Tag Archives: Pointe Magazine

The Judges’ Pet Peeves: Frank advice about what really counts at competitions

The judges’ panel at YAGP finals last year. From left: Kee Juan Han, Washington School of Ballet; Garry Trinder, New Zealand School of Dance; Adam Sklute, Ballet West; Mavis Staines, Canada’s National Ballet School; Gailene Stock, The Royal Ballet School.

Photo by Rachel Papo

When a dancer fell flat on the floor during herEsmeralda solo at Youth America Grand Prix finals one year, it cost her a few points, recalls judge Phillip Broomhead. But she compounded it  by how she handled the mishap. Tears welled up. She fell again in the next section of pirouettes and began visibly crying. She wept through the rest of the usually sassy solo, half bowed, then ran offstage, sabotaging her performance completely.

Competition judges have seen it all—and they have a long list of what they never want to see again. From choice of variation to interpretation to final bow, it all counts. Pointe interviewed three veteran judges who have seen enough Kitri solos to recognize a red flag a mile away. They shared their views on appropriate variations, the importance of professionalism and the difference between technique and artistry.
Sick Of  Sugar Plum
Do judges get tired of certain variations? “I never want to see Sugar Plum, or one of Aurora’s solos or Flames of Paris again,” says Broomhead, ballet master at Houston Ballet. “I’ve seen Kitris with no spark, fire or emotion. Whatever you choose, don’t just go through the motions. Every step needs to tell a story.”

Paul Chalmer, a former dancer with National Ballet of Canada, and a recent Prix de Lausanne judge, believes a dancer’s choice of variation says a lot about how she perceives herself. “Sometimes you wonder if a variation has been imposed on a dancer by a coach because it’s so far from the dancer’s own look, personality and sensitivity,” he says. “You can see the dancer has no affinity with the steps or temperament of the piece. A badly chosen variation may make the difference between winning or not.”

John Meehan agrees. Now a professor of dance at Vassar College, he has judged Prix de Lausanne, YAGP and the USA IBC in Jackson, MS, and has seen dancers struggle with variations that seem alien or unflattering. “Even the way you walk from the wings can say a lot about you and your comfort,” he notes.

Dance To Your Strengths
Judges look for clean technique. Triple and quadruple pirouettes may wow, but only if you can pull them off effortlessly. “I’d rather see two well-placed pirouettes than five spinning out of control,” says Broomhead. Dancers and coaches need to consider how to best showcase a dancer’s qualities. “You better make sure what you are good at is in your variation,” says Meehan.

Striking a balance between technique and artistry can be difficult, especially for younger competitors. Ideally, each serves the other to make a complete dancer. “Using technique to communicate is what we strive for,” Chalmer says. “For me, a dancer who communicates, even if incapable of technical fireworks, will have my vote over someone with lots of turns or very high extensions, but nothing to say.” Broomhead agrees. “I’ve seen a technically strong dancer deliver absolutely dull, lifeless performances.”
How Bad Is Falling Off-Pointe?
When Sarah Lane’s music stopped at YAGP in 2002, her split-second decision to continue to the end of her variation impressed the judges. “We could hear the music through her dancing,” remembers Meehan. “It was very impressive.” Lucky for her, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie was in the audience and soon Lane, who had recently completed her training at the Timothy M. Draper Center for Dance Education, had a contract with the Studio Company; now she’s a soloist at ABT. Lane had transformed a problem into an opportunity, showing a can-do spirit that captivated the audience as well as the judges.

Mistakes can range from one missed turn to an embarrassing splat across the stage. How you cope in a tricky situation says a lot about your character. “It’s not important if someone falls or falls off-pointe,” says Chalmer. “I’ve seen the greatest dancers in the world flat on the floor, and I’ve been there myself. A missed pirouette is unfortunate, but not a major problem.” However, mistakes that cause the rest of the performance to deteriorate show a lack of focus. “I’ve seen dancers completely fall apart,” says Broomhead. “It’s important not to be thrown off; you must pick it up quickly and have a backup plan. If you did fewer turns, then you will have time to fill.”

However, repeated mistakes can clue judges in to a bigger problem, notes Chalmer: “If a dancer falls because she is not centered, because of a bad understanding of basic technique, that is another matter.” Broomhead adds, “One or two mistakes are expected, but numerous mistakes point to a technical issue.”
Don’t Screw Up The Class
Many competitions make technique class a component, and, surprisingly, it’s where the judges often see the oddest behavior. A high-handed attitude at the barre has become one of Broomhead’s biggest frustrations. “It’s not good when a student looks at you like you are from another planet when you give them a comment or correction,” he says.

Chalmer has also noticed a lack of respect in class. “Making faces or even stopping mid-combination, when a dancer thinks they haven’t done a step as well as they could, is very off-putting,” he says. While he understands that behind it may be insecurity, he cautions it can be read as a form of arrogance. Further, he notes, it’s “disrespectful and unprofessional” to change a combination to steps you prefer.

Onstage Etiquette
The grace you show onstage extends beyond the steps you perform. Immature behavior at any point can count against you. “Once a dancer did a little shuffle with her foot to indicate that the floor was too slippery, bowed sullenly, then stormed off,” recalls Meehan. Of course, professionalism factors into the actual performance as well. Broomhead recalls a time when a competitor decided to cheese it up for his final windup. “Winking and blowing kisses at the audience was just in poor taste.”

In the end, what matters most is something hard to put in words: the artist rising above all that is out of their control. It’s a contest, and judges judge. Yet they do their best to put artistic sensibility into the equation. “I think what is most important is a dancer’s soul. Attitude, both physical and mental, is vital because it’s all about potential,” says Chalmer. “I try to award dancers for what their talent and intelligence might allow them to achieve in the future.”

Reprinted from Pointe Magazine.


Dancehunter interviews herself, again

Dancehunter: Again, why do you interview yourself once a year?

Dancehunter: Because someone has to, it might as well be me. It keeps me from talking about myself during interviews.

DH: What is Dancehunter?

DH: An imaginary feature movie where I, along with a motley crew, hunt for dance. Like a bounty hunter, except no one goes to jail. It’s my twitter handle and also a largely abandoned blog, which is used as a storage facility for stories I publish elsewhere.

DH: How do you describe yourself?

DH:  A dance writer with a weakness for theater, music,  film and football.  I should add that I was recently called a “fame whore.”

DH: You do endlessly hawk your stuff.

DH: And why shouldn’t I? I write so someone besides my mother will read it.

DH: Blogging?

DH: Having a blog is not a life sentence.  Sometimes, we finish out our urge to share, or get busy with paying deadlines.  Project blogs work well.  Set a realistic goal and stick to it.

DH: Artists blogging?

It’s not mandatory, or even advised if you don’t much like writing.  If it feels like a chore, don’t do it.  For long term projects, tours and such, a blog can be useful to document your travels or process. Wendy Perron addressed the subject of over-sharing artists, touching a nerve or two.

DH: The state of dance writing?

DH: We are like Conan O’Brien. You can’t kill us. We just keep coming back. There will always be people who choose to write about dance. Whether we will ever have a critical mass of people making a living writing about dance is doubtful. I am not sure we ever did.

DH: Why did you stop writing reviews?

DH: For a variety of reasons: There are other people to write them; I find the form a tad lifeless; I am not very good at it. All that said, read the New York Times piece on why we still need literary criticism. It feels relevant.

DH: Where can we find your writing?

DH: Culturemap, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, mostly. Here and there in other publications.

DH: Where can we find your most unfiltered voice?

DH: Culturemap, but more and more in other places. I am starting to sound like myself everywhere. It’s a function of age.

DH: Aging?

DH: I don’t recommend it.

DH: What blogs do you read?

DH: Wendy Perron’s Dance Magazine blog, Arts Journal Blogs, Debra Jo Levine’s Arts Meme, Nichelle Strzepek’s  Dance Advantage, Andrew Sprung explains politics to me on xpostfactoid , to see all that I am missing in New York, Susan Yung’s Sunday Arts Blog on Thirteen New York Public Media,  my son’s blog, The Shape of Junk to Come for amusement and to see the gaps in my parenting. I skip about without much consistency. Mostly, I wait until someone sends me a link telling me to read something. I am of the obedient persuasion.

DH: So we are all front page editors now?

DH: It’s a “my body, my newspaper” world out there as so many people now have a service that aggregates pieces from their twitter lists.  I don’t miss the real front page that much. I’m not remotely nostalgic for print. Read Interviews with Notable Aggregaters in the Future for what happens when we take that too far.

DH: How can we get more arts writing?

DH: Hellishly simple, read more arts writing. Your eyeballs are being counted now, and so far, they don’t hold a candle to stories about Kim what’s her name.  Share arts stories you like. These days, numbers generate stories. Put your eyes where your desires are.

DH: Facebook?

DH:  The fact that we know more about one another is generally a good thing. I have a Facebook page, which will one day have every story I have ever written and will free up a lot of space in my house.  Please “like it.” I appreciate that Facebook is always working on its face.

DH: Most people don’t like that. Twitter?

DH: I like that Twitter makes us work on our sentences.  I have a Dance Magazine story coming out about how dancers and choreographers use Twitter. I started following every dancer I could find and still do.  It’s a marvelous way to get the pulse of a field. Twitter reminds me of dinner time when I was growing up, where everyone fought to be heard. It’s also a great way to keep up with life outside of Houston.

DH: What of Houston?

DH: It’s a love the city you are with situation. It’s impossible to keep up with my field here, not enough dance comes through here, or really ever did.  So I go see opera, classical music, theater, film and visual art.  Dance is always my home art form, though.  I look at all other art forms from a motion detector lens.

DH: You fussed like a maniac over Black Swan before you saw it, then fussed like a maniac afterward about how much you hated it. What gives?

DH:  All true. (I imagine I will be soon fussing over Emily Blunt’s performance with Cedar Lake in The Adjustment Bureau.) I had no problem with Black Swan’s depiction of the ballet world. Heavens, we don’t need to go Hollywood movies to find that out.  I did not like the movie because it was boring and oftentimes silly. Although, the scene where Barbara Hershey was about to throw the cake in the trash was priceless camp.  Also, Natalie Portman was terrific.  She got a boyfriend, a baby on the way, and most probably an Oscar out of the deal. And, yes, she almost looked like  a dancer.

DH: Sugarplum gate?

DH: Do we have to go there?

DH: Yes, we do. All dance people are required to chime in on the “too many sugar plums” fiasco. It’s a law.

DH: I wonder if Black Swan had not been in the air if there would have been such a fuss. Here’s what’s interesting to me in all of this: regular people now know how screwy ballet can be. Jenifer Ringer is a household name. People who never go to ballet were asking me what I thought about it.  Ballet seems nuts to them.  It’s as if the bubble burst into middle America’s living rooms.  Even Katie Couric had to blab about it.  What is also curious to me is how our brains are hard wired to prefer certain bodily proportions. I found myself attending to my own attention during a recent performance, which included larger than usual bodies.  Dancing, more than the body doing it, is always more engaging to me.

DH: Do you think the ballet buzz will generate bodies in seats?

DH: I  hope so, but its hard to predict. If you read Jenifer Homans’ book, she dissects the dance boom, and it’s not so simple, as it was tied to a confluence of events, both artistic and political.

DH: What did you think of Homans’ book Apollo’s Angels?

DH: I could not put it down. Darren Aronofsky should have read it before he made Black Swan. The history of ballet is like a Matt Damon spy movie, just terrifically exciting. The last chapter declaring ballet dead hit me hard.  History tells us if you want to wake something up, call it dead.  If ballet is dead, then I love a dead thing. Besides, vampires and zombies are all the rage.  I am less enthusiastic about that last chapter, but the rest is just a thrill fest. Ballet in light of the politics of the day makes great reading. I want Ken Burns to make a 10-part PBS series based on it.  Oh, and a coloring book.

DH: What about the politics of this day?

DH:  If it weren’t really happening it would make a good book.  It’s maddening mostly, impossible, depressing as ever.

DH: Obama?

DH: He had a strong close of 2010, thank god, because it was rough going before that. His speech on the tragedy in Tuscon will go down in history. Otherwise, Wall Street likes him.  I am reminded of Jim Hightower’s book, There’s nothing in the middle  of the road except dead armadillos. It’s a difficult situation.

DH: What were the most difficult stories you worked on in 2010?

DH:  A Dance Teacher story on the top ten dance injuries. No one could agree on a top ten.  A Dance Spirit story trying to define contemporary dance. The term really sets people off, mostly due to how So You Think You Can Dance uses it.

DH:  Dance on TV?

DH:  It’s here to stay. Let’s hope it gets better. I covered my own addiction to it.

DH: Most fun story?

DH:  It’s a story about ballet dancers married to normal guys in Pointe. There was lots of laughing on the phone. Writing the piece was better than therapy, very fun and hopeful. It’s a sweet piece, much like the one I did on the Secret Lives of Dancers.

DH: Most poetic?

DH:  A Culturemap essay on what is seen and what is hidden.

DH: Bubbly?

DH: My Dance Spirit Cover story on Lauren Froderman, a  bubbly dancer.

DH: Funniest?

DH: My deep cover investigation of young professional arts groups.

DH: Most rant-ish?

DH:  It’s a tie between my Art has Value story,  which I yelled more than wrote, and my Dance Civics 101: Being a good dance citizen story in From the Green Room, Dance USA’s e-journal.

DH: Painful?

DH: The Hurt Factor, about chronic pain, in Dance Magazine.

DH: Heartfelt?

DH: A story about Houston Ballet, Society for the Performing Arts and Houston Grand Opera’s outreach programs.

DH: Silliest?

DH: My reception diet story.

DH: Most in over your head?

DH: A story on Wordcamp, which is what led me to break up with blogger, a profile on Salman Rushdie, a story on Fashion and dance and my adventures in film at the Cinema Arts Festival.  Sadly, for me readers, I like being in over my head.

DH: Clunker?

DH: My story on Justice John Paul Stevens read like a book report.

DH: Story with the strangest start?

DH: A dance studio window with a sign reading “Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Drill Team, Kathak”  led to The Global Dance Studio in Dance Teacher.

DH: Dreaded year end lists and wrap ups.

DH: My year at Culturemap, A Year in Culture (dance),  A Year in Culture, (theater).

DH: Words that need to die?

DH: “Hot” and “edgy” are zombie words. They will not go away until they have completed their mission in this world.  “Curate” is on overuse probation and “buzzy” needs to meet me behind the barn.

DH: What most infuriates your editors?

DH: Making no sense gets them. My unwillingness to ask artists about what they do besides make art. I rarely have any interest in what they do outside of making art. Often, they have no interest in what they do outside of making art, so they make things up. I am more of an art person than a people person. It’s just me, others do this really well.

DH: Best dance moment of 2010?

DH: Chatting with Marge Champion, the Hollywood legend and model for Disney’s Snow White at Jacob’s Pillow.

Watch the magic below.

DH: How best to contact you?

nmwozny2@gmail.com, @dancehunter, 832-326-5234, at Caroline Collective on some days, where I co-work and when inspired, dust.

DH: Ideal job?

DH: Clicking “like” for a living.  Being a designated art witness.

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