Please Read, Friends

A Little Tea or Something.  Sigh.  I have not posted on this-here neglected blog since I returned from NYC at the end of last summer.  And while I have a number of posts floating around inside my head, I am just too consumed these days with ballet:  teaching it trumps writing about it.  I have also been consumed with parenting a very tricky boy teenager.  And while I am guessing he does not believe this, his dad and I love him more than life itself, in spite of the substantial curve balls he has thrown us.

Which brings me to this particular post.  I failed my own New Year’s resolution to resurrect my  blog.  If ever there were a reason to resume posting, though, this is it.  Please be advised, readers (if any of you are still out there):  this one is not about ballet.  But it speaks to parents everywhere I hope, and to all of us who trust that our law enforcement agencies work the way they are supposed to when bad guys commit crimes.

This is a picture of Henry Granju, and his mom, Katie.  We—my family—have known them for about twelve or thirteen years, although our paths have crossed very little for the past few years for a number of reasons, not least of which geography, and the fact that our kids no longer attended school together.  But for several years we counted the Granjus among our best friends.  We enjoyed each other’s company in a number of venues, and our kids shared interests outside of school.

Henry Granju died this past May from a brain injury following a drug overdose and a brutal assault, after 38 days of hospitalization, with a brief period of wakefulness and then a dramatic, horrible decline.  It’s our worst nightmare, as parents, isn’t it?  That we should have to bury a child?  Unthinkable.  My own teenager is now the same age as Henry was when he died. On the day of Henry’s death, I kept mentally rewinding images of the two of them joyously playing with toy pistols in carefully orchestrated front yard battles, with Henry’s younger siblings and other neighborhood friends in tow.  I thought about the dog that Henry’s family had fostered and later gave us.  I replayed images of my own child and Henry’s younger sister at the stables where the two of them took riding lessons, and I remember Katie’s astute observation one frustrating afternoon that my child was emphatically NOT interested in ponies—what he wanted was a Ferrari (truer words were never spoken).  I could not accept that this horrific event had come to pass, and even now, in spite of the fact that our two families are no longer close, I often find this an impossibility.

Katie is a mama’s mama, through and through.  In fact, her excellent blog, mamapundit, is all about mommying.  She is a contributor at Babble, another blog about parenting.  She is also a published author and currently works for a prominent media outlet.  And she is the proud parent of five beautiful children, the youngest of whom had not quite arrived when Henry died.  Yes, you read that right—just try to get your brain around it.  New baby came a tad early, but appears to be doing just fine.  Thriving, actually.  This tiny little miracle is amazing considering the circumstances, and a testament to Katie’s mommying skills, even in the face of crippling adversity.  Like losing your firstborn only a few short weeks earlier.

This post is my own feeble attempt to help Katie and her family, in some small way.  Katie has requested that all her bloggy friends write a post about Henry.  The purpose is not so much to bring awareness to the real and insidious problems we are experiencing on this planet with prescription drug abuse and addiction, but to the inept, callous, unprofessional, and appalling way that local law enforcement agencies have handled—or more appropriately, mishandled—Henry Granju’s case.  Katie maintained relative silence about this for some time following Henry’s death, hoping that her low profile would help the people we trust to go after dangerous criminals—criminals who supply children (yep, in my book an 18-year-old is still a child) illegal drugs and exploit them in unimaginable ways to continue to support illegal drug trafficking—actually, say, do it.  That is far from what has actually transpired.

Katie is now going public with all the details of Henry’s case, hoping to inspire local law enforcement to step up to the plate and do their jobs.  She and Henry’s dad, Chris, are now actively engaged in local television and radio interviews about Henry’s case, and hope to attract the attention of the national media soon. As difficult as it is, please visit Katie’s blog to find out more about this family’s awful story.  

Hug your babies (and teenagers, if they’ll let you) extra tight; there are people living right in our own community who seek to harm them.  And worse, there are others we have empowered to bring those very bad people to justice, who will turn a blind eye.—Deb


New York Diary 2010; (Entry the First, in which Deb returns to the city and hits the ground running, kinda)

It is July 16th in the middle of the afternoon, and I am standing on a concrete island in a sea of asphalt outside the Delta terminal at La Guardia.  The breeze is doing exactly nothing to avert the blistering heat, and I am wondering where the heck my hired car has gone; with envy I watch a few well-heeled travelers climb into Volvos and BMWs and Mercedes, frosty air billowing from open doors, piloted by family members who have braved driving in the city to come after them.  Finally—FINALLY—my car arrives,  a punishing forty-five minutes late.  Bah.  So begins my second trip to attend ballet school in the Big Apple. 

It was a long ride through the beginnings of rush hour traffic into midtown Manhattan, but I was giddy to step into my Park Avenue rental’s spartan lobby; the same loft I found last year was by some miracle available again for exactly the dates I needed it.  If I were a Presbyterian I suppose I would call it, what?  Providential, maybe?  Mainly I was relieved to dodge the city’s public transit, as my commute to ballet school at American Ballet Theatre was literally a couple of minutes around the corner by foot.  I did my best to politely shoo away the well-meaning housekeeper when she started her schtick—where I was to put the soiled linens, take the trash, which key opened the lobby door.  I asked her for the laundry card and a little help with the wireless Internet service, and then sent her packing with a friendly Southern smile on my face.  Once more, I was a New Yorker, if only for a few days.

This time I felt decidedly more seasoned.  Last summer—with no small amount of trepidation—I undertook the same trip to obtain certification in Primary Level through Level 3 of American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum.  I was returning this summer a bit less fraidy-cat about flying, but also with a just-acquired credential as an Affiliate Teacher at American Ballet Theatre after my young students undertook ABT’s Affiliate Exams.  Now I would continue my own training in Levels 4 and 5 of the NTC.  Most importantly, though, now I knew where to go for groceries WITHOUT having to ask.  Not that there is anything especially wrong with asking, mind you, but it does mark you straight away as One Who Has No Clue.

Once I had settled into my familiar digs and stocked the pantry, I was delighted to hear from my former ballet school roommate, Sophia Fatouros, who called to invite me the next evening to the Latin Choreographer’s Festival at Dance New Amsterdam, where she is currently on the faculty.  We were to be joined by Kristen McGrew, who until then I had known only as a Facebook friend with ballet and family ties to East Tennessee.  Now a New Yorker, Kristen ballet mistresses for Eglevsky, and teaches at the Ailey School, Sophia’s former stomping grounds.  I enthusiastically accepted their kind invitation, which would be a fabulous way to spend the evening after the day’s big event:  a professional head shot with the talented and versatile Matthew Murphy.

A couple of years back I stumbled across Matt’s multifarious and very personal blog while searching for news about a tragedy which had struck two of ABT’s dancers—dancers I had recently met in person at the piano bar in the Watergate following a performance of Othello at the Kennedy Center.  Matt, I discovered, had himself only just left ABT’s corps de ballet after being sidelined by an illness, and had blogged liberally about the difficulties and challenges he faced after his transition out of the professional ballet world.  I was drawn to the story of this talented young man who it seemed had been dealt an unequivocally bad hand, but who was facing his situation with the aplomb and maturity one would expect of a much older person.  Through Matt’s blog, and some irregular cyber correspondence with him, I watched from afar as he reinvented himself as a professional writer and photographer.  When the news broke of his first gig as a freelance photographer at the NY Times, I felt a little swell of pride for him, in spite of never having met him in person.  Since then he has enjoyed a number of Times credits, among others; take a look at a recent image of amazing ABT Principal David Hallberg here, where Matt somehow managed to capture stillness and motion in one instant.

I missed Matt on last summer’s sojourn to the city, as he was traveling.  This time around, though, our time overlapped, at least by a couple of days.  My friend and frequent guest artist at Knoxville Ballet School, Ryan Carroll, had urged me for some time to get an image of myself onto the school’s website and into its printed materials.  Here seemed the perfect opportunity to do that and to meet Matt in person; in short order, I arranged a sitting with him.  So on my first day in the city I had my first-ever bonafide headshot made by my new, in-the-flesh friend, Matthew Murphy:

Matt shot scores of pictures of me that day; this one happens to be my favorite.  I have a new appreciation for not only the work of a professional photographer, but also the makeup artist:  the very talented young Alex Michaels (who happens also to be an actor) managed to make me look like something while I was engaged in unceasing conversation with Matt.  I also quite possibly made Matt’s job more difficult because I could not wipe that silly grin off my face if my life depended on it.  Matt and Alex kept me in stitches, but I was also genuinely happy to be there, and my face betrayed that sentiment.  So no matter how much Matt may have wanted me to wear my serious hat, it was a lost cause.  Giggles and grins notwithstanding, I could not be more pleased with the outcome.  (I must confess, I had some initial doubts:  Matt shoots some amazing, young, attractive Broadway starlets, and scores of other young entertainers—the key word there is young; you’ve seen them if you visited his website.  How would he wrangle an old lady ballet teacher?)

After the work was over, Matt treated me to Pinkberry—an amazing frozen concoction that is sadly unavailable around these parts; here we are outside the shop, wearing alarmingly similar sunglasses.  Our conversation went on for a long, happy while, during which time we did what dancers do when they get together:  talked shop.  (I should mention that I first learned about Pinkberry from Matt’s blog, where he posted a delightfully silly sketch about it a couple of years ago, by Jeffery Self and Cole Escola.)  Parents, be advised:  this video is emphatically NOT appropriate for young audiences.



Matt and I each ordered (you guessed it) a medium.  Oh, and I had a wonderful time that evening at Dance New Amsterdam with Sophia and Kristen (will the two of you think any less of me if I tell you I really liked watching Felix Cruz hamming around to the Shoop Song?), where I was privileged to meet several effusively friendly dancers and choreographers, and treated to a behind-the-scenes tour courtesy of Sophia.  Thence to a late night dinner at Republic in Union Square—where the wait staff welcomed us in, but virtually carried us out when we did not finish quickly enough for them—and more visiting back at my place.  Not making this up:  we talked (silly dancers) until 4:00 am.  On the East Coast in the summer, that’s just before sunrise.  The city that never sleeps, indeed.  An amazing first day back in New York.

While You Were Away

Knoxville Ballet School has had a mainly quiet summer, but much has transpired behind the scenes.  For starters, the school has acquired a circa-1950 Gulbransen piano serendipitously.  It once belonged to my grandparents, but my late Uncle Stan (a lifelong professional musician, for many years at the Light Opera of Manhattan) implored me to take it shortly before his death.  Sitting in my living room for the last few years, recently it made way for the piano of my childhood, which came to me unexpectedly in early summer.  This begged the question, What to do with the Gulbransen?  There were two choices, really:  storage, or the ballet school.  Thinking storage would likely spell the end of it, I decided to throw caution to the wind and bring the piano into our classroom.

Before my unlce died he explained to me that the instrument badly needed some repair work, in addition to tuning.  Enter Matt Coker, owner of Knox Music Studios, seen in these photographs disemboweling, cleaning and reparing it:

 Setting up

 Disemboweling begins

Piano guts, on the table

 Exposed to the light of day, first time in a long while

Piano surgeon at work

Filing hammers

For the first time in many years, the piano sounds very nice indeed.  Matt also suggested an accomplished musician he thought might be interested in playing for some of our classes at the school.  But while she is by all accounts a brilliant pianist, she has never played for ballet class; likewise, I have not had the luxury thus far to teach with live accompaniment.  This will be a learning experience for us both.

In addition to the goings-on in the classroom, I have once again attended ballet school myself this summer at American Ballet Theatre, this time learning Levels 4 and 5 in the National Training Curriculum.  While there I had the privilege of consulting with two wonderful accompanists—Michael Cherry and Miro Magloire—whose recorded music has accompanied many of our classes at KBS for some time now.  They each advised me on how best to go about helping a pianist learn to play for class; Michael gave me the titles of two texts aimed at doing this (go here and here for more about these texts; talk about a niche market!), and Miro had some very good, hands-on suggestions for a first-time accompanist.  Hat tip to Michael and Miro, pictured here with me in studio 9 at ABT:

 Michael Cherry


 Miro Magloire

Miro is seen here wearing his name tag, as he was also a classmate at the training:  in addition to being an accomplished musician and classroom accompanist, Miro is a dancer and choreographer, with his own NYC-based company.

I have many more stories to tell of my ten days in the city, but I will save those for follow-up posts.  Meanwhile, I anticipate the return of my young students with much enthusiasm, and can’t wait to hear the Gulbransen once more in the able hands of a professional musician.  Thank you, Matt, Michael, and Miro; I think Uncle Stan would be pleased.


A Little Something to Watch

ABT/NTC Examinations at Knoxville Ballet School: Images from the Day

Primary Level A numbers, socks, and flowers for hair, at the ready

Primary Level A candidates pose for pictures before class 

 Primary Level B candidates ready for class

 Level 2-B candidates, cheerful in spite of nerves

Ready Or Not

Less than five days until Franco De Vita (Principal, American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School) arrives at Knoxville Ballet School to adjudicate examinations classes.  Hair thingummies and candidate numbers:

Hair thingummy up close:

Merde to all my young students!

Spelling Counts.

And here is why.  Watch starting at 12 seconds, the beautiful Emanuel Amuchastegui, gold medalist at the 2010 Prix de Lausanne.

Technique, technique, technique.  Visit the Prix de Lausanne.  And go here for more about Emanuel.

Keeping the Artist Alive in Young Dancers (and stepping outside my comfort zone)

These last weeks as I have begun working with American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum in my own ballet classroom I find myself bumping up against a small dilemma:  improvisation is to be explored in the lower levels of the curriculum.

Er, okay.  See, the thing is, I suck at improvisation.  I always have.  Once I discovered this truth about myself as a young ballet student I managed to finagle my way out of just about any situation in which I would be asked to improvise dance on the spot; I even “missed” most of my modern dance classes—where improvisation was likely—when I went away to ballet school (until the school notified my parents of this oversight on my part).  Note to my friends in the modern dance world for whom improvisation is practically second nature:  go ahead and collectively roll your eyes.  But American Ballet Theatre will be on my doorstep on April 24th to see how my young students have fared in their classes with me during the course of this academic year.  So improvisation it is.

I had an opportunity to take classes in Primary through Level 3 of the National Training Curriculum this past summer at ABT.  I recall a moment during the Primary Level class in which our teacher—the lovely and able Harriet Clark—said something along the lines of, Now here is where we would do our improvisation, waving it away so that we could proceed to the next exercise.  A little voice inside me screamed, Wait!  Stop!  Improvise what? Everybody else seemed satisfied that she was going on, so I put on my best poker face and nodded knowingly with them.  And unfortunately, we were not able to observe any classes in the very lowest levels of the curriculum, as the summer intensives students whose classes ran concurrently with ours were older and therefore in slightly higher levels (where, you guessed it, there is no improvisation exercise).

But I also recall an especially painful moment during the training in which one of my classmates attempted to “show” an improvisation.  This happened in a small group session, where we each had a chance—over the course of several days—to create exercises in Primary through Level 3, demonstrating them for the group and then listening to feedback from each other and our instructor.  Improvisation Lady, we’ll call her, stood and announced the scenario she had created, and then painstakingly took us through each and every aspect of it in agonizing detail.  Cringe.  In truth I was mesmerized by it, but struggled to find its relevance for the ballet classroom.  When Improvisation Lady had finished, our instructor solicited comments.  After an uncomfortable silence, she suggested that you can’t really give an improvisation:  to do so would be, well, NOT improvisation.

Ouch.  Proverbial slap on the wrist.  I at least had the wherewithal to make a mental note at that moment that improvisation is NOT to be dictated to young students; it would be sort of like a prosecutor leading the witness, sort of.  I think.

Left to my own devices, I’ve had to figure out this improvisation thing so that my students are ready for their examination classes in the spring.  So I decided to plow ahead with my own ideas.  I’ve been experimenting with the orchestrated music from familiar ballets—Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker for the time being (it is, after all, Nutcracker season).  On some days I give each child her own piece of music, typically about thirty seconds to a minute.  I tell her she has the entire room to herself, and to imagine she is on a stage.  I encourage her to do anything—anything—that inspires her imagination, but I suggest that she draw from the movements already in her collection: skipping, galloping, swaying, tiny runs on demi-pointe, turning movements.  Sometimes I include “props”—hoops placed on the floor, for example—and then see how the presence of the hoops affects her movement:  will she jump into and out of them? run around them? ignore them altogether?  I place a scarf in each of her hands, because I discovered in short order that a child is more likely to use her hands and arms that way.  And then off she goes.

On other days I select one piece of music and allow each child to create an improvisation to only that piece of music.  First, we listen.  Then I solicit ideas:  what do you think of when you hear that music?  I get all kinds of answers to that question (a fairy, a hummingbird, a witch, a butterfly), and then I tell them to go for it.  What interests me the most on these days is how each child borrows ideas from the ones who went before.  I think both “versions” of the improvisation are useful.  In the first case, each dance is unique.  In the second, each dance has unique aspects, but each young artist has the opportunity to improve on or at least change what went before.

So how is it going, you wonder?  So far, so good, mainly.  The overwhelming majority of my students look forward to improvisation.  Some of them can’t wait for that moment in class; the joy they feel in the movement is written all over their faces.  Others volunteer to go first just to get it over with (I feel their pain).  I do appreciate the idea that it is important to keep the artist alive in our children, as Raymond Lukens so poetically observed during the ABT training.  I also think it is entirely possible to be a wonderful young artist without creative exercises that put you on the spot.  Still, I think it is fair to say that the improvisation exercise is pretty overwhelmingly successful thus far.

Frankly, I’m enjoying trolling for new music to use for improvisations.  And there have been some other interesting epiphanies, as well.  On one recent day, one of my Primary Level B students (that’s the class pictured here) inadvertently executed the most gorgeous grand jete entournant as part of her improvisation.  Of course, she has no clue what that is.  But her movement was so lovely that I gasped out loud, just like when I go see ballet in the theatre.  We are after all a bunch of bunheads at Knoxville Ballet School.  Improvising bunheads, that is.

Ballet on the Big Screen

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman brings us a new movie that takes us behind the scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet.  La Danse has its premiere today before its nationwide theatrical release.  Will it come to Knoxville?  Fingers crossed.  Take a peek:

New York Diary; (Final Entry, in which Deb has several happy reunions and bids the city farewell ’til next summer)

Dear Diary,

In an earlier post I told you that my tenure in New York City was punctuated several times by visits with some dear friends, so now I would like to share those happy moments.  (This, by the way, is the building at 890 Broadway, where ABT has its offices and studios, and where I studied for seven days.)

First, I had made plans weeks before my trip to reconnect with my former performing arts school roommate, Sophia Fatouros; currently Dance Director at the Harlem School of the Arts, she has lived and worked in the city for many years now.

In the summer of 1976 my parents and I walked through the Daniel Street dormitory’s heavy front door at the National Academy of Arts (now sadly gone, this was once a beacon of performing arts excellence in the unlikely town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois) to find Sophia and her mother.  Sophia—a tiny, smart girl—quietly informed us that the Daniel Street zip code was 61820; an important little nugget in an age well before personal computers equipped with email and Facebook.

I was thirteen and a long way from my native Memphis, literally and figuratively.  Sophia helped me settle in, although I had to sweet talk our dorm mother into allowing me to change assignments to make her my roomie; apologies to the loud girl from Chicago.  Sophia encouraged me to contribute to her impressive gum wrapper chain, which extended from one corner of our long room diagonally to the opposite corner.  (I still know how to make those chains and have passed on that important life skill to my teenager.)  She taught me how to eat a gyro.  And she also supplied me with this useful information:  if you wash your hair in cold water, it will not have static.

We had not seen each other in about three decades, and I must say, she looks fabulous—she has held up much better than I.  After what I gather is a Very Long subway ride, she met me for a late night catch-up at my apartment, where she delivered a lovely stack of ballet books, and then treated me to wonderful repast at a funky diner (really funky:  grasshopper was a menu item) a few blocks south of Park Avenue and 19th, and a block or two to the east.  We talked and talked for a long, happy time, and could have continued for weeks.  Next summer, Sophia!

I also had the opportunity to finally meet “Auntie” Karen Schlotter, whom I’d talked to many times by phone since my Uncle Stan’s untimely death a few years ago.  Karen and Uncle Stan were very close friends for decades and she has been like family to me in recent years, supplying all kinds of anecdotal (and more substantive) stories about him.  Uncle Stan was involved with the Light Opera of Manhattan (LOOM), as both musician and conductor.  He and Karen lived in adjacent apartments in Queens.  He was always dear to me, but especially in the years leading up to his death, as he struggled with his HIV; I had the great privilege of giving the eulogy at his funeral.

Karen insisted on treating me to dinner at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue, a few blocks north of my apartment.  It was a delightful time, with animated conversation and fabulous food and wine.  As we were leaving, our waiter chased us down on the sidewalk and shoved a paper into our hands, beseeching us to find the YouTube video featuring, er, him, of course.  If you have exactly nothing better to do with your time, go here to meet Tim-the-Waiter; look for him around 4 minutes 15 seconds.  P.S.  He is nowhere NEAR as good a waiter as Anthony Bourdain suggests.  Sorry, Tim, and Anthony.  But the food there is pretty dang good.  And Auntie Karen, you are a hoot.

And finally, my good friend and occasional KBS guest artist Ryan Carroll met me mid-afternoon following his class at Peridance Center, just after  I had finished my oral exam on the last day of the intensives, and right across the street from ABT and Peridance at the wonderful Fishs Eddy store.  He took me to an amazing little place on Bleeker Street; I was force fed the World’s Best-Ever Banana Pudding across the street in a park with the most fearless and aggressive pigeons I have ever seen….

Then it was on to the lovely apartment where Ryan lives with his beautiful wife, Diana; that’s the view from their bedroom, above—Diana helped me set up the shot.  We schlepped our stuff down, took the doggie for a quick walk, and then went to the grocery store to get ingredients for the amazing Barefoot Contessa dinner Ryan prepared in their tricked-out kitchen.  We gathered food, wine, and doggie-in-her-crate, and enjoyed a sumptuous feast on the building’s rooftop deck with yet more incredible views of the Manhattan skyline.  A perfect ending to an amazing ten days.  Thanks more than you know, Ryan and Diana!

I will be back next summer, NYC, to continue with Levels 4 and 5 at American Ballet Theatre.  What an amazing adventure.  And I had plenty—PLENTY—of clean underpants.

Until next July, I remain yours truly,

Princess Glad-to-Be-Home Deb