Born in Italy but raised in a gritty outer-Boston neighborhood, Tony Williams was going nowhere fast until he discovered dance as a teenager. “I was living in the projects, one of a biracial family of nine, heading for trouble,” he remembers. “But I’d been doing gymnastics along with baseball and track, and one day I heard these guys at the gym talking about how the Russian gymnasts were studying ballet.” Intrigued, he decided to give ballet class a try. “It turned on a switch,” he says. Nine months later, at age 17, Williams became one of the charter members of Boston Ballet.
Today, following a remarkable professional career that included stints at the Joffrey Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet and Portugal’s Ballet Gulbenkian, Williams is back in his old neighborhood: His studio, the Tony Williams Dance Center, is based in Jamaica Plain, Boston. But it took him a while to get there. After retiring from the stage, Williams discovered that he had a true gift for teaching and started giving classes at studios all over New England. He was a nomad for nearly 20 years before he decided that he—and his three sons—needed a home base.
“My schedule was getting exhausting,” he remembers. “I had a friend who said, ‘Tony, why don’t you go home and help the kids in your old community?’ It was a great idea. Dance had rescued me by providing a focus. I wanted other at-risk kids to experience that.”
In 1995 he founded BalletRox, a nonprofit organization that includes a dance company, a youth troupe and a scholarship program that gives underserved Boston children the opportunity to study dance. His mission was to use dance to break down racial and socio-economic barriers. Five years later, realizing that he needed his own facility with proper studios and barres for his growing organization, Williams established TWDC, which houses BalletRox but also serves 300 students from all over the greater Boston area. “Tony has created a place that is all-accepting,” says Valerie Aquaviva Maio, who’s been on faculty at TWDC almost since its inception.
Currently the BalletRox scholarship program sponsors about 40 8- to 17-year-old students each year. And every December for the past decade, BalletRox students and company members have performed Urban Nutcracker, a reimagined version of the holiday classic that’s a mishmash of ballet, swing, urban tap and hip hop, Tchaikovsky and Ellington. Phenomenally popular, the show has become something of a Boston institution. (Last year a documentary about the project, Urban Nutcracker: Anatomy of a Ballet, aired on PBS stations across the country.)
But what’s allowed Williams to pursue his larger visions of diversity and opportunity is the fact that he is, first and foremost, an exceptional teacher. “Because he’s so warm and approachable, he’s able to connect on a personal level with his students,” Maio says. “Some teachers teach to the body. Tony teaches to the soul.”
Photo Petr Metlicka, courtesy of Tony Williams
OTHER 2011 DT AWARDEES:
Photo by Petr Metlicka, courtesy of Tony Williams
On a bright morning early this past March, the atmosphere in American Ballet Theatre’s Studio 4 was palpably tense. It was the first day of the 2011 exchange between ABT II and London’s Royal Ballet School, a unique collaboration begun in 2003 that allows the two groups to periodically take classes and perform together. On one side of the studio, a jet-lagged group of graduate-year RBS students warmed up quietly. On the other, a cluster of ABT II dancers stretched and whispered. Many furtive sizing-up glances were cast across the studio.
Then ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie entered, and the dancers were all-business. McKenzie put them through their paces with a thorough, well-balanced class, giving corrections about the placement of the hip and torso and encouraging them to stay on top of the music. Initially the two groups kept to themselves, and McKenzie cracked jokes about the Sharks and the Jets. Eventually they relaxed and began observing each other with interest rather than apprehension.
And that’s what the exchange is all about, says ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman. “The program is designed to allow these dancers to see where they are peer-wise—how they compare and what their relative strengths and weaknesses are,” he says. “It’s nice to have those reference points during your training, particularly right as you’re about to begin a professional career.”
Over the course of the weeklong exchange, the 34 (21 from RBS) participating dancers took master classes with RBS director Gailene Stock and RBS senior teacher Gary Norman, as well as McKenzie and Chapman, and gained exposure to a variety of teaching styles and techniques. As a grand finale, the two groups put on a joint show at The Ailey Citigroup Theater, with carefully chosen repertoire designed to showcase the dancers’ range. The RBS students performed the pas de quatre from Royal Ballet legend Frederick Ashton’s Swan Lake, plus contemporary pieces by Gary Norman, Alistair Marriot and Parrish Maynard. ABT II danced Ballet Theatre icon Antony Tudor’s Continuo, the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes (“to bring a little Americana to the program,” Chapman says) and Jodie Gates’ A Taste of Sweet Velvet.
British dancers have long had a reputation for refined, exacting technique and conservative port de bras, while American dancers are generally thought of as more explosive, speedy and dynamic. But during McKenzie’s class and in performance, the RBS and ABT II dancers were stylistically almost identical, which predicts the students’ future collaborations. “It’s good for them to spend some time together,” Chapman says, “since many of them will probably end up in the same company.”
The companies last swapped places in 2005, and the 2011 exchange will culminate next year when ABT II visits London. DT
Photo: Kevin McKenzie at the barre with ABT II and RBS students (by Rachel Papo)
Lupe Serrano's secret to longevity
Who would ever guess that the impossibly agile and limber Lupe Serrano turned 80 in December? During her classes—she teaches advanced students of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, ABT company members and Metropolitan Opera House dancers—the petite, elegant Serrano demonstrates every combination, her eloquent limbs and pliant back painting a masterful portrait of classical technique. “She is astonishing,” says ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who takes Serrano’s company class religiously. “Every time she does a perfect développé, I’ll think, ‘Can I even get my leg that high on a good day?’”
Serrano honed that still-impressive physique during her long and celebrated career as a dancer. Born in Chile, she joined the Mexico City Ballet at just 13. She went on to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and, from 1953 to 1971, with ABT, where she earned a reputation for out-jumping and out-turning the company’s men. “Lupe is so well-known as a teacher that people forget she was one of our biggest stars,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director. “She was the public face of ABT for two decades. She set the notion that expression comes out of technique.”
Serrano began teaching about 40 years ago, soon after she retired from the stage. “When I first stopped performing and started teaching, I thought it was so fantastic to have all of these bodies to work with instead of just my own,” she says. “Trying to put myself into another body, and to understand how it functions as opposed to how mine functions—it is so enlightening.”
McKenzie likens Serrano to an engineer. “She is always constructing exercises that will confront the big problems—the placement and turnout and port de bras issues—in a new way,” he says. “She knows you can get to the moon; you just have to figure out the way there.”
Thanks to her curious mind, Serrano’s teaching style is continually evolving. One of her favorite things to do is “talk shop,” as she calls it, with teachers of all ages. “I think it’s dangerous to go for too long without outside input,” she says. “To have the different opinions from the different teachers, and hear how they arrive at a correction of turnout or get a student to pull up, is very interesting to me.”
She also regularly attends dance performances and is an enthusiastic consumer of pop dance culture. “Everything that dances, I watch!” Serrano says, adding that she especially loves “So You Think You Can Dance.” “There is incredible versatility in those dancers,” she says. “I admire the tumbling—what an addition. If you can maintain a clean ballet vocabulary and do the gymnastics, it’s just fantastic.” Her interest in the current dance scene ultimately benefits her students. “I have to be aware of what they will be faced with,” she says. “The choreographers evolve with the trends of the times.”
Not that Serrano’s class incorporates any tumbling. “I teach classical ballet,” she says firmly. Instead, she emphasizes versatility within the ballet vocabulary, with combinations that take dancers out of their comfort zones. “Normally they do a step one way, but I say, ‘Would you feel good doing it with another head, another épaulement, a different rhythm, a different preparation?’ And if they can do that, then they can pick up other styles more quickly.”
Until she was 64, when she had hip-replacement surgery, Serrano was demonstrating every class exercise full-out. (McKenzie remembers mentioning to Serrano, on her 60th birthday, that he always wanted to be able to do an entrechat six when he was 60; she promptly stood up and did one.) Now she can no longer perform the fantastic jumps she was once famous for, but she’s figured out ways to compensate with her upper body. “It takes more thought now—you have to do the mental work if you can’t do the physical—but I want my students not to realize that I can’t do the step,” she says. “They will tell me, ‘Oh, you do so much in class!’ And I’ll say, ‘Really? I’m glad you think so.’” She laughs mischievously.
McKenzie admires that ability of Serrano’s to find the fun in everything. “She has a devilishly good time figuring out how to get around the obstacles of teaching well,” he says. “And she’s like that in life, too. There’s always a twinkle in her eye.”
Is that the secret to her eternal youthfulness? “I haven’t seen that anything so far is keeping me young!” Serrano says, laughing again. “But I like to be active, and I like to be useful. So long as I have something to pass on, I hope I have the energy to keep doing it.”
Photo by Rachel Papo
As principal of The Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, one of Ronald Alexander's greatest blessings is that nearly all of his talented students want to dance professionally. That's also, however, one of his greatest challenges.
A little more than 30 years ago, George Balanchine shared a secret with Peter Martins, then a principal with New York City Ballet, as the two rode an elevator at Lincoln Center. “I have a new one!” Balanchine said to Martins, gleefully. “Her name is Darci, and I’m going to promote her immediately.”
Mr. B was true to his word. In 1982, he made Darci Kistler a principal with NYCB. The coltish teenager—she was, at that point, only 17—seemed born to dance his ballets. Already the young ballerina had the fearlessness of attack and the “quicksilver brilliance,” according to one critic, that would propel her to international fame. Though Balanchine died in 1983, shortly after Kistler’s ascendance at NYCB, many pinned their hopes on the rising star as the one who would keep the great choreographer’s legacy alive. And when Kistler joined the permanent faculty of Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in 1994, she demonstrated a personal interest in the survival of his style, as he taught it to her.
Over the course of the three decades she spent with NYCB, Kistler refined her technique and matured into an artist of depth, wit and generosity. She also married Martins—a match Balanchine foresaw—in 1991, and their daughter, Talicia, was born in 1996. Cheered by thousands of adoring fans, Kistler gave her final performance with NYCB this June. It marked the end of an era. She was the last ballerina in the company hired by Mr. B. Kistler now plans to devote more time to teaching at SAB.
Dance Teacher: What from your experience as a dancer have you incorporated into your teaching?
Darci Kistler: Well, I know the fundamental things students will have to be able to do to dance professionally. But I’ve found that teaching really has nothing to do with you, the teacher. Some people have suggested that dancers who have certain strengths should teach those things. But that’s anti-Balanchinean. He never wanted dancers to think like or be like someone else. When I’m teaching, it’s about what my students need.
DT: Do you think the Balanchine style, as you learned it, is healthy today? How do you plan to carry on his legacy?
DK: People have funny ideas about Balanchine style. I’ve heard teachers say that floppy wrists are “Balanchine,” but they’re not. He even told me, “Your arms should never be flopping!” What he wanted was very simple: good épaulement, an emphasis on the crossing of the legs in croisé and effacé, good speed. That’s what I teach; I think these ideas need to be passed on. But “Balanchine technique” is really in Mr. B’s ballets. If they’re danced at the tempo they should be, you’ll find that you have to exaggerate all the crossing, because it helps you move quicker. Mr. B used to say that once you eat great food, you won’t be able to tolerate anything else: Your body craves the good stuff. That’s the way dancers come to feel about the Balanchine style.
DT: Any advice for dance teachers? Is there something you’ve noticed that students at SAB’s summer course, for example, lack in terms of training?
DK: I think the most frustrating thing I’ve noticed is that most students haven’t mastered the six basic ballet positions. I see dancers who have taken ballet for 10 years and can do five pirouettes, but can’t do fifth position. Sometimes they barely even know what it is. Make sure students perfect those simple positions first, because they’re the foundation for everything else.
DT: Would you ever consider opening your own studio?
DK: I love where I am. I love the aesthetic, and I’m happy to work for Peter [Martins] and know that we’re on the same page. I also get excited about the fact that the students at SAB will have a chance to join NYCB. SAB was where I began, and in a way I’ve never really left it. I’m coming full circle. DT
Margaret Fuhrer is an assistant editor at Dance Spirit and Pointe, and a contributing editor for Dance Teacher.
Photo: Darci Kistler teaching a children’s division ballet class at SAB (by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of NYCB)
1. Denby enrolled at ________ University at age ________.
2. Denby studied modern dance at the ________-________School in Vienna.
3. What was the first Balanchine ballet Denby saw
4. What was Denby’s cat’s name?
5. Editor ________ ________ saw something in Denby’s writing when he submitted an essay to ________ ________ magazine.
6. Name three of the publications Denby wrote for during his career.
7. Which of the following is NOT one of Denby’s books?
a. Going to the Dance
b. Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets
c. Looking at the Dance
8. True or false: Denby continued to review dance through the 1970s.
9. Former New Yorker critic ________ ________ joked that she has “spent years combing Denbyisms out of her prose.”
10. After reading Denby’s review of ________ ________, Balanchine told Richard Buckle, “If you must write, try writing like that.”
Answers: 1. Harvard, 16; 2. Hellerau-Laxenburg; 3. Prodigal Son; 4. Friendly; 5. Minna Lederman, Modern Music; 6. Any three of the following: Modern Music, New York Herald Tribune, Dance Magazine, The Nation (also Dance News, Saturday Review, Hudson Review and Art News, not listed in the story); 7. a; 8. false; 9. Arlene Croce; 10. Concerto Barocco
1. Maria Tallchief’s replacement cavalier on opening night of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was:
a. André Eglevsky
b. Rudolf Nureyev
c. Nicholas Magallenes
2. When Tallchief was a little girl, her parents called her _____ _____.
3. Tallchief studied with legendary teacher _____ _____ for five years in Los Angeles.
4. True or false: As a student, Tallchief had trouble with pirouettes and balances.
5. Balanchine first worked with Tallchief on:
b. Song of Norway
c. Gaîté Parisienne
6. Balanchine thought that Tallchief could be a great dancer if she “only learned to do _____ _____ properly.”
7. What interests between Tallchief and Balanchine eventually blossomed into romance?
8. Shortly after marrying Balanchine, Tallchief began dancing in his New York-based company _____ _____, which later became the New York City Ballet. Name one role he created specifically for her.
9. Who did Tallchief partner in his American debut as a member of American Ballet Theatre?
a. André Eglevsky
b. Rudolf Nureyev
c. Nicholas Magallenes
10. True or False: After retiring from her performance career, Tallchief founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she tended to the Balanchine ballets from 1981 to 1987.
Bonus) Who suggested Tallchief change her name to Maria and why?
1. c; 2. Betty Marie; 3. Bronislava Nijinska; 4. False. They later became her trademarks; 5. b; 6. battement tendu; 7. For her, he was the first
choreographer who approached a score like a musician. For him, he was impressed by her speed and strength and intrigued by her Native American heritage. He saw her as the first truly American ballerina.; 8. Ballet Society; Eurydice in Orpheus, Scotch Symphony lead, the adagio part in Bourrée Fantastique or the first Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker; 9. b; 10. True; Bonus) Agnes de Mille; She said because, “There are too many Bettys and Elizabeths in ballet.”
To read the full article on Maria Tallchief, click here.
“A Conversation with Maria Tallchief,” by Kim Alexandra Kokich, Ballet Review, Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 1997
Bird of Fire: The Story of Maria Tallchief, by Olga Maynard, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961
Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, by Maria Tallchief with Larry Kaplan, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997
The Art of Maria Tallchief, Video Artists International, 2003
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas, directed by Anne Belle, Elektra/Wea video, 1995
Maria Tallchief Coaching Excerpts from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, The George Balanchine Foundation
George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker premiered February 2, 1954, in a flurry of last-minute disasters. Maria Tallchief, Balanchine’s original Sugar Plum Fairy, found herself in the middle of the mess: Not only did her mint-green tutu arrive just hours before curtain, but her cavalier, André Eglevsky—who, in typical Balanchine fashion, had no understudy—suffered a bad sprained ankle the day before the opening and was forced to bow out.
Yet when Tallchief swept onto New York City Center’s stage (accompanied by her replacement cavalier, Nicholas Magallanes), she betrayed no opening-night jitters. “You couldn’t rattle Maria,” says Robert Lindgren, one of Tallchief’s longtime colleagues, who watched that first Nutcracker performance from the wings. Breezing through Balanchine’s fiendishly difficult version of the Sugar Plum duet with serene, authoritative grace—undergirded by her rock-solid classical technique—Tallchief was characteristically unflappable. “Does she have any equals anywhere, inside or outside of fairyland?” asked critic Walter Terry in his review of the ballet’s opening. “While watching her in The Nutcracker, one is tempted to doubt it.”
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her mother, Ruth Porter, was a young Scots-Irish woman; her father, Joseph Tall Chief, a full-blooded Osage Indian. Betty Marie, as they called their oldest daughter, was shy and well-behaved. She dedicated herself dutifully to piano lessons and ballet classes, demonstrating considerable talent in both. But it was not until the family relocated to Los Angeles, where she began studying with the legendary Bronislava Nijinska, that then 12-year-old Betty Marie truly fell in love with dance. During her five years of study with Nijinska, she acquired a formidable technique, mastering the endless balances and rapid multiple pirouettes that would later become her trademarks.
In 1942, at age 17, Betty Marie joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Shortly after, at the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing Rodeo on the company, she took the name Maria Tallchief. (“There are too many Bettys and Elizabeths in ballet,” de Mille told her.) Tallchief thrived in the troupe, and she was soon dancing soloist roles in Schéhérazade, Léonide Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne and Nijinska’s Chopin Concerto. She also became a master poker player, as Lindgren, who was dancing with the Ballet Russe at the time, remembers. “We used to play every day on the train, traveling from location to location,” he says. “She was intensely focused and impossible to read—so she cleaned house.”
Balanchine was a veteran choreographer when he first worked with Tallchief in the spring of 1944; the Ballet Russe had already performed his Apollo and Prodigal Son to great acclaim. But Tallchief, who was suffering through a bad breakup when she began rehearsing Balanchine’s operetta Song of Norway, “wasn’t especially impressed” with the choreographer, as she remembers in her autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina. She took little notice of him until they came to a passage in the operetta set to the Grieg Piano Concerto, a score she was familiar with from her days as a piano student. “He was the first choreographer in my experience who approached a score like a musician,” Tallchief recalls in her book. “He broke down the inherent rhythm of the music to make the steps more exciting.” She was fascinated.
The interest was mutual. Balanchine was impressed by Tallchief’s speed and strength and also intrigued by her Native American heritage—he saw her as the first truly American ballerina. Soon she was dancing leads in his ballets, including Danses Concertantes, Baiser de la Fée and Night Shadow (later called La Sonnambula). Balanchine also reshaped Tallchief’s technique. “If you would only learn to do battement tendu properly,” he famously told her, “you wouldn’t have to learn anything else.” Tallchief dedicated herself completely to his back-to-basics method, refining her feet and legs and perfecting the placement of her arms down to her fingers. Her signature tricks acquired a new polish.
Tallchief and Balanchine’s intense professional relationship blossomed into romance, and on August 16, 1946, they married. Shortly thereafter, Tallchief became the leading dancer in Balanchine’s New York–based company Ballet Society, which later metamorphosed into the New York City Ballet. The American public fell in love with Tallchief’s precise yet vibrant interpretations of the roles Balanchine created for her: Eurydice in Orpheus, the sylph-like lead in Scotch Symphony, the adagio part in Bourrée Fantastique and the first Sugar Plum Fairy. One of the greatest triumphs of Tallchief’s career was the 1949 Firebird. As the magical creature, Tallchief was “unbelievable, absolutely electric,” recalls Lindgren.
“Balanchine gave her fantastically difficult things to do, and she did them without blinking.” On opening night, the audience chanted “Tallchief! Tallchief! Tallchief!” during the star’s 10-plus curtain calls.
By the early 1950s, however, Balanchine’s attention began to shift to other dancers (and, after the couple’s divorce in 1951, to another wife). Tallchief rejoined the Ballet Russe for the 1955 and 1956 seasons, where she received a fantastic salary that reflected her worldwide popularity. Though she returned to the New York City Ballet briefly in 1958, Tallchief chose to leave the company for good two years later. She joined American Ballet Theatre, where she partnered Rudolf Nureyev in his American debut in 1962. Tallchief also remarried; her daughter, Elise Paschen, was born in 1959.
Tallchief announced her retirement in 1965, at the relatively young age of 41, and turned her attention to teaching and coaching. She became artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975, and in 1981 she founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she tended to the Balanchine ballets that made up the bulk of the company’s repertory. Tallchief left Chicago City Ballet in 1987 shortly before it folded. But for several years afterward she continued to set a number of Balanchine’s works on companies around the country for the George Balanchine Trust. “She was a marvelous teacher,” says Nancy Reynolds, director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation, which made several videotapes of Tallchief rehearsing NYCB dancers in the 1990s for its archives. “She’s extremely exacting, with a razor-sharp memory. Her devotion to dance, and to dancers, is enormous, and she has fabulous insight into what makes dance ‘tick’ onstage.”
In one of the Balanchine Foundation tapes, Tallchief talks a very young, very nervous Jennie Somogyi, who later became a NYCB principal, through the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. Tallchief is graceful, poised and extremely tough. At one point she stops the pianist. “You’re doing it, Jennie, but you’re not doing it correctly,” she says, adjusting Somogyi’s head placement so that her face will catch the light. After clarifying a few other details of the hands and feet, Tallchief signals for the pianist to begin again. “Nobody knows how hard this is,” she says with a wry smile, “because nobody does it right.”
About to celebrate her 85th birthday, Tallchief, now retired, lives in Chicago. Her daughter Elise inherited her mother’s gift for creative expression: She’s a well-known poet and teaches in the MFA writing program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In her poem “The Other Mother,” she writes:
Because she is my mother, every night she turns into Cinderella. In the wings I watch . . . DT
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives