And so, the competition is upon us!

I meant to write quite a few blogs while I prepared for the choreography competition, but when you are busy choreographing and have a full-time job it leaves little time for anything else.IMG_4675

My husband flew yesterday to Perm with our two dancers. He has choreographed a duet and I have choreographed a solo for XIV Russian Open Ballet Competition «Arabesque—2016» named after Ekaterina Maximova. Quite a grand name, a prestigious international ballet competition. This year has a record number of participants, which of course also means the chances of winning it is less. Still it kept me from just being a kindergarten teacher for three or four weeks, and feeling like a choreographer again.

As usual the first thing I did was find the right music. For a long time I have wanted to choreography to Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E-minor. However, for Arabesque one has to choreograph for a piece of music less than 4 minutes. So I was looking for other pieces of music when funnily enough I found that I had a version of the Adagio-moderato that was 3:25 on my computer. I have no idea where I got it from, but am so thankful to have found it. I still didn’t immediately pick it, but when I couldn’t stop humming the music and was waking up to hearing the music in my head, I knew I had to choreograph to it. IMG_4686

Since I was choreographing a solo, and the music is so closely associated with Jacqueline Du Pre, that I decided to use her as an inspiration. My dancer Ayami was very patient with the fact that since I could only work weekends, I couldn’t come to rehearsals having the dance already ready. In two rehearsals I choreographed the whole 3:25 dance, but the subsequent rehearsals ended up being all about choreographing it all over again, and it became a whole new dance.IMG_4681

Tomorrow will be the choreographer’s part of the Arabesque competition. I will be at work, and unable to watch the live  broadcast on the internet. I know my husband will be sending me messages and keeping me updated on what is going. Still I will be nervous, and  I know where my thoughts will be the whole day. So will end this note wishing my husband, myself and our dancers good luck, though I know it’s not what we say in the dance world. Still would rather not swear in any language, and definitely do not wish anyone to break a leg)). So best wishes to all of us, and may the experience alone have been worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering how to choreograph..

Been a while since I’ve written. The reason being that as much as I want to choreograph I don’t get many opportunities to. Having a daily 9-17 job, keeps me from thinking and working on choreography as much as I would like to . However, a competition has come up and my husband and I are trying to get inspired and choreograph in time for it. It means paying for plane tickets to Perm, hotel, costumes, rehearsal space, etc. One day I will need to learn how to find sponsors.

What’s important is that I am back to choreographing. I can tell that choreography like everything else needs constant practice. One gets lazy, out of shape and the search to find some really interesting movements needs constant practise and trust between the artist and choreographer. Here are pictures of our 1st rehearsal. When the time comes will write more about the piece.

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It doesn’t matter how much you rehearse…

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It doesn’t matter how much you rehearse because once you get onstage it will never be like it was in the studio.

This past month has been quite busy for my husband and I. As usual one goes from doing absolutely nothing to having not quite enough time to do what needs to be done. Between me working full-time from 9-17, I also had to find to rehearse “A Clown’s Funeral” for the “Evening of New Choreographers” at the St. Petersburg State Conservatoire, to rehearsing “Evening” for the “Festival of Contemporary Choreographers.” My husband meanwhile was rehearsing his “-3 Years Celsius.”

As usual with these things, one fights to find studios available in order to rehearse, but this time we had the added struggle of find dancers who were available to perform. With all the ballet artists St. Petersburg has to offer, most dancers were either on tour or busy performing at their respective theatres. We had to do an interview for the festival and my husband and I both felt like idiots going to give interviews when we hadn’t even found dancers to dance our choreographies. To add to that I get so nervous giving interviews in Russian, and my command of the language seems to disappear when I have to speak to a camera. My husband was as nervous as I was, though whereas I feel like I sound like a silly dumb girl in front of the camera, he becomes very serious, and seems to talk really smart.

In the end I asked a good friend of mine to dance, and my husband didn’t have much choice. I told him, what dancer is going to be available to rehearse only after 17? I had such little choice when it came to rehearsal time, so I needed artists who could understand that. My husband found dancers from Vaganova Ballet Academy.

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So we rehearsed. And rehearsed. The truth is that every rehearsal was a fight, and I am not sure how to put it into words. My husband is a ballet artist, choreographer, and my husband. My friend is a ballerina, repetiteur, and a close friend. The three of us together in a studio was a fight with me trying to keep the peace, but making my husband even angrier because of that. He said “you are the choreographer, stop this and tell us what you want.” I choreographed this dance four years ago, so there was a lot I had forgotten, which is not an excuse. I should know every step of my own dances, but it seems my husband knew the dance better than I did. The lifts all took some time, and even the parts I thought wouldn’t cause a problem, and I would say something led to fights. In the end though it came together, and the intensity of the emotions in the room was what I wanted in this dance.

Then comes the day of the Festival. My husband is first to arrive at the theatre and he calls me and says “Annika, the stage is slippery with no linoleum, it’s a small theatre and it’s in a semi-circle, the lights can’t reach the back area, only one wing, and it’s really cold.” Not the thing one wants to hear or inform one’s dancers. I called my ballerina and told her to bring rosin, and dress really warm. Our rehearsal was at 1630, and we had a half hour to rehearse. The lighting technician asked if he could smoke for 3 minutes, and I said yes, as long as it as three minutes. 15 minutes later he came back in, and we delayed that long as well. My dancers rehearsed onstage as we set the lights, but it all came down to the fact that the stage was too slippery for pointe shoes.

After the rehearsal we waited in the open dressing room. I was just sitting exhausted, as I had had very little sleep for the past week. It didn’t matter all the energy we had put into rehearsals as I knew the stage was going to affect the performance.

The time came, and they danced. It started really well, and they did all the lifts. Then came the second half of the dance were my ballerina had some turns, and she couldn’t hold on to them. Still they completed the dance, but it wasn’t in any position to win a prize. I was awarded a diploma as a finalist of the competition. My husband won 2nd place the following day. His dancers were also affected by the slippery floor, but they managed, though weren’t fully satisfied either.

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So here’s to my husband and I “Laureates of the Festival of Young Contemporary Choreographies.” Here’s to more rehearsals and hoping they will lead to a magical moment once onstage.

A Choreographer with no dancers

By day I work as an English teacher at a kindergarten. I teach little kids, I have private lessons with adults, and after nap-time I teach dance to the kids. In the evening I either go home, or this week went to rehearse my dance “A Clown’s Funeral” because it was performed at St. Petersburg State Conservatory of Rimsky-Korsakov on Thursday.

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So what’s it like to be a choreographer who doesn’t choreograph? It sucks, is the obvious answer. Like a painter who breaks his arm, or a writer with no paper. With every profession there are disappointments. A choreographer unfortunately isn’t much of a choreographer without dancers to choreograph on. Like a conductor without an orchestra. One will never know what a conductor is capable of without an orchestra. A painter can paint on their own time, and a writer as well. I feel useless having ideas, music, and no place to show them.

I have talked to a composer who has composed music for me, all for free. But unfortunately the only music we have is the computer version, which one can have a sense of what it would sound like with a real orchestra. Have a conductor who would also be interested in conducting the music. Yet, where am I supposed to find the money to hire dancers, musicians, rehearsal space, book a theatre, advertise? The obvious answer is sponsors. Unfortunately am no good at asking for money, and am not famous enough to have anyone interested.

So am using this blog at the moment to whine and complain. Should really get off my butt, and keep trying. Things never come easy, and I have had opportunities to choreograph along the way, and have been asked to take part in a Festival of Choreographers in December. So small steps, while I go on teaching English in order to pay the rent and live. How many actors worked as waiters? At least I have a decent salary, and have a loving husband, so I am happy.

The life of an artist is never easy. Yet thankfully am not a penniless writer, artist, actress, etc..

A Ballet Teacher in China

An article I wrote “A Ballet Teacher in China” was recently published in the journal Global China Insights. I thought there might be some people interested in reading the article, so have decided to add it to this blog.

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A Ballet Teacher in China
Annika Höglind

I never planned to live in China. To me, China was a country with delicious food, amazing acrobatic ability, vibrant colours, interesting architecture, but it was so far away. Still I came to China to teach ballet, that was my goal.. Young and having only just graduated from the Hungarian Dance Academy with a Ballet Teaching degree, I scanned websites looking for dancing teaching jobs applying for different vacancies, including one in China. I was rather shocked when I opened my inbox to find that I had been offered a job in Handan, China! To be honest, when I applied I never thought about going to China. It was just one of a few jobs on a website and I had not given it a second thought when I sent off my Curriculum Vitae. After reading the email, I wrote to my family saying only “I got a job in …” then had them scroll all the way down to the bottom of the email where I wrote “China.” I then got a call from my dad who asked: “So when are you going?” It was as simple as that. There was one main reason why I decided to go: I thought “if I don’t go to China, I will always wonder what it would have been like.” With that thought in mind, I packed up my suitcase and went.

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When I arrived in China I was met by a little old lady holding up my name on a sign, and a man in his 40s. They did not speak a word of English. They took my suitcase and we were off onto a bus, then off and onto another bus, then off again until we got to the biggest train station I had ever seen in my life: Beijing West Train Station (北京西站). It was the first of my many adventures in China. The train ride was four-and-a half hours on a hard seat after what had already been a nine-hour flight. But eventually I arrived in Handan 邯郸, which would be my home for six months. Handan is not a place where one would expect to find a foreign ballet teacher.
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I spent three days at the home of the little old lady, not knowing when I would start working, or where, or who would be my students. The lady only spoke Chinese, and I was learning a few words each day. Finally, after four days in her flat, I was taken to the main building of Handan Lilac Education Group and introduced to a lot of directors. Of course, I did not understand anything, but I was welcomed and told that I would be teaching four hours of dance and 16 hours of English. That was when I put my foot down and through a translator said: “I didn’t come to teach English, I am a ballet teacher. If you need an English teacher, then you shouldn’t have invited me.” They rearranged my schedule to teaching 16 hours of dance.

Then my new life started. I moved into the dormitories where I had my own flat in a building where all the foreign teachers lived as well as Chinese students studying at the university. I was scheduled to teach dance in the morning at two different kindergartens, and in the afternoon at Lilac Primary School. At Lilac Education Group there were about 13 other foreign English teachers, but I was the only dance teacher.

My first day of teaching would be my first challenge. I was taken to one of the school’s kindergartens. In the West I had been used to entering a ballet studio and finding little girls in pink leotards and pink ballet shoes running around the ballet studio before their teacher came in. In Handan, I was led to the dance studio and there were 40 four-year-old kids all dressed in their everyday clothes standing in line like soldiers, looking at me. Their teachers were also looking, waiting to see what I would do. I put on some classical music and taught them the positions of the arms and the first two positions of the legs. I then tried to teach them the basic ‘chassé’ step, which required them to open a leg to the side in preparation, then jump with their legs together moving to the side, and land in the same preparatory position to go again. That is when chaos happened. These 40 kids were disciplined as long as they stood in their spots which were marked on the floor. Once they got the chance to move, then like most kids they started to laugh and moved all the way to the other side of the studio. Luckily, their teachers were there and were able to keep them under control. I had three groups of children that first morning, and I did not try to do the ‘chassé’ step again until much later. I stuck to teaching them the basic positions of arms and legs, and did lots of stretching exercises. After that first day I would quickly learn to control them and eventually I was able to teach them a few dances.
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At the primary school I got to pick students to be part of a dance group. I was excited by just how many talented girls there were. I found that in China the bodies are more naturally supple and flexible than they are in the West. Other than my dance group, I also taught dance to various different grades, all of whom were dressed in their everyday clothes. Not only were my students learning, but I was also learning. I was studying the Chinese language with a private teacher and I learnt how to say the positions of the arms and legs in Chinese. I got so excited when one student came to me and said “duzi teng” (tummy hurts) and I actually understood! I let her sit down, then suddenly all my students raised their hands and started saying “duzi tent”.
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My days were spent teaching, but during my free time I studied Chinese and rode around on my bike. During holidays I travelled to different parts of China. Christmas was spent in Xi’an 西安, and for Chinese New Year I was on top of one of the five holy mountains Tai Shan 泰山.
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Watching TV was also interesting for me, and I loved the Chinese New Year programme and was so excited to see dances from different Chinese minority groups. After eight months in Handan, I was offered a job in Beijing to teach ballet at Danz Centre. While Handan had been a unique experience, I realised it was time to move on. I was after all a ballet teacher, and teaching dance in Handan to kids in ordinary clothes was not quite the same thing. So I moved to Beijing, and was greeted with the familiar sight of little girls in leotards running around the ballet studio before I arrived..
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Ballet was first established in China in 1954 with the founding of Beijing Dance Academy. But there are still only a few ballet schools in the whole of China. Unlike Beijing Dance Academy which prepares students for professional dancing careers, anyone is welcome to take a dance class at Danz Centre. I had the privilege of visiting Beijing Dance Academy after a year in China. It was wonderful for me to find a whole area of Beijing dedicated to dance. There were so many dance shops around the academy selling ballet shoes, pointe shoes, costumes, fans, CD’s, DVD’s, books, etc. I entered the Beijing Dance Academy with a fellow foreigner who was also a dancer. We thought we would not be able to get past security, but they let us in. We visited several different floors with about six dance studios on each floor. In every dance studio there was some kind of class going and we stopped at each and glanced through the windows. Behind one we could see twelve-year-old girls working on their ‘frappés’ (beats) at the barre. Another studio had girls doing gymnastic flips. In one, boys were jumping double ‘tours en l’air’, and in another they were performing a traditional Chinese dance while holding drums. Walking the halls of the Beijing Dance Academy and glancing into all the dance studios I felt at home. It was wonderful to see everyone working and so dedicated to dance.
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I came to China to teach ballet, but I think I was the student in China. Those first days of teaching in Handan was a real challenge, but gave me experience in teaching in any kind of situation. Then to move to Beijing and see with my own eyes that ballet has a special place in China. I never regretted answering that email with a yes and moving to China. Ten years later, am now teaching ballet in Russia, and I can say with honesty that those days in China led me here.
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St. Petersburg!!

My husband and I have now moved to St. Petersburg. I lived here for 6-7 years before moving to Ekaterinburg to be with my then boyfriend, now husband. After experiencing the cold, the communal living, driving on the roads in the ice and snow, I was more than happy to move back to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is home to me. I studied choreography at St. Petersburg State Conservatory of Rimsky-Korsakov for three years, then stayed on working at a kindergarten to pay the bills and choreographing whenever I could.

So now my husband and I are here in St. Petersburg. My husband is doing his masters in Choreography at the world famous Vaganova Ballet Academy. Meanwhile I am back in the kindergarten. Still we are very happy. This city is so beautiful, and I love just going for walks in this city. Then there is Mariinsky, Mikhailovsky, the Philarmonic, Hermitage and Russian museums.

Hope to find time to write as our lives continue in this city. 225631_6654614971_4236_n

The Nightmare of Costumes!!

Who has the right to decide on costumes? The director of the theatre, the choreographer, the costume designer? I recently had that fight.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In January I started choreographing two dances for Shelkunchik “Nutcracker” Municipal Theatre. A theatre where it’s the kids who perform through ballet fairy stories like Cinderella, Snow White, Thumbelina, etc. Shelkunchik was playing host to a competition for young ballet students at the end of April, and I had been asked to choreograph for the older group of girls two ensemble dances to take part in the competition.  By talking to the girls teachers we were able to decide on one dance to the music of Olafur Arnalds, and the other to Gershwin. I then met with the costume designer, we discussed the designs for Arnalds and Gershwin. For Arnalds I told her that I would like one arm bare, the other arm long-sleeved, and a dress with a slit on the side so that the girls could move freely. I told her that I would like the colour to go from grey moving on to dark blue. The costumes that I got looked nothing like I expected. They looked like something synchronised swimmers or rhythmic gymnasts would wear. I had asked for one arm bare, she had done both long-sleeved for both. Instead of dark blue, I had two different types of light blue. They were pretty costumes, but not right for the music and the feel of the dance.

The first time I saw the costumes was also the first time the dancers performed in a concert. The concert was on a Tuesday, and we had had a stage rehearsal on Sunday. I was told that we weren’t allowed to use the costumes on Sunday because the dresser had the day off. The first time the dancers danced in their costumes was immediately for the concert. It’s one thing if they were professional dancers, but these were teenage students and of course the costumes affected the way they danced. I was very angry, not just about the costumes but the unprofessionalism.

The next day the girls teacher and I had a talk with the costume designer. I told her what I didn’t like, and tried to find a compromise by saying, if you remove the sleeves and dye the material to dark blue, then we can use them. She didn’t want to do that, and said that they costumes wouldn’t be ready in time for the competition anyway. I said “fine, they will dance in black leotards.”

It wasn’t only me who felt this way several of the other ballet teachers, and even the director of the theatre came to me and said the costumes are not right and ruin the atmosphere of the dance.

Then came the rehearsal onstage for the competition, and the founder and choreographer of the theatre asked about the costumes. I tried to tell him that they were not right for the dance, but I didn’t get very far. Why? Because he is an old man, has health problems, is almost deaf, and hears only what he wants to hear. So instead of me explaining, I was being told off for wasting money for the theatre, even though they had agreed to pay me for these two dances (to date, I have yet to be paid, but I do know I will be) and blamed me for leaving the country (that was back in February) and not being able to be in control of the costumes. I said “my decision as choreographer is not to use these costumes, as they ruin my interpretation of this dance.”

The conversation went to the director of the theatre who agreed with me, and said “it should be the choreographer who decides.” I thought that was the end of it.

The next day, I heard about the costumes again, and we had a rehearsal in the costumes again. The dancers themselves were divided as they felt exposed dancing in black leotards with shorts and not in a costume. I did calm them down and once they had a look at the video of the dance, they agreed that the leotards looked better. The director came and told me that she had talked to Sergei Filin (artistic director of Bolshoi Ballet) who had himself said that similar situations had happened at the Bolshoi, and the decision was always with the choreographer. Sergei Filin would be sitting in the jury at the competition, and if he said it was ok to dance in leotards, then it really was ok. I again said “I want them to dance in leotards.”

It was the day of the competition when the girls would be performing, and their teacher came to me. She said the founder had called her last night at 2330 and said “if the girls don’t wear the costumes there will be unpleasant circumstances.” After she told me that I gave in. It had been a week of hearing about these costumes, and I had repeated many times that I didn’t want the costumes, but the fact of the matter was that this teacher would be working for many more years with this founder, while I would be leaving in the summer. I still believed I was right, but didn’t want her to have to deal with it, and in the end it was a competition and not a performance at the Opera House, so I said “oh just let them wear the costumes then, but it will never be my choice.”

So the girls wore the costumes, they won 2nd place for ensemble (1st place wasn’t awarded). The founder himself did not see them dance as he was at the hospital. Afterwards one of the judges came to talk to me and said “we really like your dances, but the costumes..” before I could interrupt her, she raised her hand and said “yes, I know we heard about the costume situation, and just so you know the judges are on your side. We all thought that the costumes look like they should be for synchronized swimming.”

So that was the end of that. The girls were disappointed that they didn’t win 1st place, but since it wasn’t awarded anyway, I kind of feel that they did. They didn’t get to perform in the final gala, and I was sad about that, but who knows why. Sergei Filin in the end personally picked what was in the gala, and he picked more of the young kids. Still you learn with each experience, and now I know to be more firm in what I ask for in costumes.

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