Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.
From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.
Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.
How to keep your students focused on technique during recital season.
Anxious thoughts circle through the minds of teachers every season as they try to balance recital rehearsals and competition preparation with curriculum classes. Studio space is limited, and rehearsals never seem long enough—but you also don't want to overwork your students. It's a tricky juggling act to master. Does it hurt to devote a technique class here or there to rehearsal? Or will the students' technique suffer? Will they start to see class as disposable, less important than getting onstage?
The "technique class is non-negotiable" ideal may have to be compromised occasionally. But even in less-than-perfect situations, there are ways to let your students know that technique comes first.
Rehearsals in Class
The solution to the rehearsal conundrum will depend on how committed your students are. Older, more serious dancers, who are willing to sacrifice free time on weekends for rehearsals, might be able to continue their full roster of technique classes right through recital season. Younger students who come only two or three times a week probably won't be willing to rehearse outside of class. But that doesn't mean their entire focus has to shift to the recital.
When preparing for her school's annual spring showcase, Angela Cibelli of Wayne Ballet in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has to have her youngest students practice for the show in class, but she designates only the last quarter of certain "show classes" as rehearsal periods. All other classes remain intact, ensuring a continued focus on technique.
Sometimes, however, emergencies do happen, and sacrificing a full class period to rehearsal becomes unavoidable. When that situation arises, Cibelli replicates the discipline of classwork by emphasizing clean technique and making technical corrections as the students work on choreography. And she makes sure students understand that the year-end recital isn't just for fun: Learning how to absorb choreography is a critical part of their training, too.
The Power of Incentives
Most students are more excited about rehearsing for a show or competition than about mastering the finer points of technique—a frustrating truth that can, however, be used to the teacher's advantage. Cibelli has found a way to channel the students' enthusiasm: "My dancers start buzzing about the show in the springtime, but they know that if the first half of [their shortened technique class] is not stellar, I am willing to forgo rehearsal time to work on technical problems," she says. "After one missed rehearsal they get back on track pretty quickly. And it helps even the youngest students understand that class is the heart of everything."
The Dance Zone in Las Vegas, Nevada, achieves similar results with a strict attendance mandate: "We've made it clear that the only way the students can compete is if they're attending all assigned classes," says co-director Jami Artiga. "Once we really started cracking down on absences, the system worked perfectly. Now we hardly struggle with that at all."
Maintaining a Technical Focus—Even on Show Day
It's important to make sure that the "technique first" emphasis carries over to performance periods, too. Nancy Davis of The Portland Ballet in Portland, Oregon, gives her students a sense of responsibility by creating a professional atmosphere during performance runs. On tech, dress rehearsal and performance days, the schedule includes a full class onstage, as well as time for a warm-up in between shows. That sends the message that disciplined classwork equals better performances onstage. "The students learn that technique classes are an important means to an end," she says. "And they love the carrot of getting a better part next year." DT
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches dance in Portland, OR.
Photo: Nancy Davis leads class with her Portland Ballet students, by Blaine Covert, courtesy of The Portland Ballet
Arriving to teach at a summer intensive in Portland, Oregon, Zachary Carroll was caught by surprise: He discovered that he would be leading a beginner pointe class for 10- and 11-year-old girls. Carroll had an extensive career as a ballet dancer and teacher, but he certainly had no experience dancing on pointe, let alone teaching it. Before panicking, he called his wife (also a former dancer and teacher) for advice. “She told me to start with simple exercises in parallel, rolling through the feet, moving on to first position—to keep it simple and work on placement of the hips,” he remembers. “I relaxed after that, and class went well. I was lucky to have my wife as a resource for the insight that I lacked.”
Carroll’s experience may be an extreme example of a teacher feeling out of his depth, but his reaction to being in a position of uncertainty is echoed by dance teachers of all genres and levels of experience. No one teacher has perfect technique or is all-knowing. But our personal limitations and technical shortcomings don’t have to translate into gaps in our students’ training. In fact, our weaknesses as dancers often become our strengths as teachers.
Covering All the Material
As a dancer, it can be tempting to skip over the steps or combinations that don’t come easily to you and aren’t much fun. But when teaching, it’s crucial to separate what you like and what your students need. As Carroll says, “It needs to be all about the student and not the teacher or his ego.”
Robert Swinston, director of choreography for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, also stresses the importance of an objective approach to teaching. Since certain movements are inevitably easier for some bodies than others, he says: “The issue is for teachers to use a wide vocabulary, instead of just what they are good at. Merce had so many different kinds of movement, some much more difficult than others. Depending on the style, try to give as wide a variety of movement as possible, so the student gets accustomed to doing everything.”
Of course, having a clear guideline of what material to teach is a big help. Elaine Bauer, a teacher and coach at Pacific Northwest Ballet, says, “A well-thought-out syllabus should help eliminate gaps due to a teacher’s experience or preferences.”
Learning While Teaching
It’s hard to maintain the discipline and self-confidence to give well-rounded classes when you’re teaching something you feel insecure about. Remember that you’re not alone, and as Carroll did, turn to others for advice and guidance. Your former teachers or mentors are likely to be flattered if you ask them to discuss the finer points of technique.
When Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Rachael Riley teaches contemporary classes, she often uses the corrections she’s gotten from contemporary choreographers to push her students. She also asks other dancers for input on how they would explain a step or concept. This is a fascinating way to become privy to the limitless analogies and images that other teachers use, as well. (I once had an “aha” moment when a colleague relayed the phrase “grease the crease” of the hip flexor to achieve a smoother developpé.)
Letting Your Weaknesses Become Your Strengths
You may also be surprised to discover that what you once considered a weakness has become your strong suit. Another Grand Rapids Ballet dancer and teacher in the company’s school, Stephen Sanford, admits that though adagio was never his forte, he realized that he had a thorough knowledge of the subtleties of weight-shifting and placement from his experience as a partner. “Having a deeper understanding of partnering adagio translates into the classroom with my students,” he says. “I can show where weight, placement and line need to be for solo adagios, because I helped my partners achieve those same things.”
And there is a silver lining to having a technical weakness as a dancer: All the extra time a weak turner spends practicing, analyzing and troubleshooting her pirouettes, for example, gives her insights that a “natural” turner may not have. “Teachers who were dancers and had to work creatively to overcome physical challenges, like limited flexibility or turnout, to achieve their goals bring a different perspective to the student,” says Paul Destrooper, artistic director of Ballet Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia. “If a teacher has amazing feet, she won’t necessarily be able to explain to someone with poor feet how to develop them to their maximum, since she herself probably never had to.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a good dance teacher is much more than the sum of her parts as a performer, and the value of your experience can only enhance your teaching. “Personal experience and skills are a plus, but having a good eye and understanding the physical needs of the students standing in front of you is what’s most essential,” Bauer says. “That’s when good teaching happens.” DT
Gavin Larsen, a former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer, teaches dance in Portland, OR.
Photo: Elaine Bauer working with Carla Körbes (by Angela Sterling, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet)
Jet-lagged, bleary-eyed, but with the sudden burst of energy that comes with finally arriving at a long-awaited destination, we wound our way through the immigration lines at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. We were about to do a job about which I felt equal parts excitement, pride, anxiety and trepidation. As Oregon Ballet Theatre’s newly appointed children’s rehearsal coach (I recently retired from a 17-year performing career with OBT, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Alberta Ballet), my assignment was to teach and rehearse a cast of Korean children in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker for a performance with Oregon Ballet Theatre in two months’ time. Traveling with me were Thyra Hartshorn, OBT’s production director, and Kevin Poe, a former dancer who would share the coaching responsibilities.
Oh, jet lag . . . though exhausted from the trip, I’m awake at 3 am, worrying about the day ahead. Although Kevin and I had estimated we needed 30 hours to teach all the children’s roles, we’ve just found out that we’ll have only 13. We’ll be working with students from the Korea National University of the Arts, the premiere classical training ground, but Balanchine’s choreography and style are totally foreign to them and they might have a hard time adapting. I’m also worried about my own ability to do this job—to get the work done in time and do it well.
Our first rehearsal doesn’t even begin until 7 pm, after the kids finish a full day of academics and ballet classes. I’m startled to see that we’ll be working with 10 to 12-year-olds until 11 pm, but hope that excitement will keep them alert. Finally, we walk into our rehearsal space to find a few dozen children romping amidst a cacophony of Korean voices. The entire cast has been assembled for us to look over and approve. The children all look just right—a pretty, clever and wise-beyond-her-years Marie, a tiny and impish Fritz and a quietly confident young boy as the Prince.
Kevin begins setting the first entrances of Party Scene with the perfect blend of efficiency and good humor. Sam, our translator, is invaluable, translating almost simultaneously. The children are curious, playful and have a strikingly mature ability to comprehend and retain information. Our biggest concern with Party Scene is that the children’s impeccable training might keep them from being natural onstage. We keep telling them not to stand in first position, not to run with pointed feet, not to stand in a straight line—all the things that are usually so hard to get children to do!
At 10 pm, I took our little Marie to another studio to show her the Transition Scene, just the two of us. Will this sweet child be too tired and overwhelmed to understand and retain what I’m showing? No, she is trained to focus, and she understands when I explain that she is dreaming of huge mice, an enormous Christmas tree and a life-size nutcracker doll who turns into a prince, even with no props or scenery to illustrate.
This afternoon we met with Professor Sun-Hee Kim, the director of KNU’s ballet division, and the two teachers who will rehearse the children after we leave. We stressed to them that the children should act naturally and dance cleanly, without pretension or affectation. The training at KNU emphasizes classical virtuosity and the students enter competitions from a very young age. (In fact, they keep asking if the Polichinelles and Candy Canes could do their dances on pointe. I compliment their technique but insist that Mr. Balanchine wanted the children to dance in soft slippers.)
Now, it’s back to the studio for more Party and Battle, with Kevin working as quickly as he can while I nervously watch the clock. Realizing that teaching Act 2’s “pure dance” sections will be much more straightforward than staging Act 1, helps keep my anxiety in check. I hope I’ll be able to get through it all tomorrow, our last day.
We begin with the angels, who are not from KNU (whose youngest students are 10 and therefore too tall). Their studio is infinitely smaller than the Opera House stage, and I wonder if it will be difficult to get young kids to adapt to the larger space. Also the 12 little girls in various fairy/ballerina costumes have little interest in learning counts or staying in lines. It takes six adults to herd them into proper formations while our interpreter calls out counts. After 90 minutes we have to leave with a sense of a job unfinished.
Candy Cane rehearsal, however, goes extremely well. These are the most advanced students, and as I’d anticipated, the challenge here is getting the lunges bigger, balances deeper, chins lifted higher, more épaulement, spark and energy. I think my urgings make the girls feel less in control of their technique, but I catch a glimpse of joy on a few faces.
Meanwhile Kevin valiantly forges ahead with Party and Battle, despite missing a translator and several children. Since we have only one studio, I take my two Chinese Tea dancers into a corner to teach them their dance. I am again amazed at how much they grasp. Their eagerness to move faster, curve their necks and torsos and lift their knees higher in passé is a beautiful thing to see. I’m pushing them out of their comfort zones but they seem unafraid.
At 10 pm I begin to teach Polichinelles. Though tired, the kids seem to have inexhaustible minds and pick up the construction of the choreography like professionals. I’m amused to see the boys automatically change the pique arabesque, chassé, tour jeté step into something that looks like a classical male variation, all bravura and manliness. They comply, with some curiosity and confusion, when I have them do a simple chassé tour jeté like the girls. These young boys are bred to become princes, and I am asking them to simply be dancers.
What a day! Our whirlwind crash course in Balanchine has come to an end. I feel a strong camaraderie with this group and their thirst for interaction with the global dance community. We will return in two months to put on the finishing touches before the students appear onstage with OBT. I look forward to reconnecting with my Korean friends. The culture of dance is the one we share, the language we all speak and the bond that links us all.
In early August, Kevin, Thyra and I returned to Seoul to oversee the final rehearsals before the OBT dancers arrived a few days later for 10 performances of The Nutcracker. (I performed the role of Marie’s mother, Frau Stahlbaum.) The ballet looked very clean and well-rehearsed, and as we coaxed the children away from rote execution of the steps, they embraced this freedom and their dancing blossomed. Our Marie and Prince turned into wonderful little actors, and the OBT dancers were immensely impressed with all the kids’ clean technique and professionalism. By the end of the run, the bonds we had formed with the students and their teachers deepened even further, and as we sadly said good-bye, we expressed the hope that this collaboration was only the beginning. DT
Photos by Thrya Hartshorn, courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre