More on “Teaching Technique While Cultivating Artistry”

The topic of teaching technique and teaching artistry has been resurfacing over and over again amongst ballet teachers in social media. Here are some more of my thoughts on this topic:

I know that I am lucky, in that I have always lived, trained and taught in New York City. My teaching schedule is cobbled together every September with regular classes at five to six different schools and is supplemented with guest teaching engagements across the country (and soon in Europe). I teach regularly, in every aspect of Dance education. I teach professional dancers at Broadway Dance Center and in workshops, I teach the preprofessional full time ballet trainees at Joffrey, I teach adult beginners- both at Joffrey and in neighborhood studios, I teach full time Musical Theater Conservatory students, I teach full time college students, I teach competition kids and I regularly teach recreational “one hour a week” neighborhood studio kids. I have experienced everything that my colleagues have already commented on. I agree very much with my colleagues who are dealing with students who train for just an hour (or sometimes less) per week: we definitely have to pick our battles when time is limited. And we do have to get Mary to stand up straight in first position at the barre before she attempts multiple pirouettes …that simply has to be done. But I still at least mention to Mary that there is a way to project something in HOW we stand. It may not be the focus of that “one hour a week” student’s training…but it does get mentioned.

My path to this career as a ballet teacher has been really strange. REALLY STRANGE. And there was a time in my past when I would have never believed that I would become a ballet teacher. I started dancing (as most of you know) as a young adult; and not in ballet, but in Jazz, with Luigi. And Luigi’s approach to placement, technique, quality of movement, musicality and expression is actually at the core of the ballet classes that I teach. Luigi certified me to teach his technique and training method…and most aspects of the training METHOD applies to every genre of dance. I should add that Luigi had a full pre-professional ballet education under the great Madame Bronislava Nijinska and that ballet training is at the core of his technique. Right from the beginning, in the “Basic” classes (classes for absolute beginner dancers) the Luigi method talks about artistry. I was taught about quality of movement in my very first class. I was taught about epaulment in my very first class. I was taught about musicality in my very first class. Among the many quotes that he is famous for, Luigi was often heard to say “Never Stop Moving” and “Dance from the inside” and “Feel first THEN do”. In his class, I came to discover that dance is not about positions. It is about MOVEMENT. He also taught me that epaulment, musicality, phrasing and quality of movement are very important tools for the dancer to have, and to use, but they, by themselves, do not add up to ARTISTRY. Artistry is something more; something deeper; something personal and undefinable; something we all recognize when we see it, and something that must be CULTIVATED, not taught. And at this…he was a genius.

After one year of training with Luigi, I started my ballet training. My very first ballet class: an open, adult beginner class at Joffrey, with Andrei Kulick. After that class Andrei asked me where I had previously trained. I told him that this had been my first ballet class, and that I had one year of Jazz training with Luigi. He seemed very surprised and remarked on my quality of movement and musicality. I never forgot that look of surprise on his face. Although I continued with Luigi for the rest of my career, I switched the focus of my dance training to ballet, studying with primarily with Madame Gabriella Taub-Darvash (a student of Vaganova herself) and later with David Howard.

When I started teaching ballet, I remembered that look of surprise on Andrei’s face and I realized that bringing Luigi’s philosophy and methodology to the standard ballet training was going to be a way to build a career as a ballet teacher. I currently teach two Luigi Jazz technique classes per week. The rest of my teaching schedule is devoted to ballet technique classes. But right from the very first tendu and the very first plié, I bring Luigi into the ballet studio with me. I have taken the training, the traditions, the vocabulary, the technique, the BALLET, that I learned from Madame Darvash and David Howard, allowed it to grow and develop in my body and consciousness during the time I spent on the stage and in the classroom, and filtered it through the lens of the Luigi Jazz Technique. I also think, that because I started so late, I have a rather unique perspective on how a fully rounded and expressive dancer is built. Clearly, I am not manufacturing a room full of Makarovas and Pliesetskayas out of 12 year-olds taking one hour a week of ballet. THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE. And it is very important that I do the best I can to build some sort of technique in these students, or the expression and artistry are useless. But I do bring Luigi’s approach to cultivating an artist to every class I teach and at every level. Does every student “get it”. Of course not. Many students actually believe it isn’t important. They only care about pirouettes and extensions. But I do the best I can.

I see many beautifully trained, very technically accomplished students in videos from the “great schools”. They have perfect bodies, sparkling technique, perfectly positioned heads, perfectly carried rib cages, carefully studied and beautifully sculpted epaulment and they dance in perfect synchrony with the music. And most of us wish we had the time and student talent to produce this kind of result. But to my eye, the vast majority of these dancers are not really artistic. I know several excellent Vaganova trained teachers who subscribe to the idea that the layering of of carefully crafted epaulment, head positions, eye focus, etc. adds up to ARTISTRY. And on this point I must respectfully disagree. These dancers are beautiful in many ways. But they are also like automatonic balletrons, doing exactly what their teachers taught them. And I realize that in today’s market, in order to secure a position in a high level company, a dancer must possess these qualities and must be able to accomplish every trick that a choreographer asks of them. But sadly, I see very little of the real artistry I remember seeing in my youth, on the stage today.

And so I have my own unique approach to ballet training which is steeped in the traditions of my legendary ballet teachers, yet polished, refined and nuanced by the brilliant artistry of Luigi. And I hope that in my little corner of the ballet world, I can help bring back some of the soaring artistry that made me want to dance in the first place. I am risking a lot. I am currently poised to make some big changes in my life, placing much more emphasis on a free-lance career in ballet education. And I am bringing the ballet training and technique that I learned from my ballet teachers, and the work of my beloved Luigi with me into my future. And I hope that I will be able to keep these traditions alive as I strive to cultivate the next generation of dancing ARTISTS.

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