"You're a fine dancer, but very strong-willed," said Sir Anton Dolin to 12-year-old Richard Marsden, a precocious ballet student with big dreams of performing.
His mentor's frank sentiment continues to elicit a touch of bashful guilt from the former New York City Ballet dancer, who could never have imagined the fulfilling ballet career in store for him. "Being strong-willed is not a bad quality to have now," says Marsden. "But back then, it wasn't accepted well in a dance class."
Marsden began training with Dolin, his godfather, at the age of 12, the same year he was awarded a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. He danced the repertory of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins at NYCB and performed as a premier dancer and guest artist with ballet companies throughout the world.
Marsden applies much of what he learned from Dolin—the Legat training, relaxation, alignment—to his own teaching and coaching today.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Dolin's death. "It affected me tremendously," says Marsden. "He had been watching over my career. And then I had to do it by myself. The discipline and structure of ballet saved me."
Marsden talked with Dance Teacher about his teaching life and the satisfaction it gives him to pass down the training that not only led to achieving his artistic ambitions, but also rescued him at his lowest time.
Dance Teacher: What made Dolin a treasured mentor for you?
Richard Marsden: His presence. He gave me the respect that I was talented. That has stayed with me the most.
DT: Who influenced Dolin?
RM: Dolin studied with Legat. You can see that training in photographs—his wrists, posture, fifth position. Being on the leg, over the toes, plié, everything. Mikhail Fokine, Agrippina Vaganova, Vaslav Nijinsky, they all studied with Legat at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. He believed that you didn't need a perfect body to do ballet. Expression was more valued at the time. He could take the wrist, turn it, and, as they would say, he polished it.
DT: Polish is not a word you hear often today.
RM: That, I have to say, is what's missing in today's ballet. They're missing the polish. Legat believed that every muscle in the human body must be fully engaged to awaken artistic sensibility. He was against tension, stiffening or jumping from style to style. That's why there are a lot of injuries.
DT: What do you find so inspiring about Legat's method of ballet training?
RM: Legat was training that everyone's body is different, so you work your best with what you have. You always work on your weaknesses to build the strength. When you work on what challenges you the most, then you can improve. A system like Legat breaks style. It enables expression.
Marsden with the book "The Legacy of Legat." Photo courtesy of Garrett
DT: What is the difference between a style and a system?
RM: A style would be if you had a hundred people with different bodies. OK, they're going to wear this dress. But this dress only fits one body. Everyone is different. Maybe that dress won't look good on everyone. 'Oh, but it's the best dress.' So everyone is trying to get into it. What Legat offers are dresses altered to fit everyone. One size does't fit all necessarily.
DT: How did Dolin's Legat training help you?
RM: My energy was so strong that I would break blood vessels. I was fine onstage. It was when I was doing the rehearsals. I would push more and harder. The training taught me I have to work smarter, control the hips, pelvis. Don't just jam your muscles. Love your muscles.
DT: What compelled you to teach?
RM: I always saw myself as an example. Peter Martins would stop the class and have me demonstrate glissades, how they were supposed to be done. So teacher and example are the same thing for me. When I teach, it is always based on example.
DT: Has there ever been a conflict between teaching and performing for you?
RM: Some people tell me, 'but you are a performer.' Yes, I'm a performer, but I'm also a teacher. What's interesting these days is that everything is going toward the phones, cameras and video. Someone told me, if it's not on the camera, it doesn't exist. And I'm saying no, it does exist. They're thinking more of expression and artistry. But you still need to have structure in the class to be able to do that. One helps the other. Blood sweat and tears in a classroom or rehearsal. Once you get that together, then you record it in the camera.
DT: Describe your teaching style.
RM: I teach the whole class as one. One violin teacher with 20 violinists in the classroom. If one violinist is playing their own thing, that's fine, too. But I hope they do what I'm telling them. I correct for one, I correct for everyone. And I really mean each person. I try to keep them all like an orchestra.
DT: You spend a lot of time on the upper body in your classes at Ballet Arts.
RM: Yes, lifting the torso detaches it from the lower half and gives you more space to use the full part of the body. It helps the legs stay strong and solid into the floor. The legs become like steel, and the upper body becomes easier to move. The shoulders must stay down. If they're up, you're not using enough energy into the floor to separate the body. If the shoulders are up, you're going to get tired. That means you lose the circulation to the legs and they can't jump.
DT: You encourage opening the hips in sixth position during one of your first barre exercises?
RM: Yes, to get used to turning out from the hips without using the knees. It's from the Ballet Russe, Afternoon of the Faun. Nijinsky was brilliant at that. It controls the hip and pelvis. It keeps them stable. So when you do go into first position, you do not have to force it.
DT: Do you believe a ballet class can offer students sufficient strength and stamina needed to perform today's demanding choreographies?
RM: Yes, Legat didn't believe in doing développés at the barre. Student will often forget about the standing, or working leg, in an effort to raise the other leg up. I concentrate on fondu and frappé. They build strength in the knees. I believe that's what's missing today and leads to injuries. I see this in competitions.