Technique My Way: Maria Chapman
For this PNB principal, injury led the way to better health and a fuller awareness of her body.
Maria Chapman explodes across the stage—her legs stretching into three long jetés, one right after another. She powers through her solo in David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, giving the extreme extensions and torso shifts full play. Kisses is about how good it feels to dance, and Chapman gets the point across, showing that every muscle and joint can contribute to the enjoyment. Piqué passé: Did you know how luscious a stretch that can be?
Two years ago, this Pacific Northwest Ballet principal couldn’t have done that passé. A fluke foot injury had her facing two surgeries; her doctor thought she would never dance again. Chapman was back onstage in 10 months.
“Proprioception was really key to my rehabilitation,” says Chapman. (Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your limbs are and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of your body.)
“Since I was on crutches for so long—six months,” continues Chapman, “I developed a real disconnect to my entire right leg, but especially my right foot. It didn’t even feel like it was part of my body. So I really needed to remember to love my foot and reincorporate it back into my body—to take it back.”
Chapman did proprioception exercises to reintegrate her foot, but in the process she tuned in to her entire body, gaining a connected quality that looks great onstage.
The Root of the Problem
Chapman started listening to her body when she was very young. At 15, while at the School of American Ballet, she struggled with a pinched fat pad in her knee, a relatively common injury in that joint. The “ice it/rest it” prescription wasn’t yielding long-term results. Chapman, however, realized that forcing her heels to touch in first position was causing the problem. “It makes my knees angry,” she says. Rather than fussing over a perfect first, she just stopped putting her heels together. Problem solved!
Chapman knows the price of not listening: In 2000, she was sidelined for a season. Her back had given her warnings, she says, but she pushed on—to the point where it spasmed nonstop. She recommends admitting when your body needs attention, rather than just plowing through. Take the time to figure out what’s going on. “I was doing a lot of movement from my back when I should have been using other parts of my body”—specifically her obliques, glutes, and hamstrings.
Fuel and Maintenance
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Chapman grew up eating “everything” cooked in bacon fat. Nowadays, her health-savvy, triathlete husband does much of the cooking for them both. At some point, her canister of bacon fat just…disappeared. She eats three full meals—and snacks. She chooses colorful foods, high in protein and calcium, low in sugar and salt. Nuts, yogurt, a sweet potato (or squash), and an avocado make a daily appearance. Water is key; she also drinks electrolytes and protein shakes. Before a performance? Clif Shot Bloks.
Chapman avoids popping pills like Advil, given their potential long-term-use effects on the kidneys. She opts instead for an occasional homeopathic painkiller. She finds relief for strains with Phiten strips. A hot bath with Epsom salts at night helps, as does massage twice a month.
“My body feels really good,” she says. “But I do take care of myself every minute of the day…making sure I’m doing things that I need to do—the way I need to do them.” Pre-class rituals include 15–20 minutes of cardio (swimming, running, or biking) and 30 minutes of strengthening exercises (including pelvic-floor strengtheners, core stabilizers, and plyometrics). Equipment includes a Bosu ball, Thera-Bands, and weights. Variety is key for Chapman, and she chooses exercises that make her feel good. She has a binder full of favorites. She also works with a trainer twice a week, sometimes on moves specifically created to tackle issues noticed in performance.
Chapman looks ahead to see what the day—and the week—will require of her. She plans for it, considers which morning exercises will help most, and tries to pace herself. She works hard but fights the temptation to work so hard that she might compromise the next day’s dancing. “That’s not what I’m going for,” she says. “The goal is to have the perfectly planned week, dancing the way I want to dance.”
When she started rehearsals for Kisses, Chapman realized this fast piece would take more than just ramping up stamina. “You need strength to move in that bigger range,” she says. She found exercises that would help her safely manage the ballet’s split-second changes in direction and its extreme, full-range flexibility. Her work resulted in performances of power, speed, clarity, grace, and joy—A Million Kisses, inside and out.
Rosie Gaynor writes about dance in Seattle.
In a rehearsal for Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin. Photo © Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
Take Care of Your Entire Self—Even Your Toes
Chapman found that she was getting a lot of tightness underneath her foot because two toes were doing all the work. Here’s how she helps her other toes pull their weight.
• Put your foot flat on the floor.
• Wrap the thinnest gauge of exercise tubing around your big toe.
• Pull up on the tubing with your fingers so your toe comes up.
• Keeping the tension in the tubing, try to push your toe down.
• Repeat with each toe. “All the toes want to come up, too,” says Chapman. “The idea is to leave them down and just work the one toe. It’s actually hard!”
• Start with a few repetitions and work your way up to more.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.