Thursday, September 22, 2011


Bourre, bourre, bourre, prep-and-uh-up! turnturnturnturnturnturnHOLD--and-prepare!
Bourre, bourre, bourre, prep-and-uh-up! turnturnturnturnturnturnHOLD--and-again...

My first partnering experience was on the grey Marley floor of a church fellowship hall, on a hot July day in Mississippi.  Ballet Magnificat's 1996 summer program was the first time I encountered ballet boys.  Oh, Lord.

Bourres and pirouttes: exercise number one.  Those poor, poor boys.  Positioned each day in a single line before the gaggle of girls, they'd assist one after another after another.  There were never enough males to go around so they did quintuple duty. With each start of the piano they would shuffle another girl forward, awkwardly pushing each one at the sides of her waist to spin her like a basketball.  Most of them were too embarrassed to even look us in the eye.

At seventeen nothing was simultaneously awkward and magical as being spun upon my own pointe shoe by a dude.  The boy attached to the hands was awkward, lanky, and honestly kind of gross; still I gave myself over to this new exercise.  Soon we graduated to promenades, and--my favorite that summer--bluebird lifts.  In a bluebird lift one steps into her partner, kicks forward and pivots mid-air just as the he scoops her up.  Her hips rest on his shoulder, her head and feet creating opposite ends of a high crescent in the air.  I was a giant at 5'7", and just glad there was a boy strong enough to lift me.

My first thought, post-bluebird (from my new vantage point atop Mount Ganglypartner): How do I get down?

Partnering for ballet is about trust, but for the girl there are clear expectations about keeping up your end of the bargain.  One can't expect to be lifted or turned if she's not holding her own.  Lifting a sloppy slug of a dancer is near to impossible.  For ballet lifts to work, the girl has to jump with great force. The man extends her effort and twists her work into something new or surreal.

I didn't partner much again until I apprenticed for Sacramento Ballet in 2000.  There I learned the value of a skilled partner and saw how pas de deux was actually supposed to work.  Suddenly the hands knew where to lift or how to spin; it was something else.  Of course all of my parts were in the corps or were character bits, but they sometimes came with a partner.  When we got to dance together onstage or in technique class I loved it.

God, to do just an assisted sissone or a fish dive again would rock my world.

Then when I started to dance contemporary dance as an adult, I learned to let go.  I discovered improvisation and then contact improv, the art of free movement and trust within a group of bodies.  It is a phenomenon I wish everyone could experience once.  Contemporary is unique in that it asks the dancer to retain her technique for when she needs it--when being lifted, or spun--but then to release it just as quickly, like an exhale, or a scarf dropping to the ground.

In contemporary I learned that I am actually not very protective of my personal space.  I realized how positive it can be to move when close or touching.  Once I trusted the company I felt supported emotionally and physically and I began to look forward to improv.  To run and jump at someone is awesome.  To know that you can support someone else's weight and carry it into new movement gives you an equally awesome sense of responsibility.  If I miss anything about contemporary dance, it is this trust in touch--nothing else in life comes quite close to improv as an act of silent, supportive interaction.

And why is partnering on my mind?  It's funny, lately I think mostly of improv--partnering--when I get a massage.  As a non-dancer its probably the only time that someone besides an immediate family member crosses into my personal space.  All I can think about it every time I go to the local reflexology place, as I did last night, is how to be a good partner, how to best play my part in that improvisation.

In ballet, one has to be poised.  Ready.  Helpful, even.  In contemporary one has to be steady, controlled, but creative.  As I lay in the dark and the therapist pushes at nerve endings in my shoulder, I do my best to lay slack.  Corpse-like.  Free of tension or perceptible breath.

Why, though?  I always wonder where that came from.  Nobody has ever told me to play dead.  I'm not particularly sensible about my role in other venues.  I don't give any special thought to being a good partner at the dentist.  In fact my anger there often makes me obstinate, annoyed, (subconsciously?) less-than-helpful at keeping my jaw open for drilling.  At the doctor I'm tense, wound up like a string of Christmas lights.  When I get my hair cut I never want to talk, so I feign tiredness and sleepy eyes.  But when I get a massage I concentrate--hard--on appearing to be dead as a doornail.

Last night the therapist slung my arm over the side of the chair and my fingers slapped at the tub underneath.  It startled me out of noodle-mode and I realized I no longer trusted her to partner me well.  Still, it's the closest I'll get to shared movement for some time. Interesting that the chicken wing and the calf-squeeze have replaced the pirouette and blue bird.

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