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By Lisa Traiger
Kee-Juan Han’s students grace stages across the country and abroad. Among them is American Ballet Theatre’s stately David Hallberg, who studied with Han at the School of Arizona Ballet. Han assimilated the Vaganova method from mentor Lin Yee Goh while dancing with the Goh Ballet in Canada. A former principal with the Indianapolis Ballet and a soloist with Boston Ballet, Han has danced most of the principal roles in the classical repertory, as well as works by Balanchine, Limón, Mark Morris, Susan Marshall, and Bebe Miller. Last year he became school director of The Washington Ballet, where he oversees a faculty of 10 teachers, and supervises the training of more than 450 students ages 5 to 23. Lisa Traiger recently spoke with Han about what he emphasizes in the classroom: determination, épaulement, and musicality.
What do you look for in young students that indicates the possibility of a future in ballet? You can see physique by the time they’re 11 or 12. That’s when bodies start to morph, so to speak. And you can see if a student has beautiful legs and feet. But that doesn’t make a dancer. It’s the determination, the drive, that makes a true dancer. There are a lot of kids who are trained well, and at 12 or 13 say they want to become a professional dancer. But by 17, dating comes and they’d rather go to university because they find out just how difficult it is to become a dancer.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. I tell students who graduate from training, “Give yourself two years. If you don’t get a job, go back to school.” A lot of them keep thriving, but it’s a very tough business. And those who decide to go back to school? That’s fine too. They will become good advocates for dance and will be our future audiences and board members.
Your students—both young and senior—carry themselves with a sense of elegance and expectation. How do you work on épaulement? I tell my students, “Even if you face en face, you still must have a sense of épaulement.” Every position has a different feeling. That’s why they have different names. Your back has to be very activated. I let students feel my own shoulders and back to understand how actively you must work.
Is that why in class you said, “I want your backs working even during your first plié”? Right. The back always has to be active. Even when you turn, the back has to be strong and expressive. Whether they’re facing front or croisé or effacé, the back says a lot. I tell students, “I need your back to make you feel like you’re aristocratic, because classical ballet comes from the French court, so you’re all royalty.” When you look right and left, you’re acknowledging people—courtiers.
You also asked your preprofessional dancers to think specifically about where they’re looking. Why? Focus is important onstage. Say you’re a principal dancer; when you enter the room—or the stage—it’s like a pageant. You must make everyone look at you: “I’m the prince; I’m here.” You can’t walk into a room without making a statement. And that knowledge of where to focus your eyes comes from practicing it in class.
There’s a great deal of emphasis on musicality in your classes. I like the steps to be a little bit crisper, clearer, with syncopation, so it doesn’t become too flat. Some people might not like that choice and think, “Oh, it’s too rough.” I like the sharpness and cleanness. And the dancers feel better too; they feel like they’re actually dancing.
At what level do you start to teach musicality? I start teaching musicality when students are very young. I begin by making them identify music: simple things like whether the time signature is 3/4 or 4/4. And they learn to hear from that. When the pianist plays, I make them feel the music by putting their hands on the piano. I ask, “Can you feel the vibration between the notes?” That way they’ll understand that it’s not a sharp one-two. If you have a 3/4, there are three beats behind it: one-two-three. I also tell my students that they should not arrive in a place and wait; they need to take all three beats. They can’t do that if you don’t teach music in class. I always tell my students, “Don’t hear the music with your ears because by the time you transfer it to your legs, you’re late. You have to express and feel the music with your body right there and then.”
Photo by Stephen Baranovics, Courtesy TWB