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Photo by Alfredo Cannatello, courtesy Rodríguez

Mention "flamenco" to anyone in the Cuban dance scene, and they are likely to bring up Irene Rodríguez. Artistic director of Compañía Irene Rodríguez, Cuba's premiere flamenco company, Rodríguez has shared the stage with such renowned flamenco artists as Eva Yerbabuena, María Juncal and Antonio Gades. She is also a faculty member at Havana's Fernando Alonso National Ballet School, and has served as a choreography consultant at Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Starting this week, she's stateside to direct the flamenco and Spanish dance program at Jacob's Pillow.

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Dancers Trending
Cristina Hoyos and Antonio Gades in El Amor Brujo

Ballet master Antonio Castilla took me by the hand 18 years ago at the Prix de Lausanne to see the Carlos Saura film Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre). He insisted that mastering flamenco energy is a ballet essential. The late Cuban dance pedagogue Fernando Alonso made a similar observation as, seated in a corrida, we watched a flamenco dancer open for a bullfight! He cited the famous flamenco artist Antonia Mercé ("La Argentina"): "She could stand perfectly still and generate the most amazing energy!"

Those memories were on my mind as I entered Cristina Hoyos's flamenco museum in Seville last month. Hoyos is a legendary flamenco dancer who performed opposite Antonio Gades in Saura's famous trilogy: Blood Wedding, Carmen and El Amor Brujo.

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DFA student Byron Klassen, supported by fellow students Nathan Bartman (left) and Lewellyn Afrika. Photo by Annie Colbeck, Courtesy Ramsay.

Eight years ago, former ABT soloist Kristine Elliott attended a screening of the documentary Guguletu Ballet. It told the story of Dance for All, a school in Cape Town, South Africa, founded in 1991 by former ballet dancers Philip Boyd and his late wife, Phyllis Spira. Living in a segregated country where the ranks of ballet companies were effectively closed to black dancers, Boyd and Spira wanted to change the racial landscape of concert dance in South Africa. They founded DFA to bring dance training to disenfranchised children of all races in the impoverished townships surrounding Cape Town. The early years of their project coincided with the overturn of apartheid.

“I just felt compelled to go," says Elliott, who is based in northern California, of her reaction to the film. “I saw that DFA's discipline and training were making a difference in these kids' lives. This was a place where I could offer something." In 2004, after speaking with Kristin Pichaske, the director of Guguletu Ballet, and connecting with Boyd, she traveled to Cape Town on what would be the first excursion of many as a teacher for DFA. “I've been going back ever since."

Last year, when Elliott made her annual trip, she wasn't alone. Six other teachers from the U.S. joined her, through a course she co-created at LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals), a degree program offered through St. Mary's College of California designed for current and former professional dancers. As a result of this course, Elliott's initial impact has expanded exponentially.

“This is exactly the way I had hoped it would be: exponential," she says. “Because of the power of one, then it becomes six, and then more, and it keeps growing."

Over the years, Elliott (who also teaches ballet at Stanford University) has enhanced Boyd's already vital work with her generosity and her ties to the U.S. dance world. She has brought not only her expertise as a ballet teacher but also contemporary choreography from West Coast artists like Robert Moses, Amy Seiwert, and Richard Gibson, not to mention dance clothes, ballet shoes, and CDs for class. A graduate of LEAP herself, she had conducted independent study research on South Africa as part of her B.A. degree. LEAP founder Claire Sheridan wanted to continue supporting her work in Cape Town. So in 2010, Sheridan proposed the idea of co-teaching a summer course that would bring a small group of LEAP students to teach ballet, jazz, partnering, choreography, yoga, and repertory at DFA for two weeks in June 2011.

Of the 40 students who applied, six were selected. Among them were San Francisco Ballet soloist Garen Scribner and former Smuin Ballet dancer Olivia Ramsay. Prior to the trip, they did research to prepare for entering a community scarred by apartheid. But many surprises awaited them.

“Cape Town is very beautiful, but the racial divide is shocking," says Ramsay. “And I wasn't expecting a building so well-equipped for dance, or the sign that reads 'AIDS-friendly classroom,' or that where there is plenty of homophobia, there is no stigma whatsoever attached to boys doing ballet."

Scribner adds, “To see a class of 15 to 20 boys enthused to learn first position or sauté is so rare. By comparison, here in the U.S., a boy studying ballet has to wear so much armor."

While Ramsay describes herself as “a planner," she often found herself improvising as she taught a hundred energetic students in three levels at several DFA studios, located in the suburb of Athlone and in the poorer townships of Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Khayelitsha.

Those students are dancing in the face of harsh odds. As Elliott explains, “DFA gives them a place to go, out of harm's way, in situations where many have no parents. Most township kids don't count on living a long life. At DFA, there are people who care about them, demand excellence, and impart the importance of taking good care of their own bodies for the sake of ballet." Much of what developed nations provide for middle-class children goes missing in the South African townships, and what support does exist is precarious. The traditional Xhosa response to the greeting, “How are you?" is “Still alive."

“What I loved about Garen, Olivia, and the four others who came with us," Elliott says, “is that they had the same reaction I did when I first got there: asking 'What can I do?', spotting talent, making new choreography. They are so giving and brilliant with their art form."

That spirit continued even after the course officially ended. As soon as she returned home, Ramsay went back into planning mode, working hard to arrange for one of her DFA students, 12-year-old Thembisa Selana, to travel to the U.S. That effort paid off when Selana received a visa to study in California in December. Similarly, Scribner and fellow LEAP student Alejandro Piris Niño launched a website that raised funds for Byron Klassen, 19, to audition for Ohad Naharin in New York in December, while attending classes at Complexions, ABT's JKO School, and with Camille A. Brown.

But none of this would be happening if not for Boyd and Spira's initial vision. “We are preparing students to become dancers in all spheres, and introducing the poorest communities to the world of ballet and theater," says Boyd. “Education of any kind is the quickest way to slice through the deprivation of the past anywhere in the world."

Do women artists speak in a different voice? ODC hosted “Women Who Frame the World: A Symposium on Creativity,” April 13–14. Co-artistic director Brenda Way urged the 100 mostly dance community participants to explore “risk, appetite, and meaning” with seven lively arts presenters, whose theme In a Different Voice is also the title of presenter Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking book.

 

A Harvard psychologist and author, Gilligan is also a dancer who kept her artistic life “a secret.” She credits that secret life with having freed her creative voice. She describes running afoul of editors who preferred sociology’s deadening passive voice to the active voices of women whose words are routinely discounted as naïve, crazy, wrong or beside the point. Observing men’s tender treatment of their pre-school sons, Gilligan concluded that the answer did not reside in a battle of the sexes where men were the enemy, but in women finding a way out of their “false stories,” where “the opposite of losing must be finding” —as in finding that creative voice.

 

Choreographer Liz Lerman read from her book, Hiking the Horizontal. She spoke of rehearsal as a privileged place where being committed fully yields insights into awkward beauty, letting the “beast, babble and bullhorn” drive dancers beyond what the body can do and say. “If one wants to dance at the Kennedy Center and do outreach work in the community, this (miming the upper fist as the Kennedy Center and the lower fist as the community) pushes the community to the bottom.” She then mimes both hands on a steering wheel, so that they are in parallel. “This is how it should be. Never choose between nurture and rigor,” she cautions. “Turn discomfort into inquiry. We don’t have to make impoverished choices.” Yet, when faced with choosing between a New York tour and company health insurance, she chose insurance.

 

Poet Jorie Graham quotes Keats: “Thinking has to be tested in the pulse.” Her mother, sculptor Beverly Pepper, says “I can’t face fear, so I don’t let it in.” Kui Dong, a Beijing-born musician, feels unworthy to speak, then shares a composition so bold that it invites comparisons to Glass and Stravinsky. Eleanor Coppola describes film as a medium in which you surrender best laid plans to the reality of the captured shot. She shows her early video of a woman in a single pose dressed in a succession of ensembles, as a chorus of female voices rises in contention.

 

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters, have documented the lives of ordinary women in “Hidden Kitchens.” Their underground kitchens made them unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement. ODC performs the inventive “Waving, Not Drowning,” and the epic “Investigating Grace,” both by Way. Actor Tina Packer teams up with Nigel Gore in “Women of Will.” It’s a mash-up of Shakespeare plays (including three that have inspired dance works: Othello, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet). They reveal Shakespeare’s identification of a patriarchy spawned by the rise of private property and the Greek city-state, as key culprits in the subjugation of women.

 

Painter Claudia Bernardi participated in human rights–sponsored excavations of the bones of families massacred in Guatemala. Later, she collaborated with ODC co-artistic director Kimi Okada on the dance work Flight to Ixcan. http://www.criticaldance.com/magazine/200403/articles/kimiokada20040300.html

 

Asked how it felt to see factotums from the murderous Rios Mont regime attend a survivors’ mural dedication, Bernardi invoked the title of her talk: Xaliha. In Xinca, the Guatemalan indigenous language, “Xaliha” is the place where two rivers merge. ODC helped us find our own Xaliha, and it was in every way the opposite of loss.

Four significant dance critics, Sarah Kaufman, Wendy Lesser, John Rockwell and Lewis Segal (i.d.s below), spoke at U.C. Berkeley on Friday to some 80 students, dancers, and fellow critics, about the changing nature of arts journalism.

 

Kaufman challenged critics to go beyond the proscenium. Invite into your reviews pop culture, TV dance shows, and even airline passengers who (she noticed en route) are fearful of being patted down and touched. “It’s about movement and athleticism,” said Kaufman, who won a Pulitzer in part for a Washington Post piece that blew the lid off of Balanchine-worship. Here, on the other hand, she threw bouquets of purple prose at Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant. Grant, she said, was the very best of actors because he knew how to move.

 

Lesser, of the “Build it and they will come” persuasion, took issue with Kaufman, arguing that bowing to pop culture neither raises the level, nor lowers the age, of ballet concert audiences. Lesser prefers to shepherd classes of neophyte freshmen to the ballet. Afterward, they write what they see. She says it’s the choreography that makes for a bad or good show, offering Alvin Ailey’s Revelations as an example—his only for-sure box office hit.

 

Rockwell, a self-described rules-follower, addressed the advertised topic: the changing nature of arts journalism. “Dance criticism is not a test of one’s ability to describe movement, so much as writing skill, and bringing a world of history, context, and other art forms” into the conversation. “Don’t go all snooty with dance terminology unless you’re in a chat room with others” who speak the language, he advised. He praised choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky for pushing past the Balanchine obeisance that has, in his view, hobbled the New York dance scene.

 

Lewis Segal, who dubbed Natalie Portman as this nation’s ballerina assoluta, cited dance criticism as an opportunity for seduction, wagering that more people have seen Black Swan than Swan Lake. “This is not the case in Eastern or Western Europe, nor Cuba,” he proposed, “where people huddle around the rare TV set to see weekly ballet shows.” He lamented that, “We don’t have ballet on TV here any more.”

 

All four fell into step, in agreement that concert dance has ebbed, even as TV competitions and ethnic dance, including Indian, Butoh, Zumba and Flamenco, have become increasingly popular. Audience members asked the speakers about the low priority editors assign to smaller, experimental work; debated the pros and cons of a recent Joyce Theater innovation urging audiences to vote on works shown and awarding cash prizes to the winners; traded ideas about how, as full-time paid critic positions vaporize, to make the most of online opportunities; and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of filmed vs. live dance. They pointed out a new World Dance trend toward utilizing classical and modern technique, and the potential impact of anthropology on dance criticism.

 

At a post-panel reception, some students suggested that the university consider organizing another such forum, but with local critics as speakers. They felt that the discussion had taken a NewYork–centric direction, and were looking for more discussion pertaining to dance criticism in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Segal’s response to the forum’s theme captured the dilemma that critics everywhere grapple with: “The scene makes us; we don’t make the scene. When dance grows, we do too.”

 

Addendum

 

SARAH KAUFMAN, dance critic for The Washington Post, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

WENDY LESSER, editor of The Threepenny Review, regularly writes about dance, music, and opera. She is the author of eight books, including The Amateur: An Independent Life in Letters and Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering.

JOHN ROCKWELL, former dance critic, music critic, and editor of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, is the board chairman of the National Arts Journalism Program.

LEWIS SEGAL, formerly the staff dance critic for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.

 

Sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities, The English Department, The Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies, the Letters and Science Dean of Arts and Humanities, the Distinguished Chair in Poetry and Poetics, and the Transnational American Studies Working Group.

Edward Stegge survived a brutal attack to return to the stage.

 

 

The surgeon’s prognosis was bleak after Edward Stegge, a dancer with Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek, CA, underwent a three-hour surgery at John Muir Medical Center, during which the doctor removed bone fragments from Stegge’s brain. He might not make it, the doctor warned, or if he did, he might never regain consciousness.

 

In October 2009, Stegge had run out to a convenience store near his home in Concord, CA, to pick up a few items. On his way home, two teenage boys jumped him. They beat him with a baseball bat, kicked him as he lay bleeding, and stole his wallet and cell phone. Leaving him lying in the street, they took off in a waiting car. Two off-duty EMTs discovered Stegge. While one paramedic wiped blood from Stegge’s head and the other called 911, Stegge asked, “Can’t you just drop me off at home?”

 

With a black eye, split skull, and bruised pelvis, he was brought to the ICU, where he was intubated so that hecould breathe.

 

Hospital personnel found a slip of paper in his pocket with his aunt’s telephone number, their only clue to his identity. A titanium mesh plate now covers an area where Stegge’s skull was crushed. Doctors said at the time that they couldn’t be certain of how much brain function he would regain.

 

Diablo Ballet artistic director Lauren Jonas rushed to his side and asked, “Eddie, can you squeeze my hand?” But he had lost the use of his right arm. A few days later, Mayo Sugano, a friend and dance partner, prompted Eddie to communicate on a basic level. Erika Johnson, another partner, said that he couldn’t speak in full sentences.

 

“At first I was—right or wrong—angry at myself,” says the dancer, who believed he had been attacked because he’s gay. “Then I learned that it wasn’t a hate crime, but it challenged my confidence—the idea that at any moment this could happen. It showed me that I was vulnerable.”
Luckily, Stegge had decided two weeks earlier to join Diablo Ballet’s medical plan. Even with insurance, however, the bill for his first week in the hospital was around $200,000. Fellow dancers organized a fundraiser.

 

Doctors initially limited Stegge’s visitors. When he began to improve he was allowed two visitors at a time, calming CD music, and occupational therapy. When he was well enough, he returned to the studio to begin working on Balanchine’s Who Cares? “I can learn choreography as well as I could before the attack,” says Stegge. “But sometimes I get stumped with petit allégro when they say, ‘OK, now reverse it!’ ”

 

In the meantime, his credit cards surfaced, leading to the arrest of several people, including two boys charged with the attack. While some called for harsh measures to be taken against them, Stegge responded differently. “I grew up where there was poverty and alcoholism. Luckily, our mother took us to the ballet. I fell in love with it. Were it not for her, I could have ended up like them. So I’m not going to judge them. I don’t condone what happened, but neither are the courts fair to boys like them.”

 

It has been nearly a year since Stegge has returned to the stage. “I was a little nervous,” he says, remembering opening night. In the audience were members of the John Muir medical team. “But I just took a deep breath.”

 

While not all words were kind (a member of the dance community advised Stegge to “bow out gracefully” and end his dance career), he received a standing ovation and a huge bouquet from loyal fans. “The audience gave me such a warm response that it was overwhelming. Aside from that, I noticed nothing different.” —Toba Singer

 

 

Pictured: Stegge in Viktor Kabaniaev's Opus for a Table. See Stegge perform at Diablo Ballet’s “Inside the Dancers Studio” in March. Photo by Ashraf, courtesy Diablo Ballet.

Frank Andersen has devoted great energy to preserving and advancing Bournonville technique, the signature style of the Royal Danish Ballet. A recipient of a 2002 Dance Magazine Award, he recently retired from his position as artistic director of the company, which he held from 1985 to 1994 and again from 2002 to 2008. Andersen began training at the RDB School in his native Copenhagen in 1960, joined RDB in 1971, and became a principal in 1977. He has also been artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet and has advised companies in China and Japan. With an enthusiasm that’s contagious, he embodies what August Bournonville intended ballet to become: so full of passion it could make an audience want to rise up and dance.

 

Toba Singer caught up with Andersen last November at the International Ballet Festival in Havana, where he was staging part of Napoli for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and teaching at Laura Alonso’s Centro Prodanza de Cuba.

 

Why should a dancer study Bournonville technique today? Adding Bournonville to a general classical background will give you greater freedom in ballet. The technique is difficult. It requires the coordination of the upper body, arms, and head inclined toward the legs. Every step, every enchaînement, must be danced with grace and élan yet look relaxed, happy, and free.


In the Bournonville style, what is distinctive about the use of the head? The head and upper body always follow the working leg. Let’s take, for example, a combination where you jeté onto the right foot, then onto the left, then chassé leading with the right, and jump forward toward the audience on the left. You must look first to the right, then to the left, then again to the right with the chassé, and turn the head with the jump. The Russians look away from the leg. We never do that, even in tendu. We look at the tendu leg.  


What’s the biggest adjustment a dancer new to Bournonville must make? If you can master Bournonville, you can master any classical style. What you have to conquer is dancing your way through the variation. A boy performing Le Corsaire or Don Quixote might run to the corner of the stage, then dance a diagonal to the center. In Bournonville, you are never running from place to place. You’re always dancing.

 

Another adjustment is the arms. The épaulement, especially what we call the “Danish embrace,” is one of the biggest challenges. The hands are open to say “Hello” to the audience. It’s one of the first things we teach: “Stop, stop, go back to have the feeling of the open hands.” The elbow should be slightly higher than the forearm, and the elbow and hand are always below the shoulder. If there is a jump, you jump forward, keeping the arms under the shoulders. The orchestra patrons, who pay the most for their tickets, aren’t included if your arms are up high.


In class today you said, “I see a little Swan Lake in the arms.” What did you mean? When the elbows are drooping slightly in second position, I call that Swan Lake. I’ve been preparing a full-length Napoli in Moscow for the Stanislavsky Ballet Company, and I see the dancers struggling to avoid this. In Bournonville, drooping elbows aren’t an option––unless we have a slight change into allongé. When we take arabesque and then a penchée, we make a breath with the elbow, but we never come to this drooping position.


Bournonville is known for its streamlined look, but I see a lot of dimension and nuance onstage. How do your dancers achieve that? In the studio we work more as academicians. When we go onstage there is a certain freedom that I like to compare with a highway emergency lane: The moment you know the technique, you can step into that lane and play with the phrasing and be more generous—draw a little bit here, push a little bit there—but that’s only when we go into battle. In the studio, you stay in the box.


Can you say more about the Royal Danish Ballet approach to Bournonville? I believe that dancers, even in the old days, wanted to be challenged. The classes they took in the 1930s and 1940s were not organized in the order we have nowadays, but we were still getting our daily technique. Then, in the early ’50s, when we turned to Vera Volkova, we were challenged with a different way of thinking and using our bodies. She created the distinct Danish style by combining French and Russian traditions with the Bournonville style. We took the arms, épaulement, fast footwork and melded them, then created the dancer who could do them. Volkova died when I was 22, but she selected me as an apprentice and dancer. It was she who proposed that we incorporate the best from both worlds into what I teach today. We owe a debt to her for this great artistic legacy. 

 

 

Photo: John R. Johnsen, Courtesy RDB

Fernando Alonso, 93, is a founding member of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and, with his ex-wife Alicia Alonso, formerly co-artistic director. He created the curriculum offered in the national ballet school system throughout Cuba. He danced with American Ballet Theatre (then known as Ballet Theatre) from 1940 to 1948. Toba Singer recently asked him about his ideas on ballet training.


How does your varied background enhance what you bring to the studio? I bring what I absorbed from all the teachers, choreographers, and dancers who came my way—from the Italian, French, Russian, and Danish schools, even from musical comedy. I learned rhythm, timing, and the importance of not wasting time. Dancing with Ballet Theatre was like attending a university and getting a Ph.D.

 

Contact with orthopedic surgeons helped me understand anatomy. My great-grandfather, a professor at the University of Havana, gave me a wonderful sense of observation and taught me that there’s a scientific explanation for everything. Psychologists helped me study the characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and behavior of the Cuban people. I always had a strong sense of the Cuban way of feeling.


What is “the Cuban way of feeling?” The Cubans inherited from the Spaniards a virile sense of dance, with a hint of toreador-like aggression. From the Africans, we inherited a readiness to demonstrate those feelings with repetitive rhythms, plus a pronounced masculine sexuality in the men and natural charm in the women. We develop these characteristics to lend contrast to the pas de deux. We teach classical ballet; it’s the male and female elements which create a “Cuban” way of dancing.

 

Many Cuban dancers are amazing turners. How do you explain the dynamics of a pirouette? We use all the key physical laws when we dance: inertia (a body at rest), equilibrium (balance), centrifugal force (causing the body to fly outward), and centripetal force (causing the body to move toward the center axis). To start, you must be balanced on the standing leg so as not to totter forward and back. Let’s say that you turn from second: You have to break the inertia by using your front arm to push. Even though you need extra force at the start of the turn, if that force remains excessive and you don’t shift immediately yet slowly into centripetal force, you will be in trouble. Shifting too quickly will cause you to expend all your energy and you will lose the force to get you around.

 

The foot of the standing leg must be on high relevé to have the least amount of contact with the floor, or else the friction will stop you. And start not only with your arms, but with the working foot from demi plié before it goes to that high, turned-out passé to get you around.
But to be “art,” a step must say something. When you pirouette, you must consider what steps came before and come after. Are they dramatic, romantic, or hateful? What is the rhythm?


How does one avoid sacrificing artistry for technique? Quality is more important than quantity, but quality with quantity is best. Dancers must study acting—Stanislavski is the best—and music. And be aware of your timing so that you don’t rush. When Giselle begs Myrta, “Please let him live!” and Myrta says, “No!” there is a connection. Let the other dancer finish “saying” what she has to say before you respond. Don’t anticipate!

 

How do you advance students through the curriculum? Learning ballet is like learning geometry. You begin with the first theorem, master it, and then go on to the next. If you haven’t learned to solve the first problem, you won’t be able to tackle the one that follows.

 

I teach slight head movements as early as possible so that students can use the body more fully. The head is the heaviest part of the body and the part that leads, for example, in a soutenu turn. If you don’t spot, the middle ear fluid, which determines your balance, will not keep up with the rest of the body. Spotting tricks the fluid, so that it doesn’t retard you and throw you off balance.


What are the makings of a good teacher? Teachers are like priests: You must be the servant of the goal. A good teacher should tailor choreography to the needs of her students and design steps as teaching tools, rather than show off what a good choreographer she is. The teacher’s role doesn’t stop in the studio. You must be accessible to your students—show them books, paintings, exhibitions, architecture, clothing, costumes, makeup, teach them how to eat properly and comport themselves in public.


How do you train a corps de ballet to synchronize as perfectly as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba? To me, the corps is the prima ballerina of the company. The corps is the measure of the company’s value. The principal is not dancing alone. The corps de ballet is helping her by giving the necessary dramatic background.

 

The coryphée (front corps dancer) determines the direction of the lines. The dancer who follows, the second in line, determines the focus. You must watch the coryphée’s foot because if it goes to the wrong place, the second dancer must compensate or at least not move until the first dancer corrects herself. You must have very good eyesight for a wide optical view, eyes everywhere to quickly see where the mistake is and how to correct it. When Alicia began to lose her vision, we worked on all the other senses to capture the line. When you are promoted to soloist, you must remember all you have learned in the corps de ballet and think of the corps as the dancer who has the secret to the ballet.

 

 

Photo Courtesy BNC.

Former San Francisco Ballet soloist Edward Ellison is the “go-to” teacher for many young dancers who want to polish their technique and artistry. He opened his own ballet school, Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program, in New York two years ago after teaching at San Francisco Ballet School, Boston Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and company class at American Ballet Theatre. Ellison also holds open classes at New York’s Steps on Broadway that are a destination for dancers looking for a rigorous technique class. Toba Singer observed his class and asked about his approach to training.


You often talk about energy and how to channel it. Where does the energy come from? Even just standing in first position, there’s energy traveling through the body from the center. There should be a sense of the tailbone going downwards, with a fountain of energy rising upward through the spine, neck, top of the head, and outwards through the arms and legs. This gives a feeling of lightness and freedom. One develops power and, at the same time, ease. We must find where the muscles engage and where they can let go. Students eager to improve can sometimes work too hard, clenching their muscles. By letting go of that tension, there’s more energy to strengthen and stabilize the right places. As a student I was constantly practicing. I once found myself balancing on relevé passé, doing developpés while talking on the telephone. Completely focused on the conversation, I was unaware of how effortlessly I was executing balances that seemed so difficult in class when really trying. There’s a balance between giving 100 percent and allowing the movement to come.


How do you eliminate the quirks that interfere with clean technique? I encourage my students to face themselves with absolute honesty, to develop an acute self-awareness. They cannot fix what they don’t see. Even though my students are advanced, the first semester is devoted to exploring basic fundamentals—demi plié, tendu—and then building from there to the complexities of advanced technique. The “quirks” are remedied by developing an understanding of the logic of the classical principles. I cannot teach my students’ bodies how to dance. I can only provide their minds with the information. It is up to the student to transfer the information from their minds to their bodies.


How do you help students gain core strength? Aligning the body correctly is the first step. Letting the pelvis rock back doesn’t allow the surrounding muscles to strengthen, so lower abdominals are underdeveloped. When the tailbone reaches down, but not tucked, the muscles are more easily activated. We also do exercises for the abdominals, glutes, and hamstrings. We lie on our backs, feet on floor, knees bent, and slowly lift the pelvis, rolling the lower and mid back off the floor until the pelvis is flat. Many students struggle to align their pelvis because the psoas muscle is too tight. We stretch to free the psoas, hip flexors, and quads, combining ballet, yoga, and physical therapy exercises with breathing technique. It’s common to inhale and not exhale. At the end of a barre exercise everyone lets out a big sigh because they’ve held their breath for the whole combination. This deprives the muscles of oxygen and creates excess tension, which desensitizes the body to balance.


How do you encourage students to keep focused yet still venture into more daring pyrotechnics? Focus is essential to mastering technique. The work of the mind goes hand in hand with the work of the body. We master the ability to stand in passé relevé, but how do we develop the feeling of turning? If it didn’t work, answer the question, “What happened?” then “Why?” You have to allow yourself to go for the feeling of something with a balance between analysis and impulse. As the technique becomes more advanced, sometimes you just have to go for it even if you make mistakes. Dancers can get so tense because they’re afraid of not doing it perfectly. Let go of that fear. I’ll applaud you if you fall because I know you’re going for it. There’s a lot of falling to do before you master a revoltade—maybe more falls than revoltades. Exceptional technique is a goal, but it is only the starting point. Once technique is secured, then the dancer has freedom to speak the language of dance.


What do you tell a student who moves well but doesn’t have a “ballet body?” I like to give my students the benefit of the doubt that they can make incredible progress. When I started at 18, I didn’t have a natural body. I couldn’t touch my toes, my feet wouldn’t point, my knees wouldn’t straighten. But I was inspired by the passion and power of my first teacher, Marius Zirra, to follow my dream. Nothing is impossible if you’re willing to do the work. Because of a burning desire and insatiable work ethic, I was able to radically change my body and reach a high level of technique, leaving no signs of starting late. If I had begun at 8 years old, I wouldn’t have understood that you can defy the odds.


What from your own training do you impart to your students? My last teacher, Larisa Sklyanskaya, taught me that bringing the physical, mental, and spiritual into harmony leads the student to becoming an artist. Students should accept themselves wherever they are in the process, while keeping a sharp eye on their goal. It’s common for ballet dancers to only see what’s bad. They don’t work in the way they could because of anger, depression, or an unwillingness to face themselves honestly. Progress doesn’t come steadily; it jumps up when you least expect it. Don’t stop striving or forget your goals. Perseverance goes a long way.

Lupe Calzadilla says she owes everything she knows about ballet to Alicia and Fernando Alonso. After graduating from their prestigious National Ballet School in Havana, Calzadilla spent 11 years performing with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She then returned to the school to teach while raising her daughters Lorena and Lorna Feijóo (who are now principals with San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet, respectively). Having taught children and adults around the globe for over 34 years, she is now a master teacher at City Ballet School in San Francisco. Toba Singer met with Calzadilla to ask her about how the Cuban system has influenced her as a teacher. (Freddi Kirchner, Justin Coe, and Lorena Feijóo aided with translation.)


What did Fernando Alonso pass on to you that you use today in the studio?


His love of the work, his discipline, his attention to detail, and his passion, whether for giving class or directing rehearsals. He taught me to never just mark in class or rehearsal. After each performance, he would write corrections or notes on the backstage bulletin board the following day!


What do you admire about the teaching system Fernando Alonso developed?


Everything must be perfect. No matter how many times Fernando asks you to repeat something, each time you do it with more brio, all the more to enjoy it. Look at a photo of any company, with the dancers lined up on a diagonal, all heads turned in one direction: Notice the slight differences in each dancer’s gaze. With Fernando, he regarded the corps as a frame for a rich work of art. If the frame is cheap, it detracts from the grandeur of the overall work. He therefore insisted that the gaze of each dancer be on the exact same angle, not a little up, not a little down, not a little more to the side, but precisely identical. When the arms were directed en avant they were so perfectly aligned that they would read as one continuous arm. When the Wilis cross in Giselle, the dancers know where to stop because he instilled a technique in every dancer which made her aware of every other dancer: No matter where the first dancer’s gaze is, she always looks out of the corner of her eye, and moves into position with a breathing pattern that allows adequate time and space for those who follow to fill in correctly.


Why does the Cuban system turn out well-rounded dancers, fastidious about technique, but also capable of bravura, brilliance, and great versatility?


Cubans are desirable as dancers and teachers primarily because of our solid training, thanks to a curriculum created by Ramona de Saá, director of the Cuban National Ballet Schools. It includes piano, folkloric and dance history, French language, and theater. Our dancers become artists in the full sense of the word. Twice a year, teachers from all of the Cuban provinces attend a meeting organized by de Saa. They bring their students, show their work, and offer opinions on each other’s methodology and class design. Someone may ask, “How do you get students to use more attack or more legato?” and then everyone says what he or she believes is good or bad. Teachers defend choices and discuss methods.


When you see a child who moves well but lacks flexibility or turnout, how do you “balleticize” his or her dancing?


If they are extremely limited, you can’t force it, because they will become injured. There are exercises to strengthen and stretch, such as tendu, dégagé, and développé. It’s easier to mold them when they are young and their bones are still soft. What ballet demands of the body goes against nature, but it can be achieved by working slowly, methodically, intelligently, and progressively. It should never, never be forced.


How do you work with a student with great technique, but who lacks imagination, musicality, and theatricality?


Dancing must come from the inside. The dancer must open herself up to the audience. She must have passion, desire, and love of the art. Begin early with the child who dances with a blank expression. They must lose any fear of appearing silly, or they’ll be reluctant to take chances. Almost any teacher can pull technique out of a student, but to bring out their emotional life, the teacher must be psychologically accessible to the student.


With épaulement, most teachers begin with the shoulders, but you direct students to “pressurize” from the area beneath the shoulder blade. Why?


True épaulement should begin from the base of the spine, and engaging the muscles under the shoulder blade helps rotate the torso. Épaulement is used as a means of accentuating other movements. It makes the body elongated and appear to fill more space. It provides a more complete way of carrying out and finishing an exercise that is richer, more sensual, and expressive, and helps deepen the movement.


What psychological obstacles can students have in the studio? How do you minimize them, or substitute alternative habits?


Number one is comparing their bodies or facility to others’. With a career based on the body, there’s a great temptation to compare your extension with the girl who can get her leg up to her ear. That energy must be channeled into constructive work to improve what you do have. I mix students so that the front line has every kind of body type. The teacher is a psychologist, not only with the student, but the parents, so that they don’t use their authority to send the wrong messages. In order to forge a homogeneous group, I work with students as a class and as individuals. If a teacher constantly praises the best student, the others can become resentful, hurting themselves and that student as well. As much as possible, you must ensure that everyone brings their best skills, artistry, and attitude to class.

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