Passing on the Magic

November 28, 2011

“Continue to lift your torso,” says Susan Jaffe, when working with American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane as she steps into a piqué fouetté to arabesque in the “Bluebird” variation from The Sleeping Beauty. The correction works, and Lane smiles as she balances. In the middle of ABT’s spring season, there are umpteen story ballets to rehearse. A half hour before that rehearsal, Jaffe, a legendary ABT ballerina who became a company ballet master in 2010, was in another studio helping Gillian Murphy establish a through-line of emotional connection with David Hallberg during a fourth-act run-through of Swan Lake. And before that, she taught company class.

Moving from principal dancer status to ballet master doesn’t earn an automatic blessing from Apollo’s angels. The job has a tough description: rehearsing long hours; teaching company classes; learning everyone’s role in a new ballet; translating movement from DVDs to the studio; playing shrink to sensitive artists; bringing second casts up to snuff; coaching dancers in principal roles; soothing jangled nerves before a performance; and working as a go-between from director to dancer. But those who have the knack for it can lend an invaluable hand to the dancers—once they learn the ropes.

Jaffe, who had already co-founded Princeton Dance and Theater Studio, had some experience with instructing before ABT hired her as ballet master. “I taught teenagers and really understood how to break things down,” says Jaffe. “I developed a keen eye for how things worked mechanically. So when I work with principals, I know how to get into details that are really helpful for them.” In addition, Jaffe had danced nearly every ballerina role in the ABT repertoire and had worked with an acting coach, Byam Stevens, to deepen her artistic exploration of her roles. “He helped me get a much larger view of the character and the era—the symbolic and archetypal understanding of them—and their blind spots so that I could feel I was that person onstage. I could take on their energy, their ideas and understanding,” she says. At ABT, she is passing down that wisdom.

But that means rarely leaving the studio or the theater during rehearsing and performing seasons. “One of the hardest things is that we are on call 24/7,” says Willy Shives, who became a full-time ballet master for the Joffrey Ballet after dancing with the company for nine years. “We don’t get a break during the day, unless it gets scheduled now and then. I don’t know if the dancers really know how hard the ballet masters work to be able to make sure the schedules fit the dancers’ needs and give them ample time to sink their teeth into a new ballet.” Unlike dancers in most major American ballet companies, the ballet masters have no union like AGMA to set restrictions for working hours and overtime.

Former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Katita Waldo was appointed ballet master by director Helgi Tomasson after she had worked as a choreographer’s assistant to Christopher Wheeldon and had helped Tomasson with the New Works Festival in 2008. “It involves more hours than when I was dancing,” says Waldo. “It’s a lot more thinking and sitting, which is harder on the body, so that’s been a little rough. It’s more psychological and cerebral. You have different types of learners—some quick, some not so quick, some need to have everything counted out. Some people are more musical and some are more visual. Maybe somebody is hurting or depressed. I always think, ‘How can I best help them and get my work done?’”

Jaffe, whose style is nurturing towards the dancers, didn’t have a problem with transitioning into an artistic staff member who makes decisions about her former dancing peers. “I don’t walk into the room thinking I’m the authority,” she says. “I walk into the room thinking I am a collaborator. But when they talk in class, I definitely have to stand up and say, ‘Hey, if you want to talk, go outside and have coffee. There’s not enough time in the day to improve, so why not do it here?’”

When Shives accepted the ballet master post, Joffrey Ballet director Ashley Wheater warned him that he would need to take his work home with him. “That was difficult. I have two kids and a wife, and home means family time,” says Shives. “That’s why I’m at the studio ahead of time making sure I’m prepared with DVDs.” Second casts also have to be ready to go on at any time, like in James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET. “Because the movement and the patterns happen so quickly, you can’t just throw someone on in that ballet,” he says.

Last spring, Wheeldon choreographed Thirteen Diversions for ABT, and Jaffe served as ballet master for the piece. “Being in the room and watching him create was absolutely fantastic for me. But it was also terrifying because I was frantically writing down steps, pulling out my camera, doing everything I could to not forget what he was choreographing,” says Jaffe. “I was reviewing it every night. Because I had run a school I got pretty savvy with cameras and downloading the movies and sending them on a file to Chris. [ABT ballet master] Susan Jones was next to me writing three pages of steps and I’ve got two steps down—but she’s been doing this for years.”

Some duties require an even longer adjustment period. “Casting is the one thing I’m not used to,” says Waldo. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. We all pitch in to figure out casting—the director, choreographer, the people setting the ballet have decisions about who will dance a part. Once that is decided, we have to step in and make sure there are covers for everybody. It’s a lot of juggling—figuring out height-wise who goes with whom. There’s a lot more to it than who is good enough or who isn’t.”

Shives had to adjust to being at the front of the room when learning new choreography. “As a ballet master I would sit and watch and learn and write and think, ‘What’s happening to me? I’m not retaining anything.’ It was because I wasn’t standing up doing the steps. Now I get up and do the movement with the dancers and choreographers. That way my body remembers.”

What Shives really wasn’t prepared for, however, was the cut in pay. “That was a little bit hard to swallow after being a leading dancer and making a certain amount of income that made me able to support my family,” says Shives. “Now, with kids in private school, I really have to budget.”

Feeling a responsibility for soloists on the principal track has been one of the biggest challenges for Jaffe, who primarily coaches the principals and soloists. Ushering soloists into the next phase of principal work is a tricky task. “They may need discussions on the side about how to conduct themselves and make sure they are improving and not getting into a negative mind-set,” she says. “You are really helping to shape somebody psychologically and physically.”

But with consistent work, the reward comes through seeing dancers blossom. That happened last year when Jaffe worked with Sarah Lane on Theme and Variations. After winning her trust, Jaffe was able to work on technique and artistry that needed to be addressed. The end result: beautiful performances of the Balanchine classic. ABT director Kevin McKenzie noticed Lane’s improvement in confidence and strength during the company’s British and Russian tours.

Even the daily grind of company class becomes a vehicle for ballet masters to help dancers, especially the corps de ballet, to improve. “When you’re teaching a class,” says Waldo, “and you help somebody to feel something they didn’t know they could feel—that’s the best.”

For any dancer thinking of becoming a ballet master, some caveats apply. Waldo stresses patience: “Don’t forget what it was like when you were a dancer—how you felt in the room. Be kind but strong. Make sure you know your stuff so you can answer the questions that come along. As one of my fellow ballet masters said, no matter how hard you prepare, there will always be a question you can’t answer.”

Jaffe feels you are either cut out to be a ballet master or not. She learned a great deal from Irina Kolpakova, whom she calls “a walking encyclopedia of Vaganova.” “Some dancers are great but never have been able to figure out how to pass that on,” says Jaffe. “If you walk into a studio and don’t know how to frame it, you can’t figure out how the dancer can do it. As a ballet master you have to like the process. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of love and a lot of knowledge. You have to really enjoy being in that process.”


Joseph Carman is a senior contributing editor of
Dance Magazine.


From top: Susan Jaffe giving company class at ABT. Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT; Katita Waldo, with Bruce Sansom (assistant to the artistic director), takes notes during a rehearsal of Neumeier’s
The Little Mermaid at SFB. Photo ©Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB; The Joffrey’s Willy Shives (right) with choreographer Ronald Hynes. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey.