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Ballet: It ain't as easy as it looks

By by dianna wray
March 30, 2011 at 4:01 p.m.
Updated March 29, 2011 at 10:30 p.m.

Colleen Barnes, 23, and Paul Adams, 21, will play the principle rolls in the Victoria Ballet Theatre's Spring Gala performance of "Gaite Parisienne." The VBT will hold two shows at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $20 pre-sale or $25 at the door.

Paul Adams sat in the shadows of a dimly lit studio stretching powerfully muscled legs. The lights are off in this back room of the Busby Dance Studio, keeping the room cool while Adams warms up for rehearsal with the Victoria Ballet Theatre.

I could describe Adams and his floppy brown hair, boyish grin and well-defined nose, the kind that looks really good in profile, but I'm going to skip that.

He's a 21-year-old in a worn Led Zeppelin T-shirt and he's about to make leaping off the floor look like the easiest thing in the world.

He doesn't have Hulk Hogan muscles or anything. The only real clue comes from the muscles bulging in his legs. It looks like he ain't trying, but those legs are working hard.

Lately, the world of dance has been on everybody's mind - I mean, after seeing Natalie Portman totally lose it in "Black Swan," who isn't at least slightly intrigued with an art both delicate enough and demanding enough to drive a character completely 'round the bend?

About a million cliches come to mind when we think about ballet - the images of girls floating across a stage, effortless as a cream puff and with less substance.

Every dance movie has it, the madness of the art - from "The Red Shoes," where a dancer is torn between her love and her art, to "Turning Point," where a couple of aging dancers - played by Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, complete with a hair-pulling, knockdown, drag-out fight - have to face the choices they made about their careers and their art.

Amidst all of the unraveling, heartache and hair-pulling, it's easy to miss what ballet is really about - creating a body so powerful that it makes the physical act of performance look graceful, and, yes, effortless.

Adams got into ballet the usual way - tagging along to his sister's dance class - and dancing was fun, but what he really loved about it was how hard his body had to work to do it right, he said.

"After my first class, my whole body hurt. I really fell in love with it, with the physicality of it," Adams said. "It takes a lot of strength, and you can't just power through things. You have to use muscles you wouldn't normally use to do things, so they look exactly right and like you aren't trying. It's challenging."

It also takes hours of work.

Aimee Fries, 18, has studied dance since being transfixed by a performance of "The Nutcracker" when she was 7 years old.

Since middle school, she has practiced three hours a day at least six days a week. Flexibility and abdominal strength are key, so after a day of school, rehearsals and homework she stretches and does exercises her core muscles to finish out her day.

Fries laughed over "Black Swan" and what people think ballet means, even while acknowledging there's some truth to it.

If you've seen the movie, Portman's raw skin, cracked appendages and, you know, craziness, were a bit over the top, but "It's a little bit exaggerated," Fries said, making a face. "But what it does to your body, what it takes, that's pretty accurate - though I've never had cracked or bloody toenails."

Dance is something that really shapes the body, Brenda Tally, artistic director of the Victoria Ballet Theatre, said.

Watching her dancers rehearse, it's hard not to agree. Most of them look like you could knock them over with one good shove, but a closer examination shows that every single bit of them is muscled enough to stand a good chance of winning a bar fight.

Even the 9-year-old floating across the floor in pink satin toe shoes could probably crush anybody with a well-chosen use of her powerful calves.

Ballet is such a demanding sport that both Michael Jordan and Willie Gault studied it in off-season to make them better, more precise athletes.

"We use smaller muscle groups to do things so you don't see the effort - the more subtle the artist is, the harder they have to work to make that happen," Tally said.

So on Saturday, as you're settling into your seat to take in the ballet's Spring Gala, keep in mind that it may look easy, but that's only because the dancers are doing their job.



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