Teacher's Wisdom: Gretchen Ward Warren
Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Gretchen Ward Warren believes good dancers possess strong bodies, courageous hearts, and intelligent minds. In class, her calm, steady voice marks time with varied piano melodies, reminding students how bones and muscles move and where to focus when dancing for an audience.
A former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, Warren served as ballet mistress of American Ballet Theatre II and taught at the University of South Florida for 27 years. She’s written two books: The Art of Teaching Ballet and Classical Ballet Technique. Warren shared her knowledge and passion for teaching with Cynthia Bond Perry last summer at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education.
You began training at age 10 in Princeton, NJ, with Mila Gibbons. How did she influence your teaching?
Mila Gibbons had trained in Paris, and she had the most beautiful body for ballet. She had the purest port de bras, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I emphasize the upper body when I teach. Early on, she instilled in me that ballet is a serious art form and that we must practice slowly and methodically, in a physically correct way. Mostly, I was caught up in how beautiful she was. Working to replicate her example was a tremendous inspiration.
Why do you begin class with Thera-Band exercises for the upper body?
In their stretch regimens, most students neglect to develop flexibility in their upper back and shoulder joints. If you want to have beautiful port de bras, you should focus equally on the upper and lower body.
In class, you give very specific directions about where the eyes go, along with the port de bras. Why?
Ballet is an extroverted art form. We look out to the audience. If you are in a habit of dropping the eyes, your audience never sees them. And then you often drop the chin, which affects the alignment of the spine. But your audience wants to see your eyes. Onstage, under the lights, the audience is nothing but a black void. It’s an art to look as if you’re relating to the audience, and you need to practice that in class. The Russians teach that the eyes always follow the hand, and you look at your hand with affection. It makes the whole body relate. We see the thought behind the gesture.
You’ve said ballet dancers should study modern dance. Why?
A lot of contemporary ballet choreography, by Jorma Elo or Nacho Duato for instance, is high-risk work if your body is not trained in modern dance. A good modern teacher will teach you how to
get down and up off the floor without banging the bones. And the release in the upper body is so healthy for ballet dancers, who tend to hold tension there. Many modern classes today include handstands and other movements where the upper body supports the body’s weight. This develops necessary strength for contemporary choreography, especially partnering.
You teach class with a model of a skeleton on display. How does an understanding of anatomy enhance training?
In ballet, we’re used to looking at the exterior lines that our body forms. But if we understand what’s happening in the joints and muscles, if we think about what happens under the skin, we often do the steps much better technically.
For instance, in an arabesque, the muscles in the center of the back activate to orient the rib cage forward, keeping both sides of the body square to the front, while the muscles in the low back aid the working hip to open. These two counter-twists help you to get that nicely placed arabesque.
Many students are taught to keep their hips square in arabesque. But in that position, it is impossible to lift the leg to the back turned out. In actuality, the hip bone of the supporting leg is more forward than the hip bone of the lifting leg. They’re on a diagonal line. But the upper body—torso, rib cage, and shoulders—should face squarely front. The working hip rotates outward so that you can get a turned-out leg lifted to the back.
What can dancers do to improve their jumps?
Jump—a lot! Every jump has a position in the air, and you should know that position before you take off. For instance, in petit jeté, you stretch the legs underneath you in a small second, or in the Balanchine school, you hit the cou-de-pied in the air. You can practice using the barre to help you up into the air and sustain that position for a moment, so your muscles really feel it. This gives your jumps ballon. It looks as if you’re frozen for a moment in the air, defying gravity.
You helped recruit talented dancers from across the country to study at ABT and join ABT II. What qualities in a dancer would you say constitute that talent?
After you look at their physical aspects, you look for coordination, flow, and a sense of music coming out of their body when they dance. And then, they need to have a unique quality that draws you in. If you watch any great dancer, it looks like they’re commenting on the choreography. They’re making decisions about where to hold something a little longer, where to push, then where to pause, and what’s the most exciting moment that they want to show. It looks like a conversation with the choreography. That’s the ultimate area of talent—to draw us in, because you are so personally invested in what you’re doing, we’re fascinated watching you do it. We’re drawn to beauty, but not the beauty of a vacuous high-fashion model. It’s an inner beauty that reveals itself when you’re dancing.