Eleanor D’Antuono got her start professionally at the age of 14 as a dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her long career included stints at the Joffrey Ballet and 20 years as a leading ballerina with American Ballet Theatre. Today, she serves as artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition. D’Antuono has also taught at New Jersey Ballet (above), the Joffrey Ballet School, and the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. Christina H. Davis observed her class recently at Nutmeg and asked about what she looks for in a young dancer.
What’s the attitude you like to see in a student?
If a student is eager to listen and strives to do something better, that’s exciting. I try to inspire people to take a chance, to take that ultimate chance, get just a little bit more. As a dancer I always felt that if I tried it one more time, I might fly.
When you say “take that ultimate chance,” what do you mean? When someone offers a correction, don’t worry about feeling uncomfortable. Try to take the correction and see how it works on your body first and deal with it for a while. You might think, “Oh this doesn’t feel good.” Well, maybe your teacher knows what he or she is doing, so you should keep trying.
You had a lengthy performance career. Did you approach things differently than other dancers?
I worked longer hours and danced more. I studied and studied, and took classes and more classes, and was coached privately. The only one who probably danced more than I did in my time was Rudolf Nureyev in terms of performing. I think it’s the fact that I worked so hard and stayed in shape constantly that saved me from serious injury for a long time.
What style of ballet do you teach? The dancers from Russia say I teach Russian. I was brought up slightly Cecchetti. Certainly my training was pretty eclectic. The world is so small today that it’s all become integrated. But my thought was always, “If I can move one way, why can’t I move another?” Basic classical training is really the important thing. I always say to people, “Have you ever been in a class where they didn’t tell you to straighten your knees or stretch your feet?”
Physical appearance, for better or worse, is a focus in the ballet world. How should a dancer deal with that pressure?
There are huge amounts that you can do to fix your physical look. I mean if you are 5′ tall, you’re not going to get to be 5’8″. But there are so many ways to change your appearance. Training can make a huge difference. I’m not suggesting everyone in the world can dance, but there’s a great deal you can do.
As artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition, how do you think competitions can enhance a dancer’s experience?
NYIBC in particular has a training component. Young professionals come learn repertoire that the coaches teach them. That’s what they compete with. The original idea was that the playing field would be more equal that way. It’s such a wonderful experience for the young dancers to work with these excellent teachers and coaches. Many of the dancers who come to the competition, whether they win or lose, say that it’s been one of the most remarkable dance experiences that they’ve ever had.
Personally, I’ve judged many competitions and I think the value is primarily the training before it. You learn to work on something and how to improve it and not get bored with it. You have a goal that you’ve set for yourself.
How do you encourage students to perform in class as if they were onstage? I think it’s my example. Ballet has to always be total, even in class. And it starts from the inside, not from the exterior.
But how do you teach that?
Music helps hugely. To hear every note and have a physical response. It’s the music that made me want to dance. I hear a note, I change.
Photo by Joseph Schembri, Courtesy D’Antuono.