Teaching Balanchine to a new generation

Russell and Pacific Northwest Ballet rehearsing Concerto Barocco

Like many who stage the work of George Balanchine, Francia Russell danced for him while at New York City Ballet (1956–1961). Unlike her fellow répétiteurs, she began teaching the work under the choreographer’s watchful eye, and she became NYCB ballet mistress in 1964 when she was just 26. Two years earlier, Balanchine had sent her to Canada to stage Allegro Brillante for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. “I went in fear and trembling,” Russell says. She took with her a spiral notebook in which she’d written down every step of the dance. Russell relied on that notebook, and her memory, to teach the ballet.

Russell’s staging methods haven’t changed significantly since then, although she now has almost two dozen meticulously detailed notebooks, one for each Balanchine ballet she stages. She has traveled the world for The Balanchine Trust, from Russia to Seattle, where she and her husband Kent Stowell were co-artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet for 28 years. She continues to stage work for PNB, including, at the time of this interview, Agon and Concerto Barocco for the company’s 2013 engagement in New York City.

Dance Teacher: Where do you begin the staging process?

FR: I use everything available, body and brain for sure, but I always use notes, because memories aren’t trustworthy. We alter things without the intention of doing so. The longer I’ve worked on staging ballets, the more I realize not only each detail is important, but it’s easy to lose tiny fragments, and then the mosaic of the ballet doesn’t come together the way I want. I’ve always taken copious notes for the ballets I stage. Except there are a couple—Serenade and Symphony in C—I’ve staged so many times and danced so many roles in them, that if the music starts, the steps just come out of me.

DT: These days performances are available on videotape. Do you use them in the studio when you are teaching?

FR: I use videotape as an aid to memory. I seldom bring videos into the studio until I have taught the choreography. I think the process of transmitting what the choreographer wanted is so important—and in ballet, it’s so personal—that to lose that and just rely on videotape doesn’t seem real to me. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned point of view. To learn from videotape is not the same as to learn from those of us who were in the studio with Balanchine. Plus, a videotape is a record of one performance. It may be wonderful, or it may be flawed. I do often talk to the dancers about the ballet they are about to learn, something Balanchine never did!

DT: What do you mean when you say you take notes?

FR [pulling out a worn spiral-bound notebook]: I wrote down Ballet Imperial when reviving it for New York City Ballet. Every step, every count, every port de bras is in here. I generally have patterns and special added notes on the left side, opposite all the steps on the right side, all the counts along with all the steps.

Agon rehearsal in 1957. Russell is seated in the foreground. Balanchine and Stravinsky confer at the piano.DT: Did you do this from memory?

FR: Yes. I went in a room by myself, danced the whole thing and wrote it down. Some ballets I had to go around and pester the [NYCB] dancers. They would see me coming and run, because I was always asking questions. “Show me what you did right here in the four Ts [The Four Temperaments]. What’s this variation?”

DT: Did you ever ask Mr. Balanchine for help with this?

FR: No. I don’t know a single choreographer who really knows his or her ballets. If he staged his own work, he’d want to tinker, or change it.

DT: Do the counts in your notes correspond directly to the musical score?

FR: Even Balanchine didn’t always count the way Stravinsky would have. He counted what we could hear. The dancers in New York City Ballet at that time devised our own counts. Because in some places, things we could hear in the orchestra, those were our signposts, like a buoy out in the water. But Mr. B had innate musical abilities. He trained at the conservatory, he played violin and piano. “It’s all in the music, dear,” he’d tell me. When I was ballet mistress, our offices were side by side, with a connecting closet. Balanchine studied all those scores, played and played them. I’m not aware that he planned steps [to the scores]. He planned numbers of people, groups, entrances and exits. But when he made up the steps in the studio, the music was inside him.

DT: Once you get into the studio, how do you begin teaching the dancers?

FR: I start from the beginning of the first movement, generally. I ask the dancers to stand in fifth position, then I call out the steps. Sometimes I have to physically demonstrate. It’s not beautiful, but I can do enough that the dancers can tell what I want.

DT: Do you assume that dancers have the necessary technique to perform Balanchine?

FR: I do teach a lot about pointe work, port de bras and épaulement, because if the technique of a Balanchine ballet is difficult and uncomfortable for the dancers, they get all rigid and straight and lose all the beauty of the movement. Balanchine always, always, always talked about the importance of tendus for the development of the feet, ankles, indeed, the entire body. Making the feet work like hands is what he always wanted. Or, he said, “like an elephant’s trunk,” how flexible that is, no joints.

Apollo, performed in 1957 by Jacques D’Amboise, Russell, Diana Adams and JillanaDT: Why do people call it Balanchine technique?

FR: There isn’t really a Balanchine technique; it’s Russian classical ballet. But he asked his dancers for more: higher, bigger, slower, faster, everything more. And no time to sit and think, in preparation. He’d say, “If you’re going to do a pirouette, just do it.” Unfortunately, there are exaggerations that he used to make a point. Exaggerated hands, for instance. He didn’t want what he called Royal Ballet paws, so he had dancers exaggerate like they were holding a cup of tea. He wanted people to dance on the balls of their feet, for the lightness and swiftness, but the heel goes down and comes up again. You are not dancing around on demi-pointe, which is destructive.

DT: You went to the Kirov in 1988, the first person authorized to stage one of Balanchine’s ballets at the company where he trained and first performed.

FR: I had a really hard time with them. There was a sort of reluctance; the attitude was terrible, especially the principals. It became clear nobody knew anything about Balanchine. It was just the beginning of glasnost. I had a wonderful interpreter. I said, “We’re not going to rehearse this hour. I’m going to tell you why I’m here and who I represent.” I told them about Balanchine, what I could conjure up: his life, the speed and musicality he wanted in his ballets. I assured them that if they gave themselves over to the process open-mindedly and generously with their bodies, they were going to love it in the end. And most of them did.

DT: Is there a line between carrying out Mr. Balanchine’s vision and bringing your own artistic interpretation to his work?

FR: I’m sure I put myself into the ballets, and there must be people who disagree with that. I try to feel the foundation, the technical aspect, the steps, the choreography, from the time I was in New York City Ballet. I’ve retained it from there. And then, my memories of what Mr. Balanchine said, what he wanted here or there. You know, I feel it’s important to pass on what he said, but I’m sure it’s all filtered through my taste, my memories. And you know how fallible that can be! DT

When Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, he left behind dozens of ballets in active repertory at New York City Ballet and at dance companies around the world. The George Balanchine Trust was established in 1987 to manage the choreographer’s artistic legacy. After a company receives the rights to perform a Balanchine ballet, the Trust sends a répétiteur, or stager, to prepare the dancers and to oversee the production. “A stager is someone who should have all the information, the steps and the choreographer’s intentions,” says répétiteur Francia Russell. “They should be able to oversee the costumes, the lighting, spacing onstage, to work with the orchestra in the theater. They are responsible for every step of the production.”

Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.

Photos from top: by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet; by Martha Swope, © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; by Fred Fehl, courtesy of Gabriel Pinski

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Instagram
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox