Thought you all might enjoy a testimonial on “PLAYBALL” from my former student and former Kansas City Ballet Dancer, Matthew C. Donnell.
The Traveling Ballet Master
Matthew C. Donnell
As a young student in ballet, I was taught extremely meticulously. Learn each of the positions. Perfect each of the many movements. Learn how to give the illusion of perfection on an imperfect instrument. Ballet, especially in the formative years leaves hardly any room for anything but the merciless quest for beauty and grace. With this being the structure, many dancers grow up to fill the stereotypical mold of stiff, snobby, unapproachable “bun-heads.”
Ten years ago, after already having danced for a couple of years professionally, I was given the opportunity to go back to school for the summer and train with some of my teachers in Philadelphia. I knew that I would be working in my medium by doing the usual-technique class, men’s technique class, partnering class, baseball training, ballet reperatoire-BASEBALL TRAINING?!? Hold the phone! Now, I had definitely thrown a ball around as a child, but it had probably been a good eight years since I had thrown anything other than a frisbee, so you can imagine my surprise when Christopher Fleming called us to rehearsal, and with his casual swagger began handing out baseball gloves and balls to us as if it was just “another day at the office.” I for one wasn’t quite sure what to think of this, but since even as a young dancer I had already begun to love the character and acting aspect of the art form, I thought, “What the heck?” and I put on a glove.
Those early rehearsals saw a lot of missed passes, a few bruises and absolute terror in the eyes of several a young man and women as we strove upon fear of certain death NOT to put a ball through the mirror! We also began dancing with baseball bats, juggling and singing to learn Fleming’s ballet “Play Ball.” (Another day at the office indeed!)
I’ll give you a bit of insight into the mind of a young classical dancer. When the majority of what you have been taught up until a certain point is the classical vernacular, it can be a hard sell to get the dancer to accept something that is a departure from what they are used to. So, there were some grumbles during and after some of those early rehearsals. (Unfortunately, many dancers never grow out of this state even after many years of professional work.) Years later, looking back after my ballet career has ended at those early years and specifically that summer in Philadelphia, I realize that we were simply scared. We were being challenged in a new way, and we didn’t want to fail. However, unbeknownst to us at the time, we were being given a gift. We were being given a glimpse into what our future would hold. We were being stretched to learn to move outside of our comfort zones. We were learning to be artists, and on top of that-WE WERE GETTING TO PLAY BASEBALL ON STAGE!!! How fun!!!
What ensued was a new level of trust and camaraderie. We had to trust that not only would partners not drop each other physically, we would also do our best not to hit each other in the head. The timing of each throw and catch was so musical that if something went a bit off….WHOOPS!!! Balls did get dropped. Balls were even dropped on stage, but this too taught us how to think on our feet.
To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about this experience in a long time, but thanks to the internet, I recently saw pictures of the most current cast of “Play Ball.” Suddenly, the memories came flooding back, and may I add there was a delicious dread that still lingered in me as I thought of those early days of trying to make sure I caught the ball! However, to think of another group of young and talented men and women learning and perfecting something that had been a part of my life all those years ago really brought a smile to my face. It reminded me of the early years of my career when I was only scratching the surface of the artist I would become. I am extremely thankful to have had this experience, and I hope that the dancers who have performed and will someday perform this piece will have warm memories as well.
-Matthew C. Donnell is a Dancer/Actor/Singer who danced for the Kansas City Ballet and now resides in New York City.