Teacher's Wisdom: Wilhelm Burmann

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.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021