Teacher's Wisdom: Lupe Calzadilla

July 17, 2007

Lupe Calzadilla says she owes everything she knows about ballet to Alicia and Fernando Alonso. After graduating from their prestigious National Ballet School in Havana, Calzadilla spent 11 years performing with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She then returned to the school to teach while raising her daughters Lorena and Lorna Feijóo (who are now principals with San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet, respectively). Having taught children and adults around the globe for over 34 years, she is now a master teacher at City Ballet School in San Francisco. Toba Singer met with Calzadilla to ask her about how the Cuban system has influenced her as a teacher. (Freddi Kirchner, Justin Coe, and Lorena Feijóo aided with translation.)

What did Fernando Alonso pass on to you that you use today in the studio?

His love of the work, his discipline, his attention to detail, and his passion, whether for giving class or directing rehearsals. He taught me to never just mark in class or rehearsal. After each performance, he would write corrections or notes on the backstage bulletin board the following day!

What do you admire about the teaching system Fernando Alonso developed?

Everything must be perfect. No matter how many times Fernando asks you to repeat something, each time you do it with more brio, all the more to enjoy it. Look at a photo of any company, with the dancers lined up on a diagonal, all heads turned in one direction: Notice the slight differences in each dancer’s gaze. With Fernando, he regarded the corps as a frame for a rich work of art. If the frame is cheap, it detracts from the grandeur of the overall work. He therefore insisted that the gaze of each dancer be on the exact same angle, not a little up, not a little down, not a little more to the side, but precisely identical. When the arms were directed en avant they were so perfectly aligned that they would read as one continuous arm. When the Wilis cross in Giselle, the dancers know where to stop because he instilled a technique in every dancer which made her aware of every other dancer: No matter where the first dancer’s gaze is, she always looks out of the corner of her eye, and moves into position with a breathing pattern that allows adequate time and space for those who follow to fill in correctly.

Why does the Cuban system turn out well-rounded dancers, fastidious about technique, but also capable of bravura, brilliance, and great versatility?

Cubans are desirable as dancers and teachers primarily because of our solid training, thanks to a curriculum created by Ramona de Saá, director of the Cuban National Ballet Schools. It includes piano, folkloric and dance history, French language, and theater. Our dancers become artists in the full sense of the word. Twice a year, teachers from all of the Cuban provinces attend a meeting organized by de Saa. They bring their students, show their work, and offer opinions on each other’s methodology and class design. Someone may ask, “How do you get students to use more attack or more legato?” and then everyone says what he or she believes is good or bad. Teachers defend choices and discuss methods.

When you see a child who moves well but lacks flexibility or turnout, how do you “balleticize” his or her dancing?

If they are extremely limited, you can’t force it, because they will become injured. There are exercises to strengthen and stretch, such as tendu, dégagé, and développé. It’s easier to mold them when they are young and their bones are still soft. What ballet demands of the body goes against nature, but it can be achieved by working slowly, methodically, intelligently, and progressively. It should never, never be forced.

How do you work with a student with great technique, but who lacks imagination, musicality, and theatricality?

Dancing must come from the inside. The dancer must open herself up to the audience. She must have passion, desire, and love of the art. Begin early with the child who dances with a blank expression. They must lose any fear of appearing silly, or they’ll be reluctant to take chances. Almost any teacher can pull technique out of a student, but to bring out their emotional life, the teacher must be psychologically accessible to the student.

With épaulement, most teachers begin with the shoulders, but you direct students to “pressurize” from the area beneath the shoulder blade. Why?

True épaulement should begin from the base of the spine, and engaging the muscles under the shoulder blade helps rotate the torso. Épaulement is used as a means of accentuating other movements. It makes the body elongated and appear to fill more space. It provides a more complete way of carrying out and finishing an exercise that is richer, more sensual, and expressive, and helps deepen the movement.

What psychological obstacles can students have in the studio? How do you minimize them, or substitute alternative habits?

Number one is comparing their bodies or facility to others’. With a career based on the body, there’s a great temptation to compare your extension with the girl who can get her leg up to her ear. That energy must be channeled into constructive work to improve what you do have. I mix students so that the front line has every kind of body type. The teacher is a psychologist, not only with the student, but the parents, so that they don’t use their authority to send the wrong messages. In order to forge a homogeneous group, I work with students as a class and as individuals. If a teacher constantly praises the best student, the others can become resentful, hurting themselves and that student as well. As much as possible, you must ensure that everyone brings their best skills, artistry, and attitude to class.