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