A conversation with Ballet Tech’s Eliot Feld

One day while sitting on the number 3 train crowded with elementary school children, choreographer Eliot Feld felt a wave of inspiration. There were thousands of New York City kids who could be capable of great talent and passion for dance, but they did not have the opportunity to study it. A year later, in 1978, Ballet Tech School opened its doors.

Feld, who played Baby John in the Broadway and film versions of West Side Story, and whose choreography has been performed by American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, didn’t have a lot of experience working with kids. But the school was an immediate success. Today, more than 30,000 children, grades 4–8, audition for enrollment each year. Those who show promise are invited to join the school. From this group, dancers are selected to attend Feld’s tuition-free day program. In cooperation with the NYC Department of Education, Ballet Tech pairs a thorough academic curriculum with equally intensive dance training, housed on three floors of a building in lower Manhattan.

Dance Teacher spoke with Feld this winter as the pre-professional company of Ballet Tech, Kids Dance, rehearsed for its performance (June 13–16) at NYC’s Joyce Theater.

Dance Teacher: You’re quite a prolific choreographer—145 pieces since 1967. From where do you draw inspiration?

Eliot Feld: It’s a little bit mysterious to me, but certainly the music is a first stimulation. Whether it makes me want to dance or gives me an idea or a feeling or just confuses me. I’ve never thought of making a ballet without imagining particular dancers doing it. They just start to fuse in some way—the ideas, the feelings, the dancers. And then there’s the part of going into the room where everything you thought about may or may not be useful, because what ends up happening in rehearsals is a whole other reality. You want to follow what your choreographic instinct was, but on the other hand, you don’t want to be trapped in that.

Ballet Tech School marries academics and dance.

DT: What’s the biggest difference in working with adults versus kids?

EF: It’s interesting working with the children, because it’s very much the same as working with adults. Every dance has its particular rigors—what looks good on the dancer, what the feeling is, what the technical limitations are. But the children actually get way, way better very, very quickly. They’re developing neurologically and everything’s changing, forming and making new synapses. Two or three months after you start, you’re dealing with better dancers—more accomplished, more capable and more understanding.

DT: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from teaching children?

EF: That a school is only as good as the quality of its student body. There’s a lot of excellent teaching out there, but when it falls on deaf ears, it has no value. You can teach technique, and you can try to instruct sensibility, but you cannot actually teach the feeling of making melody in space. That’s a gift that the dancer brings.

DT: Do your dancers get to voice their choreographic suggestions?

EF: Well, all dancers get input, because when it doesn’t look good on them,

it doesn’t get into the ballet. So it’s really simple: They are the final arbiters of what you see in the ballet. They may not have made the steps, but they’ve gotten rid of all the steps that weren’t working. Everybody thinks the choreographer has all the power, but the choreographer’s thinking, “Boy, I’m really at the mercies of these dancers.” DT

Photos from top: by Bruce Weber; by Lois Greenfield, courtesy of Ballet Tech School

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