Pennsylvania Ballet School reopens with a glamorous faculty member.
One of Roy Kaiser’s most indelible memories of Arantxa Ochoa is as the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine’s Nutcracker. Making her first entrance, she is flanked by a group of little angels. Picturing it, the Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director says: “She’s perfect—so serene and regal, yet totally engaging to every one of those little 8- or 9-year-old girls. She looks each one of them in the eye and she makes a connection with them. It’s not about performance. It’s about creating this special moment on the stage. That ties to her next professional role.”
This fall, Ochoa is shifting roles from principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet, where she’s danced since 1996, to principal instructor of the newly reestablished School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Though still in her 30s, it’s a natural choice, and a perfect fit. When most ballerinas might seem at least somewhat saddened by their retirement—Ochoa dances Giselle in a final star turn October 28—she is positively radiant with the thought of communicating her own passion, discipline and artistry to coming generations of students. “I want to have students who are artists. That’s the most important thing,” she says.
In her silky speaking voice you can detect traces of Ochoa’s native Spanish tongue as she considers the dedication required of a dancer. Leaving her family in Valladolid, Spain, at age 11 to study initially in Madrid, then Monaco and New York (at the School of American Ballet), she understands how deeply a young person needs to love dance to have the commitment needed to succeed. “We all give up so much,” she says, “but the harder something is, the higher the reward.”
Victor Ullate in Madrid was her first mentor. In addition to being “the most demanding of all, he instilled in me the love of dance,” she says. At the Académie de Danse Princesse Grace in Monte Carlo, then-director Marika Besobrasova taught that “only a person with a rich inner world can become an artist.” Students learned solfège, art and how to interact with each other. In New York, training with Stanley Williams and Suki Schorer at SAB taught Ochoa about musicality and precision. Truman Finney emphasized going back to the basics to refine her dancing.
Ochoa spent three years with Hartford Ballet before joining Pennsylvania Ballet in 1996 as a corps member. By 2001 she was elevated to principal, starring in the company’s full range of classics, Balanchine gems and contemporary works by William Forsythe, Benjamin Millepied and more.
As a teacher, she plans to develop dancers by drawing on everything she’s learned in her own training and career. “I have been taking ballet class almost every day of my life!” she says. While Ochoa was a young dancer herself, Besobrasova had her helping with the 5-year-olds at Princesse Grace. And Ochoa’s taken Marcia Dale Weary’s teaching seminars.
For the last 10 years, summers have included guest teaching at schools, including Eastern Connecticut Ballet. ECB artistic director Gloria Govrin, a former New York City Ballet soloist, has known Ochoa since she was in PAB’s corps, when Govrin taught company class. Ochoa also studied with Govrin on Saturday mornings. “I had a class of very talented and committed young dancers,” she says. “Arantxa and her husband would take that class because they liked the focus of the students.”
Govrin is deeply impressed by Ochoa’s dedication and skill as a teacher, pointing out that as a dancer she had to work especially hard because “she herself did not have the perfect body for dance. There was limited turnout,” she says. “She learned how to use absolutely everything that she had to become a wonderful dancer. And when you have problems that you have to overcome, it actually makes you a better teacher than if everything is so easy for you.”
Both Govrin and Kaiser speak about how fortunate students will be to see Ochoa demonstrate. “What better example, especially for younger students,” says Kaiser, “to see a movement—an extension or a tendu—by somebody who is still doing hundreds of them every day and doing them so well? She has an impeccable work ethic; she is imaginative; she brings so much of herself to any role.”
Moving into another role at PAB seems completely natural for Ochoa. She is married to Alexander Iziliaev, a former PAB principal who left his position at NYCB in 2000 to live and work with her in Philadelphia. He is now PAB’s resident photographer/videographer, so both are remaining part of the PAB family. Their Spanish and Russian temperaments complement each other; both are intense, direct and playful. Along with their 4-year-old son, they enjoy living in a Center City high-rise. For relaxation Ochoa likes to take long walks, or to read biographies that inspire her.
As principal instructor she’ll teach two or three classes a day and, instead of finishing her day at dinnertime, classes will stretch into the evenings. Midday will involve administration, and some mornings will be dedicated to the classes for the most advanced students who are not in academic programs.
When asked what she considers most important in the classroom, she doesn’t hesitate. “Simplicity is the key.” It’s less about being creative, she says, and more about teaching each new step “little by little, step by step, from the beginning.”
Kind but demanding, Ochoa is inspiring yet humble. “She’s able to get a lot out of the children and young adults,” says Govrin. “She inspires them. PAB couldn’t have picked a better person.”
Still Ochoa wants to learn more about the best ways to help her students understand exactly what she’s trying to convey. How can she transmit the precise mechanics of movements? The clearest information about placement? And how can she best infuse them with the spirit that will give their movement true artistry? Although she has taught for 10 years, she says it’s different when actively performing at the same time. Having a complete investment in the students means she can go deeper and mentor them more fully.
“In your heart you’re a dancer all your life. That passion and love for dance—you give it to all those students,” she says. “Even if they don’t become dancers professionally, hopefully I’ll put a stamp on them that they’ll remember all their lives. Whatever they are, they’ll say, ‘Well, I had a teacher who told me not only how to dance but how to be the best I can be in whatever I do.’” DT
Lisa Kraus danced with the Trisha Brown Dance Company and now edits thINKingDANCE.net.
School of Pennsylvania Ballet Reopens After a 20-Year Hiatus
In 1962, Balanchine disciple Barbara Weisberger founded Pennsylvania Ballet as a school and added the company the following year. Later, two distinct boards of trustees were created, one to manage each organization. Over time they grew apart, with the school continuing as The Rock School. Dancers from around the world have joined PAB and, without a school, learned the company’s stylistic leanings on the job.
The reopening of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet comes as the company nears its 50th anniversary. The Louise Reed Center for Dance, PAB’s new home on the Avenue of the Arts, will open in January.
PAB’s artistic director Roy Kaiser welcomes the opportunity to again train dancers starting at a very young age and envisions a more cohesive look for the company as a result. The curriculum will be “basically a Balanchine-based technique,” he says. “We’ve looked at a number of different curriculums and syllabi from around the world and will incorporate features from those.”
The first year kicks off with a group of 100 incoming students. William DeGregory, director of PAB II, directs the school, with most faculty drawn from current and former dancers of PAB. Arantxa Ochoa, as principal instructor, will consult on policy decisions and take part in curriculum discussions.
The new school will sit in the Center City district of Philadelphia, a developing part of town. When asked whether this location might mean that audiences will eventually see the city’s diversity better reflected on PAB’s stage, Ochoa replied, “I hope so. That would be wonderful. We will be looking into that because we need talent, and to share the dance world everywhere.” —LK
Photo by Matthew Murphy