There is a black plastic folding chair sitting at the head of the studio, but it remains empty during most of Michael Vernon’s hour-and-a-half advanced class at Manhattan Youth Ballet. He’s walking among barres lined with dancers in black leotards, poking, nudging and calling out musical accents and corrections, only returning to his seat momentarily to pop an Altoid into his mouth. “You must feel the rhythm when you’re still, not only when you’re moving,” he says, in a light English accent, pausing to crunch down on the mint. Then, his voice turns more demanding. “I’ve got to see the power.”
It seems like such a contemporary comment to come from a purely trained classicist. Vernon, who as chair has helped shape Indiana University’s top-tier ballet BS program, studied at The Royal Ballet School, where technique is taught crisp and free of embellishment. But he borrows from other sensibilities, and they’re tangible in his class: a driving musicality, tightly crossed positions and constant shifts in weight. “Seeing Melissa Hayden do Concerto Barocco was an eye-opener,” says Vernon of watching New York City Ballet on his first visit to the States at 19. “I loved The Royal Ballet, I really did. But dance in London was much more reserved at the time. Balanchine, on the other hand, was so passionate and technical.”
The curriculum Vernon helped build at IU reflects both his former roots and 21st-century passions. “I’ve always thought that ballet is a reflection of a country’s nationality. IU is an American university, so we have to teach the American style, which I would say is very New York, where there are many different types of dance happening in every corner,” he says. IU students experience everything from Swan Lake to Balanchine’s Western Symphony, and Isadora Duncan to Antony Tudor. “Ballet is changing; it’s more linear and physical. And you have to bring that approach to everything, even the classics. Ballet is a living form that has to move with the times.”
In grand battement for example (shown in the following video), he allows students the freedom to skew their hips slightly to make room for the leg. “It’s very controversial and I know a lot of teachers disagree,” he acknowledges. “But Sylvie Guillem and Paloma Herrera are about the only dancers who can keep their hips perfectly square in a high position. If a dancer doesn’t let go a little bit, she will never experience a true à la seconde. In the end, ballet is about aesthetic pleasure.” DT
Vernon encourages dancers to feel freedom in the hips during grand battement “within reason,” suggesting that students open the hip slightly to get height and understand the extent of the movement. Over time, the dancer should coax the hip into a level position. But the most important details, says Vernon, are feeling the foot brush against the floor and maintaining the speed to close, accenting in.
“All the movements of grand battement are based on fifth position and must relate to it,” says Vernon. Keep the weight over the toes with the front heel crossed tightly over the back toes.
Michael Vernon trained at the Nesta Brooking School of Ballet and The Royal Ballet School in London under Ninette de Valois. He danced with the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). After his performance career, he moved to New York as ballet master of the Eglevsky Ballet under Edward Villella, where Vernon eventually served as artistic director for seven years. In 2006, he became the chair of the ballet department at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and artistic director of its IU Opera and Ballet Theater. He also teaches at Steps on Broadway, Chautauqua Institution, The Ballet School of Stamford and Manhattan Youth Ballet, and he judges at Youth America Grand Prix.
Brittany Cioce, 18, is an advanced student at Manhattan Youth Ballet.
Photography by Matthew Murphy