Balanchine's teaching legacy.
On one thing the veterans agree: Balanchine's class was structurally unconventional. Suki Schorer, now on the faculty of the School of American Ballet, describes the class as "almost a seminar on each step," where Balanchine would often work on, say, tendu or pas de chat for the entire lesson. The class generally ran 45 minutes to an hour during rehearsal and performance periods (although Schorer recalls that during layoffs his class could last three hours).
The barre generally was brief--15 to 20 minutes--and at a swift tempo. Schorer says that Balanchine started with grand plies in first, second, and fifth positions (Melissa Hayden swears he never gave grand plies--you had to do them yourself), then quickly moved on to tendu, degage, rond de jambe, fondu, and frappe. He often left grand battement for the center to save time. And women always wore pointe shoes in his class.
Because Balanchine's barre was done in a New York minute, many dancers with tighter bodies, like Schorer and Arthur Mitchell, founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, warmed up beforehand. Schorer says that because she now teaches students, not professionals, she starts the barre, especially tendus, more slowly than Balanchine would have. "But I still use the same principles," she says. "You teach what you know and that's what I know." An example is the way she concentrates on plies as the linking step of every movement, as Balanchine did.
For Suzanne Farrell, with her elongated muscles, a brisk readiness to bolt from the starting gate has carried over into her classes today. "Class wasn't a forum to warm up in. You should already be warm and awake before class," explains Farrell, who directs the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. "It had to be mental commitment. He trusted the dancers would be ready when he wanted to make something happen."
Robert Weiss, who feels that the distinction between Balanchine's teaching and choreography has been blurred, gives a radically different assessment. "The man was an amazing genius," says Weiss, artistic director of the Carolina Ballet. "But I don't think he was a very good ballet teacher." Weiss thinks that in Balanchine's rash to establish a ballet company in a country where the training was spotty or nonexistent, he eschewed an organic system of training for a more superficial approach. "He wanted it yesterday, tie forced people to turn out and he gave them a way of doing it that was fake. The intrinsic technique of ballet is complex, tie gave a simplistic view of it," says Weiss.
Edward Villella, artistic director of Miami City, Ballet, had to retire from Balanchine's class for a long period owing to muscle spasms. Both he and Weiss turned to the Danish teacher Stanley Williams to translate Balanchine's physicality onto their bodies. Williams, who taught at the School of American Ballet, worked the buoyancy of the Bournonville technique deeply into the muscles. "Stanley brought to class all that incredible incisiveness, brilliance, speed, and energy from Balanchine," says Villella. Weiss and Villella use many of Williams' combinations and teaching methods today. (That includes giving equal time to men, mitigating the "dance is woman" ethos.)
In Farrell's opinion, Balanchine's class, despite its experimental nature, did adhere to traditional ballet axioms. "A tendu to the front is exactly to the front, not in front of your hipline," she tells her students. "To the side is 90 degrees, not 80 degrees. It's like a ship where the captain charts the course."
Balanchine laid down principles of musicality in his class that had far-reaching effects. In the center exercises, he liked extremes in tempos--molto allegro or super-slow adagio. He often used unique phrasing--counts of fives or sevens--and even played them on the piano himself. Schorer still imparts that focus on accents and phrasing in her classes. "The most important thing was to be in time--to begin on time and end on time, to hold onto the music," she says.
Villella and Weiss say that developing Balanchine's lightness and speed in European-trained dancers with heavy techniques poses a constant challenge. To achieve his end, Balanchine often used vivid imagery, evoking flowers, animals, even cooking. Mitchell uses the same metaphors in his classes. He recalls Balanchine saying, "I want your head inclined like you're nestling your head in a cloud." According to Hayden, Balanchine wanted hands "like a brush painting a canvas." And Farrell says he favored natural arms that breathed with the body, "like a tree swaying in the breeze."
Many of the dynamics of Balanchine's movement remain non-negotiable for today's generation. Transition steps, like a glissade or pas de bourree, are often as important as pirouettes. Preparations for pirouettes are disguised by making them quicker without sitting in the plie--the back leg is straight in fourth position. The plie landings from jumps are softened, unlike heavier European or Russian jumps. Farrell and Hayden, who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts, instruct their students to emphasize the epaulement and to devour space. Turns are spotted front, even when performed on a diagonal, as Mitchell says, "to allow you to see the triangle the passe makes."
Correcting misconceptions about Balanchine's intentions has kept disciples busy in the studio. Take the infamous edict, "Don't put your heels down." "You see dancers flying around on the balls of their feet," says Villella. "I think that's a misunderstanding. I think what he meant was don't put your heels down right as you land. You put your knee over the ball of the foot, and that creates a cushion, then the plie puts the heel down as you finish landing. The landing is not a landing, but a preparation for the continuity of the step."
As for the myth of wildly aggrandized port de bras, Schorer monitors that in the classroom. "He said, 'God gave us elbows, wrists, and fingers that move,' and he wanted to see that," she says. "It didn't mean we had to flap our wrists all the time and break our elbows."
Emulating Balanchine's cool patience, Mitchell passes on Balanchine's dry wit in his lessons. He remembers Balanchine saying, "If this were a science class, you'd be dead now. Because if you mix this with that, you'll blow yourself up."
Love it or leave it, Balanchine's class sowed the seeds of his creativity--and his legacy lives on. "Without his class, I don't think we'd be dancing the way we are now," says Villella. "It's that fundamental to his choreography."
Joseph Carman is the author of Round About the Ballet, published by Limelight Editions (2004).
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|Title Annotation:||Teach-Learn Connection|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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