Teacher's Wisdom: Violette Verdy

July 19, 2007

The vivacious Violette Verdy was a ballerina long before she came to dance for New York City Ballet in 1958, but many of her most beloved roles, including “Emeralds” in Jewels and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, were created by George Balanchine expressly to highlight her sparkling stage persona. Her effervescence also makes her a natural pedagogue. She brings to teaching the same energy and keen intelligence that marked her dancing. She now coaches professional dancers and teaches at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. —Mary Ellen Hunt

What can a university do for someone who wants to be a professional ballet dancer?
This is the most wonderful chapter in the history of developing dancers. Nowadays, they take ballet dancers into ballet companies at age 15, 16, 17, and they are maybe technically extraordinary, wonderful little purebreds, but they do not know what it is to be in a company. They don’t always have parents who can advise them, and they’re in the midst of that incredible competition and race—it’s technique, it’s speed, speed, speed, and they have to be up-to-par and deliver. They sometimes don’t make it. Emotionally, spiritually, they go crazy. They get depressed and overwhelmed.

Here at the university they have time to grow up, to talk about their problems and try to correct them. And if they decide that it’s going to be too much for them, they are in the most protective place to make the changes.

They get the perspective: Art is education, education is art. And then they still go into companies! Amazing! In competition with younger dancers who come from the bigger schools, it’s amazing that they even get a job, but they do. Because there’s also something about them—the maturity, the reasoning, the judgment, the appreciation, and the control of their emotions—they understand the larger picture.

What has changed about university students since you first began teaching at Indiana?
The dancers before were not as prepared for pointe work as they are now. Now we have pointe work all day long, classes everyday, and all the rehearsals. It became natural to give them much more because they were so good. We go through the whole gamut of the enormous technique of pointe. We work on their speed and strength, and not just on getting up on pointe, but how to come down. Coming down is not falling down, hopefully. You have to dance slowly with full control and enfold the whole power of your foot with all the ligaments and cushion the landing and continue dancing. You have to make a difference between the very fast footwork and the very slow, mellow footwork that you need when you want to dance the great classics.

What do you incorporate from Balanchine’s technique in your own teaching?
His revisiting and retuning of the classical technique of ballet was geared to a larger use of time and space. He put the steps in families that belonged together, to be used depending on the situation. You dance a slow piece, you have a family of steps that would be more appropriate. You dance a quick piece, you have families of smaller gestures. In class, he made sure that you knew a bigger step could not be done quick, that a quick step could not be done large.

Can you tell me more about developing that quick footwork?
In Russia, they use the allegory of a bird on its toes. Birds are really not flat on the ground on their little claws—they stand up on that little bridge under their foot. So we can use the tips of the feet only, not flattening the whole thing, which takes time. The Kirov can dance very fast without ever de-pointing, by using only three-quarters of their foot, as does New York City Ballet.

Anyone at the School of American Ballet will explain to you that you touch the floor with your heel in the big jumps, but you never squash and dig and get stuck in it. To touch the floor with your heel is to depart again. And that’s for the big jumps and other bigger combinations that demand more force and more contact with the floor. But when you do the light, quick dancing and the complex exchange of feet and directions, you have to negotiate your footwork in order to be able to keep going. You use only what you need. You don’t use a big gun to kill a fly.

How do you teach musicality?
You want them to pay attention and to savor the music. I encourage everybody to listen to great orchestras, instrumentalists, and singers. Their rubato, their sostenuto. It’s not possible to equate all of those things with dance, but in an artistic manner, you feed your imagination from those achievements. To listen carefully feeds your dancing, because it gives you the desire to represent the details of the work. But you need to savor it first, you need to lick your chops after you’ve had your meal and still taste it for awhile so that you can remember it, and develop appetite for the next possibility.

Do you ever find all of these ideas difficult to explain to your students?
You can only propose, suggest. Depending on your degree of passion, they may get a little more intrigued and sometimes you get faster results. But you can never force someone. It has to be in their time, with what they have, when they are ready and only then will it happen. We are midwives—that’s all we can do. We deliver the baby, we try to protect him, we give him a good setup. And then he goes.