Teacher's Wisdom: Rosanna Seravalli

July 24, 2007

Rosanna Seravalli admits she may not be the most loved ballet professor, but she is one of the most respected: She demands nothing less than complete commitment during class at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, State University of New York. At 16, Seravalli left her home in Florence, Italy, to study on scholarship at the School of American Ballet. She went on to dance with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, where she spent 11 years and achieved the rank of soloist. During her 18 years at SUNY Purchase, she has also taught and choreographed in Europe, Australia, China, and Chile. Jennifer Stahl,
Dance Magazine‘s new education editor, visited Purchase to watch her teach and ask her about the philosophy behind her classes.

What can a university offer an aspiring ballet dancer?

Unless you are unbelievably talented, education is mandatory. Years ago people believed 18 was too old to begin a career in ballet. I never believed that. Company directors look at the talent and the dancer, not just the age. If you have the chance to join a company and it is your dream, go for it-but remember that you can take courses and still earn a degree later. If you don’t get into a company, come to college. Don’t waste your time going from open studio to open studio. You spend a lot of money taking classes, so you might as well spend it somewhere that will get you a degree after four years.

What should an advanced dancer focus on in the years before his or her performing career?

The most beneficial thing is to perform as much as possible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the basement of a church or in a loft. Besides your technique and presentation, you need performance exposure because in an audition you are actually performing.

What is your approach to coaching epaulement and port de bras?

I was taught to always have a breath in the ribcage. I grew up in Florence so I was told to think of the Renaissance lady wearing the corset. You can’t slouch over because the corset won’t let you. I do not think that the placement of the upper body comes from the abdominals; it all comes from the back. The spine lifts with you as you move and then the “popo” goes down and you are placed. All of the positions in ballet are related. The head in ecarte is the same as in croise, just tilted the other way. One position evolves into the next. Once you have the correct placement of the shoulders over the hips, it should just flow naturally.

Why is it important to focus on the quality of the movement during class?

I believe in quality before quantity. Sticking a leg up next to your ear can be impressive, but it can also be somewhat vulgar. If you can have quality and quantity together, that’s divine. But to me, quality is number one. There is nothing more beautiful than to see one beautiful pirouette from fifth to fifth, sustained with long arms and an elongated body. I don’t want to see five pirouettes with a curled back, not pulling up, and the foot crossed over the knee. The beauty of the epaulement highlights the dancing. The dynamics of your movement are also important. If you do everything straightforward with the same emphasis, it’s a monotone.

Is there anything that you think students focus too much of their energy on?

I see many students spending too much time working on the things they are already good at. Turners love to practice pirouettes and jumpers love to do the grand allegro over and over. You need to focus on what is most difficult for you. It might not be as much fun, but companies don’t want to hire someone who is only good at one thing. They want a well-rounded dancer. Work on your weaknesses to bring them up to the level of your strengths. Then you can work on your strengths and make them even better.

What information from your own performing career do you try to pass on to your students?

The joy of dancing. I want to pass on how wonderful dancing is. But I always tell my students that if you are going to choose a life as a dancer you have to completely love it. Don’t do this just because you think it’s pretty or because your mom wants you to. It’s too hard of a life with too many sacrifices if you don’t love it 100 percent. When I was 16 years old I left my home to come to America to pursue this. It was my dream so I left everything behind.

How important is it to go to class every day?

To me, going to class is like going to church. You have to go every day. Some days you may be tired or not love it as much, but you have to give your personal best for that day. My own dancing has never disappointed me because although I was never a Natalia Makarova, I know that I always gave my best.