Teacher's Wisdom: Pyotr Pestov
Pyotr Pestov is one of ballet's greatest men's teachers. His illustrious alumni include dancers and artistic directors like Vladimir Malakhov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and Alexei Ratmansky. From 1963 until the mid-1990s, Pestov was a pillar of the faculty at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 1996, he moved to Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko School, where he teaches today. Paying tribute to Pestov at the Youth American Grand Prix gala in April, Ratmansky noted the “elegance, musicality, and solid discipline" that Pestov instills in his students. An advocate of “honesty with oneself," Pestov stresses the purest classical ballet principles while encouraging students to think freely as artists. Evan McKie, a Pestov alum recently named principal dancer at Stuttgart, sat down to chat with his charismatic mentor.
What made you want to teach?
It was accidental. I was a senior at the Perm Ballet Academy in Russia during World War II. After the war was over, many of the area's children were left without parents. These kids had developed behavioral problems, and the government's solution was to send them to ballet school to learn discipline and culture. Here they were, 9-year-old boys who wouldn't respond to authority and wreaked havoc wherever they went. They even smoked and drank! "Little bandits," they were called.
The director of the academy felt they might respond to us older boys. The first day I tried to work with them they laughed in my face—impossible to control! So I decided to take them to the theater—kicking and screaming. Incredibly, when the curtain rose, they were suddenly silent, all eyes glued to the magic of the ballet. The next day they begged me to teach them!
This was when I learned the beauty of schooling young minds. Getting through to children, anticipating what they need to grow properly, is an art in itself. In 1958, after a short career as a dancer, I entered a pedagogy program in Moscow. I have been teaching ever since.
What advice do you give those who have chosen to become students of dance?
Chesnaya is the word I use most while working, “honest" in Russian. Good classical dance is about sincere attention to detail and patience—a constant, concentrated effort. I am often asked why I always give the same long warm-up facing the bar. It's because if you don't return to a strong, simple base, how can you expect to juggle all the details of ballet technique honestly? My students know that good work often means “swimming against the current of a long stream." It can be endlessly tedious, but if you stop, then where are you?
Back where you started. I still remind myself of this all the time. You had a special name for this kind of work.
I call it “dark work," because it is so tiresome mentally and physically.
How can a ballet teacher instill that work ethic in his or her students?
I learned from the Perm School's founding director, Ekaterina Geidenreich, that everything a teacher says to the students has to mean something. She rarely spoke, but when she did, her words were well thought out and her criticism useful. The work you give students has to inspire them. I once asked Alexander Pushkin why he barely spoke to his boys in class. He replied, “The beauty has to be in the work." I talk quite a bit to my classes but find that an exhilarating combination speaks louder than most words.
What quality do you value most in a dancer?
Musicality. Regardless of how physical your movement is, you need to understand that even in silence your body must create musical accents. “Character" is also a great gift. Be in touch with who you are. Don't get caught up in the world's trivial distractions.
You're known for being very specific regarding the accompaniment of your classes.
Yes. I treat my boys like an orchestra. Each individual reacts to music differently, like instruments. I try to find something specific for each combination that they can all respond to symphonically. And I strive to find pieces from a classical repertoire that the boys have never heard. It's interesting to see how they interpret these “new" old melodies from Glinka, Kreisler, Chopin.
You are heralded as a men's master teacher. Have you ever wanted to teach ladies?
Switching from men's teacher to women's is not the tradition in Russia. But aside from that, I never wanted to go back and forth, even here in Stuttgart. It is difficult to anticipate the beauty of a flower before it has bloomed. I can do this with boys better than I ever could with girls.
Do you advise specific cross-training for dancers?
The more sports one does, the better! If you want to become a better artist, enrich your mind by playing an instrument or appreciating literature; that is cross-training.
Which ballets or dancers move you?
If Chopiniana or Giselle are cast and danced well, they can be exquisite. I never liked Swan Lake much. Everyone thinks they can do it. Marina Semionova moved me immensely as a student. She was stunning and never the same. I don't like when dancers do ballets the same way all the time.
As you look back, what are some vivid memories or feelings you wish to share?
Every time I take a new class of boys I have this magical feeling. It is part uncertainty, part worry, part excitement. Each soul will react to my class in a different way. It takes a while to get to really know them. I can't just force my methods on them. I have to understand them so that they can understand me.
In 1975 there was a wonderful moment when I took my boys to a festival in Kiev. We brought a small bit of choreography set to Bach's Passacaglia. Everything fell into place for the first time in my teaching career. The boys danced in brilliant harmony—exceptional artists in their own right. All of the work suddenly paid off. I was proud and others praised them for their incredible attention to musicality. Moments of such synchronized clarity are rare.
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.