Is It Time to Completely Rethink Ballet Class?

BalletMet in company class onstage before a show. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.

She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.

But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?

Since ballet began more than 400 years ago, there has always been the question of how to train dancers for the job's unique mix of physical, theatrical and musical skills. Each generation has learned from the one before it, adding bits here and cutting bits there.

Tulsa Ballet company members practice morning pliés. Photo by Francisco Estevez, courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Eventually, around the beginning of the 19th century, ballet class took the form and structure of what professional ballet dancers now do every day, beginning at the barre with pliés and ending in the center with allégro. Like today, the steps they practiced were ballet steps; they trained as a large ensemble divvied up into lines and groups according to the exercise; they faced a mirror and followed the teacher's instructions.

Yet today's ballet dancers need to be much more versatile. Almost all midsize to large ballet companies now boast a repertoire that includes works by choreographers like William Forsythe and Ohad Naharin alongside neoclassicists like Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.

To address those demands, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang, for one, says he encourages his ballet masters to give class combinations that tie in with the choreography. For example, if they are performing Giselle they might do longer adagios for stamina and hold arabesque pliés while the men are given more petit allégro. For a contemporary ballet program they incorporate more transitional material into the combinations, which mirrors the complicated transitions in the choreography.

But, Liang admits, with a work like Naharin's Minus 16, there is no natural tie-in. (Instead, his dancers took Gaga three times a week after morning ballet class before their Minus 16 run.)

BalletMet's Edwaard Liang teaching company class. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Vaganova faced a similar situation in the years following the Russian Revolution. Soviet choreographers searching for a new dance style to match the new social order threw some very unclassical acrobatic moves at the dancers—steps like splits and high leg extensions which until that point were considered inappropriate. Vaganova adjusted her class to prepare students for these "new steps." In her view, these movements would be meaningless if they were not properly trained. "We will achieve nothing new by bringing them to the stage without the corresponding treatment," she wrote (as translated by Catherine Pawlick in Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition). Where choreography goes, preparation for it ought to follow, or, at the very least, adapt.

Today's dancers are not only asked to perform a greater variety of technique, but often at a higher intensity, which presents its own challenges. Emma Redding, head of dance science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, points out in Dancers: Fit Bodies? that ballet classes focus on skill acquisition rather than general physiological development, such as strength and stamina. That means that most dancers need to supplement their daily class with all manner of cross-training—Pilates, yoga, Gyrotonic, spinning, swimming—to gain the aerobic fitness and power they need for performance, and to avoid injury.

Joffrey Ballet dancer Derrick Agnoletti, for example, does CrossFit three mornings a week and swimming and boot camp on the other two. "Class doesn't train us for stamina, but a lot of our work is stamina-based," he says. At 35, Agnoletti may be one of the oldest dancers in the company, but his cross-training regimen has made him one of the fittest. "When most of the dancers are out of breath I feel fine," he says.

Most dancers feel pressure to perform significant amounts of cross-training to build the strength ballet class doesn't. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Could class be redesigned to improve fitness? Yes, say Brazilian researchers Josianne Rodrigues-Krause, Mauricio Krause and Álvaro Reischak-Oliveira. In Cardiorespiratory Considerations in Dance: From Classes to Performances, they propose introducing "ballet sets" after the center phase of technique class, such as five-minute routines of three sets of 20-second high-intensity exercise (allégro) interspersed with two minutes of active recovery (such as adagio). This interval training would challenge dancers' aerobic fitness while using the specific muscles and coordination required in ballet. They suggest teachers get the support of fitness specialists to integrate physical training principles into class to better meet the requirements of today's choreography.

Their proposals call into question the overall efficiency of the ballet class, and whether dancers' time and energy can be better managed. For example, is the barre section too long and unnecessarily repetitive?

A number of studies show that barre is not as effective in training dancers' balance as is commonly assumed. Curious about the transfer of training from barre to center, Virginia Wilmerding, a research professor at University of New Mexico, carried out an electromyographical comparison of a développé devant at barre and at center and discovered—drum roll—that the standing leg works 50 to 60 percent less while using the barre.

The standing leg isn't fully activated at barre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

"You may be training a myriad of other things, but you are not training your standing leg," she says. "So then you go into the center and look at all the tendus you have to do because you wasted 45 minutes at barre not training the supporting foot." However, she recognizes that barre is more than this. "I feel weird saying barre doesn't do this or that because when I was dancing, I loved barre! It gets you into a kind of mindfulness."

Vaganova died in 1951 before dance science became a serious subject of research. But she already had a scientist's approach—she believed that ballet could be taught in an analytical way to achieve consistent results. She was not impressed by coincidental success achieved unsystematically. Vaganova would likely be delighted with all the new means of analyzing movement, like videography and motion-capture technology—more tools in the pedagogue's kit—and update her approach accordingly.

The classical ballet class has served the art form tremendously well for a couple hundred years. "Considering how old the traditions are, it is extraordinary what they got right," says Wilmerding. "The fact that you start slowly and move more quickly as time passes. The fact that you start with a wide base of support and slowly move to a narrow base of support."

Most dance professionals still believe firmly in the traditional ballet class as daily practice. "It is beautifully codified and sets one up for doing almost anything," says Jodie Gates, who heads the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, "but I think we can approach it with contemporary thinking." Rather than challenging the structure of class, her program challenges its culture, taking ballet off its elitist pedestal by giving it equal weight as other techniques.

Ballet class at USC. Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto

Liang, on the other hand, is not sure we have ever thought outside the box enough. "We are steeped in tradition," he says, "and the scariest word to all of us is 'change.' " Many ballet dancers have an almost superstitious need to practice the same steps in the same order every day.

Yet in her lifetime, Vaganova's own approach changed. "Pupils who have not seen me for a long time find an improvement and progress in my teaching," she wrote in one of her last articles. "What is the cause of this? Diligent attention to new types of productions. Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend… Keeping in touch with life and with art."

This story has been updated to credit quotes from Agrippina Vaganova to Catherine Pawlick's Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition and Agrippina Vaganova's Basic Principals of Classical Ballet. We regret the ommission.

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!"

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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