Teacher's Wisdom: Edward Ellison

July 29, 2007

Former San Francisco Ballet soloist Edward Ellison is the “go-to” teacher for many young dancers who want to polish their technique and artistry. He opened his own ballet school, Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program, in New York two years ago after teaching at San Francisco Ballet School, Boston Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and company class at American Ballet Theatre. Ellison also holds open classes at New York’s Steps on Broadway that are a destination for dancers looking for a rigorous technique class. Toba Singer observed his class and asked about his approach to training.

You often talk about energy and how to channel it. Where does the energy come from?
Even just standing in first position, there’s energy traveling through the body from the center. There should be a sense of the tailbone going downwards, with a fountain of energy rising upward through the spine, neck, top of the head, and outwards through the arms and legs. This gives a feeling of lightness and freedom. One develops power and, at the same time, ease. We must find where the muscles engage and where they can let go. Students eager to improve can sometimes work too hard, clenching their muscles. By letting go of that tension, there’s more energy to strengthen and stabilize the right places. As a student I was constantly practicing. I once found myself balancing on relevé passé, doing developpés while talking on the telephone. Completely focused on the conversation, I was unaware of how effortlessly I was executing balances that seemed so difficult in class when really trying. There’s a balance between giving 100 percent and allowing the movement to come.

How do you eliminate the quirks that interfere with clean technique?
I encourage my students to face themselves with absolute honesty, to develop an acute self-awareness. They cannot fix what they don’t see. Even though my students are advanced, the first semester is devoted to exploring basic fundamentals—demi plié, tendu—and then building from there to the complexities of advanced technique. The “quirks” are remedied by developing an understanding of the logic of the classical principles. I cannot teach my students’ bodies how to dance. I can only provide their minds with the information. It is up to the student to transfer the information from their minds to their bodies.

How do you help students gain core strength?
Aligning the body correctly is the first step. Letting the pelvis rock back doesn’t allow the surrounding muscles to strengthen, so lower abdominals are underdeveloped. When the tailbone reaches down, but not tucked, the muscles are more easily activated. We also do exercises for the abdominals, glutes, and hamstrings. We lie on our backs, feet on floor, knees bent, and slowly lift the pelvis, rolling the lower and mid back off the floor until the pelvis is flat. Many students struggle to align their pelvis because the psoas muscle is too tight. We stretch to free the psoas, hip flexors, and quads, combining ballet, yoga, and physical therapy exercises with breathing technique. It’s common to inhale and not exhale. At the end of a barre exercise everyone lets out a big sigh because they’ve held their breath for the whole combination. This deprives the muscles of oxygen and creates excess tension, which desensitizes the body to balance.

How do you encourage students to keep focused yet still venture into more daring pyrotechnics?
Focus is essential to mastering technique. The work of the mind goes hand in hand with the work of the body. We master the ability to stand in passé relevé, but how do we develop the feeling of turning? If it didn’t work, answer the question, “What happened?” then “Why?” You have to allow yourself to go for the feeling of something with a balance between analysis and impulse. As the technique becomes more advanced, sometimes you just have to go for it even if you make mistakes. Dancers can get so tense because they’re afraid of not doing it perfectly. Let go of that fear. I’ll applaud you if you fall because I know you’re going for it. There’s a lot of falling to do before you master a revoltade—maybe more falls than revoltades. Exceptional technique is a goal, but it is only the starting point. Once technique is secured, then the dancer has freedom to speak the language of dance.

What do you tell a student who moves well but doesn’t have a “ballet body?”
I like to give my students the benefit of the doubt that they can make incredible progress. When I started at 18, I didn’t have a natural body. I couldn’t touch my toes, my feet wouldn’t point, my knees wouldn’t straighten. But I was inspired by the passion and power of my first teacher, Marius Zirra, to follow my dream. Nothing is impossible if you’re willing to do the work. Because of a burning desire and insatiable work ethic, I was able to radically change my body and reach a high level of technique, leaving no signs of starting late. If I had begun at 8 years old, I wouldn’t have understood that you can defy the odds.

What from your own training do you impart to your students?
My last teacher, Larisa Sklyanskaya, taught me that bringing the physical, mental, and spiritual into harmony leads the student to becoming an artist. Students should accept themselves wherever they are in the process, while keeping a sharp eye on their goal. It’s common for ballet dancers to only see what’s bad. They don’t work in the way they could because of anger, depression, or an unwillingness to face themselves honestly. Progress doesn’t come steadily; it jumps up when you least expect it. Don’t stop striving or forget your goals. Perseverance goes a long way.