RIP, Maestro Willie Burmann, Who Has Passed Away

Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Dance Teacher: Your resumé is impressive for someone who came to ballet so late. How were you first introduced to dance?

Wilhelm Burmann: I did not see my first ballet until I was 16. Some friends of mine who were “supers" [extras] at the opera house in Oberhausen asked me to join them onstage. I cannot remember what opera was performed that night, but its ballet overwhelmed me—I immediately knew I had to be a dancer. [Even the fact that] I was so poor I had to wear a sweater upside down, with my legs through the sleeves, as tights did not stop me. I took my first class in Essen, and jobs started coming my way within months.

DT: You must have been a swift learner or just naturally talented.

WB: No. There was a shortage of young males in Germany during the 1950s [due to the war], and I was good-looking. I took all the ballet classes I could and went everywhere with my partner, Alfonso Cata—from Köln to Frankfurt to Stuttgart—and gradually improved. When you begin taking class as a latecomer, you feel a sense of urgency that drives you, unlike a child first beginning class. It was a positive force.

DT: Major company professionals are always in your class, expecting you to correct them. You recently subjected NYCB principal Maria Kowroski to a host of almost microscopic criticisms on her center work, and someone in the class kidded her: “Maria, I've never seen you make so many mistakes." And with an utterly radiant smile, she responded, “That's why we come here."

WB: Yes. And I work on more than their technique. Sometimes dancers need to be reminded to take pleasure in what they are doing. “A little bit of joy makes it work," I tell them. When a step is done with obvious pleasure, everyone sees the difference. That is a lesson dancers cannot learn by glaring at themselves in the mirror; they are concentrating too much on how they look. A teacher looks at what they are doing and tells them what they should have seen.

When dancers are being lazy, I say something like, “Your face should be pink by now." More frustrating are those dancers who repeatedly ignore a correction. I ask, “Am I speaking another language? I know I have an accent." I am never at a loss for words in these situations.

DT: In one class I watched, a skilled NYCB male principal had trouble doing more than two pirouettes. You aligned the tilt of his pelvis, brought his uplifted foot a couple of inches closer to his knee and moved his arm closer to his body. He then performed five flawless pirouettes and was beginning the sixth, when the class burst into applause. There is no substitute for hands-on adjustment, is there?

WB: None, but repeating the movement immediately after a correction is essential. I tell dancers to “aim for three, but do two." However, in this case, I saw a problem with the two.

Fortunately, it was not the kind of problem that could lead to an injury if done repeatedly. There seems to be more of such injuries these days—not accidents but self-inflicted injuries. Therapists can relieve the pain and stress, but improper dancing repeats the mistake and aggravates it all over again. Teachers should watch out for such repetitions and quickly correct them.

DT: Is there one basic, recurring flaw that you think more teachers should concentrate on?

WB: There is always much to work on, but dancers should be reminded of what teachers in France constantly repeat. It is a saying that I must politely paraphrase for your magazine. In effect, it means: “Clench your buttocks." Tighten your center and you'll stand straighter, and when you improve your posture, you increase your control. [NYCB principal] Wendy Whelan says she was told to do that repeatedly as a student and has never forgotten it—it has contributed to the great authority you see in her dancing.

Also, pointework can never be stressed too much. Reviewers are wrong to compliment a ballerina on her “footwork." We dance on our toes, not our feet; we take off from our toes and we land on our toes, so dancers must concentrate on their landings rather than their jumps. They should also remember that we do not point our hand, we point our fingers. This sounds self-evident, yes, but many dancers move as if they have forgotten it.

And teachers must constantly remind students of subtleties that make all the difference. In a glissade, say, they have extended the right leg, their right toe is touching the floor and the left leg is brought forward—then they push off with their left leg. No! That is incorrect. They must push off with the right leg; otherwise, there is no glide.

DT: What was it like to work with George Balanchine?

WB: A revelation! He revolutionized toe work, but now I hear the old Russian heels-to-the-floor way is coming back. Balanchine was very clear: “You cannot dance with your heels to the floor," he said. He had such authority without ever having to raise his voice to assert it. I was terrified of him, but the young girls in the company, who had grown up [in The School of American Ballet], were used to him and loved him. They called him “Mr. B."

DT: That is a very informal American reaction to authority. Would you be addressed as “Willie" in Europe?

WB: No. I would be addressed as “Maestro."

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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