Getting It Right
At the New York City Ballet this fall, audiences marveled at the high-octane antics of the revelers in the “Fall” section of Jerome Robbins’ The Four Seasons. At the same time, audiences across town were enthralled watching the sinuous symmetry of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Taylor’s 1988 tour de force Speaking in Tongues. And in New Orleans, dancers from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company elicited double takes when they performed the visually arresting Alwin Nikolais works with surprising authenticity. And authenticity is what the rehearsal directors and ballet masters in charge of these and other productions are hoping for onstage.
In the dance world, rehearsal directors and ballet masters are the keepers of the flame, the people whose duty is not only to pass down the basic frameworks of a company’s repertoire to successive generations of dancers, but to retain the subtle intricacies and the spirit and energy with which a piece was originally made.
They come to the job in any number of ways. Bettie de Jong, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s longtime rehearsal director, sort of morphed into the job; she’d always been known as a go-to person for remembering and rehearsing choreography. Sandra Brown began coaching the principal dancers of Colorado Ballet when her husband, Gil Boggs, took over as artistic director. (See “From a Dancer’s Perspective,” pg. 42.) Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Alberto Del Saz became noted experts on the work of Jerome Robbins and Alwin Nikolais, respectively, having worked closely as assistants to those master choreographers while they were still alive.
The repertoire, size and type of company and their role within that company play a part in determining what each rehearsal director or ballet master strives to do when they enter a studio. Ultimately, though, there is the hope that what happens in the studio will result in performances that transcend the most basic of expectations—a clean run-through.
“Sometimes, what I’m looking for is more of a feeling, what I felt the very first time I saw the work. I’m looking for the musicality or the humanity,” de Jong says. “Certain pieces, the dancey-dance ones, have to be as clean as a whistle, otherwise they’re just terrible. Other pieces, it’s the whole feeling, the emotions, the characters.”
De Jong’s role in the Taylor company is distinctive—and not only because of her long tenure. She became rehearsal director in 1975 while still performing with the company (she danced with the Taylor company for 24 years). Now, at 77, de Jong not only runs rehearsals (with the assistance of recently appointed company and rehearsal manager Andy LeBeau), she travels with the company, overseeing such details as ensuring that the sound and lights are satisfactory.
“I rarely try to tell the dancers what they should do emotionally,” she says. “If they ask me, I’ll say, ‘I think Paul had such and such in mind.’ But I remember clearly when I was dancing that Paul left us alone to discover the emotions. Part of the thrill of performing was that you could make it your own within the dance form that he had made. I want things to be right, but we don’t want machines.”
No matter the extent of the rehear-sal director’s role, their impact is highly visible. Whether a corps de ballet performs with extra zest or an entire work looks under-rehearsed, or whether a principal dancer reaches new depths of artistry or fails to make progress—the responsibility rests on the rehearsal director’s shoulders.
“We’re trying to continue a legacy. I’m a messenger for this new generation,” says New York City Ballet’s Frohlich, one of that company’s 11 ballet masters (including ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy). Sean Lavery, assistant to artistic director Peter Martins, is also known to work with dancers frequently. City Ballet also has two separate staffers in charge of rehearsing children for its various productions.
“I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Robbins, who was a genius, and I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Balanchine, who was a genius. I was dancing at the same time these two were still creating, so I was there to hear what they had to say,” says Frohlich, who has been a ballet master for more than 20 years, ever since he stopped performing.
Frohlich’s role among the ballet masters is unique. He is the chief person responsible for the Robbins repertory at City Ballet, overseeing rehearsals for the Robbins works done each season (he divides rehearsals between himself and a few others), and doing the casting for those ballets. He also sets Robbins works on other companies as part of his role with the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust.
“It’s a much bigger challenge now setting these works. Most of the com-pany has never worked directly with Mr. Robbins, whereas before there were people who had. Even if they hadn’t been in that ballet, they knew what he liked, what he demanded,” Frohlich says.
This means that when Frohlich teaches a piece, as he was doing during one brisk rehearsal of the “Fall” section of Robbins’ The Four Seasons, he’s not only teaching steps and counts from a combination of memory and a folder of notes on a yellow legal pad, he’s sharing information about how Robbins felt about certain things.
“Mr. Robbins used to say, ‘Play the scene, baby,’” he told the young men and women at one point, showing the carefully relaxed positions Robbins wanted the dancers to effect in a certain part.
Later, having told the dancers several times that they were part of a bacchanal, he got more specific, pretending to take a swig of a drink before adding, “It’s an orgy, OK?”
Alberto Del Saz has a similar challenge in trying to pass on intricacies to a generation that never knew the choreographer. In his case, Del Saz is artistic director of the Nikolais Louis Foundation for Dance. As part of a special ongoing project with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Del Saz has been setting Nikolais works on the Salt Lake City company and even travels with the company when it tours the Nikolais repertory.
“It’s not just about teaching them the steps. There is a whole philosophy behind it,” he says of his work with the Ririe-Woodbury dancers over the past seven years. “Now, they know the repertory a little bit better, so we can focus on the quality of movement. But the challenge is it’s a specific way of operating. I had to make sure that they can get more insight into the process.”
Del Saz danced for Nikolais during the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1993), learning then how best to share the choreographer’s creations. “Now I’m able to bring to these dancers the way Nikolais worked with his dancers, how we as dancers were able to interpret the work, how we were given a certain freedom to approach the work,” Del Saz says. “There are certain places in the works where a dancer is allowed to improvise to a certain degree, for example. I try to bring a new and hopefully refreshing and different approach to the movement as someone who performed the work.”
But Del Saz acknowledges there’s only so much time that can be spent sharing the intricacies of the process. The need for speed and efficiency is a constant concern for rehearsal directors and ballet masters.
“We have such a large rep going out this fall and I’m scared,” says de Jong. “Sixteen total. Usually we have five or six new ones going out, with eight already prepared. But now we have 16 of them and only six weeks to rehearse. And it’s not even really six. That’s just on paper. I just hope we make it.”
How well they do at accomplishing their goals with a particular work can be determined in various ways. First, they say, besides their own observations, there are the assessments of their bosses—the artistic directors. “In the end, it’s whatever Paul wants,” says de Jong. “And he’s actually a lot more liberal about where his dancers can take dances than I am. I’m a stickler. I go back to the source, how it was originally. Paul comes in and says, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ He doesn’t mind if it’s not exactly like it was before.”
But listening to the criticisms of those outside the process can be annoying. “It can be really hard to hear from critics ‘I remember this and this’ or ‘They don’t do it the same way they used to,’” Frohlich says. “I was around in those days and it wasn’t so hunky-dory like all these critics say. Things do change. Balanchine did not want things to be exactly the same.”
He adds: “Granted, things could be better now sometimes, yes. But things could have been better then, too. There were many times back then when the corps de ballet was a mess. The only thing I will agree on is that sometimes the energy and passion of the dancers today could be better. But this is a different generation. It’s a part of the job that you’re always dealing with.” DT
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based freelance writer.
Photo from top: by Jack Mitchell and by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; by Rick Foster, courtesy of Alberto Del Saz; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet; by Fred Hayes, courtesy of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company