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Carmelita Maracci.

Allegra Kent remembers her guiding star

Carmelita Maracci toured the United States in the 1930s with her own blend of Spanish dance and ballet before opening a Los Angeles dance school. Maracci's students included Cynthia Gregory, Christine Sarry, Jerome Robbins, Carmen de Lavallade and Agnes de Mille. One of her pupils, Allegra Kent, was to become one of George Balanchine's leading ballerinas at New York City Ballet.

When I first saw Carmelita Maracci teaching a ballet class, it was an extraordinary vision. I was watching through a tiny round of clear glass in the middle of the closed door to a rehearsal room at Perry Studios in Hollywood. A woman of small, perfect proportions was dancing sur la pointe for a group of very young girls and stopping to speak to them in an excited way. The girls listened, their faces rapt. Carmelita was wearing not teachers' clothes, such as I understood them to be, but white rompers with tiny blue dots, bare legs, white socks and pointe shoes. I knew I had found what I needed. Eureka!

It was 1949, and I had begun my study of ballet just six months earlier in an intermediate-level class with Irina Nijinska. At 11, I felt left behind. Many girls had begun the study of dance at age 5. I told my mother I needed a teacher to fill in the mysteries of my "lost" beginning.

As I steadied my eye through this looking glass, I watched Carmelita's face--strong, defiant and purposeful. Her small size was misleading; her presence projected great power.

When I met her during a small intermission between two classes and she offered me her hand, I felt her warmth and her love for children. Her hands were tiny and delicate with long, beautifully manicured nails. Her hair was black, gleaming and pulled back severely--almost ruthlessly--into a twisted coil of tight loops at the base of her neck. She had her own exquisite, unconventional beauty, with a dark Latin cast that at times looked oriental. Standing next to her, I felt like a large, ungainly creature. She was a different species.

After taking one class, I created a new schedule, telling my mother we had to add three of Carmelita's classes per week to Nijinska's three. I was improvising and had no idea what was appropriate for my level as I proceeded on my whirlwind first year of ballet. However, since I had started in a middle-level class, it was essential for me to find out what I should have learned in the beginning.

Carmelita Maracci, with her perfect dancing form, made me understand that miracles were possible. She taught us by example. In our pointe class, she was on pointe working with us. We didn't have to imagine what a step should look like; it sprang into life before our eyes. It was not unusual for this deceptively delicate dervish to do eight perfect pirouettes on pointe in a high passe position, and variations on that from two slow turns in high passe to six accelerated ones in a low sur le coup de pied.

If an invited guest came in to take a look--say Charlie Chaplin, Nora Kaye or Jerome Robbins--Carmelita might leap to her feet for a little display--a knockout punch--of technique. She might whip off a series of entrechat sixes and huits, or perhaps a series of double step-up turns (piques en dehors), often called, as a pet name by the English, "lame ducks." Carmelita would execute them at an incredible velocity without the lameness--never coming off pointe. With her interpretation, they ceased to be ducks and became whippets.

Carmelita's fondest hope was to enable her pupils to perform miracles and do what they had never done before. Her eyes traveled over our group of sixteen girls, seeking the children who got it right and calling out their names. "Beautiful, Nina! Good, Allegra! Everyone watch Judy." Judy was one of Carmelita's favorite students; she had fast feet and could do tiny passes in quick succession backward. When Carmelita announced this step, Judy would yelp with pleasure. Vocal enthusiasm delighted Carmelita. This was the way to feel about dancing.

We were dealing in two realms: the mysteries of feeling as well as the crystalline precision of pure technique. Carmelita asked us to bring our imaginations into play and visualize how Marie Taglioni first felt when she rose up on pointe and drifted "with superb ethereality in shimmering bourrees. Maybe it was like a skylark's first flight." We should try to feel the same way. Carmelita called the room's long diagonal "the bias." With a word, she altered my perception; the floor became fabric. The line and intent of my chaine turns had changed; the prospect of cutting up entered my thoughts.

Her explanations spurred me on to greater effort. I did more turns in her classes--more leaps. Carmelita never gave in to the body's fatigue, so I didn't either. And one day I, too, did eight pirouettes on pointe. The exhilaration of a personal discovery and a step well done was profound happiness, and my spirit soared. With lavish praise and a few hallelujah choruses, Carmelita joyously celebrated the moment with me. Such was her generosity. Producing these results gave her, as the teacher, a thrilling sense of achievement.

If our medium was the imagination, the atmosphere was music. After every new combination, she asked the pianist to tell us the name of the piece we had heard. She said that listening--and even the appearance of listening--was good for dancers. But it must be real. Somewhat like an athlete but also like an artist, we had to paint sound and sculpt rhythm. Carmelita taught me to revere and respect the music, yet to be myself, which was exactly what Balanchine emphasized.

Occasionally Carmelita offered an improvisational session during class. She liked to see who her children were when they created their own dances. She discovered that I didn't revert to ballet steps, but with primitive glee made wild, exuberant jumps when we danced to Offenbach's Gaite Parisienne. As I leapt, I felt she was looking and pointing only at me. She knew how to make her dancers feel they were original. I was to encounter that same faith in improvisation when Balanchine recreated The Seven Deadly Sins for me in 1958; he asked me to make up some of my own calorie-losing calisthenics for the Gluttony section. I pieced together an outlandish combination where my foot got caught behind my head and I twirled it twice to some revolving sounds in Kurt Weill's music. I also mixed in some pseudo-Pilates mat work and a walkover. Mr. B was delighted.

I learned even more from watching Carmelita give a rare performance at the Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. The poignant vision of one piece is still with me after fifty years. For The Nightingale and the Maiden, with music by Enrique Granados, the program read: "The Maja, her gay frivolity gone, is portrayed in somber hues of sorrow, and finds through her castanets an affinity with the nightingale." Onstage, a young Spanish woman enters a garden near twilight, seeking to find what is lost forever. In a famous photo of this dance, Carmelita holds her fingertips close together tenderly, as if protecting something within her palms. We feel it must be the nightingale; but no, it's the castanets that are nestled underneath. She plays them so swiftly that there seems to be no interval between the tiny beats. With the subtle use of sound, she evokes the flight of the nightingale, a symbol of loss and regret, and we glimpse a moment of this woman's private despair. At the end of the piece, the nightingale is discovered and does sing for her. This is her solace.

That day, I received a sense of the qualities that give a great performance its special magic. Carmelita showed me that feelings and emotions had to be genuine, not put on like a spangled dress for a party. Sometimes these emotions should lie just beneath the surface. These were ideas that I later put into play in Balanchine's masterpieces Serenade and Symphony in C. His choreography was entirely different from Carmelita's, but the interpretation of movement and music with pure honesty was similar.

When, after three years of study, my mother wished to move to New York City, Carmelita wrote a letter of introduction to the School of American Ballet describing a certain demonic quality of mine, and suggested a scholarship. Her solo dances and Balanchine's choreography were at different ends of the spectrum, but Carmelita sent me to one of the very best schools. She wanted excellence for me.

As a teacher, Carmelita was able to impart and illuminate, through image and imagery, the ineffable qualities as well as the technical points of ballet, and she never forgot that I was an eager, imaginative child who shouldn't be made to feel that dance was hard work alone. She made my dance study challenging and wondrous as well as great fun, while teaching me that dancing can be a profound experience for the performer and the audience alike.

Carmelita was one of my first incomparable guides in a lifetime adventure with movement, music and that exquisite art form called dance.

Allegra Kent is the author of Allegra Kent's Water Beauty Book and a contributing editor to Dance Magazine.
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Title Annotation:dance instructor
Author:KENT, ALLEGRA
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:1567
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