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Chautauqua movement: led for the past ten years by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, the summer program at Chautauqua provides up-to-the minute training in a genteel, nineteenth-century setting.

For many vacationers, the Chautauqua Institution, in southwestern New York State, is a retreat where one may summer in tranquillity and languor, enjoying lakeside recreation and a full season of cultural activities. For the price of a gate ticket, almost all of the thousand or so events at seven theaters are free, and visitors are welcome to attend rehearsals and to look in on the classes at four professional arts schools.

Life in the arts schools themselves seems to go on at a more frenetic pace. At the dance school, people often appear to be racing against the clock. In a variations class that I observed during a visit last summer, former New York City Ballet principal Violette Verdy reminded students that it is important to learn choreography quickly, because "there is never enough time"; director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux frequently sounded the note that "ballet dancers don't have much time, you know." Their awareness of time's passing informs, too, a special sense of its preciousness - for Bonnefoux and his faculty, good teaching seems to be at once about carefulness, patience, and urgency.

Bonnefoux danced with the Paris Opera Ballet for thirteen years and was a principal at NYCB for a decade before he retired in 1980 to teach. Patricia McBride, his wife, retired from NYCB in 1989 after thirty years with the company; she was, of course, one of the company's leading ballerinas, for whom Balanchine created nineteen ballets.

For the last eight years, McBride and Bonnefoux have directed the dance department at Indiana University, in Bloomington. Each June they and their two children relocate to Chautauqua, where they have a second home. Chautauqua has a tiny population, but in just ten years they have cultivated a vibrant audience for dance there, a development that still eludes them in Bloomington. Because the site is so remote, however, Bonnefoux's summer program remains one of the field's best-kept secrets. "Dancers know about it," says McBride, "but no one else does."

Many people who know of Chautauqua at all know of the institution's historical importance: In the late nineteenth century the Chautauqua Movement articulated a philosophy of self-improvement and lifelong learning that the times seemed hungry for. Women, especially, took advantage of the courses and lectures offered there. Small-scale "chautauquas" sprang up to accommodate the demand, and traveling chautauquas carried the ethos far afield.

These independent chautauquas vanished long ago, and the heyday of the original Chautauqua is also long gone. The lectures and courses and the recreation on Lake Chautauqua still draw a loyal community of summer vacationers, some of whom trace their family residences back seven generations. Nevertheless, the institution seems to yearn for its glory days in the last century. Instead of visiting another place this summer, visit another era," beckons last summer's brochure. A desire to preserve the past is surely one of the reasons that car traffic is discouraged on the enclosed property. As families walk or bike along streets lined with comfortable Victorian cottages, the America of the Gilded Age seems to live on. In this picturesque setting, Bonnefoux's dance program stands out for its innovation. Guest choreographers and teachers sometimes seem unprepared for what they find. New York City-based modem choreographer Peter Pucci was among those invited to set work on the Chautauqua Ballet Company last summer. Initially unsure of what to expect, he plans to return - as do many guests who have once been there, it seems: Lynne Taylor-Corbett also spent her first summer at Chautauqua in 1993; in 1994 she may lead its first choreographic workshop. As a teacher-director, Bonnefoux is at once gentle, authoritative, approachable, and demanding; he stewards his program with full confidence in the vitality of classical dance and a limitless belief in its capacity for new expression. In part because of his own optimism, Chautauqua impressed me with an overwhelming sense of promise: This promise is evident in the youngest students, eleven years old, who benefit from careful, rigorous training. It is also evident in the company dancers, nearly thirty professionals who travel there partly to work with both young and established choreographers. A summer at Chautuaqua is also an extraordinary opportunity to learn some of the ballets of George Balanchine under the expert, watchful, and caring coaching of McBride. These are not ballets that present classical dance as a precious artifact from a former time; nor do they present neoclassicism as a radical departure from the nineteenth-century tradition. They are, appropriately, ballets that invoke a vision of the old as nourishment for the new.

Bonnefoux and McBride could not have foreseen the current flowering of classical dance at Chautauqua when they first encountered the institution in 1974; their introduction to the place was inauspicious at best. The NYCB principals had been invited to perform an evening of dance at the Amphitheater, a century-old wooden structure that resembles a giant gazebo. On arriving at the open-air auditorium, they discovered that the wooden stage floor had been meticulously waxed in their honor. They discovered, too, that some viewers would be watching them from behind, in choir pews above the backstage wall. The seating arrangement was merely odd. The waxed floor was a menace, a dangerously slick surface for dancing on pointe. The pair considered canceling.

As it turned out, not only did they persevere, they returned to Chautauqua for many annual performances with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which has held seasons since 1929. These performances offered the first inkling that the highly cultured summer community could harbor serious dancing. In the early eighties Bonnefoux was approached about directing a dance program.

His program started in 1983, replacing the modest dance school that had been there for twenty years. The original studio was a makeshift facility in a space that had been rented from the Boys' Club. In 1986 new studios were built, underwritten by patrons of the institution: The Carnahan-Jackson Studio is a modest but state-of-the-art building that houses four classrooms, a costume shop, and an administrative office. Situated on a grassy expanse high above Lake Chautauqua, right next to the student.' dorms, the brown-shingled structure recalls an airy summer lodge: Screen doors slap against their frames as classes take in and let out; a pale yellow front porch invites lingering.

The dance studio matches the fine arts studio just across the road, built early in this century. Both buildings are close cousins of the tiny practice rooms of the music school, Chautauqua's oldest arts school. These toy-size cabins, which look as though they could quarter little campers from the Boys' and Girls' clubs, have actually housed their own bit of American cultural history: In the summer of 1925, George Gershwin wrote his joyously urban Concerto in F in one of them.

The seven-week Chautauqua Dance School has a reputation for emphasizing performance more than many summer ballet intensives do. Advanced students seem particularly attracted to the stage opportunities. The classroom training at Chautauqua is excellent, however. "Class is always the most important part of the day," notes Bonnefoux. "At the end of the summer you're happy that you danced onstage, but what you can really measure is how well your technique improved. If you still have problems with basic steps, then it was not a good summer."

During the first full day at Chautauqua, I observed the school at work. The twenty-four Festival Dancers, ages thirteen to seventeen, started their day with a technique class taught by Verdy. Directly afterward, nine of them moved to the neighboring studio to rehearse a work that Pucci had set on them. Others headed for a dress rehearsal at the Amphitheater. The rest attended variations class, in which Verdy taught them a solo that Balanchine had made for her. Variations was followed by an informal talk on Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, presented by Rick McCullough, a guest choreographer and teacher.

The youngest students, between the ages of eleven and thirteen, are called the Workshop Dancers. Their more supervised, equally demanding session is three and a half weeks, an intense time that is almost exclusively devoted to technique classes. The Workshop students do perform once, and I was treated to an impromptu studio showing of this matinee program, directed by their technique teacher, Maris Battaglia.

These young performers had a winsome manner, while their dancing was serious, accurate, and strikingly at ease. But Battaglia pointed out that many of them were clearly anxious for affirmation. Their questioning glances recalled to me Bonnefoux's insistence that a major part of the teacher's role is "to give [students] confidence in themselves, to prepare them mentally." In a separate interview, he sounded again that chord of urgency, noting that "ballet dancers have to accomplish so much work when they're so young, but we also expect a maturity from them." Recognizing that students' timidity can impede the classroom dialogue, he adds: "You have to find a way that they trust you enough to come and tell you that they did not understand [a correction]." To encourage the students' confidence in him from the beginning, he meets with each individually; he does so again at summer's end.

Bonnefoux expects the same accessibility from his faculty and staff. In fact, he seems to choose his faculty for kindness and generosity as well as for high-quality teaching. Epitomizing this excellence is Verdy, a close friend and colleague since she, McBride, and Bonnefoux danced together at NYCB. Verdy has been a guest teacher every summer.

Bonnefoux gives four classes a week. McBride has never had a formal contract with the summer school, but one has the feeling that she is involved in more of the goings-on than she will admit to - she seems to prefer that her backstage contributions go unsung. McBride is "in residence" at Chautauqua; last summer that meant that she coached principal Balanchine roles and taught a technique and variations class weekly for the youngest students. McBride is strikingly welcoming and attentive, and her pleasure in the progress of students and young professionals seems genuine and undiminishable. She offers by her presence an example for the aspiring ballerinas around her.

Modern dance and jazz are taught in addition to ballet, and Bonnefoux encourages different points of view among the faculty; still, there's a sizable contingent of NYCB alumni. The four excellent piano accompanists play for the School of American Ballet in the winter.

Summering professionals make up the four-year-old Chautauqua Ballet Company, which has three fully produced performances and as many informal ones. This year twenty full members and nine apprentices came from American Ballet Theatre, Cleveland Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Washington Ballet, Boston Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, and several other troupes.

My last evening at Chautauqua coincided with the company's final performance. The program included Balanchine's "Rubies" and three premieres: one by Pucci, another by McCullough, resident choreographer for North Carolina Dance Theatre, and a third by Mark Diamond, resident choreographer for the Cincinnati Opera. New York City Ballet conductor Hugo Fiorato led the orchestra.

As the program came to its close, I recalled a magisterial pronouncement from Fiorato on the subject of Bonnefoux and McBride's work, directed my way a few days earlier: "Balanchine would have been proud of what they're doing, I'll tell you. And they do it with the barest of equipment." The Amphitheater's space is still rather rudimentary for dance productions, even with the advent of portable plastic flooring. There are no wings, no front curtain, no orchestra pit; backstage is little more than a corridor. Blue velvet draperies hung from the choir seats and professional lighting only partially disguise these drawbacks.

The inconveniences made the sophisticated, highly professional performance all the more impressive, however. The dancers were polished and technically secure; their costumes had been designed by A. Christina Giannini, a designer for some of the country's finest ballet companies, as well as for Broadway; the premieres were each well crafted and enjoyable; along with the vibrant "Rubies," the entire bill was a delight.

Bonnefoux clearly feels indebted to the Chautauqua Institution for much of what he has been able to accomplish. Noting that the institution's financial help has left him free from time-consuming fund-raising, he adds: "Chautauqua is really a place where we can try things. The program can really grow in different directions, and I think that's what's going to keep it alive."


Inside the Chautauqua dance studios one beautiful morning last August, the Festival Dancers, twenty-two teenage young women and two young men, began their day with a technique class by Violette Verdy. Formerly a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Verdy is currently a teaching associate for that company. This past year she has also been a guest teacher for the Paris Opera Ballet School and the Royal Ballet School, among several others.

Verdy's combinations are short and straightforward - a simple but solid base for a well-placed and accurate technique. With her guidance, the exercises will develop the refinements that make classical dance expressive - musicality, epaulement, phrasing. "We want everything we can get from the barre," she told the students. "Let's use it."

Verdy, wearing a Chautauqua Dance 1993 T-shirt over a blue unitard and red-heeled teaching shoes, was easily the most energetic person there. She walked quickly around the room, snapping her fingers and eyeing each dancer in turn, approaching several swiftly to correct a position during the exercise. She conveys, without ever saying it in so many words, a belief that ballet, and ballet study, is a distinction - singular, charmed, and exhilarating. In conversation later, she confided that she loves teaching students this age because they are so "singleminded" about dancing, not yet distracted by anxiety, not yet exhausted by the physical demands of full-time performing. Her teaching persona seems never to have known anxiety or exhaustion either - her classroom style builds on the serene intensity of youthful devotion.

Her corrections, delivered with a smile and eyes that sparkle, are colorful, witty, and apt. "Don't be a tired horse," she told the class midway through barre. "Remain the jockey above the horse." She directed several corrections to a young boy self-conscious about his carriage. "Think of your torso as the living room, your legs as the kitchen," she suggested. A few exercises later, she coaxed him with an even more extravagant image: He should feel like "a bay window." Verdy didn't need to demonstrate what she meant because the image well suits her own high, open carriage.

Verdy conveys to her students that ballet steps don't merely make a design in space - they communicate. "Contain the standing leg so that you can write with the other one," she said to them at the barre. She asked them to fully "pronounce" their ronds de jambe en l'air. She explained to one girl that developpe "is a production - discreet, but a production." Later, in the petit allegro in the center, she told a student: "Your legs [should] speak louder than your arms in this exercise." Her classes are strikingly musical, and her explanations address the quality of a step's execution as well as its correctness.

After class the students freely came up to their teacher to ask her questions. In this and many other ways, the class well exemplified director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's teaching philosophy, as he expressed it in a separate interview. He believes that fifteen minutes after each class should be formally set aside for students to ask questions. And he is adamant that teachers be kind and encouraging: "I like to respect people and enjoy them - enjoy their progress and feel responsible for their well-being. I think it gets good results when people are treated that way." Bonnefoux particularly admires teachers who are musical and energetic. But, he says, "You need to try different teachers and to use your own judgment with them."
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Title Annotation:includes related article on former New York City Ballet principal dancer Violette Verdy's classes for Chautauqua; Chautauqua Institution's performing arts and dance studies, Chautauqua, New York
Author:Dekle, Nicole
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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