Teacher's Wisdom: Wilhelm Burmann

October 26, 2008

Fast and hard—that’s the reputation of Wilhelm Burmann’s class at Steps on Broadway. Although principals from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre take his class regularly, Burmann pays attention to any dancer who is willing to work. Originally from Germany, Burmann danced with the Stuttgart Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, and under Balanchine at NYCB. He served as ballet master for The Washington Ballet, Grand Théâtre du Genève, and Ballet du Nord and has been a guest faculty member for ABT, NYCB, La Scala Ballet, and Paris Opéra Ballet. Jennifer Stahl recently caught up with Burmann for his thoughts on success in the classroom—and on the path to a career.

How should dancers approach class?
The whole point of taking class, like Mr. Balanchine used to say, is to clean yourself. It’s like brushing your teeth: If you don’t do it you’ll get cavities. It’s not about being naturally perfect. Perfection comes through creating an illusion—and through hard work. When you mess up going across the floor, go to the back of the studio and clean it up. And don’t just rehearse the trouble spot. Rehearse the step that gets you into it—it’s always the preparation that determines how you do things.

How do you help dancers feel placed?
If you let yourself go, you’ll get there. Standing on a controlled leg for three hours doesn’t place you. If you want to piqué arabesque, just piqué; don’t analyze it too much. Do the movement, then clean it up; not the other way around. Some people have been so drilled about feeling this detail and that detail, they can’t move.

How can a student get more personal attention in an open class?
I’m willing. The only question is: Is the student willing? If you don’t want to go into fifth position, get out of the business. I can help you get there if you ask. I want people to learn something, but to really learn you cannot just take one class from a teacher and that’s it. “Oh, it’s too hard, it’s too fast.” It’s always too fast. If you want a career nowadays, find a teacher you really respect and keep studying with them. You don’t have to like them, but respect what they can teach you. You have to be selfish (in a positive sense) if you want to make it to the top.

Have you seen a change in dancers over the years?
A lot of dancers now spend three or four hours on the computer, which are hours missing in the studio. It’s wonderful to elevate yourself and study and look toward the future, but if you really want to make it in ballet, you have to give to it totally. Dancers have to be better today. How can any audience nowadays take Swan Lake with someone who’s just good? It’s a ridiculous story. For it to be acceptable, the dancer has to be totally devoted to the craft.

If a dancer is “just good,” how do you help them advance to the next level?
Often, people with a lot of technique have nothing going on inside. They just become pretty-looking things onstage and don’t give you anything. But everybody has a soul. When you see people who bare their soul, who are on the verge of being totally ridiculous, you’re right there with them. In the video of Swan Lake with Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, she is so over-the-top, but just when you think she’s going nuts, she pulls back. That’s what all the excitement is about. A lot of dancers never experience that. They’re too afraid to expose themselves, to fall. But I always say, “You better fall. Then you can learn to pick yourself up instead of dancing so carefully all the time.”

You focus a lot on opposition in class. What does it do for technique?
The left side of your body gets you to move to the right. If I do a développé with my right leg, I use my left side to get it there. That way the développé goes through my whole body, which gives the position strength. In German we say “the standing leg” and “the play leg,” which makes perfect sense to me: The standing leg lets the other one play. Artistically, you have to train the body with a slight épaulement because when the head gets stuck in the middle nothing works. If you really aim for opposition, the body automatically feels freer.

How do you help students find their balance?
What Balanchine taught so well is that when you relevé, the action is down, not up. You have to put weight into the floor to get everything in line and know where your strength is. If you lift from the top, everything goes out of place. Also, you want to teach balance in movement. Anyone can stand still and passé for eight hours. Practice doing tombé pas de bourrée piqué and then staying there.

What would you tell young dancers going through difficulties in their careers?
Don’t forget why you went into dance, whether it was for the love of it, to be a star, or to please your family. That helped me over the years. When you have bad days and everything aches or you didn’t get the role you wanted, just remember why you started.