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How Music Inspires Daniel Duell and Patricia Blair

Duell teaching at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of Ballet Chicago

The music comes first for Patricia Blair and Daniel Duell, the couple who co-direct Ballet Chicago. "We get inspired first and foremost by the music that we are listening to, looking at it analytically and structurally," Duell says about their choreographic process. "In our choreography, we always feel a need to provide a thematic shape—a beginning, a development and a conclusion, the way a piece of music goes."


They both have music in their past: Duell was a classical flutist long before his 15 years dancing with New York City Ballet, and Blair frequently staged Balanchine's music-centric ballets throughout her own performing career with Eglevsky Ballet and on Broadway. At Ballet Chicago, they are committed to live accompaniment for all technique classes. “Mr. B preferred live accompaniment, because part of musical education is the experience of listening to music that's created live," explains Duell. “I think that gives an appreciation of music in young dancers from an early age."

When a live pianist isn't available, Blair and Duell turn to tracks recorded by former School of American Ballet accompanists. As Duell says, “Class CDs can memorialize the very beautiful classwork of someone who plays live for you. There really is a ton of wonderful class music on CD these days."

Blair teaching warm-up class for Ballet Chicago's Studio Company. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of Ballet Chicago

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.

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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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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