A Tribute to the Anonymous Pianist

I am softly landing into summer holiday mood, leaving a rather turbulent semester behind me, yet with many new interesting openings to explore during the next academic year. It’s midsummer week and raining, as would be expected in our arctic regions. However, this text will not be about anything as mundane as icy rain and bad weather, it’s going to be about the power of live music. And first and foremost it is a tribute to an anonymous pianist who has been embellishing my ballet morning classes for the past weeks.

The other day I walked into the dance studio after having suffered from a common summer flu. Thus I was one week late into starting my summer classes. It is a familiar studio, yet, something was radically different that particular morning in early June! There was a man playing a Chopin waltz on piano! The archetypal pianist incarnate, I would dare to say. This turned out to be only the warm-up for the morning class. I very soon realized that he was not there for random practice but for the purpose of accompanying the entire class. Such fantastic music, apparently improvised without sheet music. And I must say that it is so much more joyful to do the morning class routine to live music than to a CD. An accompanying pianist can play with tempi, accentuation and phrasing and there is a constant dialogue between him and the teacher in order to achieve the perfect balance between music and movement.

Since that first morning this stunning man has been there every time. By now we are spoiled, how will we ever be able to go back to doing our pliés and tendus to plain CD music? We are very well aware of the temporariness of this arrangement, since we have recently learnt that the musician is not actually employed by the dance school. He is playing the piano for his own joy, to counter-balance his job as restaurant musician. This makes us appreciate and cherish the treat of live music even more.

When I started my ballet lessons back in 1975, we always had a pianist accompanying the classes. However, I claim that I have not seen a pianist in a private dance school for over a quarter of a century. Apparently, it’s too expensive to hire a musician. Yet, music is such an organic part of a classical ballet class that something essential gets lost when a musician is replaced by a CD player.

But here I am for the time being, enjoying my summer morning ballet lessons to fantastic music. Yes, it takes some self-management skills to get up at 7.45 during your summer holiday, yet, I am amply rewarded by the tones from Bach to contemporary jazzy beat once I get to the studio. Thank you Mr. Pianist for sharing your talent with us, I can already tell that these dance classes are going to be the highlight of my summer holiday.

I would love to include a picture of the gorgeous man, however, disturbing class with your mobile phone is strictly against ballet lesson etiquette. Moreover, I want to keep this memory primarily auditive. Thus my readers have to be content with me striking an arabesque on the cliffs of Mustasaari Island. One of the rare days it was not raining in June!

Striking a balance

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We are here to excel!

Now I am going to be a bit provocative. What I am going to say is the following: “No, you cannot fail in my class!” It has become almost trendy to assure students that they are allowed to fail, however, I would like to challenge this a bit. What if we twist this worn-out statement into “In this class you can only excel

Over the past years I have seen many students conquer their stage-fright and turn into excellent public speakers. The first step is learning to take possession of the space. Leaving the safe corner and stepping into the open needs to become a reflex. As mime artist and dancer Adam Darius wrote in his book The Adam Darius Method: A technical and practical handbook for all performing artists (1984):

Why move like Prometheus chained to his rock or Petrouchka

confined to his cell when the space around us begs to be taken

over and conquered? Move spaciously through space. Manipulate

it, cut through it, sweep across it, gather it in all embracing arms,

cut patterns through it with scissor sharp legs and melting arms,

be master of the air.

In the passage above there are many interesting elements for movement improvisation exercises we do in my Business Ballet method, summing everything up into sweeping into space and filling it with your three-dimensional body. The second step is to learn to deliver a Pecha Kucha presentation. On Porvoo Campus we start with a mini version with ten slides only. What I tell students is that if they start panicking, they can stay quiet for those 3 minutes 20 seconds. It’s not that long! The slides will keep changing every 20 seconds and you don’t need to talk non-stop. You can just stand there and relax and breathe until its over. Note, breathing is essential! Usually, people manage to get in a word every now and then and many are amazingly fluent from the very beginning. However, I am particularly interested in helping the shy people who don’t possess an in-born love for performing on stage. With Pecha Kucha the point is not having text on the slides but pictures only, then you will have to focus on the story line instead of reading notes from the screen in a monotonous voice. Our talented student Linh Duong recently shared a blog post with her Pecha Kucha presentation she had performed in my Cultural Contacts course.

Finally, once you dare to fill up the space with your entire body, speaking will become very easy and natural. Even in a foreign language. Suddenly you find yourself alone on stage, talking to an attentive audience. And it feels great! However, there are no short-cuts to this state and the practice has to start from body language, not from delivering facts and figures only. With enough practice you will eventually understand the necessity of open space as fuel for your performance. Huddling like a little mouse in the corner will not take you anywhere. Start getting rid of that harmful reflex today!

Now I am going to be provocative again, I believe that it is easier for Finns to say “I am allowed to fail” than “I am allowed to excel”. That’s why I cringe every time I hear the phrase “we are allowed to fail here” –  then failing turns into a collective act of failing miserably. No, let’s start excelling collectively. It’s a bit as with Harvard-Professor Amy Cuddy’s “Power Posing”: when feeling insecure you need to Power Pose with open gestures and your body will change your mind into feeling more powerful. “Fake it until you make it!”

Notably, my back-ground is in Classical Ballet, the most severe of all disciplines. There it is absolutely fatal to fail. How would it look in the Valtz in Act 1 of Giselle if one corps de ballet member stepped into the wrong direction? It would spoil the effect of beauty and harmony. So I learned early my lesson of the importance of being diligent and learning your steps very well before entering the stage. Back to my student on Porvoo Campus, this year I have seen so many people excel and flourish and I am very proud of the accomplishments of my students. No, we definitely are not here to fail – we are the masters of the air!

Below: My own Pas des Trois choreography for myself, Annukka and Maria performed many years ago – in a different millennium!

Pas des Trois

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Dancing with Chryssa

Today, sadly, was the farewell lunch of my dear colleague and friend, Chryssa Skodra. Even the sky clouded and there was a sudden angry burst of wind when it was time for her to say good bye to Porvoo Campus, as if the ancient weather gods had interfered in this sad moment. I had prepared a Renaissance dance in honor of this Renaissance princess, because a Renaissance woman she is, in the true meaning of the word. Yet, at the end there was no time for any dancing, to my great regret, since dancing heals more than words and is of great comfort in those moments when words become futile.

I have a vivid first recollection of Chryssa from November 2009 on Haaga-Helia Pasila Campus. In the corner of my eye I saw a very young woman in the act of interviewing the Ambassador of India, His Excellency Om Prakash. I immediately became curious about this young woman who looked almost like a high school girl. Who was this person who seemed so confident and competent despite her young looks? Later it turned out that she was Chrysoula Skodra, Greek journalist and Master of Culture Management from the prestigious Sibelius Academy. It still was hard for me to match the youth and all accomplishments. Later, when I got to know her better, I got to see what a phenomenal networker she was, as expressed by our colleague Evariste in his speech to Chryssa, an extarordinary woman from the future!

I have been lucky to have Chryssa as colleague and friend for almost five years. With my own background in classical ballet and the rigid Vaganova system and with her roots in artistic gymnastics, we share the same childhood experiences of tough training and character building. I have never liked the phrase “it does not matter whether you fail.” Of course it matters if I take the wrong turn in the Waltz in ACT 1 of Giselle. It spoils the entire choreography! In this respect Chryssa and I share the same attitude: “We are not here to fail. You can do much better”, you might hear her tell students. This became evident in the We Do Weddings in Every Sense fair organized this May on Pasila Campus. Chryssa demanded perfection and the students excelled! Yes, I would claim that they even exceeded their abilities under the inspiring and sparkling supervision of Chryssa, and we could all enjoy a fantastic event!

Finally, anybody who knows me, is aware of the fact that I prefer non-verbal communication to words. This spring Chryssa and I prepared together a contact improvisation duet in an Anna Akhmatova inspired performance, Echoing Rooms performed at Encounters15 Conference on Porvoo Campus. Usually, it would take years to build up enough trust to do improvisation involving advanced weight shifts. In our case we had only one ordinary rehearsal and one dress rehearsal before going on stage. As it happened, during the performance I lost my balance and was already falling, when Chryssa pulled me back on my feet in a fraction of a second. This moment told more than a thousand words: about her alertness, intelligence and sensitivity. Chryssa would not let a friend fall, not literally nor metaphorically. She pulls people up and encourage them to do their best.

Chryssa, now, when you are moving on to new challenges, I wish that you, in turn, will meet people who will pull you up in difficult moments, who will push you forward to unimagined heights and who would show appreciation for your Renaissance multi-talent, so rarely seen nowadays. Than you for all the lovely and inspiring moments together. Let’s keep in touch!

Producer and choreographer

 

 

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Corridor Pedagogy for Risk-Takers

Porvoo Campus became a playground out of necessity, not out of exhibitionist aspirations nor out of any inborn urge to cause stir and turbulence. The classrooms are simply too small for exercises involving any movement. Hence, my “corridor pedagogy” was born.

Beam me up workshop

One of the most memorable corridor pedagogy sessions took place in early March, when I had the pleasure of hosting a group of Japanese students and their lecturer from Osaka Gakuin University. After having enjoyed a traditional Porvoo walking tour and lunch on Campus, the group found itself taking my Business Ballet class without any further fuzz or tedious introductions. Very soon we were already out of the classroom doing various corridor exercises: Risk-Taking Steps, Staying within your Skin and Follow the Leader, Campus thus turning into a gigantic playground.  As always, we attracted some attention from those Porvoo Campus students who are not yet familiar with my kinesthetic teaching methods. “What are you doing? We also want to join your class!” You are very welcome to join my Business Ballet course, was my swift reply to the curious enquiries! Answering their question, I would say that we were practicing some very fundamental business skills, but also playing together just for the joy of playing. Echoing the founder of the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics, Juri Lotman, if there is no play, what is then left? Lotman viewed adult seriousness as one-dimensional, defining play as something that creates a multifaceted world of possibilities.

Corridor pedagogy

 

Seriously speaking, play also enhances creativity, a core competence for future working life. I dare to claim that creativity is not taught in theory, it is something everybody possesses in childhood but many loose once they reach the upper grades at school. However, the creative streak can be rediscovered through artistic activities such as dancing together. I often see it happen in my workshops, where students get inspired by Porvoo Campus to discover the quirky building in a three-dimensional and joyful manner. Sometimes I have called Campus architecture a fun house, as it has the same effect on people as a fun house in a Tivoli.

So back to the concept of corridor pedagogy. What on earth is it then all about? First, it is about the risk-taking body. Needless to say that it demands a lot of courage to dart into open space with open focus, that’s why I put my students to walk so much. An advanced form of risk-taking steps is risk-taking dance, an exercise the Japanese students tried out with great success as you can see in these pictures. What makes the situation especially demanding is that upon doing corridor pedagogy we often involuntarily end up having an audience and thus have to perform the exercises under the scrutinizing gaze of outsiders. So next time when you are sitting in your lecture and you happen to see us doing corridor pedagogy, you don’t need to look so astonished. We are just tuning our business bodies into high risk mode. Or alternatively, we are practicing the subtle pair exercise called “staying in your skin”.

Pair work

 

What is then the benefit of all this? In short, I end up with students who are great performers. I rarely see my students huddle in the corner in a mousy manner when they are asked to give a presentation. My students know how to fully benefit from open space, since the risk-taking body becomes a natural reflex due to all the physical exercises we do in class. Naturally, excellent performance skills are a competitive edge in working life and the good news is that also shy people can learn the tricks for succeeding as public speakers. For those who have never come across my corridor pedagogy, you are warmly welcome to join Business Ballet for Sales and Service Excellence! No tiptoeing here – welcome to jump into space! Beam me up for business – what’s that? You’ll find out when you join my course. I hope to see you there!

Code: ENG8PO012 Business Ballet for Sales and Service Excellence

Time: Period 5, Thursday 9-11.30

 

 

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Echoing Rooms – from fragments to excellence

PROCESS

When does a performance start to take shape? In the case of Echoing Rooms it was when I got to know Pavel Resser and Ludmila Elkonina, my kindred spirits in Saint Petersburg. In spring 2013 they walked into Porvoo Campus and announced that every university needs a student theater. I had no idea how this would materialize on Porvoo Campus, however, the notion of a theater was planted in my subconscious and left there to rest for the time being.

The first time I heard about Anna Akhmatova was in my late teenage years, so I had been aware of her oeuvre for a long time. However, my first real encounter with her as poet was when I visited the Anna Akhmatova home museum in Saint Petersburg on 1 April 2014, exactly one year ago. I wandered through the Echoing Rooms, looking out into the court yard with the silhouettes of the naked trees against a clear spring sky. I moved from room to room and the soundscape kept changing from the dance hall music in the salon to the oppressively ticking clock in Akhmatova’s tiny study. I vaguely recognized the violin solo in the last room representing her later stages in life, yet I was unable to put a label on it.  Only later did I learn that it was Bach’s Chaconne.

Next, I had a powerful vision of Pavel opening the performance with an early poem in Russian and with Ludmila closing with a late poem, also recited in Russian. Without these true representatives from a time past, the Saint Petersburg-inspired performance would not have been possible. Still, what was meant to happen between the opening and closing was yet to be discovered.  Then came the Ukraine crisis followed by financial turbulence – our burgeoning theatre company was at great peril. However, I trusted that Pavel and Ludmila would sail through the storm as so many times before in their life.

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Then I had to find the student reciters for the performance. Again, I had a strong vision of the cast as it came to dynamics and kinesthetic presence. At the end, out of the initial six names I had in mind, only one had to cancel. Yet, he was soon replaced by a young man with genuine interest in performing on stage. The Finnish tourism students very soon got enthralled by the intriguing life of Anna Akhmatova and they chose their favorite poem translated by New York based translator Andrey Kneller, who had given his permission to use the texts. Somehow, all six randomly chosen poems formed a powerful entity.

 

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What a joy when my dear friend and multi-talented colleague Chryssa Skodra joined the cast. We met clandestinely once before the dress rehearsal and figured out the outcome of a friendship between two strong women, poetess Akmatova and actress-dancer Olga Glebova-Sudeikina: how it would start, how it would sprinkle and clash and how at the end, there would be nothing left but longing, Olga never to return again to Saint Petersburg from Paris where she had settled as emigrant. As expected, Chryssa and I immediately found the right tone in our contact improvisation, so there was no need to rehearse any further.

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Still, we did not have a performance yet – only fragments of a performance.

 

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DRESS REHEARSAL

Then came Tuesday 17 March and I had a happy reunion with Pavel and Ludmila in the morning. On our one-hour bus ride to Porvoo we had time to discuss the performance in detail. By four o’clock the cast was ready to start the dress rehearsal – all being well on time. And then it happened by some magic, all of a sudden we had our theater company on Porvoo Campus. It must have been the presence of a Russian film and stage director and his spouse and companion in life that made everybody understand that this was for real. Everything fell beautifully into place, there was focus and commitment – and pure joy! Classroom 3421 had been transformed into a theater – it did not take much: just a couple of coaches serving as stage, and the chairs removed to the rare end of the room. A chess table and three simple chairs. The illusion turning real.

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There were some unforgettable moments, for instance when Pavel taught young Mikael how to put a shawl on Akhmatova’s shoulders in an elegant old world manner. Also the Echoing movement poem at the end took shape and we decided not to involve the audience, since that would cause unnecessary stir. Ludmila was worried about the lethally slippery floor in Chryssa’a and my contact improvisation, but I knew that I could trust Chryssa 110% and thus take real risks (in the performance itself she actually saved me from a bad fall by pulling me back on my feet in just a fraction of a second).  So at the end of the dress rehearsal we knew that we had a performance. A performance carved down to the very bone. Thus being a far cry from a sugar-coated opera production with plastic emotions played in guilded opera houses. No, I take no interest in such shallow depictions of human life.  And I feel that also my students sensed the uniqueness of creating something rare and beautiful together as ensemble. The same feeling was also transmitted to Aron, the student who took care of the performance technique in dire conditions.

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OUTCOME

Now the performance is just a memory, yet having left a strong and lasting imprint upon our soul. Photographer Jussi Niemi captured some intense moments, otherwise, there is no recorded trace left. Only a handful of people came to see the performance, half of them invited by me personally. What did we then all learn during this process? Firstly, my students learnt commitment and ensemble work. How important it is to come together and give your time to something you cherish, this obviously happened during the dress rehearsal when we saw all fragments suddenly making sense. Secondly, in a reality where it is trendy to say that “anything goes and it does not matter whether you fail or not”, my students got involved in a project where only excellence was good enough. We were not there to fail. And we all committed ourselves to that goal, the result being success, a production we can be proud of. Maybe this is the fundamental lesson we can learn from a theatrical production in a business school, when you strive for excellence there is no room for half-measures.

What next? Pavel Resser is rehearsing Chekhov back in Saint Petersburg with his student theater ensemble of Saint Petersburg State University. I, on the other hand, find myself once again homeless with my artistic ambitions. Yet, nobody can take away the moment we had together as ensemble. Just before Pavel and Ludmila were leaving for Saint Petersburg, the four of us came together to plan the future for our ensemble. What an odd gathering of three generations and three totally different geographical locations: born in the 40’s, 60’s and 80’s, growing up in the Soviet Union, Finland and Greece in different decades – yet finding a profound and immediate understanding regardless of age or cultural background. Finally, sadly Chryssa’s name is not even mentioned in the program, she stepped in too late to become the brilliant assistant director she turned out to be during dress rehearsal. Chryssa, I tried to get your name added to the program in retrospect, but I was told that it was not possible after publication. Well, we all know that in this world very much passes unnoticed and unmentioned. So, for a brief moment we had a real theater company on Porvoo Campus. It might never be heard again in that context, yet it flamed and made life beautiful and intense for the brief moment it existed.

 

P.S. Thank you Veijo for your great singing in Russian. You never fail to astonish me! And thank you Ivan for your research at the Akhmatova museum.

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Beam you up – and smile!

Presence starts from the face! It needs to be active and alert. Beaming. This week I ran into a 2500-year old face that made the deepest of impressions on me. A face illuminated by the archaic smile. The expression belonged to a sculpture on display in the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm.  The Archaic Smile often appeared on Greek sculptures during the period of 600-450 BC and it is supposed to have signaled good health and wellbeing, as described by John Fowles: “timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused”. Today some historians interpret the smile as artificial and representing the equivalent of expressions we put on when photographs are taken. Thus, the archaic smile could be regarded as the Antique equivalent of “say cheese!” Nevertheless, a sad fact is that dull expressionless is far too often encountered in Finnish service culture. Finns might regard this as a sign of being authentic and genuine, the opposite of putting on a fake smile. This is what I often hear student say in terms of an explanation to their sullen faces. However, it should be remembered that a foreign customer would interpret a bland facial expression as disinterest or even hostility, the opposite of hospitality and service excellence. Therefore, at the beginning of my own lessons I always ask students to “do the eye lift” and I remind them that the eye is our quickest muscle. Secondly, I ask them to do the face lift – this resulting in a sort of archaic smile, I realize after having encountered this alluring limestone head.

archaic smile

 

I have numerous exercises in my Business Ballet tool bag for practicing presence, the latest addition being the Star Trek-inspired “Beam me up” routine. Despite the reference to the vintage TV series, students have responded to the exercise with surprising ease. The instructions are very simple: you step into the transporter, the teleportation device used in Star Trek for getting to a planet. The teacher counts to three and says “click” and you dematerialize – this happens by shrinking and breathing out.  Then the teacher says “beam you up” and you slowly rematerialize, making sure that every single molecule falls into its correct place and you become fully visible on Campus. In sum, this is a process of fading out and fading in; any experienced teacher would know that students often remain slightly faded out. That’s why we need to make sure that they concretely understand the importance of being totally present in the classroom. Recently, we also did this exercise with the Resto competition team. In April four determined young ladies from POMO, the Finnish tourism programme, will be off to Rovaniemi where they will compete in the national Resto hospitality industry competition, this year being hosted by Lapland University of Applied Sciences. I have been appointed their movement and presentation skills coach and naturally I need to make sure that the team will stay beamed up and 110% present at all times. Here you can admire the beaming ladies from our first Business Ballet session in January:

Glorious resto team

 

Finally, I am teleporting myself back to the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm. Once again I’m asking the limestone head: “Who are you with that mysterious smile?  I noticed that you have dancer reliefs on your crown! Why? Did you use to dance in the shady halls of the Vouni palace? Would we have been kindred spirits and danced together on ornate mosaic floors? Hiding away from the scourging midday sun, forever shining on the ancient hills of Cyprus.”

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To the Point or the Point of Breaking into a Ballet Shoe

Never say never! This weekend, on the eve of a new semester, I am contemplating my brand new point shoes in some disbelief. It has been more than fourteen years since I last time wore point shoes and I had sworn to never wear those again in Ballet class. I would even go as far as claiming that point shoes represent the ultimate form of discomfort! Yet, there are many useful business lessons to be learnt here. Firstly, one has to break into the new shoes. Yes quite correctly, “break into” is the appropriate idiom for taking possession of new ballet shoes. When an ordinary shoe is chosen according to perfect fit, a ballet shoe initially feels like a lump of hardwood. The foot has to be used as an organic tool for moulding and crushing the shoe into use. What can this bone-breaking process teach business students? At least it teaches the lesson of not passively waiting for the perfect pair of shoes or the perfect career/ life to materialize. Actions have to be taken to find your own path and your shoes can initially feel uncomfortable upon taking the first step on the chosen road. There will be blisters and toe nails falling off, talking about getting out of the comfort zone! However, at the end there will also be lightness and spritely dance à la Marie Taglioni, the first ballerina to embrace the “en pointe” technique in the Romantic Era ballet La Sylphide (1832).

Point

 

Then to the second lesson learnt, that of risk-taking and high ambitions. When in January 2013 I first dragged my post partum body to ballet class after a pause of 12 years, I told myself that basic pliés and battement tendus would be sufficient. After three pregnancies with four-kilo babies I had no illusions of ever again being even close to the ephemeral state of Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn or Fanny Cerrito for that matter. (For the uninitiated, these were the three greatest ballet divas and rivals of the 19th century ballet scene). However, when I gradually advanced to higher levels it became evident that not doing en pointe was not a choice in a class with everybody else struggling with their relevés on point (getting up on your toes in ballet vocabulary). So here I am now with my point shoes ready for action. Of course I am painfully aware that at the beginning I will look like the ugly duckling, or at least the wobbling duckling, among more graceful swans. So what is the business lesson to be learnt here? It is the following: don’t be content with doing things you already master well, look for challenges even with the initial risk of appearing ridiculous. With enough practice the limp duckling becomes the pas de bourréing swan!

Finally, I come to the last lesson learnt, that of sales and service excellence! In the dance store Piruetti I cautiously approached the sales lady, requesting point shoes after a 14-year break. I was taken to the secluded area of shelves filled with point shoes of different brands and a forbidding “Don’t Touch” sign. A sight for sore eyes! The lovely sales lady then scrutinized my feet with her expert eyes and I timidly told her that yes, I had indeed danced very much in my youth and advanced to taking Repertory classes where we were taught variations from Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire. However, needless to say that this was ancient history. Obviously my wrists are now only gradually building up their lost strength and thus the sole of the point shoe needs to be flexible enough. Finally, after fitting more than a dozen different shoes, I ended up with a pair of Gamba point shoes. Funnily, here I am almost four decades later purchasing a pair of point shoes of exactly the same brand as back in Christmas 1977, when I got my very first pair. Talking about being back to scratch! During the entire process of purchasing the shoes, the sales lady and I were involved in an animated ballet conversation. She wanted to know how I felt about my come-back. And I happily told her about the stiff muscles, the unflattering transformation from XS (Extra Small) to M (Medium) in terms of leotards and to make it even worse, the feet flattened by three pregnancies, proof of which she could witness right on the spot. But one thing has improved considerably, my sense of balance, so now I can do the pirouettes much more elegantly. This being due to the fact that by know I know for sure where the center of my body is. It is where the fetus used to give a punch with his/ her tiny heel. In sum, I have seldom experienced as good service as when buying my point shoes. As customer, I was recognized, respected and cherished – not at any point undermined despite my obvious difficulties of getting completely on point. Obviously, the sales lady had a true passion for her work as profound expertise on what she was selling as well as excellent communicative skills and at the end she found the perfect shoe for the time being.

So now, being on point, finally to the point regarding business studies and later professional career: don’t stick with the easy and obvious – expand, trip over, start from scratch and then at the end, spread out you wings and fly. Yet, I have to admit that I also purchased an item I have never owned before called “Ouch Pouch”, a silicon cushion for the toes to make the impact of the point of the shoe less harsh. So a little cheating here! But maybe I’m excused due to being considered a pensioner in terms of the retirement age of ballet dancers! Here I come Marie Taglioni, slightly wing-broken and battered, yet ready to rise strongly and proudly on point.

P.S. This text is dedicated to a strong and proud woman who does not hesitate to break into new shoes and challenges! Thank you for always ordering me up on my feet when I trip! Happy birthday today – dear Chryssa! May your wings take you far and everywhere!

Ballet Stilleben

 

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Birth of Business Ballet or Dancing during Halcyon Days

For me New Year signifies birth. Tangibly. Concretely. My body remembers the violent contractions accompanied by the sound and smell of fireworks illuminating the pitch-black December sky. My two younger children were born on New Years Day 2005 and 2008, thus New Year does not only carry a symbolic meaning of birth and new beginnings, it is BIRTH. Furthermore, giving birth is not a pretty event in white linen, it is a violent and messy affair. It is Life itself.

Year 2014 is soon to reach its end and I find myself thinking of the symbolic births of this past year. The first and foremost thing that crosses my mind is of course the birth of Business Ballet, a method that has been burgeoning for years in my teaching. This autumn I was privileged to teach an entire course based on dance and movement as pedagogical resource. It was thrilling to see how the method emerged out of the course framework in close cooperation with the students. The group was small yet brave and inquisitive, ready to stretch beyond what I could ever have expected from non-dancers. I believe that the heterogeneous mix of different ages and nationalities as well as the small size of the group contributed to the success of the course. Thank you Alexandra, Elli, Essi, Jenni, Kymberly, Niklas, Riikka, Sanelma and Vy for your tremendous courage and commitment. I’m eternally grateful for having once in a lifetime experienced a course where all my dreams and ambitions came true. Additionally, my dear friend and colleague Chryssa joined the class a couple of times with her invaluable insights and sparkling enthusiasm. Thank you for your collegial support and superb blog post Business Ballet for the Body and Soul!

 

We met on dark Thursday mornings on Porvoo Campus and usually the lesson lasted three hours without any breaks. Well, the last lesson of 18 December lasted four hours without interruption as there seemed to be no end to the discussions. I kept tentatively asking whether anybody was in a hurry, yet everybody stayed past lunch hour. I had named the course Business Ballet: Advanced Presentation Skills – with advanced I was looking for ways of teaching students how to stay within your skin while performing. How not to let the mind wander without focus. How to stay in contact with your audience, constantly being aware of the three Aristotelian pillars of rhetoric: ethos, pathos and logos.

 

To an outsider our exercises might have seemed odd, sometimes even bizarre. For instance, we chose the third floor corner with a view to Porvoo to practice entrées. Naturally, Nordic Business Forum with its five- thousand audience served as model for how to enter a stage. With the big windows and open sky, the feeling of standing in front of a huge audience became true. Another exercise involved covering the entire length of a corridor without being distracted by a partner who was walking alongside. Obviously, in this exercise we practiced staying within your skin. Inside the classroom we had several more exercises, one particularly memorable moment was the “transition dance” where movement was smoothly passed on from one student to the other. Initially, the purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate how there should be elegant transitions in a presentation. However, this ended up becoming a beautiful choreography with a life of its own – existing in the moment and never to be seen again. Just as fleeting as any professional stage performance.

 

In sum, the “Master Performances” at the end of the course showed that everybody had grown as performers. The presentations were genuine and embodied. Many chose to speak without PowerPoint. Everybody took risks, some even improvised on the spot. As teacher I have never experienced anything similar. However, it should be mentioned that as method, Business Ballet is not meant to be taught in big groups. It needs the intimacy and individual attention. I would say that the maximum size would be ten students. In the future, if the course gets established, the solution is to have two separate groups. Yet, I am painfully aware that this might have been a one-time opportunity for me to teach the course in an educational context. The school finances are getting tighter and groups are growing in size all over the country. Yet, I’m happy for all of us who were involved in the process. As one student concluded: “this is so unique and wonderful that you almost wish to keep it a secret”.  Thus, in the future, Business Ballet could be developed into a product to be sold as company training: a unique combination of language learning, presentations skills and well-being at work.

New year 2015

 

Year 2014 is reaching its end and my body will always remember this as a year of dancing with students during halcyon days. As I said at the beginning, birth is not pretty but violent. It has taken me long to reach this point of authority in my pioneering work as Dancing English Teacher. For long I have been mistaken for a mere village fool or a harmless nuisance in an orderly environment. Yet, from now on I demand to be taken seriously – through years of trial and error I have come across something very valuable, a way to teach students to love being on stage. A skill they will definitely need in their future careers as business professionals. Simultaneously, I am at this very moment remembering the births of my children Valter and Silvia. The miracle of new life. Embodied. True. Present in this moment. As we all should feel when being alone on stage. Happy New Year and welcome to join my next Business Ballet course!

 

 

 

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Keep going – Serendipity in the social media cloud

This is a story with a lengthy introduction before reaching my point. It begins already in 1978 when I started frequenting international ballet competitions, first in Varna, Bulgaria and subsequently in Helsinki. In summer 2001 visits to ballet competitions came to an abrupt halt when I suddenly found myself stuck in my home with my colicky first-born, reading in the newspaper about Helsinki International Ballet Competition that was taking place only 1,5 kilometers from our Alppila home. Yet, it could have taken place on another planet as far as I was concerned. In summer 2005 the situation repeated itself with my second child. He was of the kind who refused to take formula milk from a bottle, so once again I found myself reading about Helsinki International Ballet competition in the newspaper as the infant kept me on duty 24/7. Meanwhile we had moved to a new home in the district of Töölö, so now I was only a stone’s throw away from the National Opera where the competition was taking place.  I kept noticing that there were several reports about a stunning 17-year old prodigy, Daniil Simkin. Finally, after some consideration, I decided that I would not miss the gala performance even if I would rather have followed the entire competition on spot. So I left the infant with his grandmother and rushed off to the Opera House together with my husband. Exhausted from constant nursing and sleep-deprivation, the only number that I recall as sharply as if it had taken place only yesterday, was Daniil Simkin in Maurice Béjart’s Les Bourgeoise performed to the famous song by Jacques Brel. Yes, he was stunning, as could be expected of the Grand Prix winner! And he had an additional quality rarely seen in classical ballet dancers. Humor!

Now I make a nine-year jump ahead in time and land in this very moment. My colleagues, students and family know that I have recently been very much preoccupied with my new course on Haaga-Helia UAS Porvoo Campus: Business Ballet: Advanced Presentation Skills, where I get to combine my expertise as Business Communication lecturer with my background as ballet teacher from many years ago. I have a firm belief that business students can benefit from kinesthetic learning, where they learn understand the importance of physical and esthetic competence in working life, a concept presented by researcher Jaana Parviainen  in a recent study for the Finnish Academy. Finally, the world premier of my Business Ballet course took place last Thursday with a very small group of students. Thursday mornings are generally the worst time for lessons as students usually have a big party on Wednesday evening. Initially, I was slightly discouraged as so many were missing from the early morning class. Yet, I soon pulled my energy together and got the lesson under way. At one point we did a set of three exercise in the Campus upstairs gallery: slouching walk with head hanging and feet dragging, Drama Queen Walk inspired by Mezzo-Soprano Joyce di Donato, and finally, the Simkin and the City Walk based on Daniil Simkin dancing in the streets of New York in his Don Quiote costume. Naturally, all walks have different qualities: the slouching walk feels endlessly long, isn’t this how many of us go about in our daily life? On the other hand, the Drama Queen Walk might make you appear too rigid and soldier-like. When we finally reach the Simkin and the City Walk, students are instructed to take poses, do a jump a turn etc. The result is a feeling of lightness, elegance and ease, pure joy – and naturally a performance in space! Finally, at the end of the Business Ballet class I took two pictures to commemorate the Grand, or should I rather say, Petit Opening of the course. In the evening I posted them on my Dancing English Facebook site, at the same time noticing that my site likes had decreased from 135 to 134.

Business Ballet group photo

And now comes the dramatic twist to the story. On Friday morning I woke up to a rainy day in Helsinki, and as always, I picked up my smartphone to check the schedule. A mother of three, I need to be very disciplined with my timetable. And what did I see: Daniil Simkin had posted a commentary in reference to the Simkin and the City Walk: “keep going;)” It’s still a mystery, how on earth had my obscure posting ended up to the attention of superstar Daniil Simkin? Serendipity in the social media cloud, indeed. Moreover, the timing was perfect. I come from a culture where you are taught to “stop going” rather than to “keep going”. Thus, I’m often filled with doubt and hesitation and a resilient voice keeps nagging in my head “stop going”. However, having seen this “keep going” after the premier of Business Ballet nothing will stop me from developing kinesthetic learning methods in a business school context! Thank you Daniil for posting that commentary! And me and my students hope to see more ballet in the street or some other unusual venues!

Simkin in the City Walk

 

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Kinesthetic Language Shower – notes on Michel Chekhov

I am posting the program for Kinesteettinen kielisuihku (Kinesthetic Language Shower) and welcoming a group of teachers from Eastern Uusimaa to my workshop on Porvoo Campus. The program with short notes on exercises and a few videos can be accessed here: http://prezi.com/nlbcymjzqzbr/kinesteettinen-kielisuihku/

On the eve of the workshop I am reading Michel Chekhov’s classic, To the Actor (1953). This is a handbook with concrete exercises and, surprisingly, I recognize many of these from my own kinesthetic language lessons. The exercises are familiar, however, the vocabulary belongs to theatre studies. I find Chekhov’s writing very lucid and I immediately note that his instructions are applicable to dance and movement improvisation classes as well.  I quite agree with contemporary choreographer Joona Halonen who claims that dancers should stop maintaining the myth of not being able to conceptualize movement.  Accordingly, I am looking for ways of explaining embodiment, corporeality and kinesthetic awareness to my students.

Since my field of interest is to teach students to become better speakers and performers, I am particularly fascinated by Chekhov’s concept of “Psychological Gesture”, defined by Lisa Dalton in following terms:

If we define gesture to mean a movement that has intention, we could say that the Psychological Gesture is a movement that expresses the psychology of the character. Chekhov defines the psychology to consist of the thoughts, feelings and will of a human being. Hence, the PG is a physical expression of the thoughts, feelings and desires of the character, incorporated into one movement. You can liken it to a moving logo, like the Nike logo, which captures the essence of Nike in one image.

So, in one movement, the PG awakens the essence of the character in you thus aligning your thoughts, feelings and will (objective) with that of the character. When this happens, your walk, your expressive mannerisms, your voice and line delivery are all inspired by one moving image. You perform the gesture prior to your scene to trigger your artistic nature. While in the scene, if your inspiration weakens, you simply envision the gesture in your imagination as you are acting and it will revitalize you.

Thus, as language teacher I ask my students what is the Psychological Gesture of a confident speaker? It does definitely not include slouching shoulders, fidgety leg movements, clasped arms or unfocused gaze. Chekhov emphasizes feeling of ease, form, beauty and aesthetic wholeness. All these are applicable to spoken skills. How do you walk to the front of the room? How do you catch the attention of the audience? How do you maintain their interest? The answer lies in clarity and focus. The posture should be good and gestures should be clear and simple. Moreover, the speaker should know the purpose of his/her use of space. Everything starts from the feeling of being comfortably embedded in space, which in turn will result in ease and clarity of speech.

Finally, yes, Michel Chekhov was related to the great Russian playwright: he was Anton Chekhov’s nephew. Now as I have discovered his legacy, I will definitely have a closer look at his oeuvre. Interestingly, great Hollywood actors such as Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Sir Anthony Hopkins have been instructed in the Chekhov Method, all being actors I greatly admire. So this is certainly something worth pursuing in language teaching, after all, it is the interaction between human beings that makes all the difference.

 

 

 

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