Ballet Patois

I don’t think there’s a word for it in English: the fear that calls you. It is something like temptation, but without the implication of sin. It is close to “thrill” but without the temerity of extreme sports. Anyway, that’s always how I feel about choreographing. Scared, but unable to say no to an opportunity when it arises. There is something about the risk of it, going step by step into the unknown, that excites me. I suppose it has to be a little scary, or else it wouldn’t be worth it. The journey is never linear and it’s never only about the steps…

So here I am at the start of another summer intensive, hoping that I do something a little better than last year. Curious to see what has changed in me and how that will all be revealed in a dance. I begin working with the students. I like the music, but it’s just not right. The steps don’t flow. I find other music. By about the third rehearsal, connections start to knit together and the piece has a pulse. Structures emerge. Something is being born. I can just feel it like a baby growing inside me and I can’t stop thinking about her. About how to feed and nurture her. How to transplant her into the hearts of the students.

The piece mixes ballet, African and urban movements, which is perhaps not that original and even somewhat obvious given my mixed-racial background, my cityfied upbringing and my interest in ballet, but it is the first time I have ever tried to do this. Actually, trying is not the right word. It is just gushing out of me like a stream of crazy patois that feels somehow simultaneously new and ancient.

But the movement is not so organic for some. At one point in the big group section, the dancers have to swirl their hips. One girl blurted out, red-faced, that she was “just too white for this.”

“Well, she may be white, but she has a vagina, does she not?” says Mr. Octopus, looking a bit bored.


“She needs to understand that dance is sensual. All dance. Not just “black” dance. No one is interested in a sexless Giselle. You have to dance like you have a vagina and/or penis.”

“Yes, but how do I explain this to a fifteen-year-old without getting fired?”

“I’ve seen her pictures on Facebook. I think she can handle it.”

It’s a process, I tell her. Finding the movement in a way that is true for you is part of the challenge of every dance. Even when the movement is more familiar, every ballet will present its own unique challenges that cannot be found inside the ballet class. Some of the more advanced girls in the summer intensive are performing the Shades section of La Bayadere, a classical work, and honey, that ain’t no stroll in the park.

I also point out to her that there is really no such thing as a ballet company in the strictest sense of the word. These days all so-called ballet companies have a mixed repertoire that includes contemporary work and the dancers are expected to be extremely versatile.

She seemed to take in everything I said, but still struggled somewhat. I encouraged her to continue to drill herself on the movement while I worked with another group. As I continued to work, I happened to glance over at her, to see if she was indeed drilling the steps. She was not. She was staring out the window and giggling with another girl. They were looking at boys.

And there I was with egg on my face, assuming she’d take a more direct approach to mastering the movement. Like practice.


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