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    Memories of My Ballet Teachers

    By Richka

    PRINCIPAL TEXT - UNFINISHED MEMORIES OF MY BALLET TEACHERS Practically all of my ballet teachers were émigré Russians. Some had been in this country since long before I was born. Others had newly arrived from the Soviet Union. Being acquainted with them, even if from a distance, was a lifetime experience I shall never forget. Rather than just an alphabetical LIST of these teachers, I thought it might be better to introduce them as individuals; their personalities, how I came to be a student of these remarkable people in the first place and how they came to influence my life so greatly. To do that it was necessary to include, briefly, parts of my own life's journey through dance as it related to them. Some of these teachers were impoverished and barely able to keep their studios operating. Some even lived in their studios. HOW IT STARTED At the tender age of twelve I never went to a public library without carrying home an armload of books, most of them far beyond my understanding. Philosophy, religion, metaphysics, geometry, orchestration, (I played the piano) and just about everything that caught my eye. One book happened to be the biography of VASLAV NIJINSKY - the one by his wife Romola. I found it so intriguing I read it from cover to cover then read it again and decided then and there I would be a ballet dancer just like Vaslav; ignoring the fact that he became totally insane by the time he reached thirty! There were no ballet teachers in the town of Braintree where I was growing up. Even if there were there would be no money to pay for lessons, besides, in New England at that time, boys simply did not dance. Even my love of music was considered, well, peculiar. All the same, I wanted to know more about ballet and found a little book; not a textbook but an introduction to ballet for ballet enthusiasts It had drawn illustrations of a few ballet exercises and steps. By imitating these pictures with my own body I was able to achieve a rough semblance of dance. I wanted to be exactly like Nijinsky, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia; a long way from Braintree, Massachusetts. I began to learn the Russian language by myself with a Russian/English dictionary and Tolstoy's "War And Peace"). I combed my hair in the Nijinsky fashion of 1910, imitated the turned out walk of a dancer and even thought myself already a dancer! THE TEACHERS SENIA RUSSAKOFF In search of a teacher I went into Boston and found Senia Russakoff and his School of Russian Ballet. Russakoff, born in St. Petersburg, had come to the USA in 1907 and joined a vaudeville circuit as a member of a troupe of Russian dancers. He eventually settled in Boston and opened his 'school of leaps and bounds' as they called it. Ray Bolger had been among his students, later of course to become famous as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz". If my dysfunctional family were curious about my piano playing, how could they ever accept me as a dancer, let alone a ballet dancer, which they knew absolutely nothing about? Russakoff and his wife Regina seemed exactly what I was looking for but there was the question of how I would be able to pay for lessons. At that time it was quite easy for a teenage boy to find a job as a theater usher. The Metropolitan Theater was the most opulent movie palace in Boston (now the Wang Center). Lying about my age, (still only 14) I went and asked for a job and was hired on the spot. FIRST LESSON Soon after my first paycheck I somehow got up the courage to go for my first lesson at the Russakoff School. It was a ½ hour private one, given by Russakoff's wife Regina. She showed me the five positions of the feet that I already knew but I didn't think Regina Russakoff knew much about ballet to start with because next came "prisyadkis" (a Russian folk dance step where you squat down and throw your legs out one after the other). She had me doing hundreds of them while holding on to the "barre" and that was it - the entire lesson! I left feeling my legs had gone forever and the next day I could barely walk but still had to go to my evening job as an usher, hobbling up and down the theater aisles. As if in a regular school, I continued going every day to Russakoff's studio, basically just hanging around, absorbing the Russian atmosphere and pretending it was the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. As the Russakoffs, being more or less impoverished, actually 'lived' in the studio, sleeping on cots and not in a house on nearby, fashionable Beacon Hill as Regina claimed, it must have been an invasion of their privacy having me always around from early morning on. Regina once asked if I came from a "broken" home. Little did they know. Russakoff was a kindly man and said nothing when I harbored myself at his studio most of the day. Probably to get rid of me, he somehow got me a day job modeling for Boston artists and gave me his gold, red braided rubashka (a Russian shirt) and boots, no doubt from his own dancing days in vaudeville. I always wore this outfit while posing and there must still be hundreds of portraits around somewhere of this 'virtual' Russian boy. Russakoff's once a week class started with a routine barre. It never varied. I don't remember any center adagio or allegro, only basic steps done diagonally across the floor, one by one; ballonnes, jetes, pas de basque, pas de chat. After a few months Russakoff took me with him to Providence, Rhode Island where he taught once a week. I was to be in his annual recital there. I found I was the only boy in this recital, dancing in a gypsy camp scene of some sort. Russakoff had me doing the squat kicks on top of a table then jumping off and touching my toes in mid air. The following week I did the same in his Boston recital, this time on top of two tables! As Russakoff's token Russian dancer, the two tables soon became three! I wanted to know more about actual ballet technique and found a proper ballet textbook by Legat in the Boston Public Library. One day as I sat watching Russakoff's class and holding this book prominently, I was rudely shaking my head and rolling my eyes as if everything he was teaching was totally incorrect. Finally he whispered that I was acting very ill-mannered and he was right. Basically I was a little teenage twit with a lot to learn. ADOLPH ROBICHEAU Adolph Robicheau's grand ballet studio was actually on Beacon Hill, just across from the Boston Common: one of the most exclusive areas of Boston. Not much is known about this Boston teacher except the much publicized battles that went on with his neighbors who resented a "ballet" school anywhere near their homes on "The Hill". Due to injunctions and possible lawsuits, students had to surreptitiously enter the grand house as if they were merely visitors. I can only tell of my one brief experience of a single class. I went along with two of Russakoff's former students who were in town with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Mr. Robicheau was certainly the popular image of a ballet master but I remember nothing about the class, though I must have shown some ability because after class he took me aside and said that after two years 'we will send you to New York". This half promise of a future as a dancer in New York was no doubt an enticement to continue his classes but they were far too expensive on my little salary from the Metropolitan Theater. WILLIAM T MURPHY After leaving Russakoff I went to William T. Murphy. His basement studio was just behind the Boston Public Library and he held morning classes every day. He was obviously not a ballet dancer but a ballroom dancer and taught ballet exercises and steps from the Cecchetti manual that he obviously had studied in detail. This provided him with at least a virtual technique and he was able to give corrections. I felt I was actually learning something but Mr. Murphy was unable to demonstrate properly. I had never seen a ballet and there were no professional male dancers around for me to copy. Dance is basically imitative and you learn first by imitating those who know how. There was one other boy in the class; an odd boy who was a bit older and more advanced. As the only male model, even if an imperfect one, I imitated him so perfectly that Mr. Murphy said I was turning into a replica of Billy and not just in dancing but in everyday behavior. I soon stopped using Billy as an ideal. The Metropolitan Theater where I worked was showing "Escape Me Never". Near the end of the movie there was a ballet; a rather extensive one with the dancers Mlada Mladova and George Zoritch. Every time the scene came on I would rush to the bottom of the aisle to watch, undisturbed by patrons. It was typical Hollywood choreography but I didn't know or care; it was the first time I saw a proper male ballet dancer, George Zoritch. I bought a copy of the VAGANOVA ballet textbook and cut out the step illustrations and carried them in the pocket of my usher's uniform, determined to learn 2 steps every evening. When in a more or less deserted part of that immense theater I would try to imitate the steps exactly – fortunately never caught by the management. About this time The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to Boston. Alexandra Danilova herself came to Murphy's studio and gave a guest class. The class was full of Boston's best dancers but in no way was I able to participate. I only watched and later went to a performance. It was Scheherezade, Nutcracker Grand Pas and Night Shadow, (later known as La Sonnambula). These were the very first ballets I ever saw on a stage. After so much reading I'd done about the glamorous Diaghilev/Nijinsky Scheherezade, I was so disappointed I wondered why I was even studying ballet. They all looked so tired and bored. Years later, when I became a friend of Michel Katcharoff, who was the ballet master for Ballets Russe during all those years, I mentioned this experience and he said they actually had "just started out" on that tour. Fortunately, Night Shadow kept my interest alive.   NEW YORK ELIZABETH ANDERSON-IVANTZOVA During the 1950s and 1960s, in and around Carnegie Hall and West 56th Street (known as 'Ballet Alley) private ballet studios started by Russian émigrés were flourishing. "The little Bolshoi on 56th Street" was the studio of Madam Anderson-Ivantsova, on the second floor of an old brownstone. When I decided at age 16 to quit my job at the Metropolitan in Boston to go to New York City (with a cardboard suitcase, $20 in my pocket and knowing no one there) I bravely first went to Madam Anderson's morning class. It was an advanced class and I obviously was struggling to keep up. After class Madam told me I belonged in her beginner's class. Feeling rejected I went one flight up to the studio of George Chaffee.   GEORGE CHAFFEE Mr. Chaffee had the two top floors of this building. His apartment was directly above Madam Anderson, as well as dressing rooms, (one which he later rented out to a modern dancer, Matti Heim, who, unbelievably, walked daily all the way from Brooklyn) a kitchen with a view of the back of the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street and a foyer with a spot lighted bust of Anna Pavlova. The studio space was on top floor. I had the impression Madam Anderson and Mr. Chaffee did not get along too well. After my first class Mr. Chaffee gave me a kiss! Being a naive lad from Braintree, Massachusetts, I supposed this was not at all unusual in New York City and innocently mentioned it in the dressing room to the other boys. This indiscretion soon was found its way to Mr. Chaffee, who soon forgave me. After all, I was as green as they come and seeing me blush in embarrassment, he offered me free classes in exchange for emptying the garbage dumpsters and cleaning his studio walls and floors. Mr. Chaffee's classes were very French. He was born in Oakland, California but spoke French fluently and adored France. In fact he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. He gave his star pupils French names. One was re-named Madelaine Le Jeune. He always taught in tights with a bandana around his head and combed his hair forward to conceal his baldness. His loyal assistant, Adelaide Vernon, took a lot of abuse but virtually worshipped him. Once while demonstrating a lift he got so angry he threw her clear across the floor. When I rushed to the dressing room in tears of sympathy for her plight he literally dragged her to me to show her what she had done. Then somewhere in his 40s, he demonstrated every enchainment himself. His adagios were what I remember most. Lyrical, with lots of port de bras, often ending with a balance on one knee with the other leg lifted in arabesque and in that position, a full promenade. His style was rather mannered and outright chichi, especially when he had us dancing minuets and galliards in costumes from Louis the 14th period. He was a collector of these costumes as well as being an authority on French dance of the 16th and 17th Century. He was an iconographer too and had written many monographs on ballet history and had a fantastic collection of manuscripts. Much of it is now in the Harvard Theater Collection. Unfortunately, during the 80s, like many NY ballet teachers with private studios, his building was torn down to make way for skyscraper condos. He ended up in a small, 5th floor, cockroach infested tenement apartment on 10th Avenue (Hell's Kitchen). Adelaide was still with him. He died in 1985. His memorial was in a church just off of Times Square. Many of his former students came and I was asked to speak.  TATIANA CHAMIE Tanya, of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had a studio at 200 West 57th on the 2nd floor in an office building. Every once in a while, if the landlord was coming by, she quickly re-arranged everything to disguise the fact that she actually lived in a room just off the studio. Class was $1 that you handed to Madam on your way out. It was a mixed class and basically of all levels. I was still little more than a beginner so I must have struggled to keep up as my classmates were several Broadway dancers, among them JAMIE JAMISON, already a star on Broadway in "Brigadoon". In those days it was the custom for ballet students to carry everything in a small satchel, unlike the bulky shoulder bags of today. I was impressed to notice in the dressing room that Mr. Jamison carried his dance clothes folded neatly in a brief case. This habit of having everything in its proper place must have come from his youth in a military school. I tried to imitate his tidiness. (A few years later I auditioned for Jamison when he was choreographer for a winter stock company in St. Petersburg. I was accepted and with this job came the opportunity to join Actor's Equity and to become a fully-fledged professional). MARGARET CURTIS Margaret Curtis had headed the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School for generations. (The old Met at 39th and Broadway was nearly 100 years old). Her sidekick Kathleen Harding was class pianist and took in the money. BORIS ROMANOFF was resident choreographer and company class was taught by ALEXANDER GAVRILOV who had been with the Diaghilev Ballet. A rumor was that, while on tour, he sometimes replaced Nijinsky, unknown to the audiences who thought they were actually seeing Nijinsky as advertised. Open class was every morning at 10 o'clock. Entering the Old Met stage door you made your way on an ancient elevator, then a dark staircase up to the roof stage and the ballet studio, overlooking 7th Avenue. Marina Svetlova and Leon Varkas were the soloists in the triumphal ballet in AIDA. One Saturday afternoon I was a walk-on. Being vertically challenged (my way of saying I was on the short side) I maneuvered myself on stage to a position where I could see it all. The Met Opera decided to have Ballet Theater take over the entire Met ballet company and school. Margaret Curtis somehow disappeared and Lucia Chase and Antony Tudor auditioned the Met dancers, selecting only one or two to remain. Sallie Wilson was one. Another boy student and myself hid among the costume racks high above to watch this audition and realized that everything was going to change.   MARGARET CRASKE I managed to take a few classes with Margaret Craske. Somewhere in her 60s, she had once danced with ANNA PAVLOVA and was a protégé of Cecchetti himself. She had gray hair tied back and wore tweedy skirts and sensible shoes and looked more like an English governess. She also had a little potbelly. I have no doubt she was a wonderful teacher and had written a book on the Cecchetti technique, but I wanted to learn fast and not spend ten minutes on a battement tendu or some other exercise which was her custom. After class one evening, while going down in the elevator with her I recall her saying that entrechats should be done with a "rebound". It was her only correction that I remember. Many years later, well into her 90s, she was still teaching at The New York Theater Ballet studio on 31st Street, sitting on a high stool and often went to sleep during class and fell off once or twice. When I was staging Fokine's "Le Carnaval" for same company, she did some coaching, as she had danced this ballet as a girl. I also invited Mr. Chaffee to watch a rehearsal because he had danced the role of Harlequin and was taught it by Fokine himself. I was particularly interested in any pointers he might have on Harlequin's spin into a sitting position, made famous by Nijinsky   ANTONY TUDOR I did not last long in Antony Tudor's class. So many ran from his classes and rehearsals in tears I was waiting for some acid remark he would make to me. It finally came when he had me, in the middle of class, sit down on the floor and show him the bottom of my feet, goodness knows why. It somehow became a tradition in his classes, at that time at least, that whenever he stopped to single someone out to correct, the entire class would rush over to absorb whatever he had to say, surrounding the unfortunate one. I forgot what the correction was and only felt embarrassed, which was his purpose I suppose. He had a cruel, razor sharp tongue and loved to use it to cut you down to size. When I ran out of money I asked Miss Harding to ask him if I could come to class anyway. I stood by and watched him take one look at me and shake his head no. (Tudor was to come into my life years later when I was resident choreologist at ABT. I even staged one of his ballets for the Met Opera Ballet.) Feeling sorry for me, Miss Harding sent me downstairs to be a regular supernumerary in the operas . For a whole season I did that. ZACHARY SOLOV was the house choreographer and in "Alceste" he used a few girls and boys from the school as 'extra' dancers, Even though I was no longer a student at the Met school I somehow managed to be included. About this time I returned to Chaffee who was very angry that I had gone to other teachers. To make up, I brought along two other boy students from the Met and he took all three of us into his Concert Ballet group. I was able to get time off from the Roxy to go on out of town tours with them. BRONISLAVA NIJINSKA, 1891-1972 When Lucia Chase decided to open her own Ballet Theater School she chose Bronislava Nijisnska as Director. It was a rather small studio on 56th Street with Ballet Theater offices on the 3rd floor. I mustered enough courage to go to Nijinska's class and I think it might have even been on her first day of teaching there. I was the only boy and she seemed to show an interest in me. I was by this time Russian speaking to a degree and after class I bravely asked her (in Russian as she spoke nothing else) if I could continue to come, even though I couldn't pay. Scholarships were not as freely given then but she agreed with a matter of fact, "Da Da, Konyeshno" (yes, certainly). WHAT WAS SHE LIKE So much has been written about Bronislava Nijinska. All have described her basically the same. She always wore what I think was a black pajama suit and brandished a long cigarette holder. She spoke only Russian while her husband sat in a corner and translated: "Madam wishes you to straighten your legs more, etc." She demonstrated her combinations herself. They were always bouncy, clever and interesting. I adored her classes. Sadly, after a short while she left. The rumor was studio politics of some kind between her and William Dollar. After a few months, Madam Balieff, the formidable school director, sent me upstairs to see the comptroller who asked if I could pay at least something. I could only say I would try, knowing there was no way I could. In any case, I continued going to classes for the next two years or so, and no one stopped me. Many years later, at a teacher's convention in the Roosevelt Hotel Ballroom in NY, Kyra Nijinska (daughter of Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky) was to give a class. She appeared on the teacher's platform dressed in a Japanese komona, took one long look at over 100 teachers assembled and waiting, then turned and walked off and didn't come back. Some said she was even crazier than her father.   WILLIAM DOLLAR, 1907-1986 I don't remember much about William Dollar's classes other than he always wore sunglasses. Mr. Dollar was one of, if not the first, American premiere danseur with BALANCHINE'S American Ballet. If you can get hold of a video of it, he can be seen in the 1938 film 'Goldwyn Follies" (uncredited) dancing with VERA ZORINA in Balanchine's ballet with Zorina rising out of a pool. His former wife, Yvonne Patterson was always in class, as was his protégé, Hubert Farrington who was dancing at the Met and who was still there when I joined. He tragically died in Jamaica, his home country in 2008 by a hit and run. When Mr. Dollar was going to choreograph summer stock in Dallas I went to his audition at Steinway Hall, but was not accepted. He was a kindly man so afterwards, feeling sensitive for my feelings, said that he really wanted to take me but it was not up to him but the directors. Sadly, he was alcoholic and ended poorly, living at the YMCA on 63rd St. He died at age 78 of lung cancer in Flourtown, Pa, where Yvonne lived. Remarkably, she was still teaching at age of 100.     ANATOLE VILZAK, 1896-1998 Flamboyant and always immaculately dressed. His classes, and those of his wife, Ludmilla Schollar, were regulars at the Ballet Theater School. I found his classes precise and he was often a bit sarcastic, but in an amusing way. He always wore a kerchief tied around his neck, a fashion I copied for a while when I became a teacher. He taught at the San Francisco ballet school from 1965 to the mid 1980s and died at age 102 having imparted the Diaghilev traditions of his early training to members of the San Francisco Ballet and students at its school. LUDMILLA SCHOLLAR ? - 1978 She always wore black slippers with white socks over her pink stockings. Once, after class, I ran into her at Woolworth's on 6th Avenue, at the counter where my girl friend at that time was working. After introducing them I mentioned that Madam had once danced with Nijinsky himself. Madam's reply stunned me so that I nearly fell backwards hearing her say that I danced even better than he did. I believe she made this amazing statement to impress my girl friend, yet for weeks I walked on air.   EDWARD CATON, 1900-1981 He was a unique, odd ball type character, tall and thin. With a raspy voice due to a former throat operation, Mr. Caton would say to the class pianist, Valya Vishnevskaya, at the Ballet Theater school, "Valya, valse pozhalusta" (a waltz please) and Valya would start a lilting, dancy, Soviet style waltz. Mr. Caton, or "Eddy" as many called him, though American, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. He never had a home of his own but always stayed with friends and while in New York it was usually at Lucia Chase's apartment on Park Avenue. Rumor had it that when his underwear got dirty he would just throw it away. He sometimes stuck his head out a window of Ballet Theater school and shouted curses down at passers by on 56th Street. He was hardly exclusive and often took several of us boy students across the street to a tavern in the back of Carnegie Hall where we sat and joked; or rather they joked as I was far too shy. His language was more like a sailor's than that of a ballet teacher. But he was sensitive and kindly. Once, after I auditioned for Lucia Chase - unfortunately alongside another boy who was far more the type she was looking for - I was heartbroken when she didn't take me. "Might I someday have a chance?' I asked Miss Chace. "Oh yes dear, of course" she said, but I somehow realized this would never happen. Seeing this, Mr. Caton comforted me by saying it was only for a series of performances Ballet Theater was doing at the Strand Theater over on Broadway, mixed with a movie, four times a day. (This unusual engagement by ABT along with a movie was a disaster and never attempted again). Even so, I would have wanted, and needed the job. Then he asked if I "would be interested in Ballet Russe?" Apparently he had connections but nothing came of it. I believe he was still performing in amateur ballet productions during his 90s.   YUREK LAZOVSKY He was the only well-known teacher of character dance in New York City at that time and was on the faculty of nearly every major ballet studio in and around Manhattan, shuttling from studio to studio in a never ending round of classes. One morning it may be at the Metropolitan Opera house, than a rush over to Ballet Theater school to teach an afternoon class. I could hardly wait for his Tuesday and Thursday classes. Russian dancing boots were required for character classes. These were very expensive, especially for a struggling young student. I managed to acquire cast off boots from the Met Opera production of Moussorgsky's opera "Khovanschina". Bright red ones! Lazovsky was the kindest of men. I can still see him carefully explaining to every newcomer - and there was always a new girl or boy in class - each exercise as we regulars patiently stood by. It was an hour and a half class, starting with a 'set' barre (routine exercises while holding on to a rail) followed by Russian, Polish, Hungarian steps done in center or on a diagonal. He was wonderfully supportive so long as you showed precision and care about these steps. If not, he just let it pass and never shouted. I never saw him once angry or disturbed. Always quietly correcting or demonstrating how. He was impressed by my enthusiasm and before long took me into his short-lived Polish/American dance company to go on a tour with the Polish National opera "Halka". Colorful new costumes were made for a Polonaise, a Mazurka and a Krakoviak. The tour opened at the Academy Of Music in Philadelphia and I seem to remember it was on a Thanksgiving day because we dancers went to eat at a cheap diner between performances. Mr. Lazovsky himself was the lead dancer with us boys and girls behind him. He danced with a lady who was actually the opera's benefactor. She was not a very good dancer and we all assumed her starring role was due to an agreement that went along with her angel backing. In each city, after the performance there would be a party in the Polish community. As hungry dancers we naturally looked forward to these but also the singing and dancing that usually went well into the early hours. Lazovsky died in 1980 at age of 63.     VALENTINA PEREYASLVEC When she first came to the USA she worked in a Philadelphia factory of some sort and ended up teaching for a studio in Carnegie Hall. Some ABT dancers went and liked her class so asked Lucia Chase to hire her for the Ballet Theater School. She stayed there for the rest of her life. She actually wanted to dance with Ballet Theater but did not have the figure and was a bit too old. She was a small, roundish lady and taught in slacks, usually a Ukrainian blouse and heeled shoes with hair piled high on top of her head, obviously to make herself appear taller. She demonstrated the steps or marked them. She never sat down but continually walked around correcting the students; pushing up legs, adjusting shoulders. She taught briskly, screaming out counts and corrections in a heavy accent. She taught at ABT for many years and eventually many stars came to her classes, including Nureyev. She taught Vaganova technique. Not too long before she died, my friend NINA BRITO invited her and myself to dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Nina knew mostly everyone in the ballet world. She was Mexican but spoke perfect Russian. Through her I met YURI GREGOROVITCH and many of the Bolshoi dancers including NATASHA PAVLOVA, VYACHESLAV GORDEEV, helping them to buy video and audio equipment in Manhattan to take back to Moscow.   NATALIA BRANITZKA She had danced with Diaghilev Ballet Russe during its last days. An exceptionally tall lady, statuesque one might say, and taught always in a skirt and silver pumps. She never asked me to pay for classes as she knew I was penniless. I mention this only to show how kind and generous Madam Branitzka was. I often didn't have a place to sleep in those days so she allowed me to stay in her studio over night and sleep in a chair. I slept on many floors during that period. She choreographed a dance number for a ½ hour version of the opera "Carmen" for TV and used her best students. It was supposed to be a regular series of these ½ hour operas but the producers didn't like it so weeks of rehearsals went for nothing. Her studio then was on West 57th Street on a high floor. After her evening class she didn't like to walk down the dark and empty flights of stairs alone so would ask me to accompany her. I believe she died by being hit by a car while crossing a Manhattan street. It was in her evening class that I met a girl and fell in love. The affair didn't last more than a few months and ended when I left with a dancing job in summer stock at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, choreographer ANTHONY NELLE.  MARIA NEVELSKA She was tiny and birdlike, weighing only 98 lbs. Like a Russian mother to me, often sharing her meager lunch and allowing me to use her Carnegie Hall studio to teach notation classes. She shared the studio with VLADIMIR KONSTANTINOV. It was a small studio on the 6th floor, overlooking 56th Street. Her classes were small as well, never more than 7 or 8, usually less. She was then in her 80s but was able to mark the steps. During class she often would get hung up in the flowerpots in the windows so probably was bored. She often invited me to dinner at her tiny apartment on West 51st St with her husband. Both had left the Soviet Union when he became politically suspect. This was sometime back in the 1920s. She had danced at the Bolshoi under Gorsky. She did have a school in Nice, France, where ANDRE EGLEVSKY had been one of her students. I still have piano scores of various ballet she had given me, marked with Eglevsky's name. Years later, while I was with the Harkness Ballet, I got the devastating news that she had been mugged in her studio and died two days later of injuries sustained in the attack. The studio was locked when students arrived for morning class but they could hear her moans through the door. It was impossible to determine how many times she was struck. Missing from her purse was $20 she had brought to pay the pianist. Five hours had passed at Manhattan's Roosevelt Hospital before she was examined. Left in a hallway to die, a hospital spokesperson said, when asked about this neglect, "I don't know what all the fuss is about, she was just a ballet dancer". It was all over the News. Her funeral was at the Russian Orthodox church. I remember when she was mocking a student for being a bit scatter-brained. confiding to me, in Russian, "Nye vsyo doma" (nobody home or, not all there) while pointing to her head. It's impossible to imagine how this could happen in the renowned Carnegie Hall. Security must have been very lax. METROPOLITAN OPERA BALLET   DAME ALICIA MARKOVA and KATHLEEN CROFTON Dame Alicia Markova was the Director the the Ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera. Soon after my graduation from the London Institute Of Choreology, she came to the Institute to audition me privately. All of my fellow graduates were being hired by dance companies in England and Europe. I believed I was to being considered for the Metropolitan Opera in my own country. When the contract came it was not for a choreologist but as a dancer. I was not about to give up the chance to go home and be part of the Brand NEW METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE in LINCOLN CENTER, so signed the contract. The following year I did become resident choreologist for the Met and for the next 3 years. At the same time Dame Alicia Markova also hired Kathleen Crofton. Miss Crofton was a well known London teacher and I had watched her classes at her studio in Leichester Square. Before she arrived, the other dancers asked me what she was like. When I mentioned that she whistled while she taught they didn't believe it until they saw. She never gave counts but instead whistled while demonstrating steps by waving her hands or arms. A grand battement en croix was shown by swinging her right arm forward, sideway, backwards, along with loud whistles as counts. A swooping grand ronde de jambe en l'air was accompanied by a wooshing sound with her right shoulder nearly going out of its socket. She once asked the class how to say 'stop' in American. She had danced with Pavlova's company but it was hard to place where her training had been or which method she used, Russian, Italian or French. It was certainly English She once invited me to her apartment for tea and to show her the Swanilda variation from "Coppelia" which I was delighted to do. She was a nice English lady and I liked her but I don't think the other dancers much did. After a year, rumor had it she married a millionare and started the Buffalo Ballet and school. She became director of the school. Dame Alicia sent me there to dance in a production. The Buffalo Ballet did not last very long. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  Around this time I had classes with other teachers on a one or two class basis. Some were guest teachers at ABT school. Others were itinerant teachers about town.   AGNES DE MILLE In her class she had us doing some kind of diagonal. When my turn came I heard her mumble as I danced by, "looks like melted butter". Not very encouraging. NINA STROGANOVA A regular at Ballet Arts Studio in Carnegie Hall. Agnes was often in the class and forever stopping to ask a silly question about whichever exercise we were doing.   VLADIMIR DOUKADOVSKY Stern, commanding, barking out something sounding like 'sheragsoup' came to find out meant 'second group'. Once I found a wad of money in the dressing room and being honest, promptly brought it to him, saying 'someone must have lost this'. He grunted and stuffed it in his pocket. ANTON DOLIN Actually can't remember one thing about his class other than his monumental ego. JEAN YAZVINSKY There was a huge Russian Borzoi dog always in the corner. Mr. Yazvinsky barked out Vun, Too, Tree Fourrr, while beating the floor with a cane. He was fierce. KAZMIR KOKICH One class in his short-lived studio on West 54th St. FEODOR LENSKY A flamboyant and jolly character. He beat a bass drum as you did grands battements. 3 or 4 classes in his top of Carnegie Hall studio. IGOR SCHWETZOFF Another Borzoi dog, or maybe the same one. Smoked continually and wielded a long cigarette holder while he cobbled out an adagio. He was tall, stern and unsmiling. His interesting autobiography "Borzoi" tells how he left Russia alone, traveling across Mongolia and sneaking across border to Harbin, China, eventually ending up in NYC. IGOR AND MAMA (ANNA SCARPOVA) YOUSKEVITCH. Mama, as she was called by those most familiar, taught in a cockroach infested studio on 7th Ave. later taken over by Hari Krishnas. I went to her morning class, also taken by old timers like Jimmy Starbuck, James Mitchell, Bambi Lynn, Gemze de Lappe. I can't say her classes were at all unusual or even interesting. Sort of routine with very little corrections. Basically just a workout for those "has been" star dancers present. I choreographed my first 'Firebird" on students from this studio. I asked the Madam for pointers on the Russian costuming but she was more interested in the girl I chose to dance the Firebird. Igor (on a break to NYC from teaching in Texas) taught a class once, a class of only one other man and myself. This was very odd for a former star dancer of his stature. One would think the class would have been filled to capacity. Of the two of us, he singled me out for attention to male bravura steps. Why? when I was of an age most unlikely to audition for a ballet company! LONDON TEACHERS ANDREW HARDIE A week after my first arrival in London I found the studio of Andrew Hardie in South Kennsington. Though totally English, he taught Bolshoi style. His classes were often filled with dancers from West End musicals and he sent many students to jobs with European ballet companies. He gave me lots of corrections, which was probably normal with a newcomer, and foreign. Memorable to me was his remark, "very handsome" as I did some step en diagonal. Through his studio I got a dancing job with Ballets Minerva, a touring company. For the following year, whenever this company hit London I went to class with Mr. Hardie or his assistant, Valerie Swinnard, who was also very popular with the students. In the late 1970s he suffered a couple of severe strokes but his indomitable spirit saw him through for a long time. Towards the end of his life, he continued to teach classes from a wheel chair. He died in 1979. TERRY GILBERT The movie and musical "Billy Elliot" was based on his life. A small and energetic teacher and choreographer. His classes were at The Studio Center, then located near Covent Garden. They were large classes with many ballet stars. Once, after class, Errol Addison (a well known London teacher who was once a student of Cecchetti himself) cornered me and advised me to switch from Mr. Gilbert's class to his own; a suggestion I felt was highly un-professional. I politely refused and walked away. Mr. Gilbert asked me if I would like to join an opera company in Whales, probably the Welsh National Opera that he was choreographer for, but I had already signed a contract with the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. TEACHERS IN TUCSON, ARIZONA   When I semi-retired to Tucson, Arizona, I had vowed never to be involved in dance again. However, dance, being my life, I soon became embedded in Tucson's local schools. I took the odd class and choreographed for their starting up companies.These fell far sort of New York and London professionalism but at least served as a minor creative outlet for me. Not suprisingly, I found them to have just as many intrigues as the professional schools and companies I had worked with, if not more.. GEORGE ZORITH The first male ballet dancer I'd ever seen as a lad, if only in movies. Imagine my surprise to find him in Tucson, and my neighbor. We soon became friends. He had already retired after 18 years of teaching at the University of Arizona. We took morning classes together at a local school where he sometimes taught. I knew him until he died after a fall at age 92. (see my further postings about Zoritch on Ballet Talk web site)      
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Memories of My Ballet Teachers

PRINCIPAL TEXT - UNFINISHED MEMORIES OF MY BALLET TEACHERS Practically all of my ballet teachers were émigré Russians. Some had been in this country since long before I was born. Others had newly arrived from the Soviet Union. Being acquainted with them, even if from a distance, was a lifetime experience I shall never forget. Rather than just an alphabetical LIST of these teachers, I thought it might be better to introduce them as individuals; their personalities, how I came to be a student of these remarkable people in the first place and how they came to influence my life so greatly. To do that it was necessary to include, briefly, parts of my own life's journey through dance as it related to them. Some of these teachers were impoverished and barely able to keep their studios operating. Some even lived in their studios. HOW IT STARTED At the tender age of twelve I never went to a public library without carrying home an armload of books, most of them far beyond my understanding. Philosophy, religion, metaphysics, geometry, orchestration, (I played the piano) and just about everything that caught my eye. One book happened to be the biography of VASLAV NIJINSKY - the one by his wife Romola. I found it so intriguing I read it from cover to cover then read it again and decided then and there I would be a ballet dancer just like Vaslav; ignoring the fact that he became totally insane by the time he reached thirty! There were no ballet teachers in the town of Braintree where I was growing up. Even if there were there would be no money to pay for lessons, besides, in New England at that time, boys simply did not dance. Even my love of music was considered, well, peculiar. All the same, I wanted to know more about ballet and found a little book; not a textbook but an introduction to ballet for ballet enthusiasts It had drawn illustrations of a few ballet exercises and steps. By imitating these pictures with my own body I was able to achieve a rough semblance of dance. I wanted to be exactly like Nijinsky, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia; a long way from Braintree, Massachusetts. I began to learn the Russian language by myself with a Russian/English dictionary and Tolstoy's "War And Peace"). I combed my hair in the Nijinsky fashion of 1910, imitated the turned out walk of a dancer and even thought myself already a dancer! THE TEACHERS SENIA RUSSAKOFF In search of a teacher I went into Boston and found Senia Russakoff and his School of Russian Ballet. Russakoff, born in St. Petersburg, had come to the USA in 1907 and joined a vaudeville circuit as a member of a troupe of Russian dancers. He eventually settled in Boston and opened his 'school of leaps and bounds' as they called it. Ray Bolger had been among his students, later of course to become famous as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz". If my dysfunctional family were curious about my piano playing, how could they ever accept me as a dancer, let alone a ballet dancer, which they knew absolutely nothing about? Russakoff and his wife Regina seemed exactly what I was looking for but there was the question of how I would be able to pay for lessons. At that time it was quite easy for a teenage boy to find a job as a theater usher. The Metropolitan Theater was the most opulent movie palace in Boston (now the Wang Center). Lying about my age, (still only 14) I went and asked for a job and was hired on the spot. FIRST LESSON Soon after my first paycheck I somehow got up the courage to go for my first lesson at the Russakoff School. It was a ½ hour private one, given by Russakoff's wife Regina. She showed me the five positions of the feet that I already knew but I didn't think Regina Russakoff knew much about ballet to start with because next came "prisyadkis" (a Russian folk dance step where you squat down and throw your legs out one after the other). She had me doing hundreds of them while holding on to the "barre" and that was it - the entire lesson! I left feeling my legs had gone forever and the next day I could barely walk but still had to go to my evening job as an usher, hobbling up and down the theater aisles. As if in a regular school, I continued going every day to Russakoff's studio, basically just hanging around, absorbing the Russian atmosphere and pretending it was the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. As the Russakoffs, being more or less impoverished, actually 'lived' in the studio, sleeping on cots and not in a house on nearby, fashionable Beacon Hill as Regina claimed, it must have been an invasion of their privacy having me always around from early morning on. Regina once asked if I came from a "broken" home. Little did they know. Russakoff was a kindly man and said nothing when I harbored myself at his studio most of the day. Probably to get rid of me, he somehow got me a day job modeling for Boston artists and gave me his gold, red braided rubashka (a Russian shirt) and boots, no doubt from his own dancing days in vaudeville. I always wore this outfit while posing and there must still be hundreds of portraits around somewhere of this 'virtual' Russian boy. Russakoff's once a week class started with a routine barre. It never varied. I don't remember any center adagio or allegro, only basic steps done diagonally across the floor, one by one; ballonnes, jetes, pas de basque, pas de chat. After a few months Russakoff took me with him to Providence, Rhode Island where he taught once a week. I was to be in his annual recital there. I found I was the only boy in this recital, dancing in a gypsy camp scene of some sort. Russakoff had me doing the squat kicks on top of a table then jumping off and touching my toes in mid air. The following week I did the same in his Boston recital, this time on top of two tables! As Russakoff's token Russian dancer, the two tables soon became three! I wanted to know more about actual ballet technique and found a proper ballet textbook by Legat in the Boston Public Library. One day as I sat watching Russakoff's class and holding this book prominently, I was rudely shaking my head and rolling my eyes as if everything he was teaching was totally incorrect. Finally he whispered that I was acting very ill-mannered and he was right. Basically I was a little teenage twit with a lot to learn. ADOLPH ROBICHEAU Adolph Robicheau's grand ballet studio was actually on Beacon Hill, just across from the Boston Common: one of the most exclusive areas of Boston. Not much is known about this Boston teacher except the much publicized battles that went on with his neighbors who resented a "ballet" school anywhere near their homes on "The Hill". Due to injunctions and possible lawsuits, students had to surreptitiously enter the grand house as if they were merely visitors. I can only tell of my one brief experience of a single class. I went along with two of Russakoff's former students who were in town with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Mr. Robicheau was certainly the popular image of a ballet master but I remember nothing about the class, though I must have shown some ability because after class he took me aside and said that after two years 'we will send you to New York". This half promise of a future as a dancer in New York was no doubt an enticement to continue his classes but they were far too expensive on my little salary from the Metropolitan Theater. WILLIAM T MURPHY After leaving Russakoff I went to William T. Murphy. His basement studio was just behind the Boston Public Library and he held morning classes every day. He was obviously not a ballet dancer but a ballroom dancer and taught ballet exercises and steps from the Cecchetti manual that he obviously had studied in detail. This provided him with at least a virtual technique and he was able to give corrections. I felt I was actually learning something but Mr. Murphy was unable to demonstrate properly. I had never seen a ballet and there were no professional male dancers around for me to copy. Dance is basically imitative and you learn first by imitating those who know how. There was one other boy in the class; an odd boy who was a bit older and more advanced. As the only male model, even if an imperfect one, I imitated him so perfectly that Mr. Murphy said I was turning into a replica of Billy and not just in dancing but in everyday behavior. I soon stopped using Billy as an ideal. The Metropolitan Theater where I worked was showing "Escape Me Never". Near the end of the movie there was a ballet; a rather extensive one with the dancers Mlada Mladova and George Zoritch. Every time the scene came on I would rush to the bottom of the aisle to watch, undisturbed by patrons. It was typical Hollywood choreography but I didn't know or care; it was the first time I saw a proper male ballet dancer, George Zoritch. I bought a copy of the VAGANOVA ballet textbook and cut out the step illustrations and carried them in the pocket of my usher's uniform, determined to learn 2 steps every evening. When in a more or less deserted part of that immense theater I would try to imitate the steps exactly – fortunately never caught by the management. About this time The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to Boston. Alexandra Danilova herself came to Murphy's studio and gave a guest class. The class was full of Boston's best dancers but in no way was I able to participate. I only watched and later went to a performance. It was Scheherezade, Nutcracker Grand Pas and Night Shadow, (later known as La Sonnambula). These were the very first ballets I ever saw on a stage. After so much reading I'd done about the glamorous Diaghilev/Nijinsky Scheherezade, I was so disappointed I wondered why I was even studying ballet. They all looked so tired and bored. Years later, when I became a friend of Michel Katcharoff, who was the ballet master for Ballets Russe during all those years, I mentioned this experience and he said they actually had "just started out" on that tour. Fortunately, Night Shadow kept my interest alive.   NEW YORK ELIZABETH ANDERSON-IVANTZOVA During the 1950s and 1960s, in and around Carnegie Hall and West 56th Street (known as 'Ballet Alley) private ballet studios started by Russian émigrés were flourishing. "The little Bolshoi on 56th Street" was the studio of Madam Anderson-Ivantsova, on the second floor of an old brownstone. When I decided at age 16 to quit my job at the Metropolitan in Boston to go to New York City (with a cardboard suitcase, $20 in my pocket and knowing no one there) I bravely first went to Madam Anderson's morning class. It was an advanced class and I obviously was struggling to keep up. After class Madam told me I belonged in her beginner's class. Feeling rejected I went one flight up to the studio of George Chaffee.   GEORGE CHAFFEE Mr. Chaffee had the two top floors of this building. His apartment was directly above Madam Anderson, as well as dressing rooms, (one which he later rented out to a modern dancer, Matti Heim, who, unbelievably, walked daily all the way from Brooklyn) a kitchen with a view of the back of the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street and a foyer with a spot lighted bust of Anna Pavlova. The studio space was on top floor. I had the impression Madam Anderson and Mr. Chaffee did not get along too well. After my first class Mr. Chaffee gave me a kiss! Being a naive lad from Braintree, Massachusetts, I supposed this was not at all unusual in New York City and innocently mentioned it in the dressing room to the other boys. This indiscretion soon was found its way to Mr. Chaffee, who soon forgave me. After all, I was as green as they come and seeing me blush in embarrassment, he offered me free classes in exchange for emptying the garbage dumpsters and cleaning his studio walls and floors. Mr. Chaffee's classes were very French. He was born in Oakland, California but spoke French fluently and adored France. In fact he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. He gave his star pupils French names. One was re-named Madelaine Le Jeune. He always taught in tights with a bandana around his head and combed his hair forward to conceal his baldness. His loyal assistant, Adelaide Vernon, took a lot of abuse but virtually worshipped him. Once while demonstrating a lift he got so angry he threw her clear across the floor. When I rushed to the dressing room in tears of sympathy for her plight he literally dragged her to me to show her what she had done. Then somewhere in his 40s, he demonstrated every enchainment himself. His adagios were what I remember most. Lyrical, with lots of port de bras, often ending with a balance on one knee with the other leg lifted in arabesque and in that position, a full promenade. His style was rather mannered and outright chichi, especially when he had us dancing minuets and galliards in costumes from Louis the 14th period. He was a collector of these costumes as well as being an authority on French dance of the 16th and 17th Century. He was an iconographer too and had written many monographs on ballet history and had a fantastic collection of manuscripts. Much of it is now in the Harvard Theater Collection. Unfortunately, during the 80s, like many NY ballet teachers with private studios, his building was torn down to make way for skyscraper condos. He ended up in a small, 5th floor, cockroach infested tenement apartment on 10th Avenue (Hell's Kitchen). Adelaide was still with him. He died in 1985. His memorial was in a church just off of Times Square. Many of his former students came and I was asked to speak.  TATIANA CHAMIE Tanya, of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had a studio at 200 West 57th on the 2nd floor in an office building. Every once in a while, if the landlord was coming by, she quickly re-arranged everything to disguise the fact that she actually lived in a room just off the studio. Class was $1 that you handed to Madam on your way out. It was a mixed class and basically of all levels. I was still little more than a beginner so I must have struggled to keep up as my classmates were several Broadway dancers, among them JAMIE JAMISON, already a star on Broadway in "Brigadoon". In those days it was the custom for ballet students to carry everything in a small satchel, unlike the bulky shoulder bags of today. I was impressed to notice in the dressing room that Mr. Jamison carried his dance clothes folded neatly in a brief case. This habit of having everything in its proper place must have come from his youth in a military school. I tried to imitate his tidiness. (A few years later I auditioned for Jamison when he was choreographer for a winter stock company in St. Petersburg. I was accepted and with this job came the opportunity to join Actor's Equity and to become a fully-fledged professional). MARGARET CURTIS Margaret Curtis had headed the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School for generations. (The old Met at 39th and Broadway was nearly 100 years old). Her sidekick Kathleen Harding was class pianist and took in the money. BORIS ROMANOFF was resident choreographer and company class was taught by ALEXANDER GAVRILOV who had been with the Diaghilev Ballet. A rumor was that, while on tour, he sometimes replaced Nijinsky, unknown to the audiences who thought they were actually seeing Nijinsky as advertised. Open class was every morning at 10 o'clock. Entering the Old Met stage door you made your way on an ancient elevator, then a dark staircase up to the roof stage and the ballet studio, overlooking 7th Avenue. Marina Svetlova and Leon Varkas were the soloists in the triumphal ballet in AIDA. One Saturday afternoon I was a walk-on. Being vertically challenged (my way of saying I was on the short side) I maneuvered myself on stage to a position where I could see it all. The Met Opera decided to have Ballet Theater take over the entire Met ballet company and school. Margaret Curtis somehow disappeared and Lucia Chase and Antony Tudor auditioned the Met dancers, selecting only one or two to remain. Sallie Wilson was one. Another boy student and myself hid among the costume racks high above to watch this audition and realized that everything was going to change.   MARGARET CRASKE I managed to take a few classes with Margaret Craske. Somewhere in her 60s, she had once danced with ANNA PAVLOVA and was a protégé of Cecchetti himself. She had gray hair tied back and wore tweedy skirts and sensible shoes and looked more like an English governess. She also had a little potbelly. I have no doubt she was a wonderful teacher and had written a book on the Cecchetti technique, but I wanted to learn fast and not spend ten minutes on a battement tendu or some other exercise which was her custom. After class one evening, while going down in the elevator with her I recall her saying that entrechats should be done with a "rebound". It was her only correction that I remember. Many years later, well into her 90s, she was still teaching at The New York Theater Ballet studio on 31st Street, sitting on a high stool and often went to sleep during class and fell off once or twice. When I was staging Fokine's "Le Carnaval" for same company, she did some coaching, as she had danced this ballet as a girl. I also invited Mr. Chaffee to watch a rehearsal because he had danced the role of Harlequin and was taught it by Fokine himself. I was particularly interested in any pointers he might have on Harlequin's spin into a sitting position, made famous by Nijinsky   ANTONY TUDOR I did not last long in Antony Tudor's class. So many ran from his classes and rehearsals in tears I was waiting for some acid remark he would make to me. It finally came when he had me, in the middle of class, sit down on the floor and show him the bottom of my feet, goodness knows why. It somehow became a tradition in his classes, at that time at least, that whenever he stopped to single someone out to correct, the entire class would rush over to absorb whatever he had to say, surrounding the unfortunate one. I forgot what the correction was and only felt embarrassed, which was his purpose I suppose. He had a cruel, razor sharp tongue and loved to use it to cut you down to size. When I ran out of money I asked Miss Harding to ask him if I could come to class anyway. I stood by and watched him take one look at me and shake his head no. (Tudor was to come into my life years later when I was resident choreologist at ABT. I even staged one of his ballets for the Met Opera Ballet.) Feeling sorry for me, Miss Harding sent me downstairs to be a regular supernumerary in the operas . For a whole season I did that. ZACHARY SOLOV was the house choreographer and in "Alceste" he used a few girls and boys from the school as 'extra' dancers, Even though I was no longer a student at the Met school I somehow managed to be included. About this time I returned to Chaffee who was very angry that I had gone to other teachers. To make up, I brought along two other boy students from the Met and he took all three of us into his Concert Ballet group. I was able to get time off from the Roxy to go on out of town tours with them. BRONISLAVA NIJINSKA, 1891-1972 When Lucia Chase decided to open her own Ballet Theater School she chose Bronislava Nijisnska as Director. It was a rather small studio on 56th Street with Ballet Theater offices on the 3rd floor. I mustered enough courage to go to Nijinska's class and I think it might have even been on her first day of teaching there. I was the only boy and she seemed to show an interest in me. I was by this time Russian speaking to a degree and after class I bravely asked her (in Russian as she spoke nothing else) if I could continue to come, even though I couldn't pay. Scholarships were not as freely given then but she agreed with a matter of fact, "Da Da, Konyeshno" (yes, certainly). WHAT WAS SHE LIKE So much has been written about Bronislava Nijinska. All have described her basically the same. She always wore what I think was a black pajama suit and brandished a long cigarette holder. She spoke only Russian while her husband sat in a corner and translated: "Madam wishes you to straighten your legs more, etc." She demonstrated her combinations herself. They were always bouncy, clever and interesting. I adored her classes. Sadly, after a short while she left. The rumor was studio politics of some kind between her and William Dollar. After a few months, Madam Balieff, the formidable school director, sent me upstairs to see the comptroller who asked if I could pay at least something. I could only say I would try, knowing there was no way I could. In any case, I continued going to classes for the next two years or so, and no one stopped me. Many years later, at a teacher's convention in the Roosevelt Hotel Ballroom in NY, Kyra Nijinska (daughter of Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky) was to give a class. She appeared on the teacher's platform dressed in a Japanese komona, took one long look at over 100 teachers assembled and waiting, then turned and walked off and didn't come back. Some said she was even crazier than her father.   WILLIAM DOLLAR, 1907-1986 I don't remember much about William Dollar's classes other than he always wore sunglasses. Mr. Dollar was one of, if not the first, American premiere danseur with BALANCHINE'S American Ballet. If you can get hold of a video of it, he can be seen in the 1938 film 'Goldwyn Follies" (uncredited) dancing with VERA ZORINA in Balanchine's ballet with Zorina rising out of a pool. His former wife, Yvonne Patterson was always in class, as was his protégé, Hubert Farrington who was dancing at the Met and who was still there when I joined. He tragically died in Jamaica, his home country in 2008 by a hit and run. When Mr. Dollar was going to choreograph summer stock in Dallas I went to his audition at Steinway Hall, but was not accepted. He was a kindly man so afterwards, feeling sensitive for my feelings, said that he really wanted to take me but it was not up to him but the directors. Sadly, he was alcoholic and ended poorly, living at the YMCA on 63rd St. He died at age 78 of lung cancer in Flourtown, Pa, where Yvonne lived. Remarkably, she was still teaching at age of 100.     ANATOLE VILZAK, 1896-1998 Flamboyant and always immaculately dressed. His classes, and those of his wife, Ludmilla Schollar, were regulars at the Ballet Theater School. I found his classes precise and he was often a bit sarcastic, but in an amusing way. He always wore a kerchief tied around his neck, a fashion I copied for a while when I became a teacher. He taught at the San Francisco ballet school from 1965 to the mid 1980s and died at age 102 having imparted the Diaghilev traditions of his early training to members of the San Francisco Ballet and students at its school. LUDMILLA SCHOLLAR ? - 1978 She always wore black slippers with white socks over her pink stockings. Once, after class, I ran into her at Woolworth's on 6th Avenue, at the counter where my girl friend at that time was working. After introducing them I mentioned that Madam had once danced with Nijinsky himself. Madam's reply stunned me so that I nearly fell backwards hearing her say that I danced even better than he did. I believe she made this amazing statement to impress my girl friend, yet for weeks I walked on air.   EDWARD CATON, 1900-1981 He was a unique, odd ball type character, tall and thin. With a raspy voice due to a former throat operation, Mr. Caton would say to the class pianist, Valya Vishnevskaya, at the Ballet Theater school, "Valya, valse pozhalusta" (a waltz please) and Valya would start a lilting, dancy, Soviet style waltz. Mr. Caton, or "Eddy" as many called him, though American, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. He never had a home of his own but always stayed with friends and while in New York it was usually at Lucia Chase's apartment on Park Avenue. Rumor had it that when his underwear got dirty he would just throw it away. He sometimes stuck his head out a window of Ballet Theater school and shouted curses down at passers by on 56th Street. He was hardly exclusive and often took several of us boy students across the street to a tavern in the back of Carnegie Hall where we sat and joked; or rather they joked as I was far too shy. His language was more like a sailor's than that of a ballet teacher. But he was sensitive and kindly. Once, after I auditioned for Lucia Chase - unfortunately alongside another boy who was far more the type she was looking for - I was heartbroken when she didn't take me. "Might I someday have a chance?' I asked Miss Chace. "Oh yes dear, of course" she said, but I somehow realized this would never happen. Seeing this, Mr. Caton comforted me by saying it was only for a series of performances Ballet Theater was doing at the Strand Theater over on Broadway, mixed with a movie, four times a day. (This unusual engagement by ABT along with a movie was a disaster and never attempted again). Even so, I would have wanted, and needed the job. Then he asked if I "would be interested in Ballet Russe?" Apparently he had connections but nothing came of it. I believe he was still performing in amateur ballet productions during his 90s.   YUREK LAZOVSKY He was the only well-known teacher of character dance in New York City at that time and was on the faculty of nearly every major ballet studio in and around Manhattan, shuttling from studio to studio in a never ending round of classes. One morning it may be at the Metropolitan Opera house, than a rush over to Ballet Theater school to teach an afternoon class. I could hardly wait for his Tuesday and Thursday classes. Russian dancing boots were required for character classes. These were very expensive, especially for a struggling young student. I managed to acquire cast off boots from the Met Opera production of Moussorgsky's opera "Khovanschina". Bright red ones! Lazovsky was the kindest of men. I can still see him carefully explaining to every newcomer - and there was always a new girl or boy in class - each exercise as we regulars patiently stood by. It was an hour and a half class, starting with a 'set' barre (routine exercises while holding on to a rail) followed by Russian, Polish, Hungarian steps done in center or on a diagonal. He was wonderfully supportive so long as you showed precision and care about these steps. If not, he just let it pass and never shouted. I never saw him once angry or disturbed. Always quietly correcting or demonstrating how. He was impressed by my enthusiasm and before long took me into his short-lived Polish/American dance company to go on a tour with the Polish National opera "Halka". Colorful new costumes were made for a Polonaise, a Mazurka and a Krakoviak. The tour opened at the Academy Of Music in Philadelphia and I seem to remember it was on a Thanksgiving day because we dancers went to eat at a cheap diner between performances. Mr. Lazovsky himself was the lead dancer with us boys and girls behind him. He danced with a lady who was actually the opera's benefactor. She was not a very good dancer and we all assumed her starring role was due to an agreement that went along with her angel backing. In each city, after the performance there would be a party in the Polish community. As hungry dancers we naturally looked forward to these but also the singing and dancing that usually went well into the early hours. Lazovsky died in 1980 at age of 63.     VALENTINA PEREYASLVEC When she first came to the USA she worked in a Philadelphia factory of some sort and ended up teaching for a studio in Carnegie Hall. Some ABT dancers went and liked her class so asked Lucia Chase to hire her for the Ballet Theater School. She stayed there for the rest of her life. She actually wanted to dance with Ballet Theater but did not have the figure and was a bit too old. She was a small, roundish lady and taught in slacks, usually a Ukrainian blouse and heeled shoes with hair piled high on top of her head, obviously to make herself appear taller. She demonstrated the steps or marked them. She never sat down but continually walked around correcting the students; pushing up legs, adjusting shoulders. She taught briskly, screaming out counts and corrections in a heavy accent. She taught at ABT for many years and eventually many stars came to her classes, including Nureyev. She taught Vaganova technique. Not too long before she died, my friend NINA BRITO invited her and myself to dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Nina knew mostly everyone in the ballet world. She was Mexican but spoke perfect Russian. Through her I met YURI GREGOROVITCH and many of the Bolshoi dancers including NATASHA PAVLOVA, VYACHESLAV GORDEEV, helping them to buy video and audio equipment in Manhattan to take back to Moscow.   NATALIA BRANITZKA She had danced with Diaghilev Ballet Russe during its last days. An exceptionally tall lady, statuesque one might say, and taught always in a skirt and silver pumps. She never asked me to pay for classes as she knew I was penniless. I mention this only to show how kind and generous Madam Branitzka was. I often didn't have a place to sleep in those days so she allowed me to stay in her studio over night and sleep in a chair. I slept on many floors during that period. She choreographed a dance number for a ½ hour version of the opera "Carmen" for TV and used her best students. It was supposed to be a regular series of these ½ hour operas but the producers didn't like it so weeks of rehearsals went for nothing. Her studio then was on West 57th Street on a high floor. After her evening class she didn't like to walk down the dark and empty flights of stairs alone so would ask me to accompany her. I believe she died by being hit by a car while crossing a Manhattan street. It was in her evening class that I met a girl and fell in love. The affair didn't last more than a few months and ended when I left with a dancing job in summer stock at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, choreographer ANTHONY NELLE.  MARIA NEVELSKA She was tiny and birdlike, weighing only 98 lbs. Like a Russian mother to me, often sharing her meager lunch and allowing me to use her Carnegie Hall studio to teach notation classes. She shared the studio with VLADIMIR KONSTANTINOV. It was a small studio on the 6th floor, overlooking 56th Street. Her classes were small as well, never more than 7 or 8, usually less. She was then in her 80s but was able to mark the steps. During class she often would get hung up in the flowerpots in the windows so probably was bored. She often invited me to dinner at her tiny apartment on West 51st St with her husband. Both had left the Soviet Union when he became politically suspect. This was sometime back in the 1920s. She had danced at the Bolshoi under Gorsky. She did have a school in Nice, France, where ANDRE EGLEVSKY had been one of her students. I still have piano scores of various ballet she had given me, marked with Eglevsky's name. Years later, while I was with the Harkness Ballet, I got the devastating news that she had been mugged in her studio and died two days later of injuries sustained in the attack. The studio was locked when students arrived for morning class but they could hear her moans through the door. It was impossible to determine how many times she was struck. Missing from her purse was $20 she had brought to pay the pianist. Five hours had passed at Manhattan's Roosevelt Hospital before she was examined. Left in a hallway to die, a hospital spokesperson said, when asked about this neglect, "I don't know what all the fuss is about, she was just a ballet dancer". It was all over the News. Her funeral was at the Russian Orthodox church. I remember when she was mocking a student for being a bit scatter-brained. confiding to me, in Russian, "Nye vsyo doma" (nobody home or, not all there) while pointing to her head. It's impossible to imagine how this could happen in the renowned Carnegie Hall. Security must have been very lax. METROPOLITAN OPERA BALLET   DAME ALICIA MARKOVA and KATHLEEN CROFTON Dame Alicia Markova was the Director the the Ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera. Soon after my graduation from the London Institute Of Choreology, she came to the Institute to audition me privately. All of my fellow graduates were being hired by dance companies in England and Europe. I believed I was to being considered for the Metropolitan Opera in my own country. When the contract came it was not for a choreologist but as a dancer. I was not about to give up the chance to go home and be part of the Brand NEW METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE in LINCOLN CENTER, so signed the contract. The following year I did become resident choreologist for the Met and for the next 3 years. At the same time Dame Alicia Markova also hired Kathleen Crofton. Miss Crofton was a well known London teacher and I had watched her classes at her studio in Leichester Square. Before she arrived, the other dancers asked me what she was like. When I mentioned that she whistled while she taught they didn't believe it until they saw. She never gave counts but instead whistled while demonstrating steps by waving her hands or arms. A grand battement en croix was shown by swinging her right arm forward, sideway, backwards, along with loud whistles as counts. A swooping grand ronde de jambe en l'air was accompanied by a wooshing sound with her right shoulder nearly going out of its socket. She once asked the class how to say 'stop' in American. She had danced with Pavlova's company but it was hard to place where her training had been or which method she used, Russian, Italian or French. It was certainly English She once invited me to her apartment for tea and to show her the Swanilda variation from "Coppelia" which I was delighted to do. She was a nice English lady and I liked her but I don't think the other dancers much did. After a year, rumor had it she married a millionare and started the Buffalo Ballet and school. She became director of the school. Dame Alicia sent me there to dance in a production. The Buffalo Ballet did not last very long. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  Around this time I had classes with other teachers on a one or two class basis. Some were guest teachers at ABT school. Others were itinerant teachers about town.   AGNES DE MILLE In her class she had us doing some kind of diagonal. When my turn came I heard her mumble as I danced by, "looks like melted butter". Not very encouraging. NINA STROGANOVA A regular at Ballet Arts Studio in Carnegie Hall. Agnes was often in the class and forever stopping to ask a silly question about whichever exercise we were doing.   VLADIMIR DOUKADOVSKY Stern, commanding, barking out something sounding like 'sheragsoup' came to find out meant 'second group'. Once I found a wad of money in the dressing room and being honest, promptly brought it to him, saying 'someone must have lost this'. He grunted and stuffed it in his pocket. ANTON DOLIN Actually can't remember one thing about his class other than his monumental ego. JEAN YAZVINSKY There was a huge Russian Borzoi dog always in the corner. Mr. Yazvinsky barked out Vun, Too, Tree Fourrr, while beating the floor with a cane. He was fierce. KAZMIR KOKICH One class in his short-lived studio on West 54th St. FEODOR LENSKY A flamboyant and jolly character. He beat a bass drum as you did grands battements. 3 or 4 classes in his top of Carnegie Hall studio. IGOR SCHWETZOFF Another Borzoi dog, or maybe the same one. Smoked continually and wielded a long cigarette holder while he cobbled out an adagio. He was tall, stern and unsmiling. His interesting autobiography "Borzoi" tells how he left Russia alone, traveling across Mongolia and sneaking across border to Harbin, China, eventually ending up in NYC. IGOR AND MAMA (ANNA SCARPOVA) YOUSKEVITCH. Mama, as she was called by those most familiar, taught in a cockroach infested studio on 7th Ave. later taken over by Hari Krishnas. I went to her morning class, also taken by old timers like Jimmy Starbuck, James Mitchell, Bambi Lynn, Gemze de Lappe. I can't say her classes were at all unusual or even interesting. Sort of routine with very little corrections. Basically just a workout for those "has been" star dancers present. I choreographed my first 'Firebird" on students from this studio. I asked the Madam for pointers on the Russian costuming but she was more interested in the girl I chose to dance the Firebird. Igor (on a break to NYC from teaching in Texas) taught a class once, a class of only one other man and myself. This was very odd for a former star dancer of his stature. One would think the class would have been filled to capacity. Of the two of us, he singled me out for attention to male bravura steps. Why? when I was of an age most unlikely to audition for a ballet company! LONDON TEACHERS ANDREW HARDIE A week after my first arrival in London I found the studio of Andrew Hardie in South Kennsington. Though totally English, he taught Bolshoi style. His classes were often filled with dancers from West End musicals and he sent many students to jobs with European ballet companies. He gave me lots of corrections, which was probably normal with a newcomer, and foreign. Memorable to me was his remark, "very handsome" as I did some step en diagonal. Through his studio I got a dancing job with Ballets Minerva, a touring company. For the following year, whenever this company hit London I went to class with Mr. Hardie or his assistant, Valerie Swinnard, who was also very popular with the students. In the late 1970s he suffered a couple of severe strokes but his indomitable spirit saw him through for a long time. Towards the end of his life, he continued to teach classes from a wheel chair. He died in 1979. TERRY GILBERT The movie and musical "Billy Elliot" was based on his life. A small and energetic teacher and choreographer. His classes were at The Studio Center, then located near Covent Garden. They were large classes with many ballet stars. Once, after class, Errol Addison (a well known London teacher who was once a student of Cecchetti himself) cornered me and advised me to switch from Mr. Gilbert's class to his own; a suggestion I felt was highly un-professional. I politely refused and walked away. Mr. Gilbert asked me if I would like to join an opera company in Whales, probably the Welsh National Opera that he was choreographer for, but I had already signed a contract with the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. TEACHERS IN TUCSON, ARIZONA   When I semi-retired to Tucson, Arizona, I had vowed never to be involved in dance again. However, dance, being my life, I soon became embedded in Tucson's local schools. I took the odd class and choreographed for their starting up companies.These fell far sort of New York and London professionalism but at least served as a minor creative outlet for me. Not suprisingly, I found them to have just as many intrigues as the professional schools and companies I had worked with, if not more.. GEORGE ZORITH The first male ballet dancer I'd ever seen as a lad, if only in movies. Imagine my surprise to find him in Tucson, and my neighbor. We soon became friends. He had already retired after 18 years of teaching at the University of Arizona. We took morning classes together at a local school where he sometimes taught. I knew him until he died after a fall at age 92. (see my further postings about Zoritch on Ballet Talk web site)      

Richka

Richka

 

Moving!

I've been told that people who are not BT members have difficulty viewing this blog, so I will now be writing about ballet on my personal blog: La Vie en Citron.

Hans

Hans

 

Ballet Across America II: Ballet Memphis, Ballet Arizona, Pacific Northwest Ballet - 6/17/10

A few quick impressions of the performance: Ballet Memphis: Good dancers. Appropriate music (Roy Orbison) with slick choreography, although at times overly literal. The choreography did not show off the dancers' ballet technique, but they did look strong and very well rehearsed. I'd like to see this company again in a better ballet. Ballet Arizona: Did not care for the choreography at all. Felt long, tedious, some sections appeared lifted from MacMillan and Balanchine. Ugly costumes for the women--feathered bustles. (What ballet dancer wants to have larger hips?) Choreography did not flatter the dancers, some of whom had trouble with footwork. Not always in sync. Pacific Northwest Ballet: Highlight of the evening. Excellent dancers with beautiful, clean, strong technique. Carla Korbes was particularly pure, radiant, otherworldly--would love to see her as Aurora, Terpsichore, Chaconne, &c. Would love to see more of the whole company in fact. The piece had a very polished, sophisticated look, both in terms of sets/costumes and choreography. Looked inspired by Balanchine's black & white ballets without being derivative. Not a masterpiece, but a pleasant enough end to the evening.

Hans

Hans

 

Mariinsky Ballet, "Sleeping Beauty" 2/13/10

I did not look forward to this performance with high expectations. The Mariinsky has mostly disappointed me the last few times it's visited, and while today's performance had some nice surprises, it was mostly in line with what I expected. Anastasia Kolegova (Aurora) is a perfectly lovely dancer with pretty line, strong technique, and apparently no acting ability. In Act I, she seemed nervous, and she glossed over any technical challenges (she would have been better off not attempting the balances). In Act II, she was bland rather than ethereal, but in Act III, she seemed relaxed and confident, although still devoid of personality. Anton Korsakov was an appropriate match--beautiful, strong, clean technique, but only one facial expression. I couldn't understand why either of them is listed as a principal dancer; the lack of stage presence makes them seem more like soloist material to me. Alexandra Iosifidi (Lilac Fairy) was warm and caring, but otherwise not memorable. Of course, one must also bear in mind that she is hampered by the production, which has her dressed in a sort of evening gown/nightie for half the ballet, performing boring choreography. I was surprised and pleased to see Maya Dumchenko listed as Princess Florina, and it did indeed appear to be her. She looks quite thin and frail, but in her one pas de deux, she gave a performance worthy of a principal dancer, and told more of a story with her choreography's little hints of narrative than Kolegova did during the entire ballet. Her technique has also not diminished, and her Florina was delicate and graceful. Vasily Scherbakov was appropriately airborne as the bluebird. His petite batterie during the coda was especially nice. Vasily Tkachenko and Valerya Martinyuk as Puss 'n Boots and the White Cat were witty and funny, turning a duet one usually suffers through into a highlight of the third act. I agree with others who dislike the production. It needs new costumes, and the wigs ought to be thrown out. The almost total lack of mime means it ends up being performed basically as a plotless ballet, and even the few dancers who bothered to act weren't given much material to work with. There were a lot of cuts in this production, which is understandable given the time constraints, but it was nice to see that they found some children to perform in the Garland Waltz and also as the eight violinists during the Rose Adagio. I was surprised that they included the entr'acte for solo violin, as it is very long. I always enjoy hearing it, and the violinist played well, but it divided up the already short second act with an unnecessarily long pause.

Hans

Hans

 

ABT's Romeo & Juliet 1/28/2010

Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" is a ballet that relies on its two leading dancers more than other ballets do. In Petipa, if the leads are mediocre, one can still be delighted by the elaborate patterns of the corps, the brilliance of the soloists' choreography, or the grand spectacle his ballets generally present. MacMillan's choreography is weaker than Petipa's, and I spent a good deal of the ballet waiting for the principal dancers to come back on as the choreographer fumbled about with the crowd scenes, trying to create a lively, exciting atmosphere but never really succeeding. Fortunately, the leading dancers were worth waiting for, even though the performance got off to a slow start. In my opinion, Juliet is one of Julie Kent's best roles (I also enjoy her Giselle). In this performance, I did not find her totally believable in Act I. As a fairly tall dancer with a calm stage presence, she does not project that sprightly, childlike energy of a girl who has just entered marriageable age (perhaps 14) in the Renaissance, so the business with the doll did not really seem plausible. The ballroom scene was better, as it allowed her to display her smoothly polished classical line (Kent has perhaps the purest line in classical ballet today; never a harsh moment) and gave us a look at how easily she is able to communicate what her character is thinking and feeling. Marcelo Gomes is, of course, the ideal Romeo, with his elegant line and noble presence, and he, too, did not really come alive until the ballroom scene. That is an understandable way to play the role, but I think it would be more effective for us to get a sense of who Romeo is before he meets Juliet so that the contrast registers more strongly. Mercutio is the sort of role in which Herman Cornejo specialises, and he played it very well tonight. It's easy to go over the top with MacMillan, but Cornejo struck just the right note of witty playfulness without coming across as overly caffeinated or annoying. His quick, agile technique allowed him to zip right through the sometimes oddly put together steps, and his death scene was realistically but not melodramatically played. It felt right. Act III is where the drama really gets going for Juliet, and here Kent really let loose from the decorum of the ballroom scene. During the bedroom pas de deux, I had the sense that her Juliet felt she was not going to see Romeo alive again, and she used that to create a kind of inarticulate, almost irrational desperation that was very effective. Victor Barbee was a commanding, majestic, threatening presence as Lord Capulet--perhaps the strongest personality in the ballet. His Lady Capulet (Stella Abrera) did not have the same regal manner or acting skill, and mainly resorted to stylised swanning around. While this is not my favourite ballet to watch due to its many weak points (essentially everything the corps has to do as well as MacMillan's feeble attempts to tell the story through either dance or very abbreviated, vague mime) Kent and Gomes brought out the best in the choreography and created a moving, heartfelt drama.

Hans

Hans

 

The Myth of the Perfect Class

Lately I have been trying to challenge myself during class, so for the last two classes I've taken, I made a rule that I would use the barre as little as possible. That doesn't sound so difficult, but I soon found out just how much I rely on the barre, even when I think I don't. A simple battement tendu exercise in first suddenly required quite a bit more effort, and it only became more difficult from there. If I truly need the barre (for a very fast exercise, or one entirely on demi-pointe, for example) I use it, but otherwise try to do without. While I'm sure it isn't as pretty to look at, I've noticed one important benefit: the less I use the barre, the better my balance is in the center, particularly during pirouettes, because there's no "adjustment" period of trying to figure out how to get to demi-pointe without support. I'm certain I'm not the only one who has experienced this, but I think it's an idea that could be used more often in ballet classes. Even when one is doing everything right, the barre ends up providing more support than it should simply because one's hand is on it, so the dancer ends up using it more than s/he is aware. There is also a great temptation to make the barre work as clean and neat as possible, which is an appropriate goal, but not when it comes at the expense of gaining strength and balance. Barre work is a tool, not an end in itself, and if the concepts one practises there do not transfer to the center, what's the point? Ballet class--especially barre--is always a work in progress. One isn't there to present a perfectly polished performance but to challenge oneself and grow. When creating art, one frequently has to make a mess in order to make something beautiful, and ballet is no different. So make a mistake, lose your balance, miss a pirouette, yet always with the finished product in mind. That's how you get better.

Hans

Hans

 

I'm dancing again!

In preparation for auditions for dance pedagogy programs, I have started taking classes again, mostly at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, MD. So far I have had two classes, each taught by a dancer with Washington Ballet: Runqiao Du and Elizabeth Gaither. Both classes involved a long barre--45 minutes to an hour. Normally this is not my cup of tea, but as I am still pretty weak, it was nice to have the support. There were many combinations focusing on battements tendus and dégagés. Very good for precise footwork. By contrast, we did not do much in the way of jumps, which was also fine with me as by that point in the class I was running out of energy! I've noticed that I seem to have a lot of trouble with combinations involving lots of battements fondus as I'm finding it difficult to plié on one leg with control. Not sure why that is, maybe I just need to get strength back. Pirouettes are also not working well, and I have trouble using good épaulement at the barre. On to the positives: My foot articulation is still good, perhaps even better than before now that I've had to teach students to do it for several years. I can pick up combinations easily in my head, even if it doesn't yet always translate to my body. And I still have some flexibility, although it needs work. I'm basically doing a complete overhaul on my arabesque, as I don't think it's ever been placed quite right. The important part, though, is that class is still fun, even after all these years!

Hans

Hans

 

A New Year at Ballet School

I have taught my first class of the year, and I am afraid it is going to be an uphill battle. The first problem is that the students are only in ballet class once, or in some cases twice, a week, so building strength and coordination will be a challenge. I've decided to give them the same lesson for several weeks in a row so that they will be able to concentrate on correct technique while performing familiar exercises. They will also write down their classes so that they learn to spell and use ballet terms correctly. For the first lesson, I was very strict about doing each exercise as perfectly as possible. This is not something that has been demanded of them before, and it took some getting used to: we ended up spending the entire 90 minutes at the barre. However, next week they will be more familiar with the exercises, and we will get to do center, and hopefully next week and the week after we will get through allegro. Then on to a new lesson! I am also choreographing a dance for four girls to be performed in competitions and at the end of the year. I am considering using a section of 'Danse Macabre' by Camille Saint-Saens, as I am trying to get them to be more expressive in their dancing. Right now their idea of 'performing' tends to be gluing on a smile. Unfortunately, all the competitions they do don't really leave much room for a Kennedy Center field trip to watch professional ballet, but I will still look for opportunities. I received nothing but positive comments when I took them to see Veronika Part in ABT's 'Swan Lake' last year. Maybe this year we can see something more unusual. The classics are important, but I want them to experience newer works as well. I will update again when I've taught some more, seen a performance, or taken a class.

Hans

Hans

 

More Turnout, Pirouette Preparation

I think I have finally, at long last, got my students to begin to understand turnout and how the legs move to the side. It has taken a while, but last class I used some ideas from the Teachers forum on BTfD to help them understand. A yardstick was very helpful. First, I repeated something I've done before: have the student stand in 1st position, place the yardstick on the floor in front of him/her so it forms a horizontal line just touching his/her toes, and have the student tendu side along the line formed by the stick. This gets them to understand that the leg needs to move directly to the side. Otherwise, when they go from 1st to 2nd position, the legs will not be in line, glissades will move slightly forward, échappés will be a problem, &c. Also, it forces the student to use the appropriate muscles. A tendu that moves along the line of the foot will, in many cases, end up somewhat forward of 2nd, and it will not improve turnout, just reinforce what the student already has. Second, once the student had established pointe tendue à la seconde, I held the yardstick vertically at his/her working toe and had him/her raise the leg as high as possible without moving the leg forward and without losing the turnout of either leg. To do this, they had to keep using their turnout muscles (which often get relaxed when the leg is held too far forward). For a few weeks now, I have had my less advanced class do the following exercise: Beat 1: Plié in 5th Beat 2: Relevé to pirouette position Beat 3: Hold the position Beat 4: Close 5th on demi-pointe Last class (after having them practice battement tendu and rond de jambe par terre en tournant) I modified the last two parts so that it went like this: Beat 1: Plié in 5th Beat 2: Relevé to pirouette position Beat 3: Remaining on demi-pointe, turn 1/8 en dehors Beat 4: Hold the position, or if necessary, close 5th on demi-pointe It was not perfect, but they made a good start. Once they get stronger at that exercise, I can have them learn pirouettes, but I will continue to have them work on learning tour lent on demi-pointe. Having that control is very good for pirouettes, especially as the study of tour lent on demi-pointe will instill muscle memory of correct position.

Hans

Hans

 

The Problem with Pointe

I have been an advocate of less pointework in ballet for some time now, and here's why, in no particular order: 1. Having to dance en pointe limits possibilities for female dancers who may be very talented in every other way but simply don't have feet and ankles that are flexible enough to allow them to stand sur les pointes. 2. Pointe shoes ruin a dancer's jump, making it not just lower but also more noisy, no matter how well the feet are used during the takeoff and landing. 3. Pointework encourages/allows choreographers to rely on (neo)classical partnering, with the man standing behind the woman either supporting or manipulating her, rather than allowing the woman to dance for herself and freeing up the man to do the same. 4. Because modern pointe shoes are basically designed with only the idea of being sur les pointes in mind (thereby allowing the dancer to perform Petipa and Balanchine ballets) it is more difficult to perform Romantic and Bournonville ballets. Not only do these ballets use more jumps (see above) but also the necessary thickness and narrowness of the shank make it harder to perform an unsupported adagio, of which Romantic ballets make more use. The dancer may be very strong and stable, but when she is standing on what is essentially a tiny balance beam in her shoe, wobbles are inevitable. 5. Too often, pointe is used as a foot-strengthening/posture tool. While it is true that pointework makes your feet stronger and that if you are not standing properly you cannot stay en pointe, both of these qualities must already be in place before starting pointe--otherwise there is a greater risk of injury. Learning to perform various steps on demi-pointe has the same strengthening effect with a much lower injury risk. I am not saying that pointework should be eliminated from ballet or that dancers should go back to wearing glorified technique shoes that do not properly support their feet. (Well, maybe a slightly softer shoe could be made for Romantic ballets that require more jumps and less pointe.) But as ballet moves forward, I think it is time to stop relying on what is essentially a "trick" and start focusing on developing movement that allows women to have the same freedom of movement as men. I feel similarly about lifts--when used well they are beautiful and effective, but too often they are merely a substitute for dancing, not to mention that they are often used as an excuse to keep women thin. The fact that it is not actually necessary for a woman to be particularly thin to be lifted has not silenced this reasoning.

Hans

Hans

 

The Maryinsky's "La Bayadère" at the Kennedy Center, 1/26/08

To discuss this performance, please go here. This was my first live full-length "Bayadère," although previously I have seen the Royal Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet, and Bolshoi Ballet productions on video, and I have seen the Maryinsky do the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene several times, both live and on video. This production is beautifully designed, with lush sets and beautiful costumes, and although there were too many obviously fake animals for my taste, at least it omitted some of the more racist elements of the original ballet. Unfortunately, I found the staging (until the Grand Pas Classique and the Kingdom of the Shades) rather weak despite the deployment of more people onstage than most companies have the resources for. Nikiya is not given much to do in her Act I entrance besides saunter around en pointe for a while, and the mime between her, Solor, the High Brahmin, and the fakir was so vaguely sketched out that I had a hard time understanding what they were "saying," even though I understand classical mime and know the plot. Act I, Scene II was not much better--lots of incoherent attempts to mime, which surprises me, given that the Maryinsky has been miming since before most ballet companies in operation today existed. A bright spot was the D'jampe dance, performed with spirit and precision by the corps. Less enjoyable was a mostly boring pas de deux featuring a little contortion toward the end, and by the time Act I was over I was beginning to see why certain people think old ballets ought to be scrapped. Lots of over-wrought, hand-wringing melodrama, hardly any choreography, and precious little logic or sense. Act II was (eventually) an improvement. Aside from ladies dancing so carelessly with their taxidermied parrots that had the birds been alive they all would have had motion sickness, we had a tiger that appeared to be from Toys R Us, more taxidermied parrots hanging at bizarre angles from flower garlands, and a mechanical elephant with a dark-skinned mannequin attached to its head. This act featured a large corps dancing boring steps leading up to the Grand Pas Classique, which is beautifully choreographed for a couple and two trios, followed by Nikiya's sad dance. Act III is, of course, an unsurpassed choreographic triumph. However, it is an unsatisfying ending to the ballet, as it leaves the gods' vengeance on Gamzatti, the Rajah, and the High Brahmin unresolved. I was mostly unimpressed by the dancing, as the Maryinsky principals and soloists have been performing for a few years now as if they are competing at the Prix de Lausanne. Lots of big jumps, high extensions, careful preparations for pirouettes, student-like mistakes during relatively simple steps, and hardly any acting, refinement, or adapting one's style to suit the demands of a particular ballet or character. Tereshkina, with her small-featured, unexpressive face, was not, in my opinion, an appropriate choice for the dramatic, mysterious character of Nikiya. She did all the steps just fine, and often very well, but she has an overly long, un-classical line, and this combined with her willowy figure and careful way of moving prevents her from being powerfully expressive. Similarly, Korsakov as Solor had very neat technique, with soft, silent landings and precise footwork, but he is so intent on splitting his legs to 180º during every grand jeté that he often ends up looking as if he's auditioning for "A Chorus Line" rather than expressing nobility. I believe he could be a moving Solor with better coaching. The lady who danced Gamzatti was extremely pretty, with features that "read" up to the balcony, but she too was not a strong actress, and her dancing was riddled with technical insecurities. The dancers I most enjoyed watching in this performance were the soloists and demi-soloists. Unlike the corps, which was very precise and detailed but whose steps were insultingly simple (I found myself thinking, "They were trained for eight years and mastered the difficult Vaganova syllabus to spend their days doing toe-pulls and jumping on one leg a few times?" Granted, technique at the corps level was probably not as advanced in 1877 as it was in the 1890's.) the soloists have steps that are just challenging enough to be interesting but not intimidating, and as they are not called upon to express anything in particular besides beauty and grace, they are able to just have fun and shine, and they excelled at this. Unfortunately, they too were subjected to the complete lack of attention to petit allegro that seems to have occurred at the Vaganova Academy about ten years ago, so their footwork was not as clean and precise as that of earlier dancers, but they were lovely to watch nonetheless. In Act III, the corps danced, as always, perfectly, but the three soloists had problems. The first shade clearly wanted to dance at a faster tempo, and she would have been much better had she been allowed to. The second shade also had musical issues, perhaps due to the conductor not understanding how the steps fit to the music. The third shade was fine musically, but she was trying so hard to raise her leg during her opening diagonal that she unfolded it in two counts instead of one, landing from her sissonne in an awkward position before straightening her working leg. She had some trouble during the second part of her variation as well, but those steps are notoriously difficult. At the end, she floated down from her final grand jeté, making a completely seamless transition to her landing on one knee. "La Bayadère" is, obviously, an important ballet, and it must continue to be performed. However, it must be performed as if it is still alive, not preserved in formaldehyde or treated with disdain (Kennedy Center orchestra, take note--Minkus's music is bad, but it sounds worse if you play it as if it's "Chopsticks"). The aforementioned ballet companies dance "La Bayadère" as if it's "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty" or "Giselle," and that is necessary if the audience is to take it seriously and stay until Act III. To discuss this performance, please go here.

Hans

Hans

 

Reflections of a mid-century student

I was a teen-ager when I started ballet lessons in New York in 1944; all it took for me to start was one performance of Ballet Theatre at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street. (I have written in more detail of that performance on my Blog "Ruminations".) My very first teacher was Lisan Kay who taught at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall. At the time she was a partner of Yeichi Nimura; she would shortly have a featured role in the musical "Lute Song". Ballet Arts was run by the indomitable Virginia Lee. A card of ten lessons was purchased for $15 and she would dutifully check off each lesson as you entered. A few of my friends were studying with George Chaffee and I left Ballet Arts to join them. Part of the reason was financial. For $20 a month I could take as many classes as I wanted. I stayed with him (and his assistant, the very capable Adelaide Vernon) for four years. I found I much preferred a small studio and small classes--most of the time a dozen students. Chaffee danced with the Fokine and Mordlin ballets. He gave a beautiful interpretation of the male mazurka in "Les Sylphides"--which, he liked to say, was taught to him by Fokine. When he was in a good mood after class we would cajole him into performing it for us. We were also fortunate to have some first rate class pianists, Allen Tanner and Francis James Brown, a recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music. First and foremost, though, Chaffee is renowned for his ballet collection of prints, sculpture and drawings of the 16th to 20th centuries. He had a town house in Greenwich Village (if my memory serves me it was 109 Grove Street) not more than ten feet wide. On first entering I shall never forget the sight of being greeted by a sculpture of Fanny Elssler in her Cachuca costume standing blithely on a staircase newel. I met Ben Harkarvy at the ballet when he was a few months short of his 14th birthday; even at this tender age he had thinning hair and a portly figure. He was so articulate and knowledgeable that we assumed he was a college student, although he had barely started high school. (I was a year older) He joined us for ballet lessons. Gore Vidal also came for class--he wore white tennis shorts--and took morning class for a year. (This was before his second novel 'City and the Pillar' was published.) He was part of a large group of returning GI's who were studying under the GI Bill. We had no idea he was a writer, and we called him Gene. We were more than 'just students'; we were balletomanes. There were only two companies regularly in New York at the time; Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes. Each had a spring and fall season, Ballet Theatre at the old 'Met' and the Ballets Russe at the City Center. The standing room at the old 'Met' was excellent. Unlike today, we did not stand in the rear of the orchestra behind the last row of seats. There was a circle of seats around the horseshoe shape of the theater which meant we could be fairly close to the stage. It was 'first come, first served' and there was a comfortable brass railing to lean on. Standing room was $1.80 but rather than wait on the standing room line we purchased a balcony ticket for the same price and could enter the theater early and scramble to our favorite spots. Very often the crowd was three deep. We were a varied group of a dozen people, all ages. Nora Kaye's parents (Mr. & Mrs. Koreff) were among the regular standees. The Ballets Russe appeared at the City Center on 55th Street. We sat in the second balcony. The rows went from A to H and I always purchased Row H Seat 1 for $1.10. I liked that particular row because I could lean forward and raise my seat for a clear view; the upper part of that section was not in use. There were a few other companies that appeared sporadically: the deCuevas Ballet International on Columbus Circle; Markova-Dolin which was reorganized in 1945; the Paris Opera Ballet came in 1948 amid nightly pickets outside the theater against Lifar--but what a revelation to see Chauvire and Kalioujny. We saw Petit's Ballet de Paris with Jeanmaire and a few days later the first appearance of the Sadler's Wells with Fonteyn. As heady as this scene appears, in between the regular visits of Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes, we felt it to be a wasteland. To compensate we formed a group called 'Balletiana' (I opted for New York Ballet Club but the cutesy name won out). Our aim was: "the education of its membership and the promotion of the interest of others in the place and function of ballet amongst the Arts. It provides a medium for the exchange of information and knowledge of the ballet" --a fore-runner of Ballet Talk? We met once or twice a month in a rented studio in Carnegie Hall and had an impressive guest speaker list: Alexandra Danilova, Frederic Franklin, Hugh Laing, Edwin Denby, Walter Terry, Anatole Chujoy among others. To my surprise most of the students did not go to see many performances, and rarely read or discussed ballet's long history. In those days it was easy to drop into the Vilzak-Shollar studio or School of American Ballet and sit and watch a class. Over to V-S whenever Svetlana Beriosova had a PDD class (a finished dancer at 14) or over to SAB hoping to catch Doubrovska give a class. I often wondered if the SAB students knew much of the backgrounds of their teachers. There was one SAB student who knew all these things, Bob Joffrey. I knew Bob through my friendship with Ben. Bob had a good technique with particularly brilliant batterie. Coupled with an outgoing personality there was a real liveliness in his dancing. Ben had a much harder time. He was very much overweight, had flat feet and a weak back. He also had parents who did not take too kindly to their exceptionally bright son of not wanting to go to college. He did placate them by agreeing to take courses at the New School on 12th Street, which didn't last very long. He did manage to lose weight at one time and got down to 150 lbs. I would look at these two young men who were so devoted to ballet and wonder what would become of them if they did not have a ballet career. Ben and Bob both had physical problems. Bob, with all his ebuillience did not have a dancer's body. We all know what Bob accomplished. He gave us the Joffrey Ballet and because he was a balletomane we got Fokine, Massine, Jooss, Tudor and Ashton. Oh, that we had another Bob Joffrey. Ben capped off his career as the Director of the Dance Division at Juilliard. Before that he established the Netherlands Dance Theatre and was Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet. I returned to Ballet Arts and studied with Edward Caton and also Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova. Caton was a tall, lean man and walked with a distinctive slouch. His long legs preceded him and the rest of his figure caught up slowly. Most of the time he was dressed in brown from head to toe and wore an 'Indiana Jones' hat pushed back on his head--long before 'Indiana Jones'. He was a shy man and an affliction caused him to speak in a low raspy voice. While waiting for class to begin Ben and I sought him out and engaged in conversation. I saw him in the Ballet Theatre production of 'Giselle' as the Duke of Courland. He was every inch the aristocrat as he walked slowly and deliberately with two Russian wolfhounds. Most of the other 'Dukes' I have seen look more like supers. He encouraged me to take class with Margaret Craske which I did, but she was too dour for me and I stopped. I also studied with Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova, a former Bolshoi ballerina. Everyone took the same class, beginners to professionals. She never stopped to teach Barre. As a new student you followed the person in front of you and hoped they knew what they were doing. Barre was non-stop for 20 minutes or so. Her husband would bang out a tired ditty on the piano at her command: "Music! Mr. Ivantzov". I was amazed at the strength I gained from her classes. Her lessons were $2. I weep at her last years. Widowed, ill and financially bereft she had to depend on others for her needs.

atm711

atm711

 

The New Year

This topic may be a little premature given that classes will probably not start for most of us for another two weeks, but having recently come from an extremely productive, positive faculty meeting I am very excited about the new ballet school year. I still have some conferring to do with the other teachers, but I think that we are generally on the same page and poised to have our students excel. We have all agreed on the syllabus (it helps that most of us were trained at the same school) and we are to keep in close contact as some of us teach the same classes on different days to make sure everyone is progressing at the same rate. We have even agreed on such details as how the students should enter the classroom! It is a wonderful feeling to be part of such a group, and now that the foundations are in place, I am considering what (besides the steps) to teach and how to do it. Things I would like them to learn include: how to spell ballet terms, basic music theory, knowledge of important people in ballet throughout history, and plots/characters of great ballets. I know I will have help from the other teachers in all of this. But more than that, I am going to try to get my students excited about ballet. That may sound redundant--if they didn't like learning ballet, why would they be there? I believe they enjoy it, but the levels I teach are still fairly basic and the exercises can become monotonous. I don't have the opportunity to pepper the combinations with bits of variations, and my students only perform once, at the end of the year. In addition, they take several different types of dance and are usually involved in several other extracurricular activities as well, so making this ancient art form relevant and alive for them--even as they patiently execute my combinations--is a challenge. It should help that my classes will be slightly larger this year. Small classes are wonderful for refining technique, but for the same reason they can also make it difficult to let go and "just dance," so even when, in an attempt to free my students from the confines of their endless battements tendus for a moment, I would have them chassé or otherwise move across the floor, they still maintained a rigidness, as if they were afraid of what I would criticize, and I was not able to bridge the gulf between "corrector" (as they saw me) and a benevolent person there merely to help them dance better (as I wished to come across). With a larger group, I am hoping it will be easier to form a rapport while still challenging them to work very hard. Their technique must be devoid of bad habits at this early stage, but it must also be alive, and perfect technique is of course useless without the enjoyment of dance and the desire to learn about all the elements that go into it--history, music, costumes, fantastic drama, and above all grace, elegance, harmony, and beauty. Try teaching all that to the average thirteen year old who grew up in the suburbs and knows nothing of life outside middle school. And yet, if they weren't already predisposed to the appreciation of grace and beauty, wouldn't they just take jazz? Something about this must speak to them already, and it is my job to draw that out and elaborate. Maybe once a month (I only see them once a week, although they have ballet with other teachers more often than that) I will end class fifteen minutes early to engage their minds in some way, either with a video, music, or a short lesson about an important figure in dance. *** I came up with an idea to teach ballet terminology. At our first class, I'll give each student a folder, the kind that holds three-hole-punched notebook paper, and a list of basic ballet steps and their definitions. I will ask them to write down one combination we did in class that day in the car on the way home using the list as a guide. If they encounter a word they don't know how to spell that isn't on the list, they should sound it out as best they can, circle it, and at the end of the next class we will learn each word's spelling and its definition and add it to the list. By the end of the year, they should have a lot of terms, and by limiting it to one exercise, I shouldn't be taking up too much of their homework time/energy. The folders can also be used to hold information from the once-a-month lessons. Now all I need is a dry-erase board, some markers, and to be told that this is way too ambitious and unrealistic!

Hans

Hans

 

"Swan Lake" - Deanna Seay and Mikhail Ilyin

On Sunday, May 27, I returned to my hometown to watch the ballet school where I started dancing perform "Swan Lake" with guest artists Deanna Seay and Mikhail Ilyin (principal dancers with Miami City Ballet) as Odette and Prince Siegfried. Both danced beautifully. Ilyin, trained at the Vaganova Academy, has clean lines, very fast, controlled pirouettes, a weightless jump with silent landings, and a grounded presence. Seay also has lovely lines, including a graceful arabesque, but most important to me was her exceptional port de bras. Each position was very clear and refined, but she moved between them softly, with a particularly "boneless" look at the end of Act II when she is turned back into a swan. This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don't mean it that way: Seay's Odette was a pleasure to watch because she kept her interpretation simple. She danced the role as it is meant to be danced--she put the character first, and she proved Mel Johnson's statement true: that the most revolutionary thing a ballet company (or in this case, a dancer) could do would be to stage a plain-vanilla Swan Lake. She respected Petipa's and Ivanov's choreography, didn't flap when Odette is supposed to be human or during the Act III pas de deux, and she performed Odette's mime speech clearly. It was extremely satisfying to watch, and more people ought to follow her example. However, this was not a stiff, slavish, "textbook" rendition of the ballet. Seay included small nuances that kept the dance alive, and she performed them so subtly that they fell into their proper place as nuances and were not blown out of proportion into anything more than what they were. For example, at the beginning of the Act II pas de deux, just after she sinks down onto one knee and bends forward, she didn't just lay there waiting to be picked up, and she didn't convulse the way some ballerinas do, making it obvious that I Am Not Just Laying Here. Instead, a tiny wave of energy pulsed through her, starting at the lower back and flowing with the music out through her fingertips. She barely moved, but it was extraordinary, conveying Odette's nervousness and hope all in that moment. Later, at the end of the pas de deux, she did something I am thankful for: real petits battements serrés. So many dancers try and fail to make their battements so tiny that the foot appears to just vibrate against the supporting heel, and I have only seen that work once. Usually, they just end up being so small that no one can see them, and their effect is lost. Now, Seay didn't hack away at her supporting leg; it was still a small movement, but it was visible, and the foot was in exactly the right place--with the working arch covering the supporting heel. Act III was a little bit problematic; the adagio went well (in fact the partnering was quite smooth throughout the performance) but Seay had some trouble with her pirouettes during the variation. Unfortunately, sometimes that just happens, especially when you are on an unfamiliar stage with taped-down marley and there isn't much you can do, but she got through it. I had thought that perhaps after that, she would not do the fouettés, or would maybe stop after sixteen or so, but although they did not go perfectly (there was some minor travelling) I have to hand it to her for sticking it out through all 32. That must have taken courage, and I was impressed! * * * Note: I have to run for the moment, but I will come back later and write about Ilyin. * * * Ilyin's Siegfried was also very well done, although in this production there was regrettably little for him to do, and I can relate to how challenging it is to try to create a character when all you are given to do is walk around a bit and stand there looking out into the audience. However, Ilyin made it work. He was refined without being feminine or light, and his gaze read all the way up to the balcony. One of the wonderful things about Vaganova Academy training is that the dancers are so used to mime that it flows from them conversationally, every gesture perfectly clear, but as effortless as speaking. This made the mime scene with the queen a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately he did not mime at the end of Act I when Siegfried goes off hunting, but his dancing made up for it. As I said before, tall jumps with silent landings, pirouettes that simply stopped on demi-pointe, and of course the famous Kirov port de bras and épaulement. In Act II, we got more of the same quality. Crystal-clear mime with the hunters, and when he saw Odette (offstage) you knew it instantly. It's hard to describe, but instead of stretching out an arm and peering forward, he simply changed his whole body without (visibly) moving a muscle. Again, a tiny thing that read right up to the balcony. In the pas de deux, Ilyin and Seay had good chemistry, and while he is a very little bit short for her, it was not a serious problem, and the partnering went quite smoothly, no choreographic changes necessary. One thing that struck me was that the pas de deux seemed to be performed all in one movement, and the scaled-back choreography for the corps helped create the impression that the pas de deux existed in its own world, seamless from beginning to end, especially the very end with the petits battements and pirouettes, into the lunge and final penché. Act III was Ilyin's real shining moment. Here, the technical skill hinted at toward the end of Act I was on full display without being flashy or inappropriate. The only thing I regretted was that he was costumed all in black, and the stage was black, so it was difficult at times to see beats. During the coda, he covered the stage in about two grands jetés, so some choreographic finagling was necessary, but it worked well, and his double tour en l'air terminé en arabesque was stunning in its creamy smoothness. He reminded me a little of Herman Cornejo, but more regal and restrained. And anyone who complains about the way Russian men use their feet should watch Ilyin--his are impeccable. Overall, it was an excellent afternoon (where else can you see MCB principal dancers for $9?) and Seay and Ilyin made it more than worth the trip. Hopefully they will return next year!

Hans

Hans

 

A Message to the Students

Students sometimes say: "I don't have feet like Alessandra Ferri. Can I still be a professional?" "My legs don't go as high as Sylvie Guillem's. Will any companies hire me?" The answer, dear students, is no. But not for the reasons you think. The reason you won't be a professional is because you are too concerned how you look in photographs and not concerned enough about how you look in motion. Use your feet exquisitely, and no one will notice how they're shaped. Unfold your leg gracefully, and no one will pull out a protractor and count degrees. Make the audience laugh, weep, and sigh, and you will be loved and remembered for years instead of being relegated to a dusty textbook. Remember that Ferri is famous for her feet, but she is more famous for how she makes people feel, and Guillem does indeed have high extensions, but it's how she uses them that makes her great. Above all, if your teacher does not tell you how to do this, find one who does!

Hans

Hans

 

Effortless?

Since "The Red Shoes" (and probably before) popular culture has displayed the message that Ballet Is Difficult. Sweaty, panting dancers remove tight, uncomfortable shoes to reveal bloody, blistering toes, and tyrannical teachers and artistic directors treat students as if they're soldiers and company members as if they're children. The ballet world has, apparently, come to believe in this mutilated vision of itself. As with so many things, one can lay neither all of the credit nor all of the blame at Balanchine's feet, but he bears some responsibility. The emphasis on athleticism, giving 110% all the time, taking risks, not being "safe" or "polite" onstage created an incredible new era in ballet and gave us a treasure trove of beautiful, exciting works. However, the all-or-nothing mentality has spilled over into the classroom and classical repertoire, and now we have teachers who are not satisfied with their students unless they see perspiration and choreographers who create aerobic workouts and acrobatic contortions en pointe. What happened to "everything is beautiful at the ballet?" What happened to "effort must be invisible?" What happened to grace, beauty, courtesy, and mutual respect? Some of it is due to a lack of such concepts in society. When life was difficult for the masses, people wanted to escape to a world of exotic enchantment where fragile sylphs flew through the air and Turkish pirates stole beautiful harem girls from lecherous sultans. These days one barely has to lift a finger to change from watching America's Next Top Model to Survivor, anyone can pick up a fully prepared gourmet dinner at the supermarket that barely even needs to be microwaved, "sir" and "madam" have all but been replaced by "pimp" and "ho." Is it really any wonder, then, that when the majority of people live lives of comparative ease and luxury, they crave the opposite: watching others eat rats on deserted islands, "ordinary" people becoming overnight celebrities, and faceless, nameless people contorting instead of princes graciously offering their hands to refined ladies? And since ballet must change with the times, why bother with reverance, port de bras, expressing any emotion other than, "Goodness, these steps are HARD!" Why bother teaching students manners and discretion (or exhibiting those qualities oneself) when it's "cool" to "keep it real" and be as refined and polite as a street urchin? Because otherwise, "classical" ballet will continue down its present path of being relegated to the competition circuit, with high extensions, elaborate jumps, and dizzying pirouettes done for their own sake, and épaulement and port de bras performed meaninglessly, merely for "artistry points," with no relation to plot, character, or emotion. Exciting energy or empty perfection--we need not choose between the two. Let's put the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes, where they belong, so that they fulfill their true function--to fuel a fire under the ice of dull perfectionism, to give meaning to the courtly deferences and elaborate etiquette of the dance. Let's make beauty exciting for what it hints at, not for what it throws in one's face. And as the saying goes, "make the audience gasp with joy, not relief."

Hans

Hans

 

Dream

Unlike my first post, this is not a daydream. I actually had a dream about teaching a ballet class, and I'm still not sure what that implies in terms of my sanity! I was giving an adagio, and the really crazy part is that I remembered it when I woke up! It's not the most interesting or creative combination ever, but I might use it for my class on Saturday. It goes like this: Adagio, 4/4 time. 5th position croisé, R foot front. Measure 1: Beats 1-2: Developpé devant. Beats 3-4: Passé to 1st arabesque. Measure 2: Beats 1-2: Plié, change arms to 2nd arabesque. Beats 3-4: Pas de bourré dessous. Measure 3: Beats 1-2: Developpé derrière to 3rd arabesque. Beats 3-4: Plié, change arms to 4th arabesque. Measure 4: Beats 1-2: Pas de bourré dessous. Beats 3-4: Tombé forward on the L foot, R foot pointe tendue derrière, and port de bras bending forward with arms to 3rd. Recover, close 5th, arms to preparatory. Measure 5: Developpé L leg to ecarté devant. Measure 6: Beat 1: Rise to demi-pointe. Beat 2: Tombé onto the L foot raising the R leg ecarté derrière, arms to 3rd. Beats 3-4: Pas de bourré dessous. Measure 7: Beats 1-2: Developpé the R leg to attitude derrière croisé. Beats 3-4: Tour lent (promenade) bringing the working leg to retiré position. Measure 8: Beat 1: Extend the working ( R) leg to effacé devant. Beat 2: Rise to demi-pointe. Beat 3: Tombé onto the R foot, raising the L leg in 2nd arabesque. Beat 4: Pas de bourré dessous. Now, if only I could plan all my classes in my sleep!

Hans

Hans

 

Boys' Training

I'm growing (or perhaps just realizing that I always have been) disenchanted with the quality of boys' training. I feel that in mixed-gender classes, they do not receive the same quality of instruction the girls do, and I don't think there's any reason for this. Contributing to the problem, in my opinion, is the lax standard in terms of attire. Letting the boys wear soccer shorts is fine when they're 8, but even when they are 10 and in proper attire, they wear saggy tights and oversized shirts. Imagine if the girls came to class in leotards three sizes too big with the crotch of their tights somewhere around their knees--it would never be allowed, and for good reason: properly fitted ballet attire allows the instructor to see the muscles better so they can offer corrections. What this boils down to is boys who do not develop the same work ethic girls do in terms of perfecting their technique, unless they are already very observant and self-motivated from a young age. By the time a boy is a teenager and has developed his own motivation, the foundation that good early training would have given him is not there. How to fix the situation? It's simple: Hold boys to the same standards as the girls!

Hans

Hans

 

Changes in Ballet's Focus Regarding Petit Allegro

We have all heard, read, and seen in performance that petit allegro has started to fall by the wayside as dancers and choreographers focus on ever-higher extensions, larger jumps, and more pirouettes. This is to an extent natural and necessary as costumes become more revealing and we learn more about the way the body works (movement emanating from the torso instead of the extremities). However, it is possible to train dancers (who become choreographers) to be more attuned to the use of the lower leg and foot while still giving them the ability to perform larger-scale movements. Such training begins (as do so many things in ballet) at the barre. Movements such as battement fondu, battement soutenu, and rond de jambe en l'air that used to be performed almost exclusively with the leg at 45º (toes level with the middle of the supporting calf muscle) now are often performed almost exclusively with the leg at 90º or higher. The position of the working foot sur le cou de pied creeps higher as well, almost to a demi-retiré position, so that during battement fondu at 90º or above the dancer does not draw the foot from a true cou de pied position to retiré before extending the leg; s/he simply raises it to a very high cou de pied/demi-retiré and extends it from there. It is not wrong to practice these movements at heights above 45º; indeed it is a necessary part of a dancer's training, but it should be more the exception than the rule. Those three movements (along with battement frappé, which does not usually get distorted because it is difficult to raise the leg high while maintaining a strong, sharp movement) form much of the basis for petit allegro. For example, pas assemblé is a battement soutenu at 45º with a jump, and pas ballonné is essentially a jumped battement fondu. It requires a very large jump to perform rond de jambe en l'air sauté at 90º, and that would alter the timing and accents of most petit allegro combinations; therefore that step is more suited to grand allegro. When practicing movements normally done at 45º, it is helpful to make sure they are done correctly. The foot sur le cou de pied must truly be on the neck of the foot, not on the calf muscle, and in raising the leg to a higher position such as demi-retiré or retiré (retiré position is different from battement retiré/raccourci, which may finish with the working leg in retiré, demi-retiré, or sur le cou de pied positions) one must take care to always pass through a true cou de pied position. Pirouettes, too, can be useful in helping dancers become used to working with the legs at 45º and thus developing a greater awareness of the lower leg. Often, students first learn pirouettes from 5th or 4th position at retiré or demi-retiré height. When they learn grands pirouettes, AKA pirouettes in open positions, they generally start learning them at 90º. However, pirouettes sur le cou de pied without movement of the arms are useful even for advanced students to learn the appropriate action of the back muscles during all pirouettes, and students who can hold the working leg solidly at 45º but who are not yet able to do grands pirouettes at 90º can learn pirouettes in open positions at 45º. In fact, this would probably help them advance more quickly to pirouettes with the legs higher because of the control required of the back muscles. I advocate for a greater focus on allegro during ballet class (and lengthening the standard class time to 2 hours instead of 90 minutes, but that is another blog post). A very common ballet class format for jumps is a "warm-up" combination consisting of small temps levés in 1st and 2nd positions as well as changements, then a "petit allegro" combination with assemblés, jetés, glissades, and pas de chats, then a "grand allegro" combination with grandes sissonnes, grands jetés, and jetés entrelacés (AKA grand jeté en tournant). I prefer a more gradual approach. After the "warm-up" combination, one might do a combination of assemblés and small entrechats to reinforce the stabilizing muscles of the torso. This could be followed by perhaps two or three combinations involving small jetés, ballonnés, ballottés, emboités, ronds de jambe en l'air sautés, larger turning jetés, brisés, small cabrioles, small sissonnes, larger entrechats, and échappés. These would provide a transition from petit to medium (moyen?) allegro, for which one would do larger sissonnes, échappés, entrechat-six, and ronds de jambe en l'air sautés at 90º. Then, finally, a grand allegro with grands jetés, grands sissonnes, grands échappés, entrechat-six de volé, double tours en l'air, large cabrioles, fouettés sautés, &c. Obviously it is not necessary to strictly pigeonhole every step as either "grand allegro" or "petit allegro" and there is no need to specify precisely where a step ought to occur in the progression of classroom exercises. Mixing and matching steps teaches students to handle a wide variety of choreographic styles with ease and grace. I provide the above paragraph to demonstrate the idea that allegro need not be rigidly broken up, that it can/should instead be a seamless progression of ever-larger and more complicated movements. Finally, I realize that the negative examples I have provided above are not representative of everyone's experience and that many teachers are working against such technical mistakes and misplaced attention. There is much good training as well as bad and mediocre that occurs every day, and I provide examples of bad training so it may be seen, recognized, and corrected. I realize that bad training is not mistakenly exalted everywhere.

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Good Feet

One hears a lot of talk about "good feet" in ballet, but what does that actually mean? What makes the shape of one foot "better" than another? What about those whose feet aren't particularly beautiful in themselves but who use them well? Following is a short, general guide for those without classroom experience regarding what goes into creating a beautiful foot and using it well. It is not intended to be exhaustive. The Well-shaped Foot Several physical factors are involved in the architecture of a beautifully pointed stationary foot in ballet, including: 1. A high arch 2. A high instep (the top of the foot) 3. A flexible ankle joint These attributes are usually all found together, although it is possible to have a high instep without much of an arch and vice versa. It is easiest to see when the foot is pointed in profile, for example in battement tendu à la seconde seen from the front. If there is a pronounced curve in the under-side of the foot, the dancer has a high arch. If the curve on top of the foot protrudes, the dancer has a high instep (for a good example of a high instep, see photographs of Alla Sizova on Ballerina Gallery). A flexible ankle determines how well the dancer will be able to stand en pointe (if female). If the dancer's knee, the middle of the ankle joint, and the toes run in a straight line when the foot is pointed, the ankle has sufficient flexibility. Too much flexibility in the ankle is not usually a problem as there are pointe shoes made to assist dancers with this issue. The Beautiful Foot in Motion Of course, simply having beautiful feet is only one part of the equation. If a dancer has at least adequate feet, the most important thing then becomes how s/he uses them. Each teaching method has its own way of producing dancers who use their feet well, and each style of ballet has particular requirements for how the feet are used in order to fit its aesthetic. Nonetheless, nearly all methods and styles have certain basic similarities. To use the foot in a truly refined manner, one must be aware of, and use, the ankle, arch, and toes coordinated with each other. This coordination is developed in the classroom starting with the barre exercises and continuing through allegro. When pointing the foot for a battement tendu, a relevé, or a jump, the foot presses against the floor as the ankle and arch extend. The toes provide a final push against the floor as they extend without curling under to finish the line. This may be done at various speeds (depending upon the tempo and character of the music and the style of the choreography) and different methods and styles prefer different accents. Some prefer the foot to point slowly so the dancer may be fully aware of the movement. Others use a strong, sharp motion. Both have their merits and in this era when ballet companies perform Petipa classics alongside Balanchine and crossover works, it is best for dancers to learn as many different ways of using the foot as possible. The way one points the foot is important, but not more important than the way one relaxes, or un-points the foot. When closing from a battement, coming down from a relevé, or landing from a jump, it is the toes that press into the floor first, immediately followed by the ball of the foot. Then the arch relaxes as the ankle gently allows the heel to lower. The entire foot and leg must act as a series of springs so there is a sense of pressure, of the foot not wanting to relax immediately as it comes in contact with the floor. This allows for both a silent landing from jumps and a buildup of potential energy for the next movement. Placement of the foot on the floor and coordination of the foot with the legs and back are beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to write about them in the future.

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