Looking Back (way back) to My Time at SAB

January 17, 2009

I was looking out the window of the last car on a subway train, tears streaming down my face as I was watched the rails get further and further away in the dark tunnel. At 12 years old, I had just finished an SAB summer session and felt I had touched a world that would be hard to get back to at home in New Jersey. I had enjoyed the classes and my new friends, but I think what I was feeling most nostalgic about was the utter seriousness of everyone—both the students and the teachers—in the program. It was just assumed that we wanted to be dancers and would work hard.


I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about every correction, e.g. Tumkovsky telling us to hold a ball in our hand and stick the pinky finger out. But I loved the challenge of being at the barre (clandestinely sucking lemons on a hot day to keep our mouths moist), struggling through rond de jambe en l’aire, and learning the Little Swans variation.


One of the big treats was that we occasionally were allowed to watch rehearsals—or maybe only once. I remember being herded into the small studio on the same floor as the reception desk (the two large studios dipped a short flight of stairs below that level—this was in the building that is now the Barnes & Noble on Broadway at 82nd Street). Patricia Wilde was dancing, and she was so beautiful—not ethereal like some others, but very grounded and strong.


I also remember taking class in one of the large studios when suddenly a whisper went like a shot among us: “Mr. B’s here.” And when we looked up on that landing, sure enough, there was an elegant man there looking down on the proceedings. I did not know who he was, but got the message. Like the other girls, I immediately rolled my leotard under at the front of the hips, giving my legs a longer line.


I also remember that it was the first time in my life—I began dance lessons at 5—that I considered each class as a separate experience. Other students would ask, How was class? It made me realize how personal a class could be, how you could assess what happened in it, whether you learned something that helped you improve, and how you felt in it.


Ruthanna Boris and Maria Tallchief were quite strict. I think the kindly Muriel Stuart was my favorite teacher, but it was so long ago that it’s hard to remember. (This was 1960. What I do remember is that the new movie
was playing at a movie theater across the street—we could see the title on the marquis from the window of that small studio. And the Twist was all the rage.) But watching Tallchief’s feet as she carefully showed tendue combinations, I could see her feet weren’t luxuriously arched, but had earned the curve in them. Strong feet, worked feet. It gave hope to those of us who did not have naturally well-arched insteps.


When I returned to SAB for the summer session three years later, in 1963, I recorded in my diary each teacher’s most oft-repeated phrase.

Antonia Tumkovsky: “Cheek to me.”

Maria Tallchief: “Stomach in, chest out.”

André Eglevsky: “Arms simple.”

Lew Christensen: “Learn to listen.”

Muriel Stuart: “Now rest, darling.”


Not a bad bunch of reminders.


The School of American Ballet is now celebrating its 75th year, and I am thousands of subway rides away from my time as a student there. In
Dance Magazine’s
January issue, we have a brief memoir by a dancer who spent a lot more time at SAB than I did—Allegra Kent. Of course, it’s exquisitely written and says much more about the school’s aesthetic than I ever could. We also have a “day in the life” report of a current student there.


On Wednesday night, New York City Ballet paid a tribute to the school that has produced most of its dancers. As part of his introductory remarks, Peter Martins said that 17,000 students had been through SAB. Graduates who have illustrious careers elsewhere performed with NYCB that night. It was a great evening. I was so moved to see Misa Kuranaga, from Boston Ballet, whom I had seen at SAB’s June workshop in 2004; she was strong and fluid and free in
Julie Diana, a wonderfully sweet ballerina from Pennsylvania Ballet, and Patricia Delgado from Miami City Ballet completed the leads. Serenade looked magnificent. Amy Watson, an SAB grad who is a principal at Royal Danish Ballet, gave a spirited rendition of Choleric in The Four Temperaments, and Paloma Herrera from ABT made a bold Sanguinic.  


The accompanying photo exhibit, called Full Circle, was really fun too. (I believe it will stay up at NY State Theater, or rather the David H. Koch Theater, for the whole Winter Season.) You see Jock Soto the adolescent in a wild leap in class, next to Jock Soto the venerable teacher at SAB. You see the young and delicate Kay Mazzo, leaning in toward a pensive Mr. B to await his instruction, and next to that a recent shot of her correcting a student as the co-chair of the school. It’s like the wall space in between the photos condenses time.