Notes on Cultivating Artistry in Students

I have always loved these clips of Gelsey Kirkland & Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gene Kelly.

They recently resurfaced on my Facebook feed with a number of new “comments” and “shares”. One of those comments by Betsy Ramlow: “Yes. Dance Greatness. This is unteachable.”

I could not agree more. The BRILLIANCE of these dancers can NOT be taught. But that kind of talent must be nurtured. As dance teachers, it is possible that the next Gene Kelly or Gelsey Kirkland may one day be placed in our charge. We are all aware of the technical demands placed on today’s professional dancers in every genre of dance. Dancers are expected to have soaring jumps, dizzying pirouettes and sky high extensions. It is the responsibility of dance educators to be sure that we are raising dancers that can meet these technical demands if they are going to be employable. And I admit, that this sort of technical brilliance is incredibly exciting. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that in an attempt to create a brilliant technique, many teachers are “training the artist out of their students”. If we are going to train great ARTISTS then we must expose our students to the kind of training that will cultivate their artistry. We must teach them to go deep; way deeper than the artificial and superficial emotionality and facial expressions so often seen in kids’ contemporary and lyrical classes and choreography.

We must train dancers that are MUSICAL. We have to teach them that not every piece of music is constructed in even phrases of 8 counts. That not every count gets one movement. That the accent is not always on the “1” and the “5”. We should be choreographing combinations to complex and interesting pieces of music. Our choreography should be rhythmically complex; the body should be like another instrument in the orchestration; the rhythm of the choreography should be like an independent thought in the fabric of the music. I say to my students: Don’t dance with the music. Don’t dance on the music. Dance INSIDE the music.

We also have a responsibility to train dancers with a beautiful quality of movement. Look at Kirkland’s exquisite port de bras; or the turn and steps that follow at 1:33 in Gene Kelly’s clip. That quality can only be developed by working slowly. Many young dancers look like professionals when performing high energy, fast paced choreography. But slow those same dancers down and what is revealed is a struggling performer; rough and unpolished. Making dancers work slowly, teaching them to fill phrases, having them watch themselves in the mirror as they perform slow, simple movements, will help guide them toward a beautiful quality. I tell them to “Find the power in the simplicity” “Don’t shout the choreography at the audience; instead, draw the audience in to YOU”.

We have to give them the freedom to be unique. I ask them to find something special, make their dancing deeply personal, astonish me! BUT DONT CHANGE THE CHOREOGRAPHY.

There are as many ways to cultivate a dancer’s artistry as there are teachers and dancers. As educators we must be creative. We must explore ways of helping our students become ARTISTS.

I believe that artistry can’t really be TAUGHT; it must be CULTIVATED. On this point I do disagree with my teacher, the legendary Luigi. Gelsey Kirkland was a student of David Howard and Maggie Black. If her EXQUISITE artistry was simply taught to her by these great teachers, then the multitude of dancers that studied with these two teachers would have the artistry that Kirkland had. Trust me, I know many of these teachers’ students…there is only one Gelsey Kirkland. But without brilliant teaching, without a highly educated, discerning, and tasteful outside eye telling the artist what is working and what isn’t (we all know that the mirror lies), and nurturing the artistic growth of the dancer, I don’t believe that the creation of a Gelsey Kirkland would have been possible. Sadly, we have lost David Howard and Maggie Black, and my former teacher and mentor, Gabriella Darvash (who nurtured many great careers, most notably NYCB’s Judith Fugate and ABT’s Nancy Raffa) spends little time in New York. I still take class regularly, with today’s prominent teachers: Fabrice Herrault, Nancy Bielsky, Karin Averty…and I watch how students study. I am shocked when I see dancers “zone out” or worse PRACTICE PIROUETTES when the exquisite Fabrice Herrault is discussing the fine points of musicality, epaulment, phrasing…artistry. I have seen perfectly adequate professionals in ABT and NYCB exhibit this sort of behavior; and they will continue to be perfectly adequate dancers for the rest of their careers. There may not be another Kirkland for a very long time. Sigh

No teacher can “MAKE” a Fred Astaire or “MAKE” a Mikhail Baryshnikov. We can only nurture the growth of a talented student. But imagine if a 9 year old Gene Kelly or Gelsey Kirkland had been trusted to a teacher that merely taught them to jump, kick and turn and then pointed them at a stage. That would have been tragic.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Cultivating Artistry in Students

    • Luigi’s work made me a better dancer in every genre I approached…especially ballet. His work informed everything I did in the studio, on the stage, and he is with me every day in the class room.

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