This picture is of Lucas Threefoot and Xuan Cheng rehearsing for the Body Beautiful program. Photo is by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The Second Detail is the kind of ballet that dancers love to dance. It’s a challenging, body-twisting, mind-bending, powerful ballet that requires constant attention to what is going on around us; I can’t think of a single moment where I am not alert, even when I’m simply sitting down on a chair. The movement is big and bold, the music punctuates the accents we make with our bodies (or is it vice-versa?), and we as dancers get to throw ourselves completely into the movement.

This is the start of my sixth season at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. It’s a treat to be able to come back and learn several great ballets all at once. All three of the ballets that I’m learning are exciting to me, but for today I’ll focus specifically on The Second Detail.

More commonly referred to simply as Second Detail by the dancers, this ballet was choreographed by William Forsythe in 1991, and it is the first Forsythe ballet we’ve done at OBT since The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Forsythe’s choreography requires the audacity to throw oneself around while maintaining perfect composure  and balance (can you tell by the latter’s title?), and we are lucky to be performing another one of his this year in Oregon.

Controlled abandon is not something that is easy to do: being trained as ballet dancers, all of us have a very strong focus on technique and figuring out the “correct” way of doing things; we either do it right or not at all. This ballet does not ask for this approach. There can be wiggle room – Christopher Roman, the man setting this ballet on us, has told us that certain details can be changed to accommodate our idiosyncrasies (although only in our solos!), yet this wiggle room is only for minor details, like an arm or a leg position, and the movement cannot be altered for someone who is unwilling to let go of a certain rigidity that we sometimes develop in ballet. We must be willing to throw ourselves out there, to fall flat on our face.

Here is Yuka Iino rehearsing The Second Detail. Photo is by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Not everyone has the propensity for this kind of movement. All of us dancers in the company had to audition in order to find out which dancers fit into which parts (and whether we were fit to do this ballet at all), and Roman, admitting that the audition process was his least favorite part of teaching the ballet, reminded us to let go and give in to the movement; what is the point in dancing if we are afraid to take risks? Of course, it is not always so simple; if one has been dancing his or her whole life without encountering or getting the chance to dig into this kind of contemporary movement, it can be quite hard to figure out. Whereas in ballet the torso is often firm and right above the legs, in contemporary the torso often has a kind of wormlike and free quality about it, requiring a very different approach in what muscles to use when.

But once we get into the groove, boy does it feel good. Christopher, tasked with teaching twenty minutes of choreography to the company, is on top of it. There will be fourteen of us on stage during the entire ballet, and at any one time there might be six or seven different groups of dancers all doing different things. That becomes much more than twenty minutes of choreography if you unravel all the different parts; this is a well woven ballet that easily amounts to an hour if not two of choreography, and Roman knows it all.

This image shows repetiteur George Christopher Roman working with the OBT Company to set William Forsythe’s The Second Detail, one of four short ballets on our October Body Beautiful Program.

His process works well; he’ll unload a fair amount of material on you, move on to the next group and teach them a sequence, repeat with another group and then return to you. Of course, during that time that he was off teaching others, you are NOT sitting idle. We are constantly going over what we were just given in order to solidify the material in our minds and in our bodies, and if we have any questions by the time he returns to us, we can ask him then. We’re currently about halfway through learning the ballet after a week of work, and Christopher aims to finish teaching it by next Tuesday.

That’s when the real work begins. Learning movement is one thing, but refining it and making it interesting is another. This is what I’m most excited for from Christopher; I expect him to push us hard in order to bring out the best that each dancer has to give in this ballet. There is an enormous amount of information that we will be required to learn in Second Detail, and we dancers, always striving for perfection, will try to incorporate as much as we can. A ballet like this will look flat if it is just rote movement; there needs to be energy, dynamism, and sophistication all wrapped up inside each moment of movement so that we may give you – the viewer – the possibility of even a moment of transcendence. The devil truly is in the details.

The Second Detail is one of 4 short ballets being presented in October as part of OBT’s Body Beautiful program, which was created in concert with the Portland Art Museum’s The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece Exhibition. Body Beautiful performs October 13 -20 at the Keller Auditorium.

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