Today the fellows of the Center for Ballet and the Arts took a ballet class given by Melissa Barak, another fellow. CBA boasts a beautiful studio on the ground floor of Cooper Square, but the shades are always drawn. (I wish they would be open occasionally—ballet on the street—but I was grateful they were not today.) Jennifer Homans, CBA’s founder and director, believes that to understand ballet we have to start with class.
I wrote a blogpost on the joy of watching Mark Morris give class to dancers from his company and American Ballet Theatre at the auspicious opening of CBA. I tingled in recognition of long-ago but deeply familiar exercises. Ballet class is such an intimate practice. Nobody usually watches a class: you watch yourself, intensely. And the daily ritual, built over years of repetition, remakes the body.
Ballet begins at the barre and in front of the mirror: exposed, but holding on. The body faces flat front, hips and legs splayed sideways. The first exercise is to plié, to bend the knees; the second, to tendu, to move the leg along the floor to a full pointed foot. Over and over again—plié, tendu, plié, tendu—first with your left hand holding the barre, then turn around to do the other side with your right hand holding the barre. Exercises build off this foundation. The tendu brushes off the floor and becomes a degage and then a battement. Music is a guide, the teacher is often counting, reminding you of what comes next. But, mainly, you are looking inward even as you are looking at yourself in the mirror. I need to turn out my leg from the top of the thigh a bit more; ward against sickling the foot at full pointe; the upper arm cast to the side needs more lift; push up from the heel of the standing foot so as not to rock the weight backwards. On and on, these little notes to yourself. From the daily incantation comes the possibility of remarkable physical feats of balance, buoyancy, and beauty.
It has been decades since I’ve taken ballet class. But my muscles remembered to stretch the leg fully in tendu, move the head slightly in each position to follow the leg and arm movements. And my feet and hips ached by the end. I will be sore tomorrow. My body can no longer bear the stress of this repetition. But I appreciated recognizing that ballet is a habit not easily shaken off. It’s still in me. Even as I have moved on to other physical routines, other goals and accomplishments, ballet is with me.