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Harvey Hysell: the quiet hero of classical ballet.

If ever there was a quiet hero of classical ballet, it is Harvey Hysell. He has been called a cultural icon in New Orleans, praised for his choreography, and applauded for his lavish Costumes. He has received six citywide Big Easy awards for classical ballet, including one for Lifetime achievement in the Arts, with an additional award from the mayor for Lifetime Achievement. Yet, amid all the admiration for his artistry, Hysell considers himself mostly a teacher. "What I'm about is developing young dancers," he says.

Hysell is very much a purist who discovered his aesthetic preferences many years ago in the methods that were taught to him by Enrico Cecchetti's protege, Vincenzo Celli. "There is a tradition that has been passed along to me that I treasure," says Hysell. "I think a dancer should be trained in the tradition--trained within an inch of his life--even where to put his eyes."

With the exception of character and stretch classes, only ballet and pointe are taught during Ballet Hysell School's spring and fall semesters. Hysell has a permanent faculty of five, and he and his associate, Diane Carney, are insistent upon proper pointe work--totally pulled up legs from the toes. The summer curriculum includes modem dance, jazz, and acting. The school's summer workshop expands the faculty and curriculum into lively and intense sessions of ballet, costuming, partnering, choreography, character, and makeup that culminate in an intimate performance at Hysell's own Studio Theatre.

The Ballet Hysell School, established in 1969, has three studios and the Ballet Hysell Company. About 150 students attend the open school in a building that evokes a spiritual quality that is more than imagined. The massive old Spanish baroque structure the color of Bermuda coral, tucked away in the Garden District on a short side street called Harmony, was once a church. The building is somehow symbolic of Hysell himself.

Hysell has choreographed more than a hundred of his own classically based ballets as well as staged full-length versions of Giselle, Coppelia, Les Sylphides, and The Nutcracker.

Even as a child, Hysell possessed a passion for the classics, reading everything related to ballet that he could get his hands on. At the age of eleven, he began study in New Orleans under Lelia Haller, a student of the Paris Opera school. "Lelia gave us a wondrous devotion to ballet, revering it, almost like a religion, and an amazing vocabulary of ballet steps," he recalls.

Hysell attended Texas Christian University, where the dance department was headed by David Preston, who had studied with noted teacher and graduate of the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Ballet, Constantin Kobeleff. Production, costume design, and choreography were emphasized in the curriculum that later became essential in shaping Hysell's career. He was graduated in 1960 as the first male in the United States to earn a B.F.A. in ballet and theater.

Hysell became a soloist with famed ballerina Mia Slavenska's Ballet Arts Company. "You need Celli," she told him.

Hysell had heard plenty about Vincenzo Celli's reputation as the most feared teacher in New York City, one who taught Cecchetti's technique with a furor. "We loved him," says Hysell. "At the same time, we were all scared to death of him, at least in the beginning." Hysell gradually became so astonished by Celli's genius and authority that it aroused in him a boundless urge to please his teacher and to soak up every drop of knowledge, every skill that Celli had to offer.

Up to that point, Hysell's training had been shaped by French and Russian influences. However, he admits that it wasn't until he studied with Celli that he began to understand the science of ballet. He drew on this knowledge when he opened his school in New Orleans, basing his lower school curriculum purely on the Cecchetti system. During the 1980s, Celli joined him at Ballet Hysell School for a three-year stint as artist in residence.

Like Celli, Hysell's expectations and standards for his students are high, and corrections are fiercely precise, but his coaching is often balanced with short, witty remarks that adhere to the minds of his young dancers. For instance, in coaching his young corps of Wilis for Act II of Giselle on how they should feel as they point Hilarion to his watery grave, he tells them: "Be very judgmental at this point. Your mothers are judgmental; now it's your turn."

Hysell will do or say nearly anything to get his dancers and students to understand their roles. "Staging is one thing," he says, "but getting the right look is another thing. You must know the history of the ballet; you can't just copy it." It takes a historical connection and an extensive study of a ballet's original and subsequent versions to begin to develop a feeling for the work. He also feels strongly that if you stage a ballet, you must have first danced it. "I have never staged a classical ballet that I have not danced," he says. When a period ballet really works, "the audience feels that it has been transported in a time machine."

After his two years of study with Celli in New York, Hysell became a member of Allegro American Ballet of Chicago and then joined the Ruth Page Opera Ballet. He was then accepted into the United Scenic Association as a costume designer, creating for Harkness Ballet and the Latin Quarter nightclub.

Many of his thirty-four former students who have gone on to professional dance careers return on a regular basis to dance in Hysell's performances or to seek his coaching. These include Stephanie Murrish of Ballet de Santiago; Ann Arnoalt Noa of Ballet Austin; Devon Carney, a principal with Boston Ballet, who has been with that company since 1979; and his brother, Ian, now with Montgomery Ballet.

Many professional dancers, such as Alexi Zubiria, former principal with San Francisco Ballet, have sought Hysell's coaching and expertise in perfecting placement and executing classical variations. One such coaching venture took an unusual turn during the Arabesque '92 International Competition in Perm. Hysell unexpectedly wound up demonstrating to a studio filled with Russian teachers and coaches, including international Bolshoi star Vladimir Vasiliev. It all began with an innocent comment from Hysell followed by dozens of repetitions of the Nutcracker Pas de Deux. "What is this terrible thing I'm looking at?" Hysell asked in exasperation. Word spread like wildfire that Hysell knew the original Ivanov version of the pas de deux, as danced by Celli and his partner, Olga Spessivtseva when they performed together in soirees in Paris (they had met through Cecchetti). Celli had personally coached Hysell and his partner for a month in New York on this pas de deux, and Hysell was asked to teach the old version. Nina Pugachiova, a coach and newly retired prima ballerina of Perin Ballet, offered to be his partner. After a few days of rehearsals, a captive crowd with Vasiliev in the middle gathered in a studio for the performance. As the two performed the adagio, tears began to trickle down Vasiliev's cheeks. Afterward he said, "This is what partnering is all about. I recognize the pas de deux from photographs, but I never dreamed that it would be so charming." As Hysell was heading home, Vasiliev dispatched the directors of the competition to stop him at the train station and present him with a certificate reading, "The competition awards Harvey Hysell (of the U.S.A.) this special award in thanks for preserving the real Russian tradition of ballet--and in thanks for showing and dancing for us the original adagio from Nutcracker of P. I. Tchaikovsky as it was danced in St. Petersburg's Imperial Maryinsky Theatre."

"These days," Hysell says, "it is becoming harder to find dancers who can dance and move in classical lines." He feels that there is a leaning toward more tricks and less concern for artistry. "We're losing quality of movement," he says.

He is committed to handing down a tradition that he cherishes. And when it all comes together onstage, the audience is often taken by surprise. There is no greater delight than being stopped after a performance by someone exclaiming, "I didn't know that anybody could move like that anymore!" For Hysell, the keeper of the classics, there is little in this world that could be more satisfying.
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Title Annotation:A Tribute to Teachers Who Have Produced Outstanding Results; American Teacher Series; Great Starts
Author:Sarver, Susan
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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