How Can Dance Thrive If We Don't Care About Its History?
When I was a young dancer in Louisville, Kentucky, my ballet teacher used to speak a lot about Merrill Ashley. She brought neoclassical technique to exquisite new heights under Balanchine, and as a technician, she famously paved the way for today's balletic whiz kids. (Later, when I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher.) Today, as I travel around the country giving master classes, I often find myself bringing up the names of quintessential American ballerinas, dancers like Merrill. But now, if I mention her name, I can't help but notice my students' eyes widening as they look to each other wondering who exactly this famous ballerina named Merrill is.
("Google her," I say. "She's one of American ballet's greatest national treasures!")
I was lucky enough to have been given a class in ballet history as a 10-year-old. As much as I disliked the idea of getting up early on Saturday mornings to take notes on Bronislava Nijinska and Ninette de Valois before technique class, I can't help but be grateful now for having been exposed, at such a young age, to the historical beginnings of my chosen art form. Knowing this history gave me a road map for how modern-day ballet came to be.
Listening to my teacher Alun Jones, as he lectured on about how ballet technique developed over time—crossing from Italy to France to Denmark to Russia, finally making its way over to America, even finding its way to my own town—gave me a new perspective and pride of place within the lineage of the art form.
Throughout my career, I've continued to stay curious about the stories, heritage and historical figures involved with the origins of so many ballets. Understanding that brings depth of insight and colors the imagination beyond simply knowing the steps; history both puts us in our place and empowers us at the same time.
Before the internet, when information about dance was scarce, we savored our subscriptions and our trips to the bookstore. I'll never forget the only dance book in my grade school library back then. It was about the revolutionary modern dancer, Katherine Dunham. Starved for inspiration, I checked it out, and found myself engrossed in her story. As a preteen, white aspiring ballerina, I never expected to find myself connecting so deeply to one of the great African-American mid-century innovators of modern dance. Not only was Ms. Dunham a remarkable performer and teacher but she was also a highly acclaimed academic and a groundbreaking social activist, an icon of the dance world.
It's incredible to understand how dance has developed over time, how it's transformed itself through economic collapse and even war, and how it continues to survive. Being a dancer requires great responsibility—ballet's past reminds us that we are now the living, breathing, active recipients of the 400-plus-year history of this remarkable art form.
How the ballet world moves ahead is undoubtedly a question on everyone's mind, especially in regards to inclusion, diversity and female empowerment. Tides are turning for a number of cultural capitals around the globe.
As we navigate ourselves forward, it might be good to glance back more often, to see how and why those before us did what they did. We need to study ballet's cultural shortcomings, as well as its successes. That's more of a challenge these days as we find ourselves in this "speed of light" digital age, so often focusing on ourselves and the "now." But let's put some extra effort into getting to know those artists who, through their deepest commitment to dance, gave us shoulders to stand on.
This passing down of history (along with technique and artistry) is a bit like handing down the family jewels—with each generation imploring the next to "handle with care" and "wear it well"—so the art can continue to shine for generations to come.
You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.
Notable dancer and beloved teacher, Ross Parkes, 79, passed away on August 5, 2019 in New York City. He was a founding faculty member at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan, where he taught from 1984 to 2006. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, said: "He nurtured two generations of dancers in Taiwan, and his legacy will continue."
About his dancing, Tonia Shimin, professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara and producer of Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, said this: "He was an exquisite, eloquent dancer who inhabited his roles completely."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.