November 27, 2008


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Ballet — not for the faint of heart
What goes in to all those Nutcrackers?

By Heidi Masek

So what goes into this now holiday staple, of which an abundance of performances have been performed since it was composed in the late 1800s? What goes into a ballet like The Nutcracker is hours and hours of patient work from dancers.

Michele Fodero danced professionally in the Fortworth Ballet in Texas for four years. She was an apprentice to the Hartford Ballet in Connecticut for a year before that, and returned to her home state of New Hampshire to teach with her teacher, Barbara Mullen. Now she’s teaching in Essex, Vt. Mullen runs Londonderry Dance Academy. Patience is key for dancers, Fodero said.

Every dancer knows the first thing that they will do in class is go to the barre and do plies — bending the knees, she said. An intermediate class, for example, is about an hour and a half long, Fodero explained. It starts with about 45 minutes of warm-up and working on technique at the barre. Then the dance students come to the center of the studio, and the class progresses with a slow combination of turns. Often an adagio, in which the dancer stands “unsupported by anything other themselves” to do a series of extensions such as leg lifts, is part of the class. They work on small jumps to warm up for larger jumps across the floor, and then might do a series of jumps and turns.

“I see that it’s a really repetitive source of training,” Fodero said, observing as a teacher now. “They come in week after week and repeat some of the same movements over and over again,” Fodero said. They need to in order to develop muscle memory.

The students learn to work hard toward the goal of perfecting techniques, and learn patience. There isn’t the instant gratification of scoring a goal, for example, Fodero said. What all of that repetition garners is the teacher finally telling the student, “You got it,” after months of working on one step. The only ones who are really aware of a student meeting his or her goals are the student and teacher. Perhaps twice a year, they might perform on stage, Fodero said.

As the students get older, they start coming to classes more than once a week. To keep up, they develop time management skills and usually become very focused both academically and in ballet, Fodero said.

“So I guess what they take out into real world ... is patience with themselves, self-motivation, self-discipline and time management, as well as the confidence,” Fodero said.

The atmosphere of a class depends on the teacher.

“There’s not a whole lot of patting on the back. The kids don’t get told ‘You’re doing it well’ unless they’re doing it well,”  Fodero said.

Sometimes a teacher can work in a small compliment but has to stay stern and keep the class moving to get through everything, Fodero said.

Tardiness is not contemplated. Usually, students arrive about 15 or 20 minutes early to warm up. There are rules about what students wear to class, and how they wear their hair.

Socializing is done before or after class. Students raise their hands if they have questions during. “Because dance is an expression through the body, through the movement. There’s nothing vocal going on,” Fodero said. Even the youngest students learn quickly to stay quiet. “You get that discipline pretty early on,” Fodero said.

“I have been told by some of my students I would make a good Army sergeant. I keep everybody in line and keep reminding them why we are here,” Fodero said.

Fodero’s found a change over the years in that some students expect to be pushed up the ranks faster.

“There’s still enough of us from that old school, we hope ...  that we can keep reminding kids that this is a very ancient art from,” Fodero said.

Students either need to buy into the process, or try a different form of dance or movement, she said.

Fodero’s found some parents don’t want the kind of sternness typical of ballet these days, but not many. “I think the parents are still looking for that kind of discipline and structure in an activity,” Fodero said.

Yet there’s something about ballet which keeps enough children interested in it. Sports as movement, for example, just doesn’t work for them as a way to express who they are.

Fodero said she was in her teens when Mullen took over the class she was in in Nashua. She remembers her as a strict, serious British woman, and the class became quite serious, too, Fodero said. “She’s mellowed,” Fodero said.

“Barbara wants her dancers to be the best they can be but they must also understand that it is a process, slow at times but oh so rewarding if you stick with it. There is no ‘instant gratification’ in ballet; if there were then I feel the beauty would be insincere and fleeting, the dancer must have patience with her/himself in order to achieve the movement and the lines the body must make, it is with that patience that the dancer then lures the audience, along with the music, into a wonderful place,” Fodero wrote in an e-mail.

“Barbara really did a lot for me,” Fodero said. It was Mullen who saw Fodero’s potential to dance professionally, she said. Fodero said she doesn’t have a “ballet body,” though, and Mullen pointed her to small companies with “diverse” body types.

Typically, ballet dancers are at their peak during college age, so they don’t go to college right after high school, Fodero explained.

Sarah Van Patten is now a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. Her mother, Kathy Van Patten, owner and founder of The Movement Center of Boston, chose Mullen for her daughter’s first dance teacher.

Mullen includes education beyond dance in her classes. She said she tries to make students “aware of the music that they are dancing to, that they can identify it. That they are aware of the history and foundation of ballet.” She also likes them to be aware of anatomy and physiology, so they understand what they are trying to achieve, from the inside and outside. Mullen taught history of dance at UNH for about 10 years.

Aimée Peck is now a Dartmouth Medical School student. Peck studied ballet, tap and modern dance with Mullen from age 3 through high school. Her sister also studied with Mullen, and now dances with a professional company in Montreal, Peck wrote in an e-mail. “I attribute much of the discipline, independence, and courage I have used to get myself here to her and her particular style of teaching ... I often only half-jokingly tell people that my “strict ballet teacher” is the reason I am so honest and responsible. What I learned from Mrs. Mullen goes way beyond pirouettes and pointe work. She taught me how to be strong enough to reach the very best of what I am capable of. I know what it’s like to hold an arm out in 2nd position until my muscles scream, or sit in splits for minutes on end like she used to have us do — but that is how I can stand through six-hour surgeries these days and study like hell for tests when I need to,” Peck wrote.

Mullen produces ballets through New England Dance Ensemble, launched in 1986. NEDE presents The Nutcracker Saturday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 30, at 2 p.m., at the Bedford High School Theater, 47B Nashua Road, Bedford (, 1-800-595-4tix).

Along with auditioned local dancers, it features professional guest artists. Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, soloists with American Ballet Theatre in New York City, have worked with NEDE before. An ABT ballet master (who rehearses the company after choreography is set, Mullen said), Clinton Luckett, is performing with NEDE as Drosselmeyer. ABT II dancer Ty Gurfein also performs.

Kajiya, of Nagoya, Japan, became the first foreign student to train at Shanghai Ballet School in China at age 10. She won a prize to study at the National Ballet of Canada School in Toronto in 2000, and joined ABT’s Studio Company in 2001, moving her way up the ranks until she was chosen as a soloist in 2007. Matthews, born in Houston, received scholarships for summer programs, including at The Joffrey Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Matthews also became a soloist at ABT in 2007.

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