Teaching Ballet in Universities

As with many university dance programs, California State University, Long Beach, provides ballet training primarily to students who are interested in becoming contemporary rather than classical dancers. Ballet training in a university setting is therefore not a means to an end as much as an additional route of movement investigation. Though much has been written about approaches that use somatic methods or encourage cross-training between ballet and modern, the heart of the matter seems to be this: How can a way of moving that is so codified according to the needs of a 19th-century repertory be useful in the training of dancers who have little or no desire to dance that repertory?

 

University dance majors often begin their ballet training later than students in a conservatory. Whereas a conservatory-trained student has many years to embody the set structures in ballet, university students are on an accelerated path that places ballet side by side with modern dance. They’re generally eager to add ballet proficiency to their tool belts (many admire companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), but their zeal quickly subsides when ballet is taught in a way that feels to them aesthetically anachronistic and without creative resonance for their dancing selves.

 

I have found through trial and error that these students gain the most when ballet is approached experientially—when they are guided to be the agents of their own learning through exploration. As a road map, ballet holds great power in the clarity and logic of its suggested routes of travel. As a method of study alongside modern dance techniques, it can be invaluable in preparing university students for professional work in the contemporary dance arena. Cultivating a creative approach to the teaching of ballet, one in which students themselves are the authors of their creative movement choices, helps to bridge a gap that can exist like a chasm for them between the worlds of ballet and modern dance.

 

Explore within traditional structure. As a method of study, ballet presents a codified system that simplifies the pathways to follow, but its “rules” do not dictate how movements are to be explored. Interestingly, I have found little need to adapt the traditional structure and progression of ballet class in order to serve this sense of individual exploration (I still rely on Vaganova and Cecchetti myself), but rather that classes with an emphasis on self-authorship by the students are the most beneficial. 

 

It’s effective, for instance, to encour-age students to generate choices rather than to mimic actions. While it is enormously helpful if teachers can find imagery to guide their students (whether in relation to movement dynamics, spatial awareness, alignment or in sequencing enchaînements—the list is endless!), even more helpful is tapping into a student’s own sense of creativity.

Center versus barre. I occasionally begin my classes with simple center exercises, both parallel and turned out, to guide students into finding placement and weight. I am a strong believer in the barre as a means to amplify the length, rotation and dynamics associated with ballet, but it can be easily misunderstood and work counteractively against a student’s natural stance and turnout. A common misconception among students is that the “lifted look” in ballet is created through the excessive holding of the muscles in order to support the skeletal structure. Similar to the freedom students find while moving in contemporary dance classes, the perception of one’s center of balance in ballet class can also be an energizing sensation which enables mobility. I occasionally conduct entire classes dedicated to exploring tension release, and I encourage students to discover a “center” to move and breathe from, rather than a static place in time and space.

 

The gravity factor. In modern dance classes it is accepted that responsiveness to weight and gravity will play a major role in the development of technique. This work must be equally applied to ballet, and by embracing the sensation of weight, students can productively engage in the struggle against gravity, whether on flat, relevé or while jumping—generating gravitational opposition by pushing rather than lifting the body. Many divisions between ballet and contemporary dance melt away upon this discovery, when one realizes the enormous subtleties and shades entailed in how weight can be approached.

 

Finding the motion within épaulement. Teachers can offer cues to help students discover their own movement intent by encouraging them to explore the space surrounding them, a multidimensional canvas upon which every dancer interacts or discovers repose within. Positions of the upper body are fertile ground to begin this discussion, and students can be encouraged to mobilize the head and neck in such a way as to counter the “pushes and pulls” of shoulders, torso and hips. Dancers proficient in modern dance can actually more easily understand the spiraling force of épaulement, as they have the ability to manipulate their torsos beyond the twisting that is more internal in balletic positions. Épaulement can thus be understood as a movement idea, rather than a static position.

 

The power of opposing forces. Many positions in ballet class can be explored in terms of this dynamic oppositional quality—an arm in second position against a leg in attitude derrière, for example—whereby the equilibrium created through counter-pulls regenerates a sense of stability. In order to fully explore these oppositional sensations, exercises can be constructed for students to overexaggerate the twisting within directional points in space, taking to the extreme positions that are usually implied in classical work. As I like to say, “Let’s try to break a few rules this time around!” And, fol-lowing their investigation, it is interesting to point out to students that their approach could form the basis for some of the contemporary choreography they are currently witnessing, many following in the footsteps of William Forsythe in pushing ballet into new territory. DT
   

 

Lorin Johnson has danced professionally with both American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. An expanded academic version of this article is forthcoming in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training: www.tandf.co.uk/journals/rtdp.

 

Photo: “I am a strong believer in the barre,” says Johnson, “...but it can be easily misunderstood and work counteractively against a student’s natural stance and turnout.” (by Lisa Johnson, courtesy of the author)

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