What Have I Been Up To? - AK-BK Contemporary Ballet Workshop

Hiking up Bird Ridge - Indian, AK
I know! I know! It has been three whole weeks since I have written a blog post. And for that I apologize. What I have been finding is that the older I get and the more elaborate my activities and projects become, the more intense my focus will be for the periods of time that I am working. Essentially, this is what happened since my last post at the beginning of June. I have been home for a whole three days and am finally getting situated again, even if not completely over the hump of my jet lag. So, here is an update on what I have been up to!

For the past few weeks, I had what I would consider my best experience in Alaska. Now, most of my time in the Last Frontier has been incredible. But this time around things were a bit different. First off, I got to do things on my terms. I wasn't being brought up to work for a company. I chose my housing. I created my own program. I brought my partner along for the whole ride. I even took a vacation at the end. All in all, it was a spectacular trip and I came home feeling invigorated, inspired, and ready to keep pushing forward with my Core-ography project, teaching, and the development of my art.

So, what have I been up to these past few weeks? When I left Alaska in December, I promised my students that I would return to Anchorage this summer. What I didn't foresee was that the terms expected to bring me back to this northern state would change and I would have to fulfill this vow on my own. When this became apparent to me, I sought out a way to make my own summer intensive a reality. Luckily, I found an amazing advocate for dance in the state's biggest city, Pulse Dance Company director Stephanie Wonchala, who graciously offered her studio space to hold the first (hopefully annual) AK-BK Contemporary Ballet Workshop.

Now, I have taught for many organizations. From teaching company class for Eugene Ballet to working as a guest instructor for Peridance Capezio Center, to teaching master classes at Los Angeles Ballet Academy and beyond, I have become quite comfortable with my teaching skills. But to undertake my own program was quite nerve-racking. Not only did I have to find my own studio space, I had to worry about marketing, enrollment, curriculum development, tuition payments, travel, accommodations, and legal aspects of running a program for students. I was lucky to have two helpful ladies in Alaska assisting me with a handful of these items. While I knew that this would be quite the undertaking for a one-man show, I felt responsible to follow through for these amazing teens and young adults who have limited local opportunities when it comes to training options. I always tell my students that it is not my responsibility to inspire them, but instead their responsibility to inspire me to want to push them further. And as a testament to these students and how they have inspired me in the past, I created a program just for them.

Classical Technique (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)
For two weeks from June 8 - 19th, Studio Pulse was full of intermediate and advanced level students from Anchorage, Palmer, Wasilla, Butler University, Colorado State University, and the University of Arizona. We began each day with a classical ballet technique class. Many people get confused when they hear the term contemporary ballet. I have oft been asked to teach classes in this genre, but have turned down the request because I don't fully believe in a contemporary ballet class. It is my opinion that contemporary ballet is the perfect fusion of classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques. To teach a class in contemporary ballet would endanger tainting the beautiful lines and necessary strength it takes to properly execute ballet technique. For this reason, I strongly believe in having classical technique separated from contemporary movement. So, we started each day with nearly 2-hours in ballet class.
Contemporary Technique (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)

Following morning technique, we either held pointe class, learned classical or contemporary variations, or explored improvisation techniques. After a short lunch, we spent our afternoons expanding our movement into the contemporary realm. In these classes, we worked through a progressive warm up, honed our classical work into a more stylized movement quality, and used choreographic techniques to develop a collaborative piece of choreography.

At the end of the two weeks, it was quite exciting to see the physical and emotional progress my students had made in this short period of time. In my classes, we don't only work on perfecting technique. I make sure that class is a conversation between my students and myself, where we discuss the reasoning for why things are taught a certain way and the emotional implications of tough pre-professional training. Also, I strongly believe that the studio is a place where it is perfectly acceptable (and encouraged) to fail. Without failure, we can not figure out how to succeed. My students were preparing to attend summer intensives at schools including Ballet Met, Kansas City Ballet, Ailey, Ballet Arizona, and Walnut Hill (to name a few), and my goal was to make sure that each student was wholly prepared to show themselves at their strongest for these programs.

Students of AK-BK Contemporary Ballet Workshop (minus 3 students)
If you thought running my own summer intensive wasn't enough, I also wanted to offer something to the greater freelance community of Anchorage (yes, there is a small group of freelancers in the state's capitol). A few times during my program, I taught master classes to local adult dancers. I also spent some time staging a short piece that will be performed in Pulse Dance Company's upcoming season. Working with these dancers was inspiring. My hope for these dancers is that they can be major advocates for the arts and dance in a place that needs passionate people to educate their community about why they should attend performances and give to the arts. This is not an easy task, but I feel that they are up to the challenge.
Working w/ Pulse Dance Company

Usually, at the end of gigs I've been brought in for, I head home or onto the next job. But like my time in New Orleans, I chose to tag a few more days onto my trip in Alaska. While this was my 4th extended period of time in this great state, I was astounded by the numerous activities available that I still hadn't explored.

One of the brown bears we made friends with (about 10 feet away)
Along with my partner, a friend joined us in our continued explorations of south-central Alaska. Immediately after my last rehearsal with Pulse Dance Company, I ran to Ellison Air to fly on a 6-seater plane to the Lake Clark Wilderness Reserve. As we flew past Anchorage over Cook Inlet into the wild, we saw the incredible lay-out of this glacially carved landscape. With the color of mineral-rich soil staining water bodies, red-tinted tundra, and stunningly peaked mountains, we flew for nearly an hour in our hunt for bears. Yes. BEARS! After landing in a lake and transferring to a small boat, we floated for a few hours, where we viewed brown bears swimming and eating salmon (within a few feet of our boat), bald eagles flying above our heads, and fish jumping out of the water in preparation to run up Wolverine Creek. Perhaps, the most intense part of our journey was when two of us had to briefly depart the boat to walk a short trail in deep brush to an out house. We couldn't see left or right as we pushed brush out of the way and screamed at the top of our lungs in this forestry teeming with bears. We yelled and clapped to warn any that might be sleeping beside us as we walked by that we were heading their way. Next time, I'll just go off the side of the boat.

Beautiful glacial blue of Surprise glacier
The day after our adventurous bear outing we headed to the odd town of Whittier, where you must drive through the longest multi-use one-way tunnel in the world and nearly all of its denizens live in one tall apartment building. From here, we took a 26-glacier boat tour on Phillips Cruises. This 5-hour trip had us watching whale fins slapping the water, sea otters swimming on their backs with babies on their chests, and amazingly ancient endangered glaciers of all types. While the stunning beauty of this trip will definitely remain in my mind for years to come, the obnoxious nature of the people on these boats will hopefully fade. To see so many people stuffed on a boat to view endangered nature and to see how selfishly they acted to catch a selfie was a sad reminder of why many of these places are at risk for being destroyed or lost.

After our glacier tour, we headed across the Kenai Peninsula to the stunning town of Homer. I love this place and have fond memories of my 31st birthday here. I received a surprise from our friend who had secretly convinced my partner to cancel our accommodations. Instead, she had us stay with her at the top of the hill in Homer with a glorious view. For the next two days, I essentially rested my AK-BK exhausted mind while taking in the culture of this fishing town and sitting on the couch of our house staring at the incredible view.

Panoramic of our home and view while staying in Homer, AK
Once we had completed our two days of rest in Homer, we headed back to Anchorage to catch our flight home. But Alaska wasn't done with us yet. Along the drive back, multiple moose (bucks, moms, and babies) came to the side of the highway to eat a meal and pose for our cameras. We made a stop-off at an incredible artist's wood carving outpost in the middle of nowhere. We stopped in Soldotna before heading to the miniature, historic town of Hope for dinner. After enjoying too much time talking to the wood carver's wife and stopping to determine how to remove a bird from the grill of our car (as we left Hope, it flew in front of our car...I guess it had left Hope behind), we were feeling rushed to get back to our home-stay to repack before our 1 AM flight. But incredibly, at about 9:45 pm, as the sun still shined brightly, our lateness happened to run into a rare phenomenon known as the boretide (explained here) in Cook Inlet. As I dramatically threw the car into a U-turn on the Seward Highway, my car-mates didn't understand why I had acted so erraticly. As I threw the door open and ran away from the car screaming, "GRAB YOUR CAMERAS AND RUN!!!!" they quickly realized why I was so excited. Surfers and Beluga whales alike were riding this 6-ish foot wave that dramatically sweeps through Cook Inlet as it transitions past low-tide. Alaska was clearly waving goodbye to us after an incredible 3 weeks in the state.

I never expected to visit Alaska in my lifetime. When my partner and I decided to leave Seattle, we made a bucket list for our time left in the state. One item on our list was to visit Alaska since it was so close to Seattle. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and we wrote off visiting since it wasn't an easy possibility. Little did I know that only a few short years later, I would proudly call Alaska my 2nd home. I can't wait to return to this magical state, whether it be before or during my next AK-BK Contemporary Ballet Workshop!

Cheers to a successful trip to Alaska!!!!!

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