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Learning to light up the stage: at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.


Moving all the time, adjusting a leg here, a port de bras there, singing out the instructions in the rhythm she wants, Damara Bennett, director of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, puts the advanced level IIIB students through their paces. She gives fine-tuned, detailed corrections firmly, but with a smile in her striking green eyes. Occasionally she gives an anatomical explanation of how one position needs to flow from another. Several times, she admonishes her students not to be stingy with their dancing.

Whatever level Bennett teaches--and she teaches them all, from pre-ballet to pre-professional students and apprentices in Level IV, plus a weekly company class--the focus is the same: meticulous, individualized training in classical ballet geared towards creating well-educated professional dancers. The instruction not to be stingy is significant: Both Bennett and OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell like generous performers, who, he says, "use the brain as much as the body."

And performing is what this school is about: Under Bennett's directorship, which began in 2003, students have become strong--and numerous--enough so that there is no longer a need for city-wide auditions for Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Stowell has also been able to mount a full production of Swan Lake using professional-level students in the corps. Under every director since its founding in 1989, particularly Haydee Gutierrez, SOBT has been committed to training professional dancers. But under Bennett, building on the foundation already there, the style of training and the atmosphere in the studio have changed, and enrollment has leapt.

Bennett, who aims to give students the consistent training she wishes she'd had, fell in love with ballet at 6, when she saw The Red Shoes, and, she says, "had to have a pair at once." She took ballet lessons in small schools until she was 13, then studied with Lila Zali, the Russian-born former Ballet Theatre and Ballet Russe dancer who founded Laguna Beach's Ballet Pacifica. There Bennett took every class she could, a policy now followed at SOBT, where students in upper-level classes are encouraged, free of charge, to participate in any lower-level class.

A Ford Foundation scholarship took Bennett to the School of American Ballet, rounding out training that led to 12 years of performing with San Francisco Ballet. While there, Bennett spearheaded a lobbying effort for a really good company teacher, and the Russian Tatiana Grantzeva got the post. "In a way, she taught me how to teach," Bennett says. Grantzeva emphasized musicality, and Bennett says, "organized a barre that made sense to me. When I started teaching, she gave me some lovely combinations that I still use."

Bennett's pedagogical career began as a freelance teacher after she stopped dancing in 1983. She founded City Ballet School in 1987 in a space just a few blocks away from the SFB building. "It took six years to make a living," she says. "But teaching is my passion." Fellow SOBT teacher Matthew Boyes calls her teaching "evangelical."

At SOBT, Bennett and Stowell together--they work as an unusually strong team--have implemented a curriculum based loosely on Vaganova technique. But they have also, as Stowell says, "incorporated the best of the great schools." He continues, "Ballet is an art, not a science. There is room to change your mind."

While summer school students study flamenco and character dancing as well as dance history, modern is offered year round on the grounds that it makes one's ballet technique better. It's taught by Josie Moseley, a working choreographer whose training is Limon-based. "Modern can be contrary to what ballet is about," she says. "It's not about looking like something or someone else; it's about being yourself."

For company member Lucas Threefoot, who started in the school at 5, Moseley's class has been liberating. "In ballet there is so much focus on technique. Modern can make you feel the dance more." Threefoot gives everyone at SOBT high marks for his training, including Gutierrez. It enabled him to be accepted to the summer programs at SFB and SAB before landing a position in OBT. A high point came last summer when Stowell and Bennett coached him for a competition in which he danced variations from Nutcracker, Flower Festival, Sleeping Beauty, and a modern piece Moseley choreographed for the occasion.

Threefoot studied Bournonville technique to prepare for the 2005 school show. Royal Danish Ballet-trained Peter Brandenhoff staged divertissements from the third act of Bournonville's Napoli for a program that included excerpts from Balanchine's La Source and a fine-tuned performance of Robbins' Circus Polka. Before Bennett's tenure, faculty choreographed for the shows, occasionally staging bits of repertoire. Bennett and Stowell have thoroughly professionalized the school performances, creating opportunities for students to work with a range of stagers and choreographers, among them Francia Russell (Stowell's mother), who staged Balanchine's Harlequinade pas de deux. Last year's show began with Balanchine's Raymonda Variations.

Tall, leggy Grace Shibley, who entered the company last fall, started at SOBT in 2002 when Christopher Tabor oversaw it. "The school," she says, "prepared me to dance with the company," citing the switch from teacher choreography to well-known works for school performances. Shibley, a shining example of her training in both technique and artistry, spoke of the presence of company dancers as inspiration, singling out Anne Mueller and Gavin Larsen, both of whom teach in the school, and Yuka Iino. "Her poetry in Firebird made me want to be a dancer who could move people," she says.


For pre-professional student Macy Sullivan--who due to her short stature (4'9") would not have been accepted into the professional program under Gutierrez--Raymonda offered a rare chance to dance in the corps, which she did radiantly. Sullivan describes Bennett as "passionate and demanding." Sullivan adds, "she made me love to work. Also, she sees who you are outside class." Bennett and Stowell have not given her false hope about her chances for a professional career, but Sullivan remains ambitious: "I'll just have to be really good," she says, with a plan B to go to college.

Training culminates in performance, and even the youngest students are given plenty of opportunities to get onstage, in company works as well as the school performances. They have roles in Yuri Possokhov's Firebird and Stowell's new one-act version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In December's run of Balanchine's The Nutcracker, most of the flowers and snowflakes were students, seamlessly blending with the company dancers.

Martha Ullman West is a DM senior advising editor.
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Title Annotation:teach-learn connection
Author:West, Martha Ullman
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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