Teacher's Wisdom: Devon Carney

July 24, 2007

Devon Carney has had a 30-year career as a dancer and teacher. As principal with Boston Ballet he worked with choreographers Choo San Goh, Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Ben Stevenson in roles from classical to cutting edge. He toured with Rudolf Nureyev, served as Boston ballet master from 1998 to 2002, and was artistic director of the Boston Ballet Summer Dance Program for nine years. As ballet master in chief for Cincinnati Ballet since 2002, he is treasured for his thoughtful classes, clear observations, stern yet supportive nature, and sense of fun.—Kathy Valin

How did dance come into your life?
As a teenager I started to do gymnastics. My stepmom, Diane Carney, introduced me to my first ballet class at the Harvey Hysell studios in New Orleans at age 14, and soon I was taking more dance classes

What are common problems you see in your students?
Épaulement and use of the arms seem to be the last thing to mature in dancers. It’s rare to see a dancer entering a professional career who has an understanding of the value and use of the arms. In second position, you have to get the elbow up. Your deltoids and latissimi dorsi are activated. Then your back opens up and is supported. Everything lines up. If you don’t do this, you can sway your back and let your stomach go.

Cecchetti, Vaganova, and Balanchine techniques are all part of your background. Which do you teach?
I like the squareness of Cecchetti, the movement quality in Vaganova, the freedom of Balanchine. I think, though, that the basis of my teaching has evolved into defining what works visually in any position.

What I teach comes down to one simple thing: There is only one fifth position. I teach an awareness of fifth as “home base” for a ballet dancer. Most classical ballet starts from fifth, or you are passing through fifth countless times in a variation. In true fifth position, your back toe is in line with the edge of the heel that’s in front. If you’ve got that on straight, then your tendu stays within the fifth, as though you were aiming for the point of an isosceles triangle in front of you.

A correct fifth prepares you for a croisé line. It prepares you for all extensions where your working leg lifts: dégagé, fondu, développé, grand battement, and grand jeté. Keeping your foot in front of your hips also gives your working leg a longer line. At the barre, a lot of people don’t fully cross their fifth on fast tendu dégagé. So, in class I give a lot of quick “one, two, three” dégagés, fully crossed, as a constant reminder to the dancers.

Describe how you talk the dancers through a class.
In the ’80s, when I took classes from Maggie Black in New York City, she’d greet you softly: “Hi, how are you, it’s so nice to see you, good to have you here today.” When class started, she’d change her voice: “ALL RIGHT. LET’S BEGIN. ALL RIGHT, NOW DEVON, COME ON. LET’S GET IT TOGETHER. NO, HIGHER. ALL RIGHT.” She was an entirely different person—a huge personality.

I do think it’s important that dancers hear constant reminders. So I’ll say, “Don’t forget to point your foot . . . don’t forget to cross your leg . . . make sure that fifth is really fifth . . . keep your elbows up.” A whole laundry list of important moments within a combination.

How do you fine-tune jumps in class?
For men, I mention Fernando Bujones and Rudi. Nureyev had the sheer explosion, and Bujones had the elegance. In the second act of Giselle, during a series of 24 entrechat six, instead of starting slow and as he got more tired speeding up, Bujones actually slowed down. He had a beautiful way of being able to rebound out of plié that was unreal.

For men, the push in your foot comes from your toes. This is another thing that guys are not focusing on these days—that last moment when you leave the “docking station.” A lot of guys jump, and then point. It’s like trying to get up to speed on the freeway without using the entrance ramp.

What you need as you are going up is to push out of plié, and then boom! I’ll give a combination of changement in fifth, combined with quick jumps in first on straight legs to underscore the importance of fast activation of the toes. At the barre, I’ll break down tendus, working through the ball of the foot to a point.

And for women?
In grand jeté women tend not to have enough power. It’s the initial speed and thrust of the first leg that departs from the floor that defines what kind of jump you’ve got. Then you must quickly activate the second leg. Your legs have to be strong as steel, but your arms are soft as chiffon. If you learn to do it, you are delicate and feminine, but at the same time you are in control and have a lot of power in your movement quality. nique as it is now taught.

How does a student know which and how many classes to take?
You have to start at an early age, and experiment until you find out what seems to benefit you the most. Try to expose yourself to modern, jazz and character classes. But, bottom line, what needs to be there is your ballet class, every day. Some ballet dancers today say, “I don’t need ballet class. I do Pilates, I bike, I go to the gym.” That will catch up with you eventually. Because you will lose your technique if you only use it when you rehearse and perform.

You must learn to execute a ballet class under extremely different conditions, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, and regardless of personal problems. You must leave all the extraneous things in your life at the door, and focus solely on what is at hand.

You need to take a day off once a week, but if you keep your ballet class going, it becomes your lifeblood. Your career will last a lot longer.