Featured Collection: Grace Under Pressure
What do you need from the dancers, what do they need from you? When does tradition become a burden? Who is responsible for the future?
These were some of the many questions Barbara Newman posed to the 19 dance professionals interviewed for the book Grace Under Pressure: Passing Dance Through Time. In this collection Newman featured the stories of professional dancers who had transitioned into teaching, coaching, choreographing, and directing. In the interviews, the dancers detail how their educations and professional experiences inform their new roles.
What do you need from the dancers, what do they need from you?
Few of the dance teachers interviewed expressed an early desire to teach. Rather, teaching became an extension of dancing, being a teacher or a coach was one of the many roles they played within the company. Suki Schorer was trained as both a dancer and a teacher by George Balanchine. In one interview, Schorer discussed the intellectual excercise of teaching, how she had to learn how to translate her intuition into instruction, "If you read different things that Mr. B said, sometimes it says, 'He learned from his dancer.' All of a sudden he’d see somebody doing something and it looks beautiful. Then he could use it on them, because they did it naturally, but if he wanted somebody else to do it, he had to figure out what it was that he liked.” Director Kathryn Wade expressed a similar intellectual challenge brought on by this sudden bodily detachment from dance, “You have to use your intelligence to imagine what it must be like to have a pair of God-given legs that you can’t move.”
When does tradition become a burden?
The dance teachers and masters that Newman interviewed all easily identified the source of their teaching styles, some echoed how they were taught and some strictly followed the traditions of August Bournonville or George Balanchine. Many contemplated the ways in which adherence to tradition can enhance or hinder dancers. However, for many, their connection to their former teachers or to the tradition they were trained in is a responsibility. And in their teaching, they work to continue their legacy. Francia Russell spoke of training her dancers at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Balanchine's intentions “as much as I can understand it . . . which is a lot, but of course it’s not being inside his head. But he explained so much to me, particularly about the relationship of the movement and the music, and said, in a couple of instances, 'Some day, Francia, you’ll be the only person who remembers this spot. You must remember it.' And so when I get to that spot in the ballet, I tell the dancers, 'You have to remember this, because you’re going to be the ones who are going to teach the next generation exactly what this is supposed to be.'”
Who is responsible for the future?
Finally, some ballet masters went beyond teaching in the style of their teachers and idols and instead made it their sole pursuit to preserve their legacy. Shelley Washington spoke glowingly of her experience dancing with Twyla Tharp in her youth. She has since acted as ballet master for productions of Tharp's ballets across the world. Jean-Pierre Frohlich worked as ballet master for Jerome Robbins and is now a member of the Robbins Rights Trust, overseeing productions of Robbins' ballets. In his interview with Barbara Newman, Frohlich spoke of the importance of preserving the integrity of Robbins' work, as well as his passion for teaching, “This legacy is the most important thing in the world to me, because I’ve seen many things change when someone is not alive. Yes, things have to move on and change, but you’ve got to keep the wish of a person and their standards. That is very important. You’re responsible for giving that work the integrity that was there when he was alive. That is what your job is—to me it’s very simple. I know a lot of people would like to be in my position, and it’s a hard job to be in, it’s not a fun job sometimes. A lot of people like to be the one calling the shots, but are they willing to be in that studio, working with those dancers and getting down on the floor in your sweatpants and sneakers and nurturing them? That’s also another job, to nurture the dancers and give them life. You are the one giving them independence. You have this little bud and you’re the one that’s turning it into the flower. You’re the one, you wake it up.”