A Different Breed of Ballet Teacher

Posted on January 1, 2010 by

Whether teaching adults or children, pre-professionals or recreational dancers, ballet teachers often look beyond technical rigor to find new ways
to help their students achieve mastery. Though their methods may vary—from imagery, to somatic theory, to a heightened regard for the individual—the goal is the same: meaningful connection with students.

Meet four respected teachers who each bring a non-traditional approach to the study of ballet : Summer Lee Rhatigan, Zvi Gotheiner, Augusta Moore and Tai Jimenez.

Summer Lee Rhatigan

Radical Imagery

How creative can you be with vegetables?” Summer Lee Rhatigan asks a class of advanced ballet students, midway through barre exercises. “I could write 50 ways to use an onion. Do you have that many ways to use your stomach? If all you have in your pantry is a stomach, how could you use it?” She smiles. “Is every strand educated or does it work en masse?”

Rhatigan, director of San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, demonstrates steps with the ease and clarity of a principal dancer—beautifully arched feet, endless legs, fluid port de bras. Tall, with short red hair and eyes that don’t miss a detail, she moves around the room, getting on the floor to adjust a dancer’s turnout, wrapping both arms around a student’s midsection to encourage her to lengthen the waist. During an adagio combination, she urges students to imagine dancing in a chocolate mousse room, in which the arc of the movement would linger in the air creating a trail behind them.

Rhatigan’s is a class full of ideas, encouraging students not just to work hard, but to think about what they’re doing. A classically trained ballerina, Rhatigan as a teacher is more poetic intellectual than technician, elevating her students’ work through her inventive use of imagery.

In a tricky petit allegro combination, she asks, “Imagine there are cushions all over the room: How would the combination look different if you knew you could fly and land safely?” The dancers jump noticeably higher but fumble the intricate steps. Afterward, Rhatigan explains that they’d reached a threshold. “All it means is that you don’t practice using your imagination enough,” she says. “It can be part of your team.”

Trained at the Royal Ballet School, Rhatigan started her career with London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) around the time Rudolf Nureyev was working with the dancers on a new Romeo and Juliet. “Nureyev was absolutely influential,” she says. “His knowledge was so vast, and his entire being so deeply invested in art, that I fell in love with his seemingly endless devotion and curiosity.”

At age 20, she was dropped from a lift and shattered her kneecap. Rhatigan spent two years in Chicago working off and on in a sports rehabilitation clinic, where in addition to strengthening and alignment exercises, she learned a lot about her body. After recovering, she danced with Oakland Ballet for four years and National Ballet of Canada for two seasons before returning to San Francisco to spend the next 17 years dancing with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.

Her career in education is equally long and illustrious, starting at age 9 when she demonstrated for Ninette de Valois’ teacher-training courses. “I remember being so excited and proud to be in that situation,” she says. “I was eavesdropping on what I knew even at that young age to be something brilliant.”

Rhatigan taught throughout her career, discovering that her teaching informed her dancing and vice versa. “I loved the subject so much that it made sense to explore it in as many ways as possible.” Her students laud her generosity. “She truly wants to give you something because the artform is so important to her,” says Stephanie Saltz, who left a job with a company in Utah to study with Rhatigan. Saltz also appreciates the supportive, collaborative environment Rhatigan creates. “She’s one of the first people I’ve worked with who has given me that freedom to explore my creative side,” Saltz says. “She’ll say, ‘You fell out of that pirouette with such creativity.’”

While dancing with LINES, Rhatigan taught daily at King’s school at San Francisco Dance Center and started the school’s successful pre-professional ballet program in 2002. Wanting to incorporate more of her own personal history into her teaching, she left her position as director of the LINES school in 2004 and two weeks later was holding classes in the Bayview studios of dance troupe Zaccho Dance Theatre.

Rhatigan later moved to City Ballet School’s studios, fitting her classes around that school’s schedule and renting additional space for her summer intensive. After a four-year search, she secured her own space in San Francisco with two light-filled, column-free studios with street views and high ceilings. There are no mirrors, a choice that students support.

“What I noticed when I came to the Conservatory was this new way of receiving information that had to do with visualization and analogy,” says student Joy Prendergast. “Not having mirrors has really helped. After coming here for a summer, I realized the line of arabesque that I knew was a visual line—my reflection. After learning it from a feeling, there was much more I could do with it.”

San Francisco Conservatory of Dance has both year-round and summer programs as well as workshops, open ballet classes and creative dance classes for young children. The approximately 16 full-time, year-round students spend up to 35 hours per week in the studio in class and rehearsal; for the 180 summer intensive students, the hours increase to 45 per week. Open classes generally have 25 students per class. An emphasis on creative collaboration is woven through the curriculum. In addition to technique classes in multiple disciplines, conservatory students work with choreographers such as Alex Ketley on new works. Ketley, for instance, creates athletic dances that incorporate floorwork and release technique. “The combination of his work with the students and mine is a vital component in the training,” Rhatigan says. “Even people who want just to do classical work are better informed and better dancers from it.”

Dancers also learn works by influential choreographers such as Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe and Jirí Kylián, taught by dancers who have worked with them. Prendergast left the University of Utah’s ballet program to study with Rhatigan in part for this experience. “I got so much different information here, and the opportunities that I had to work with different choreographers seemed more than any university program was offering,” Prendergast says.

Rhatigan approaches dance as a way to learn creative and life lessons. “Because it’s so personal, you learn quickly that you’re responsible for all the great things that can happen to you,” she says. “That realization for young people is very empowering. I’m less concerned whether dancers go on to dance than that dance has been a meaningful part of their learning infrastructure. There’s a lot of beauty in learning dance.” DT

Caitlin Sims is former editor in chief of Dance Teacher and now lives in San Francisco.

Zvi Gotheiner

Body Wisdom

In the middle of Zvi Gotheiner’s daily ballet class at New York City Center, dancers stand in a cluster, leaning in to hear feedback between repetitions of an adagio combination. Quietly, he asks them to “meditate on the possibility” of relaxation and allowing the body’s innate intelligence to direct movement.

When he finishes with a grin, the dancers try the phrase again. It’s lush, lyrical—and extremely challenging, full of unexpected direction changes, pirouettes ending in arabesques and complicated connecting steps. But unlike other classes where a difficult combination might provoke frustration, in Gotheiner’s class an undeterred sense of calm reigns—accompanied by a few giggles.

“Dancing should be fun,” he says. “I find what feels good is good. And when dance feels good and is fun, students find a flow and want to try the movement again.”

The former Batsheva Dance Company member studied ballet in Tel Aviv, where he was stationed with the Israeli army. He has also studied Limón, Graham and Cunningham techniques and at the Ailey studios. He credits Maggie Black for his class’ structure, which warms up the body slowly and deeply.

His own philosophies grew in direct response to the negative body perception he encountered in ballet. “I want people to say, ‘I love my body.’ It’s not a standard or diagram to fulfill. It’s the articulation that’s key; not straining the whole body, just moving the part you need. Then the movement becomes pure.”

One idea in particular is integral to Gotheiner’s maverick approach: “I don’t agree with that common idea of going in two directions when dancing, like pulling up in your torso as you plié, which is essentially going down. This creates dis-jointedness. It’s also disrespectful to the body’s intelligence; it knows how to move as one synchronized piece.”

He goes on to say, “I think the push/pull ideas come from trying to create an image of a body that’s different than the one you have into something longer, leaner, spiraling. And that’s living in an illusion. It stops dancers from being present in their own bodies.”
—Lauren Kay

Tai Jimenez

Zen Focus

Dance Theatre of Harlem, on Broadway in On the Town and most recently at Boston Ballet, Tai Jimenez was lauded for her powerful, earthy dancing. A certain gravitas and palpable calm were her trademarks onstage. As a master ballet teacher in and around Boston, MA, she brings these same Zen-like qualities into her class.

“Dance is about moving energy. It’s metaphysical and magical,” Jimenez says. “It’s not just about our bodies. It’s about how we develop ‘dance thinking’ and how we use it in our lives. Whether or not a student becomes a professional dancer, my first job is to nurture their growth as a human being.”

Jimenez’s teaching approach is highly individualized. She tries to address what-ever it is her students need at the time, be it speed, clean footwork or musicality. While her class is technically rigorous, what sets it apart is a particular intention of flow, breath and fun inspired by a workshop with modern dance choreographer David Dorfman. “Not everyone there was a technical dancer, but they were really moving!” she says. “We could explore without the pressure of an image to uphold. Ballet is so rigid, so you can’t ever fully escape it. But in my class, I apply those ideas to find a middle ground.”

Jimenez also experiments with yoga techniques: breathing through one nostril at a time at the beginning of class and bringing students’ concentration back to the breath’s rhythm throughout the session. Sometimes she even sounds yoga bells at the start of class.

“I try to be really sensitive to how the students are feeling that particular day,” she says. “You can see if they are having a rough one. Then I try to emphasize that sense of play. We always start with prances turned in, and later I try to keep them moving in a more childlike way with big traveling turns.”

James Fuller, a former apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre and now a senior at Harvard University, has been studying there with Jimenez for two years. “Tai’s characteristic grande plié exercise right at the start of class is extremely slow and hard,” he says. “But it’s the best way to
figure out your placement immediately. Plus, it works the larger muscles in deep movements that really warm you up.”

He’s also an advocate for the yoga perspective. “It’s wonderful to have the non-judgmental focus that Tai brings into class,” says Fuller. “It helps us dance thoughtfully and creates a calm willingness to work. Before I studied with Tai, I was always tense in class and that held back my dancing. Now, I’ve learned how to relax.”   —Lauren Kay

August Moore

Feldenkrais laboratory

Before pliés and tendus get underway in Augusta Moore’s Saturday morning ballet class at ODC School in San Francisco, students loosen their spines and pelvises and start a class-long process of experimentation. “Your body is a laboratory,” says Moore, who integrates concepts of Feldenkrais, a methodology based on the teachings of Moshé Feldenkrais, into her ballet classes.

Long-legged and lean with close-cropped curls and the hint of a Midwestern twang, Moore leads the class with her black Chihuahua snuggled in a pouch on her chest. She asks students to consider the choices they make in each exercise. “What would this tendu combination look like if you didn’t have arms and legs?” she asks, and suddenly torsos twist and extend in completely different ways. “All the people looking like wild
alligators—fantastic!” she cries.

Moore, who worked with anatomy teacher Annette Atwood and later became a Feldenkrais practitioner, teaches a Feldenkrais class before her Saturday ballet class. Students work on the floor, doing gentle movements designed to encourage recognition of movement habits and experimentation with new ways of moving. “When you hold on to a habit, it interferes with everything,” she says. “You’ll carry this alignment problem into different things in your life, whether it’s a grand jeté or going on a date.”

Her ballet class is a rigorous and thoughtful progression of classical combinations, infused by the ideas she has just explored in Feldenkrais class. Throughout the class, she considers different aspects of a specific area of the body (in this class the ribs). She wonders during the barre how it would feel to choose to be grounded in one rib and reach through another, and later in the class she challenges students to explore how willing they are to move the ribs in chaîné turns.

Moore is understanding and supportive of students as they try physical and mental adjustments. “It’s a huge risk to do what you don’t usually do,” she says. And yet the rewards can be tremendous. “If you can change your idea of yourself, you can change anything,” she says. “And that’s my job as a teacher, to be able to imagine the student at their best.” —Caitlin Sims

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