Guiding Lights: Ballet Masters

July 19, 2007

Ballet masters from ABT, PNB, and Kansas City Ballet talk frankly about the challenges of having the repertoire and the dancers under their wing.

Ballet masters are the backbone of the ballet world, but they don’t get much credit for the grinding work they do. They schedule and direct rehearsals, teach company class, coach dancers, stage and reconstruct ballets, help with casting, nurture dancers, supervise photo shoots, and hold choreographers’ hands. From the most experienced to the least, they possess acute musicality, phenomenal memories, a sharp eye for detail as well as the big picture, the organizational skills of the mother of seven children, calm dispositions, and the patience of Job.

Susan Jones of American Ballet Theatre, Mark Goldweber of the Joffrey Ballet, James Jordan of Kansas City Ballet, and Paul Gibson of Pacific Northwest Ballet have on-the-job experience ranging from nearly 30 years to three months and, depending on the requirements of their companies, perform some or all of the functions above. DM talked with each of them about their jobs, experience, and how they function in their companies.

During an open rehearsal of
Don Quixote
at the Metropolitan Opera House last June, Jones, who is principally in charge of ABT’s corps de ballet, spoke quietly from the orchestra, asking two of the corps dancers to “move just a little closer together.” Seconds later she was onstage, gently moving them into place.

Even as an 18-year-old corps member, Jones, who joined ABT in 1971 after training with Mary Day at the School of Washington Ballet and holding an apprenticeship with the Joffrey, knew she had the temperament to be a ballet mistress. “They put new girls under my wing,” she said. “I have one of those minds that always grasps the bigger picture, which made me look at this as a career when I stopped dancing.”

“She can deconstruct a ballet the way a mechanic takes apart an engine,” says artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “She suggested I work backward,” he said, when he was having difficulties arriving at a concluding tableau for the swan corps for
Swan Lake
. “Then she numbered each person and worked it out on paper and solved the problem in two or three hours. Without being a choreographer, she has all the tools.”

For corps member Angela Snow, Jones “is calm and intelligent and extremely demanding. She takes me to another level. While I’m dancing I can’t see. I need an outside eye, someone to say, ‘Try this.’ It’s all about the correction.” Snow’s talent and work ethic haven’t gone unnoticed. “We always have our eye on her,” Jones says. “She’s tall and she is learning the variation for the two swans in Act II
Swan Lake
.” Jones’ attentive “eye,” like all ballet masters, can have a direct impact on a dancer’s career.

Like Jones, the Joffrey’s Mark Goldweber is one of a team of four ballet masters. His firm but gentle touch can be seen in Robert Altman’s movie
The Company
, which shows glimpses of him teaching company class, commenting in a staff meeting, and engaging in the conflict resolution that can be part of the day’s work for veteran ballet masters. In one scene that could be true to life, a long-term principal dancer resists the restoration of cuts in Gerald Arpino’s Suite Saint-Saens, one of the ballets in Goldweber’s charge.

On the other hand, Calvin Kitten (see “25 to Watch,” January, 2001), who dances many of Goldweber’s roles, is grateful for his input. “It’s great to work with someone who worked so closely with Mr. Joffrey,” says Kitten, who like Goldweber is a powerful jumper and turner. “He knows what he wants to do, then he lets you play with it and add your own nuances.”

After 10 years of performing ebulliently in such roles as Blue Boy in Frederick Ashton’s
Les Patineurs
, Goldweber left the Joffrey in 1987 to become ballet master at Oregon Ballet Theatre, returning in 1997 to his present job. Ask him what it takes to be a ballet master and he’s clear: “Diplomacy, patience, capacity for work, ability to get six new guys in shape in a week and then take them on a tour to the Netherlands.” His favorite part of the job, he says, is “to get a magical cast of a ballet, and work with it from staging to rehearsal to performance.” A close second is assisting such stagers as Victoria Simon, one of his favorites from the Balanchine Foundation for her “radiant intelligence.” How does he keep all the different styles and techniques in his muscle memory? Goldweber replies that his experience as a Joffrey dancer, performing in a highly varied repertoire, has made it possible.

At Kansas City Ballet, James Jordan frequently works a seven-day week. On a Sunday morning last February, snow piling up on his front porch, Jordan sat at his dining room table, pencil in hand and graph paper before him, working out the next week’s rehearsal schedule. That task done, Jordan moved to his living room, where he studied a video of Antony Tudor’s
Gala Performance
in preparation for staging it on Tulsa Ballet the following week.

Jordan puts the same careful preparation into staging the work of Todd Bolender, who selected him in 1981 (right out of North Carolina School of the Arts) to be one of the founding members of the new KCB. Bolender says, “He has intelligence and intuition, and as a stager he has an extraordinary facility to make the thing as it was originally.”

Jordan puts his all into assisting guest choreographers. Lila York’s
Postcards from Home
, which premiered last February, has extremely complicated counts. As reminders for the dancers, Jordan made count charts on poster boards and taped them to the dressing room walls, just as he had done when helping Bolender reconstruct Balanchine’s Le Renard (see “Dance Matters,” July, page 19).

Artistic director William Whitener characterizes Jordan as “unflappable” and relies on his “ability to work flexibly with guest choreographers, stagers, dancers, students, and parents.” He also appreciates Jordan’s participation in meetings about such issues as fund-raising and publicity. (Jordan has experience with the latter, having worked in press relations for the PBS network in for three years.)

KCB is a small company, and many of the dancers are just beginning their careers. Jordan, like Jones with the corps members of ABT, is ready to be practical and sympathetic with their problems. “I leave my door cracked,” he says, “but not wide open.”

Paul Gibson, who has choreographed for PNB and wants eventually to direct his own company, intended to wind

up his dancing career at the end of the current season. However, retiring PNB artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, knowing that ballet master Anne Dabrowski would be going on maternity leave in December, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “We knew,” Russell said last August, “that Paul wants to be an a.d. some day, and we wanted to give him this opportunity while we can. He’s musical, a clear thinker, has rapport with the dancers, and has computer skills. He’ll be doing all the scheduling.”

Gibson had danced five years with San Francisco Ballet before coming to PNB in 1994; two years later he was promoted to principal. “I loved being a dancer, but I’ve had a stage career. I’m ready to be in the rehearsal studio, ready to give back what I’ve learned from my mistakes and from everyone I’ve worked with.” Given the eclectic nature of both PNB and SFB’s repertories, Gibson has worked with a lot of choreographers and stagers—a plus for a ballet master rising from the ranks. His experience as AGMA representative at PNB is also useful; he knows well the practical needs of the dancers when he sits down at the computer to schedule rehearsals that will take place in three studios.

What Gibson strives for as a teacher is nothing short of greatness on the stage. “You can instill technique,” he says. “But it’s the inner spark that matters—the energy, the emotion of being lost in what you are doing.”

For the dancer, it’s all about the correction. For the choreographer it’s all about the work. And for the ballet master, it’s all about everything from the studio to the stage.

Martha Ullman West, a Portland-based writer specializing in dance, is one of DM’s senior advising editors.