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By Lauren Kay
Alexandre Proia dances in splashes of colorful movement. At 6' 2", he streaks across a studio with an angled yet fluid phrase, something closer to a snippet of choreography than a classroom combination. Moments later, shifting his focus from artistry to technique, he speaks about using energy from the toes to initiate a passé.
A native of Longwy, France, Proia honed his blend of dramatic flair and attention to detail as a student at the Paris Opéra Ballet School before joining Boston Ballet in 1980. From 1984 to 1994 he danced with New York City Ballet—where, as a principal, he partnered Suzanne Farrell, Merrill Ashley, and other great ballerinas—and later performed on Broadway, in the Martha Graham Dance Company, and with Martha Clarke. Proia now teaches at New York’s Peridance Capezio Center and the Joffrey School, while shaping the beginnings of his own company. Lauren Kay watched his class at Peridance and found out how he helps dancers discover their own voice.
Which teachers and choreographers influenced you? I feel very lucky to have such a rich background working with people from Balanchine to Robbins to Forsythe. Jirí Kylián taught me respect for the body. It’s not a machine; it’s a spirit. He taught me how to help dancers be involved, not imprisoned.
Although nobody can teach you how to teach, Stanley Williams at SAB would enter the room and in five minutes he’d have you sweating like hell. He treated the studio like a temple, and our concentration increased dramatically. Violette Verdy taught me intelligence, humor, and, most important, drama. In the theater, that’s what the audience is paying for.
How would you describe your approach to teaching? I use ballet basics as a foundation, but I like to bring on a mood. I want dancers to not take themselves too seriously, but take the moment seriously instead. I also stress enjoying, celebrating. You should dance for the fun of moving, inside and out. Dance is not just a dream, it’s something to live by. Many professional dancers forget that. I want my students to take the base I provide and extrapolate so that dance becomes personal again. I help them use dance as a language. Hopefully, they’ll have something to say.
Your combinations seem more like pieces of choreography than classroom exercises. How do you think this benefits dancers? Longer pieces help with stamina and memory. Also, many students don’t have the chance to go onstage or don’t do so frequently, so this gives them the opportunity to express themselves. I allow students to tweak my choreography as they see fit. For example, maybe a Graham dancer comes to my class but wants to practice a certain movement the way it will relate to Graham technique. When she does that, I know she is present. I want my students to ask, with these mini-choreographies, “What can this combination do for me?”
What is the relationship between style and technique? I think dancers should cook with as many ingredients as possible. I’m not a purist—although I think technique is essential. For me, style comes in partly as a way for students to overcome fear. If you put a fouetté into choreography in class, then it becomes a part of the conversation of dance, not a scary exercise. I think, How can I empower them to go for it, to have that feeling of freedom while still using clean basics?
I also consider level. In a conservatory setting, there is a curriculum to stick to. But if I’m teaching company class, I think about what the dancers performed the night before, or will perform. At an open studio class, I demonstrate and suggest broader technical terms, like “find opposition here,” but again, each dancer can make her own choice. I don’t like to “dress the Christmas tree” too much!
What do you feel dancers today are lacking, compared to when you were a student? They lack a sense of knowing why they dance and the desire to question themselves. I think some of this is not their fault and comes from the lack of connection to choreographers. When I was coming up, dancers had someone they were working with, or aspired to work with, like Graham or Balanchine. Today, I find, dancers are left alone with less specific goals. Choreographers have multiplied, and many of them just want dancers to show the most difficult movement, to break the body and then move on. It isn’t beneficial to anyone, really.
What parts of French style and technique do you offer your students? I like to think of a French calf and batterie, a Russian back, and an American mind! At Paris Opéra Ballet School, we learned the importance of plié and speedy feet. I love the strong spine and épaulement the Russians insist on. And I admire the progressive mindset American dancers seem to have. I also hope to convey the respect for our craft that I feel is very French, although of course not exclusively so. The focus I learned at Paris Opéra Ballet School helped me to see that the more you concentrate, the more you empower the moment and yourself. The more you respect the art, the more you grow.
Photo by Sarah Keough