Ballet teacher Marjorie Mussman began her professional career as a modern dancer with the José Limón Dance Company. She returned to her ballet roots—which originated in a Portland, Maine, studio at the age of 8—when Robert Joffrey invited her to dance in his first company. Today Mussman teaches advanced ballet at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York. She talked to writer Rachel Straus about her 30-year teaching career.
How would you describe the ballet technique that you teach? It’s American nuts and bolts. It works with the American sense of larger space usage. I don’t teach a style because I work mainly with contemporary dancers; they can’t be cluttered up with styles. They want to develop clean lines and a clear approach to movement so they can work anyplace and with any choreographer. I call my ballet technique American.
Has your class changed over the years? It has become more finely-tuned. The more you teach the more you learn what works and what doesn’t, as you watch different bodies. Ballet is based on principles like verticality, balance, and harmony. Dancers must develop these principles, as opposed to just learning the steps, the stretch, or the double pirouette.
Where does good alignment come from? It begins with the principle of verticality, which is the basis for ballet. I often tell dancers to stand up and imagine their body, which is entirely made up of curves, surrounding a vertical. The other thing that I say to my students is: “Don’t change!” Dancers don’t have to change what God gave them, which is the natural curve of the pelvis, the natural shelf of the chest, and the natural curve at the base of the neck. These curves give a dancer balance, which ultimately creates harmony.
What is another ballet principle that you emphasize? In ballet the head leads. Many dancers in class don’t look where they are going. They don’t use their vision. I spend an awful lot of time working with dancers’ focus.
What was special about Robert Joffrey’s class? He had tremendous enthusiasm. It was inspirational. When dancers become inspired, they focus mentally, and this happened in Robert’s class. He was also very good with placement and the concise articulation of movement.
Has Mark Morris, who studied with you before he became well known, had an influence on your teaching? Mark was a brilliant dancer and student. His dancing was wonderfully rhythmic. Mark articulated and embodied what really good dancing should be. Today his choreography is so fluid. His phrasing is seamless. And that’s what I try to bring to my teaching and my class.
What role does music play in your class? I work a lot with musical phrasing because it’s the basis for fluid movement. Many dancers struggle putting together steps or phrases because they have not connected into it from a rhythmical point of view. I also emphasize the four-bar preparation, which gives a dancer a tremendous amount of information about tempo, rhythm, and musical expression. And when a student needs it, I work with him or her individually on counts.
How do you deliver corrections? My students know that they are going to be corrected, but they also know that they are in a safe atmosphere. I have a sense of humor with them. You want their minds free, not tense with anxiety or with fear of the teacher. I want them to take in a correction without feeling that they are being attacked, because the goal is to enable them to focus clearly.
What excites you about today’s ballet dancer? I love working with ballet dancers who are interested in contemporary work. They tend to be more thoughtful and more willing to listen to the information they are given. I love the fact that there has been such a crossover between ballet and modern. I think it has done the art form a lot of good.
How has your experience as a choreographer informed your teaching? I’m aware of performance values. Dancers send out energy through their eyes. A dancer’s persona and physicality are also projected through the eyes. Consequently, students have to learn how to go beyond the wall, whether it is the mirror in front of them or the lights on the stage. As a choreographer I also want a dancer who knows how to use space. In class, my third combination in the center is pretty choreographic so that students learn how to deal with the space and how to quickly change body focuses.
What do you like most about teaching? I love to solve puzzles. I love to untie knots. I like to see what is behind human beings—what will better their coordination, increase their focus, and deepen their concentration. It’s like finding a key to a door. That’s what is fun about teaching. That’s why it continues to interest me.
I feel that I’ve been given back when I can read dancers’ physicality. It’s like the dancers are speaking to me, but speaking with the body. It’s like they’re vibrating out to me. Good physicality comes from how dancers use their weight, how they work musically, and how intelligently they move in space. Then I viscerally feel them. And that is so giving back. It’s better than a thank you at the end of class.