The Beauty of Inflections

Even in full company class where talent lurks everywhere, San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre draws your attention and locks in your gaze. She is the five-foot-ten dancer who is not looking into the mirror while she adjusts her épaulement. She’s the one who is working at the barre shrouded in an aura of introspection. She talks to nobody. She corrects her balances, fixes her placement, measures her tendus, and gauges her extension, which seems to taper into infinity.

 

French-born Maffre has subscribed to this work ethic for all of her 17 years at SFB. Her influence in the company has been profound. She has proved that unconventional bodies can flourish in the American ballet system. She has inspired more than one promising ballerina who did not fit into the standard mold. She has instilled in her consorts a refinement in partnering they never dreamed possible. She has animated exceptional new dances from renowned choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Mark Morris. And she has gathered a host of admirers for whom she represents everything that makes SFB distinctive and forward-looking.

 

“It’s very comforting,” Maffre says without false modesty, “that people appreciate you for your differences. I used to think I would never fit in.” She will also tell you that, “I have always been less interested in the finished product than in how I got there.”

 

In her obsession with process may lie the secret to Maffre’s popularity. At their best, her performances in 19th-century classics, Balanchine staples, and contemporary fare fuse an analytic intelligence with an arresting physicality. You know what she is thinking as well as feeling.

 

Onstage, Maffre summons metaphors. Her fearsomely long extremities, hip joints that almost always do their owner’s bidding, and the sheer elation of her pointe work suggest a winged creature from an ancient mythology. Her Myrtha’s condemnation of Hilarion chills the marrow in its implacability. Her Siren wraps lethal tentacles around the poor prodigal who enters her lair. Her Lilac Fairy is all reassuring warmth. Her performance in Ashton’s Monotones II exemplifies liquid architecture. Her deconstructed Dying Swan deceives you into believing you’ve never seen this chestnut before. Yet, Maffre’s sendup of that droopy fowl in Alexei Ratmansky’s Carnaval des Animaux brings down the house. She brandishes a teasing wit in the Tanaquil Le Clercq solo in Western Symphony and evokes a world of high romance in Liebeslieder Walzer. For many in the SFB audience, William Forsythe’s ballets would be unthinkable without her.

 

Says SFB director Helgi Tomasson, “Every ballet Muriel dances becomes something interesting to watch.”

 

It seems impertinent to ask Maffre if she ever wanted to do anything else but dance, a passion that has suffused her limbs since she pestered her mother to take ballet class like her sister.

 

“No, if you want to go for that sort of achievement, you don’t have a lot of options,” she declares during our interview in the SFB Association Building. “Dance takes all your time.” So the die was cast. “My first public performance,” Maffre recalls, “was on an outdoor tennis court. I was 4.”

 

Born in a suburb of Paris, Maffre was accepted into the Paris Opéra Ballet School at 9. The training, she says, instilled in her “elegance, refinement, and a very fine aesthetic.” But as her body matured, the reality of her situation hit home. In those bygone (pre-Nureyev) days, POB imposed a strict height limit on women, and Maffre had exceeded it. It bothered her that POB “was its own enclosed world.” She would go elsewhere, but she would go with an artistic goal, which she has never recanted.

 

“Because of my physique and height, I knew I would not have access to all the roles that interested me,” Maffre says. “I made a pact with myself that no matter how small the part, I would make it my own and explore it totally. This pact has fulfilled me.”

 

Maffre collected a gold medal at the first Paris International Dance Competition in 1984 and took first prize at the Paris National Conservatory for Advanced Studies in 1985. Her career was launched. Then, after a year at the Hamburg Ballet and five years at the Ballets de Monte Carlo, Maffre was ready for a change. For one thing, French regional companies tour more than they dance in their own cities and their performance schedules are relatively skimpy. Maffre also realized that modern dance works were beginning to pervade ballet in France more often than she liked. She yearned for a company she could call home, where she could establish a relationship with the community.

 

“I needed to expose myself to something different, a different way of approaching work, a different mentality.” Inquiries to American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet did not yield responses. By then, Paris buzzed with rumors about Helgi Tomasson’s major overhaul of the San Francisco Ballet. Endorsements came from Maffre’s French colleagues, Karin Averty and Jean-Charles Gil, who had danced in San Francisco in the late 1980s. When Maffre saw the troupe during its 1989 Paris tour and took a couple of company classes, she made up her mind. Tomasson hired her after looking at her videos.

 

It didn’t quite turn out the way she planned. “When I came here, I was on a mission to dance like an American—very heroic, powerful, spontaneous,” Maffre says. “That didn’t work. I don’t have the training and I don’t have the body. It’s not me; and I learned the hard way. After that, it was a matter of finding the right balance. I realized I could develop my own voice and fuse it with what I learned here. Because I am not the same as others, I had the chance to carve my own place in the company.”

 

Maffre’s thirst for new experiences has served her well. In San Francisco, she can often be spotted at dance concerts, musical events, museums, and galleries and, inevitably, a fan will stop her with a compliment.

 

“You want to keep up,” is how Maffre explains her perennial curiosity. “For me, it’s necessary to know what’s happening, how people are using ideas.”

 

It seems logical that Maffre would hit it off with Morris, who has enlisted her for six of his SFB projects. “Opening myself to Mark’s teaching really opened my eyes to a different way of dancing, a different way of looking at choreography.” says Maffre. “I admire the man so much because he embodies eccentricity and wisdom, challenge and respect, love and hate, intelligence and silliness. We’re both very independent.”

 

Choreographers relish their working relationships with Maffre. Wheeldon, who cast her in Continuum and, with Yuri Possokhov, in the “summer” duet of Quaternary, ranks her as a collaborator on a par with NYC Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and The Royal Ballet’s Darcey Bussell. “They all teach me,” he says. “Muriel guides me; she wants to intellectually penetrate every step she dances. But it’s a quiet process. Some might find that method intimidating. I see her constantly evolving. She dances on this little piece of information and it just takes off.”



On pointe, Maffre stands well over six feet. Her partners, like her countryman Pierre-Franςois Vilanoba, have felt transformed by the experience. “She has given me the best part of my career. Dealing with Muriel’s weight distribution and balances and gaining her trust at the beginning was not always easy,” he says. “She analyzes a lot, I am logical, too. So, at first, we both worked on technique to the point where now we don’t need to think. We know what will happen.”

 

Maffre has paved the way for other tall women. Elena Altman, recently promoted to soloist, came up through the SFB School and has admired Maffre for more than a decade. “I’m not easy to partner, either. It comforts me to watch her; she thinks about every detail,” says Altman. “And it reads down to her fingertips. After looking at Muriel, I want to dance everything.”

 

Altman may get the opportunity very soon. At 41, Maffre will retire from SFB in May. Like everything else she does, the decision was not made lightly. Part of the reason is physical (“I have less juice and flexibility these days; it requires so much more time and commitment to stay in shape”). But Maffre also sees her departure as the closing of one chapter in an unusual career and the beginning of another. “Within the environment of the SFB, I have done what I had to do,” she says. “Even, if I don’t say goodbye to the stage, I want the challenge of a different environment. I’ve pushed my body a lot and I am hungry for other things.”

 

Maffre hasn’t ruled out guesting with other companies, as she did to mesmerizing effect years ago, with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. But her interests are ranging farther afield than performing these days. She has become increasingly passionate about the visual arts and wants to enter the curatorial field. In the works is a project that will bring her dance experience into a gallery setting, which will offer “all the unpredictability of the collaborative experience.”

 

Don’t shed any tears. Maffre is not sure her departure from the company warrants the ritual gala. Says this least sentimental of artists, “I am simply trying to avoid the melodrama of it all.”

 

 

Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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