Friday Favorites, 11/10/17

This week’s Friday Favorite is “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma. This is a short and delightful piece (I would call it satire, but it does far more than just make jokes) that is incredibly dense with allusions and asides and asks genuine questions in there too. It reminds me of nothing so much as Borges.

But it has a delicious modern sensibility—and isn’t afraid to take a sly swipe or two at politicians on top of the writing & publishing scene. I am not qualified to comment on the political satire so I will comment on the writing. My favorite passages:

With regard to your question about how I perceive myself as an “Other,” let me make it clear that I am as fantastic to myself as rice. I do not waste time sitting around brooding about my mythic status and why the notion that I have lived for five hundred years ought to send me into a paroxysm of metaphysical Angst for the benefit of self-indulgent, overprivileged, cultural hegemonists who fancy themselves writers.

… I think that being an aswang is a category of social difference—imposed by an external utilitarian authority—like sexuality and income bracket. Nobody conceives of being gay just as a literary trope. Do they?

Well. Let me introduce you to a few websites. They are not respectable proletariat reading at all but you do need to learn about your enemies—right?

Weekly Ballet Post, 11/2/17

Do the boring but useful thing: that is is the lesson of the week. Home barre routines are fun but I am starting to fear forming bad habits in the absence of instruction. Also, bookshelves are not very good barres and that cannot possibly be helping my technique/habits.

That said I have been improving. A metric: I could hold a passé relevé for a few seconds this week, which is (sad to say) superior to previous weeks.

And I can work on things slowly at home, when I know what to do. I’ve started to sickle during developpés for some reason. So I’ve done many, many, MANY slow developpés focusing on letting the heel lead. Feeling the muscles so I know which ones need to be engaging. It’s starting to come together. Same with tendus, although I am having trouble with the moment when the working foot slides in/out of first.

For the moment I will restrict home practice to pliés, tendus, developpés, passé/relevé, and the daily élevés. To work my cerebellum (I once again bombed center this week) I will practice learning choreography (I especially need to memorize the damn body facings …) by marking but not full on dancing. Again, boring, but the right neurons ought to fire, over and over again. Without the risk of forming bad habits when no one is around to correct me. Similarly, I will watch more company practices (Royal Ballet has a great one). Watching how they hold themselves, especially the core/upper body, has been extremely educational.

And for the muscles: continued workouts. Remembering to stretch afterwards.

Okay, it’s not all boring. I bought a new-to-me leotard in BRIGHT GREEN! I am leaning way in to this wearing garish colors to class thing. Who cares if I look like I’m five, I certainly dance like I am. And if it makes me stand out in a crowd of sensible blacks and primary colors … so much the better, in a large group class. Ha.

Friday Favorites, 10/27/17

This week’s favorite is La beauté sans vertu by Genevieve Valentine. This is everything (maybe nearly everything?) Valentine likes to write about—fashion, the fashion industry, fairy tales, feminism—rolled up into one gorgeous and dense and prickly story, like a bed of roses. Which is, not coincidentally, a motif throughout the story.

I really have to gush a little about how the story is so perfectly structured. Every sentence is as layered as it is gorgeous. The story overflows with #aesthetic but at no point does that get in the way of the story’s function. Every pretty thing in this story is an important signifier or symbol; it doesn’t just stand there looking nice. That’s harder than it sounds even in a story about the fashion industry. (You wish all your clothes could accomplish the same.)

All right, speaking of roses. La beauté sans vertu is the story of Maria, a 19-year-old model who (with the help of bones grafted from a dead 14-year-old; this is the industry standard) rises to become a star in the House of Centifolia, a couture house. Rhea, the owner of the House of Centifolia, designs a runway show around Maria and her beauty. Then things start to fall apart.

It’s a story about the currency of women’s bodies and how and when they’re valued and what we consider beautiful and why. It’s a deeply beautiful story that understands the price of beauty and who has to pay it.

Reading this story is—to borrow an image from it—somewhat akin to swallowing a rose. Someone will bleed for this. But oh, the beauty of it.

Packing for the studio

Clockwise starting at upper left: Danskin leotard, Mirelle skirt, spare pair of Bloch leather shoes, Capezio transition tights, working pair of So Danca canvas shoes.

(The bag is holding the less crucial and/or photogenic items: spare leos, spare tights, spare skirts, water bottle, light reading material, knitting WIP, and mass transit card.)

Couldn’t attend class this week, sad but しょうがない so I practice as much as I can.

Friday Favorites, 10/20/17

Welcome to Friday Favorites! I’ve decided to start a weekly series where I highlight a short story*—could be past or present—that I love.

I’m starting off with The Weight of Memories by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. ~2,800 words, science fiction. While sometimes I give content warnings, I’m choosing not to on this one. (Okay, I’m giving one: I personally found the science to be implausible, but that doesn’t bother me in stories so long as the narrative is internally consistent and doesn’t bill itself as hard science.)

This is a story about a violent conflict between memories and experiences—the same memories experienced very differently, with very different results. If we are the sums of our experiences, then is it possible to add up the same things and arrive at two different sums? Yes, says this story, depending on how the addition is done.

As a very visual reader I also loved how spare the story is, and how stark, with almost all the violent bursts of color coming from the memories being relived.

I was also very deeply touched by this story as a Chinese person. I don’t talk about it a lot, but that is my heritage. A lot of awful events (check Wikipedia, I don’t have it in me to discuss) went on over the last two generations, which my family, especially my parents, somehow survived. I grew up never asking about my family’s past because the answer was invariably Yet Another Awful Story. And I feel sometimes—and my parents too—that China is changing so fast that one generation doesn’t understand another, and this story touches on that connection/disconnect as well. I’m shivering as I type those words. Read the story to find out why.

You may look over the above and say “gosh, Kara, that’s a really dark recommendation.” Fair enough. A friend once summed up my authorial obsessions as “memory, death, tragic love.” What is there to say other than … may as well lean in. If you’re on my wavelength, this may resonate painfully but wonderfully for days, as it did and still does for me.

* Okay so in reality I reserve the right to recommend whatever piece of writing I feel like, but for now at least, I want to focus on short stories.

Weekly Ballet Post, 10/19/17

I’ve been doing some workouts in addition to barre practice at home, and I would like to think that’s why I did better at things like attitude and passé this week. I did not try any center work at home (logistics are difficult) which is probably why I totally sucked at center this week. At least I am consistent.

Goals for this upcoming week of home practice:

– 2x back workouts
– 2x core workouts
– 3 home barres (any level)

– 1x spotting practice coupled with chainé turn practice, sigh but I want to start getting better at turns

– Every day:
– 4x passé passing front/back on flat, 4x on demipointe
– 8x passé HOLD on each leg (4x on flat, 4x on demipointe)
– 24x elevé on each leg
– Stretches (all splits, the two hip stretches)

Weekly Ballet Post, 10/12/17

Went back to Hardcore Studio this week, after a week off. During the week I tried to work a bit at home, practicing various basics: brushing with the tendu, not letting the knee fall during a developpé, passés up and down (4x flat, 4x in relevé), and 24 daily elevés on each leg. Not sure which of those was the hardest …

But the best prep I actually did was a lot of practicing how to turn at the barre. Most combinations are done first on the right or left, and then switch to the other side. If you are at the barre, this generally means you need to turn 180 degrees so that you can switch hands (and feet). This is not done casually. No. It is accomplished by some variation on:

1) Rise into sous sus
2) Turn 180 degrees on the working leg (defined as the leg away from the barre) towards the barre
3) Come back down on working leg while simultaneously placing the other leg in front of working leg; now it is the new working leg

I’m not sure if that made sense in writing. It certainly did not in speaking, which is why I spent so much time staring at YouTube and tied my ankles into knots at home trying to practice.

The other hard bit about this turn is you don’t want to start either too close or too far from the barre; otherwise once you finish the turn you will either end up squeezed into the barre or so far away that your arm can’t reach. So you have to place the working foot correctly at the start. Here’s where it came in handy to learn that in sous sus, 1) the toes of both feet are supposed to be aligned (this is a very popular pose for pointe photos, especially from the side) 2) when you rise into sous sus from fifth or whatever, you don’t shift both feet towards the middle; you pull the working foot to line up with the standing foot. Consequently your working leg will be at the same distance from the barre as your standing leg, thus ensuring that once you’ve turned around, you will remain at your ideal distance (assuming that you were at a good distance before the sous sus). Clever, that one. Anyway, this sounds like a very small matter, but I assure you that with the amount of turning there was in class, I felt much less awkward compared to last time when I had zero idea what to do. It also helped with other small turns; having the muscle memory to pivot and close in fifth without thinking too hard is very handy. Unfortunately this bit me somewhat when we did a combination with a passe relevé closing in the back. I think out of eight times, I closed in the front seven times.

Now back to staring at videos trying to learn assemblé, which was whipped out last night and I had never heard of it before. I was able to stay late and get some tips but for sheer patience, nothing beats YouTube for a teacher.

I still have no idea what a “perris” lilac is

So my leo collection is nowhere near epic, but I have definitely expanded from the single black short sleeve Capezio leo that I’d started out with.

In particular, I have (with some embarrassment but obviously not enough to stop me) longed after the leo/skirt outfit worn by certain years/classes of Vaganova swans-in-training. It took me a stupidly long time and much failed googling before realizing they were probably wearing Grishko, which is the Russian ballet brand. Well, Grishko dancewear is not easily if at all available in the states (although their pointe shoes appear to be readily available). P.S. you can find some creepy yet hilariously awful photoshopping if you trudge through their English website in desperation like I did.

An aside: this obsession set in just before Worldcon, so I had the genius thought “Finland is close to Russia, maybe in Helsinki …” and so I spent my first sleep-deprived day pounding some pavement at dancewear stores instead of, you know, going to the con. Anyway it was a bust. I should’ve gone to some panels …

But I was undeterred! And after weeks of googling for various combinations of “cornflower” “periwinkle” “[insert other blue-purple shades here]” “leotard” and “skirt” I hit lookalike paydirt. I am now the proud owner of a Dansko leotard in perris lilac and a Mirella skirt in periwinkle.

Having obtained my objective, the real question is, how shameless do I have to be to go to class dressed like that?! Answer: I have less ballet budget then shame, so I’m not letting these acquisitions go to waste. Do svidanya, see you in the studio.

(Where was the class post last week? Out sick, like myself. Hopefully I will be able to attend a class tomorrow night.)

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/28/17

I wasn’t able to make it to my regular studio this week, but I was able to arrange a consolation prize: there is a farther away studio that holds adult beginner classes on Wednesday nights. I had the suspicion (quickly confirmed) that they were a more hardcore studio, so I was pretty curious to try it out.

It was much more hardcore, complete with a live pianist, what riches! And it was wonderful. The class was pretty large—16 people, when I’m used to under 10—and it was a notch above the beginner class I had been attending. I wasn’t too surprised by this because I knew this studio offered an “adult fundamentals” class. The “beginner” class assumed a lot of knowledge. Fortunately I knew almost everything, if not from my class then from YouTube. The only things I missed were the turns, and if I had had the time/confidence I think I could have stayed after class to ask questions. Two other girls (whom I observed in class as being REALLY GOOD) were doing just that.

The class was 1.5 hours, and I’m used to 1 hour, but at least everyone was flagging in the last half hour. Which was of course when center practice is. LBR I started flagging in the second half of the barre, and of course combinations are most complex near the end. Life is cruel like that. Stress testing was interesting, however, personally speaking. I could tell that things were easier on my right side, whether it was balancing on the right foot or doing fancy combinations with the right working leg. And there was much balancing. So … much … passé. And arabesque. And attitude, which is more accurately ‘assitude’ when I do it. And then it was demi-pointe. So … much … sous sus. Shockingly, I stayed up most of the time, and even managed a few balanced moments on demi-pointe in passé. I think it was partly that I had no time to think, hey I can’t do that, but instead just shrugged and went with it. Kathryn Morgan, my lady and savior of ballet, once said in an interview on getting through performances that she aims to get completely exhausted ASAP, and as soon as that happens, the rest is easy. I didn’t believe her at the time but now I see what she means. If your muscles know the steps, then you’re too tired to think about how you can’t do this or that, and you just do.

The class was faster paced so I didn’t have a lot of time to slow down and contemplate technique. For instance, when we were in the center, it wasn’t until the fourth repeat of a combination that I remembered: draw the toes up the leg in a passé. And my feet fell out of turnout because my muscles aren’t strong enough to maintain the rotation. Of course that kind of thing needs to get baked in to the cerebellum, but these moments are what do the baking, I figure. In addition, in such a large class we also got almost no individual attention, but the teacher did correct my arm placement on the barre (way too far back for good balance in attitude!) and at one point turned my leg out more during a dégagé to the side.

Lastly, the studio is clever: your second class is free, good for 60 days. I’m definitely going back. I’m seriously trying to figure out whether I can arrange to make this my new weekly class. It’s more expensive than the other area studios, and more of a PITA to get to (bike ride to metro for a ride with a transfer!) but it’s also obviously better. Of course if I had the time I would probably do as many others and take both classes: slower one for refining technique, faster one for learning new techniques. Shhhhh. I can dream.

Weekly Ballet Post, 9/21/17

Nothing teaches you the existence of muscles that you didn’t know existed like a nice slow dégagé to the side … except maybe ronde de jambe en l’air. It kind of feels like gravity is wrenching your hip out of its socket.

Other discovery: one major reason that turning is hard is because no matter how good your spotting is, your damn body has to support the spot. If your body can’t maintain a vertical line and keep your eyes at the same level in all three axes, you’re sunk. This discovery brought to you by trying to do chainé turns quickly, which required going on demipointe, which I was not terribly stable on.

And in the annals of “skills I have but did not find them as helpful as I had hoped,” an interesting divide was visible in this week’s class. The teacher doesn’t always follow the musical pattern during combinations, which drives me batty. Why are you doing four count combinations on music with 3/4 time? Unless you are combining three beats into one. Anyway, at one point she said to do eight jumps, but the music was in 6/8, so a couple of us just … kept going … because the measure wasn’t over! (And sometimes the teacher totally goes off the beat, and then I just can’t follow at all, because the movements and the music don’t mesh in my head, and it all gets tossed out of short term memory.)

The other bit where classical piano training made dance hard for me at first is that in ballet, steps are often syncopated. Hence the joke that “and” is a number. At first I was really annoyed by this and thought it was irrational, then realized I was the irrational one. This happens because these movements are usually in two parts: you do the step, then you pull back into the starting position. So if you are doing four tendus in a 4/4 measure, you should extend on 0.5, then close on 1. So that you can extend on 1.5, and be closed again on 2. Etc., with the goal of finishing on the last beat. And if you are doing the steps slower, then you are effectively working in 2/4, and you’re still moving on the off-beat. It was a revelation. (I suppose those who did marching band would have understood immediately!)

Unbelievably, however, the best skill I brought to ballet was something I learned from doing junior high musicals. Now I was too terrible to get a real part—four failed tryouts ha ha ha are testament to this fact—but the chorus line (essentially) was come one come all. The pas de bourrée (youtube link)—a really common step in Broadway-ish dancing—was drilled into our skulls and feet. So thanks, Mrs. Hoffenberg. You might have taught me the most out of anyone else in that school, in the end. (Teach the arts in public school! /soapbox)

Speaking of classes, I have now used up the 10-lesson card that I purchased at my current studio. I love my teacher but it is a long drive (now that I’ve moved) and conflicts with another need for the car this school semester. There’s a studio closer to me that I can bike to and gives beginner class on the same night. Am contemplating trying it out next week, although it makes me sad. We shall see. Worst case, I can go back in January.