Stopping to Smile: Portland

1. At this house, for its colors and its garden.

2. At these rumply peonies, for smelling SO good!

3. At these new shoes, because I've wanted some wooden heals for a long time.

4. At this porch, for the afternoon sittin'.

5. At this Rohima, for being the sweetest travel companion.

City of Roses

Today I woke up early and snuck out on my own. I walked passed charming bungalows and gardens overflowing with color. I made my way through the damp, morning, quiet to my new favorite cafe for an americano and some writing. My sister and I are in Portland, Oregon, this week visiting family. There has been a brand new baby, an amazing food truck lunch, sightseeing, hikes, and art projects. There are roses everywhere. I'm loving the vibe here, all the great coffee and local artisans, and I feel pretty cool trekking around with my grandmother who has lived in Portland for nearly 50 years. All you hipsters got nothin' on my Grandma! We stopped by Peninsula Park's rose garden yesterday, and she said it was as full and beautiful as she'd ever seen it.

Goodbye Cinderella

Once in a while, right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale.

Grateful to have performed the role of Fairy Godmother in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella. Photos by Cheryl Mann.

Looking Back: Playing Choreographer

I’ve choreographed a number of “works" over the years. At my second grade talent show I premiered and starred in my rendition of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. At the tender age of 9, I created another solo for myself to “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Throughout elementary school, I directed and performed in multiple living-room productions of Cats, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Jingle Bell Rock. When necessary, I corralled my sisters and neighbors to fill the chorus. I was prodigious.

And then I stopped. 

Perfectionism and insecurity claimed a place in my life, and when I finally rolled up my sleeves at age 22 to choreograph a duet on two Joffrey dancers for a colleague’s charity, I was terrified.

I was excessively and unreasonably terrified.

I’d like to document my story here for you, and for me. Because this experience of trying something completely new, and in many moments “failing”, is one of my proudest inner accomplishments. 

I decided to choreograph on my fun-loving friends Graham and Brooke. They are both beautiful dancers, nonjudgemental, and easygoing. I sweet-talked them into dancing for me and got to work finding music. After wandering down many a YouTube rabbit hole, I finally asked a friend to mix a piece of music for me. "Can you take this, and just like, make it more interesting...?". The finished product was weirder and darker than I imagined. It reminded me of a vivid dream from my childhood. I loved it.

But I got stuck on the dream. It had been visceral, a feeling more than anything, and it was so personal that I couldn't articulate it to my dancers. When I tried, it came out sounding phony to me. I was so desperate to make a meaningful piece, a cool piece, that my original inspiration morphed into a commentary on the sate of the world before we had eight counts of choreography solidified.

So I stopped trying to explain. I just focused on making movement. And BAM! It became a romanic pas de deux. I really didn't want to make a romantic pas de deux! That was so predictable. So typical. But I tried to go with it. I walked into the studio and played pretend choreographer. I wore street shoes and sipped lattes and even reprimanded my friends a few times to seem more legitimate. There was a lot of falling and spinning out of control. Graham and Brooke experimented, and on many occasions they created a brilliant lift before dissolving into a giggling pile of arms and legs on the floor. It was fun, and then hard, and then frustrating, and then fun.

I read a book about creativity and fear and I asked other choreographers for guidance. I acknowledged my discomfort and examined it as I went forward. One night, after weeks of rehearsal, I was struck with another idea! I was so excited I couldn't sleep. This one was it! I told my dancers we were changing everything. They smiled and nodded, they probably wanted to kill me. 

So we started over. Again my idea refused to manifest. I finally had a vision but it was too specific. The movement I wanted came so naturally to me that I couldn't figure out how to transfer it to my dancers. I knew what I didn't like but I didn't have the coaching tools to help my dancers evolve. I got frustrated, I tried to surrender, the performance drew closer. 

The week of the show I chose costumes, I set lighting, I named it a name I thought wasn't too cheesy. Mercifully, I was still happy with the music. But I didn’t like my piece. AT ALL. The day before the show, I cried because I didn’t want anyone to see it. I felt ashamed, and silly, and incredibly vulnerable. 

When it was finally time to watch my piece premier, I crouched near the edge of the black box, my heart racing. I held my breath as my friends began to dance. I was agonizingly aware of every unfinished detail, every empty moment. But, as my stomach twisted with nerves, I became increasingly touched by my dancers' commitment to the performance. Every correction applied or difficult step executed filled me with deep gratitude. For the duration of the piece I felt my heart alternatively on the verge breaking or bursting. And then, at the very end, Brooke smiled. It was a purposeful smile that I choreographed in at the last minute, but it was so bright and genuine and committed that it brought me to tears. The smile was honest, it was so Brooke. That moment made me happy. In spite of myself, so happy. 

I learned about a million things from this experience. Next time I won't stress so much. Next time I won't start with a story. Next time I won't expect anyone to dance just like me. Next time I'll insist on more rehearsal. Next time I'll have more fun. Next time I won't expect perfection. Next time I won't give two fishes if people like my music or costumes or ides (no lets be real, I will definitely give at least one fish). Next time I'll do nearly everything differently. I will take myself WAY less seriously because yes, I will be choreographing again.

Graham and Brooke in my piece, "Small Hours". Photos by Alejandro Mallado.

In This Together: Lena Parker

I will always cherish my friendships from boarding school. The girls that saw me through adolescence in our rigorous environment are now spread across the globe. Our infrequent reunions are filled with the familiarity of old companionship and appreciation for how much we've changed. Each time I reconnect with one of these ladies I feel gratified by their continued success and growing happiness.

Lena's energy is contagious. She totally embodies the light and warmth of her native Southern California. After graduating from Harid (the boarding school where we studied ballet together), Lena spent two more years dancing before deciding to move on from her ballet career. She began practicing and teaching yoga and she is currently studying to earn her doctor of physical therapy degree. I was eager to get her bird's eye perspective on ballet and to hear all about her life-enhancing yoga practice. Keep reading. You'll smile.

Mahallia: What aspects of your ballet training do you bring to your yoga practice?

Lena: Although ballet and yoga are significantly different, there are so many tools that ballet gave me that I apply to my practice. Consistency, discipline, and curiosity are needed in both forms of movement in order to progress. Yoga is obviously much less competitive but there is still and internal drive to be better than the day before by holding a posture for another breath or surrendering in a moment of fear.

M: What aspects of yoga do you think could help ballet dancers?

L: Everything about yoga can be incredibly beneficial to ballet dancers! Physically, working turned in releases a huge amount of tension in the low back and hips. I didn't even realize how tight my back was until I began a daily yoga practice. Connecting breath to movement and being mindful of the breath can make movement feel effortless. Spiritually and mentally, yoga can help calm the stresses of the heart and the mind. Dancers so easily continue to push past their limit in order to further their career. They begin to ignore their intuition which leads to extreme highs and lows. It has taken me a very long time to realize that you have to listen, respect, and acknowledge the thoughts passing through the mind in order to achieve true internal happiness that does not fluctuate frequently or rely on your circumstances. Believe it or not, ballet is not life. Life is life. Every moment is an opportunity to be mindful and happy. Yoga has taught me to surrender into chaotic moments and to not set expectations. I wish I had cross trained with yoga when I was dancing, and I highly, highly recommend it to all dancers.

M: Favorite food?

L: Mexican food. Living in Southern California, we are blessed with some killer Mexican food. Now I'm craving a burrito.

M: Favorite fuel?

L: Every morning I make an open faced sandwich with whole wheat toast, cheese, tomato, avocado, Canadian bacon, grilled onions, and a fried egg on top, seasoned with salt and pepper. I often run late to teach yoga because it's a process. Worth it!

M: How has your body image/awareness changed since transitioning out of ballet and practicing yoga?

L: I struggled a lot with my weight throughout my teenage years. Teachers, peers, and family were constantly pressuring me to lose weight, which was awful for my self image. I hated myself for a few years, and it is one of the big reasons why I had to quit dancing. As much as I love to dance ballet, all of the joy was being taken away due to this self hatred. When I turned to yoga, the pressure for me to stay in shape was gone. I was able to appreciate the fact that although I don't have the perfect body, at least I have a body to move in! Finding gratitude in what I have allowed me to learn to love myself. I've actually lost a significant amount of weight since teaching yoga just because I just let go of any expectation. I stopped fighting and I surrendered. I made peace with my body and with food. It has taken a long time to find acceptance but I am so happy with the progress I have made.

M: What is your favorite moment in the day?

L: The sunset. I'm at the beach most days of the week so I frequently see some insanely colorful sunsets over the Pacific. #blessed

M: If you feel unbalanced or stressed, how do you calm yourself and regain balance?

L: I turn to meditation when I need to find serenity and balance in my mind. Sitting still is much harder than we realize, especially for those that move for a living. There is a preconceived notion that meditation is about pushing your thoughts out of your head and thinking about nothing. That's impossible unless you're a monk who can levitate. The idea is more just noticing what the train of thought is, and using awareness to not "ride" the train of thought; rather, just watch the train pass by without reacting. All I do is notice the feelings, sensations, or thoughts that I feel as I sit in stillness. Then I observe, rather than control, any sensations I witness. Finally, I welcome any emotions or thoughts while not reacting at all. It's all about being here NOW! (Notice, observe, welcome).

M: What is your favorite environment in which to practice yoga?

L: At the beach, on the shore or in the water. Paddleboard yoga is magical!

M: Is there a quote or piece of advice that speaks to you right now?

L: You always have the choice to be happy, and happiness is infectious. Spread the love and good vibes!

M: What ballet memory makes you smile to think about?

L: Too many good ones to choose. The best moments were always right before curtain in a prayer circle. That feeling of camaraderie is rare and exciting. I'll always cherish those moments.

Photos 2 and 3 by Omeed Askari.

Happy Earth Day

A little dose of Rumi for your Earth Day morning:

Taking it all in in Iceland last summer. Photo by Hadrian.

Taking it all in in Iceland last summer. Photo by Hadrian.

Observe the wonders as they occur around you.

Don't claim them.

Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.

-Rumi

Lately

Lately I've been...

Photo by Alejandro Mallado. 

Photo by Alejandro Mallado. 

Loving the little sliver of sunrise I can see from our apartment every morning. 

Hoping for more and more days sans parka.

Laughing at my itch to move again. I have problems.

Cooking Medjedra from Jerusalem.

Wondering about the sad things that happen to amazing people, and also the amazing things.

Dreaming of the beach, and my future tiny house as always. 

Reading The Warmth of Other Suns, and being blown away.

Working on being more disciplined daily, in my actions and my surrender.

Remembering those in this world that face unspeakable hardship. 

Giving thanks for my own share of troubles and joy. 

In This Together: Mimi Tompkins

Different art forms often compliment each other. For example, when an artist loses inspiration in his or her dancing, they might find in again through another means of expression like painting. I know many dancers who are multitalented, and many (like myself) who have given up training in another art form to focus intensely on ballet. I so admire dancers who keep up practice in the skills and hobbies that bring them joy and keep creativity flowing outside of the studio. Mimi is a creator of beautiful performance on stage and beautiful paintings on canvas. Here's a little peak into her world. 

Mahallia: How do you prepare yourself for a show? Any special rituals that make you feel calm and ready? Any superstitions?

Mimi: I have many pre-show rituals! I basically move into the theatre, making my dressing room as cozy as possible. I like to surround myself with familiarity, such as candles from my home, pictures, perfume, relics, etc. I prepare myself for a show by doing my hair and makeup and listening to music. If I have a lot of extra time, I enjoy reading to get out of my own head and to get inspiration in a different way. Right before I go onstage, I review the choreography. I get comfort out of repetition. I also think about what I want to bring to my performance spiritually and emotionally. I envision myself dancing the role. Finally, I never go onstage without praying and reminding myself that every opportunity I have on and off stage is a blessing. It's quite the process!

Mahallia: Favorite food?

Mimi: I'd have to say my favorite foods are avocado toast, dark chocolate, and green apples with peanut butter. Oh, and coffee!

Mahallia: Favorite fuel? 

Mimi: In addition to my favorite foods, some more of my favorite fuels are nuts and dried fruit. They give me proper energy and are nice in my stomach. 

Mahallia: You make such beautiful paintings! How do these two means of expression, ballet and painting, compliment each other? Do you get a different kind of fulfillment from making art for fun, compared to making art for a living?

Mimi: Thank you! Painting and drawing has been something I’ve done since I was very little. I've always painted just for my own artistic expression and fulfillment. I feel that my paintings and ballet compliment each other in a deep way. They are both expressions of what is inside. When making art for fun there is no pressure whatsoever. It is purely for expression. Making art for a living is fulfilling in another way. It is rising to the occasion and knowing that my work is worth something.

Mahallia: Unfortunately, self-criticism seems to be ingrained in most dancers. How do you address feelings of doubt or negativity when they come creeping in? 

Mimi: This is something I think about every day. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that doubt and negativity are inevitable for artists and that I can actually use these feelings to propel myself further. However, it is key that doubt remains a small voice in my head rather than the loudest. I tend to keep things buried within me and I have a hard time letting things go. With time and experience, I’ve learned that some things just need to be brushed off like "water off a duck's back". Some things won't help me by brewing inside. I try to carry myself with positivity because it creates the best environment for me to grow in. That being said, I definitely have moments of weakness when doubt and negativity take over, but I am fortunate to be able to express my fears with people who are my confidants and anchors. Sometimes I have to work things out internally, but it is also important to seek help or a fresh perspective when needed. 

Mahallia: Do you have a role model that you look up to? How have they influenced you on and off stage?

Mimi: I have many role models. I love to draw inspiration from my peers, mentors, and idols. My mom is the reason I am where I am today. She was a professional dancer, and having a mom who completely understands my day-to-day struggles and triumphs is something very special. I am also so fortunate to have worked with amazing artists in my life so far. One person that inspires me immensely is my director, Ib Andersen. He is incredibly passionate and seeks the best in each dancer. Working for him has forever changed me as a dancer and has expanded the way I see ballet. Sofiane Sylve is another person who I think of often when I think of what a true ballerina is. When I was younger I would watch videos of her, in awe of how magnificent dance could be. I was extremely fortunate to have been trained by her in San Francisco. She taught me that ballet is something that has to be done with your whole being. One of the greatest things I have learned from her is that dancing is a way to tell your story. Before I dance, I always ask myself, “What do I want to say today?”

Mahallia: Favorite ballet blooper?

Mimi: I’m not sure this would qualify as my “favorite” blooper. But In a recent show of The Nutcracker, during a flip from a press lift into a fish dive in the Grand Pas de Deux, I slipped out of my partners hands at over six feet in the air and fell to the floor. My partner is very strong and coordinated and we had never missed that maneuver before. I was in shock. But, I immediately stood up and carried on with more vigor than I started with. This was an important moment for me because falling is the worst thing that can happen on stage, and after that I realized that it’s not so bad. In a weird way, it has allowed me to be more courageous. Luckily, I wasn't hurt. In retrospect, I'm actually glad that it happened the way it did. 

Mahallia: What part of day-to-day ballerina life do you most enjoy?

Mimi: I most enjoy the growth. All dancers know that day-to-day life is not always as glamorous as it may seem. It can be incredibly rewarding to dance your best on stage and to get positive feedback from your audience, co-workers, and artistic staff. But, it can be very draining and taxing on your mind and body. What I ask of myself is to be better than I was yesterday, artistically and technically. I’ve learned that seeking growth keeps you hungry, which is the best thing for an artist. 

Mahallia: Do you have a go-to remedy for aches and pains?

Mimi: Hot baths and good conversations. 

Mahallia: What aspect of your own personal talent are you most grateful for? What parts of ballet do you most enjoy exploring?

Mimi: I am most grateful for my long limbs. This is something that took me a while to appreciate. I always felt that I was too tall and would let that insecurity distress me so much. My mom (who is ironically pretty short) was the one who really snapped me out of it. She said to me, “Is this something you can change? Well, embrace it. Make it your good thing rather than your bad thing.” That changed everything for me. Now I get compliments on my length and fluidity. 

Mahallia: Have you had a pivotal moment in your career? A moment when you gained fresh understanding, or something just clicked?

Mimi: Yes. For me that moment was dancing the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies. It is the hardest role I have danced to date. When I was first called to rehearse it, I was so shocked. It was my first principle role and so difficult for me in every way. I didn’t think I could do it, but I gave it my all. By the time I performed it, I realized I could do it. In that moment everything clicked. I had moved past the point of just hoping to make it through, and I could look at my dancing and think about how I wanted to shine. It reminded me of Frida Kahlo's words, “In the end, we can do much more than we think we can.”

Mahallia: Any advice you would like to give younger dancers? Any advice you still whisper to yourself on a daily basis?

Mimi: I would advise young dancers to stay humble, never stop being hungry, and be good to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others, but don’t put the blinders on either! Draw inspiration from everyone and everything. It is so easy to get caught up in the negativity of this harsh world we live in, but choose the light and positivity. I promise you will find that it makes everything easier, and you will most definitely be happier. Never forget that each hardship and struggle will only make you stronger and add more depth to your artistry. Everyone has a different path. I remind myself every day, “Today is a gift, a chance to grow, and that’s exciting.”

Patience, Please Be My Virtue

I usually love January. I feel invigorated by the freshness of a new year, and the “with it”-ness that I feel from working toward my goals. However, these first few weeks of 2016 have been a little confusing. I find myself torn between dreams, anxious to make decisions that have yet to form, grasping for what I know to be true because I feel uncertain about so much. 

I am trying to be content while waiting. I am trying to trust that where I am will lead me to where I should go. I am trying to make room in my heart for everything that I love and to ignore my brain’s panicked attempts to make sense of it all.

More peace, less doubt, more work, less pout...

This year I'm hoping to find more of the virtue I have the least of: Patience

Anyone relate?

Audition Mission

Having a little sister who also dances is very special to me. Our five year age difference offers us both valuable perspective on our separate paths. There have been times when I haven't been the best example to her; moments of melodramatic dismay over gaining a few pounds in the summer, ungraceful frustration at chances given to someone else. But in the moments that I am able to help her, to offer a bit of advice or debunk a self-conscious worry, I feel so grateful that my experience might be used to aid hers. She is heading into audition season like many other hopeful dancers. I made up the following ditty as a little note of encouragement for Rohima. She said she didn't mind if I shared it here, so here it is: 

 

Quick feet, hopes leap, 

Rapid prayers with each heart beat.

Pulling up all reserves of strength,

Eyes with life, live each length. 

 

Each moment here, each moment gone, 

A thousand hours of devotion long.

Look down, you'll see your calloused toe,

Look up that might your fierce soul show. 

 

Sweat and tears, I've been there too.

Your fears won't last as long as you do.

This caught breath time, the waiting weeks,

Will soon exhale reward so sweet.