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Moonlighting with Pina Bausch: Janet Panetta translates Cecchetti for contemporary dancers.

The sun filters into the A-frame studio atop Venice's famed, recently renovated opera house, Teatro La Fenice. Today is the "generale," or dress rehearsal, for Pina Bausch's epic, Fur die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (For the Children of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.) The company dancers of varying ages are sprawled around the Zen-like studio, stretching on the floor and at the barre, and chatting quietly. Enter ballet master Janet Panetta. The room erupts with hellos and kisses.

Panetta's home turf is New York, where she operates the Panetta Movement Center. Her classes are attended by dancers from the Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown companies as well as members of the burgeoning world of new burlesque. But for half the year, she leaves her studio in the capable hands of guest artists and flies to Europe where, among other jobs, she is ballet master (the term she prefers) for Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. Panetta's unique ability to transpose her classical training to dancers of all backgrounds has created a growing demand for her services outside the U.S.

She came to Bausch via Lutz Forster, a 30-year company veteran. "I first saw Janet when she was guest teaching for PARTS at the International Student Exchange in Germany. I saw that she has an incredible wealth of knowledge," says Forster. "I love her because she has great entertainment value! To be a teacher on these long tours I think that's a must--a successful teacher must know what she's doing and have a great sense of humor."

Though her class is challenging, professional, and for serious inquiries only, it's seasoned with witticisms ("If they're late with the music, I say, 'If I invited you to dinner at 8:00 and you showed up at 9:00, I'd be gone already!'") and boosted by her accepting, supportive energy. "I don't give up on them," Panetta says. "If a dancer isn't getting something, I give them a different path, a different approach to their problem. I'm sure they will get it, and they do get it, almost immediately. That boosts their confidence, and changes their perception of themselves in relation to that step."

Panetta originally went to Europe in 1983 at the invitation of the French government as part of a project to develop modern choreographers and dancers. Her students included the now well-known French choreographers Mathilde Monnier, Philippe Decoufle, and Jerome Bel. Her association with these students and other staff members caused her European teaching career to snowball.

Julie Anne Stanzak, who has been with Tanztheater for 20 years, says, "You feel her love for what she does. She is very dedicated to her principles, and so you take them on. You can also rapidly and effectively warm up in her class. She understands anatomy and she brings you to your center. And she makes us feel happy. We walk out of class with our teeth showing!"

Panetta's deep knowledge of movement principles and anatomy enable her to discern what individuals need, no matter what school of movement their performance work stems from. "I don't try to teach professionals how to learn, as most of them have developed their own systems," she says about working with the Bausch dancers. "I remind them that they dance because they love it. I look at the kind of performance work these dancers do, and I figure out which aspects of my technique (Cecchetti-based ballet) are beneficial to them. Pina's work is very weight-based, rhythmical and imagery-filled, so I go into the Cecchetti 'archives' and I talk about the use of weight. I give them varying rhythms to show how these changes will impact the use of their muscles. They can use more or less muscle, and I try to point that out."

"The class is very good for the body because she doesn't have us over-work our muscles," says company member Silvia Farias. At the end of class I'm very warm, but not tight, because I haven't used too much force."

Panetta began taking ballet lessons in Brooklyn at age 5 in order to strengthen her polio-stricken left side. She later attended New Dance Group to study under Celine Keller and eventually wound up at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, where her teachers were Antony Tudor, the formidable Cecchetti pedagogue Margaret Craske, and the late Alfredo Corvino (see "Teacher's Wisdom," Nov. 2004). She began her own teaching career at 14, assisting Craske with her 8-year-old students.

"That was really a lucky break," says Panetta. "My parents couldn't afford the classes, so I was on scholarship, and my job was to help Ms. Craske. This meant I was learning how to teach while I was learning how to dance. By the age of 14, I already understood that to teach is to learn."

Panetta danced with American Ballet Theatre and "worked her way downtown" to perform with contemporary choreographers like Paul Sanasardo, Kazuko Hirabayashi, and ex-Cunningham dancers Robert Kovich, Albert Reid, and Neil Greenberg.

Her own experience in modern dance reinforced her respect for contemporary dancers. "Their tasks were very different and I understood that," she says. "I was probably the first ballet teacher to say that I was teaching classical, linear technique to contemporary dancers. But I also enjoy teaching classical dancers. I like deciding which exercises will be relevant to each type of dancer."

Bausch's Fernando Suels sums up the Panetta experience nicely. "We are learning Cecchetti technique. We are getting good placement, but dynamic of movement is also very important. When I'm done with class, I'm ready to go onstage. And you can see what she wants us to arrive at in her body. You can see the technique in her feet and her legs. It's inspiring."

Nancy Alfaro performs and writes about dance in New York City. See her reviews at
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Author:Alfaro, Nancy
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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