Ballet in Studio K: members elaborate on art of dance before opening performance

Across the street from a library, packed into a corner of sorts, the Tulsa Ballet stood proud but unprovoking. A small statue of two dancers stood out on the front lawn, and a few bright splotches of color travelled around the building’s interesting architecture. It certainly didn’t reflect the posh, artsy stereotype that has been associated with ballet as an artform.
The lobby was small but inviting enough. A couple televisions played a recording of what I assumed to have been a past performance. I watched a man in a bright shirt turn away from a more darkly dressed man, looking ashamed. A couple women seemed to console him and to coo in his ears while a desolate tune of piano and strings gave the sensation of a fall from grace. The other man stormed off the stage after a few well-timed pirouettes.
After a brief talk with a receptionist and the company manager I ended up in an impromptu tour of the building before landing in a small conference room. Perhaps the room wasn’t small, but more that the massive table at which I sat took up most of the space.
Lining the walls were several floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets with dozens of ballet-related figurines and statuettes, made from porcelain, wood and probably more materials I couldn’t discern.
I’d walked into the room with Regina Montgomery, a full-time dancer for Tulsa Ballet as well as their shoe coordinator, the latter of which she described to me in brief by stating “all the shoes come through me.” A few moments later we were joined by Daniel van de Laar. He’s Dutch, hailing from the Netherlands originally, and beyond being a full-time dancer he choreographs and does photography on the side.
We spoke briefly about an upcoming event being hosted at Tulsa Ballet: a program called “Creations in Studio K,” in which both dancers will be performing. The show runs Sept. 15–24 at Tulsa Ballet with tickets starting at $25 for students. The piece is notable as it’s choreographed by an all-female team of three: Helen Pickett, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Young Soon Hue.
“It’s a lot less common for choreographers to be female; most are male,” Montgomery said.
“Not just the choreographers,” van de Laar added, “also the costume designers, they’re all female.” They described these details as supportive of the program’s celebration of feminism.
From feminism comes the subject of gender, so the discussion traveled to the subject of gender ratios within ballet. Where choreographers apparently tend to be mostly male, dancers are unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly female.
“I think a lot of guys get bullied,” Montgomery said. “A lot of guys don’t want to do ballet. … When you think of ballet what do you think of? You think of a ballerina.”
Van de Laar, being the male ballet performer in the room, weighed in: “I often get the question ‘Oh are you wearing pointed shoes? Do you wear a tutu?’”
I brought up the stigma of ballet’s male performers being effeminate, a stigma the two detested.
“You have to be really strong. So you have to work out, get big muscles and for us that’s the thing we always have to work on,” van de Laar said.
The truth of the matter couldn’t be further from the stereotype, as the two explained. Male performers have to be in peak physical form in order to lift the other dancers and to hold them above their heads for extended periods of time, as well as to be able to perform under ballet’s already strenuous conditions.
These conditions demand years of practice and coordination. To get to the level of Montgomery and van de Laar it’s rather imperative to start out young. In this way, ballet doesn’t differ from any other sport or artform: years of dedication must be produced. Given the intricacy and physical output of ballet dancers that most people know at least from popular media (“Everyone’s seen ‘The Nutcracker,’” Montgomery said at one point), this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Montgomery and van de Laar, of course, began dancing at young ages: three and six, respectively.
“I knew I wanted to dance professionally when I was twelve,” Montgomery said. She posited those preteen years as the years when one must decide how seriously they want to pursue the artform.
Van de Laar gave a different perspective that in the Netherlands one can attend a conservatory at the age of nine, by which time their future career as a dancer is cemented.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is, and how stressful our jobs actually are,” Montgomery said. “We look in the mirror and have to see all our imperfections and have to fix them.” A career in dancing is as full time as any other career, all day, all week, with physical and mental stress abound.
“We get just as many injuries as professional athletes get,” Montgomery added.
Specifically regarding “Creations in Studio K,” van de Laar said they had “seven weeks of preparation” for the triple bill performance. Montgomery expanded in that they had two weeks of practice with each of the three choreographers, and then one week to put it all together. They argued that people may very well overestimate the amount of practice that dancers get; it’s all rather quick, they need to learn fast.
Even so, of course, both dancers absolutely love their jobs. They intend to dance for as long as they’re physically able to, which Montgomery placed roughly in one’s thirties.
“I’ll keep dancing. When it’s not fun anymore [I’ll stop],” van de Laar said.
For both of them, this is their full-time job. For now and the foreseeable future, it’s their way of making a living.
In regards to the future, van de Laar mentioned his work in photography and Montgomery is taking online courses at TCC. They didn’t divulge anything too specific, but both dancers admitted a ballet performer’s career as being rather short, and both seem to have plans for when they’re “done.” In any case, they didn’t seem very concerned. It’s clear they’re in the line of work they’d like to be in; when the time comes that they can’t perform they’ll just move on to their next stage in life, a stage they’re preparing presently. Their real focus lies on their passion, though: ballet.
Of course, though, ballet needn’t be an ultimately serious endeavor. If you want to dance professionally, it was reiterated, you need to devote practically your whole life to it. Ballet can also be a hobby, though, like perhaps any other sport or artform, and there are plenty of classes offered for those who wish to dabble in it. Montgomery did confirm the existence of prodigies, however.
“Some guys start,” she said, “when they’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and they make it professionally. Some people are just gifted … with amazing feet and legs.” Given the career’s short shelf life, though, the dancers figure the late teens to be the limit to one’s window for breaking into the professional scene.
The intricacy of ballet intrigued me, and the easygoing nature of the dancers had me relaxed and curious to know more of the inner workings of the dancer. What goes on in their head? When they step onto the stage and gaze through the faces of the crowd, what thoughts pervade their mind?
“Don’t fall!” seemed to be the most common one. Van de Laar, admitting also to the “don’t fall” thought, claimed to always think “Just have fun.” Montgomery expanded a bit, getting into the nitty-gritty of a dancer’s thoughts. At all times the dancer must be conscious of their movements, counting along to the music and swaying in time with it. The dancer must remember the part they’re playing and must act accordingly, not only through their body but also through their face. When the dancer successfully reaches their spot and performs whatever action, they must immediately remember the next spot, the next action.
Always on his mind, van de Laar said, was where he was, and what he was doing in terms of the performance at that moment. Think too far ahead and you may make a mistake.
The stage is slippery though, and the dancers are all slick and coated with sweat. No matter how loudly one internally screams “don’t fall,” it will eventually happen — at least once. Both dancers laughed at recounting this. “The audience won’t even notice,” van de Laar figured, for most of the scenarios.
Mistakes are common in art, though. In some circles they’re even celebrated. Most sports, however, are not as forgiving. Thus rises the debate over ballet being considered a sport or an art, to which both dancers answered: both.
The debate isn’t of great importance to the dancers; the feeling of accomplishment comes from the amount of work they’d put into the performance and the ability they displayed in pulling it off. Ballet is undeniably an artform, van de Laar offered, but a recent surge of debate has argued for it in terms relating more to sports: “Who has the higher legs, who can do more pirouettes?”
“It requires just as much energy as a sport, as a soccer game, football game, tennis match. … It’s super physical, so yeah, I think it’s just as much a sport as it is an artform. … While we’re doing all of these physical things, we’re trying to portray a character, we’re trying to relay certain emotions on stage … we have to make people feel something, feel what we’re feeling.” Montgomery said.
“I think people should come see the ballet more,” Montgomery said in closing. “Any ballet. I think dance in general is dying.” A great majority of the audience in most ballet performances consist of older people. Montgomery doesn’t argue this to be a bad thing; she merely wishes that the younger population would develop an interest in the art, too. She figures the stereotypes of ballet are again at play. “Everyone’s like ‘Oh, it’s so boring,’ but here at Tulsa Ballet we do full-length classical ballets, we do contemporary works, things that are super cool that I don’t think younger people know that we do. I think that people would actually really enjoy coming to the shows; if I wasn’t a dancer and I came to a show I’d think it was super cool.” Montgomery mentioned a specific performance they’d made in the past to the music of the Rolling Stones. “[For people] that are not used to going to see a show,” van de Laar added, “those kinds of things are helpful.” He saw these more contemporary pieces as great stepping stones into the art for those who are unfamiliar with it.
“There’s so much more to ballet than ‘The Nutcracker,’” Montgomery said. “There’s so much more.” These words stuck with me and replayed in my head as I left the building.
There are many clear parallels between ballet and other more popular artforms. Stories are told, music is played and great athletic prowess is displayed in ballet. It’s a well-rounded and fully enjoyable art-form. Yet all most may know about it is “The Nutcracker” and all many know about “The Nutcracker” may come from “Tom & Jerry.”
For awhile, that was the extent of my knowledge on ballet, and I did not care to learn more. Yet how foolish might it sound for one to submit their entire knowledge of literature to be in regards to Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” or of art to be in Picasso’s “Guernica.”
They’re great pieces that certainly everyone should be familiar with, but to limit their scope of that artform to just those pieces means they’re missing out on a lot. The parallels continue to hold between these other artforms and ballet.
The centuries-old, fully fledged art-form has been losing appreciation recently and for what? I won’t attempt to answer that question — I’m hardly qualified — but to echo Montgomery I will say that, for ballet, there’s so much more.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker