NORMAN — Visions of pointe shoes and pirouettes are the things childhood dreams are made of. But for a select group of University of Oklahoma students these fantasies are just a part of every day life.
Ballet students at OU’s School of Dance routinely spend 12-hour days dancing between artistic bliss and grueling athleticism. Though for many of these budding artists there’s no sacrifice too great for the medium they love most.
Graduate student Josh Barr walked across the studio, his turnout a permanent part of his gait, as he said his ballet study began at 10 years old. Though at first he only attended classes an hour a week, it quickly escalated to several hours a day, six days a week. But even now, over a decade later, ballet still remains a source of great satisfaction.
“It’s really funny because we spend so much time in the studio and dancing all the time but on my days off, like on Sunday — I mean, granted, it is nice to have a day to let your body rest — but I probably spend a lot of time YouTubing professional companies or listening to different musical compositions from some ballets that I’ve seen,” he said. “We’re pretty much enthralled by the dancing.”
The Altoona, Pa., native is just one of many OU students who forsakes a typical collegiate social experience to invest 20-30 hours a week perfecting their craft. The dancers balance academic courses with technique classes, rigorous rehearsals and simply resting and maintaining their bodies.
Though rehearsals can often creep into the weekend or holidays, Barr said he has yet to feel burnt out from his commitment to ballet. Just as one performance ends, preparations for the next production begin, bringing in new choreography and a new focus on techniques to polish.
The complete dedication to the art is necessary to remain competitive. Though Barr said the competition isn’t anything like what’s portrayed in pop-culture in movies like “Black Swan,” a 2010 psychological thriller about a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
“That probably is how some people think it is. But it really isn’t, it really isn’t that bad,” he said, laughing. “Especially here at the University at the School of Dance. It’s just such a tight knit community. We’re such good friends and want the best for each other. I don’t think it’s like that at all. You spend all your time together, there’s just not time for that. We have five weeks to put a show together — there’s just not time for drama.”
Melanie Jensen, junior from Rochester, Minn., said between mastering technique and sharpening ballet pedagogy, choreography or history, ballet lends itself to perfectionists.
“In any genre, it’s nice to expressively connect your body and mind. But specifically, with ballet, it’s not just that — but there’s always a new challenge that presents itself every day,” she said. “And it’s a joy to kind of conquer one thing and have a list of others to attend to. It’s that reward and hard work that makes ballet so interesting.”
Often improvement includes both physical and mental endurance, Jensen said.
“It’s really easy to pile on all the things you want to improve on. You have to realize your mind wants all those things, but it takes your body time to understand and improve,” she said. “It’s that constant battle of mind versus body.”
Practicing the same techniques or movements repeatedly can take some serious wear and tear on the body. Both Jensen and Barr said they invest a portion of their time daily to care for their bodies and proactively prevent injury.
Their self-care routine includes stretching, massaging, icing, heating and using foam rollers. And despite strong-held dancer stereotypes, the two dancers insist food is a top priority.
“Choreography has evolved so much more now to be athletic, so because of that, now, I think nutrition is very important — especially if you’re going all day,” Jensen said. “It’s just a balance of protein, carbs and fruits and vegetables that keep us going and keep us energized all day.”
Undoubtedly, Jensen said there may be the occasional dancer that struggles with eating disorders — just like in the world at large. But as a whole, the entire dance community values genuine health and encourages dancers to maintain a healthy diet. Proper nutrition, care and technique can help extend a dancer’s professional dancing career into their 40s. Just like any other athlete, Jensen said, maintained health means improved performance for a longer amount of time.
During rehearsal for the upcoming production of Oklahoma Festival Ballet, Jensen effortlessly glides across the hardwood floor in the studio. Her eyes never leave the full-wall mirror in front of her as she examines her every movement. Even at rest, Jensen is conscious of her body, repositioning how she holds her arms, pushing her chin up or down or tucking her heels closer to each other.
Barr said being aware of your body as a dancer isn’t about unhealthy body image or self-consciousness — it’s simply being aware of the tool you have to express yourself with.
“Because our body is our art,” he said.
And ultimately, that’s what ballet is all about: Art.
Ballet combines music, dance and acting in such a way that helps the dancer connect with the audience in an intimate, personal way, Jensen said.
“Everyone wants to have that feeling of connecting, whether it be a dancer or an actor or an opera singer… The audience member may not recognize the different movements but they can still appreciate and understand what we’re trying to portray,” she said.
Oklahoma Festival Ballet, The University of Oklahoma School of Dance resident ballet company, is presenting a mixed-repertoire production 8 p.m. Sept. 20-21, 26-28 and 3 p.m. Sept. 22 and 29 at the Rupel J. Jones Theatre, 563 Elm Ave.
School of Dance Director Mary Margaret Holt said the variety of musical and visual styles in this production will appeal to audiences of all types.
“Each dance can touch the audience in different ways — from artistic athleticism, to the romantic, the exotic and reflections of nature,” Holt said.
The program includes “Harmonic Inspirations” to the music of Vivaldi choreographed by Assistant Professor of Dance Ilya Kozadayev, “Lakmé” choreographed by Associate Professor of Dance Jeremy Lindberg, “Sylvia” choreographed by Associate Professor of Dance Clara Cravey Stanley and “Chanteuse de Paris” and “Le Mistral” choreographed Holt.
Each piece falls under a different category: abstract, narrative or thematic. “Harmonic Inspirations” is abstract or dance without a specific message or story.
“Harmonic Inspirations” is set to Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor.” The concerto was written as part of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico collection of violin concertos. The ballet is Kozadayev’s contemporary interpretation of Baroque style, with movement inspired by the virtuosity of Oklahoma Festival Ballet dancers.
Works like “Le Mistral” are thematic, meaning a ballet based around one theme or idea. For “Le Mistral” Holt was inspired by the image of the winds sweeping down the Rhone Valley and across Provence in France. Movements during the dance are meant to reflect the sound, color and feel of the wind as well as human interaction with the wind.
Pieces like “Lakmé,” “Sylvia” and “Chanteuse de Paris” are narrative, meaning they tell a story.
“Lakmé,” set to the lively music from the opera “Lakmé” by Léo Delibes, takes place in the shadow of temple ruins in 1850s India and is danced with an intricate blend of classic ballet steps and motifs from India.
“Sylvia,” excerpt from the full length ballet, is a classical ballet featuring mythology, creative choreography and a remarkable score by Léo Delibes. The ballet’s origins are in Tasso’s 1573 poem “Aminta,” which provides the basic plot of Delibes’ work.
“La Chanteuse de Paris” is based on the life of Edith Piaf, famed French singer, and reflects some of her experiences and relationships through music and movement.
The mixed-repertoire gives the audience a variety of story-telling styles to enjoy, Lindberg said. While some ballets are narrative and require a little more attention to follow the story, Lindberg said others are simply “art for arts sake.”
“The thing about ballet is you can kind of escape into it because it’s a combination of music and movement,” Lindberg said. “If you love music and you see the movement that expresses the music — it’s just beautiful. It’s very moving to a lot of people.”
Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for senior adults, OU faculty and staff and military, and $14 for students. Purchase tickets from the OU Fine Arts Box Office by calling 405-325-4101, located in the Catlett Music Center, 500 W Boyd St. Box office hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and open one hour prior to performance at venue.
For more information on Oklahoma Festival Ballet visit ou.edu/finearts/dance/ofb.