Back in my stricter ballet school days when our class was overtired and overworked and couldn’t muster the energy to take yet another intense series of barre exercises, we would try to convince the teacher to do a “meet the artist” with us. Instead of plies and pointe shoes we’d beg to hear the life story and career highlights of our teachers. You know they loved talking about themselves, but we had to be pretty exhausted to convince them to skip out on normal class.
Fortunately, ABT’s intensive has these “meet the artist” seminars built in – on top rather than instead of regular class. Given the credentials of the faculty there it’s really interesting to hear what they have to say. Today we “met” two people.
The first was Ethan Brown, who taught my level’s morning class. He was a soloist with ABT and danced in the company for 23 years. He spoke about his time at SAB and how he was asked my Misha to join ABT just randomly in class one day. He also talked about his sister, Leslie Brown, who was in the moving “The Turning Pointe.” Very cool.
The longer seminar was with Rachel Moore, the Executive Director of ABT. She's great. She was actually the exec director of Boston Ballet School while I was still there back in the day. She mentioned quite a few things of note…
After describing her career in the corps de ballet of ABT and her admirable transition to college and grad school (Arts Admin @ Columbia), she went into a discussion about the state of dance today and the financial issues companies face. One of my favorite quotes she said: “In the totem pole of culture, dance is probably just above mimes and just below poets.” That got a great laugh.
One thing she mentioned was how she has to help balance the repertoire the company does so that they can balance the budget. For instance, if they want to do a more avant-garde work they have to also do something like “Swan Lake,” which consistently sells out for them. She said it’s hard for them to do things like Tudor ballets, which are often darker and not “children fare.” She said people don’t want to see that when they come to the ballet. “If Muffy from Idaho comes to NYC to see the ballet, she wants to see Swan Lake. It’s familiar.”
My opinion: that’s the reason ballet is stuck where it is. People only think of ballet (if they do at all) as sugar plum fairies and swans. It’s so much more than that!
She spoke quite a bit about NYCB and it being the competitor and some of the differences between the two companies. Apparently NYCB pays better and has more dancers, but ABT prides itself on being more of a touring company. She mentioned how when ABT does a Balanchine ballet it’s completely different from when another company does it, even just in the approach and style. Neither is better, just different. And she mentioned the vast difference in training, of course, which I’m witnessing firsthand in the classes there (personally, I’m finding I prefer the more freedom Balanchine training allows, although it can go overboard. The new abt curriculum style is a little to rigid for me, personally).
Moving on, she also discussed how they cast different ballets. She said that, particularly for the men in the company, there’s no one distinct look they want, but certain roles automatically make you think of certain people. She said you don’t think of Albrecht in Giselle as the short, firecracker type but more the tall, handsome princely type (making the obvious comparison, without directly naming them, between principal dancers like Herman Cornejo and David Hallberg).
My opinion: why not a short, firecracker prince? Why do we continue to live in a word of stupid stereotypes and archetypical appearances when there is such a multitude and diversity of talent out there? Just look at the casting. I know some dancers with atypical bodies are breaking the mold, but in general, as she pointed out and exemplified, the hero must look like a hero (whatever that is), and so on. Why does this continue, and am I the only one who doesn’t get it?
This kind of brings me to another poignant issue she discussed in the seminar: body types. Someone asked about body issues related to the company and she made a point to announce that they are very serious about dancers who are too thin, and they remove them from performances until they return to a healthy weight as determined by a doctor. After that cautious schpiel came the dirt.
She listed off the typical physical characteristics companies look for in a ballerina: “long legs, pretty feet, a long neck…” And then she went on to say that it was particularly difficult when she was in Boston to tell people that, “you know, some feet are just not going to change. And I’d never encourage someone to put themselves through this to hurt themselves in the long run just for the sake of completing a short term goal of being a dancer.”
Ouch. I was one of those kids they said that too.
“You’ll never be a dancer,” since age 10. Yet here I am folks…
No, not in ABT. But why does that – being prima ballerina in the best company in the country – have to be the only thing drilled in our heads to aspire to in the dance world? This is an everlasting frustration for me that resurfaced this afternoon, haha, so I’m just venting a bit.
After a lengthy discussion on this that had me shifting in my seat she mentioned her dislike of ballet competitions because they only award tricks instead of artistic nuances. An interesting point she made was that competitions CAN be beneficial “for people with odd bodies that wouldn’t necessarily be picked in a cattle call” and for those that look better onstage rather than in class. I agree with the weariness of competing…yet is it ironic then that the grand prize for the Youth America Grand Prix competition is a contract with ABT’s studio company?
Earlier Ethan mentioned that he works with that competition, judging and teaching. When asked by one of my classmates what he thinks are some good ballet schools, the first thing out of his mouth was one of my former schools that has transformed into a HEAVY competitor in these things. I had to laugh.
I am baffled and amazed at the same time at the range and depth of opinions in the dance world. It would be nice to have access to more of them, and to have a louder discussion going on about these kinds of issues. It’s so intriguing to hear what these teachers and so many others have to say from the extent of their careers.
That being said, it also got me thinking about dance history. Last week’s seminars at the intensive were powerpoint lectures about long ago choreographers and how ballet came about. Honestly, I was kind of bored – and not because the content isn’t important or interesting but because I couldn’t feel a personal connection to that history. So what if some guys danced with their feet turned out in fancy costumes in the royal courts…I can memorize names and dates but it’s hard, for me at least, to appreciate and learn from that past.
That’s a problem.
My solution to this problem is my finding that, again for me anyway, I am much more eager to hear stories and learn about the past through personal anecdotes and experiences of my own teachers and those they pass on from THEIR teachers. I always laugh when I hear yet another teacher get all nasally and crinkle their nose while saying, “No, dear, like this…” in imitation of Balanchine. They all do it the same way! It makes for a really clear, amusing, and humanistic picture of what that famous ballet maker was like. THAT’S the history I’m interested in – stories of what it was like to be in rehearsal with Jerome Robbins; what Balanchine used to tell his dancers before performances; what Alvin Ailey’s choreographic process was like. It adds such a deeper meaning and value to information when it’s a personal account, and though it may not be an objective historical lesson like dance history textbook, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to learn about.
I realize the problem with this is that soon enough we won’t have those bloodlines to trace back to those great choreographers and teachers. Even now we don’t have anyone to give a personal account of Louis XIV’s days starting the art form (of course), and those from the Ballet Russe are just about gone. It’s sad, but I think the preservation of those anecdotes and stories and such would be of great value to our generation.
Huh. That was a long rambling. Perhaps I’m not making sense anymore, as I’ve danced about 9 hours today and slept a little more than half of that.
But, thoughts? I’m interested to hear other opinions on these topics, etc!