Teacher's Wisdom: Lawrence Rhodes

July 26, 2007

Lawrence Rhodes has been director of the Juilliard Dance Division since 2002. A dancer’s dancer with a reputation as one of America’s finest artists, Rhodes could now be described as a teacher’s teacher. Rhodes began his dancing career with Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Joffrey Ballet. He later became a principal dancer with the Harkness Ballet and, at 29, was appointed Harkness artistic director. After dancing as a guest principal with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Rhodes headed the NYU dance department and then directed Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal for a decade.
Dance Magazine contributing writer Joseph Carman spoke with Rhodes last September.

Which teachers were most influential in developing your teaching philosophy?

In my early days in New York it was really the survival of the fittest-teachers told you to do 16 of those and 16 of these and if you didn’t fall down you were ok. Robert Joffrey was the first person who said anything remotely scientific to me-like if you square your hips you’ll find you can do this better. He created a fantastic energy in the room through his enthusiasm. I loved the way Bob emphasized the vocabulary of ballet and musicality in his class. The next was Ben Harkarvy. The whole mood of his class was wonderful-very detailed, very musical. He had an intellect about dancing and knowledge of the various syllabi. There was a care about the art form. Later on, I took class with Maggie Black in her small studio with 14 people. I thought, this is interesting-very deep, very thorough; it feels wonderful. I learned a lot about structure and dissecting vocabulary. I was 30 years old and I started to improve! I had been dancing principal roles for eight years and I felt freer and stronger. So it was Joffrey, Harkarvy, and Black.

How would you describe the composition of your class?

The progression of my class is very obvious-simple and grounded. I say to my students, “I work simply so you can work deeply. Take advantage of this moment. Get grounded, sense yourself, get gravity going, get the whole body going.” There’s so much flamboyance out there with dancers working on hyper-mobility instead of their strength. Class should energize; it shouldn’t exhaust. If you spend a lot of time tossing yourself around, you’re likely to end up exhausted and injured. The greatest compliment I get is when people say, “Your class organizes me; by the end of your class I feel like I can do anything.” I think you get energized from getting placed well.

Since physical coordination came naturally to you, how do you verbalize that concept in class?

Coordination is what makes dancing flow and what sends movement through space. It’s the effort of the arms, back, and the legs working together that propels you through space and makes it beautiful. Personally, I am a back man. I have this belief that strength in the torso allows for freedom in the limbs. Everything works off the back. One thing I say a lot is, “Dancing is not about adjusting, it’s about connecting.” Coordination makes that happen. You’re not adjusting to shift to the side and lift your leg up, but you’re connecting all those things and that’s coordinating energy and placement through the body.

How do you train dancers to become musical?

At Juilliard, when we head into the audition season, I say, “Remember, we are looking for the gifts.” The gifts are music, coordination, a sense of weight in movement, and an awareness of gravity. Musicality is one of the gifts. You either have it or you don’t. You can certainly make people aware of it. You instill the idea that dancing sits on music. Even in technique classes or ballets that are made without music, there is an essential structure and rhythm. I’m also talking about music in terms of being helpful in developing muscular strength and coordination and line. If you do [something] rhythmically it will change your muscle tone and it will change the shape of your leg and line. Music has value beyond just dancing beautifully to music. When I create a class, I always think about the rhythm and the values. How long are the exercises and at what tempo do they need to be done? One of the things that Antony Tudor said is that if you are going to be a teacher you have to have the courage to insist. If people aren’t innately musical, how do you get them to be there? You insist.

What do you find most disturbing about teaching?

The thing that I can’t stand is when people don’t take it seriously or they don’t concentrate. I get very pissed off if someone doesn’t know the combination. Then what are we doing here? If we’re not doing this, what are we doing? You’re not going to be successful without a concerted effort to focus on what you’re doing. You have to bring your whole self into this, physically and mentally. When you do it for real, you explore and find out things. In certain classes the teacher gives something and the students do their own thing. That drives me crazy.

How do you train dancers for the 21st-century dance world?

When you’re training for the contemporary world it makes sense to treat the body as a human physical instrument: to place it, align it, balance it, and free it. We are training for the neutral body, one that is well-aligned, well-placed, on balance, and free to take on different styles. I always stress the word “physicality.” I say to the students that you dance on what you feel. I want them to understand what the correct sensation of the body is all about. I want people to experience dancing, to be able to duplicate what they’ve done already so they have real technique, to feel the experience of movement and the shape of the body, the transitions and all those things. My other favorite word about technique is “awareness.” I say to my students, “Did you feel that?” When they say “Yes,” I say “Bravo!”