Teaching Balanchine's style for 40 years

Suki Schorer and SAB student Indiana Woodward

Suki Schorer's delicate frame and perky attitude seem to blend with the advanced students she’s instructing at the School of American Ballet. Buzzing from body to body, she pokes at dancers’ disengaged muscles, lengthens their limbs and challenges their musicality. Out of the hour-and-a-half class, she sits for maybe 20 seconds—only during center work does she lean on the teacher’s chair at the front of the classroom (and not for long) before springing up to offer a correction.

But it's not only SAB students in the class: A handful of NYCB dancers attend Schorer’s classes, too, when they aren’t in rehearsals or company class. "It's like my children coming home to me," she says. "It's so exciting to see them bloom and become soloists and ballerinas."

Schorer hadn't planned on becoming a teacher; Balanchine chose her to help teach company class almost immediately after she joined New York City Ballet in 1959. "I loved helping dancers. If I saw my friends in the company having a problem with a certain step, I would say what they needed to do," she says.

Schorer started assisting Balanchine during lecture demonstrations in the early 1960s, and even before becoming an SAB faculty member in 1972, at Balanchine's request, she instructed a new class for novice company members, helping them refine their technique in his style. Since then, Schorer has taught every female dancer who has passed through the ranks of NYCB. As the most senior teacher at SAB, she is one of the last links to Balanchine's technique and original choreography.

"She's so inspiring and present in the studio. You can tell how much she loves teaching, and it makes you want to work hard for her," says NYCB principal dancer Tiler Peck. "I have always looked to her for support and feel that she was one of the main reasons why I made it into the company." In Peck's case, Schorer's guidance went beyond classroom corrections. The then-newly appointed NYCB apprentice was in need of summer housing in Manhattan, and Schorer offered her mother's unoccupied apartment near Lincoln Center.

Schorer has remained a mentor in Peck's career. "I love when she comes backstage after shows to tell me anything she sees," says Peck. "She'll say, 'When I did this part, Mr. B always used to say this.' It's amazing to be able to hear those experiences from someone who had the opportunity to work with him."

Schorer does not take her job preserving the Balanchine legacy lightly. "He gave us so much, but it’s not an obligation—it’s an honor to pass on what was given to me," she says firmly.

In class, she makes sure to give combinations that Balanchine taught during company class. "Sometimes his classes were three hours long and he’d cover every topic: how you plié, how to hold the hand, how to take a breath and make the movement happen," she says. "I was fascinated."

Balanchine's technique focuses on preparing a dancer to move onstage—in-class combinations are musically demanding, and the way steps are presented directly relates to how they appear in his choreography. "Even just standing at the barre, you had to project and feel your body alive and held with awareness to have the amount of energy he wanted. That’s what he taught, so that’s what I do," says Schorer.

Although the mood is lighthearted in Schorer's studio, there is no messing around during her rigorous classes. "She’s so peppy, but everyone knows it's time to really work," Peck says.  "And you learn so much—it seems like she touches on every step ever made in ballet. You’re exhausted afterwards, but it’s so refreshing.”

Now that she's 72, one wonders if Schorer might take time to relax. But she shows no signs of stopping. On top of teaching seven classes weekly, she teaches Balanchine variations and rehearses students for the SAB Workshop Performances. And she's still dancing: She goes out to dance Argentine tango at least three times a week.

Her vitality comes from her students. "They are highly motivated and talented," she says, "and to see them change and get excited about their development is very rewarding. I love to teach. So why would I stop doing something I love?"

Here, Suki Schorer and SAB student Indiana Woodward, 18, demonstrate a fondu à la seconde and arabesque in the Balanchine style. Emphasizing the musicality and the pathways of the legs, this step exemplifies the transferability between Balanchine's barre work to performance.

 

Balanchine's fondu differs from other styles in that the working and gesture legs do not straighten together. Instead, the standing leg rolls up to pointe immediately and the gesture leg unfolds through passé, similar to the action of a développé. The extending of the leg is not labored; the accent is light and on the "out." "You don't want to be on pointe with a bent leg," says Schorer. "If you have a fondu at an adagio tempo, like in the divertissement of A Midsummer Night's Dream, you can't do it by creeping up onto pointe, you have to get up on pointe, fast."

To show the "coming in" from fondu, a dancer should quickly lower her leg past 45 degrees before allowing it to slowly bend to sur le cou-de-pied. The standing leg remains on pointe until the gesture leg releases to bend in.

 

Suki Schorer is the Brown Foundation senior faculty chair at the School of American Ballet. She started her professional career with the San Francisco Ballet in 1956 before joining the New York City Ballet three years later. She became a principal dancer in 1968 and performed leading roles in ballets including Apollo, Serenade, Concerto Barocco and Jewels. Balanchine choreographed roles for her in Don Quixote, Raymonda Variations, Harlequinade and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1972, Balanchine asked her to reorganize the NYCB lecture demonstration program for public schools, and she oversaw the program until 1995. She has written two books, Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique and Put Your Best Foot Forward: A Young Dancer's Guide to Life. Frequently a guest teacher at schools and companies worldwide, Schorer traveled to the Bolshoi Ballet in 2007 to set Balanchine's Serenade on the company. And in 1998, she received a Dance Magazine Award.

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

How-To

Introducing and teaching rhythm can seem easy, but in reality it can prove to be a complicated concept—especially for younger dancers to grasp. At Ballet Hispánico's School of Dance in New York City, Los Explorers for 3- to 5-year-olds uses classic salsa and tango music to help kids acquire rhythmic awareness.

Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Neuromuscular expert Deborah Vogel with Jordan Lazan, right. Photo by Jim Lafferty

By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

Next Page
How-To
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored