Why Ballet?

The central question of Zachary Whittenburg’s article in Dance Magazine, “Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class,” has been an ongoing question since time immemorial. 

Ok…that’s a bit dramatic.

Personally, it’s a question that I find, as a professional dancer, a no brainer and has no need to be raised unless to continue the division it has caused in the dance community.

Ballet is the perfect form for both strength and alignment. As a former member of Twyla Tharp Dance, we all took ballet from various ballet masters only to get into the studio to rehearse anything but ballet. 

Twyla herself, was adamant about us all taking ballet before rehearsals and we did so religiously. We took classes at Howard Studios, Maggie Black, Finus Jung, The Corvinos, in addition to several others. After the Tharp/ABT merger, I took company classes mostly because they were free, and I didn’t have to commute because we all rehearsed under the same roof.

Why Ballet?

Ballet is consistent, methodical and systematic. Ballet begins and ends the same every class, if it’s taught correctly. The teacher doesn’t indulge in experimental movement exercises that are counterproductive to preparing a dancer’s body for a day of hard physical work. Each exercise focuses on specific parts of the body, especially the tiny muscles and ligaments. The exercises are also designed to align the body in order to protect the joints from injury. A good Ballet class begins at the barre with pliés and ends with grand allegro – it starts small and ends big.

What’s the problem?

I don’t think that Ballet is the problem. I believe that the problem lies within us. I’m sure that many of us, especially in the beginning of our training, have had the ballet teacher from hell…I did. As a matter of fact, I’ve had several. These experiences tainted my understanding of ballet and left me with the question, is ballet even necessary because I knew that I would never be a ballet dancer…stupid question. 

After I dropped out of Juilliard, I began to audition for other schools and companies – each audition began with a ballet barre. This was when I was introduced to Finus Jung. He was the first ballet teacher that helped me to understand that Ballet did not have to be a performance medium, but a steppingstone to other forms of dance. Every dancer in his class expressed Ballet in their own way not like cookie cutter dancers and he cultivated individuality with all of his students.

Before I was invited to dance with Twyla Tharp Dance, her and I met a few days a week in the studio to “workout” and create dance phrases. I didn’t take class beforehand in which case she invited a former company member to lead an aerobics class and yoga. When the company came back from tour, I was invited to perform with the company in which case it was imperative that I took a class beforehand…it was always ballet and mostly with Finus. However, once we were in the studio rehearsing and creating phrases, it was all Twyla. 

It always began with improvisation where she started an improvisational study and we didn’t follow but assimilate…big difference. We were to absorb her weight shifts, rhythm, arm movements, gestures and after a time she would turn off the music and we would go over the phrase in detail in order to get the style and phrasing into our bodies – Twyla was always coaching us and teaching us her style even though we all took Ballet class and were trained in ballet.

Today’s dance companies need to do this and not assume that dancers are going to walk into an audition knowing their style of dance. An audition for a contemporary dance company needs to incorporate a class on their style into their auditions to see if a dancer has the ability to adapt to other forms of dance. This is where it is the dancer’s responsibility to remain active in learning as many different forms of movement as possible. Jez…I breakdanced, studied Eagle Claw Kung Fu, roller blade through NY, soccer…you name it – it all helped me in the end.

Ballet is and should always be imperative for all dancers but should be taught by competent ballet teachers and not teenagers that just graduated from high school and are senior members of their local dance studio. Also, if your goal is to perform ballet, then taking class from a competent Ballet master from conservatory ballet or reputable ballet company is just fine. But, if your goal is to dance for a contemporary dance company specializing in mixed movement forms, then you need to build yourself up so that you can bend and mold to the style that you are confronted with and it begins with Ballet.

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