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Don’t do as I say, do as I do

Posted on October 25, 2016

The first month of what’s traditionally the new academic year has come and gone, and teaching has occupied my thoughts. It isn’t for me to discuss here what makes an exceptional teacher or coach – that would warrant a whole PhD thesis in its own right. What I will stridently write is how I marvel at the skills required to pass ballet on. To be reductive, ballet is simply a means of training the body physically. The technique’s overarching logic and systematic development is exquisitely effective, so much so it’s tempting to imply that teaching ballet is a science: there is a prescriptive path to take, and with the necessary 10,000 repetitions, a ballet dancer will be produced. Yet we all know no such empirical formula exists.

Teaching is an art form in itself, and naturally some people have more of an inherent flair for it than others. As you progress in the profession, a dancer gets the sense of the leviathan to-do list daily class must measure itself against. It should hone your technique and warm you up for the day ahead, but not exhaust you. It should be musically interesting and return the body to neutral turf after the rigours of rehearsals or performance the day before. What an unenviable task to design and deliver exercises in front of a room of – sometimes unforgiving – dancers!

Thinking on this subject, I was struck by an idea from our ancient past. The Roman architect Vitruvius, more probably familiar to us through Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, applied three questions to the art of building: is it solid; is it useful; and is it beautiful? The same triptych enquiry could be applied to crafting classwork. Admittedly, “is it solid?” seems like a strange thing to ask of a ballet exercise. Abstractly, “solid” could refer to how robust the exercise is: do the steps fit together in a coherent way; are there any holes musically where a dancer may fall flat? Beauty is the elemental idea in ballet, and to Vitruvius, beauty would have had implicit links to good virtue, and by extension, nobility. The ballet masters of the late Renaissance and early Baroque period were not simply teaching people to do steps. They were instructing people how to operate as exemplary human beings.

A teacher’s living philosophy leaves a lasting imprint on a dancer and it is this that we ultimately pass along. I have vivid memories of being instructed how to keep my fifth position by holding a £5 note between the tops of my thighs, but I remember it so strongly because of the excited, conspiratorial tone of my teacher’s voice. Jennifer Homans writes in Apollo’s Angels, her history of ballet: “recall is sensuous, like Proust’s Madeleine’s”; people retain feelings much more readily than words. Homans trained at the School of American Ballet, and we see in her text the lasting impression teachers such as Felia Doubrovska and Alexandra Danilova left, “reminding us that our training and chosen profession set us apart”.

One of the great joys of my career since working in the US has been discovering more about the fascinating people assembled at Balanchine’s school. Everyone seems to have a story about Violette Verdy, who died in February. I cannot remember when I first saw footage of Verdy teaching and coaching, but she galvanised me immediately. Her bubbling eloquence was an example to us all. In her own words, Verdy felt “the obligation to make people consider that this is not just a physical activity, a physical technique, but that it points to something higher.” It reflects my sentiments exactly. Such celestial notions were grounded in pragmatically wrought advice about the physics of dance: “you have to take the kitchen with you”, Verdy reputedly said referring to the pelvis and its placement over the course of class. I think Verdy would have agreed that whilst the physical content of class is paramount – nothing can substitute the physical rewards of sculpting a beautiful leg line from daily practice – the self-discipline, what that exercise does for your being, is more useful. It teaches you a code of values.

We can’t all be taught by such luminous talents as Verdy, but each teacher we encounter during the course of a career has something individual to offer. This reminds us to be outward looking, just as ballet itself is centrifugal in its physical form. I found this blog quite complicated to write, and I think it’s because these are subtle ideas that will be developing for the rest of my dancing life – let’s not even begin to consider the differences between the various schools of thought across world ballet! To me, the most rewarding teachers are not just instructors, but interlocutors. They are not just teaching how to execute a physical trick, they are cultivating life skills, and, of course, there are those special people at the front of the room who become more than a teacher. They become friends. I consider myself fortunate, for I have many of them.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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