As a teaching artist for New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker Project, Mari Meade has six 50-minute workshops to introduce third- and fourth-graders of PS 199 Maurice A. Fitzgerald in Queens to the magic of George Balanchine's Nutcracker ballet. By the program's end, these students—most of whom have little to no experience with ballet—will have seen an NYCB performance of the ballet, written a poem and choreographed a dance they'll perform for their fellow schoolmates. Meade kept a journal of her time last winter with the students of PS 199, charting their course from ballet novices to burgeoning dancemakers.
Establishing the Rules
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Lesson 1: First things first—I go over the rules. Number one: Have lots and lots of fun. Two: Stay out of bubble trouble. (I explain that we each have our own bubble, and if you get too close to someone else, your bubble "pops.") We want to respect our neighbors, our teachers and our space. Three: Obey the silent fox symbol. If they see me make what looks like a hang 10 hand motion above my head, they must copy the movement silently to show me they're ready to learn. Four: Always raise your hand to speak, and listen to the person who's talking. Five: Sit criss-cross-applesauce.
Then I ask what they know about The Nutcracker. (Not much.) I play parts of Tchaikovsky's score and show them pictures of Balanchine, Lincoln Center and King Louis XIV. (I may have made up that King Louis XIV's favorite color was gold. But the kids love that fact, so...creative liberties? He did put gold everywhere.)
I try to add laughs anytime I can. When I ask them to stand like a soldier, I prompt them by asking, "Does a soldier stand like this?" and slump down. They yell, "Noooo!" Then I ask if a soldier stands like this—slumping further and adding a yawn. They yell "Noooo!" again and crack up. Finally, I show a straight-backed, feet-together soldier, and they follow suit. It's all part of something new I'm trying this year: Instead of correcting them by saying, "Don't stand like _______," I've started saying, "Make your feet like my feet," so that I'm giving a positive directive.
Like many NYC teaching artists, Meade holds several jobs—with NYCB, she's a teaching artist for their seasonal programs, Project Ballet and The Nutcracker Project, and conducts workshops at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. She's also a teaching artist with Dancing Classrooms and, once a week, a children's gymnastics teacher. Meade works so many jobs in order to fund her modern dance company, Mari Meade Dance Collective/MMDC.