Paul Taylor and Bettie de Jong performing Taylor's Scudorama in 1963

At the New York City Ballet this fall, audiences marveled at the high-octane antics of the revelers in the “Fall” section of Jerome Robbins’ The Four Seasons. At the same time, audiences across town were enthralled watching the sinuous symmetry of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Taylor’s 1988 tour de force Speaking in Tongues. And in New Orleans, dancers from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company elicited double takes when they performed the visually arresting Alwin Nikolais works with surprising authenticity. And authenticity is what the rehearsal directors and ballet masters in charge of these and other productions are hoping for onstage.

 

In the dance world, rehearsal directors and ballet masters are the keepers of the flame, the people whose duty is not only to pass down the basic frameworks of a company’s repertoire to successive generations of dancers, but to retain the subtle intricacies and the spirit and energy with which a piece was originally made.

de Jong and Taylor today, coaching the company

They come to the job in any number of ways. Bettie de Jong, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s longtime rehearsal director, sort of morphed into the job; she’d always been known as a go-to person for remembering and rehearsing choreography. Sandra Brown began coaching the principal dancers of Colorado Ballet when her husband, Gil Boggs, took over as artistic director. (See “From a Dancer’s Perspective,” pg. 42.) Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Alberto Del Saz became noted experts on the work of Jerome Robbins and Alwin Nikolais, respectively, having worked closely as assistants to those master choreographers while they were still alive.

 

The repertoire, size and type of company and their role within that company play a part in determining what each rehearsal director or ballet master strives to do when they enter a studio. Ultimately, though, there is the hope that what happens in the studio will result in performances that transcend the most basic of expectations—a clean run-through.

Nikolais expert Alberto Del Saz working with Shenandoah University sutdents

 

“Sometimes, what I’m looking for is more of a feeling, what I felt the very first time I saw the work. I’m looking for the musicality or the humanity,” de Jong says. “Certain pieces, the dancey-dance ones, have to be as clean as a whistle, otherwise they’re just terrible. Other pieces, it’s the whole feeling, the emotions, the characters.”

 

De Jong’s role in the Taylor company is distinctive—and not only because of her long tenure. She became rehearsal director in 1975 while still performing with the company (she danced with the Taylor company for 24 years). Now, at 77, de Jong not only runs rehearsals (with the assistance of recently appointed company and rehearsal manager Andy LeBeau), she travels with the company, overseeing such details as ensuring that the sound and lights are satisfactory.

“I rarely try to tell the dancers what they should do emotionally,” she says. “If they ask me, I’ll say, ‘I think Paul had such and such in mind.’ But I remember clearly when I was dancing that Paul left us alone to discover the emotions. Part of the thrill of performing was that you could make it your own within the dance form that he had made. I want things to be right, but we don’t want machines.”

Jean-Pierre Frohlich, rehearsing Joaquin de Luz, left, and Sébastien Marcovici of New York City Ballet

 

No matter the extent of the rehear-sal director’s role, their impact is highly visible. Whether a corps de ballet performs with extra zest or an entire work looks under-rehearsed, or whether a principal dancer reaches new depths of artistry or fails to make progress—the responsibility rests on the rehearsal director’s shoulders.

 

“We’re trying to continue a legacy. I’m a messenger for this new generation,” says New York City Ballet’s Frohlich, one of that company’s 11 ballet masters (including ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy). Sean Lavery, assistant to artistic director Peter Martins, is also known to work with dancers frequently. City Ballet also has two separate staffers in charge of rehearsing children for its various productions.

 

“I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Robbins, who was a genius, and I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Balanchine, who was a genius. I was dancing at the same time these two were still creating, so I was there to hear what they had to say,” says Frohlich, who has been a ballet master for more than 20 years, ever since he stopped performing.

 

Frohlich’s role among the ballet masters is unique. He is the chief person responsible for the Robbins repertory at City Ballet, overseeing rehearsals for the Robbins works done each season (he divides rehearsals between himself and a few others), and doing the casting for those ballets. He also sets Robbins works on other companies as part of his role with the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust.

 

“It’s a much bigger challenge now setting these works. Most of the com-pany has never worked directly with Mr. Robbins, whereas before there were people who had. Even if they hadn’t been in that ballet, they knew what he liked, what he demanded,” Frohlich says.

 

This means that when Frohlich teaches a piece, as he was doing during one brisk rehearsal of the “Fall” section of Robbins’ The Four Seasons, he’s not only teaching steps and counts from a combination of memory and a folder of notes on a yellow legal pad, he’s sharing information about how Robbins felt about certain things.

 

“Mr. Robbins used to say, ‘Play the scene, baby,’” he told the young men and women at one point, showing the carefully relaxed positions Robbins wanted the dancers to effect in a certain part.

 

Later, having told the dancers several times that they were part of a bacchanal, he got more specific, pretending to take a swig of a drink before adding, “It’s an orgy, OK?”

 

Alberto Del Saz has a similar challenge in trying to pass on intricacies to a generation that never knew the choreographer. In his case, Del Saz is artistic director of the Nikolais Louis Foundation for Dance. As part of a special ongoing project with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Del Saz has been setting Nikolais works on the Salt Lake City company and even travels with the company when it tours the Nikolais repertory.

 

“It’s not just about teaching them the steps. There is a whole philosophy behind it,” he says of his work with the Ririe-Woodbury dancers over the past seven years. “Now, they know the repertory a little bit better, so we can focus on the quality of movement. But the challenge is it’s a specific way of operating. I had to make sure that they can get more insight into the process.”

 

Del Saz coached Ririe-Woodbury dancers Caine Keenan and Erin Lehua Brown in Nikolais' Kaleidoscope.

Del Saz danced for Nikolais during the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1993), learning then how best to share the choreographer’s creations. “Now I’m able to bring to these dancers the way Nikolais worked with his dancers, how we as dancers were able to interpret the work, how we were given a certain freedom to approach the work,” Del Saz says. “There are certain places in the works where a dancer is allowed to improvise to a certain degree, for example. I try to bring a new and hopefully refreshing and different approach to the movement as someone who performed the work.”

 

But Del Saz acknowledges there’s only so much time that can be spent sharing the intricacies of the process. The need for speed and efficiency is a constant concern for rehearsal directors and ballet masters.

 

“We have such a large rep going out this fall and I’m scared,” says de Jong. “Sixteen total. Usually we have five or six new ones going out, with eight already prepared. But now we have 16 of them and only six weeks to rehearse. And it’s not even really six. That’s just on paper. I just hope we make it.”

 

How well they do at accomplishing their goals with a particular work can be determined in various ways. First, they say, besides their own observations, there are the assessments of their bosses—the artistic directors. “In the end, it’s whatever Paul wants,” says de Jong. “And he’s actually a lot more liberal about where his dancers can take dances than I am. I’m a stickler. I go back to the source, how it was originally. Paul comes in and says, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ He doesn’t mind if it’s not exactly like it was before.”

 

But listening to the criticisms of those outside the process can be annoying. “It can be really hard to hear from critics ‘I remember this and this’ or ‘They don’t do it the same way they used to,’” Frohlich says. “I was around in those days and it wasn’t so hunky-dory like all these critics say. Things do change. Balanchine did not want things to be exactly the same.”

 

He adds: “Granted, things could be better now sometimes, yes. But things could have been better then, too. There were many times back then when the corps de ballet was a mess. The only thing I will agree on is that sometimes the energy and passion of the dancers today could be better. But this is a different generation. It’s a part of the job that you’re always dealing with.” DT

 

Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based freelance writer.

 

Photo from top: by Jack Mitchell and by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; by Rick Foster, courtesy of Alberto Del Saz; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet; by Fred Hayes, courtesy of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
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.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

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

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox