Liz Walker: A Semester at the LA Ballet

March 5, 2010

Elizabeth Walker ('11/'12) performing "to dust" (Photo Credit: The Harvard Dance Program and Andreas Randow)

It’s a Friday evening in Los Angeles, and I vaguely feel like I’m going to hurl. No, I didn’t have one too many cocktails at the newest celebrity hotspot in Hollywood. I did, however, just survive my first run of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. This ballet in three movements is the dance equivalent of a marathon, condensed into forty-five minutes of adrenaline fueled exertion. I can easily say it is the most difficult thing I have ever done.

For the Spring Term of 2010, I’ve taken a leave of absence to renew my focus on a career in dance. I have temporarily rejoined the company I danced with during my gap year, the Los Angeles Ballet, to perform in its all-Balanchine season, entitled “See the Music, Hear the Dance”. Rehearsals with the company have been grueling, especially after two and a half years spent studying rather than dancing six hours a day, but every bit of physical pain I’ve felt in the past weeks has been worth it.

In the program, I appear in two works by legendary choreographer George Balanchine, Serenade and Piano Concerto 2. Serenade (1934), the first ballet he created upon arrival in America, is a romantic work set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. It centers on a corps of seventeen women who follow a progression which mirrors the music: they grow from performing the simplest of ballet movements and port de bras to more complex choreography, eventually making intricate patterns across the stage. This ballet is all about mood, music and free movement.

On the contrary, Piano Concerto 2 (1941, also known as Ballet Imperial) is flashy and athletic. It is Balanchine’s tribute to classical ballet in the Russian tradition. Complete with white, jewel-embroidered satin dresses and sparkling tiaras, the ballet’s grand costumes and Tchaikovsky score exude a regal tone. Dancing it poses the challenge of masking the effects of the difficult and invigorating choreography with the intended mood of majestic composure. From the moment the curtain rises on a long diagonal of eight women facing eight men, to the bravura finale of twenty-seven dancers jumping in unison, the ballet is an elaborate, exhausting masterwork.

It has been great for me to return to dancing in such large-scale, classical works. At Harvard, I tend to dance in more contemporary pieces with much smaller casts, usually lasting no longer than fifteen minutes. To dance in an evening such as this, which requires hours of rehearsals each day in pointe shoes, and the stamina to get through a two hour performance, has been a challenging change. The past few months have been important in showing me that I can still master both types of movement. I joined the LA Ballet immediately out of high school, first auditioning as a senior in a “cattle call” audition in New York. Mid-Summer, I wrote Harvard to say I wouldn’t be coming in the fall after all. That first year in LA was a dream come true for me. Yet, plagued by a serious foot injury and lured by the appeal of Harvard, I left. What I thought would be a temporary departure from the company (only a semester, I told myself) turned into nearly three years away from dancing full-time.

In the back of my mind, I always planned to go back, but that goal seemed to get much farther away each day. This November, I was somewhat inexplicably inspired to shoot an email to my former directors, expressing my interest in returning to dance with them. Fifty minutes later, there was a response in my inbox—“Can you start January 18?” At first, my heart kind of sank. I was terrified of leaving the place where I’ve grown so comfortable, of not graduating with my class…again, of getting injured…again. After a few days of thought, I realized that it’s worth the risk, it’s only a semester away from my familiar life, and Harvard will, forever and always, still be here. So, I’ve returned to my dream.

- Liz Walker (’11/’12), The Harvard Review Dance Board


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