A day full of dance in the Virsky studio
Note: I dedicate this post to my three-year-old niece, Stella, who just started ballet and tap dance this week. So proud of you!
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I'm still standing.
After one month of dancing six days a week for three hours a day — that's right, 18 hours per week — my body's not broken yet. Coming from dancing up to only six hours per week back home, I was worried about how I'd react to 18 per week. But so far so good.
Yes, some days it's harder to get out of bed than others, but I'm thankful for how good I've been feeling. (Though I forever daydream about my foam roller in Canada — none of us have found one here yet and my tennis ball just isn't cutting it.)
If you're familiar with Ukrainian dance, you may know that the style varies between groups. When I was on tour with Troyanda Ukrainian Dance Ensemble last month, it was neat to see the differences of styles between countries, for example maybe one country kept their knees bent on a step while another country didn't. There are even differences and variations in styles of dance between provinces in Canada.
The kind of Ukrainian dance you see in shows is stage dance, adapted from village dances hundreds of years old. People often did these traditional dances (and still do in villages today) in circles, so when stage dance became big, choreographers opened up the circles so the audience could see the dancers and modified steps to be more defined and intricate.
Virsky is its own style of dance in itself. Pavlo Virsky and Mykola Bolotov founded the ensemble in 1937. It's the group that, at least in my experience, any Canadian who has heard the term "Ukrainian dance" knows of. (Same can't be said for Ukrainians though — a couple of the girls in studio told us when they've told people they want to dance with the Virsky company, they had no idea what they were talking about.)
Though Virsky is known as the National Ukrainian Folk Dance Ensemble, the dancers train in multiple styles, including classical ballet and character. Ukrainian dance itself is so varied — there are different styles of dance associated with different regions of the country — so it makes sense to learn different styles. Plus learning multiple styles just makes you a better dancer.
In each of our classes, we have live music. For ballet, there's a pianist, and for character, technique, and choreography, there are one or two accordionists. Having live music is amazing, and I admire and respect the musicians for their talent — and patience. The instructor may ask them to slow down, to speed up, to stop, to start, to play it again. And the musicians do it perfectly without missing a beat.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about what we're generally up to each week, but what about the actual dancing? How does it compare to what we do in Canada? Read on below!
We have ballet Monday through Saturday for an hour and 15 minutes each day. Ladies and gents have separate classes but we have the same instructor, Alexander Mikolaevich (please excuse the spelling). Fun fact: Ukrainians' middle name is that of their father, plus an ending meaning daughter (-ivna or -yivna) or son (-vych or -yovych ). So I guess you can call me Kaitlin Kristoferyivna.
Virsky dancers train under the Vaganova style of ballet. I, along with the other yearlong dancers, haven't danced this style before, but we're slowly getting the hang of it. (But of course, every time we start to feel a slight bit of confidence in our knowledge of an exercise, the instructor changes it to make it harder).
We start off with barre exercises then go on to centre work, including port de bras, pirouettes, and sautés (jumps). There are 22 girls in studio, and they split themselves into two groups to do the centre exercises. Us Canadians stand at the back and do the exercises with them every time (if our feet can stand it).
On Saturdays, the instructor leads us in a stretch rather than doing centre work. And boy do we stretch. We start with standing hamstring stretches, which are manageable enough, but then next thing you know we're holding splits for a couple minutes at a time, and you're dreading getting out of the position because you know there's no way to do it gracefully.
They stretch differently than we do at home — some of the stretches the studio dancers do seem hard on the joints, in my opinion. I try the best I can, though I don't want to overdo it, so I try not to compare myself too much to the studio dancers, who have been doing these stretches all their life.
Overall, I feel great afterwards, though our day off on Sunday is most welcome.
We have choreography class Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour and a half and on Saturdays for about 45 minutes, led by Sergey Anatolyevich and Halyna Myroslavivna, the daughter of Myroslav Vantukh.
The studio dancers learn Virsky company repertoire, and this semester it's the Gypsy dance.
When we started learning the dance, girls and guys had separate classes, since there are many combinations to work on individually. But now that we know the dance, we always work together.
In my experience when working on a dance in Canada, we'll run through it once or twice before breaking it down and "cleaning" it, making sure everyone looks the same. And then we'll run it fully through again after.
But it's not the same with Virsky studio. We'll run through the whole thing maybe once during the 1.5 hour rehearsal. We usually start from the beginning, and every few counts one of the instructors yells "стоп" (stop) and they offer corrections.
It ensures everyone is doing the same steps, but to me, it doesn't build stamina. But I mean, we're talking about Virsky here, and they're clearly doing something right, so I guess it works.
So far, the most memorable choreography class was a couple weeks ago when a few studio girls were missing. At the start of the year, Halyna Myroslavivna told us we have to make sure we know various spots in the dance in case anyone was absent, and we'd have to step in. I thought we'd never actually have to step in since there are other studio dancers not cast in it, but sure enough, one day she called on us to fill in.
I was one of the Canadians who went in. And boy was it terrifying. I knew the steps OK, but of course being put in a dance is different than doing it at the back because of travelling steps, partner work, and everything else. But the dancers were helpful, and since they stop every few counts for corrections, I was able to keep up. Rehearsal is mentally exhausting enough as it is, but being in the dance while people are speaking Russian and giving corrections and moving quickly all around you — that's a whole other level of mental exhaustion.
But it was worth it of course. And at times, us Canadians even blended in (besides our back bends — the studio girls are parallel to the floor, and I'm not exactly there). I am starstruck and inspired every day going to rehearsal, seeing company dancers and future company dancers. And dancing a company dance alongside people who will have careers with the company only amplified that feeling. I still can't believe I'm training with the Virsky studio.
We have technique class on Wednesdays and Saturdays for about 45 minutes. Girls and boys have separate classes.
For the girls, we start with turns across the floor (and everyone smiles so, so big — I love it!), and the instructor, Sergey Anatolyevich, gives corrections to each and everyone of us, not only while we're spinning but also afterward before we try it again.
The accordionists seem to know the speed at which each girl can turn. In general, it goes from slow to fast spinners ... and then us, the super slow ones. But because of the live music, we can all dance to the music since the musicians change the tempo, rather than having to dance through the music like if we used a recording.
If you're a dancer or you've seen a dance rehearsal, you may know that in general, dancers are weak at turning to the left. Well, believe it or not, so are some of the Virsky studio dancers. The first time we saw them spin to the left it was kind of comforting — it reminded us that even Virsky dancers aren't perfect (though they're just about) and everyone has something to work on.
After across the floors and a couple turns in circles, we do stationary turns. One of the toughest things for us to master is the Virsky style of obertas, the classic Ukrainian turn, since it's different than how our ensembles do it.
For those familiar with the step, rather than putting your leg to the front first before bringing it to the side, Virsky puts it straight out and high to the side. And they close their foot in front of their leg rather than behind when they bring their foot to the ground.
It's different, but we're trying! It's definitely a work in progress.
For the guys, technique class is basically a big kolomeyka (so we hear — we haven't stayed to watch their rehearsals lately, though we do plan to). They tell the accordionist what tempo they need, and off they go to the centre, working on their solo.
I saved the best for last.
Our character class is like nothing I've ever done before. Yes, I've done character barre in Canada (character loosely meaning it resembles traditional folk dance), but I've done Ukrainian character barre. And so far, here we've done Russian and Spanish.
I can tell the studio dancers really like the class and the instructor, Valery Alexandrovich, who's the ballet master for Veryovka, a group that practices in the same building as Virsky and a group that we saw perform on Monday (so good!). All the dancers have big smiles on their faces (yes, they are expected to because it's character class, but some of them really get into it, and you can tell it's genuine).
We've been doing the same barre exercises from the start, though the instructor adds on every couple of weeks. Boys and girls are together in character class, and to make room for the 40 dancers, they set up extra barres in the middle of the floor.
My favourite part of the class is when Valery Alexandrovich shows the exercise, since he's such an amazing dancer. And an amazing instructor, too. I remember the first class when he showed us an exercise, a Spanish stamping one, for example, and I thought, I am never going to get that. But then he'd break it down into shorter sequences, first showing the feet on both the left and right, and then the arms if he thought we were ready for it. And then next thing you know we were doing it all together.
After barre, we go to the centre, where we've focused mostly on Spanish dancing. Lots of it is partner work, but the boys and girls dance separately until they know the exercise well enough to dance together.
For the Spanish exercises, we often roll our wrists while going through different arm exercises. And it seems to be a go-to thing for Valery Alexandrovich to have us work on. He'll have us put our hands in first position (for the non-dancer types, it looks like we're holding a beach ball in front of our belly button), then we roll our wrists out, first pinkies bending and facing outwards then ring fingers then middle fingers then pointers then thumbs, and then we reverse and roll inward with our thumbs leading the way.
All the while, the instructor is saying "медленно, медленно" (slowly, slowly), "мягко, мягко" (softly, softly). He's also saying many other things in Russian that we do not understand, but hey, we've picked up on those two words. We'll do this, rolling our wrists in and out, for minutes at a time. It kind of feels like meditation, since you're focusing so hard on these simple movements. Plus, he seems to get us to do it after a difficult step that may be frustrating, so again, the wrist rolls do feel like meditation since it calms us down.
One class a couple weeks ago, the instructor asked us yearlong program participants to dance at the front. But how were we supposed to follow along if no one was doing the steps in front of us?! We managed, of course. And at one point, when we all partnered up and there was one odd person out (me), I even danced with the instructor.
Again, it's just unbelievable this opportunity we have and this life we're living. And believe me, I'm not taking it for granted.