Moonlighting with Pina Bausch

January 21, 2007

Janet Panetta translates Cecchetti for contemporary dancers.



The sun filters into the A-frame studio atop Venice’s famed, recently renovated opera house, Teatro La Fenice. Today is the “generale,” or dress rehearsal, for Pina Bausch’s epic, Fur die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.) The company dancers of varying ages are sprawled around the Zen-like studio, stretching on the floor and at the barre, and chatting quietly. Enter ballet master Janet Panetta. The room erupts with hellos and kisses.


Panetta’s home turf is New York, where she operates the Panetta Movement Center. Her classes are attended by dancers from the Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown companies as well as members of the burgeoning world of new burlesque. But for half the year, she leaves her studio in the capable hands of guest artists and flies to Europe where, among other jobs, she is ballet master (the term she prefers) for Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. Panetta’s unique ability to transpose her classical training to dancers of all backgrounds has created a growing demand for her services outside the U.S.


She came to Bausch via Lutz Forster, a 30-year company veteran. “I first saw Janet when she was guest teaching for PARTS at the International Student Exchange in Germany. I saw that she has an incredible wealth of knowledge,” says Forster. “I love her because she has great entertainment value! To be a teacher on these long tours I think that’s a must—a successful teacher must know what she’s doing and have a great sense of humor.”


Though her class is challenging, professional, and for serious inquiries only, it’s seasoned with witticisms (“If they’re late with the music, I say, ‘If I invited you to dinner at 8:00 and you showed up at 9:00, I’d be gone already!’ ”) and boosted by her accepting, supportive energy. “I don’t give up on them,” Panetta says. “If a dancer isn’t getting something, I give them a different path, a different approach to their problem. I’m sure they will get it, and they do get it, almost immediately. That boosts their confidence, and changes their perception of themselves in relation to that step.”


Panetta originally went to Europe in 1983 at the invitation of the French government as part of a project to develop modern choreographers and dancers. Her students included the now well-known French choreographers Mathilde Monnier, Philippe Decouflé, and Jérôme Bel. Her association with these students and other staff members caused her European teaching career to snowball.


Julie Anne Stanzak, who has been with Tanztheater for 20 years, says, “You feel her love for what she does. She is very dedicated to her principles, and so you take them on. You can also rapidly and effectively warm up in her class. She understands anatomy and she brings you to your center. And she makes us feel happy. We walk out of class with our teeth showing!”


Panetta’s deep knowledge of movement principles and anatomy enable her to discern what individuals need, no matter what school of movement their performance work stems from. “I don’t try to teach professionals how to learn, as most of them have developed their own systems,” she says about working with the Bausch dancers. “I remind them that they dance because they love it. I look at the kind of performance work these dancers do, and I figure out which aspects of my technique (Cecchetti-based ballet) are beneficial to them. Pina’s work is very weight-based, rhythmical and imagery-filled, so I go into the Cecchetti ‘archives’ and I talk about the use of weight. I give them varying rhythms to show how these changes will impact the use of their muscles. They can use more or less muscle, and I try to point that out.”


“The class is very good for the body because she doesn’t have us over-work our muscles,” says company member Silvia Farias. At the end of class I’m very warm, but not tight, because I haven’t used too much force.”


Panetta began taking ballet lessons in Brooklyn at age 5 in order to strengthen her polio-stricken left side. She later attended New Dance Group to study under Celine Keller and eventually wound up at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, where her teachers were Antony Tudor, the formidable Cecchetti pedagogue Margaret Craske, and the late Alfredo Corvino (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” Nov. 2004). She began her own teaching career at 14, assisting Craske with her 8-year-old students.


“That was really a lucky break,” says Panetta. “My parents couldn’t afford the classes, so I was on scholarship, and my job was to help Ms. Craske. This meant I was learning how to teach while I was learning how to dance. By the age of 14, I already understood that to teach is to learn.”


Panetta danced with American Ballet Theatre and “worked her way downtown” to perform with contemporary choreographers like Paul Sanasardo, Kazuko Hirabayashi, and ex-Cunningham dancers Robert Kovich, Albert Reid, and Neil Greenberg.


Her own experience in modern dance reinforced her respect for contemporary dancers. “Their tasks were very different and I understood that,” she says. “I was probably the first ballet teacher to say that I was teaching classical, linear technique to contemporary dancers. But I also enjoy teaching classical dancers. I like deciding which exercises will be relevant to each type of dancer.”


Bausch’s Fernando Suels sums up the Panetta experience nicely. “We are learning Cecchetti technique. We are getting good placement, but dynamic of movement is also very important. When I’m done with class, I’m ready to go onstage. And you can see what she wants us to arrive at in her body. You can see the technique in her feet and her legs. It’s inspiring.”


Nancy Alfaro performs and writes about dance in New York City. See her reviews at


Hosting the ACDFA

Hard work nets profit and visibility.


Each spring, hundreds of college students gather on campuses throughout the U.S. for American College Dance Festival Association-sponsored conferences. The three-day events include workshops, panels, and performances where student and faculty choreography are adjudicated by dance professionals.


Western Washington University in Bellingham hosted the Northwest region two of the past three years. “I had been to so many regional conferences—as student, teacher, and adjudicator,” says WWU dance director Nolan Dennett. “But it had never occurred to me that one day I would be hosting it myself. Then it was time for us to step up.”


Dennett joined the WWU faculty in 1989 and has served on the board of ACDFA since 2001. “Being on the board increased the visibility of WWU, but hosting a regional conference allowed us to showcase our program, faculty, and students,” says Dennett. “I don’t think that we were quite prepared, as hosts, for all the sensory stimulation a conference like this brings—the performances, the classes, the conversation, the networking.”


Dennett says that any school with sufficient studio space and enthusiastic support staff can host a conference. The planning process is made easier by the guidelines and timetables in the ACDFA Conference Handbook. Still, the task is daunting—especially if you have only adjunct faculty to help, as WWU did.


“It’s challenging when you have few or only temporary faculty, but you can do it,” says Diane DeFries, executive director of ACDFA. DeFries notes that North Carolina State University, with one faculty member, and University of Maine-Orono, which has only part-time faculty, have each hosted two conferences. Several community colleges have also stepped up, among them Modesto Junior College in California and Scottsdale College in Arizona.


Dennett began to plan about a year in advance. Recalling how he prepared for the first one in 2003 he says, “I took a deep breath, and before I got the Handbook, I imagined what needed to be done. I had lists of lists of lists: Enlist technical support from the Theatre Department, calculate a budget, solicit outside funding.” He says it was easier the second time around. “Planning the conference was still time-consuming, but as host I could relax a bit and enjoy being the artistic director.”


Budgeting is one of the first tasks a host faces. Dennett says in 2003, with 300 students attending, the four-day event netted about $8,000, an amount he later used for program scholarships. Each participant (faculty or student) paid a registration fee of $100, and for each piece adjudicated, there was a fee of $100, which Dennett says is about the average for regional festivals.


According to DeFries, almost all regional conferences make a profit. A small percentage goes to support the national office, but the balance—generally in the range of $7,000–$15,000—is retained by the host institution. Though few have lost money, several have just broken even, and some have made up to $25,000—but these are few.


Student volunteers play a critical role, serving as ambassadors for the host school. They monitor registration and classes, serve as timekeepers in adjudication feedback sessions, and design festival posters or websites, among other tasks. “It’s a great way to meet people from other programs, to see concerts, and to take classes at a reduced rate,” says WWU dance major Amelia Henderson. (One of her pieces was selected for adjudication at the 2006 Northwest Regional ACDFA.)


As host, Dennett set out to put his unique stamp on the conference. He added a “Dance for the Camera” screening and adjudication, a how-to-teach choreography workshop for dance teachers, and a Northwest artists showcase to support emerging regional work.


Dennett says the rewards more than offset the work involved. “This process is a great equalizer. The conferences help to decentralize dance by showing students that good work is happening all over the country. And, for a brief moment, Bellingham becomes the Mecca for dance in the Western United States. Dancers then see themselves as part of a much larger community.” —Gigi Berardi

The 2006 Northwest Regional ACDFA is hosted by the University of Wyoming, March 8–11. Schedules for other regions are available at: The biennial National Festival will take place May 16–18 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.