With more than 100 works to his name, many in the repertories of the world’s top companies, Lar Lubovitch is one of the world’s most prolific and well-known choreographers. Born in Chicago, he grew up painting, drawing and sculpting, as well as excelling at gymnastics. But while studying art at the University of Iowa, he experienced the proverbial life-changing moment when he saw a performance by the José Limón Company, which inspired him to leave school, move to New York and audition for Juilliard. “To get in, I had to choreograph a dance, which I had never done before,” Lubovitch recalls, “but I had a room overnight in advance of my audition, and I put the bed up on its head so there was a little room to work and I made a dance.”
It must have been some dance. At Juilliard, he studied with Limón himself, as well as Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow and Martha Graham, and went on to perform in a number of modern, ballet, jazz and ethnic companies before founding Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in 1968. Lubovitch has spent the four decades since crafting an eclectic oeuvre that has been hailed for its musicality and emotional depth. Restlessly creative, he has jumped effortlessly between idioms, choreographing for ballet, Broadway (Into the Woods, The Red Shoes, The King and I) and even ice dancing.
He has been active on the education front as well, launching initiatives for high school and college students, as well as professional dancers. Open Doors, for example, is a yearlong program that enables a select group of NYC public school students to experience and discuss dance performances with members of Lubovitch’s troupe.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the NYC–based company, and a grand U.S. tour that began in April will continue through February 2009, highlighted by a week of November performances at New York City Center. Lubovitch takes a moment here to look back—and forward.
Dance Teacher: What have you learned about running a company and being an artistic director that you didn’t anticipate in the beginnning?
Lar Lubovitch: I don’t know where to begin with that, really, but I have to say there’s an overall theme of acquiring a knack for patience. It’s a very difficult thing to accumulate, but the idea of patience is the only sort of quieting thing that opens the door to possibility.
DT: Was it difficult to get things off the ground?
LL: I think it became more difficult later, because at the beginning I didn’t know anything. At the beginning you are inventing as you go along and, consequently, there is no real knowledge of right or wrong, or forward or backward. It’s just sort of a young, unknowing process that causes you to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. There is not much to fear and not much to dread, because you don’t know what’s fearful and dreadful yet. It’s very exciting and you just keep going forward. But later, as you begin to accumulate information, it becomes harder and more challenging.
DT: And what are some of your biggest challenges now?
LL: I think it’s always been keeping the wolf from the door. You never know if you are going to continue, and the only reason I have gone this long is that nothing has stopped me.
DT: Why do you think that is?
LL: I am very tenacious, and I think I’ve been unwilling to admit failure and never really had any sort of great imposing sense of success. I think I’ve always felt that I could get it right the next time if I just keep trying. But I don’t think I have ever thought of it in terms of having succeeded in any way or having accomplished in any finite or finished version anything I’ve set out to do.
It’s all been process, really. I think I’m interested in the process more than the result. I mean, I love the result—I must not be false about that. I love when there is a dance onstage and people are enjoying and appreciating it. But that is, probably, in terms of time, the smallest part of the way life is spent. A great deal more of your career is spent in process.
DT: As an artist, how would you say your creative process has changed over the years?
LL: Of course, I have amassed a lot of technique, just the way dancers do as they train over a number of years. They have an inner knowing in their muscles, and I think that the same brain-body connection happens with choreography—you accumulate a lot of things you can rely on to move a dance forward.
It’s a cliché to say so, but most of making a piece of art is work and searching, and there’s always a time schedule. A piece has to be done and inspiration simply is not to be waited for. You just have to do your job. People are relying on you and you can’t let them down. I don’t know how others feel about that, but I’m not willing to let people down.
DT: What helps you get going at those times when you feel less than inspired?
LL: Well, that’s when I have to rely on the accumulated technique and devices that I can use to trigger movement when I can’t think of it. There are lots of studio practices that I can involve to create an environment in which movement will unfold. . . . Patience again comes into the picture very strongly, because one tends to become judgmental when nothing is happening and, frequently, there is nothing happening. I have to remind myself to be patient in order to be open to the moment, so that when something occurs I can grasp it. Then, of course, there are movement games and tricks that I’ve evolved.
I also know the music very, very well when I go into the studio—so well that I don’t have to have it playing. I’ve listened to it countless times by then, and that is a device I’ve learned to rely on. Choreographers work from many different viewpoints; I work from the music.
DT: You’ve worked in a lot of different fields. What elements of each do you enjoy the most and how do they inform one another?
LL: There is an aesthetic sensibility that underlies everything, but it’s utilized in different ways. When I’m working with a director in a Broadway theater, for instance, it’s not my own judgment that is the final analysis of what’s going to happen; I have to work to bring to life somebody else’s vision. I’m trying to make a dance that he would make if he could choreograph. It’s a challenge, but an interesting challenge.
I like to move through different areas because I tend to get bored, and I want to keep myself alive creatively, and the only way to do that is to gravitate to different challenges. Ice skating is a very different world of time—one step of ice dance lasts way longer than one step of dance movement and, consequently, utilizes much more of the music.
DT: Let’s talk about your education initiatives. How did they come about?
LL: Well, it’s not teaching dance itself. I don’t like to teach “dance.” I do a good deal of that in rehearsal. I mean, that is what choreographing is about—it’s teaching dancers to dance the way you envision for the piece you are making. These programs are all about educating young people to the fact that dance exists, that it’s a very powerful form and very humanistic. Most of it involves educating young people to understand dance in the world, but not to become dancers, necessarily.
DT: What do you hope to accomplish in your next 40 years as an artist and company director?
LL: I can’t exactly predict or envision where I’m going. I haven’t taken the customary route of having formed a company, stuck with it and never done anything else. I’ve tried to utilize the idea of “company” as a creative center rather than as a touring idea, and worked in all of these various fields. And I think that the unpredictability has kept it interesting for me. I don’t think I could have followed the master plan set by people like Martha Graham and all of the other great modern dance masters who formed companies and worked them to their last breath. I think I’m a little less planned and a little more curious about where it will take me, rather than where I will take it. DT
Former New Yorker scribe Arlene Croce once famously accused choreographer Pina Bausch of perpetrating a “pornography of pain.” If that’s true, legions of adoring fans haven’t minded—nor have a generation of artists (Bill T. Jones, Robert Wilson and Pedro Almodóvar among them), who have felt the powerful influence of her raw, expressionistic approach to themes of loss, alienation and disconnect. In fact, Bausch commands a cult following rivaled by few others in the dance world. A sociologist as much as a choreographer, she has a knack for depicting the messiness of human relationships—the way passion can shade into violence, tenderness into cruelty—that has won her adoration wherever her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, performs.
Bausch began her dance training in 1955 at Essen, Germany’s Folkwang School. The director at the time was Kurt Jooss, then the leading figure in German modern dance and a pioneer in the genre-melding style that became known as tanztheater, or “dance theater.” After a stint at The Juilliard School, where she studied with such greats as Antony Tudor, Bausch returned to Germany and began dancing with Jooss’s Folkwang Ballett, eventually succeeding him as artistic director in 1969. In 1973, she took over the company that now bears her name.
If Bausch’s works weren’t well received initially, that has certainly changed. Mixing dance with other performative elements such as spoken word, song and gymnastics, they often have an appealing element of spectacle, whether it’s thousands of carnations covering the stage or hair-flinging femmes fatales in full-bodied gowns and high heels. But it’s their emotional veracity that strikes a chord with audiences—something Bausch achieves through a unique creative process in which she mines her dancers’ own experiences for movement gestures and phrases. “Do something you’re ashamed of,” or, “Move your favorite body part,” she might instruct them.
In March, the notoriously press-shy choreographer gave an unprecedented demonstration of her approach in San Diego, California, where she accepted the 2007 Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Philosophy. Bausch read aloud prompts, then had two of her dancers perform the choreography that grew out of their responses. In a rare phone interview before the presentation, Bausch spoke to DT about why she’s driven to make dances, the consequences of success and what she considers an ideal dance education.
Dance Teacher: When did you begin using your question-and-answer technique and how have you developed it through the years?
Pina Bausch: Once [in 1978], a theater asked me to do a piece about Shakespeare. I chose a Macbeth theme and worked with a few dancers and actors and a singer. I couldn’t work the way I usually work—giving them movement—so I had to find another way. I asked them questions, and through these questions we tried to create something. Each one had different ideas and came from completely different fields.
I [thought], “What an interesting way this is, to have so many individual answers.” Out of all this material we created, I could pick things that I thought were interesting and could be used in the piece. Later on, I did this with my dancers, too—giving questions and coming up with movement phrases. I found it such an unbelievable way of finding things.
DT: Before you begin this process, do you start with a general idea or a particular piece of music?
PB: At the very beginning, I choose pieces like Sacre du Printemps, which already have a story and complete music. But later on, because of these questions, and all my very individual dancers, I want to find something for all of them, not just solos and group parts.
I think about what we all feel, what we are missing. There’s some vague feeling but it’s very difficult to say with words; I know what I’m looking for, but the picture doesn’t exist. It’s like a puzzle—you have to find things, and you know when you find something that it really belongs.
The co-productions always have something to do with certain countries or cities. In Italy, we are busy with the whole culture of Italy or certain people you meet or normal life, or whatever. But otherwise, it’s just—life is there, and we are there. And that’s it. I try to make visible what we all feel. It’s interesting: what moves all of us, what moves you. I feel like everybody is included; it’s something to find what we all share.
DT: Because your process is so personal, what are you looking for in dancers?
PB: Well, of course I would like to find wonderful dancers, but besides this, I think their personality is very important. What is so special about them? I’m also always looking for something I don’t know yet. I like very much to find out together, to trust each other and to come to something they also didn’t know they had inside.
They know that I see them all very individually, and that they all have to bring themselves in. I’m not only using them; they are also, in a way, creative. And I think they like the experience of talking about all kinds of things.
DT: What effect, if any, has success had on your creative process or how you run your company?
PB: Of course, it’s very beautiful. We are so lucky to have the chance to see many different countries and meet people and share things with them, and have a lot of friends all over the world. It’s fantastic. On the other hand, it’s weekly, daily work. We are so busy and we have to work so much on this repertory, because we perform many, many different pieces in one year. Each evening is important. So we have no time to rest on something like the spoils of success. It doesn’t help us; tomorrow is already another performance.
DT: You’ve said that choreographing can be a torturous, frustrating process, with real highs and lows. Why do you do it?
PB: Because I would like to express what I really feel, what I know, but that has nothing to do with words. And, of course, it’s very hard, because you have nothing to hold on to, and everything you have done is done, so you have to always go further, or another way. On the way, you feel like you didn’t reach what you would like to, and you kind of fight for it, so it’s a very heavy process. We have a lot of fun, but you really go through everything. It’s a hard thing, and many times I’ve thought, “That will be the last piece,” but as soon as we première it, I’m already thinking about the other ones. So it brings me forward all the time, and the wish to do it is much stronger than the wish to stop.
DT: How do you feel when you sit in the audience and watch the première of one of your works?
PB: I’m terribly nervous, of course. You don’t even have a chance before that to really see what you have done. You see it for the first time, and you also see it with different eyes. It’s a very important moment. In the next performance, you try changing a few things or maybe exchanging music or even putting parts in another place. We always continue working on a piece after the première. Sometimes it goes very quick, and sometimes I work quite a long time on it. The première is not the end of the process.
DT: You don’t dance in very many of your own pieces anymore. Why is that?
PB: Well, I would love to dance in many pieces, but there is no time for me.
DT: What is the difference between being onstage yourself and setting work on others?
PB: If you’re onstage, everything else is gone. As a director you have to think about a lot of things, so it’s a completely different feeling. I have so many dances, and they all have such different qualities and different kinds of music. When you do a piece, there isn’t anything before. There is no music, there is no set, no group. In quite a short time, everything has to come together. And you need to be very, very sensitive, very open and very fragile to feel what is wrong, what is right, and bring it into an order.
DT: You’ve studied dance all over the world. How would you compare dance education in Europe and the U.S., and how do you think they have changed?
PB: At Juilliard, they had the performing arts all together, but in Germany, they had the fine arts as well. It was all under one roof, and it gave [me] a wide spectrum of inspiration and [opportunities for] working together. This was very important for me. I had to learn classical ballet, different kinds of modern and many types of European [folk dance], and there were always guest teachers from the States, like Lucas Hoving, Walter Nicks or Antony Tudor. I wish people could have this experience today, I must say.
Sooner or later, all dancers face the inevitable: the end of their performing careers and the gnawing, terrifying question of, “What’s next?” Rarely has the anguish and soul-searching occasioned by this seminal transition in a dancer’s life been captured, and so poignantly, as in the new documentary Water Flowing Together. Created by Gwendolen Cates, the film is an intimate account of the months leading up to New York City Ballet principal Jock Soto’s 2005 retirement performance, a time fraught with both joy and anxiety as he reflects on a storied 24-year career and confronts the uncertainty of the future.
Born in 1965 on an Indian reservation in New Mexico to a Navajo mother and Puerto Rican father, Soto began taking ballet lessons at a local dance studio before receiving a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. A few years later, at age 16, he was among the last to be handpicked by George Balanchine to join NYCB, where he became celebrated for his regal, unabashedly masculine stage presence and, above all, his impeccable partnering. By the end, he was, by choreographer Richard Tanner’s count, the most choreographed-on dancer in the company—an audience favorite and an idol to a new generation of dancers.
But the film, which draws its title from the name of Soto’s Navajo clan, does more than gloss the high points of his career. It also reveals the struggles he faced over the years, whether as a preteen straining to make ends meet in NYC (his parents sent him there alone, as they couldn’t afford to join him) or as an older man embarking on a belated quest to understand his biracial identity. Water Flowing Together, which has already garnered numerous festival awards including the Jury Prize at NYC’s Dance on Camera Festival this past January, is set to debut April 8 nationwide as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.” Soto says he hopes the film will inspire young, aspiring dancers everywhere.
Happily, these days the danseur has found a new calling: cooking. Even as he keeps up a full schedule at SAB, where he has been on faculty since 1996 and now teaches boys’, men’s and partnering classes six days a week, Soto finds time to run a catering business with his boyfriend, Luis Fuentes (called Lucky Basset Events, after the couple’s dog). It’s a reassuring reminder that the end of a dancer’s Act I need not mean curtain call; for those brave enough, Act II is right around the corner.
DanceTeacher: I found Water Flowing Together very moving.
Jock Soto: Thank you so much. We’ve been getting such great responses, and we’re so proud of the project. Of course, now we have to fundraise again for the outreach programs—there are so many dance programs in colleges and so many dance schools in America, and eventually, Gwendolen and I want to raise money to make DVDs so we can distribute them. I just think it would be an inspiration for younger kids who want to become dancers to see how my parents really sacrificed so much for me to come to New York.
DT:What’s the distribution plan?
JS:We’re working on it. It’s coming out nationally April 8; after that, we have to work on maybe going to colleges and talking to students, showing the film, answering questions—that’s what we’d really like to do.
DT:Is that one of the reasons you approached Gwendolen about making the film in the first place?
JS:Yes, definitely. I never had a problem with my sexuality either, and I just wanted to tell everyone that they should go where their hearts send them, and not be embarrassed about who they are.
DT:Since retiring in 2005, you’ve kept busy with a full teaching load at SAB as well as starting your own catering company with your boyfriend. What is it that appeals to you about cooking?
JS:I love the passion that it takes, and I love the finished product—it’s like a performance. And I love food! Any kind of food. I wish I could snap my fingers and be in Paris right now, eating. I’ll probably teach forever, but I also want to have a restaurant—in New York, of course.
DT:You’ve said before that you almost considered quitting teaching after you retired. What made you decide to continue?
JS:Once I retired, I went to culinary school and I really, really loved my teacher. He was such a great teacher and so amusing, and during that time I was still teaching myself, so I realized that I actually liked teaching a lot, and I liked seeing the dancers get into the company and continuing. I had this dream of leaving New York and living in New Mexico in a beautiful house and cooking, but then I discovered that what I knew and what I was teaching was doing good for the students, and it’s exciting because I also started to go out and scout. I got to go to San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas, and find kids and bring them to [SAB]. I started to really appreciate it and like it much more, and it became such a nice responsibility to have.
DT:What would you say your teaching approach is in the classroom? What do you try to impart to students?
JS:Back when Balanchine came to America, he wanted to bring a technique that was better, quicker and more exciting to watch. What I try to do is bring that technique, and Peter Martins’ technique, into the future. The future is always getting better and better, so we as teachers have to take everything into the future, meaning the dancers have to get better and better. And they do, which is really wonderful to watch. I mean, the technique that these dancers have now compared to 20 years ago is phenomenal. They can do anything and they can dance as fast as possible; it’s just wonderful. So my duty is to just keep improving my technique and passing it to them.
DT:Any tips on encouraging boys in particular to dance?
JS:We have a very high caliber of boys here at SAB, and they’re such hard workers and know that they’re here for that reason, so I just try to encourage them to not lose faith. For boys in general, give it a try, and start young and start early. If you really have a passion for it, then go for it.
DT:It certainly wasn’t always easy for you, starting out as the only boy at a small local studio in Phoenix, Arizona.
JS:Yeah, but I had people who believed that I had talent, so I listened to those people.
DT:You are famous for your partnering ability. Although it might come naturally to you, how do you approach passing on that skill?
JS:It takes a lot to teach partnering, and I had to teach myself how to teach that kind of a class. I found that if I just demonstrated it very slowly and showed students how and where to put their hands and how to approach a ballerina, they would get it. It’s hard to explain. You’d have to watch me teach class, because I try to bring a lot of humor into it also.
DT:Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for other dancers making the challenging transition from dancing to teaching full-time?
JS:You have to decide a few years before you retire what you’re going to do, and give yourself plenty of time, because if you get to that point where you’re retiring and you have nothing left, or nothing to look forward to, you’re going to be at a terrible, terrible loss. What I would say is, plan your future well in advance. And don’t think it’s going to be horrible not to dance, but think of how great it’s going to be to do something else.
Q: How have you seen competitions evolve in the last few decades?
“I’ve been competing since I was 7, and I’ve spent more than 40 years being a part of it. When I first danced, we used records! It was just a contest—you went out and the costumes weren’t very elaborate and your dancing was basic. The group dancing was a big thing, but it definitely didn’t have an edge to it. Since I started my own studio, it’s grown immensely. The edge is over the top. I tell my kids, ‘Everything we do for competition, you will never do as a professional dancer.’ No one’s going to ask you do nine pirouettes and then a side aerial.”
—Robin Dawn, director/owner, Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts, Cape Coral, FL
“The level of ability and talent has grown so much. When we first started doing competitions, it was a big deal to do a double pirouette, and now that’s kind of like walking. There are just so many competitions, and I’m not sure they carry the same amount of push for kids. It’s just a fact of life; it’s not so special. In my day, after winning a trophy, you’d keep it forever. Now, if these kids kept every trophy they won, they’d have to have a whole separate room for them. And I think that’s a positive builder of self-esteem, but I also think it’s hard to understand when you really accomplish something.”
—Devin Moss, director/owner, Classic Image Dance,
“The facilities went from being high schools to full auditoriums. We had to travel two to four hours to get to a convention or competition, and there were only one or two events that even came to your town. Now they’re five to 10 minutes down the road. As far as studios go, competition is definitely one of the big selling points. That’s what kids want to be involved in.”
—Heather Owens, founder/director, Upstate Carolina Dance Center, Easley, SC
“When I was training, there were no dance competitions. But I’ve seen a huge change. My studio began competing around 1985. That’s when costumes weren’t crazy, everyone was very unique, lyrical wasn’t even a category, hip hop wasn’t a category. There was a lot more togetherness between the studios, and the teachers were getting along better. Then, probably in the early ’90s, some of the stronger studios started coming alive. It really affected the art of dance—there were more tricks, everyone had $200 costumes and dancers were looking the same. Granted, the dancers were amazing, but the creativity was missing. Now I’m very pleased to see that studios are getting more creative; even the bigger studios are stepping out of their comfort zone. I think So You Think You Can Dance has helped a lot. It’s very inspiring, seeing these great choreographers take a song we’ve all heard 100 times and do something completely different with it.”
—Suzi Zeppardo, director, Dancing Images, Moreno Valley, CA
Q: What has happened to style and artistry?
“Some studios have been doing contemporary for a long time, but people weren’t ready for it. Now all of a sudden it’s gotten really big, and I think all of that is the exposure on TV, on So You Think You Can Dance. Mia Michaels and Wade Robson are incredible! The choreographers are really allowed to express themselves a lot more, and I think it’s good to have all facets of that. We’re leaning a lot more toward modern, which there’s never been a lot of exposure to, because there’s always been the basics—tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical. Now it’s a blend of everything. I always tell my kids, ‘If it feels weird, it’s probably right.’ I mean, Bob Fosse turned everything in. A lot of kids may be thinking of joining companies where they might not have ever thought about that before. Pilobolus? Look at them—they do some bizarre stuff that is just out there.” —Dawn
“Certain studios with a certain look and style go to certain competitions. It’s all about tricks and costumes. And they’re amazing kids, don’t get me wrong. But you’re not seeing creativity in that kind of venue. I think if every competition was like that, it would be sad because the artistic part of dance would be missing.” —Zeppardo
Q: How much more financially challenging is it to participate in competitions these days?
“It is so expensive! It’s a huge financial undertaking for families, and that’s hard, because a lot of the most talented kids just can’t afford it, and it sort of hinders them from being able to continue. It’s not good enough just for them to take class anymore; they all want the limelight. We’re looking at $10,000 worth of events a year, which most studios probably can’t afford to do.” —Moss
“All the rhinestones, the design and the time that goes into making costumes different and trying to make your kids stand out more than other kids . . . actually, it comes and goes. Now, you can kind of get away in a lot of the lyrical numbers with fewer rhinestones; you can go to Victoria’s Secret and buy something without spending $200 to $300 on a costume.” —Owens
Q: If you could change one thing about competitions, what would it be?
“I wish that people would be able to take constructive criticism better, and put weight into the dancers and the training. Sometimes I feel like everybody walks out with a gold, and a lot of the young teachers—and parents are probably the worst—go back thinking, ‘Wow, we did so good.’ I can remember my kids competing in the Hoctor’s Dance Caravan twice a year, because there were no other competitions, and it was first, second, third—that’s all there was. Now there are so many on the weekend, and there are just so many choices. I will say this, though: I think it’s a good thing to compete because it builds good character. It takes someone with a lot more character to be a good loser than to be a good winner. Anybody can win, but in the business they’re going into, they’re going to get a lot more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s’ and they’ve got to be able to handle that.” —Dawn
“It’s difficult that there is so much competition between studios. Instead of really having an appreciation for others, a lot of people are just worried about winning, which takes away from your ability to learn from each other. I take students to competition for the sense of accomplishment and, yeah, it’s great if we win, but it’s also to see what’s out there and to have the educational aspect of it. So I would like to see a little more emphasis on the benefits and the education, and keeping classes that go along with competition. I really admire the events that offer a showcase, things that are a little bit different so you can support each other more and not worry about winning all the time.” —Moss
“Probably the time frame. Pretty much everything’s gone to three-day events now, and as far as scheduling, you’re there from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and it gets really tough to come in on Monday and start teaching again. You’re just exhausted. It’s because the competitions are growing so much and they’re packing in as much as they can and extending the time they have the auditorium to the last minute.” —Owens
“I would like a universal language for divisions. That gets so confusing! I think it’s great that some events have levels and some don’t—that’s necessary. But if we could all have the same language on what’s a mini, what’s a junior. However, you have to be very careful with that line so you don’t take away the artistry of the pieces.” —Zeppardo
A flawless pirouette is a dancer’s holy grail: eminently desirable yet, at times, frustratingly elusive. For New York City–based master teacher Nancy Bielski, who counts New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer among the faithful students in her advanced ballet class at Steps on Broadway, the secret lies in being clean, clean, clean.
For the preparation, which she teaches from a straight back leg, Bielski advises teachers to make sure students’ hips are square and arms in line (the supporting arm straight to the side, not behind the supporting side). “Then, when you push off to turn, it’s like spinning a top,” she says. “You have to push down against the floor rather than lift up out of the foot. You have to have a real sense of springing onto pointe. And the feeling is to start the body turning almost before you relevé.” As for spotting, she says to start right away: “The head should get around before the body does. A lot of dancers think spotting is holding the head but it actually involves moving it.” A good finish is—what else?—clean. Try to finish everything at the same time, Bielski counsels.
How best to teach pirouettes during class? The veteran instructor explains that she usually gives a center exercise that starts with a simple pirouette combination (e.g., a pirouette en dehors from a tombé pas de bourrée), then another pirouette combination preceded by lots of warm-up jumps. “Before I start the second pirouette I’d give 16 sautés in first or second just to keep the energy at a high peak, because you do need that high energy for turning,” Bielski says.
» Preparation for a pirouette en dehors: Plié in fourth, left foot front, keeping the hips square and the back knee straight. Arms are in fourth.
» Push down into the ground in order to spring up, beginning to turn as you relevé, and spotting immediately. Bring in your left arm right away so that you’re turning with arms in front. Pull up and engage your abdominals to maintain a vertical position.
» Continue turning, maintaining the arms in front and a very pointed, placed passé. The passé must remain in place during the entire turn. Don’t cheat and bring the leg down early.
» End in fourth position croisé lunge looking toward the audience, arms in fourth.
Pirouette Q & A with Nancy Bielski
Q:What are some common faux pas that you see in class?
A:[When students] tombé pas de bourrée fourth, then turn in the front leg [before going onto] relevé, it drives me crazy. A clean preparation is very important. Also, sometimes dancers have no position for their arms in front of their bodies. Even though you don’t use your arms to turn, they have to be quite strong, not too high and in front of the body. Another common mistake is that people don’t spot soon enough.
Q:Are there any differences between a pirouette that starts from a straight leg and one that starts from a bent leg?
A:I teach [pushing off from a straight leg], but I don’t care how people turn as long as it’s a turned-out preparation. It’s the same philosophy.
Q:Why are men sometimes better than women at turning?
A:Men have very strong upper bodies and I think that helps them to get around. Men don’t have to turn on pointe, which is very different, much harder, and sometimes women have such stretchy, long feet it’s harder to get onto pointe. When you see a really good female turner, like Gillian [Murphy] or Paloma [Herrera], there is just an uncanny sense of balance.
Q:When should you start teaching young dancers to turn?
A:I would start to teach them to turn very early and not worry about how they’re turning, but just [get them] over the fear of turning. Let them enjoy turning and fix it later.
Consultant Nancy Bielski teaches an advanced ballet class at NYC’s Steps on Broadway, frequented by members of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Broadway shows. She also teaches ABT company class and privately coaches advanced dancers. Trained at England’s Royal Ballet School and School of American Ballet, Bielski danced with the Harkness Ballet before teaching with David Howard for 10 years at his school in NYC.
Starting this week, we'll occasionally feature master teachers as guest bloggers. They'll be sharing with you the problems they encounter on a day-to-day level, and the solutions they've come up with over the years. Or they might simply talk about issues or current events in the dance community that are of concern to all of us. Here's our first entry, from hip-hop teacher Pat-y-O.
"A perennial issue for me is: Why is it hard for so many ballet teachers to accept hip hop as a form of dance? I have been teaching hip hop since the early ’90s and, for the last 15 years, on the competition circuit. The feedback from the majority of ballet teachers has been that hip hop should not be accepted in dance competitions because it has no technique involved. Quite frankly, as I’ve judged performances onstage, I’ve clearly noticed more and more jazz and ballet being mixed into the choreography, inhibiting the quick, crisp and sharp movements that are required in hip hop. This is why the hip-hop routines look sloppy—which leaves me with an understanding of how these teachers feel.
The reason hip hop can look sloppy is because the movements aren’t being defined. For years, teachers have been counting '1, 2, 3' instead of '1 & 2 & 3' or '1 &a 2 &a 3,' causing two or three movements to be jammed together. If teachers created choreography using either one of the more advanced count techniques, along with proper technique and fundamentals, they would discover that each movement produced will come off more defined.
My career has involved teaching master hip-hop classes in well over 30 cities a year, and it has been my goal to spread proper technique, so that hip hop can be appreciated by not only ballet teachers but by all professional dance instructors. I sensed some progress this past August at the Dance Teacher Summer Conference in New York City. Over 800 teachers from all around the world attended, and many of them, of course, were ballet instructors. At the end of my classes, they came up and told me that they now have a better understanding of what hip hop is all about, and that they can truly appreciate and support it as an artform." --Pat-y-O
The October issue should be reaching your mailboxes any day, if it hasn't already. The cover, as you'll see, features Edith Montoya, owner and director of Southern California studio Dance Precisions, and a quartet of her lovely dancers.
I first met Edith a few years ago at a Nationals competition in Las Vegas, and I've had the pleasure of watching her kids onstage quite a bit since then. Her students seem to have it all -- technique, expressivity and great choreography, to name a few things. But more than anything, they have that "can't-take-my-eyes-off-you" quality that is truly unusual.
It was the middle of August when I flew from New York City to Placentia, CA -- near Laguna Beach -- to supervise the shoot. What's a cover shoot like? Well, it's a bit like putting together a puzzle. First, we do hair and makeup for an hour; then we shoot for three, varying set-ups and poses. (If you think it's easy to do nothing but stand and smile for the camera for that long, just ask our subjects -- not so much!) There's a photographer, one or two of his assistants, the subject or subjects, the hair and makeup artist, an editor (like myself) and an art director -- which adds up to a lot of people, all with their own opinions on how the shots should look The trick is to follow a plan while allowing for the unexpected to happen. It can be nerve-wracking sometimes, but it never fails to be exciting!
Edith and I shot the breeze as she had her makeup done and the photographer set up. We talked business, mainly -- I hadn't read the article yet, so it was fascinating to hear about the strategies she's used to grow her studio over the last 20 years. As her students started trickling in, we headed over to where the photographer had set up.
With so many people in each shot, it was a little difficult to art-direct the poses, and Edith and I both wondered aloud how we could really get the energy going. Finally, we turned up the music, and the kids came alive! "Wow, I see why we're shooting them," Joe, the photographer said. They performed excerpts from one of their award-winning pieces this year, "Proud Mary," to the unfailingly upbeat Aretha Franklin tune, and I could see the shoot was really shaping into something special. As the day wound down, the kids gave us all hugs and thanked us for the opportunity -- proving they were as genuine and sweet as they were talented.
Be sure to check out their story and photos when you get the issue!