"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.
"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."
Nigel Lythgoe makes it clear that he is not a dance teacher. The one time he was invited as a student to teach little kids, he scared the hell out of them. He was impersonating a jack-in-the-box, and when the kids approached, he jumped up and shrieked. "Three of the little girls ran off," says Lythgoe. "Two of them peed themselves, and I was never allowed to go near little kids or teach them again. That was my one experience as a dance teacher. And now they're giving me an award!"
But Lythgoe has done as much as anyone to draw America's consciousness to the art of dance. And that is, in a very pervasive, influential way, teaching.
In one of the expansive, sunlit dance studios at the University of California, Irvine, Lar Lubovitch throws out some nuggets of wisdom about the movement quality he seeks. "If you're not breathing, the dynamics are flat," he says. "You can't capture my interest if it's a flat line." He particularly insists on the play of tension and release his choreography demands, how the energy emanates from the coiling of the spine: "You're just getting into poses, instead of a spiral so extreme it has to unspiral."
In July 2016, the university bestowed the title of Distinguished Professor on Lubovitch. At 74, the celebrated choreographer still possesses the deftness to demonstrate some of his steps, although he relies on former Lubovitch company dancer Katarzyna Skarpetowska, now a répétiteur, to fully flesh out the dance phrases for the 25 students in class. They're learning a solo called "Pardon my Affection," from Thus is All, a ballet he created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1998.
Previously, Lubovitch's experience at the higher education level had been setting works on The Julliard School Dance Division and other university dance departments. But what compels him to teach at this stage of his career? Check out this slideshow of images of Lubovitch in the classroom to learn why he's going back to school.
"I always had a dual path of teaching and choreography," says Mark DeGarmo. At the same time as Mark DeGarmo Dance (MDD) embarked on 28 international tours in 12 countries, the company has also partnered with New York City schools to provide programs for kids struggling in some of the toughest socioeconomic conditions. What they've learned from three decades in classrooms with these kids has set MDD apart as a model for dance education.
On a Friday afternoon in May, Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo rehearses Loyola Marymount University junior Tina Dossa in one of the dynamic, sink-or-swim sequences of Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters. Explaining the use of weight and gravity, LeBlanc Loo coaches her student to “get heavy and low into the floor and find the rebound out of it." She exhorts Dossa to experience the resistance and “feel the arms cutting through water" and to change up the phrasing to give some steps more value. Perhaps most important, she reminds her student to “think of this as a task and not choreography."
From 1993 to 1999, LeBlanc Loo danced in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Known for her gutsy moves and dramatic presence, she now passes on her wealth of experience as an assistant professor of dance at LMU in the Westchester suburb of Los Angeles. In March 2015, the university announced the launch of an educational partnership with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company that would bring the choreographer's works, philosophy and mentorship to a West Coast university for the first time. “I'm thrilled, honored and moved to start this partnership with LMU and couldn't be more pleased to have Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo at the helm," says Jones.
Located at the gateway to the University of Southern California's arts neighborhood, the USC Kaufman building facade and exterior have been designed in traditional Collegiate Gothic style. USC Kaufman partners with arts organizations and dance companies, such as The Music Center and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, to present dance performances and workshops.
Ask Gelsey Kirkland to elucidate her idea of classicism and it’s easy to recall the hallmarks of her dancing, all that made her genius blaze: “It’s opposite to chaos,” she says. “It’s unity, wholeness, simplicity, a quality of patience in the body, plasticity. The body has to be able to absorb and radiate light. You have to be open, and the geometry has to be clear. It has to be very organized, and the body has to be working mechanically in an efficient way that’s not pushed.”
In their yin/yang manner of discourse, Michael Chernov, Kirkland’s husband and co-artistic director of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, chimes in with a definition that expands beyond classical ballet. “Classicism is something that is recognized through time,” he says. “What’s classical in ancient Greece is recognized now and later. That occurs because of the qualities Gelsey is referring to—the symmetry, the harmony, the wholeness.” The idea behind classicism, he proposes, dives to the root of human nature. Are we merely flesh and blood shuffling off our mortal coil or do we possess a divine spark?
With precepts like that, establishing, running and adapting a ballet school—theirs has 80 students in the professional division, 15 in the pre-professional level and five levels in the children’s division—to today’s students could be considered somewhat of a challenge, particularly in an age where hype and mediocrity too often trump classicism, not just in ballet but in the culture at large. And yet, if you watch any of the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s performances of chestnuts such as The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty (for the 2014–15 season it’s Don Quixote), you can see the effect of the training—even in the youngest dancers. The students are encouraged to revere the components of classicism. This results in centered pirouettes; lengthened lines of the body; port de bras that’s never thrown away; well-motivated acting; buoyant jumps; a healthy relationship to space and to other dancers; and an organic sense of purpose onstage.
In her own journey, Kirkland began as a student at The School of American Ballet, became a star at New York City Ballet as a teenager and subsequently joined American Ballet Theatre to dance the classics with Baryshnikov. Along that bumpy path, as documented in her book Dancing on My Grave, she worked with teachers such as Maggie Black and David Howard and became a muse for Balanchine, Robbins and Tudor, among others. She seemed like the perfect image of the eclecticism of American ballet: speed, drive, ambition toward perfection, perfectly streamlined technique, musicality, the versatility to dance anything with élan—sort of a Meryl Streep on pointe.
And yet, she points out, she learned classicism in reverse, backtracking from Balanchine’s neoclassicism to Petipa’s classicism. She doesn’t want her students to do that. “You can make the classical instrument go in many different directions,” she says. “I’ve experienced people who are trained in a particular neoclassical style not being able to do the classics. I’m a big believer that if you start at the center, you can move out from there. But you can’t go the other way.”
Chernov, who studied ballet and theater at the National Ballet and Theatre School in Melbourne, Australia, and the Urdang Academy in London, and danced in Europe and Australia until his retirement in 1986, offers the analogy of classical drama. “You can’t do a university course where you do four weeks of Shakespeare, four weeks of Chekhov and four weeks of Pinter,” he explains. A student needs an immersion in the spirit and language of classical theater, and a ballet dancer, they feel, needs the same with Petipa and Bournonville. “If you are doing a little bit of everything, you’ll never learn what style is, because everything will look the same—generic. That’s the summary one can make of contemporary life—that everything is becoming the same,” he adds.
And so, the GKA curriculum follows what might be considered an evolved Vaganova syllabus, which incorporates principles of alignment from Maggie Black, David Howard’s ideas about kinesiology-based movement, the core dynamics of Dreas Reyneke (who trained Kirkland at his renowned Pilates-based studio in London) and mime and acting directly with Pilar Garcia (who served as drama and mime coach to Kirkland during her ABT career). “The reason we chose Vaganova is because it’s the most logical system, the most scientifically thought-through system,” says Chernov. “We do work with the Russian system, but it’s our understanding and interpretation of all of that that makes it unique,” says Kirkland.
Both Kirkland and Chernov became convinced of the value of Russian-based training during their Vaganova teacher training, completed in 2003 at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, and two years separately with Russian master teacher Nina Osipyan, a former ballerina with the Moscow Classical Ballet. “Her teaching was the epitome of simplicity and naturalness,” says Kirkland. “The alignment was beautifully harmonious. It didn’t look pushed. I did her classes all the time and wrote them down.”
Most professional American dancers feel that their experience alone grants them the credentials to teach. But Kirkland realized that she needed to learn a step-by-step process, including the principle of “the divided exercise,” the Vaganova method of breaking down steps technically and teaching them at the appropriate ages.
When you watch Kirkland, now 61, teach in the GKA’s spacious, column-free, light-filled studios in Tribeca, the ease, fluidity and purposefulness of the movement help you to understand how she achieved the rapid-fire precision of Theme and Variations or the lyrical authenticity of her Giselle. One of the great powers of the school is the students’ opportunity to directly observe that.
Two examples of the specificity of Russian training are the use of the upper body and focus. The Russian emphasis on épaulement, the coordination of the port de bras, head and torso movement, Kirkland stresses, is often mistaken for style when it is actually organic principles of movement and balanced dancing. The focus comes when a student finds her own center and allows the diagonals of focus to emanate from that center, rather than gravitating to the corners of a studio or stage. With that clear focus, the student can relate directly to other dancers and to the stage space. When that happens, says Kirkland, “You can see a person.”
Kirkland and Chernov feel that pasting acting skills onto a dancer doesn’t work; dramatic motivation, including mime, must move through the body. “You have to find a plasticity and make choices to create a character,” says Chernov. “You have to understand how to embody your acting. And you have to train students on the classics,” like a piano student training on Mozart before experimenting with contemporary composers. The students sometimes even vocalize before class, to literally find their voice.
As for mime, an elusive artform for 21st-century dancers, “The first thing we tell them is it’s going to feel totally unnatural,” says Kirkland. Because storytelling through the classics is the GKA medium for developing dramatic technique, they introduce it at a young age. Last summer, the school inaugurated its Storybook Ballet Camp, for ages 3 to 8, consisting of five days covering five classical ballets: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Peter and the Wolf, Coppélia and Swan Lake. Each day, Pilar Garcia relates the story and teaches movement to the music.
During her performing career, Kirkland struggled mightily with the need to be perfect, an irony for many who viewed her dancing as flawless. When it comes to the GKA students, she’s determined to stop that in the doorway. “Perfectionism is the obsession,” says Chernov. “Working toward perfection is a process.”
“At the school we take in many different body types,” says Kirkland. “And so the hope is that we’ll eventually be able to work on the specifics of how to create a classical instrument within each limited body, depending on what God gave them as a gift.” Seeking perfection, in other words, can’t include the coveting of someone else’s impossibly long legs or metabolically blessed body.
What the GKA does focus on, however, is breaking bad habits that permeate much of American ballet training. “I’ve had a lot of remedial training,” says Kirkland, referring to her odyssey from eclecticism to classicism. “And that’s what we do here—fast track people. So we try to find creative ways to undo those habits and keep it interesting to them,” whether it’s unlocking a misaligned torso or re-coordinating a blockage in pirouettes en dedans.
Within the organization, Kirkland and Chernov have trained five teachers in their method and would like to establish relationships with other schools. But because their teacher training requires time, says Chernov, “You can’t do it the way ABT’s doing it with a two-week course. You have to embody the training.”
Kirkland and Chernov’s strength as a team works because of their symbiotic relationship. That’s partially what attracted Dawn Gierling, who has danced the leads in The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty with the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet (which features 23 company members who have studied at the school, with additional casting from current students. Chernov and Kirkland want to expand it into a classical company that can rival ABT and NYCB). From Dawn’s first audition, her mother, Diane Gierling, saw that the school was the model they were looking for after trying several schools, including The Harid Conservatory. “The dynamics were there,” she says. “Misha (Chernov) wears 22 hats and he wears them well. And Gelsey’s methodology is top-notch.” In addition to the resources, such as individual coaching and access to first-rate medical specialists, such as Drs. William and Linda Hamilton, Gierling was impressed by the production values of the performances and how the dancers actually enjoyed what they were doing.
Through the process of running a school, both Kirkland and Chernov have learned plenty: diplomacy, patience, organization, stage management and how to corral resources. “You learn what you’re good at and what you’re bad at,” says Chernov. “You learn to hand over control for what you’re bad at or what you haven’t got the energy for…but not too quickly.” DT
A former soloist with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, Joseph Carman is a longtime contributor to Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher.
Photos from top: by Luis Pons, courtesy of GKA; (6) by Kyle Froman; by Igor Siggul, courtesy of GKA
New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht takes on a new role: artistic advisor to Manhattan Youth Ballet
Who’s the short guy at the front of the classroom with the springboard jump, permanent high spirits, muscular technique and insatiable stamina? It’s Daniel Ulbricht, principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Ulbricht is widely renowned for his electrifying presence onstage. What isn’t so well-known is his talent for teaching—and his remarkable drive to do so.
Last June, Rose Caiola, the executive artistic director of Manhattan Youth Ballet, announced that Ulbricht, who’d been teaching regularly at MYB, would become artistic advisor to the pre-professional ballet academy. The departure of François Perron, the former managing artistic director of MYB, left a vacancy for a teacher and advisor with energy, foresight and the ability to pull the best out of young ballet students.
Erin Fogarty, the director of programming at MYB, had worked with Ulbricht at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga. “I have been friends with Daniel for many years, and I’ve seen him come to life as a dance educator,” she says. “He’s so good with kids of all ages, and he really knows how to deliver information.” NYCB principal Wendy Whelan, who teaches at MYB when her schedule allows, also admires Daniel’s teaching talent. “Daniel is a natural,” she says. “He’s organized and very confident and comfortable. The guy likes to talk and explain—he’s generous with his knowledge.”
After Perron’s departure from MYB, Ulbricht says, “I started doing a little more at the school than just the guest-teaching spot. I was frequently coaching and running rehearsals.” He sat down with the MYB staff and NYCB artistic director Peter Martins and made a plan to work this demanding post into his dancing schedule. Now, as artistic advisor, “Daniel is in a lot of the meetings for our programming—what we want with the curriculum, how we are developing and changing it, helping it grow, what the kids will perform, what variations we think they should learn,” says Fogarty. “He doesn’t sit here at a desk, but he has major decisions to make.”
But why, at the age of 27—and the apex of his performing career—would Ulbricht want to divert his energy to another demanding job? Even before the appointment, he was devoting 50 percent of his time outside of NYCB to teaching jobs, often during stretches on the road. “I’m hoping that this will help me build something,” he says. “To really sustain and accelerate progress, you have to have a more present approach to teaching. I thought it would be interesting to create a unique platform here, an open forum to make this as successful as possible for a nice caliber of teachers and students.”
“I think he’ll do a fantastic job,” Whelan says. “I’m sure he’s chomping at the bit—he has so many ideas, so much energy. He dances a lot with the company, but not as much as some others, so he wants to fill in the time with more dance.”
As artistic advisor, Ulbricht’s duties include teaching at least twice a week at MYB and helping to outline and improve a solid curriculum and standard for the school. For the past 16 years, MYB has offered a diverse curriculum that included Vaganova and Balanchine training. Ulbricht hopes to highlight the faculty’s teaching strengths and find out what shortcomings need to be addressed. “If I have one teacher teaching style A and another one teaching style B, I’m losing the cohesion I need,” says Ulbricht. “That’s probably the most sensitive area as well, because a lot of teachers get very comfortable in their styles, but that’s really what it’s about—getting the teachers on the same page so the students can take full advantage of this opportunity.”
But he admits that he will be experimenting as he goes along. “The syllabus is ever evolving in dance, I find,” he says. “You see a wave of students who do pirouettes particularly well and you go, ‘OK, that’s great.’ But if you have a school that doesn’t have very strong partners or jumpers or balancers, you need to address that. You want to find something that has a structure but can adapt. The dance world is changing, and we want our techniques to grow with it.”
Ulbricht began his teaching career at age 21, giving classes at NYSSSA during NYCB’s summer residency at Saratoga. At 23, he co-led the NYSSSA session with Jenifer Ringer and has been in demand as a teacher ever since. His style of teaching matches his vibrant presence onstage. “I would say it’s very high energy—that’s for sure,” says Ulbricht with a chuckle. “It’s a mix of strong classical technique and the speed and musical nuance that the School of American Ballet gave me. I am very positive and upbeat. I don’t want to see a student walk away from a class without reaching her potential.” A lot of students, he points out, think they can do anything because they see it on TV or YouTube. “They have to understand that there are still mechanics and technique involved—then we can have a really good discussion,” he says.
But Ulbricht wasn’t always confident at the front of the classroom. He started out so nervous that he would stutter through pliés. “I could show steps, but I had a hard time vocalizing them,” he says. Gradually, he learned that, just as with his dancing, a little fun went a long way. “I learned that the students did better when they were enjoying what they’re doing—when they weren’t doing tendus and pliés like they’re long division,” he says.
A number of mentors led Ulbricht to examine the methodology of teaching. Peter Boal, former NYCB principal and now artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, tops the list. “He has a way of showing the combination without showing off,” says Ulbricht. “He realizes that sometimes people need to see how something is supposed to look. He’ll show it and you’ll say, ‘That’s amazing—I get it now.’ It’s very revealing, the way he demonstrates.” Ulbricht also cites Michael Vernon, now the Ballet Department chair at Indiana University, for giving him insight into how to work with people, and Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux for teaching him about Balanchine’s legacy while he was a student at the Chautauqua summer intensives.
Nonetheless, Ulbricht stresses that dancing is still his number-one job, and that teaching has only enhanced his performance quality. “Every time I teach a step, it’s like teaching a language—I’m looking up the verb, the origin and the usage of it,” he says. “Then I see how I can apply that knowledge to my craft onstage.”
One of Ulbricht’s top priorities for MYB is to bring in dancers from NYCB and American Ballet Theatre to teach and choreograph, making a tangible connection between the studio and the professional stage. “It’s not just about seeing so-and-so onstage in a tutu, but seeing that person and knowing that she cares about me and my dancing,” says Ulbricht. And he believes the professional dancers—Whelan included—will learn as much as the students. By encouraging both his colleagues and his students, he aspires to inspire both.
Choreographically, Ulbricht will be cutting his teeth with MYB, as well. “I always use the word ‘dabble’ when it comes to my choreography, because I think I am still discovering my voice and my process,” he says. He relishes unhurried time in the MYB studios to create, which is unlike the often-frenetic process at NYCB.
Ultimately, Ulbricht wants the ballet world to progress, and he wants to be part of the process. He thinks of his students as lightbulbs. “There are some who flicker, some who need to be replaced and some who are beaming bright,” he says. “My goal is to get that whole classroom beaming. My job is to turn it up to a brighter wattage. Success to me is if somebody says, ‘I received the best training possible.’ You never know what your students might become—they might become dancers, or fans of ballet, or philanthropists to the arts. But I want to instill that passion so that they can enjoy dance at any time in their life.” DT
Joseph Carman, former soloist with ABT and the Joffrey Ballet, is the author of Round About the Ballet.
Photo by Matthew Murphy