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“Without her, I would not have had a career,” Boston Ballet soloist John Lam muses about his teacher, Sorella Englund. Known widely as a shaper of the whole dancer, Englund, who was born in Finland, was the first non-Dane to enter the Royal Danish Ballet. Her performing career ended abruptly and scarily when she suffered a heart attack at the age of 33, after a struggle with anorexia. Once recovered, she undertook what has become a distinguished teaching career. A reassuring presence in the classroom, Englund encourages dancers to find their inner selves, while advocating for a healthy approach to diet and body image. As a performer, she is best known for her engrossing interpretation of Madge in La Sylphide—a role she has coached widely—where she becomes the antithesis of the ethereal sylph, the embodiment of rejection turned vengeful. Toba Singer observed Englund’s classes at Canada’s National Ballet School and spoke with her about the themes of body awareness and character work.
A dancer in your class fell out of turns after “anticipating” the step after the turn. What problems are posed by anticipating? Usually anticipation arises from nervousness. If the step is not of your personal choosing, you can tend to anticipate in order to stay on the music. But you can end up “up” when the music is “down,” and vice-versa, so instead of being more prepared, it works against you and you go off the music. I find it important to be present in every moment.
You suggest that dancers release their necks when their backs are facing the audience. How does one achieve as much expression with the back and spine as with the front of the body? We are so focused on the front because traditional performing and rehearsing uses the mirror and a one-dimensional focus. By giving attention to your whole body, you actually make your movement richer. I love using images that touch upon a fantasy. For example, I tell my students, “Imagine that the most important man or woman in your life is in the audience and can only see your back. You want your back to be as fantastic as your front.” Not only will the back become more expressive, but I see the entire front of the body open up!
The passé in pirouette seems to have a tendency to migrate to a lower point on the standing leg. What is the secret to a high passé in pirouette? Passé is an essential position leading to other key steps, such as développés, turns, and jumps. High passé helps one balance and creates harmony in the line. Placing passé high is best taught at the barre. You begin with coup de pied and, over time, build the excitement for the student as the foot advances up the leg to a high passé, so that you say hello to your standing leg!
You are famous for your interpretation of Madge the Witch in La Sylphide. Do you coach men and women differently in that role? It’s about the personality of the human being dancing the role. There have been differences: Most men have a strong need to make it a power game, because their partner (James) is the same sex. Most women come with different ways of revenge, often more complex. I have never planned a different process for men and women. I could just see that it came out that way. Men have a huge dignity: “I am stronger than you, and you’re not kicking me out of this room!” For women, it is a sexual rejection: “I am not attractive.” I have wondered what it would be like for me as Madge were James to be danced by a woman. Then I might make it a power game. “Who are you with your skinny little waist to tell me what to do? I am older and wiser, so just go home and grow up!” It’s incredibly individual.
Weight issues were responsible for ending your performing career. Do dancers with food issues “punish” themselves for a bad class or rehearsal by not eating? How can such behaviors be addressed? Eating disorders are seldom about food. The reasons are much deeper and also individual. In Europe the attitude toward extremely skinny dancers is changing. Artistic directors don’t want to employ dancers who are very lean, because they suspect they will end up sick. And the public doesn’t like it because it looks like a celebration of death. When a company administrator sees such a dancer they usually begin a discussion with her, offering consultation with a psychologist who specializes in weight issues. If the dancer keeps losing weight she will not be allowed to dance until she gains five kilos. But there are still many artistic directors who love skinny dancers, and the dancers go for what the director wants. They must understand that it is deadly, and scary for everyone.
You direct your students to hear the sensibility of the piano. How does a dancer build a relationship with the music? Oh, music is everything! As the teacher, it’s your challenge to focus on the music and concentrate on what you hear. Not only “Bap, bap, bap,” but what is the tone? What does it do to your emotions and your innate musicality? A dancer can challenge the music, go against it, phrase it, make music in silence, become it! Everything becomes easier if you allow your own musicality to be your closest partner.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy NBS