Teaching Tips

A Day in the Life of Alicia Graf Mack, Head of Juilliard's Dance Division

Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

A twist of fate led to her first higher-ed teaching job, at Webster University in Missouri. "A friend was teaching there, and he had to leave the position. I was in St. Louis, so they asked me to step in," Mack says. "I loved that year in the studio." After another performing stint with AAADT, she returned to Webster while also working as an adjunct at Washington University. Three years later, she moved to Houston to teach at the University of Houston while maintaining some guest teaching at Webster before applying for the Juilliard role. "I felt that my time as a performing artist and a teaching artist, combined with my education, had prepared me for leadership," she says. "I'd studied marketing, fundraising, organizational behavior, human resources, branding—how an institution is run from the top."

Plus, she'd grown to relish working with college students. "This age group is ready to expand in so many directions," Mack says. "They're ready to receive information that might challenge their sensibilities and the foundational knowledge they've received."

The changes she's made to Juilliard's course offerings since taking the helm in July 2018 reflect her philosophy of expanding students' horizons. In her first semester, Mack launched Ballet Lab, a class that she says "uses ballet technique as a jump-off point for movement exploration." More recent initiatives include a contemporary floorwork class, more world dance classes, hip hop in the core curriculum, pedagogy for fourth-years, and a third-year elective composition class involving technology and media. Meanwhile, more guest artists and speakers are rotating through Juilliard's halls, to help dancers feel connected with what's happening outside of school.

This year's first-year class is the first group Mack helped select. "I wanted to find dancers who demonstrated something unique, who possessed that intangible quality that makes your eye go to them," she says. "The result is an extremely diverse group in many ways: racially, in terms of body type, and even in how much ballet they've had. Many people have asked me my vision for The Juilliard School. These students—they are my vision." DT spent a day with Mack in September, as she started to watch her hard work bear fruit.

8:45 am - Arrive at Lincoln Center

Mack commutes into Manhattan from New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two small children. Her workday often starts on the hour-and-a-half train ride; she takes advantage of the downtime to catch up on e-mails.

9–9:45 AM - Observe Dance History Class

When instructor Wendy Perron (former editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine) asks Mack to share a few memories from her performing career, Mack speaks not only about her own experiences, but also about pivotal moments in dance history. No stranger to the lectern, Mack co-taught this class with dance critic Mindy Aloff in spring 2019. Mack's goal for the course is for students to understand their place in the lineage, and before she leaves, she tells them, "You are now a part of this amazing dance family tree."

10–10:20 am - Warm-Up Before Teaching

"Teaching has such a different physicality than taking class," Mack says. "This year, I'm making a concerted effort to keep movement as a part of my life."

10:30 am–12 pm - Teach Ballet 4

The ballet class she gives is clean and calm. She calls pliés a "moving meditation," and offers vivid imagery: "Gather the whole world with you," she says, as she demonstrates a port de bras. She often asks students what they're thinking, rather than issuing rigid corrections. "When I looked around the room today," she says later, "everyone seemed very placed. I didn't want to mess with that. Sometimes, as teachers, we're always correcting, instead of saying, 'Actually, what you're doing is really good!'"

12:15–1:15 pm - Observe Modern Classes

Mack peeks into first-year Graham technique, taught by Terese Capucilli, and fourth-year Horton technique, taught by Milton Myers. "Our students work so hard, and the faculty are legends," she says. "It's a treasure trove in every room." She's particularly interested in Myers' class because she now leads a Horton class of her own, for second-years in the spring semester. Myers was her first Horton teacher, and she says, "I want to make sure the information I give doesn't contradict him, because he's the master."

1:40–2:30 pm - Office Hours

During lunch break, Mack makes herself available for student meetings: "We'll talk about their classes, auditions they're interested in or projects they want to work on outside of school, challenges they're having—sometimes, they just want to say hello!"

4–7 pm - Observe ChoreoComp Auditions

Each fall, six third-year choreographers are chosen by faculty to participate in Choreographers and Composers, aka "ChoreoComp," in which each dancemaker is paired with a student composer. Second-year dancers make up the cast, while nonchoreographing third-years act as the production crew. Mack is not sitting in on the dancer auditions in any official capacity, but rather because "I like to hear the students' ideas and see how things unfold."

Being a real presence in the studio, not only as an authority figure but also as a fellow artist, is key to how Mack is approaching her tenure. "My first year was all about observing and listening," she says, "and now we're in the implementation period. It's time to see how my ideas are affecting the students, and that means communicating openly and being in the room."

Photo by Rachel Papo

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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