• Zoe Phillips

Touching Music with Marianela Nuñez

Updated: Dec 29, 2019

8 Moments of Analysis from NELA

Marianela Nuñez in "NELA"

A black screen, a beacon of light, and a resting ballerina.

Thus opens NELA, the three-and-a-half minute short film by Andy Margetson featuring Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Marianela Nuñez, choreographed by Will Tuckett.

Though officially released in March 2019, I see plenty of reasons to twirl over this video forever. If you don't believe me, please go watch the film. The crispness of its perfection (and I really mean perfection) gives rise to an exquisite and uncommon beauty only found when we lace classicism through modernity. The swirling marriage of both concepts leaves butterflies in my stomach.

Backed by Nina Simone's jazz classic "I'm Feeling Good," the film starts as soon as we hear the first sultry note of acapella noise. Simone's smooth voice suggests authority, as if the song will dictate the art unfolding before us. Nuñez, however, rebels against this authority and stays motionless on the ground. The lights stay dim, and the camera only moves ever so slowly, tiptoeing closer Nuñez.

This power dynamic between dancer, camera, and music paints an intimate portrait of all three mediums for expression; watching each grow and change over the following three minutes makes my heart swell. The addictiveness of these properties also delayed my writing process: whenever I returned to the video to watch a specific moment for analysis, I ended up watching the whole thing again. Oops.

To dissect each of the film's important details would keep you here far too long, yet to gloss over them all would create a disrespectful and bland overview. As a compromise, and in the spirit of a dancer's favorite number, I've highlighted our top eight twirls below.

1. After a dramatic transition to standing at 0:38, Nuñez spends a few seconds taking several steps backwards, matching the upbeat tempo of the newly added brass and piano instrumentals. At 0:45, a set of string notes peek around the corner. They are so quiet underneath the jazzy brass that our ears would usually never notice them, but Marianela makes sure this isn't the case. With perfect timing, she steps forward into fondu [fawn- DEW] and completes a rond de jambe [rawn duh zhahnb] with her left leg while beckoning to the music with her extended right arm.

Rond de jambe literally means "rounding of the leg" and translates to a dancer drawing ovals with their toes, either in the air (en l'air) or on the ground (à terre). They are difficult because the dancer must allow energy to shoot through the end of the toes while remaining stoic everywhere but the active leg.

Marianela's rond de jambe is mouthwatering. She circles her leg à terre with an energy so grand that the movement sparkles far beyond the physical limits of her body, and her outstretched arm adds to this vigor. Together with the leg, she gestures directly to those tiny string notes way in the background, pulling details out of the score for us to figuratively see. The movement lasts exactly one second, but watch it and you'll see it feels way longer than this. She's literally making time stop.

2. Let her dance for another fifteen seconds and Nuñez finishes a sequence of flowing turns alongside dazzling pas de bourrées [pas duh boo-RAY] before stepping into a gorgeous fifth position en face [ahn fahss] (facing front), allowing her upper body to completely melt at 1:03. Her arms drape into the air as her neck floats backwards. She moves as if surrounded by peanut butter, bringing resistance to a movement that could otherwise be thrown away.

After the flurry of the preceding footwork, this is a moment of freedom — Marianela basks in its delight.

3. Between 1:21 and 1:46 the brass instruments take a break and the quieter volume gives us time to focus on the sheer beauty of Marianela's footwork.

Watch at 1:23 for a double rond de jambe en l'air. That means she's drawing two circles with her toe in the air. She follows this up with several equally crisp pas de bourrée piques [pas duh boo-RAY pee-KAY], which are small transitional movements done in three steps. Pique means "prick," and notice how well Nuñez isolates each pickup of her toes.

In between each pas de bourrée, Marianela adds a soutenu en tournant [soot-NEW ahh toor-NAHN], which are sustained spins often used as a transition to change legs. After this series, Nuñez steps into a small arabesque and lowers into a coupé dessus [koo-PAY duh-SEW], a preparation step that places her back foot next to her ankle in anticipation of transferring weight. From here, she steps onto that prepared foot and completes another rond de jambe en l'air.

Upon twirling over this, go back to the video and see if you can observe all these intricacies. Notice that the majority of these steps are usually used as transitions and preparations for other more exciting movements, but Tuckett choreographs them together here in an uncommon emphasis of importance (#representation!). Margetson builds off of this choice by shooting them in a series of up-close camera angles, and when combined with the softer notes of music this sequence gives us time to understand the splendor of movements that typically go unappreciated or forgotten by audiences.

4. At 1:47, Marianela meets the return of the loud brass notes with a perfectly timed développé [dayv-law-PAY] (unfolding kick) to the side. Is she pushing the instruments forward or is the music pulling her along? The moment lasts just long enough to make us wonder but not long enough to give us an answer. In the end, the grace lies in the mystery.

5. Three seconds later (notice how much one second means to a dancer!), Nuñez embarks on a spree of grand jetés [grahn-zhuh-TAY] (leaps) growing in size that only the widest of camera angles can contain (1:50). Her energy pushes the boundaries of the surrounding space, allowing us to catch glimpses of the horizons behind the lights and past the Marley dance floor. We watch in awe as she floats (is she lighter than a feather? you tell me!) through each jump until she reaches a 180 degree line.

Leaps that increase in size like this are a common trope in many ballet class allégro combinations (exercises for jumps), but when set to powerful jazz brass and backlit by such dazzling lights, the steps find a new story.

The familiarity of this combination thus clashes with the otherworldly setting to create suspense in something that once would have been considered plain.

6. Despite all this described power, Marianela has yet to look at us straight on. Up until 2:08, she creates a sultry majesty solely through her body's command over the room at hand. Then, at 2:08 she lands from a leap head on and looks directly into the camera. She grabs her heart right as the music finishes belting the words "freedom is mine!" and smiles in humble confidence. Through subtlety, the smile silently invites us to join her in the power of this moment.

7. As the dance begins to finish, Nina Simone sings in passionate gibberish and Marianela completes a series of flowing shapes on the spot (2:18). It's a flurry of contained motion that builds suspense; how in the world is she going to finish this absolute work of art?

Then, at 2:28, standing in fifth position with her arms out at 90 degrees, she takes a full three seconds to glide her energy through every fiber of muscle in her arms and neck. It's a slow motion wave.

In a dance like this, one second is enough to make an impact; three is an eternity.

Margetson keeps the camera on her upper body, forcing us to see and experience Nuñez's raw love for this moment and this dance. It's an intimate moment of joy.

8. To end it all, Marianela launches into a series of twenty two pirouettes set to the dimming sounds of the music's ongoing last note. Expertly edited, the sequence looks like one long turn that disappears into darkness (I still haven't found the splices!). I like to say she's still turning today. It's a powerful statement of technical prowess to end a powerful dance. Just check the YouTube comments section to see what kind of impact these turns make.

I, however, think the attention should really be focused at 2:39 when she gives one last look to the camera right before starting those turns. In one graceful movement, she lifts her chin from having glanced at the ground, and her eyes give me chills. Without saying a word, she takes command of my heart and sends me spinning along with her.

For perspective, I've dissected less than 30 seconds of dancing, and you've probably been reading for about five minutes. There's just so much to twirl over!

At the end of the day, however, my most important takeaway lies in the absolute indispensability of artistry.

Tuckett's choreography gives Marianela the tools to unpack and explore hidden corners of Nina Simone's music, and Margetson uses his filmography to study this process rather than display it. Make note that despite Nuñez's superb technique (and it is superb), the piece never aims to solely impress the audience. There are no trick jumps, no flips, no whacking of legs over 180 degrees. Instead, her beauty comes from her dedication to small transitions and otherwise unnoticed musical notes. She is sensual without being sexual. She reaches into the dance and song to find moments we'd typically gloss over and gives them her utmost attention. Only through nurturing these details, and Margeston's display of this nurturing, do they coax us to love them too.

In other words, I don't care about what Nuñez or Tuckett or Margetson can do if they can't make us feel anything as well.

Upon reflection, I see this sense of beautiful focus everywhere; Marianela wears a simple black leotard and plain pointe shoes, almost as if she just came from class. The whole film is black and white. Nuñez dances on a standard floor in a standard room. The film's title, NELA, is a shortened nickname for the longer form Marianela. She dances to only one song, for only three minutes. Through simplifying all of these surrounding elements, Margetson leaves his viewers with exactly the thing to focus on: Nela, and only Nela.

With that focus, and Tuckett's beautiful choreography, Nela pushes us to see and appreciate these details and ultimately, we are left with much more than a dance.

If you have time, watch the film one more time. See what sort of us details you can find.

I first published this article on the original twirls4thoughts blog, Aug. 20 2019

Interested in other work by Andy Margetson? Check out his website for more award-winning dance films!

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!