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By Kate Lydon
Stavitskaya works with the students of Manhattan Youth Ballet at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center. Photo by Natalie Levich, Courtesy Stavitskaya.
Last year, New York City–based ballet teacher Marina Stavitskaya was hired to train Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan. Stavitskaya enjoyed her experience with Portman, but her greatest professional satisfaction comes from her daily work. She has been helping students, both professional and pre-professional, grow technically and artistically for the past 38 years.
Stavitskaya trained at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, danced with the Kirov and Mikhailovsky (Maly) Theater, and joined the faculty of the Vaganova Academy. Since immigrating to the U.S. in 1976, she has crossed stylistic borders, interweaving her Russian roots with influences from Balanchine and the French School. Stavitskaya has taught at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and currently teaches at Manhattan Youth Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. She has staged many classical ballets and often teaches for European companies, including Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Stuttgart Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, and Cullberg Ballet. Kate Lydon, a former student of Stavitskaya’s, talked with her about her career, training techniques, and, of course, Natalie Portman.
Coming from the Vaganova system, what was your first impression of Balanchine? When I first came to the U.S. and saw New York City Ballet perform, I couldn’t understand how they dance completely differently—like they’re not touching the floor, with incredible lightness. After working at the school 11 years, I began to understand and love this beautiful style.
What quality do you look for in a student? I like when people come to class with passion and the desire to learn. Sometimes you get a student whose mother wants her or him to dance, or who has a great body, but not the mind of a dancer, not the desire a dancer should have.
How do you give corrections in a way that gets results? I’m experimenting each time I give a correction. If students don’t understand what I want, I think, “How should I put it differently? Ah, let me say it this way now.” And all of a sudden, they understand. It’s important how you correct, the way you describe things, what voice you use.
How do you teach port de bras and épaulement? We have six ports de bras in Russia. Each uses the coordination of your arms, head, back, and épaulement. For example, fourth port de bras always starts with breathing. You breathe slightly; your chest becomes like a little swan for a second. Then the left arm goes back, then you smoothly shift to the right one, which goes in front of you, and you show fourth arabesque (which is very difficult, and beautiful if you do this correctly), keeping the left shoulder blade down so much that it should be painful, then you return to starting position. Each port de bras should be done with breathing and the coordination of your head, neck, and chest. That is how the dance becomes alive.
How do you teach students about artistry? Can you teach this? Yes. It takes time, but I do teach this. Once I had a student who asked me to watch a piece of choreography she was going to perform. I watched, but she was very dry and frozen. So I went through the piece step by step, moment by moment. For one movement I might say, “You have to breathe, turn your head, eyes up, stretch your back, go forward.” It was difficult. Smart dancers will figure out how to transfer these corrections to other pieces. I always feel when I teach a class or my private students that I should have taken a film of them before and after so we could see their progress.
Do you have a teaching specialty? I think people respond to my passion. When you give your heart, your desire, your breath to all of the students and they become united in harmony, that’s magical.
Natalie Portman thanked you in her Academy Award acceptance speech. How did you end up working with her? Benjamin Millepied called me and said “Marina, I would like you to work with Natalie and show her precise Vaganova style.” When I met her, I could see she had studied ballet before. In class, she was like a mathematician, very serious and determined to take each correction—working on her feet, legs, back, and arms. She achieved a lot. She did fouettés and piqué turns on pointe. Her arms were slightly different than I wanted, so we worked on them, bringing a little Russian touch. I enjoyed working with her and felt we had a good connection.
There has been some controversy over the fact that she had a body double in the movie. But you say she can definitely dance, right? Natalie got her Oscar not for her dancing but for her role in Black Swan. That said, she made a big jump from actress to be able to dance on pointe. Obviously, the most difficult technical movements her double, Sarah Lane, performed in the film. But Natalie did a lot. She had very hard training. Every day, she took classes and rehearsed. She worked with several teachers. Everyone contributed something to her style, her movement, and her character in this film. That’s why she thanked us. And it was very sweet and nice of her. I was surprised to hear my name, but from another point, I thought, “This is Natalie. She’s a very special, beautiful human being.”
What kind of satisfaction does teaching give you? I never wanted to become a teacher, but it has become my life and it gives me great happiness. Teachers are people who share their knowledge—we’re giving and giving. Of course, we want the students’ attention, understanding, and response. When students make achievements and you see results, it’s a great reward. You feel you’re leaving something here for the future generation.