Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Day 20: On the Road Again

This was our most challenging day in terms of scheduling and travel. On January 27th we taught in two states and crossed into three states. Our first class was at 10:30 AM in Beckley, WV, and we finished teaching at 7PM in Salem, Virginia only to get back in the car and drive to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to sleep.

The teaching day got off to a very promising start at the Beckley Dance Theater. The director, Jerry Rose, had seen Valery perform the part of Napoleon in the ballet Napoleon in Moscow with the Kremlin Ballet. This was a pleasant surprise and a great way to start the day. The studio was bright and lightly colored. In the next room was a children's dance class with some competing music wafting through the walls. At one point, as Valery's students worked on their adagio the chicken dance played. Fortunately I'm not the ballet teacher, because I'm afraid I couldn't have resisted breaking into a few waddles. Valery had no such problems with his concentration. The Register-Herald in Beckley wrote a blurb about the class and published a photo.

Blacksburg, Virginia (pictured above) is a college town with an attractive downtown. We arrived early enough for me to browse a book store and the farmer's market before we headed to the studio. After the class we would have no such luxury. It was a small studio on the second floor. When we arrived a tap class was wrapping up. I don't know anything about tap, but I think the teacher told the students to "get ready to slurp," is this possible?

Thank you to director Carol and to Melanie and Ashley for inviting us to your studio. I'm only sorry we had to rush off so quickly afterwards. We like to have a bit more time to talk, but it was absolutely a case of drive by teaching.

We would probably have arrived at the Post School of Ballet in Salem, Virginia with ample time were it not for some confusion over the numbering system of the roads there. Apparently they ran out of numbers and every intersection in Salem is the corner of route 11 and route 11. I'm still not sure how it all works, but we did manage to find the place and it is quite a studio. Its spacious dance floor could probably hold two Blacksburgs. We enjoyed working with the students. Although Valery taught with his full energy, I was a bit too tired to take very detailed notes about the class, but I believe it was a success and we hope to come back next time we're in Virginia.

Day 19: Almost Heaven

We crossed the Ohio river and drove the winding roads of West Virginia. Almost immediately as we passed the "Welcome to West Virginia" sign the temperature rose and ours was the only car on the road that was coated in road salt.

The scenery is very much as John Denver described it in the song "Country Roads."

We had a tremendously warm welcome at the River City Youth Ballet. Valery taught two classes, one for younger students and one for the older ones, and then we were treated like part of the family. We ate a home cooked meal, had great conversation and kingly accomodations. Thank you to Michelle, Julie and Donna for the hospitality and for running a great school. We're pleased to announce that we'll be back on Saturday, Feburary 3 at 11 AM.

On this trip we've had very few chances to work with the same students more than once and follow up on the initial lessons. We've done a lot of "drive by teaching." So whenever we have the chance to spend some time and get to know teachers and students it makes a huge difference. See you soon, West Virginia!

Day 18: Columbus City Ballet

The Columbus City Ballet, directed by Shir Lee Wu, is another new favorite of ours. This was a special workshop with a technique class followed by pointe and then private coaching with three individual students.

The studio is tremendously spacious and the students are serious. There is an expression that is sometimes used for female ballet students. They are called "bunheads," because of the tightly coiffed hairdos they sport. I mention this because Columbus City Ballet had students with the most uniformly neat buns I've encountered on our travels.

It was a long day of work, but very rewarding and we hope to return to Columbus City Ballet in the future.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Day 17: North Royalton, OH

This is the third time Valery has been invited to teach for our friends at the Mary Kay Manning Dance Studio in North Royalton, Ohio. I did not take any photographs this time around, but a link is available to a group picture taken the last time Valery was in town.

It has been rare for Valery to be able to work with the same students and see their progress. We're looking forward to having him return in summer for week-long programs that will really allow him to spend some quality time with students.

At this point we'd like to take a moment to thank Shane and Jenny Hunter and family for hosting us at their home in spite of their own busy schedules. The Hunters are some of our oldest and dearest friends, and we're happy to spend whatever time we can with them even when we're all running to different commitments.

The class at Mary Kay's wrapped up around 6:30 PM, giving us time for one more relaxing dinner with friends before we head back on the road. Next we have a long day with the students of Columbus City Ballet School in Lewis Center, Ohio. Then onto the River City Youth Ballet in Charleston, West Virginia. It will be the first time Valery has taught at this studio, but he remembers working with the director Michelle Raider in the past. Hopefully we'll have time to keep you posted on our travels as we head south and (hopefully) out of the snow.

Day 16: Canal Fulton, OH

You don't need to be in a major city to offer high-quality ballet instruction. Canal Fulton is nestled in the northwest corner of Stark county among the Ohio and Erie canals and the Tuscarawas river about an hour outside Cleveland. It is home to what is perhaps Valery's favorite studio in America, the Turning Pointe School of Dance.

Directed by Terry Irion, the studio's regular teachers include Dmitri Tuboltsev and Inna Strabova. Valery knows Dimitri from Russia and knew Inna by reputation. They offer high-quality training in the Russian tradition. What is more, it is always wonderful for Valery to have the opportunity to speak in Russian and discuss mutual friends back home.

The studios are spacious and open and the students learn combinations quickly and take corrections well. It is always a pleasure for Valery to work with students who understand the combinations the first time they are shown.

Valery rolled out some of his challenging combinations for a technique class followed by pointe. The class finished with fouettes, fouttes, fouttes.

You find the best studios wherever people have a passion for dance, and the commitment to create a good school.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 15: Mansfield, OH

Today we trekked to the Richland Academy in the carousel district of Mansfield, Ohio. The area is so named because it surrounds an indoor carousel. I assumed that this was an historic part of the city, but it turns out that the carousel only dates back to 1991. It is, according to the Richland Carousel web page, "the first new, hand- carved carousel to be built and operated in the United States since the 1930's." (They spell carrousel with two "r"s, but I've always spelled it with one. Mirriam Webster calls "carrousel" a variant of carousel. Learn something new every day.)

The academy, billed as "your center for creativity," offers classes in theater, dance, visual arts and music. It apparently even has a bagpipe band. (Here's an idea-- ballet choreography to music by the bagpipe band.)

It has a generous, spacious studio-- perfect for a double class of technique followed by pointe. Many of the students, who I'm told take classes four days a week, finished the class, took off their pointe shoes and went right into a jazz dance class.

We had an interesting moment en route to the studio. Until I met Valery, I hadn't really appreciated how much mental preparation goes into a physical activity like ballet. Before class, Valery goes off into his own world. As he goes over the combinations in his head, he assumes a distant gaze and moves his hands slowly in the pattern of the feet.

It was a snowy, slushy day and the cars spattered road salt across the windshield. So we had to stop for some extra windshield wiper fluid. As I went in to buy the fluid, Valery stood by the open hood of the car, still mentally dancing his class combinations. A man came up to him and said, "Are you ok, sir?"

"I must have looked very strange," said Valery.

Fortunately, for the next couple of days we're visiting schools we've been to before. Valery knows the students and understands their level. It can be challenging for him to prepare for classes at new studios. What one studio defines as "intermediate" or "advanced" might be "beginning" by another studio's standards. So as much as I try to provide him with good information, we just never know until that first plie just what the class will be. It is a bit like an English teacher preparing to teach writing without knowing whether she will be teaching high school seniors or the fifth grade.

I have been impressed by Valery's ability to quickly adapt to whatever level he sees. We'll need that skill in the next couple of weeks as we head into states we've never taught in before-- West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Day 14: River Raisin Center and Bedford Dance Academy

One of our favorite places to teach is the River Raisin Center in Monroe, Michigan. Monroe is apparently the home of General George Armstrong Custer. You drive into the main street past a giant Custer statue and next to the center is a Custer museum. All I remember about Custer is that he fought the Indians and lost. I'm sure there is much more to his story and perhaps next time we're in Monroe we'll have time to stop at the museum and check it out.

This is our second visit to the River Raisin center. The studio is located in a building behind the theater, and the students are sincere and take corrections well. There is always very good emotion here, as Valery might say. We talked about an exciting new project for this summer-- so stay tuned. We'll let you know if it pans out. In the meantime, thank you to Karen Lajiness and everyone at River Raisin for another successful visit.

After Monroe, we headed along snow-covered rural roads to Temperence, Michigan. The Bedford Dance Academy is where we held our first class this past summer. Last time, we came a different route. Lewis Road, on which the studio is located, has an interesting quirk. As you travel from Monroe, the numbers count up-- 1000, 2000, 3000 and so on. We were looking for 6800. As we got to where the address should be, we discovered nothing but a fallow cornfield. Fortunately, there was a man walking nearby and we stopped and asked him how to find the ballet studio. Turns out that once you get to Temperence, the numbering system changes, so we got back in the car, and kept driving forward. Just another moment in the glamorous life of a ballet star.

The class at Bedford was mixed-- there were very young dancers and older students. Valery taught two different variations for the different ages. The studio director, Heather Saul, also took the class. She is a beautiful dancer, and Valery sends his compliments.

Thank you to the folks at Bedford for another great visit. Next we are off to the Richland Academy of the Arts in Mansfield, Ohio. This is a new studio for us, but "academy" is in the name so we have high hopes that it will have a high level of instruction.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Day 13: Clarkston and Fowlerville, MI

I noticed for the first time when I sat down to write this that yesterday was the 13th day of our journey. This may explain a few things about our luck this morning.

Roxanna's Dance Expressions is located in Clarkston, Michigan. (According to Wikipedia, Clarkston's offical name is "City of the Village of Clarkston," which appeals to me in an "unnecessary redundancy" sort of way) We have never been to this studio before and so I planned our route using the studio address listed in the yellow pages and my handy tool- Mapquest. Recently, we've come to realize that Mapquest has some serious limitations. The biggest is that it sometimes doesn't know its right from its left. It spat out directions to the address and had us turning south when Clarkston was clearly to the north. Fortunately, I caught this one. Yea, me!

Unfortunately, I failed to catch one little thing. As we pulled onto the street that should have hosted a dance studio (which I'd been told was in a strip mall) something was clearly very wrong. We were on a small road in a residential neighborhood surrounded by two-story white houses. The address in the yellow pages for the business was for the studio owner's home. I drove with one hand on the wheel and one on my cell phone as the studio owner directed me, turn by turn to the proper location. My apologies to the wonderfully patient students at Roxanna's for our late arrival.

After this inauspicious start, the classes were a great success. Valery taught the older students first, and then the younger ladies. Valery was impressed by all the students and especially by one or two of the young ones who have a real instinct for ballet. Thanks to Roxanna Chambers for getting us to her studio.

Fortunately, our late start didn't prevent us from getting to our next class in Fowlerville, Michigan on time. There was a great energy at Maria's School of Dance. The studio is located on an old-fashioned main street near a real estate agents, a tax office and a saloon. Valery pulled out all the stops and even took requests after class. He answered questions, demonstrated grand pirouettes and chatted away to Maria Usher and her husband. Mr. Usher had a serious-looking camera and so I left the photography to him. We're looking forward to seeing the results.

As Valery changed back into his street clothes, I spoke with the studio's teachers. They asked how Valery and I communicate. The answer is "very well." The first time he came to teach, I was a bit concerned that spending hours at a time in a metal box with someone who doesn't speak English might be painful. But we each speak Russlich very well and we have almost no problem communicating with each other. Valery's English, which he has assimilated entirely from tours in the U.S. and England, continues to improve. I understand a decent amount of Russian, although we converse almost entirely in my language.

The Russian helps, though, because Valery tends to use his English vocabulary with Russian-styale grammar. My attempts at learning Russian help me to recognize this structure. I speak a simple stripped-down form of English that he is tuned into and somehow it just magically works. It is only when we leave the car or the class ends (Valery has very good dance English) that I become aware of the language barrier.

Looking forward we are heading into Ohio. Our next class is at the River Raisin Center in Monroe, Michigan followed by the Bedford Academy in Temperance, Michigan (near Toldeo, Ohio) both schools we visited last summer. Then onto a new studio, Richland Academy in Mansfield, Ohio and two old favorites Turning Pointe in Canal Fulton, Ohio and the Mary Kay Manning Studio in Brunswick, Ohio. From there we'll go to the Columbus, Ohio area and on to West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Day 12: Okemos, MI

Our travel adventures continued on a snowy Friday afternoon. Our morning class in Ada wrapped up before lunch time. This is very early for us! Our next class was not scheduled until 7:30 PM in Okemos, which is near Lansing, Michigan. This gave us a good five or six hours for the one-hour drive.

Thus we had a little time for one of Valery's favorite American activities-- shopping for gifts for his friends back home. Watching him shop has taught me a bit about the differences in Russian and American culture. For his friends, Valery buys practical things. For example, this past summer he purchased an ironing board cover. He likes to give clothing and shoes and things that can be used for a long time. On this day, as he browsed for practical gifts, the store had its Valentine's Day merchandise on display. There were all sorts of pink knick-knacks and tchochkes. It seems to me that while Russians value gifts for their usefulness, we select gifts for their uslessness. Something with no practical earthly use is sentimental and from the heart, but something that could be used time and time again-- like an ironing board cover-- is just too utilitarian to be an appealing gift for an American.

Now back to our journey. After a successful afternoon of shopping, we brushed off the car, hopped in, and headed along US-96 towards Okemos. Somewhere along the route our car's heater stopped working. This was not ideal for our comfort on a bone-chilling day, but the real problem was the lack of a defroster. The rear defroster continued to work but, generally speaking, when you drive it is also nice to be able to see out the front. So Valery Lantratov added a new title to his resume-- windshield wiper. As we looked for the Happendance studio, Valery used a small ice scraper, and dragged it across the inside of the windshield, giving us our own personal snow storm in the car as the frost fell on our laps.

Most studios we have visited are located in strip malls and have big neon signs featuring cartoon drawings of ballerinas on pointe. The Happendance School is an exception. As we came to the corner of two rural roads, we scraped and peered through the frost looking for the street address. It quickly became apparent that Happendance had to be located in the only building we could find-- a big, red barn. The studio itself is tucked around back and down a few steps.

According to Happendance's brochure, the school is "where dance means more than just learning steps." Our sentiments exactly. Valery was especially energized for this class. Maybe it was all that scraping. Thank you to so much to Diane Newman and the Happendance Staff for inviting us to work with your talented students.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Days 11-12: Ada, MI

Valery has come to the conclusion that studios with the name "academy" are likely to offer a high level of instruction. The Ada Dance Academy is one of our new favorites, and it was worth every bit of the race from South Bend to Ada, MI to be able to work with these classes.

The class at Bethel College ended at about 5PM with a class in Ada, Michigan, about a two hour drive away, beginning at 7:30. We dashed from the theater as soon as it was feasible and drove non-stop in a light snow with fingers tightly around the wheel. So it was another class that got off to a bit of a winded start.

That was soon forgotten as Valery began working with the students. He was impressed by their level. When he works with well-trained students he really comes alive. He presented some of his challenging combinations. We were especially pleased to have two talented young men in the class. Kudos to the teaching staff at Ada Dance Academy. We may return to Ada for a week-long intensive in summer. We'll let you know if this pans out.

One thing that Valery said during class struck a chord with the academy's director, Marlene Kennoway, so I will share it here. "On stage," he says, "the first thing I see is your eyes and your face. Next I see your arms and last your legs." It is yet another way of saying that dance is about expressing emotion. The technique is important, but only to serve this greater purpose.

We would also like to thank Marlene for her wonderful hospitality. After our evening class at the studio we would be teaching an early morning class for adults, so we were invited to stay at the Kennoway's lovely home. After the first class we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant that stayed open for us. It had live music, and the band stayed until we had finished our meal. So bouquets and thanks to the Kennoways, the band and everyone we met in Ada.

Days 10-11: South Bend and Beyond

Thanks to Dr. Carolynn Hine-Johnson, we had engagements at two universities in South Bend, Indiana. Both universities have small dance programs that they're trying to grow. It is always a pleasure to work in a college environment.

Another advantage of university engagements is that they happen during the day, leaving time for other classes in the evening. In order to slot Valery into existing classes, we were scheduled for engagements on two different days. Unfortunately, we weren't able to schedule other classes right in South Bend, so we had to go a bit farther afield.

Thus this particular part of our trip got to be a little bit travel-stressful. South Bend has an interesting system for marking major roads-- they don't mark them at all. Two of our major turns were missing street signs, and one road mysteriously ends in a parking lot, you have to drive around a block to stay on the road.

Unfortunately, these quirks of Indiana travel made us a little late for Indiana University. Many of the students had to leave for other classes, so Valery's class faded out as one student after another disappeared. By the time it was finished, there were only four students.

Hopefully, this was a boon for the students who were able to remain and who recieved almost one-to-one instruction. Now that we have learned to navigate South Bend, we should be on time if we're invited back.

Interestingly, the class the following day at Bethel College, also organized by Carolynn Hine-Johnson, was like the IU class in reverse. Students, who had other classes, arrived late. A class that began with four or five students, ended with a full compliment as one student after another joined in.

The Bethel College class was held in a theater rather than a studio. Seeing Valery leading class with dancers using folding chairs for a barre reminded me of our days touring together with his dance company.

We were on the road together for two months of one night engagements, 62 performances in all. It was my introduction to the world of road ballet. I was struck by how unremarkable dancers are as they file out of their travel coach and into the theater. When they slowly assemble on a dim stage, they look like the members of a freshman college class slouching off to an early morning lecture in sloppy sweat pants and slippers.

Before each performance was company class, led by the director-- Valery Lantratov. Valery prided himself in having a new class with new combinations every day. He would gague the energy level of the company, and adjust the class accordingly.

In the center of the stage were three ballet barres.There were not enough for a company of nearly 50, so the dancers balanced themselves on anything that protruded at approximately chest level--door handles, theater seats.

The sight of the dancers practicing plies on the venue steps framed by the door of an exit was new and odd to me. Yet there was such a matter-of-factness about it. This was their life, their routine; the uneventful start to another work day, as when I sat down with a cup of coffee and fired up the computer. Now it has become the mater-of-fact reality of my daily life as well.

Between the two university classes in South Bend, we scheduled a class in Monticello, Indiana-- about two hours away as the crow flies, or a bit more as we drive. There are very few landmarks between South Bend and Monticello, unless you are very good at distinguishing one farm (in winter) from another. We had a few mapquest woes on route to this class as well, but we did get there just on time, but without the time we'd like to have for relaxation. Apparently, though, Monticello offers "beautiful scenery on the lakes," which I'm sure we would have enjoyed in daylight hours.

Fortunately, we do enjoy the opportunity to teach classes in cities we've never visited before and to meet new people. Valery has said that although he has been in America many times before, he's never seen "real America," until these two recent visits to teach classes.

After the class had ended, one young student took the time to share her competition routine with Valery. We were very pleased to have had the opportunity to work with this class.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Day 9: Gary, IN

Gary, Indiana; Gary, Indiana; Gary, Indiana- my home sweet home.

Gary is one of the only cities we will visit that has its own song. At least it is one of the only cities that has a song that I know.

Day 8 was our coveted day of rest, and the last we'll have for some time. Valery discovered the joys of post Christmas sales at Kohl's and relaxed with a bit of channel surfing in the Comfort Inn. Coincidentally, it seemed to be defeat the nasty Russians night on TV with Cold War era flicks like Rocky... um, four? Where Rocky challenges the huge Soviet boxer played by Dolf Rungren and Air Force One in which the president, played by Harrison Ford, goes up against Russian speaking terrorists.

But back to ballet. Our travels now take us to Gary, Indiana. We have had wonderful classes in Gary, and have met some wonderful people. We were disappointed that we weren't able to return to the Emerson High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. We were originally slated to teach there today, but they had to cancel because they have a performance on the same day. Valery remembers that Emerson was one of the first schools that had a full compliment of skilled male dancers. We still hope to return.

Fortunately, we were able to offer a class in Gary at Dance Excel. Dance Excel's studio space is huge, and it is very lively with classes in drumming, hip hop and ballet happening simeltaneously. Valery taught to a class with a large range of ages. Again, everyone was tremendously welcoming, and they even presented Valery and I with Dance Excel t-shirts. This was especially nice, because I don't usually get presents for pushing the CD buttons. (I trained my index finger for years)
I'll be adding some more photos from this part of our trip as soon as I have better internet access, and I can play around and figure out the formatting. Thanks to Dionne Champion and everyone at Dance Excel for a successful class.

Gary, Indiana - Original Broadway Cast

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Day 7: Crystal Lake, IL

It was windshield scraping weather in Crystal Lake, IL, a suburb of Chicago. This did not reduce our enjoyment of this part of our tour one bit. In fact, snow seems to make Valery feel at home.

We also visited a new favorite school of Valery's. The Judith Svalander School of Ballet focuses entirely on classical ballet. Most American studios split their time between ballet and jazz, hip hop or tap.
We are told that the students here take class four days a week. The students followed Valery's combinations easily and understood and incorporated corrections quickly. We also had a relatively rare opportunity to teach a pointe class.
We also would like to thank the parents for giving Valery a very thoughtful gift which we were able to enjoy on our first day off on Janury 15th. It is our last day off for some time.
In the evening, we had the opportunity to meet with some old friends. Larry Mein drove the coach on a ballet tour Valery and I did together a few years ago. It was great to see Larry and his wife Cindy again.

Day 6: Garrett, Indiana

Today we returned to Garrett, Indiana and the Patricia Krus school of Dance. Located in farm country, Garrett embodies the word "heartland." At P.K. School this means the students dance from the heart. This was our second visit to Garret and we always receive a warm welcome.

One of our great pleasures is being able to bring master classes to studios in areas that fall a bit outside the tour routes of companies like the Joffrey, ABT or the Bolshoi. It's a great opportunity to spread appreciation of Russian classical ballet, which is the mission of Valery's foundation.

Thank you to Patricia Krus and the whole team for an enjoyable class and a pleasant lunch. We look forward to coming back.

Day 5: Muncie

Valery Lantratov has a great memory for students. He remembers faces, forms and feet. After our class at Ball State University in Muncie, he asked the teacher about some of the students who had been in the class last time we visited, but who weren't here this time around.

Ball State's dance studio, located in the Ball Gym, has that wonderful theatrical smell-- a mix of sawdust and grease paint. To be honest, the "grease paint" bit is really just a cliche. I think it is really the scent of set paint and sweat.

In any case, Ball State is one of our favorite places to teach and we'd like to thank Sarah Manglesdorf for inviting us back.

In the evening, we went to a new studio and made some new friends in Muncie. The Muncie Ballet Studio, located in the Center for the Arts, is run by the euphonically named Lisa Love. We received a very warm welcome from the people in Muncie.

I've learned that there is a lot of curiosity over what dancers eat. In Muncie, the answer is Thai pepper steak courtesy of the Muncie Ballet Studio who treated us to dinner before we headed back on the road. Over heaping plates of pad thai, Valery and Lisa Love discussed dancers they knew in common. The Russian ballet world is very small.

"We have new friends," Valery said, as we headed off into the rain towards Fort Wayne for our next adventure.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Day 4: Holland

One every visit to the U.S., Valery is amused by the many place names borrowed from Europe. I once read that there are 22 Moscows in America. (The largest is in Idaho)

Holland, Michigan was especially windy. It must be this way often because the door of Thea's Dance Central had a sign on it that siad, "Hold the door closed when windy." This is probably good to power all the windmills.

Holland actually does not have much in common with its European namesake, but it does boast a few wooden shoe gift shops and Dutch themed restaurants. Of course, we were here in the off season and not during its famous tulip festival.

We had two wonderful classes at Thea's studio. The first was for the more advanced students. It featured many tall, long-limbed aspiring ballerinas who followed the combinations with enthusiasm.

Next was a class for younger students. It was the first opportunity Valery has had to make use of the special training he has recently taken for teaching the youngest dancers.

This may be a moment to introduce a new topic-- CD players. Suggestion to the CD player industry-- standardization. Every studio has its own machine with its own quirks and variations. The pause button stops pausing when you advance the track, or the button that looks like it should control the volume is actually a self-destruct feature. Designers love to add more features to cd players, but I don't need my player to play through the computer or turn on my coffee maker. I just need to be able to find play, pause, forward, back and volume.

Our first visit to Holland was a success, and we hope to have a chance to come back. The closest we'll be on this visit is a trip through Ada at the Ada Dance Academy on January 18.

Next we're off to Muncie-- Ball State University in the morning, and a new studio for us, The Muncie Ballet Studio in the afternoon. In fact, we'd better leave now if we're going to make it on time.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Day 3: Spring Arbor

I have a moment in a hotel office, where they have generously offered me internet access.

Valery concluded his class in Spring Arbor by applauding teacher Lori Ladwig who runs a very active studio at a very high level.

Valery remembered many of the students from last time, and it was a great pleasure to work with them again. Some younger students also had the chance to participate in the class for the first time.

We'll update you with some of the photos we took as soon as we are able.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Day 2: Wherefore Art Thou in Romeo?

While we're on the subject of Romeo, I just thought I'd drop in the fact that one of Valery Lantratov's signature roles was that of Mercutio in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. It gives me an excuse to include this performance photo, which has absolutely nothing to do with our current travels.

In this case, Romeo is a small town in Macomb County, Michigan, known for its annual peach festival and for its famous resident Kid Rock. On its welcoming main street you can find the Romeo Civic Dance Center. On the wall in one of its dance spaces is a poster that says "An expert in anything was once a beginner." It's a sentiment that seems to fit well with Valery Lantratov's teaching philosophy.

We were pleased to see many familiar faces at this studio, including the young student I mentioned in the previous post. Last time, if we remember correctly, it was summer and our class was held during the day. We appreciate the extra dedication it takes on the part of both parents and students to come and take a class after a long day at school.

Thanks again to Janece Fowler, the center's director, for hosting us and even more so for not correcting me as I called her "Denise" for most of the year.

Looking forward we begin the serious road portion of our trip, which means I may not be able to update this on a daily basis. Tomorrow we will visit one of Valery's favorite studios, The Academy of Arts in Spring Arbor. The studio is spacious, the students are dedicated and last, but not least, it's not far from Moscow. Moscow, Michigan, that is.

From Moscow we travel to Holland... Michigan. Then on to Ball State University in Muncie, the Muncie Ballet Studio and on to various universities and studios in Illinois and Indiana. I'll keep an eye out for a computer as we go along.

Day 1: Partnering at Rhythm Pointe

Let me tell you a secret about speaking to someone who hasn’t mastered your language. Often words that seem more complicated are actually easier for a foreigner to understand than words that seem simple. These are the words of the scholars, academics and at one time the royalty. They passed their multi-syllabic utterances across borders while the simple everyday words stayed home. Thus Valery immediately recognizes the word “stereotype,” but occasionally forgets the word for “toes.”

I make this observation by way of introducing the topic of boys in ballet. As we travel from studio to studio, boys are glaringly absent. The cultural stereotypes that discourage young men from taking part in ballet do not exist in Russia, and so Valery has a hard time understanding them.

You only need to watch one professional ballet to see that being a dancer requires all the strength and agility of a top athlete. Ballerinas are generally light women, but they’re not so light that they can be lifted into the air and balanced without some power. And unlike an athlete who can grunt and grimace when he performs a huge leap or runs until he’s used all his energy, dancers must perform their feats and stay in character, all the while disguising their heavy breathing. Russian culture views this as an entirely masculine role.

The stereotypes that keep many American boys out of ballet are a shame. Ballet is an excellent way to channel energy. Boys who dance enjoy the benefits of dancer’s discipline, improved posture and coordination, appreciation of classical music, the ability to perform in front of others and to think creatively.

The unbalanced male to female ratio also affects the girls who simply do not have opportunities to learn skills like ballet partnering unless they seek out very serious high-level instruction. So we were pleased to have the chance to introduce some partnering basics to the students at Rhythm Pointe.

Valery went in wondering how it would be possible to teach partnering to a class with only one male student. In the end, however, the class—which used a combination of young non-dancer male friends, and girls dancing the male parts-- was a great success, and Valery left hoping for more opportunities to teach duet classes in America.

The partnering portion of the class began with a few nervous giggles. The handful of male volunteers who were dragged along by overly enthusiastic ballerina friends needed a little coaxing, but with no ballet background at all, they performed amazingly well and they took their task seriously. For Valery it was especially gratifying to have the opportunity to teach these students something brand new. Ballet is not solitary. Partnering is the next step in the development of a ballet dancer.

The class was not long enough to cover everything that Valery would have liked. But in the end, maybe this is as it should be— hopefully the students are left wanting more and they'll go out and reach for it.

Thank you to Maria Huber for welcoming us once again to this lively and well-run studio. Valery loves to return to studios where he can see familiar faces and continue to work with students.

Tomorrow we’re off to the Romeo Civic Dance Studio. What we most remember about this class from last year was one eight year old student who participated in the intermediate level class made up of people twice her age. Even though she could sometimes barely reach the barre, she followed every step and truly glowed with the “light of learning.” When you love to dance, it shows!

Monday, January 8, 2007

Valery's Arrival

I had the great pleasure yesterday of watching excerpts from some of Valery Lantratov's notable performances. They included a passionate Napoleon and an energetic Basil from Don Quixote, with its amazing partnering-- Valery lifts his partner above his head with one arm and makes it all look easy.

We will probably not need such fancy moves for our special class in partnering tomorrow at the Rhythm Pointe Dance Academy.

This studio was one of the best surprises from Valery's last trip to the U.S. The web page plays Latin music, and we thought the studio might focus more on jazz, hip hop or other types of contemporary dance than classical, but Valery was impressed with the ballet students' level. So we will kick off this tour with another visit.

This time he's been asked to give a special class on partnering. There is only one challenge, if Valery remembers right from last time, the class had only one boy. If you will forgive me from stealing from Project Runway's Tim Gunn, it's time to "make it work." We'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, Valery shook off his jet lag from the eight hour time change, and shared his philosophy of ballet instruction, "Everyone has talent," he says. "Everyone."

So his goal is not only to teach students technique but to inspire them to dance from the heart. The most important thing about ballet is the emotion, and the mechanics exist to convey it.

There's a story in A Child's Introduction to Ballet that illustrates this philosophy: Once a nine year-old ballet student interviewed Valery Lantratov with the help of a translator. She asked him whether the arms or the legs were more important in dance.

He replied: "Neither. The most important is the head; the head and the ears because first, dancing is mental. The head sends the signals to the ears that they have to hear the music, and the ears send the signal to the arms and legs on how to move, and then of course the eyes, because they have a dancer's spark, they light up with the specific light of learning.”

That "light of learning"-- The ability to convey feelings without words-- is what ballet is all about, and it's what Valery hopes to share over the next month.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Welcome to the Valery Lantratov Blog

Thank you for visiting our web log. Here you will find information and updates on Valery Lantratov, dancer, choreographer, teacher and artistic director of the Russian National Ballet Foundation.

I'm Laura Lee, and I will be updating you regularly on Valery Lantratov's activities and travels.

He has just returned from Cyprus with a successful Nutcracker tour. Valery acted as driector and danced the role of Drosselmeier in the production. He plays the character with a special magic and mischievousness.

I've come across some stories about these performances. Unfortunately, I do not read Greek, but if you do perhaps you will enjoy these.

This one has a pretty picture.

There is even more great news on the horizon. Valery returns to the U.S. on Saturday, January 6. We have an exciting and busy schedule slated for him. He will be teaching in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. We may even get to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin-- stay tuned!

Valery had a wonderful time teaching in the U.S. this summer and fall. We only wish we had done a better job recording our journey with a travelog and photos. We have to make due with photos like this one from the Mary Kay Manning Dance Studio in Ohio. (If you hosted a class with Valery Lantratov and took photos, we'd love to see them. Send to and let us know if we can post them here.)

Hopefully we can rectify our lapse this time around. In this blog we will talk about our classes, and post as many pictures and stories as we can from the road. We may even post a few ballet dance tips.

Also, we wanted to let you know about our new book: A Child's Guide to the Ballet. Valery Lantratov was a technical advisor and provided some quotes for the book. (Although I get all the credit on the cover!) It is due out in April and comes packaged with a CD of ballet music. Many of the music tracks were selected by Valery Lantratov. You can listen to the music as you read stories of the great ballets. It's full of colorful illustrations to spark the imagination and more dance trivia than you can shake a stick at. (That is, if you go around shaking sticks at your trivia.) Although it is not due until April, we will be taking advance orders so that you can get a copy with Valery Lantratov's signature, and even a personal dedication, before he goes back to Moscow. (It will be on a bookplate).

We hope to see you on the road this month!