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At 73, Ben Stevenson isn’t slowing down. With an international reputation for choreographing and teaching, he’s best known for building Houston Ballet into an acclaimed company. (They named their training academy after him in 2003.) Now dancers flock to him at Fort Worth’s Texas Ballet Theater, where he’s been artistic director since 2004. A protégé of Anton Dolin, Stevenson trained at London’s Arts Educational School. At 18, during his first year with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, he partnered Alicia Markova. At 35, as co-artistic director of the National Ballet of Washington, he set his Sleeping Beauty on Margot Fonteyn, a guest of the company. (A few years later, Balanchine invited him to stage it for Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.) Along with his warm and self-effacing humor, he brings a mélange of ballet and musical theater to his teaching. Karen McDonough recently spoke with Stevenson, a 2000 Dance Magazine awardee, after watching his class.
Do you teach professionals and students differently? It’s very much the same. You’re always working on basic placement. Professional dancers work with choreographers and perform on the stage. They want a class that’s not so choreographed that they can’t focus on bringing their placement back to where they want it to be. I try to get rid of the strain in professional dancers. They have to do so much, in so many different styles.
You spend a lot of time on arabesque in class. What mechanics are you working on? Arabesque at the barre begins with a tendu. When you put that leg behind you, it should start from the top of the leg, not your lower back. I teach to lift the leg from where it starts, staying tall on the standing leg and arching in the upper back instead of the lower back.
How do you help girls develop their pointe work? Often people do a whole variation on three-quarter pointe and never come down. They do glissade, arabesque all on three-quarter pointe. What you want is the relaxation into the floor and then the height of the pointe work: You go up, but you also come down. Plié enables you to have movement in your body in the actual pointe steps; when you come down you can relax the torso so it becomes expressive.
In pointe work, you roll up through the foot and roll down. It’s good to have that control of the foot, which is so beautiful. When dancers have feet like hands, they can have a conversation with the feet.
What can dancers do to improve their balance? The feeling of a balance finishes at the top of your head. If you’re lifting your leg in front, your balance shifts just over the supporting leg. If you’re lifting the leg in the back, your balance changes. Often dancers keep their heads in the same position, but it’s that subtlety of placement in the head that can give you a natural balance, a sense of lightness. To get that, you have to relax.
Do you ever get choreographic ideas from teaching class? I do. I made my first professional piece, Three Preludes, when I was director of Harkness Youth Dancers in New York. One day a few dancers were rehearsing and messing around in the studio. I had a few favorite Rachmaninoff pieces that I thought would work well with their movement, so we choreographed one on the barre. Rebekah Harkness saw it and encouraged me to do more, so I ended up with three pas de deux. ABT did it, the Joffrey did it, and I did it all over the place. I was very proud of that first piece. It came from the class.
How has your training in musical theater shaped your teaching? In musical theater, the parts we played didn’t look like dancers; we looked like the characters we were supposed to be. That was very helpful, particularly now when it comes to telling a story through ballet. You have to find a real character and not just some balletic piece of fluff.
After more than 50 years as a teacher, how do you keep things fresh for yourself? It’s scary, teaching. You always feel, “I hope I can get the dancers going” or “I hope I can find some steps that really help them improve.” It’s hard to be inspirational and uplifting every day. I’m not sure I always achieve that.
Who are your most influential mentors and what did you learn from them? Marion Knight, Eve Pettinger, and Vera Volkova. Margot Fonteyn was an inspiration; certainly she knew the importance of your eyes—that the line finishes with the eyes, not just the hands. I was inspired by Carmen Mathe and her honesty about dance. She knew her body and worked with what she had. With people like Carlos Acosta, you’re teaching and choreographing for them, but their exuberance and the excitement they bring rubs off on you. With teaching, if you want to be inspired, inspire.
Photo by Ellen Appel, Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater.