2014 Summer Study Guide: Becoming a Petit Rat
Former Paris Opéra Ballet soloist Muriel Hallé instructs summer intensive students. Photo by Christophe Devera, Courtesy POB School.
“We’re in class—not on stage,” Elisabeth Platel warns a group of uniform-clad students at the Paris Opéra Ballet School. It’s not often you’ll hear this sentence in a dance studio, but for the POB School director, the goal is no-frills academic perfection. When one girl pushes to complete three turns and stumbles, Platel claps her hands to stop the pianist. “I want quality. Can you be active in two pirouettes, with a higher leg in passé? Do it with less force, but with precision.” The student blushes, but her next attempt is both cleaner and more technically sound.
Quality is akin to a mantra at the Paris Opéra Ballet School, an institution that remains notoriously insular with very few foreign students admitted to the year-round program. But for the first time in 2013, students from around the world were able to experience it first-hand. During the school’s first summer intensive, 210 dancers ages 10 to 18 were invited to live the life of the petits rats, as the French students are nicknamed, for ten days on the premises of the school, in Nanterre, suburban Paris.
The intensive was Platel’s brainchild. A frequent judge at international competitions, the former Paris Opéra Ballet star was frustrated to be the only director unable to offer prizes and scholarships to promising contestants because of the school’s strictly regulated application process. “I’m technically outside my remit,” she says. “The mission of the POB School is to train dancers for the Paris Opéra, but I wanted to give others a chance to experience what we have here.”
To do so, she had to convince both the Paris Opéra Ballet and her faculty that it was worth the extra work involved. The 300th anniversary of the French school of dance in 2013 proved to be the opportunity. The intensive is staffed entirely with POB School pianists and teachers, who all deliver their instructions in English; former étoiles Wilfried Romoli, Carole Arbo and Fanny Gaïda taught alongside Platel, and repertoire includes works from the company and school like variations from Nureyev’s version of Swan Lake. (A separate summer program for teachers runs simultaneously.)
All students take technique daily, as well as three other classes that reflect the school’s year-round syllabus. Older students are offered partnering, repertoire, jazz and contemporary classes; the youngest learn character, baroque dance, mime and musical expression. Applicants can choose to board in the school’s own dormitories (130 places are available) or stay elsewhere. Thirty-eight percent of students came from France the first year, but only three were full-time POB students.
“Everything is very organized, from tendus to the timing for dinner,” says 16-year-old Alexandros Pappajohn, who studies full-time at the School of American Ballet. For him, the intensive was a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream to study at the POB School. “I’ve always wanted to go there, but my parents wouldn’t let me travel abroad at such a young age for training.”
One of 25 students in the most advanced level, Katherine Higgins also jumped at the chance to experience a new training philosophy when Platel offered her a scholarship at the Youth America Grand Prix. “The French style is very different,” says Higgins, a recent graduate of the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp. “There’s a unique intention and meaning behind the movements. The preparations, the arms are not what I’m used to, and there are even steps I’ve never done before.”
The intensive’s selling point is its strict adherence to the restrained French style and the hands-on approach to corrections—a cultural trait that takes some adjusting to. And because the focus is on building strong foundations, the classes introduce advanced technique more slowly than is customary in the U.S. “I see a generation who prefers to be in a harder class to challenge themselves, but we’re not looking for children who can do extraordinarily difficult variations,” says Platel. “Instead, we work on coordination, on presenting the foot, on typically French footwork and pointe work. We’re 300 years old—French dance has gone through an aging process, and it ages well, like good wine.”
Higgins and Pappajohn say they felt the benefits. “I’ve been challenged to get my legs and feet together,” says Pappajohn, “and it’s made me much stronger already.” For Higgins, the highlight was working with Platel, a former étoile. “Everything she says opens my eyes more.”
Platel warns that summer intensive students shouldn’t see the program as an opportunity to audition: According to strict POB School policies, she cannot offer year-round places on the basis of the program. Still, as the students file out onto the large spiraling staircase and take their canteen lunch out to the school’s park, they look every inch the petit rat. And their presence is a new door to the world of the French school. “I feel like I know a new way to work,” says Higgins. “I can take that with me wherever I go.” And she has—this past summer, Higgins was invited to join the Bolshoi.
A frequent Dance Magazine contributor, Laura Cappelle writes about dance in Paris, France.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."