The Casual Blog

Tag: Lola Cooper

Open source ballet

A good conversation over a fine dinner is one of life’s true pleasures. Sally and I went out with our ballerina, Lola Cooper, for dinner at Solas last night and had a great time. By virtue of our donations to Carolina Ballet, we’ve become the sponsors of Lola’s pointe shoes, an essential tool for classical dance. We’ve talked with her several times, but hadn’t had a chance to break bread together before. Happily, Solas has a special menu for vegetarians, which they will produce if you ask.

Lola, it turns out, in addition to being a rising star, is a lively and interesting young woman. Ballet dancers are almost by definition highly focused individuals. The form demands a lot from its embodiers: years of rigorous training, physical stress, competitive pressure, performance anxieties, and unremitting discipline. In exchange, dancers get a shot at transcendence. It’s hard to be a great dancer and a scholar, for example. Not impossible, certainly, as I’ve been reminded recently in reading Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans, a former dancer. But challenging.

Anyway, Lola’s pursuing a bachelor’s at N.C. State and keeping her intellectual side engaged. We talked about travelling in South America, organic food, painting, yoga, and families. All interesting and fun. And dance, of course. She told us about some of her personal challenges with a grueling rehearsal and performance schedule. I told her the short version of my idea for open source ballet.

The idea is to adapt some of the concepts of open source software to dance. Open source software developers hold that the best way to make great software is to freely share code and ideas in a collaborative way. They use internet tools to leap over barriers of geography. Instead of holding onto the copyright in their work, they use open source licenses to encourage use of the code by others. As this methodology has spread through the tech world in the last three decades, it has resulted in an astonishing amount of creativity and innovation in software development.

How does this apply to dance? Dance is in part a collaborative art that draws on the creativity of others. Choreography uses a vocabulary of movement that has been developed by prior generations and that continues to be enriched by artists today. Although the sharing of movement ideas is not always acknowledged, it is a fundamental part of how ballet is made. Of course, each real artist makes work that is also in important ways original. But it is hard to conceive of a new ballet that owes nothing to ballets that came before.

So there’s an aspect of ballet that is already collaborative. In general, though, there’s a concern in ballet with trying to protect the intellectual property rights associated with a new dance work by limiting recording and forbidding copying of recordings. The background assumption is that the creative work could be stolen to the detriment of the owner. But is that likely? It might well be that videos of a ballet would proliferate, but this would only be bad if it hurt the market for recordings (which is negligible), or the market for live performance of the work. In fact, it would probably expand the audience for the work and enhance the reputation of the choreographer and performers.

This open source approach flies into the face of conventional intellectual property ideas. Those ideas are so familiar that they seem natural, and it seems unnatural to give up certain intellectual property rights and encourage free use. But open source has worked for software, and it’s being adopted in science, education, and the arts.

The ballet application could be tried as an experiment on a limited basis, even with a single DVD of a single performance. A license that allowed free copying and a marketing campaign that encouraged such activity could put the work into the hands of new potential dance fans and supporters. It could help ticket sales and budget challenges. And it would let the artists do more of what they’re good at: transcendence, and sharing transcendence.

Welcome to fall and a new ballet season

Of the four seasons, fall is my favorite. Finally there’s a break in the hot weather, and the cooler temperatures make it easier to move. Days shorten, leaves change their colors, and migrant birds flock and prepare to move south. Harvest time is at hand. And the new arts season begins.

Our first event of the new arts season was Carolina Ballet’s performance last Friday of a program entitled Firebird. I was sorry to see the there were a good many empty seats. The audience is an important part of a performance. Those of us without dance training have a role to perform — that is, the audience role, absorbing and responding. I always feel like a better person after the ballet, with posture at least temporarily improved.

Why were there empty seats in Fletcher Hall? I do not know. People squander their precious life hours on the most amazingly nonsense yet pass up such richness close at hand. At any rate, those who made it were well rewarded. There were strong new works by Weiss and Bourtasenkov, as well as the repertory masterpiece set to the great Stravinsky score. And of course, the incredibly talented, disciplined, beautiful dancers.

As a Mahler fan, I was especially interested in Weiss’s new Sturmische Liebe, a pas de deux to a Mahler chamber piece with Lara O’Brien and Alain Molina. It was taut and tragic to the danger point, as though the end of love could only mean the end of life. It seemed to draw on the spirit of tango. I admired Lara’s intensity and her total immersion in the character, which was so somber that I briefly forgot it was acting and worried she might be a danger to herself.

I also particularly enjoyed the very different new Weiss piece Moving Life, a non-story to three enigmatic works by Erik Satie. Part of the music, the Gymnopedies, was familiar to me from a marathon performance I helped with years ago, and I went home after the show and ordered the sheet music online from Sheet Music Plus. Peggy Severin Hansen was again magnificent as the Firebird, in many regards birdlike — astonishingly light and quick, yet elegant and powerful.

Sal and I spotted Lola Cooper at the second intermission with a cast on her foot. She greeted us warmly and brought us up to date on her news. She’d had surgery a few weeks before to address a congenital bone problem. She seemed upbeat about the good progress she was making on her rehabilitation. It has to be so difficult for a dancer with such dedication to be sidelined even for a few weeks.

After the performance, Sally and I parted temporarily, she to hunt for her Mini Cooper and I my Clara. There was a street fair on Wilmingstreet called SparkCON. I spent a few minutes watching performers dancing with fire to African drumming. I couldn’t figure out how a flaming hula hoop didn’t case burns. It was fun to see the street performers, and I would have given them a few dollars if they’d asked.

A ballet dress rehearsal

As part of our contribution to the Carolina Ballet, we’re sponsoring the pointe shoes of one of the dancers.  Ballet is not ballet without pointe shoes, and professional dancers go through them so quickly that they become a major budget item.  The ballerina we’re sponsoring, Lola Cooper, invited us to a dress rehearsal last Thursday for a program where she had a significant solo.

It turned out that Sally and I were the only non-company people there.  The rehearsal was in Fletcher, a small but elegant hall, where we had the best seats in the house.  It’s rare to see performers in the state of being in between simple practice and performance.  From my high school days at the N.C. School of the Arts, I was familiar with the basic ideas, but it was interesting to see how these artists used the precious time when the show is imminent.  The dancers at times left off steps and did simple blocking, getting a feel for the surface and space of the stage, the lights, and their costumes.  Ricky Weiss shouted a few specific directions during the run throughs, and after each piece went on stage to discuss refinements.

While we waited for Lola’s piece, we talked with our friend Ginny about other dancers struggling to succeed as artists and to get by.  For those just starting out, the wages are tiny, and for the more experienced, they are low.  There’s a huge disconnect between the inherent value of the artistry of these professionals, the amount of physical and emotional effort required for their art, and the economic rewards.  It’s depressing that their brilliant work is priced at a fraction of that of, say, professional baseball or football players (or doctors, accountants, or lawyers).   For those of us who care about ballet, it’s a reminder that we are a struggling minority, while the majority places little value on the art.

At the same time, the disconnect is a reminder that money is far from the only reason for work.  Artists almost by definition are pursuing something outside the realm of the senses, something beyond the everyday.  They explore these other realms and share with the rest of us their discoveries.  These deeper levels of feeling and meaning have no well-developed markets — there’s no effective system of pricing them in dollars.  But humans have engaged in this type of artistic commerce for thousands of years, and they keep on doing it.  This is an admirable characteristic of the species, and a cheering fact.  This does not, however, mean we shouldn’t worry about getting our dancers a living wage.  It’s in our best interest that they be well nourished, well clothed, in safe quarters,with reliable transportation, and with enough left over to have some fun.  Happy, healthy dancers are good for us.

At the rehearsal, Ricky introduced us to his wife and prima ballerina Melissa Podcasy, and  I felt really honored.  I’ve been very moved by so many of her great performances over the years (among others, Juliet, Carmen, the wife in the Kreutzer Sonata, the woman who yearns in Carmina Burana).  We talked a bit about our cats.  At the pauses, she worked with the performers.

Lola’s piece, from Balanchine’s Raymonda, was last.  She came out of the gate very strong.  Her jumps were big, and she had great quickness and speed.  Her solo was long and arduous, and after several minutes the strain was showing.  We talked for a few minutes afterward, when she was still breathing hard, and she was thinking about improvements.  She’ll be great.