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By Nancy Wozny
Claudio Muñoz doesn’t mind throwing in a little physics lecture during barre if it proves his point. Known for his humor and honesty, Muñoz, ballet master of Houston Ballet II, has been shaping bodies and minds at HB’s Ben Stevenson Academy since 1999. As a dancer with Chile’s Ballet de Santiago, he performed principal roles in works by John Cranko, Balanchine, Ivan Nagy, and Ronald Hynd, partnering Natalia Makarova in Hynd’s Rosalinda. He taught at Ballet Nacional Chileno, Ballet de Santiago, and Ballet Nacional del Perú before coming to Houston. Recently his students have placed in the top ranks at the Prix de Lausanne (including Emanuel Amuchastegui, who won first place as well as the “Audience Favorite” award this year). Nancy Wozny observed Muñoz’s class at BSA in March.
The barre seems like a good place to start. What’s your philosophy? Ballet happens with the entire body; the barre needs to reflect that. Also, whatever I do in the center I prepare at the barre. It’s like being a good cook. You can’t be chopping fish and making filet mignon. You have to make the connection.
Can you talk about the relationship between stamina and technique? Without stamina, no one sees your wonderful technique. When Emanuel was getting ready for the Prix this year, we did the diagonal phrase in La Sylphide every day for three weeks. He could not understand why at first. You need to make the steps look easy, so no one realizes that you are dying.
What’s the biggest technical issue for students today? Port de bras. I work on it all day every day. Dancers are too focused on their legs. Putting the legs before the upper body is like a fly on top of a beautiful cake.
Holding props, like a water bottle, helps students bring awareness to their arms; sometimes they pass the water bottle between hands during turns. With some weight on an arm, they can better sense what they’re doing.
Finding their center is another challenge. Sometimes I have them balance on a stool, so that staying centered actually feels easier once they get back to the floor. They need to understand the physics of dancing—where our energy and force need to go. Once they have a concrete experience with that, they get it.
You are so amusing in class. How is humor a useful teaching tool? When my students relax, they begin to listen and get out of their own way. In this demanding profession, where the brain works so hard, humor helps you to let go of that, to see a problem from outside yourself. I am still the teacher; students respect that. Yet I never want them to feel like they can’t ask a question. A sense of humor reminds them I am approachable.
Who influenced your teaching style? Ben Stevenson had a way of approaching dancers so they would relax. From him, I learned to never scare a student. From Ivan Nagy, I learned the discipline it takes to dance. It is a vocation more than a profession—like being a priest.
HB II dancers look so at ease in artistic director Stanton Welch’s intricate partnering. Do you enjoy teaching pas de deux? I love it. It’s such a central ingredient in ballet, like a conversation—two bodies, one breath. We start teaching partnering in level five, so by the time students get to HB II, which is level eight, they can do complex contemporary lifts as well as classical work.
Do you see more boys interested in ballet these days? Absolutely. It used to be that every mother wanted her child to be a doctor or lawyer. Now we have all these dance TV shows and YouTube. Boys see that being a dancer can be a great profession.
HB II is like the United Nations right now, with students from all over the world. How do you deal with cultural differences? It’s hard sometimes because cultural habits differ vastly. For example, Japanese dancers have a different relationship to authority, so they are less likely to ask a question, while Latino cultures are more open. Everyone brings something from their country into their dancing. To truly cross cultural divides it comes down to coaching. We work so personally with each student here.
Your classes are a final polish for HB II students before they embark on professional careers. What do you hope they’ll accomplish by the time they leave your nest? There’s a thin line between academy student and professional. Yet it’s also a big cliff. We try to make HB II exactly like being in a company, to ease the transition. We give our dancers many performance experiences, and we work on their emotional maturity as performers. They have to know how to create the illusion of a story, or the audience will never buy another ticket. The audience has to have a spiritual break from the busy world. Any HB II dancer should be able to make that happen.
Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy Houston Ballet