Teacher's Wisdom: Ann Reinking

Best known as the leading interpreter of Bob Fosse's style of musical theater dance, Anne Reinking made famous her Broadway leads in Dancin’, Sweet Charity, and Chicago. Reinking has worked with many legendary artists, including Katherine Hepburn, Gwen Verdon, Tommy Tune, Joel Grey, Ben Vereen and choreographers Jerome Robbins and Fosse. She won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Choreography (in the style of Bob Fosse) for the revival of Chicago, and in 1999, Fosse, which she directed and co-choreographed, won the Tony for Best Musical. A 2000 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Reinking has appeared in the films All That Jazz, Annie, and Micki and Maude, and has choreographed for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Hispanico, and American Ballet Theatre. Reinking founded the Broadway Theatre Dance Project, a summer program for aspiring dancers, and teaches master classes all over the U.S. This past March, she was a master teacher and adjudicator for the southeast region American College Dance Festival, where fellow adjudicator Steve Rooks, associate professor and resident choreographer at Vassar (and former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company) observed her class.

Fosse technique has sometimes been classified as being a bit too sensual and risqué for some tastes, yet it clearly has a style and clarity that is trans-generational. What do you say to those detractors?

Certainly the style can be sensual but elegant, and no more sensual than what you might see in sections of works by Robbins or other Broadway choreographers. The hip isolation in Fosse’s work is given the same reverence that you would give to the art of an East Indian or Balinese dancer. Bob never wanted a “hard bump”—he always wanted it dainty, very controlled. Sensuality must be done with intelligence or wit or both. Students in my class should be bound to the earth, but attached to the heavens. That paradox is so marvelous. All this history from legends like Fosse goes into what each student experiences in the class.

What is the primary foundation in your teaching approach?

One of my greatest goals is to instill trust in my students. They want to know that they can trust you, and they want you to know that they will do their homework. In addition to their technical development, I want my students to be the best dancer they can become that day. I know the pressure that dancers face in every class—they have to be careful not to judge the work that they do each day, and as a teacher it is important that I support them and create this trust.

Who were some of your greatest influences?

I was very fortunate to have some legendary teachers, including Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. However, it was Robert Joffrey who, after hearing me sing, suggested that I might consider musical theater over ballet as a career. He told me, “It really would be fantastic if you did Broadway.” His counsel was pivotal to the direction of my career, and just as when I began to teach, once I began I knew what I wanted to do.

Aside from the great movement in your combinations, there is a distinct focus on clarity of line and detail.

If I have the students long enough, I like them to work on little sections with specific goals. I think that the students should pick up things quickly, and be good at pinpointing certain aspects of the dance. These nuggets can really help fine-tune the dancers’ craft. As a dancer, you have to like repetition, and be aware of the subtext of your work. I really want to create in the student a need to become involved. As an artist, everything has to be created inside your being—you must ask, how do I get myself into the piece?

What challenges do you face as you teach our 21st-century dancers?

Our dancers are technique-bound. They often feel that by simply doing the step they’ve “done it.” There isn’t often the work of dancing from the human soul. I believe that the student should be an inventive and contributing interpreter in the class. They should have a full-size view of what they want to do beyond pointing the feet and working on turnout.

At the American College Dance Festival, you spoke of your love for great music. Can you talk about the importance of music in your classes?

When I teach a repertory class, I use music that is specific to the work. However, I love live music, and I have enjoyed some wonderful class collaborations with Philip Hamilton. Live music really makes students grow. The studio becomes a “bouillabaisse” of creativity when everyone comes to class as a contributor—the great music, the pieces of repertory, and the student’s experience.

As a teacher, what are some of your pet focal points?

I want my students to work on good alignment, but I also want them to be able to explore “different lines,” especially for those dancers with strong balletic training. Their lines tend to be there automatically, but dancers often need to just let it go. I try to go to the need of the student at their appropriate level.

As you observe today’s dancers, what would you say are the greatest needs for teachers to impart in our students?

I think that teachers should help today’s students become specialists, but I also feel that dancers should be able to integrate all styles. They should learn to communicate to their audience that what they do is good, right, and wonderful! As instructors, we need to continue to teach dancers to be creatively obliged, to be interested in all approaches to dance.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.

Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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