Crack On!

SDB Website 14

Crack on!

How The Nutcracker became, and continues to be, our favorite holiday show.

Pick anyone off the street and ask them if they’ve heard of The Nutcracker (or don’t if you’re, like, really uncomfortable talking to strangers). Chances are, they have heard of The NutcrackerIn fact, The Nutcracker might even be the only ballet they recognize (but here’s a shout out to Natalie Portman (and Sarah Lane, her dance double) for bringing Swan-Lake-sexy back). How is it that everyone possesses some vague knowledge of an old ballet based on an obscure German fairytale?

The Nutcracker is a sweeter two-act adaptation of a mildly frightening German story, interpreted by a French choreographer, with a Russian composer and ballet company, but an Italian conductor and Sugar Plum Fairy. The premiere was given by the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg on December 18, 1892 (exactly 123 years ago!). The Nutcracker (much like British TV shows) didn’t make it to the United States until much later: On Christmas Eve 1944, the San Francisco Ballet staged the nation’s first full production of our now beloved ballet. And then we never looked back! Companies around the world may perform The Nutcracker any old time of year, but the US made the show a true winter tradition, our perennial crowd-pleaser. 

It may surprise you to learn that the 1892 theater-goers glanced around after opening night and released a collective, “Mehh.” (Except in Russian, obviously.) What was at first a box office flop in Imperial Russia became everyone’s bread and butter production: The Nutcracker single-handedly generates over half of annual ticket sales for American ballet companies. It brings people to the theater! And so we put it on every year, without fail. Does it get old? Yes! Do we flinch when we hear Nutcracker music playing in the background of some place we thought was safe (say, an otherwise peaceful department store days before Thanksgiving)? Absolutely! (WHY WAS H&M PLAYING THE RUSSIAN VARIATION BEFORE DECEMBER LIKE WHAT PANDORA STATION IS THAT EVEN.) I’m joking, of course. But the show is performed with a regularity as befuddling as fruitcake. At some point you pause and ask, “Why?” Why fruitcake? Why The Nutcracker?

For all its popularity, dancers (and friends and family who were forced to witness WHO KNOWS how many cracked nuts) often dismiss The Nutcracker as an overrated, inferior part of classical ballet repertoire. We’ve all been there! But whether it’s your first or your twenty-first time catching or dancing The Nutcracker, try to remember its rich cultural history. Remember how it’s founded on efforts of incredibly international collaboration. Remember how glorious the Grand Pas de Deux sounded the first time you froze listening to it, how catchy the Nutcracker Suite actually is, how easy it is to follow the story and enjoy Tchaikovsky. Remember how bizarre it would be to not do The Nutcracker (the one year I said I’d skive, I cracked and ended up doing two!). Remember how it involves (as a cast member) and invites (as an audience member) both children and adults. Remember that it brings people together. Remember that the story belongs to the world. We love this story because it is everyone’s story.

I can’t say the same about fruitcake. I really have no idea what fruitcake’s about.

What’s The Nutcracker about? The most wonderful time of year! It’s Christmas Eve at the magnificently festive Stahlbaum house, all dancing, drinking, and making merry. Drosselmeyer (an odd combination of toymaker, clockmaker, councilman, magician, and godfather) appears and presents elaborate, lifelike dolls to dance for the delight of all. He then introduces a simple nutcracker. While Fritz (being a young boy lacking appreciation for the finer things in life, such as a strangely functional gift, that is SO German) doesn’t initially see what all the fuss is about, he does notice when Clara (or Marie/Maria/Masha) takes a liking to it. He promptly breaks the treasured toy, as younger brothers do. Clara cries. Drosselmeyer fixes it (probably by murmuring a Harry-Potter-worthy “Reparo!”) and places him under the tree, and the party continues. Guests go home, lights go out. Clara sneaks back to the tree to check up on her little friend. She may or may not have fallen asleep by the time the clock strikes midnight. That’s when things get weird.

The Christmas tree grows to dizzying heights as our heroine shrinks and finds herself in the middle of a battle. The Nutcracker leading his toy soldiers against mice and their Mouse King (who has seven heads in the original, which you’d know if you were real hip and read the book before the ballet). Just when it seems like evil will prevail, Clara does what any girl in her shoes would do: Takes off a slipper and smacks s giant mouse in the face, giving our guy enough time to run his blade through the beast. Mice scatter, dust settles, and the nutcracker turns into a prince who whisks his newfound, kick-butt girlfriend through a winter wonderland back to his place. Intermission.

The Land of the Sweets! Don’t overthink this one. The Nutcracker Prince does this instant replay story highlighting Clara’s quick thinking, everyone loves her, then the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier arrange for a celebration of dancing sweets from around the world: Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Russian candy canes, Danish shepherdesses with mirlitons (a flute/musical instrument, though sometimes modified to marzipan to maintain the candy theme), Mother Ginger with her polichinelles (little clowns, though often changed to lemon drops or bon-bons because, again, candy), a waltz of flowers, and finally the sugar plums themselves. It’s a ball, all around.

How did we go from a pretty realistic (if dated) holiday party/sibling squabble to this wildly diverse finish? Spectators have always found the transition from the first act’s mundanity to the second act’s fantasy a bit abrupt, so ballet companies today try to make it make more sense. If you watch the San Diego Ballet’sNutcracker closely, you catch little clues from the beginning. Drosselmeyer’s miniature dancing dolls in the very first scene match the Spanish, Arabian, Russian, or Chinese dances found in later scenes in the Land of Sweets. Don’t let the normalcy of the party scene fool you! Keep your eyes peeled for nutty hints of future adventure.

Maybe Drosselmeyer pulls strings like a magical master puppeteer to orchestrate the whole thing, and maybe Clara just had one too many chocolates before falling into a sugar-induced night terror. Enjoy tasting an assortment of cultures and see the world without ever leaving San Diego. Take the family, and have fun!


Steffi Carter

3rd year San Diego Ballet, Independent Contractor

It’s the Little Things

San Diego Ballet's Romeu et Juliet Photo by Shawna Sarnowski

San Diego Ballet’s Romeu et Juliet
Photo by Shawna Sarnowski



“Then I defy you stars!” (V.i.24)
Say what you like about the Italian teenager, but let’s all agree that Romeo really knocked it out of the park with his grand gesture. You see grand gestures on screen all the time: Ryan Gosling builds the dream home in The Notebook, Liv Tyler chooses mortality in The Return of the King, Kirsten Dunst designs that roadtrip in Elizabethtown, Humphrey Bogart says, “We’ll always have Paris,” in Casablanca, and the Beast gives Belle that magnificent library I still daydream about. A grand gesture is an uncharacteristically spectacular act of love. So, while woefully unnecessary, Romeo’s suicide definitely qualifies as a grand gesture.


I want to talk about little gestures.


It is attention to detail that sets apart San Diego Ballet’s Romeo et Juliet. It’s in Stephanie Maiorano’s truly, refreshingly playful portrayal of Juliet, the picture of innocence so pleasantly out of place in her weighty, warring world. It’s in her handling a length of tulle that looks like a wedding veil, batting it away like a cobweb as if to say, “ew, cooties,” or according to the original script, “it is an honor that I do not dream of.” It’s in her lively and lighthearted attendants (Noriko Zaragoza, Tessa Peterson Barbour) who seemed to fly and flirt while handling Prokofiev’s clever score. It’s in the fast footwork that seems to pull dancers in two different directions, a subtle illustration of that forever feud between Capulets and Montagues.  It’s in the nurse (Leah Gardner) frantically barreling about as a frequent and funny reminder of how young Juliet must be, naiive enough to still worry adults and warrant supervision. It’s in the severity of the red light bathing Lady Capulet (Caitlin Sullivan) and Tybalt (Donald Davison, Joe Hothschild), blood on the brain and murder in the future. It’s in Paris’ (Jesus Arroyo) well-cut but muted gold garb, open arms and charm presenting a lovely prospect, just not Juliet’s spark. It’s in Mercutio’s (Laurence Gonzalez) bright blue, a marked man and clear neutral, Romeo’s mischievous friend. It’s in Romeo’s (Lester Gonzalez) teasing introduction, snatching Juliet’s mask away like a middle school game of tag. It’s in the stillness of setting eyes on each other. It’s in Juliet’s caressing hand both in their first morning together and her last breath. It’s in their more pedestrian, more believable points of contact, the way they touch and embrace one another in a non-balletic way, in a way you might see offstage and in your own life. It’s in their very first dance together, their slightly swooning movements reminiscent of the swirling, sweeping sensation we all feel when falling in love.


It’s found in the fact that everyone onstage is responsible for telling the star-crossed lovers’ story.


The corps de ballet was gorgeous. I may be biased because I know them all, but I found that the corps provided more than enough context so the show lacked nothing for not having elaborate sets. Their costumes and constant commitment weave this sort of living tableau, a beautiful, breathing tapestry always filling the stage, the feud never forgotten or too far away. The motions declared nobility, the costume designs draped decadently, and the colors sung deep reds and warm golds. It all perfectly juxtaposed and framed our Juliet in soft white.


As a dancer I have a hard time watching shows, or even going to the movies. I just can’t keep still or keep staring at one place for too long. But the Lyceum Theater is so intimate it always blurs the line between actor and audience. Our director Javier Velasco makes excellent use of the space, setting certain characters strutting right down the aisles of the theater. This breaks the fourth wall, bringing another dimension into play. You could reach out and touch Tybalt if you’d mustered up the courage, which makes the spectator experience far more dynamic than usual. You didn’t fall asleep looking at the stage because you were alert, looking around you for surprise entrances. The sheer nearness made you feel as if you were more than a witness. The story sometimes literally came from the audience itself, so you weren’t only there, but in the thick of it.


My first experience with performing Romeo and Juliet was in college. I was only supposed to choreograph the masque ball scene, but was very strangely cast as Juliet. This was my first time speaking onstage, so I was terrified. It turns out that much of our ballet training translates perfectly into theater acting. I had to learn how to speak and project, had to get comfortable with my voice, but I knew how to move onstage. Traditionally, performers aren’t meant to turn their backs to the audience. It’s considered improper and problematic to storytelling especially, but not only, when speaking. Velasco fearlessly defies this rule and never lets the space dictate his choreography. Dancers’ backs often face the audience, and the effect is fantastic. On one hand, it’s just a 180 degree turn, so the front is now the back of the stage. On the other hand, it’s a 180 degree turn! Everything’s different. Instead of the conventional watch-them set-up, you’re with them. The view here is more natural, more meaningful behind the dancers, and more thrilling for being a bit voyeuristic, like looking through the keyhole to secret, stolen moments.


I find that the trick to performing Shakespeare, as either an actor or a dancer, is to make the age-old tragedy relatable. Relevant. Real. I felt clumsy wielding Shakespeare’s beautiful but cumbersome words. They didn’t roll off my tongue. I thought Romeo and Juliet would never be my story. Yet with no words and only Velasco’s simple, powerful staging coupled with his signature and exceptional musicality, it is everyone’s story. You can see yourself loving this way. It’s not the dragon-slaying grand gestures that convince us of true love. It’s the little things.


Steffi Carter

“Date a Girl Who Dances”, Author

San Diego Ballet, 3rd year Independent Contractor


Because We Love It – a welcome to our veteran dancers

A welcome back to our veteran dancers – With our 2015 Fall performance completed, third year SDB dancer, Steffi Carter, shares some interesting tidbits about a few of our veteran dancers. More to come!


I think you must love the idea of doing the impossible to keep coming back to the studio, to keep placing your hand on the barre for that first plié of the day. We have a unique relationship to our craft because it doubles as our relationship to ourselves. Dancers play the part of both the paint and the painter. We are both marble and Michelangelo. We make ballet, and we are ballet. Our gift is our self, which is both delightful and devastating. On one hand, it’s being directly plugged into pure joy; on the other hand, when our art is not needed or not wanted, we are unneeded and unwanted. This is incredibly difficult not to take personally because it’s not separate for us. Rejection and failure hurt a different way.

People seem more aware of this now, more appreciative. There is this trend in playing up the sweat and tears of ballerinas, and my inner seven year old self is thrilled that this aspect is in the limelight because back when I was seven, ballet wasn’t cool. It embodied everything frilly, silly, easy. It’s different now. Ballet is cool! Athletic, respectable, deep, complicated. Natalie Portman, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin with Hozier’s Take Me to Church, that TV show I haven’t yet seen Flesh and Bone. But last time I checked, we don’t do ballet because we enjoy blistering and bleeding. The pain should be understood, but I don’t want to talk as much as we do about the pain because the pain is not the point.

We are artists, not masochists. We are warriors, not martyrs. We are gladiators in tutus! We seek glory, and glamour! Not a pat on the back or a Purple Heart. We love the struggle, relish in the challenge, crave effortless perfection. Ballet is hard. But we don’t whine when the music is swift or the lighting is cruel or the choreography is unforgiving. It does take bravery to take your place at barre, but you don’t keep coming back to work just to hear applause. We step into the studio every day because, even offstage, dancing makes us happy.

It is far too easy to forget that you love the thing you love. Don’t forget that you love to dance.

Welcome back, darlings! Welcome back to our strange and exquisite edge of the universe. It takes hard work to earn your keep here, and that work is never ever over. But let me tell you what you already know: It is great, grand fun.

Camille McPhersonCamille

San Diego, CA

Fourth Season with SDB 

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

I like a lot of different kinds of music, so it really depends on my mood. It’s hard to keep still to anything with a great groove, though.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

A develope, because I like adagio.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

I love William Forsythe’s In the middle and somewhat elevated. I would love to dance any part in that ballet.

What do you wish the audience knew?

How little rehearsal time we’ve had. We work quickly as a company, and I think the audience would be surprised by how speedily the productions often come together.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I’m a devout chocoholic and a really good baker.

Caitlyn SullivanCaitlin

Chicago, IL

Second Season with SDB

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Pop-rock, dance-rock.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Waltz step – it’s the most expressive.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Anything in a Twyla Tharp ballet.

What do you wish the audience knew?

That it’s okay to react. We love it when the audience claps, cheers, laughs, etc.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I can waterski.

Matt CarneyMattCarney

St Louis, Missouri

Seventh Season with SDB

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Chopin, R&B, Funk.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why? 

Pas de chat. Always ready to pounce. Meow!

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

In my dreams, Spartacus (Spartacus). In reality, Evil Step Sister in Cinderella.

What do you wish the audience knew?

Their role is paramount to what we do. Laugh, cry, clap, hoot and holler… let us know you’re out there.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I <3 producing. Love seeing all of the pieces come together!

Steffi CarterSteffi Carter

San Marcos, CA 

Third Season with SDB

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Can’t sit still to anything with a Latin beat! Love my electronic junk, Jess Glynne, 40s jazz standards, Mumford and Sons.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Renversé: Literally to overthrow, to overturn, to upset. Renversés are unusual, a bit off balance around a rarer rotation axis. It sounds rebellious, looks luxurious, and feels, I assure you, sensational.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Honestly, I’ve been very fortunate in casting and have had the opportunity to perform most everything I’ve ever wanted. The exceptions are simple, like Snow Queen (The Nutcracker). I’m also a sucker for Swan Lake, and could see myself as something like Cleopatra, or Peter Pan. Would love the chance to be trusted with more classical roles, and could bring something deep to more complex characters.

What do you wish the audience knew?

The story! And that ballet and ballerinas are totally relatable. I think people get it into their heads that ballet is hopelessly foreign and old-fashioned, and ballerinas are snobby or masochistically seeking perfection. We can be those things, but we’re so many other things. And in the end, we’re just people telling stories. Can you dig it?

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

My first love was drawing! Before writing, before choreography, before dancing at all. I have won awards and competitions for visual art, and have had work displayed in exhibits at Balboa Park.

Appie PetersonAppie Peterson

St Louis, Missouri

Second Season with SDB

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

All music! Mostly rap or hip-hop. Nelly, Tech Nane, lil Wayne.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Fondue, because I love the idea of a smooth, melty movement backed by strength and resistance.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

So many, but I always relate more to the villains because I feel like they are underrepresented. Gamzatti, Myrtha, Carabosse.

What do you wish the audience knew?

That we are aware of them, and do this for the singular connection that happens when we dance and someone watches. You can take a video or a picture, but the magic happens when you sit there and experience the transformations.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I have an infatuation with languages. I speak a little Mandarin and Spanish, but I love learning new ways to communicate with you.

Welcome Newbies!


For those in books or ballet, the new year never really begins January 1st. Indeed, New Year’s Eve feels more like an encore finale or cast party after San Diego Ballet’s (outrageously successful) Nutcracker run. We celebrate our holidays quickly, leaping back into rehearsal before too long. Why? Because (there’s no rest for the wicked, and) the end of the calendar year is actually the very middle of our dancing season. (Ballet not playing by the rules? Artists dancing to a different tune, or time? Typical. We’ll sleep when we’re dead.) 

The end of our year stretches luxuriously across the beautiful summer months, leaving time enough to bum around the beach, put in overtime with more pedestrian jobs, explore our other passions, nurture new interests, trot the globe, get a dramatic haircut, sleep in. Soon, though, our dancing legs get restless. Soon, it’s the end of August and we privately wonder whether we can still do a plie. We get anxious, existential. (Am I even a dancer anymore?) We make our resolutions in late September, our fresh start, our new year.

The first day of your first season is very much like your first day at school. Same simple concerns –Will the other kids like me? Will I do well in class? – and identical butterflies embodying all your hope and potential. A new season, a new year. Newness is, after all, just an opportunity to fall (more) in love. With ballet, with movement, with performing, with friendship. This is my third year calling the San Diego Ballet my home, and I still shivered with first-day-flutters.

Cheers to this season! This year, like every year, will be what we make of it.
Captivate your happiness, take care of each other. Keep giving, and allow yourself to be moved.

Introducing our newest darlings, SDB newbies!

Steffi Carter

Photo: Noriko Zaragoza

Jesus Arroyo

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Reggae, salsa.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Arabesque. A good long and defined line can define it all.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Armand from Marguerite and Armand.

What do you wish the audience knew?

The hard work put into it.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I can speak fluently eight languages, and currently learning my ninth one.


Rachel Banta
Anza, California

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Most music makes me want to dance! I come from a family of musicians so I grew up around a variety of genres. If I had to choose just a few… oldies rock (Scorpions, Journey, etc.) and orchestrated instrumental music/

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Grand jeté? I think it’s a pretty free step, if that makes sense, and I tend to be a pretty free-spirited person.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Sometime in the far (very far) future, I would love to perform Kitri (in Don Quixote).

What do you wish the audience knew?

I wish the audience knew the storylines behind ballets (especially the classics). I feel like so many audience members don’t fully know the stories, which makes it harder to appreciate the ballet.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I don’t know that I would necessarily call it “hidden”, but I can play piano. My mom is a pianist and she made sure that as soon as I turned five I started learning. Soon after, I fell in love with it and couldn’t stop.


Donald Davison
Irvine, California

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

I love all kinds of music, but lately rap and R&B music has been making me want to dance, just to dance.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

I would be a grand battement because like me, the step is a burst of energy.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

I have always wanted to perform the role of Siegfried in Swan Lake.

What do you wish the audience knew?

I wish the audience had a basic understanding of ballet technique so that they would have more of a perspective on the athleticism of ballet dancers.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I have a sketchbook that I enjoy drawing in.


Danielle Dorsch
New York, New York

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Jason Derulo

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Any grand allegro, because it feels so freeing.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Giselle (from Giselle).

What do you wish the audience knew?

I have just as great a chance of falling off the stage as I do of nailing the variation.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I’m a great cook!

Sarah Foley
Denver, Colorado

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Anything indie-alternative.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

A saut de chat, because I like to “go big or go home”, haha.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Dark Angel, in Serenade.

What do you wish the audience knew?

That half the battle is just dealing with the costumes, the lights, etc… and then we have to dance.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I took French for seven years in school, and can still speak a fair amount of it.

Brenda Liu

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

Any kind – but just not soft music.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Grand jeté. I like to do big jumps!

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

Odette in Swan Lake. I could never move that soft and elegant.

What do you wish the audience knew?

How much coffee we have before the show.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I am an interpreter/translator: Chinese to English, or English to Chinese!


Shela Murphy
Worcester, Massachusetts

What music makes you wanna dance (outside the studio!)?

I don’t dance a whole lot outside of the studio. The last thing I remember dancing to is the Hall & Oates album I have in my car.

If you were a ballet step, what would you be, and why?

Rond de jambes. They’re a little more easy-going and give me time to think about each movement, which is what I attempt to do in real life as well.

Which role have you always wanted (but haven’t yet got) to perform?

There are a lot of different roles I’d like to perform, but the first thing that comes to mind is the Harlequinade doll in The Nutcracker. I always practiced it when I was little.

What do you wish the audience knew?

We’re thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner after the show as much as they are – probably more than they are.

We know you can dance! What’s one of your hidden talents?

I’m good at badminton.

How to Stretch: Yes, I mean you.

How to Stretch: Yes, I mean you.

First year company member and San Diego native Steffi Carter shares her tips on stretching. For the dancer or the patron alike, she sheds light on what stretching is all about. Check her out along with all the amazing San Diego Ballet dancers in Don Juan next Friday and Sunday. Don’t miss the Gala in Saturday either. A full weekend with SDB, doesn’t get much better than that!

by Steffi Carter

blog-how-to-stretch-Steffi-1Steffi 1Flexibility! It is what we were first (and will forever be) known for. We became low-key celebrities on the school playground, famous for our then-astounding feats of flexibility. It is what separated us. “Nope,” we’d yawn for the thousandth time, our more skeptical classmates shoving our shoulders down further as we folded comfortably in half. “Doesn’t hurt.” They’d advertise us like party tricks, singing againagainagain. It was our indifference, the nonchalance that impressed our peers. It made us, dare I say it, cool.

To support the (sometimes literally) starving artist lifestyle, I teach. Many of us do. My youngest kids often fuss about not feeling anything in a stretch (and by fuss, I mean boast). They are still of the belief that boredom is cool, that the can’t-feel-a-thing claim is impressive.

The truth is, comfort has nothing to do with stretching. If you don’t feel anything when you stretch, it means you (are either inhuman, or) don’t know how. Someone very dear to me defined passion as willful suffering. Well, stretching is part of our passion! It calls for discomfort, rests on resistance; it means striving for more, necessitates chasing an ideal you have not reached; it requires rehearsing something you cannot yet do. Stretching is, by its very definition, ambitious. I like that.

When you set out to master something (or accomplish anything, really), the first 90% of progress is straightforward enough; it’s the last 10% that’s the toughest to figure out. How do you get through the Ninety-Percent-Done Blues? The splits have always been a crowd-pleaser for pedestrians (a teasing term of endearment for our non-dancing friends), but for us they have long since lost their razzle-dazzle. How do we – the dancers, the most flexible part of the population – get bendier?

Be honest.
Be honest with yourself. Stretching is extraordinarily personal, an incredibly internal affair. It’s for you! No one knows what you need better than you do. And it’s different every day. Be honest about identifying those needs, and be kind about addressing them. (Your body is your instrument, remember, and you won’t play pretty music if you’ve snapped your strings while tuning.) Be honest, but keep pushing toward even better ballet.

This isn’t what it looks like.
Do yourself a favor and don’t worry about how it looks! Pushing past the fear that you look like a moron (because you do, I promise) will give way to real progress. The trick is to resist comparing yourself to others. Don’t get me wrong: Having a competitive edge is commonplace among dancers (universal, even), and is most often desirable. When it comes to stretching, however, comparison only kills the concentration. Don’t stretch to impress! Imitation may silence a few instantaneous insecurities, but remember, it’s for you. It’s about making true, deep connections, within yourself. Forget trying to explain why you look more like a crime scene chalk outline of a corpse than the cover of Pointe Magazine. You do you. We’ll understand.

Don’t let anyone rush you.
Spend exactly as much time as you want in any given stretch – no more, no less. Your time should be dictated by your goals alone. I, for instance, refrain from stretching a ton before technique class because if I stretch too early in the day, I find I feel a bit disassembled, like a drawn and quartered doll; cranking out core work instead is, for me, far more rewarding, more productive. Because I am not a terribly turned out person (especially on Tuesday mornings, amirite?), I may only pay attention to opening my hips. You don’t have to stretch quickly or all at once. Stretch what you need when you need it. Take your time. Give gravity the chance to work in your favor. Don’t forget to breathe.

And do the Harlem Shake.
Breathing should provide a natural rise and fall to your stretching, a slow and shallow pulse. Just add a little bounce and you’ve got ballistic stretching! Chances are, you’re already doing this. You know how we all rock a little, bounce a bit at the bottom of our stretches? Turns out (pun intended) it’s one of the best ideas we’ve ever had. Ballistic stretching is the buoyant form of dynamic stretching, beneficial in the way it prepares the body for exertion. Stretching while moving (as opposed to static-stretching) increases blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues, readies our range of motion, and thus reduces the risk of injury! Keep moving.

Pics, or it didn’t happen.
Stretch! Every day in every way. But couple it with conditioning, because what’s the use in yanking your à la seconde behind your bun unceremoniously if you are unable to do the same unassisted, onstage? Loosening limbs is absolutely liberating, but remember what it’s for. Flexibility for flexibility’s sake is a noble enough quest, but we are performing artists: There is practical application of our flexibility. There must be. The extension doesn’t count if you can’t hold it; the step doesn’t exist if you don’t have the strength to stay there long enough to, say, snap a picture. Think of it as giving the audience fantastic photo op upon photo op. Stretch and strengthen – pix or it didn’t happen.

How do we, the bendiest, get bendier? We don’t get comfortable. We dare to believe that there is no upper limit. We do dare. We keep asking for more, keep moving, keeping dreaming, keep reaching. And, we keep stretching.

Goal Setting for Professional Dancers

As we vamp up for our next production of Don Juan at the Lyceum Theater on February 21st and 23rd, we welcome guest blogger and company member Zoe Marinello-Kohn to share her thoughts on goal setting and character development. See the artistic process from the dancers perspective:

by: Zoe Marinello-Kohn

blog-goal-setting-Zoe-Headshot-2When I was approached to write a blog entry for the San Diego Ballet I started to think over this past year and one moment really stood out for me. San Diego Ballet has a renowned outreach program. Before one performance we had an audience of local dance students come to observe our company class on stage. They were given the opportunity to ask us questions after the class. One student stood up and asked if we still had goals since we had completed training and joined the company?

The truth is every day dancing with the ballet is a new challenge with new goals. Every class and every rehearsal must be taken as an opportunity for improvement. Every performance must be given with the purest intentions, the striving for perfection. I can’t think of one artist I know who has ever been fully satisfied with anything they’ve accomplished. Yet, we all come back every day to make our craft closer to the ideal. The very nature of ballet as a live performance art is one that is dear to me in the way that it combines theater, music and the human body to convey a story or idea. I love the process in which I bring a character to life through dance.

Personally, I always try to find the originality and unique qualities of every role that I get to dance. This involves a process akin to the painting of a canvas, bringing forth the colors and highlights individual to the piece. Even the most abstract contemporary piece has a reason for being made. As a dancer it is my job to embody that concept. This season with San Diego Ballet I had two opportunities to dance in very different pieces: the Arabian in The Nutcracker and the solo female in Reminiscence. The process which I approached them began the same way, by asking who am I on stage and what am I trying to convey to the audience as this character?

As the Arabian I began by asking who is she? a Princess or a sultana? A slave? As a Sultana she holds her head high and looks everyone in the eye. She is adorned in her sparkling costume and knows she commands the stage. She must relate to her partner as a prince and she looks out into the audience as though they are her subjects.

In contrast, the piece Reminiscence deals with the loss of a loved one. A violinist accompanies the male and female dancers onstage and the music is slow and sad. This time I am myself instead of a character and as I dance I feel the longing for my love in my body. I see no one in the audience because of my grief. I do this because grief is felt so often in private, masked to others. As the piece closes I imagine my love reaching to me from behind. I look for him even as I know he is not there and I let the audience watch me in my hope.

Of course acting onstage is only one component of ballet. The physicality of ballet can be awe provoking in itself. However, it is the soul the performer gives to the dance that can resonate, lasting far from the time of the initial viewing. Ballet is the culminating of the two components: physicality and artistry.

The thoughtful preparations in character development are the jewels that give live performance its gleaming integrity. Nothing comes close to the fleeting beauty of a ballet. A movie recorded, can be enjoyed forever but all that is left after a single ballet are the memories and feelings the audience walks away with. Sometimes, this can be more poignant because it can never be relived. And so it is our goal to every day work our bodies, our minds, our souls and create performances that go beyond the restrictions of time. To make something memorable. To make something beautiful.

Being Part of Something Beautiful

Ruben Martinez

blog-being-part-Rueben“My name is Ruben Martinez and I am a trainee with San Diego Ballet. The company recently performed for Chula Vista High School where I graduated in 2007. The students were given the chance to view us taking class on stage and a Q&A after. I was asked a few questions, one of those was the ever so popular “how long have you been dancing?”

Ironically, I didn’t dance at Chula Vista High school considering they had a dance program. I was more into music and thought I would do something with that in life. It wasn’t until my last month of high school at 18 that a good friend introduced me to technical dancing. She took me to a small studio where I signed up for a modern and flexibility class. Somehow I became obsessed with dance and decided I would include it in my career. I applied to community college and registered for all the dance classes I could. I was extremely intrigued by modern dance I looked forward to it every class. Ballet was a different story but I knew if I wanted to be a well-rounded dancer ballet was essential. I really put all my time towards dance, in my spare time I would stretch or read about it. Later I joined a small Ballet Conservatory in Chula Vista where I was offered a scholarship. I worked hard, studied the English ballet system, and participated in yearly exams. Slowly I fell in love with ballet and its challenges. I assumed I would become a teacher because I started too late.

Time went on and I was improving, I felt maybe I have a small chance. I then went to audition for the ABT summer colligate program, huge slap of reality. I had never seen so much talent in one room. I decided it was time for me to leave my home studio but wasn’t quite sure where to go. I was on YouTube one day and like most dancers I was watching ballet. I came across a video of young men in class training hard with their teacher; in the video they mentioned San Diego. I said to myself this is perfect! I have to train with that teacher. I investigated and a friend told me his name was Max and he teaches at San Diego Ballet School. I contacted the schools director about how I could become a student and then I joined. Never had I experienced such a challenging ballet program. Mentally and physically it was difficult making me question my career choices. I continued to study for a year and within that year I was asked to do a small part in The Nutcracker and Don Juan through Javier Velasco. It gave me an inside look at what company life is.

At the end of the year I approached Javier that I was interested to be part of the company next season. I was offered a trainee contract. I decided to put my academics on hold and take advantage because to me it was an opportunity I couldn’t deny.

Now in the company my life has changed. As the season started my body was having a difficult time adjusting to different teachers, new choreography, mornings instead of nights. At this point I have a better understanding of how to work smart no matter how crazy the schedule. Honestly I can say I love being in the company. I am learning so much with the variety of teachers and finding what it takes to become an artist. I’m always given so many opportunities by the staff. It feels so nice to be part of something so beautiful. I still have room for improvement so I can never take it for granted. I have only been training for 6 years and to be able to go back to my high school and perform as part of company is a dream come true.”

Not Just Your Average Trainee

blog-not-just-Susan-H-Trainee1“As always, college graduation means opportunity. And, ultimately, my decisions at the time meant more than ever. However, this special block of time gave me the choice to do what I’ve always felt deserved the most attention: dancing. As I was graduating from college I was applying to both PR jobs and ballet companies. I had no idea what I would be doing the year following my graduation but I had hoped I would be dancing.

For the past 4.5 years I had been at Ohio University studying public relations in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Some years rated the number one party school in the nation, OU was nothing short of meaningful experiences. On top of studying, these years were spent socializing, partying and festing. Tucked in the foothills of southern Ohio, OU was an oasis for college kids looking for a good time. OU has one of the best journalism schools in the country. Although dancing remained a part of my life, it was never enough to satisfy what I loved.

Some girls I trained with in high school had gone on to join ballet companies and I frequently questioned my choice to go to college. I wondered what I would be doing if I had tried to join a company when I was 18, if I would have made it in the dance world, what company I would have joined. My mind was restless and would occasionally make me sad to think that I had quit what made me most happy. Once during a weekly Public Relations Student Society of America meeting, the speaker was giving the seniors tips about getting a job. I left teary eyed in the middle of the meeting because listening to this professor give us a speech about job hunting was like saying the last goodbye to any dream of dancing in a ballet company.

So why not at least try?

Trying and failing would have been much better than not trying at all. Although not everyone agreed with me. I remember running the idea of joining a ballet company past another student I worked with at my college newspaper. “Does that idea sound logical, Susan?” No, it didn’t. But I was going to try it anyway.

Four months after my graduation I found myself auditioning for my first ballet company. I’m going to go ahead and say the audition went absolutely horribly, as I expected it would. This was one of the first times in five years that I had put pointe shoes on. I could do nothing but laugh it off and keep going. I had gotten together a homemade audition video, a resume and some audition photos that a photography major from OU took for me and sent these materials to any ballet company I could think of. I also auditioned for a well-known graduate program affiliated with a professional ballet company. In the meeting with the director after the audition she listed some good qualities of my dancing but ended with, “I’m sorry, I know this must be really hard to hear but … (long pause) I just think you’re too old to start a dancing career.” I sometimes consider writing that woman a thank-you email because any person that told me I couldn’t just made me want to try harder.

I attended a 4-week summer session to get back in shape. Dancing every day was wonderful, but there was so much I had been able to do years ago that my body couldn’t or wouldn’t do anymore. I had lost flexibility and precision in my dancing. My body felt constantly sore but what was the worst was the muscles in my feet always felt cramped because I had taken such a long break from pointe shoes. I would massage them daily but to some extent it felt like I was starting on pointe when I was 12 years old again. The skin on my toes had also become soft so I had to go through the process of my feet toughening up again from blisters. One of my big toenails became bruised and eventually fell off, but for a few months before it felt off it was really painful to dance in pointe shoes because of the pressure it would put on the toenail. I also found out when I started buying pointe shoes that Bloch had stopped making the kind I wore in high school, so I had to once again find a shoe that felt good for me.

The same summer, I lived in San Diego for a month. I had been a lot of places all over the U.S. for either college internships or vacation, but no place compared to what I found in San Diego. Everything was different from Ohio: the culture, the way people sprinkled their language with “gnarly” and “stoked,” seeing surfboards at every home I visited, palm trees, the easy-going lifestyle, the beach, the cliffs, the adventurous nature of the friends I made, the way people dressed and, of course, the constantly beautiful weather. So my goal of “I want to be a ballet dancer” became “I want to be a ballet dancer in San Diego.”

After a very long adventure of trying to make a break into the ballet world, I finally got an opportunity with a company in Virginia. “We’d like to offer you an apprenticeship” was followed by me excitedly calling my dad and probably, for the moment, being the happiest person in the world. I was elated to be dancing again, but looking back on the past year I felt like I had given up a lot to make it happen. I had gotten a job as a copy editor at a newspaper that I didn’t take, somewhere along the line I lost the only person I had ever been in love with because my only focus was ballet and I had moved away from my family, among other things. Although I adjusted to the changes in my life and liked dancing for a professional company, I frequently thought about moving to San Diego. So when audition months rolled around I auditioned for San Diego Ballet. I was surprised when I got an email saying that I had been accepted; it didn’t feel real.

From painfully missing ballet in college to getting an email telling me I had gotten into San Diego Ballet, it feels like it took forever to get here. Every downfall, though, was worth the effort. I had felt so trapped down the path of graduating, getting a 9-5 job, getting married and having kids. It still feels like a dream that I’m living in the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen and dancing with such an amazing ballet company. When I’m an old woman telling my grandkids about my life I think “I danced with San Diego Ballet” will be one of the proudest things I tell them.”

Date a Girl Who Dances

blog-date-Steffi-1Date a girl devoted to doing the unnatural every day, who stands on her toes and speaks without words. Date a girl whose eyes get glassy when assaulted by new music because she can’t help choreographing, casting, living and dying in her mind.

Find a girl who dances. You’ll know that she does because she will seem to move endlessly. She will sway to the sounds of the city, fidget every few minutes, crack her knuckles and her neck, roll each wrist and cross the other leg just so she feels even. She will forget herself and where she is, the length of her skirt and the strangeness of what she’s about to do when something falls from her lovely, articulate hands to the floor. She will not bend at the knees because she does not have to, folding instead at the waist to execute the kill. That’s the dancer. When she straightens, she will laugh at herself, and her collarbone will beg you waltz with her.

She’s the girl with vast and unvocalized dreams strewn across the heavens and a bloodline dating back to French royalty, but whose natural inclination is to collapse to the earth, flop to the floor. There’s more room to stretch there, you see. Sit with her. She might giggle, ramble on a bit about nervous energy. Such proximity to a pedestrian has reawakened an awareness of her abnormality; she had nearly forgotten, again, that not everyone needs a tutu to feel alive. She will try very hard to stay very still so as not to give herself away. Don’t mention it. Ask her what she thinks about when she dances.

Let her move.

Tell her what you really think of the Nutcracker. See if she cries when she doesn’t make the cut, and learn to anticipate what she needs before and after that audition. Remember what needs massaging, and when. Understand that it is a rare treat indeed for her to really be at rest, to have a day off from running to and from rehearsals, and to take a break from being beautiful. Relish in whatever she decides to do that day, whether it be sleeping in or saving the world, marathoning a show she always misses or mulling over the feasibility of moving to Mars. Wonder aloud which she was truly born to perform: The white swan, or the black swan. Listen to her reasons why. Indulge her identity, which dances, too. She creates and discovers herself, decides and destroys herself, rehearsing both what she is and what she wants to be. She will perform herself passionately and full-out, shifting entirely with the slightest costume change. Try to keep up. She may speak oddly, percussively, orchestrally, a tango of tangled words. Assume she means to. Her intensity stems from a trained commitment. Technically, she was never trained to talk. She was trained to listen. Let her speak when she finds her voice. Do not ask her to make sense.

It’s easy to date a girl who dances. Give her ibuprofen in bulk for her birthday, sweatshirts and leg warmers for Christmas, cut-off tees and new soft shoes for anniversaries. Give her the gift of touch, the closeness in your eyelashes on her face and the silent applause in an embrace. Give her Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Yann Tiersen, original scores to your kisses. Make her feel the way she feels backstage, in the wings. Let her know that you, too, have noticed all the different configurations your bodies make to lock into one another. Understand that she’s not asking you to be a dancer when she asks you to dance.

Look at her. Stare.

Because she’s unreal. The human equivalent of a black cat, with that same mesmerizing and vaguely alarming quality in the way she slinks toward you. You’re crossing paths with the supernatural, love. You’ve every right to be suspicious. She is at once a string of omens, not just misfortune to many but good luck to plenty. She is bizarre, comfortable, and just maybe the next step in evolution. You may not know what to do with her, even years after the fact. All you know for certain is that her purring is the midsummer night, her happiness, hypnotic. Sharing her company suggests that you are either mental, or extraordinarily lucky.

Because when a dancer falls in love with you, she falls in love with the music you make. She will fall into step with you when you walk together because she knows what corps means, what a greater and grander cause costs. She will assume your motions and mannerisms are as deliberate and meaningful as her own. She will soundlessly observe and absorb you, assigning sensational motivation to your every stir. Your imperfections are artistic, and rewarded. She will recognize you by your cantor, your carriage, and most of all your asymmetry. She fancies the idea of completing each other because your smile pulls to the right, and her smile pulls to the left. It’s all in her head, of course, but what does it matter. She always did like dramatic lighting. She values your very presence in a way you’ve never known. Your cadence compels her. Your pas de deux delights her because it cannot be replicated. She will respect your insanity. It moves her.

Date a girl who dances because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who adores everything you do, every little thing about you. It won’t just be your face or your words or what you two have in common, and it certainly won’t be because you’re convenient. This is a woman who rehearses for weeks on end for maybe one minute onstage — do you think she does anything because it is easy? You want a girl who bites off more than she can chew because she is the most flexible, most sensitive, most ambitious, most big-hearted of the bunch. She will hold ridiculous ideals and outrageous expectations, and she is hardest on herself. She finds solace in rehearsal, because scratching the sublime is only a matter of time. You deserve a girl who knows that a good show requires thick skin and endless practice, a girl who isn’t daunted by any of it. You want a girl who stretches. That is the girl who is unafraid of instability, who understands it and commands it everyday. She’s the one who drills straight through valleys and mountains, persevering through highs and lows because she knows the deeper the plié, the higher the leap. You deserve a girl who doesn’t break easy, a girl who’s prepared for a bit of pain for the sake of of beauty.

She’ll be abysmal with budgeting, you ought to know, but she’ll be pretty resourceful when it comes to diplomacy and improvisation. And she’ll be terrible at scheduling and double-booking because the stage skews her sense of time. She’ll embody the ebb and flow of that tide between well-established vanity and soul-crushing insecurity, of course, but she’ll look glamorous and shy and tough and femme between layered sweats and stage make-up. And yes, darling, she’ll want everything — but she wants you.

You deserve a girl who gives you goosebumps when she says goodnight, who finds the minute and mundane phenomenal, who reveres balance as the desirable eye of a storm. If you can only give her half of your heart, you’re better off alone. If you want to race through a world more stunning than you’ve ever dared to see it, date a girl who dances.

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