Getting It Right

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generations of dancers, but to retain the subtle intricacies and the spirit and energy with which a piece was originally made.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

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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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."

Music
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!"

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