Saturday, 2 September 2017

Bank Holiday Ballet: Wendy McDermott's Reflections on the latest Ballet Retreat

Wendy McDermott

The Ballet Retreat, Leeds, 26-26 Aug 2017

The August bank holiday was quite a special time for UK adult ballet dancers as the fourth Ballet Retreat of 2017 took place at Northern Ballet’s studios in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I think there have been five retreats altogether since emerging on the adult ballet scene around this time last year. I think all the ‘retreaters’ would agree that we are a pretty lucky bunch of adult dancers. We have the good fortune of using the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre for all three days, which is a studio space of around 30 metres in length (great for leaps, not so good for turns – oh the dizziness ), we are taught by professional dancers and have the added bonus of dancing to music performed by a live pianist.

As with other retreats, the day always starts with a warm up, led by the event’s organiser and producer Hannah Bateman (she’s also a Leading Soloist for Northern Ballet). There are plenty of standing and seated stretches, warming up of the spine, body and hip alignments, ports de bras and leg rotations to loosen the hips and prepare the muscles for the day’s dancing ahead. After a short loo/ballet bun/water break, we went straight into our 90 min technique class taken by David Kierce and musically accompanied by Northern Ballet’s company pianist, Andrew Dunlop.

Classes are always challenging but also injected with David’s humour and positivity. He does this in such a way that we’re able to keep the focus and concentration, particularly when giving group corrections. He has a very good knack of explaining the kinesiology, how the body works logically to stay aligned when performing everyday activities and what should (or shouldn’t) happen when rising onto demi pointe or standing with the working leg in retiré position for example.

Following class and before lunch we always start work on the repertoire and this time the female variation was Gamzatti’s Act 2 solo in La Bayadère. The men’s variation was Solor’s Act 2 coda. For days one and two the ladies had extra help in learning the rep from Dreda Blow another Leading Soloist at Northern. The men were not left out either and heartily welcomed back Gavin McCaig, now a third-year corps de ballet member after starting with the company as an apprentice (see Meet Gavin McCaig of Northern Ballet 3 Sept 2014).
Gamzatti’s variation is, I think, the longest that we have danced so far though it is less than a minute in length. That doesn’t sound long in the normal scheme of things and granted, some of the steps were modified to suit our abilities. But when you’re performing développés to relevé in retiré whilst also turning, then chassés into grands jetés, turning waltzes, turns in attitude to arabesque, posé turns into chaînés and then more grands jetés around the studio, with attitude on demi pointe to finish, this is no mean feat. Everyone did brilliantly.

As the August retreats are three days instead of two, we’re given the chance to experience a different kind of dance or movement on the second day. This year’s surprise taster class was no exception. We were given a sneaky hint when, a few days before the retreat, Hannah suggested that we follow Amaury Lebrun on Twitter. 
He is a contemporary dance teacher and choreographer, and new to Leeds. Whilst some of us may have guessed the connection I don’t think anyone was prepared for the hour long session ahead. I referred to the session on Twitter as the "Gaga Technique", but that is incorrect as it is a style created by Ohad Naharin. It is described as a ‘movement language’ that does not have a particular technique as we might think; ballet being the obvious one here. It is the antithesis, the renegade you might say. 
Amaury took our class, remarking that all that was required was our imaginations and to keep moving. Even on the spot, we did not stand still but very gently sway from side to side, shifting our weight from one leg to the other. He gave us mental images of water running through the fingers, snakes, balloons deflating in our bodies, walking through crowded streets of people without collision. With these thoughts, we moved either within our own space or around the studio imagining how we might move, or react, to that image. There was no right or wrong – just move. 
One of the last exercises was to lay in our own space, to think of something funny – a joke perhaps, and laugh out loud. We were all a little tentative, to begin with, but once the embarrassment subsided and encouraged by one or two more confident voices, we were able to release our inner reserved selves and release the laughter. Judging by people’s immediate reaction when the session ended I think it was a very successful class though perhaps a little avant-garde for some but most left feeling lifted and exhilarated.

The third and final day came around and again, following the morning class we had roughly an hour or so to put the whole variation together. This was easier for some to remember than others, partly I suspect (and confess) as nerves set in and the realisation that we’d shortly be performing to all the other dancers. We split into pairs and threes and each group performed the solo to all the other retreaters and everyone received rapturous applause.

Our final goodbyes were said, but not before a lovely lunch, vintage style with cut sandwiches, mini cream scones and an assortment of cakes and tea or coffee to drink. The tables were laid out beautifully and it was such a lovely end to what had been an amazing three days, and one which I am eager to repeat again.

1 comment:

  1. as one of the lucky dancers on the retreat , i'll agree with and echo everything Wendy has said in her review.

    TBR is a wonderful event and one I intend to make a regualr fixture in my diary .