Teaching ballet variations class
To this day, George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux gives me goose bumps. I was a young student when I first learned the woman’s solo in variations class, watching eagerly as our guest teacher, the great Edward Villella, went over the steps and spacing. His energy and attention to detail so inspired me that when the sound of Tschaikovsky’s glorious music filled the studio, I began to dance with indescribable joy. This was the moment I fell in love with ballet.
Variations class can motivate students like no other method of study. It gives them the opportunity to apply their technique in a meaningful context without the pressures associated with performance. But as a teacher, how do you choose an appropriate variation for class? How do you balance the time spent teaching steps with the time spent working on artistic interpretation? Consider the following suggestions as you prepare your next variations class.
Variations class should challenge students but not overwhelm their technical ability. Marcia Dale Weary, founder of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, starts beginner pointe students with a simple variation, such as the Diamond Fairy from Act III of Sleeping Beauty. “With the little ones,” she says, “if I’m just starting a variation with them, I make sure that they have had all the steps in class. For the Diamond Fairy, those are emboîtés, contretemps and entrechats trois.” The more advanced students at CPYB work on variations from the ballets that the school will be performing later on. Dale Weary teaches all of them the lead roles, then casts the ones she thinks will be most suitable.
Francesca Corkle of the Joffrey Ballet School also begins her less advanced students with something simple. She uses Swanhilda’s first act variation from Frederick Ashton’s Coppélia because of its straightforward technique and pantomime, and because it was one of her favorite ballets to dance. In fact, Corkle prefers to teach only variations she has performed. “In doing so,” she explains, “I feel that I can impart the musicality and the little details that made the variation special for me.”
Take the Time
When you have a variations class for just one hour once or twice a week, it can be difficult to get through all the steps and work on artistic development. But students need to return to the same variation again and again in order to apply corrections and to familiarize themselves with choreographic details. “I don’t teach one variation in a class and let it go,” says Corkle. “One variation may last a month, or two months—however long it takes for the students to understand the artistry, the technique, the personality and the facial expressions.” First, she lets the class learn and absorb the choreography. Then she fine-tunes each detail, encouraging students to add their own touches. Corkle tells her students: “The reason your favorite ballerinas are your favorites is because of the little things. It’s not that they do 32 fouettés. It’s how they do them.”
If, like most teachers, you don’t have the luxury of spending months coaching a variation, consider giving your students a few key corrections to work with on their own time. Encourage them to practice difficult steps, or suggest that they go through the solo using just their port de bras. The corrections can be technical or relate to the quality of the dance—whichever aspect is giving them the most trouble.
It helps to put a variation into context. In a story ballet, for example, who is the character and how does her solo fit within the narrative? Or, if the variation is contemporary, what is the style of the piece? Another one of the reasons Corkle likes to teach technically simple variations is that they allow the teacher to spend less time teaching steps and more time describing the atmosphere of the ballet, so that students can dance as if they’re performing. She spends at least a few minutes during each class talking about the setting, lighting, scenery and costumes, as well as what the character is thinking and feeling.
To emphasize character development, Claudio Muñoz, a ballet master at Houston Ballet II, divides classical variations into parts. He feels that the Prince in Swan Lake, for example, requires three different moods when dancing the Black Swan variation. “The first section is elegant and regal,” he explains. “The middle is romantic, and the end is full of attack and bravura. You have to be three different people in one variation.” Teaching the solo, he’ll work on each section separately, as if it were an independent variation, highlighting the different facets of the Prince’s personality. This way students learn how character development can make a role more engaging—even within a single variation.
Use Visual Images
Videos and DVDs, particularly ones showing different dancers’ interpretations of the same variation, can sometimes be helpful—but they are not necessary. Instead, Dale Weary uses vivid verbal description. “For the Diamond Fairy, for example,” she says, “I tell my students to ‘sparkle like diamonds’ to emphasize the sharpness of the movement.” Visual images like this help her students to get the right feeling and allow them to shape their own take on the solo, rather than copy another dancer’s version as captured on film.
It is important to nurture individuality when teaching variations class, because it’s a place where students can develop as artists as they try on roles they’ve always dreamed of dancing. If you select the right variation and teach it well, your students will undoubtedly be inspired. I know I certainly was. DT
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor