Jahna Frantziskonis – Insta-Dancer & Rising Star

imageJahna Frantziskonis, one of San Francisco Ballet’s corps members and an Audrey Hepburn look-a-like, is exploding on the dance scene with her behind the scenes access of the ballet world on Instagram.  The saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words.  Her photos and videos capture more than a backstage glimpse of dancers, but a gaggle of young people having fun, living their lives with friends while doing a job they love.

Born in Tucson, Arizona Frantziskonis started dancing young.  She began her training with Mary Beth Cabana at the Ballet Arts Tucson.  She explored and developed at various summer programs including School of American Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School.  She danced in the corps for the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) for three years before joining the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) corps in 2015.  At the PNB, she was in feature roles for Justin Peck’s “Debonair” and Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Stations.”  Her elegant jumps, effortless looking pirouettes, and commend of the stage draws an audience view straight to the corps.

In 2014, she began her exploration in choreography as apart of a collaboration with another PNB ballerina, Angelica Generosa.  Featuring the Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division, the duo titled the work “Jaja Y Qua” which highlighted three couples set to three movements by the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. Generosa and Frantziskonis made the perfect team as Angelica was the idea person and Jahna was the detail-oriented coach.  Her choreographic aspiration has been pushed to the back burner since 2014 as she made her transition to the San Francisco Ballet in 2015.  Her time has been dedicated to the stage due to the busy schedule she began to keep at an international dance company.  She says, “This career allows you to gain knowledge each step of the way.  SFB does a lot of touring and there are alternating reps for each season program.  A dancer can be a Shade and in the same week dance Forsythe.” She has flourished at the SFB as this past December she dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the “Nutcracker.”

Frantziskonis says, “Dance serves to connect with something bigger than ourselves.  Where there is potential to create what we imagine.”  As a dancer and human you can see in her photos her dreams to change the course of dance.  She has a light in her that resinates through through her eyes, smile, and excitement as she rehearses and waits in the wings with her fellow dancers, choreographers, and friends.  Just like Audrey Hepburn, she shines from the inside out as she is figuring her place in this crazy dance world.

Check out Jahna’s Instagram here!


Justin Peck: A Choreography Role Model for the Millennial Generation

imageBeing a dancer takes sacrifice, while being a choreographer takes vulnerability.  The documentary “Ballet 422” explores the development of twenty-five year old Justin Peck’s ballet creation “Paz de La Jolla.”  In 2013, within two months, he set New York City Ballet’s 422nd creation to a musical composition from 1935 by Bohuslav Martinu.  The ballet featured three company elite principal dancers (Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin, and Amar Ramasar) along with a 15-member corps.  Peck explores a contemporary ballet style with constant fluidity and directional changes.  His style, movement quality, and confidence reminds me of Jerome Robbins’ work where he intertwines movement within a story while bringing the audience deeper into the musicality of the composition.  Peck uses every beat from the quick sound of the violins to the strong brass blows that brings the piece of music truly alive.  His attention to detail and specifics from hand placement to body angles for a lift shows his ability to create strong work like Balanchine.

Peck had a modest start in dance training in tap at age 9.  It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that he started training in Ballet after he saw an American Ballet Theater performance of “Giselle” that inspired him.  At 15, he moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet where he ultimately joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 2006 at 18.  From there, Peck rose through the ranks.  In 2007, he became a member of the corps, and as he continued to choreograph and dance his career flourished, and in 2013 he received the title of soloist.

As a choreographer, Peck produced his first Ballet in 2008.  He found success in the Company’s Choreographic Institute.  In 2013, when the documentary was created, he was commissioned to create the only new Ballet of that year for the winter season at 25 years old.  Now at 28, Justin Peck is a soloist at the New York City Ballet and has become one of the most requested choreographers in the Ballet world.  In 2014, he was appointed Resident Choreographer of the NYCB; only the second person in the history of the NYCB’s 68 year institution to hold such a title.  Peck has choreographed 25 works for companies all over the world such as San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, LA DanceProject, and the Paris Opera Ballet. His choreographic work – “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” was award in 2015 with a Bessie for outstanding production.  His focus for the work was about finding a balance between athletics and artistry.  It was primarily an all male cast with men partnering men. It explored that aspect of the men being the center of attention instead of the women, which was a refreshing view considering other Ballet casting structure.

The documentary “Ballet 422” brought the audience into a behind the scenes peek at a young choreographer as his career was beginning to explode.  Unlike most documentary, there was no interviews with any of the members of the production.  The viewer saw the the blood, sweat, and tears that went into “Paz de la Jolla” without verbal interjection.  Seeing Peck develop the work through movement studies in the studio alone as he sketched out formations and movement phrases showed that artists truly need time away from others to be creative.  Many artists are all about control, but Peck seemed to understand that it is important to let others interject in the creative process as it makes the work better as a whole from the costume designers to the dancers.  He seems to have an open forum for the people he works with that makes him approachable as the work is developed in a collaborative atmosphere.

Justin Peck is a forward thinker. Someone who thinks outside the box as a choreographer, dancer, and collaborator, which makes him push the boundaries as an artist.  Mikhail Baryshnikov said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world…it pushed me to think of things bigger than life’s daily routines…to think beyond what is immediate or convenient.”  Watching the end of the documentary as you see Peck walk away and preparing to dance after watching his piece on stage, I imagine that the wheels never stop turning for someone who is multi-talented from development to artistic you need consistent evolution.

The Reality of Pointe Shoes & Finding the Right Fit

Pointe-shoe-image-1---opt._0If you have ever seen the movie Center Stage you will notice a minute worth of footage where ballet dancers look like they are wrecking a pair of $80 shoes, but guess again. Let’s start with the basic ballet slipper, which is soft fabric like cotton that molds to your feet the minute you wear them for a few hours, but Pointe shoes are in no way that simple.

Getting fitted for your first pair of Pointe shoes when you are young is like a dream, because you will finally be able to do all the graceful and elegant moves and phrases that you have seen danced across the stage by older students, in film, and on stage.  Let’s get real – you need to be ready to work harder than you have ever worked in your life.  I’m not saying this to scar you or deter you from Ballet, but there is a reality that you need to understand to be great.

Pointe shoes are the one part that is key in your first year.  It is important to go to someone who can fit you for the correct style of shoe that is necessary for your type of foot.  Everyone’s feet are different.  Some have incredibly high arches, others have flat feet, some have falling arches, while others have their second toe longer than the rest of their feet.  These are all little nuances that you don’t think about usually buying shoes.  This is why it is important to go to a shoe place that has a person who understands feet, how each style of Pointe shoe is different, and how each shoe relates to the different types of feet.

There are five things to look at when buying Pointe shoes which include the shank, vamp, box, platform, and heel. The right shoe is based on the layout of your foot and will protect the delicate parts, as well as offer support to the contours of your foot. This is extremely important to prevent pain and bunions, sinking into your shoe, and forced weight onto your big toe potentially causing injury from not being over your box properly. For example, the first two toes after my big toe are longer than the rest of my toes, and the toes eventually taper down to the smallest toe on my foot.  Since my two toes are longer than the rest it causes them to stick out.  In my first pair of Pointe shoes, these two toes felt a lot of pressure because I was sliding in my shoe and it was causing them to curl instead of extend.  The reason I was sliding in my shoe was because the profile height of the shoe was to big and I was given the wrong box type for my foot.  Be sure that you have a snug fit around the box and width part of your foot to prevent the sliding as well as the right type of box.

The vamp length is another spot I have seen dancers struggle.  I was subbing as a ballet teacher and I noticed a student was not getting over her box, and on top of that she was sickled in what we were doing across the floor.  When I looked at her foot the person who fitted her didn’t fit her properly.  She had a shoe for a square box foot when she needed to have a tapered box (toes fall in line like a slant).  The shank strength she had was too strong for her feet.  She needed a pre-arched shank due to her flat feet to give her more support.  Lastly, her vamp length was too long.  She had short toes and an inflexible arch.  With a vamp that is too long it also causes difficulty getting over your box.

Pointe shoes are a trial and error process.  Your feet change as you get stronger and may need to adjust to a new type of shoe as your feet develop, but the thing I need to harp on the most is to know your body.  You are the only one that can say when a shoe doesn’t feel right.  Just like the girls on Center Stage they beat up their shoes to adjust them to what feels comfortable on their feet.  Now I am not suggesting you do this, but as I got older I use burn the fabric on the bottom of my box and rough up the bottom of my shoe so it wasn’t so slippery.  I had friends that didn’t like how stiff the box was so they would beat it up on the floor to loosen it.  Needless to say, your first stop needs to be to figure out your foot.  Talk to you Ballet teacher and see what they know.  If you have any doubts before you go to the store check out the website below.  It will teach you how to look for the right shoe for your foot.  Happy Pointe Shoe Hunting!

Learn Your Foot Type Here

I See People – Principal Dancers That Have Accomplished the Dream

538f68a976ab7This past week Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).  She probably would have been promoted back in 2012 if she wasn’t sidelined for the whole season due to six stress fractures in her tibia.  Needless to say, she was not the only promoted dancer this past week.  Stella Abrera, who joined ABT in 1996 became a principal, as well as two new dancers, Maria Kochetkova (San Francisco Ballet) and Alban Lendorf (Royal Danish Ballet) joined ABT as principals.  Did you know that at the beginning of June there were two new principals at the New York City Ballet – Lauren Lovette and Anthony Huxley?  Right now, all I see in the papers, on blogs and in magazines is that Misty Copeland is the first African-American principal at ABT.  My question is why is this about race?  Becoming a principal dancer no matter what race or ethnicity is an amazing accomplishment.  I believe that bringing race into it is only adding to the racism, segregation, and discrimination in the world.  Now, sit down, hear me out, and read till the end before you judge me.

Becoming a principal dancer is a dream.  A principal is the highest rank in a dance company that any dancer can receive.  These particular dancers not only perform solos regularly, but also are the main casting for pas de duex in the company.  It is a coveted position and is one that every dancer strives to be.  Becoming a professional dancer is no easy task.  It takes a lot of sacrifice that most people cannot even begin to comprehend.  In many stella-abrera-as-gamzatti-in-la-bayaderecases, students begin training at a young age and as they hit around ten to twelve years old it develops into an intense training.  Student dancers who are striving to reach a professional level usually become home schooled and then spend all their free time in a studio training, rehearsing, and practicing.  They sleep, eat, and breath dance.

With the dedication that students have to put into this one and a million chance dream there comes a lot of failure and risk.  The dancer doesn’t
always get the role they want,  they don’t always get hired by the company they want, or make the money they want, but humility, respect, and discipline are all the things a dancer gets because of these types of failures.  There is a respect for the art form, for their colleagues, and for choreographers that push them past their breaking point to make them better than they ever thought they could become.  Being a dancer there is a risk everyday.  You never know when your career is going to end.  A dancer could have a career ending injury, or a company could fold (i.e. Cedar Lake Ballet last month) and that could be it.

In this world, no matter what profession you are in, you need to prove your value and become invaluable.  Misty Copeland is an innovator.  She brought a spotlight to the ballet world through sponsorships, charity work, mentorships, and becoming a spokes person for the art form.  She has become a part of the public eye and ABT would have been crazy not to promote her.  Stella Abrera showed dedicated and determination to one company for over twenty years!  Lauren Lovette started dance as a late bloomer and she was rejected the first time she auditioned for the School of American Ballet (SAB).  Anthony Huxley has been with NYCB since 2007 and started in the SAB in 2002.  That’s thirteen years with a company starting as a child!

nycb-master675These talented, young, and thriving principal dancers have so much to offer the world, but all of this accomplishment has been shadowed by the issue of discrimination.  The definition of discrimination is the treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person based on the group, class, or category to which that person belongs rather than on individual merit.  This does not only include color, but there are other forms of discrimination out there like income, gender, or ethnicity.  My father had to sneak around to play with his friends as a child because of where he lived.  There are all types of discrimination out there.  The sooner we as a society stop looking at things such as color, ethnicity, income, and gender as a threat or out of fear, the sooner we as a society are going to grow and hirer the best people for the job.

Read more about the amazing Principal Dancers here – New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre

There is More to Ballet than Swan Lake & The Nutcracker

imageBeing a dancer, I am always curious about what ballets people have seen.  I usually get one of two answers – “We saw Swan Lake” or “We saw the Nutcracker.”  I am not knocking these two ballets because the Nutcracker is where a lot of ballet companies make over half of their revenue for the fiscal year, but there is more to ballet than Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Firstly, there are multiple versions of different types of ballets even the Nutcracker and Swan Lake have multiple versions where choreographers have reworked sections or took out certain parts and did a revamp of the piece.  For example, Swan Lake has been reworked in not only the ballet world, but in contemporary dance.  In 1995 at the Sadler’s Well Theatre in London, choreographer Matthew Bourne had all the traditional female parts danced by men.  At the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine turned Swan Lake into a one act version with a corps of black swans infusing the old story with a whole new heartbreak.  Finally, Swedish dancer/ choreographer Fredrik Rydman created a modern day version where the swans are heroin addicts and prostitutes who are controlled by a pimp.  If you are going to go to a classic check a version that can broaden your mind.

There are so many other ballets that have graced the world.  As anyone who has read my blog I am partial to the New York City Ballet, but like I am telling you to broaden your mind, I am going to spotlight other companies that have done great work.  There are old ballets from the depths of history going back to the late 18th century that companies have revive or are on rotation in there repertoire.  In the 2014/2015 season, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) had La Bayadère in rotation.  A ballet that was considered a classic in Russia, but it wasn’t until Rudolf Nureyev staged it for the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn as Nikiya in 1963 that it really took hold in Western Europe or the United States.  Then again, how can you not like everything Margot Fonetyn is in?  She is considered one of the greatest classical ballerinas of all time.  I digress, La Bayadère is a love square that ultimately turns to hate, revenge, and murder.  Exciting right?  For those of you living or visiting France, this ballet is in the upcoming season of the Paris Opera Ballet.

If you have studied the history of dance, you know the Rite of Spring.  This ballet is pretty well known in the dance world as being a huge controversy.  It was scandal back in the day, and now is considered one of the greatest ballets and mysteries in the world.  There are pieces of the ballet that were never archived.  Pages missing of the choreography.  Pages that other choreographers have interpreted based on the rest of the piece.  Stravinsky’s musical score and Nijinsky’s choreography started a near riot in the audience in 1913.  But Isn’t that what art is suppose to do?  It’s suppose to invoke some kind of feeling?  Whether it’s comedic, like in La Fille Mal Gardée or just breathing in the beauty like in a story-less Jewels.

It’s not just the stories or the choreography that invokes those feelings; it is the dancers.  The dancers brings the audience into their world; into their circle.  When you are watching ballet, a great dancer will leave you in tear and breathless at the end whether you are suppose to be or not.  Remember you don’t have to have a clue what a ballet is about.  All you need to do is open you eyes and let each dancer in. Don’t be afraid to take a jump and see something other than Swan Lake or The Nutcracker – the dancers will surprise, inspire, and invoke something in you that you never thought possible.