“Like Peeling Back an Onion”: A Dancer’s Reflection on Becoming

By Samantha Hope Galler

Editor’s Note: A native of Bedford, Massachusetts, Samantha Hope Galler currently lives in Miami Beach, Florida, where she performs with Miami City Ballet. She is a frequent visitor to New Orleans and loves to teach and share what she has learned. In fact, Sam will be teaching intermediate/advanced ballet at Live Oak Dance in Riverbend on Friday, July 24, at 6pm. Drop-ins are welcome, and only $5 as part of the New Orleans Dance Network’s $5 Class Week. To contact Sam, and to read more about her career, visit her website or her blog.
 
The professional development of a dancer is like peeling back an onion. For many professionals, a sign of progress is that their daily work seems easier; tasks become simpler to complete. Dancers, however, have quite the opposite experience of professional growth. One of the hallmarks of progress throughout a dancer’s career is that he or she is asked to perform iconic roles. Each new role presents previously unimaginable challenges, risks, and rewards; the complexity of the onion, with its many layers, begins to reveal itself. A satisfying and harmonious professional life in the unique world of dance requires not only physical strength but also psychological strength, as it constantly tests a dancer’s ability to rise to the occasion with artistry and poise.

Developing to Survive

Though it’s frustrating at times, this complexity is what draws me to work harder in and to learn more about my chosen discipline. I began my professional career at age 18. Presently I am a professional ballerina with Miami City Ballet. Before joining Miami City Ballet, I spent five seasons with the Alabama Ballet and worked my way up to the rank of principal dancer. Continuing to grow in my professional career forces me to search for new levels of confidence on and off the stage. Dancers learn to develop an individualized balance between positivity — the feeling that lifts me up when I dance — and self-trust, which is what helps me to move on when things are not going smoothly. I always remind myself that dance is live art, and that I may be able to grow as an artist, but my full artistic development won’t happen overnight. This reminder helps me to find more trust in myself that I will be able to conquer my challenges.

Discovering the drive to move forward from past experiences, even good ones, is important. However great my last performance might have felt, in my next performance I aim to perform better. Each time I set foot on the stage I have a new opportunity to improve and learn. And with each new role, I usually find myself saying, “This is the most difficult role I have ever worked on.” I am sure, each time, that the new role is as great a challenge as I could ever encounter. Inevitably, of course, the next role surprises me with a new set of challenges, requiring me to further develop and refine my technique and artistry.

The Process

Moving forward with a role can be difficult as the learning process begins — again. At home, I spend hours in front of the mirror, breaking down the positions of my arms, head, and fingers. In the studio, seven hours a day, my time is spent practicing the steps of the role. It is a process that requires constant correction. Eventually, I find that the new positions of the head and upper body start to feel natural. When this happens, I have a sensation that I am starting to “connect the dots” in my development of the new character, and with this sensation always comes relief that I am starting to understand. Each time I approach a new role, I also bring with me a new set of personal experiences: happiness, grief, the experience of uprooting and moving to a town, or even new friendships. I find that my performances become much more effective when I can incorporate real-life experiences into my approach.

New Roles, New Challenges

Swan Lake

In 2012, I performed Odette and Odile in Petipa’s Swan Lake with Alabama Ballet. Odette and Odile are characters I had on my bucket list. Yes, I used the words bucket and list. This profession quickly forces you to realize the importance of living every moment, and my life goals happened to include Odette and Odile. While working on Swan Lake, I found the development of the contrasting characters of Odette and Odile to be the most important aspect of the role. These swan creatures are opposites but require the same amount of careful attention. Odette is a subtle, elegant creature with a vulnerable side. Odile, on the other hand, is sharp and sensual. Both are extremely dramatic characters, and both are typically performed by the same ballerina in one performance. Learning to shift quickly from one character to another involves training the arms and legs to take on different dynamics, enabling the audience to see the different sides of the swan. During my studies, I went to the nearest zoo in Birmingham and watched the mannerisms of the white and black swans. It was interesting to observe the animals and compare their behaviors to those of humans; watching the swans turned out to be a major stepping stone in my process of developing these characters. When I later watched a video of my performance, I realized I had achieved my goals of becoming Odette and Odile. This felt like a major breakthrough for my career — I had learned how to completely give myself over to the art form.

Samantha Hope Galler as Odile in Swan Lake

Samantha Hope Galler as Odile in Swan Lake

La Bayadère

After working for nearly two months on Swan Lake, day in and day out, I figured ballet could not be any more difficult or demanding than what is required of a dancer performing Odette and Odile. I was sure of it — until I performed Nikiya in La Bayadère. For me, the technique required in achieving the slowness and articulation of Nikiya’s movement was the most demanding part of the role. Act III of the ballet features a slow pas de deux followed by a variation, in which the female dancer must do multiple turns in arabesque while holding a long white scarf in one hand. It is extremely challenging. One of my coaches for this role, Roger Van Fleteren, said to me, “You must become obsessed with a step in order to accomplish it.” After working on Nikiya, I completely understood what he meant.

Samantha Hope Galler as Nikiya in La Bayadère

Samantha Hope Galler as Nikiya in La Bayadère

Romeo and Juliet

The role of Juliet is like no other role found in the classics. I had the opportunity to perform it in 2014 with Alabama Ballet — my first experience portraying a main character in one of Shakespeare’s iconic stories. Reading the play was my first priority. I discovered that conquering the role of Juliet requires a strong and emotional portrayal of a young girl. The character develops through the story, ultimately becoming an independent woman forced to make her own difficult decisions. Although this role requires a strong technical base, a successful performance of Juliet is largely dependent on the dancer’s ability to convey emotion. As I developed and devoted myself to the character, I was surprised to discover the quantity and depth of personal emotions I could invest in Juliet. An important scene in the story is the potion scene. My director and coach at the time, Tracey Alvey, allowed me understand how to apply my emotions and let go of being afraid of not portraying the role correctly. Tracey taught me that less is more. Smaller gestures can make a powerful difference in major scenes. I still consider the role of Juliet the most life-changing experience of my professional career.

Samantha Hope Galler as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

Samantha Hope Galler as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

The More You Know, the More You Know You Don’t Know

Over the course of my career, it has become clear to me that ballet simply does not get easier. Despite (or maybe because of) these challenges, my life in ballet has rewarded me with more success and satisfaction than I could ever have imagined. The most important lesson I have learned so far is this: Practice will not lead to perfection. If it did, our work would stop.

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The UpStairs Lounge & The Return of Narrative Dance

By Ann Glaviano

The estimable Mr. B once noted, “It might be a good idea to call all ballets Swan Lake. That way, people will come!”

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Mr. B is more commonly known as George Balanchine—the Russian emigré who founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and New York City Ballet in 1948, where he developed and refined a new style of ballet known as “neoclassical.” Balanchine’s Swan Lake snark is borne of his predilection as a choreographer for abstraction. Swan Lake, like other repertory stalwarts Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Giselle, and Don Quixote (among many, many others), is a story ballet, so called because its goal is narrative: to tell a story with characters and a clear plot. All of these wildly popular ballets are from the 19th century; indeed, most Romantic and Classical ballets from the 19th century were story ballets. Enter Balanchine, with more interest in mood than story, in dance for movement’s sake. He stripped his work of cumbersome pantomime and plot devices. His famous early ballet Serenade was just “a dance in the moonlight.” His retort, to those who asked for more narratorial specifics, was “a boy and a girl on the stage—how much story do you want?”

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Over time, Balanchine’s radical abstract approach became the choreographic norm; by the end of the 20th century, most new works were similarly abstract. The 19th-century story ballets persisted in the repertory because audiences loved them and they generated reliable ticket sales, but to produce a new story ballet seemed out of touch, pandering, maybe even a little corny. The few choreographers who elected to work in the story-ballet genre tended to rely on narratives familiar to the modern audience (Cinderella, Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter). The reason behind this is straightforward: dance is in many ways an inefficient form for narration. With only gesture and music traditionally at their disposal, dance-makers must tell stories using broad strokes. Though great dancers must always be great actors, narrative nuance can be hard to come by. Performers rely on the audience’s previous familiarity with the stories to get across complicated plot points.

But despite these difficulties—and perhaps inevitably, as the pendulum swings—choreographers today are seriously reconsidering the deployment of narrative in dance, more than sixty years out of vogue. Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, built his reputation in part by choreographing abstract works, but it was his full-length story ballet, Marie (about Marie Antoinette), that he presented to New Orleans in 2009. After his three-year study of abstraction with Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon’s latest two works are contemporary ballet renditions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (2014) for the Royal Ballet—both of which were met with excitement and acclaim and were screened nationwide in AMC Theatres.

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It is in this context that I consider The UpStairs Lounge, an evening-length piece of dance theater conceptualized and choreographed by Monica Ordoñez and presented by the Mélange Dance Company. I was provided a complimentary ticket and invited to review the work in its second staging at Cafe Istanbul on March 27, 2015; previously The UpStairs Lounge had been presented at the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival.

It’s usually a good idea, when tackling a new project, for an artist to ask herself: Why this project? Why here? Why now? In the case of The UpStairs Lounge, the answers are fairly self-evident. The piece, which runs about an hour long, tells a history of the New Orleans queer community in the early 1970s, with the central event being an arson attack on the popular queer French Quarter hangout The UpStairs Lounge. Thirty-two people died in the fire; it was (and, according to my research, remains) both the deadliest arson attack in the history of New Orleans and the largest massacre of queer people in United States history. The prominence of the issue of gay rights in our present-day collective consciousness, the lack of public awareness of the attack at the UpStairs Lounge, and the local setting make Ms. Ordoñez’s choice of topic feel timely and relevant to her audience.

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A body of work does already exist about the UpStairs Lounge attack, some of which has been presented locally in the past decade. I learned of the UpStairs Lounge attack in 2008, through a Prospect.1 installation at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans by artist Skylar Fein, titled “Remember the UpStairs Lounge.” A documentary titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire, by Royd Anderson, was aired on local television in 2013. Also in 2013, the musical Upstairs by Wayne Self premiered at Cafe Istanbul. In 2014, Louisiana author Clayton Delery-Edwards published a historical account, The UpStairs Lounge Arson, that was named Book of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. And at least two other documentaries appear to be in progress (Tracking Fire) or forthcoming (UpStairs Inferno) in 2015. To her credit, Ms. Ordoñez is intimately familiar with this body of work, appears to have developed functional relationships with those responsible for producing it, and seeks to incorporate and acknowledge the existing research and existing narratives at every available opportunity.

Such vigilance does, at some points, hamstring The UpStairs Lounge as a work of dance theater. The piece is presently conceived as an integration of documentary film and dance. Pragmatically this means that we start with a documentary film clip; then dancers emerge, perform to music, and exit; we see another documentary film clip; dancers again emerge and perform to music; and so on. The documentary clips effectively communicate the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge arson; indeed, my assumption is that Ms. Ordoñez relies on the documentary clips because she wants to ensure that the audience leaves with a firm grasp of the historical events. If her goal is, at least in part, to raise awareness of the attack, it’s understandable that she would want to share this wealth of visually compelling documentation with her audience. And, of course, dance is a notoriously difficult medium for narrative. If you want to tell a story through dance, remember, the choreographic default is to choose a story that practically everyone already knows. The UpStairs Lounge is not exactly Cinderella in terms of broad public familiarity.

I would argue, though, that Ms. Ordoñez and her company have in fact made an excellent choice in taking on the narrative of the UpStairs Lounge, and they could achieve their artistic and humanistic goals without most or all of the documentary film supplementation. Right now, the film clips do all the necessary narrative work, and the dance interludes function as a sort of redundant “dramatic re-enactment” of the previous clip. Set to musical selections with lyrics that broadcast their thematic intentions (e.g., the conclusion of the show, demonstrating a moment of unity among the queer community, is set to “United We Stand”), the dance pieces feel a bit too on-the-nose. I suspect a decreased reliance on the documentary clips would have two desirable effects: first, that the broadly narrative moments of the dancing would feel useful, rather than overly literal and redundant, as the audience tries to grasp the story; and second, that Ms. Ordoñez might become more comfortable abstracting from the history and the documentation, affording her greater freedom in her scenic and choreographic choices.

Cutting down or eliminating the documentary film clips would also smooth out some technical difficulties. For example, in the performance that I attended, the audience frequently could see the video playback buttons as the clips began, and the audio transitions between the clips and the live dancing were choppy: a song would begin to play in the film clip, then we’d experience a moment of silence—presumably as the technical crew was switching the sound over to the dance audio—and then we would hear the same song beginning again as the dancers entered. These moments felt as though the seams of the work were unintentionally on display; they degraded the professionalism of the presentation. I also was surprised to see commercials (“teaser-trailers”) for upcoming documentaries about the UpStairs Lounge attack interjected into the show. While I wholeheartedly admire Ms. Ordoñez for going to such lengths to credit her sources, the commercials were jarring departures from the world of her piece.

Ms. Ordoñez, in addition to being a contemporary choreographer interested in classical vocabulary, is herself a skilled contemporary dancer with an appealing lyric quality, and she has a wealth of well-trained, well-rehearsed dancers with confidence and great physical facility in the Mélange Dance Company. I suspect that I was invited to review the piece based on my statement, in another review of recent performances by Complexions Contemporary Ballet and the Marigny Opera House Dance Company, that I am tired to death of heteronormative partnering in contemporary dance. It comes as no surprise that The UpStairs Lounge features non-heteronormative partnering—and yes, I was thrilled to see it. Not only did I enjoy the duets between Braedon Mason and Cody Cody (“My Body,” “John and Jane Golding”), but I also was delighted, in the latter section, by the moments in which Jane Golding (played by Elizabeth Mantalas) supported her male partner. Throughout the show, whether the dancers’ interactions were tender and delicate or athletic and high-flying, the partnering was expertly executed, thematically resonant, and exciting to watch.

I also cheered Cody Cody’s drag impersonation of Liza Minnelli (“You Have to Understand the Way I Am…Mein Herr”). His costume and makeup were effective in helping to create his character—which is not Liza herself, but meta-Liza, drag Liza. And he is a classy mover, tall and imposing and graceful, and exactly as crass as he needs to be. I did wish, though, that his part of the “Mein Herr” section had been less of a pantomimed recreation of the Cabaret film scene and even more of a loose interpretation. And though I appreciate demonstrations of technical skill, Liza’s back-up dancers (Alexa Erck Lambert and Gianni Reid) seemed out of place as they performed grand jetés and tours à la seconde—I was craving choreography that, like Liza’s performance, was a bit more deranged.

Because New Orleans has very few venues adequate for dance presentation and within reach of the DIY dance-maker budget (and nearly all dance-makers in town are working with a DIY budget), I’d like to make a few notes on Cafe Istanbul as a dance venue. Located in the back of the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, the two-story theater comfortably seats (by my estimate) more than 100 patrons and offers a powerful sound system and the flexibility of a multimedia display. It also boasts a side bar and the ambiance of a romantic, divey cabaret club. The stage is small and close to the audience, which has its benefits and opportunities, but a chief drawback is that large, traveling movements are not too feasible and intricate choreographic patterns are likely to go unseen. The Mélange dancers made use of both the elevated stage and the floor space immediately in front of the stage to accomplish their movement. I wouldn’t recommend the space for dance-makers interested in large casts and athletic choreography, but more self-contained movement could likely be successfully presented at Cafe Istanbul. The lighting for this show was basic and not particularly interesting—it’s unclear from the program notes whether or not the lighting design was done in-house—but the venue does seem to have the requisite set-up available for dance-makers who want to bring in a lighting designer.

Ms. Ordoñez is clearly a dance-maker who sees the value in restaging and refining her work. With all of the recent and upcoming documentary and theatrical work, and corresponding media coverage, about the UpStairs Lounge attack, I believe the story is gaining sufficient traction—in at least the local public consciousness—for Mélange Dance Company to successfully re-envision The UpStairs Lounge as a stand-alone piece of narrative dance theater—a contemporary story ballet that fits into a modern global trend in dance-making. And, far from pandering to the audience, or merely staging a dance version of an already familiar tale, as so many story-ballet choreographers have done, The UpStairs Lounge can perform the valuable and radical work of raising awareness of this historical event while telling an emotionally compelling story of the trials and triumphs of the local queer community.

How (and When, and Why) to Write a Good Bad Review

By Ann Glaviano

Last year at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, I attended a panel discussion on how to write a good bad book review, facilitated by my pal Dan Kois. In the land of books, as in the land of concert dance, we have a lot of anxiety about providing critical/negative feedback to others in our artistic community – why to do it, how to do it, when to do it, and what the possible consequences are. We probably all agree that real feedback – about the good and the bad in our work – keeps us honest as artists, and more importantly, keeps our art moving forward. And we probably all agree that someone needs to speak up (just as long as it isn’t you…). If you feel intimidated by the idea of writing a negative review, or even a review with a negative sentence or two in it, here are three points to consider.

1) When is a wholly negative review warranted?

Most of the panelists agreed that negative feedback in a review should be in proportion to the hype and resources at the artist’s disposal. The popular analogy in use here is don’t bring a gun to a knife fight. The review writer ends up looking like a jerk and the artist like a victim.

To use an example from book land: a slim poetry volume by an obscure author published as a labor of love and charity by a tiny indie press probably wouldn’t warrant a scathing review, even if you think the book is awful. Why? Because most people would never have even heard of the book otherwise, and because you risk killing the author’s chances of selling that book or any other book, ever again. Conversely, if there’s a book written by an extremely well-known and widely read author that is getting major hype by the media machine – if everyone you know is probably going to read this book and it’s going to have reviews in every paper, large and small – and you have read this book and you think this book is problematic, mediocre, undeserving of the hype – this book might be worth tackling in a “bad” review. Why? In the words of one of the panelists, because a reviewer’s job is to clear away the mediocre and overhyped so there is room for work that actually deserves our attention.

In a small dance community like New Orleans, few companies and collectives have resources, in terms of money and media attention, that would warrant a slam. If few people even know or care that a particular group is trying to make work, why bother writing a slam review? It doesn’t clear space for better work to get attention – the work wasn’t getting attention in the first place. One could argue that even the better-funded local companies and collectives would suffer real damage by a scathing review – that there is not a sufficiently broad base of support for local dance, period, and therefore we cannot afford to publicly present a negative response to local work.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer any negative feedback. A review that attempts to understand the artist’s project, acknowledge what elements of the work were successful in the context of this project, and note some areas that weren’t as successful, with some ideas regarding why they weren’t as successful – this is constructive critical feedback. It helps the artist move forward. (For a healthy local example of how this can work, see any article by Gambit food writer Sarah Baird, who virtually always offers a point or two of negative feedback alongside many paragraphs of glowing endorsement. Her philosophy seems to be that we always have a little room to grow.)

And remember, plenty of well-funded work comes through town on tour. A local review with negative feedback is small potatoes to an internationally renowned touring company – it does them no damage – but it might help guide our local presenting organizations in their selection of touring companies in the future.

2) A good bad review: It’s complicated

In another discussion of reviews at the same conference, a panelist noted that we typically think of reviews as “thumbs up” (an endorsement) or “thumbs down” (a slam) – in short, the review is a judgment. But the point of the review – and the value in reading it – is insight into the process of judging, not the judgment itself. The key question in a review becomes “what does this work do for me” – not “should you buy a ticket to this performance.” At present, virtually all of our local media coverage of dance performance is, in essence, promotion. That’s great; we need all the promotional help we can get. And this also means that, as reviewers, we’re off the hook in terms of dissuading or convincing people to see a particular show. We’re left with the opportunity to instead offer reflection – what does this work do for me?

In the “good bad book review” panel, Dan Kois pointed out that the internal response on which a negative review is predicated is usually pretty complex. He offered an example of what he called a “bad bad review” – an unsuccessful or unhelpful bad review – in which the reviewer expressed displeasure with a book by saying it was “disappointing.” Disappointing, Dan noted, is a word that contains a multitude of complex emotions. Unfortunately, the reviewer didn’t bother to unpack her feelings of “disappointment”; she did not offer her process of judging but only the judgment itself. A “good bad review,” on the other hand, would have done the difficult but interesting work of untangling this complicated response. The same principle holds for dance reviews, good and bad.

3) Putting negative feedback into broader perspective

Reviews don’t have to be short pieces that focus only on one dance presentation. Reviews can be embedded into essays that tackle any number of topics, where the reviewed work is merely one example and serves as a springboard into the discussion of a larger issue. The review/essay can critique not (just) the work itself but also what the work represents, buys into, or tries to promote. A review/essay is capacious enough to put multiple works in conversation with each other. It’s also a great opportunity to offer historical context or to identify and analyze trends. And because the focus of the piece isn’t on one specific “bad review,” it’s much less likely that the review/essay will be perceived as a slam.

Field Guide to Dance Review Writing, No. 1

Want to try your hand at writing a dance performance review? (Yes! Do it! And then submit it to NDR!) Here is a list of Twenty Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start to Write About a Performance, courtesy of the Dance Critics Association.

Compiled for the Dance Critics Association by Deborah Jowitt, Marcia Siegel and Elizabeth Zimmer

  1. How much space (how many words) will I have for this review?
  2. How much time do I have to write it?
  3. What formal demands are made by my publication that will affect the way I structure my lead?
  4. What credits to I have to work into the review? Is an “ID box” required? A title?
    who is the audience for this dance?
  5. Who will be reading this review?
  6. What facts (as opposed to opinions) about the performance are germane to my readership and to the historical record?
  7. What is the strongest impression I carry away for the dance event? How might I build the review around this impression?
  8. What idea can I express completely about this dance within the space and time available?
  9. What can I extract from my notes that is helpful?
  10. Have I read and interpreted the program notes with intelligence and skepticism?
    What were the performers actually doing? What kind of people do they appear to be, and what does their movement reveal about the organization of their society?
  11. Where is the choreographer coming from? What’s the cultural attitude or context or framework behind the choreography? In what movement idiom does it present its ideas?
  12. What information about the artist’s training and background is important for my readers to know?
  13. What was the visual environment (space, sets, costumes, lighting) and what was its effect on the work?
  14. How does the choreographer use the music or other sound accompaniment?
  15. What kind of atmosphere or environment does the music suggest?
  16. Does the work succeed? If so, how? If not, why not?
  17. How skillful are the dancers? What was the quality of their performance?
  18. What else do I think or feel about the work that hasn’t been touched on above?
  19. What extra-dance factors — the seat I was given, my frame of mind that day, the dinner I had (or didn’t have), friendships or enmities with anyone connected with the production — may be affecting my response to the concert? How can I avoid letting these factors distort my review?
  20. What are my difficulties in assembling this review? How can I address these so it is easier next time?