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Summer school for teachers: dance critic Elizabeth Kendall gets up close and personal at Canada's National Ballet School.

It's Day One of the Teachers' Seminar. I'm supposed to be the critic-observer. Instead I'm lying face down on the floor, arms spread and pelvis swiveled so my right leg can cross over my left in an impossible X. Argh. How did I get into the middle of Irene Dowd's "conditioning dance," Portals? I got to the Seminar itself because a ballet-teacher friend begged me to come--and dance critics always want to meet dance teachers. But down on the floor ...? My body was longing to join in; but it was the encouragement of instructor Carina Bomers that got me there.

There's something about the spirit of the National Ballet School's Teachers' Seminar that frees you up to join in, at whatever level. "I feel it intensely, that they respect us as teachers," says ninetime Seminar veteran Denise Celestin of Wichita, Kansas. Still, on that first evening, we newcomers wander the dorm in shock. Here's what I've done on just Day One: seen a peculiar, vivid, anatomical-lyrical ballet class taught by "Ballet Bob" (a.k.a. Robert McCollum); corkscrewed my body through the Portals sequence; listened to Dowd herself (cheerful neuro-muscular specialist) distinguish "joint mobility from muscle activity;" had 50 conversations with teachers from everywhere.

Other "old-timers" Carole McKay-Bonin and Maureen Duggan from British Columbia, (they've both been here eight times), whiz in and out of the communal bathroom, setting the friendly tone for our floor. "Relax," they say, "it will all come together."

On the morning of Day Two, it does. The apparent distance of Tatiana Tchernova's ballet class from everything else we've seen forces a realization. This brisk, delightful ex-Tashkent ballerina with Clara Bow spit-curls gives a clean, nuts-and-bolts Russian class. "I hope I don't teach pure Vaganova," she says, meaning she's experimented like the rest of the NBS faculty. But the almost-purity of it (and her own lyric torso and soft hands) bring home the seminar's message: There's not just one way to do things. Or, as NBS artistic director Mavis Staines put it in her welcoming speech, we want to find "different entry points into how to use the human body for different forms of expression."

And how many there are! Each day we get three possible classes: Tatiana's or Bob's ballet, or Peggy Baker's modern. (The tiger-like Baker, spewing metaphors, builds a dynamic class out of one walking phrase.) We get ever more anatomy information from Dowd. We get more stretching and curling in Portals. We get two deeply thoughtful demonstrations of how to apply this information in teaching to a ballet class (Laurel Toto and Eva Draw presiding), or a modern class (Baker herself explaining).

And we get a coup de theatre: Sorella.

Sorella Englund, onstage in black pants and tunic every day from 4 to 5:15, is a thin, cigarette-voiced, impish, eloquent Finnish dancer whose brilliant Royal Danish Ballet career was cut short by ill health. She invented a teaching style that sings, and ways to uncover the expressiveness sometimes lost from ballet steps.

"I," she points to her chest, at her first session, "had an idea," she lightly taps her head. She's telling us, in mime, that she and two pairs of NBS students are going to show us mime scenes from Bournonville's 1856 "Iraqi" ballet Abdallah. It's utterly fascinating. "Keep it clean, very clean," she says to David Prottas, as he hams up Abdallah the shoemaker's sheepish walk towards his partner. Working with these young dancers, praising them, sparking their imaginations, she instills real sincerity into their renditions of Abdallah and his paramour Irma. At one point Englund has them do the love scene "as if it's now, 2004." Their shrugs, hands on hips, and noses in the air look wildly funny. But we see what she's doing: fighting cliches, making it real.

As the hours flow by and information piles up, we can't help but think of the extraordinary institution behind the seminar, Canada's National Ballet School, apparently in a perpetual quest to "make it real." Seminar gurus Dowd and Englund fly in to teach two sessions a year. Baker is artist in residence. "What does that say about NBS, that our artist in residence is a modern dancer?" asks Staines. Staines herself, an elegant ex-dancer with almost-Japanese features and a soft Canadian voice, has been called a visionary. But she's that rare visionary who listens. A great idea is fine, she says, but here's the test: Can you draw the community into it?

By the seminar's end, our instant community of 75 teacher-students has been very drawn in, each in her or his own way. And we get to say how, on the last day, putting our questions, comments and thoughts out there to a heavyweight panel of seminar faculty, plus James Kudelka, National Ballet of Canada's artistic director, and Christopher House, Toronto Dance Theater's. How to be a mentor? How to talk to a less-talented student? How not to get drowned in administrating? How to avoid undeclared war among local schools? How to get your community involved? Many voices are heard. Many solutions emerge. It's a real apotheosis.

But for me, an even more moving moment had happened the day before, when the five small groups that had learned Portals separately, came together onstage to perform it. There they were under the lights (this time I was watching)--ballet dancers, modern dancers, old, young, amateur, professional, Canadian, foreign, even one blind veteran dancer Andre Fairfield, (whose good-natured, mournful dog had been among us all week). These assorted teachers, usually separated by geography or narrow dance categories, or both, here became one, as they gravely moved through this sequence that, as Seattle teacher Marie Chong put it, "bridges the aesthetic and the kinesthetic." According to Dowd, Portals makes use of the potent PNF muscle-conditioning patterns once developed for polio patients. But it's a dance too, because it flows, because it engages the whole person--mind-body-spirit."

And we at the seminar got to take it home with us.

Dance critic Elizabeth Kendall is a fellow at the New York Public Library Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
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Title Annotation:2005 Summer Study Guide
Author:Kendall, Elizabeth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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