Oh internet, I am a smitten kitten. In love with life once again and the way that it continues to bring me fabulous opportunities.
Thursday night, I went to Ballet & Beer – the rehearsal / preview event for The Kaplan New Works Series which the Cincinnati Ballet will open on September 6th. Frankly, two days later I am still reeling and thinking and hoping that I can do the experience justice.
First, though I drive by the Ballet’s home base every day on my commute, I’ve never been in the building. Situated on the fringe of Over-the-Rhine, the studio sits a block or two down from WCET and District One. The back doors of Music Hall are within a 45 second sprint across traffic. A sign outside tells me I have arrived at the Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Studio and Cincinnati Ballet.
When you walk in, this is what greets you first:
Right off the bat, you are put on notice. You are in a place of beauty – beautiful people, beautiful movement. The lobby is roomy and unpretentious – open and full of light. But at the same time, about business. Almost immediately off of this space are 3 practice studios. You came in to dance and CB wants to make sure you can get to it as quickly as possible. The large studio immediately in front is also the performance space. Two off of the hallway have clear glass doors and dancers are inside working, not letting the audience gathering outside distract.
I hear someone nearby say the name ‘Julie’ and see it’s attached to a redhead with energy that crackles. Julie Hammond is the ballet Marketing Assistant who invited me to the event. I go introduce myself and thank her for the opportunity. For the first time, I have introduced myself as a blogger instead of ducking for cover behind my day job. She is finishing up some details of her day but takes a moment to point out the studio on the right to me – a CBII (CB2) rehearsal is going on there. Julie tells me this is the group Cincinnati Ballet uses for their “guerilla marketing” events. Another strategy, in addition to increasing their social media presence, that they’re working to connect with the community. I am community. I am here. I feel connected. It must be working. Julie takes a moment to introduce me to Allie Honebrink, the Director of Marketing & Communications. Even in business attire, Allie comes across as dancer also, petite & graceful. She tells me to let her know if there’s anything I need.
This whole time, there is a growing flurry of activity coming in and out of the left-hand studio. A tiny, tiny woman in an orange leotard with medical tape on her big toe comes dashing past, then dashing past again. Another woman comes past walking a white poodle. One of the last performances I did in my glory days, I had to skip en pointe pretending to have a leash while another dancer pretended to be a poodle behind me. Seeing an actual poodle in a dance studio takes me to a surreal place. It is time to be seated. I am in the balcony – there isn’t a bad seat in the house. This rehearsal space is the largest of the three, but the seating is intimate – 300 people? Dancers are moving around the back and sides of the space, some are in the center taking direction from an athletic blonde wearing a bright blue top – a choreographer. This is Heather Britt – she stops to tell the settled audience, for the next hour we will be seeing rehearsal of her piece in the Kaplan Series, Opus 5.5. You can tell she wants everyone up and moving with the quickness.
I have been absent from a studio for a long time, but there are things that do not change. This is one of them: rehearsals are messy affairs. Practice studios are where the bugs are worked out, where it’s safe for the dancers to make mistakes, maddening repeat stops and starts to tweak details. We see a few sections of the piece – which even in pieces promises to be spectacular & provocative. Sultry. It may or may not have made me blush! (It did.) There appear to be lots of entrances where the men are carrying the women. Even with their light frames, this is not an unremarkable task. Remember that time I dropped a 35-lb grappling dummy on my nose? Well, these guys are trying to carry about 3xs that, repeatedly, maneuver it around a bit, oh – and make it look beautiful. It’s not only about endurance, these guys have to be strong! I wonder if they need to weight-train at all with the lifting they do here.
About half-way through, Heather makes a motion and it’s time to put the puzzle sections together. The dancers run through from top to bottom and it is a visual wonder. Contemporary, but not eschewing tradition entirely, and dressed in the mad, mad skillz of these dancers. I can not help but imagine how incredible this is going to look in final performance. The last count passes and the dancers break pose with big smiles – relieved to make it all the way through. They like Heather’s choreography too – you can see it in their faces. The applause of the spectators doesn’t hurt either, I’m sure.
But there are still things needing work – a lead male tells Heather there is an obstacle with the timing. He is supposed to make a fast and dramatic entrance that will, unfortunately, put him in a high-speed collision with an exiting couple. This needs to be worked out. Either his cue needs an adjustment, the choreography needs changed, or the couple has to exit sooner. Like I said, rehearsal is messy. It is the place where complications like high-speed collisions need to be worked out so they don’t happen onstage. After a well-done run through a few minutes later, this same dancer throws his hands in the air like a rock star. The audience applauds and are giggling. Fist-pumping and rock-star hands aren’t things you usually see on a ballet stage – but this isn’t stage, this is practice and celebrating something well done makes everyone grin. In this venue, this dancer is a rock star.
Another thing about rehearsal – if you’re only watching the center, you’re missing most of the show. Dancers not in a specific section are on the periphery – and they are warmed up. People, warmed up dancers cannot resist moving. They play. On the sidelines, they play. Part of it is an effort to stay warmed up – the many stops and starts of rehearsal gives them too much opportunity for muscles to get cold. They are in all types of garb to accommodate movement and provide warmth while still being pulled on and off QUICKLY! This is my loving way of saying dancers dress funny. If you thought runners dress weird – and this is coming from someone who has modeled the couture black Glad trash bag look at more than one starting line, dancers have made odd warm-up garb an art in itself. Nike & Adidas don’t make ballet shoes and sponsorship is more private than corporate – so no expensive promo’d warm-up gear. One dancer is wearing flannel pajama shorts, a hoodie, a large scarf wrapped around his neck repeatedly and, as several of them are, down booties. When your ability to earning a living depends on your feet and ankles, you make sure those feet stay warmed up. Getting cold increases the risk of injury. Nevertheless, it’s quite a look to people who don’t know how smart he’s being.
The other part of sideline play is just fun. There is always a dancer in some variation of the splits or a butterfly stretch. This one is also doing arm movements that end in her blowing kisses across the room. Not 5 minutes go by without someone doing a pirouette – the dancer’s staple and something you never stop doing, trying to see if you can add justonemorerevolution! Even 20 years later, I still practice pirouettes on the kitchen tile. They are a religious ritual for which you never lose respect. Spontaneous pirouetting is going on all over the place at random intervals. And someone else is trying to get a turning jump just. right. Except he’s only doing it when I’m not looking. And it looks like it’s something good too! I wanna see what he’s doing! Alas, I keep catching just the very ending where he chooses to land instead of crash. Good choice.
At the end of rehearsal, Victoria Morgan steps out – the ballet’s CEO & Artistic Director. She explains the significance of what we are seeing. The theme of this year’s Kaplan Series is women choreographers. Of the 290 ballets performed each year by companies of CB’s caliber, less than 10% are choreographed by women – a surprising statistic for such a female-focused art form. Of that 10%, she says and flashes quite the Cheshire-cat smile, CB has snagged 7 female choreographers for this upcoming season – 4 of which we’ll see in the Kaplan New Works performance
I am in love with watching this rehearsal, in this space, and seeing these dancers do what they love. But there is still more to come – the gathering after. .
Stay tuned for Ballet & Beer, Part 2: Conversation with the Dancers
The Kaplan New Works Series will be performed by the Cincinnati Ballet at the Micky Jarson Kaplan Performance Studio from September 6-16th. Tickets can be purchased through links at top.