonton’s La Cité Francophone, my sister and I partook in BooTy®, a class that combines “music, movement, fitness and yoga” in a fun, supportive, non-judgmental workout environment, led by my great friend Karen Zimmerman.

Karen and I met in a dance class in 2005, when we were both students and members of Orchesis, the University of Alberta’s Modern Dance Group. Over the years, we’ve danced through many Orchesis Motifs and closing night parties, summer jazz classes, post-Oilers victories and defeats at the bar (Karen’s then-boyfriend, now- husband, David, taught me how to two-step during the Oilers playoff run in 2006), each other’s dance-themed stagettes, and our weddings. The natural next step – pun intended – has been both of our journeys into teaching dance, as well as continuing to shake it ourselves.

Dance is at the center of our friendship and I was so excited to take a class she was leading. Karen is a warm, upbeat and kind soul, which makes her a natural to lead Edmonton’s BooTy® class. Her class is fun, energetic, supportive and challenging for women of all backgrounds and body types. We recently caught up over a long-distance phone call to chat more about her involvement with BooTy® and what she finds most rewarding about being Edmonton’s BooTy® Leader:

EM: How did you find out about BooTy® and the teacher training?

KZ: One of my cousins is a BooTy® Leader (we prefer to call ourselves ‘leaders’, rather than teachers) in Stettler and she encouraged me to come to her class. I really enjoyed it and not long after, I met Tara [Newbigging, the creator of BooTy®] when she led a workshop in Stettler. I actually only took two classes before I took the Leader Training.

EM: What drew you to the program?

KZ: It’s really fun and the class atmosphere is great! I hate working out in a gym; I prefer to take classes, like dance or yoga. I’ve tried barre fitness and I enjoyed it, but there’s something much more freeing about BooTy®, in my opinion, since it’s more choreography-based. I’ve been a trained dancer since I was three years old, so finding this dance-cardio class just felt like a perfect fit. It just feels like I’m dancing but I happen to be working out as well!

EM: I also prefer to take classes, rather than straight-up work out. Way more fun and I agree, a great class atmosphere is key. How would you describe the atmosphere of BooTy®?

KZ: It’s all about creating a sense of community: a supportive, non-judgmental environment where women can just let go and have fun while moving. For the physical atmosphere, I prefer soft lighting to harsh florescent lights, because it helps everyone feel more comfortable in front of the dance studio mirrors, and I turn the music up loud so we can really let it go. It’s a safe space to move and sweat and have fun.

EM: Before becoming a BooTy® Leader, had you ever taught dance before?

KZ: Not really, but I’m a former tour guide from the Alberta Legislature, so I’m used to public speaking and I feel pretty comfortable in front of people.

EM: How would you describe the style of BooTy® class?

KZ: It’s a little bit of everything: dance, yoga, really just movement set to music with a cardio element. We use a playlist of 200 songs and the music really drives the flow. The songs are meant to be empowering and inspiring, to really make women feel good. We also put a lot of emphasis on the Shavasna [the corpse/resting pose] portion at the end of class. We set it to a powerful/meaningful song that the ladies can take in and release tension.

The choreography element, I think, is really great for building a mind-body connection because you do have to think in order to follow along with the movement, but there’s no judgment when you don’t get it perfectly. Dance stimulates different parts of the brain, so it’s a mental workout too.

EM: What do you find the most rewarding about BooTy®?

KZ: Definitely getting to meet the women who come out to class. BooTy® attracts the kindest, most incredible women of different ages and backgrounds. We’re creating new friendships, we’re starting to go out after class and to get to know each other outside of class. It’s so great too, while in class, when I see how hard they’re working, how they keep going when they make mistakes, and how much fun they’re having. The people are the best part for sure.

EM: What would you say to encourage someone, a first-timer, maybe someone who doesn’t have a lot or any dance experience, to give BooTy® a shot?

KZ: I would just say, just come and try it out; it’s such a supportive, encouraging, non-judgmental class. It’s amazing to see women trying something and getting better. You’ve got this!

I couldn’t agree more. Plus, the first class is FREE! You have nothing to lose, so go for it. You’ve definitely got this.

I should add, as the photo clearly indicates, that I was 24 weeks pregnant when I took the class (our baby is due anytime now!) and though I had to make a few modifications to the choreography (no burpees for me!), my heart was pumping and I got my sweat on. The next day was all ‘Hello Calf Muscles and Quads! It’s been awhile!’ To me, that’s one of the marks of a great dance workout: fun, challenging and leaves you feeling it a bit the next day.

I stand by my previous disclaimer regarding dancing/working out while pregnantI’m not a healthcare professional, I checked with my midwife, I know my body and I didn’t push myself beyond what I knew I could do safely – and I strongly encourage any mamas-to-be to check with their doctors regarding safe exercise practices.

For more information about BooTY®, Leader Training opportunities, or to find a class in your area, check out the website:

You can also find info regarding BooTy® in Edmonton on Facebook: BooTy® Edmonton.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The National Ballet of Canada: Nijinsky

When the National Ballet of Canada announced it was going to tour Paris this fall, I couldn’t wait to cheer on my fellow Canadians in the City of Light. One of my family members even suggested that I wear my Team Canada jersey to the ballet. A fun thought for sure, but I bought a new dress instead – two actually – because it’s not every day the celebrated ballet company from my home country comes to my adopted home, to show Parisian audiences how we dance in the True North Strong and Free.

NBC’s production of Nijinsky was a poignant choice for their first performance in Paris in 45 years.  Choreographed by John Neumeier, it chronicles the life, the brilliance and the struggles of the great dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, who rose to stardom with the Ballets Russes in Paris in the early 1900s.

Performing on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, where Nijinksy himself danced and where his own ballets were performed, added an extra layer of significance for this momentous tour. Théâtre des Champs Élysées is in the heart of the 8th arrondissement, on the upscale Avenue Montaigne. It is a beautiful, intimate theatre space, perfect for such an emotionally charged production as Nijinsky. It also doesn’t hurt that the glittering top of the Eiffel Tower is in full view from its front steps.

The ballet opens in silence as theatre goers from 1919 gather to witness a performance by the man of the hour. He arrives wrapped in a white sheet, his gaze unresponsive, emanating an air of mystery and melancholy as audience members on both sides of the stage wait for him to come to life. The chair he sits in and the theatre set around him anchors the ballet in a specific moment in time, perhaps one of the last performances he gives before spending the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions, and we revisit this place at key moments in the ballet.

The ballet is a kaleidoscope of memories and defining moments from his life. We see glimpses from his performance of the Golden Slave in the controversial Scheherazade, based on the One Thousand and One Nights, Le Spectre de la Rose  and his own ballets Jeux, and The Rites of Spring. The dancers flit in and out like shadows, representing the choruses and the various characters from Nijinsky’s life on the stage, as well the rigid society, his adoring public and the ravages of war.

When the theatre set reappeared with its audience clapping and cheering in slow motion as soldiers marched and fell among them at the end of Act One, the effect was chilling. The juxtaposition of the slow motion against the feverish speed of Nijinsky’s solo struck me as a powerful way to depict events set in motion, beyond anyone’s control and his powerlessness to stop his mind from breaking down.

It was a dream to see the starring roles of Nijinsky and his wife Romola danced by the National Ballet’s superstar and real-life couple Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden with intense passion, chemistry, fire and heartbreak. Nijinsky’s conflicted, intoxicating relationship with his mentor and lover Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, is also highlighted, danced with power and menace by the formidable Evan McKie.

Guillaume Côté was magnificent. Nijinsky’s climactic solo, at the breaking point of his mind, is difficult to watch as he literally throws himself around the stage, the impact of his body hitting the floor reverberating through the theatre, yet he executes every movement with total control and precision. His characterization is impeccable as he blends his physical strength with a sharp vulnerability through his piercing eyes.

Heather Ogden is the perfect counterpoint. Her lines are long and fluid and her flawless jumps reveal a stubbornness to match Nijinsky’s intensity, but her facial expressions and lightness in her footwork expose her fragility.

To say it was a special evening would be a huge understatement.

The energy in the theatre was tremendous as the audience demanded multiple curtain calls. There was a sense of welcoming the National Ballet back to the international stage after far too long a hiatus. It was thrilling to be part of that historical crowd. Then, the evening culminated in some very special introductions after the performance…when I met the stars of the show, Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté!

In the lead up to that incredible Saturday night, I was tuned into my Twitter feed to catch snippets of the touring process, such as the short video of Evan McKie standing outside the Canadian Embassy, just up the street from the theatre, beneath the fluttering Canadian flag. And as always, I made sure to watch as much of the World Ballet Day live-stream as I could. Whenever I was out in Paris, I kept wondering if I would bump into any of the dancers and how cool it would be to meet them.

Then I realized, why not just ask? If I did nothing, I’d have no chance. But if I asked, what was the worst that could happen? I might get a no, but at least I’d know I did everything I could. 

As another great Canadian once said, “You miss 100% the shots you don’t take.”

So I went for it and sent this tweet out into the universe:

And then 20 minutes before the show – when the dancers are full-on warming up and getting ready to dazzle us and break our hearts – I got this reply:

We did some quick re-con during intermission to find the backstage door and after the multiple curtain calls ended, we made a bee-line for it.

There they were backstage, getting congratulated by none other than Karen Kain.  The Karen Kain.

The legend herself who put the National Ballet of Canada on the international map as the greatest dancer to come out of Canada; who now is the company’s fearless Artistic Director, whose mandate is to the bring NBC back to the international stage; whose farewell tour poster adorned the wall of my childhood bedroom; who I saw speak in 2005 in Edmonton when the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium was reopening with a performance of Swan Lake. She was hugging the other superstars I’d been invited backstage to meet.

It was almost too much for this dancer abroad.

But I pulled it together and introduced myself to Heather Ogden. We chatted for a few minutes about the show, how she and Guillaume were enjoying Paris with their 8 month-old son who they’d brought on tour, and how inspiring she is to me, as a dancer-mom myself.

When I introduced myself to Guillaume Côté, (“Hi I’m Erin, the one who tweeted you before the show…?”), he immediately thanked me for coming and talked with me for a full five-minutes. I somehow managed to be coherent enough to tell to him how much I loved the show and his performance, and about teaching dance in Edmonton before we moved here.  

“Next time you’re in Toronto, come say hi!” He said. You bet I will. I am a fan for life!

The generosity of these two artists after such a physically and emotionally gruelling show was incredible. They are true ambassadors for the arts and for Canada and I’m so grateful I was able to thank them for their work.
I didn’t get the chance to meet Karen Kain, but meeting two out of three stars is a pretty good score.

The National Ballet of Canada returns to its home stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto with Nijinsky November 22 – 26, 2017. If you have the opportunity to witness this spectacular ballet, take it. You won’t be disappointed.

And when you’re there, be sure to tell the dancers I said hi from Paris, with love.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Paris Opéra Ballet: Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte

When someone mentions ‘Fairy Land’, what key words spring to mind?




Butterfly wings and twinkly lights.

Paris Opéra Ballet’s recent production of Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte, known in English as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, evoked all these  images during its recent run at Opéra Bastille. 

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing
By William Blake - Tate Britain Image, Public Domain, 
It was the Paris Opéra Ballet debut of this George Balanchine production and it showcased the depth of the company with a cast of both veteran and student dancers. 

Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte is a story ballet of love, passion, confusion and trickery within the collision of two worlds: the mystical world of fairies and sprites ruled by Queen Titania and her consort Oberon, and the mortal world inhabited by young lovers Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. When Lysander and Hermia flee to the woods because they are forbidden to be together, they are pursued by Demetrius, who also loves Hermia and shows no interest in the advances of Helena, though she clearly loves him.

If that Shakespearean-Soap Opera wasn’t complicated enough, the mischievous sprite Puck, on a mission from Oberon to trick Titania into falling in love with a man with the head of an Ass, fumbles his potion/fairy dust and causes both Lysander and Demetrius to fall for Helena and to jilt Hermia. This prompts a duel among the men, a lot of hair-pulling among the women, and an exasperated dance- declaration from Puck: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Thankfully, ‘all’s well that ends well'. By the end of Act One, the lovers are back in the arms of their correct partners, Titania makes a sufficient (metaphorical) ass of herself with Bottom, the literal Ass, that Oberon lets her off the hook and makes up with her, and Puck and the Fairies rejoice!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is right up there with Romeo and Juliet for popularity and success with both play-going and ballet audiences. Both stories translate well to dance due to their action-packed plots and large casts of characters. The trade-off when transforming these texts into dance is the loss of the text itself and of that poetic, rhythmic language. At best, those iconic words are reimagined through creative, character-specific dance vocabulary that captures the essence of the text and highlights the character’s emotional state; at worst, the text is reinterpreted by dancers doing a lot of mime. Aye there's the rub.

Fortunately, in this ‘Dream, the mime was minimized and the characterization was solid, particularly among the Fairy trio of Puck, Oberon and Titania. I really enjoyed how Puck’s trickster persona was gleefully showcased through springy jumps and flawless, scurrying footwork. It was fun to see how Titania - at once elegant, proud, and refined  – go head over heels in her worship of Bottom and his adorable Ass head, while Oberon took it all in, a satisfied smirkiness in his steps.

The lovers were fine, but the only real distinguishing features between them were the colours of their costumes: Team Lysander/Hermia in blue, Team Demetrius/Helena in red. Balanchine’s choreography looked great on the quartet, but they needed that something extra to really ignite the characters and heighten their ridiculous conflict. Some of the best feisty-women quotes are in this scene:

Hermia:                How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
Helena:                 O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school;
And though she be but little, she is fierce.

Here are two women ready to have it out with each other, but the dancers just didn’t bring enough attack. It was much too perfect, too restrained. I wanted more: more frustration, more passion, and more heart. How can you fight for love without heart?

The student corps in the fairy ensembles of Act One also danced well, if somewhat stiffly in their turns and ports de bras, but that’s nothing more performance experience can’t remedy. The large corps divertissements of Act Two matched every majestic blast of the horns in Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. They brought the smoothness, precision and fluidity I’ve come to expect from the POB and they were a joy to watch.

The sets and costumes were lovely and everything you’d expect to see in this most classic of classical fairylands: lots of shimmering pinks, soft greens, gossamer fairy wings and sparkling tiaras. The music was top-notch as always and the rich operatic vocals during Titania’s scenes with her fairy entourage added another element of whimsy to their magical world, where “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”

While “the course of true love never did run smooth”, watching it all unravel on a beautiful stage, with stunning music and dance, was a delightful way to spend a mid-spring evening with one’s love.
Date night at the ballet!
Special thanks to our friend Crystal for babysitting our munchkin
and for taking this photo. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Putting the 'Dance' back in 'Dancer'

My first dance class this New Year took me back to the very beginning of my Paris dance experience, where it all began in September 2014: the beautiful Centre de Danse du Marais.

Back then, we were a few days shy of our one month anniversary of moving to France. Everything was so new and we were still in the ‘honeymoon/feels like vacation’ phase.

We were still living in our temporary apartment on Rue Pernety, a charming, loft-style space with worn hardwood floors, a spiral staircase and much more of a neighborhood night-life than we’d bargained for.

Public transit was so daunting; I would look up my routes well in advance and make meticulous notes in my phone. We didn’t even have French phone numbers yet, let alone decent data plans, so any and all transit apps were out. I got by on the wifi in our apartment and the occasional functioning off-line map. 

I was a bundle of nerves leading up to that first class: on the one hand, I was anxious about getting there on time, having to speak French at the front desk, finding the right studio, and actually doing the class itself – what if the instructor spoke too fast? Was my technique up to ‘snuff? What if I got injured?

But on the other hand, I was so excited to be finally taking a ballet class in Paris, at this historic dance center, in the land where ballet originated. My excitement won out over my anxiety; I went for it and I loved it.

My experience in that first class was a victory on many levels: my street-smarts, my French and my technique. It proved I could figure it all out and make it work. I could dance here and feel at home, so I could live here too.

But that was then. What about now?

Two and a half years into what will now be a five-year stint in France, we are settled squarely into our real life here; ‘real life’ being work, baby, groceries, cleaning the bathroom, changing diapers, paying taxes, endless French bureaucracy/paperwork and lingering homesickness. We are well beyond the ‘honeymoon’ stage. We live in the suburbs, where we’re close enough to the city that we can go in for a day and still marvel at all it has to offer, but then go home where it’s quiet.

Public transit is so integrated in our daily lives, it’s actually fun to try different routes to get places. Now when I leave my house, all I worry about is getting somewhere on time, not getting lost.

And apparently, my French has also changed over the years. Aside from that one weird time someone thought I sounded Portuguese (?), more people ask if I’m British, not assume I'm American.

These changes happened gradually, as life unfolded itself day by day. But I was hyper-conscious of them as I made my way back to Le Centre. I strode in confidently from a direction I’d never taken before, spoke French to everyone, found my class without any fuss and got down to dance class business.

I was still nervous, since it was my first post-baby dance class, but I found out quickly I didn’t need to be. The exercises were straightforward and not overly complicated, but still technical and challenging. We spent a few minutes really breaking down the ronde de jambe exercise and reviewing the key elements: rotate from the hips, pull up out of the supporting leg, engage the abs, etc. It was a great refresher for my dancer brain, as well as my body.

The music choices were spot-on. I couldn’t help grinning as we did our frappées to a piano version of ‘Everything is Awesome’ from the Lego Movie and some center exercises to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’. Who wouldn’t love that?

What a wonderful feeling, after constantly negotiating the changes in my life, to discover the essence of some things is exactly the same. The class was still great. The instructor, Laurence, the same from last time, was still welcoming and supportive. I still love to dance and my technique is still good enough.

Only this time, it wasn’t about proving that. It was about revisiting the fundamentals, finding my center and building on where I was at that moment. It was a very ‘yoga’ perspective to have in a dance class.

It also still felt like home, which is such a joy and comfort these days.

Sometimes, it’s important to get back to basics - to go ‘home’, check-in and see how far you’ve come – and use all that to keep dancing onward.