Letter from the Directors

What is Ballet? ( A personal view)

I teach classes to students from about 9 to adult. One of the first things I tell them is “Ballet is not dance, nor is it an art of self-expression.” Ballet has been lumped together with what we call dance. So many studios, even those with ties to professional companies, can’t tell the difference. Just because we move to music does not make ballet, dance. 
 
Ballet is a language. Complete with its own vocabulary and grammar. Yes, there are times when other dance forms are used in the context of a work, today all movements are there to be used, but once performed by a well trained ballet artist it is no longer a folk dance or modern dance movement. Ballet speaks to its audience, it does not merely excite them with sensual or sexual gestures. The repertoire of the classical ballet might seem funny and old fashioned to some, but it does not to those who have the cultural background to appreciate it. The classics serve to preserve the purity of form and style which is the essence of all “classical” art forms. To perform “Sleeping Beauty” for example, one must possess perfect technique and develop what might be called a French style with every nuance. The story may seem a bit insipid, but it is not about telling the story, it’s about the dancing.
 
The perfection of anything is often called an art, which leads us to training. In the realm of classical dance, the aspect of perfection is what leads us to ballet as an art. In classical ballets, the interpretation is always within a certain context. The acting is not similar to what is seen in plays or movies. Classical ballets are like poems that reveal a feeling in the stated word. When reading a poem, the meter and rhyme create an altered mental state that seems to reach us emotionally, one which we already perceive. We have dramatic contemporary ballets that reveal so much more emotionally, especially when we see a pas de deux where the two bodies seem to develop such a statement about their characters, when supported by the music. But, the classics (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty…) require perfect technique like no other choreographic form of the western world. It is that quest for perfection, not self-indulgence of artistic endeavor, that makes this or any art form worthy of serious study and acknowledgment.
 
I’m disappointed, at times, that many people don’t realize that ballet is an act of self-mastery. Sometimes it’s compared to sports because of the physical development and high level of energy needed. Nothing could be farther from the reality of it. Some mothers bring their daughters as young as 3 years old to start them in ballet class, thinking they will gain poise and grace. The word graceful is not even used in the process of a ballet class.
 
Other misconceptions abound. There was a time that I had agreed to give ballet classes at a skating rink. They had competitive skaters, and I suppose they had seen skaters from other countries like Russia with beautiful arms and a manner that only dancers have. So they decided to get a ballet teacher. After a few classes, one of the head instructors came to me and said, “We want you to help them have better arms and to be more graceful. Please don’t work on turnout so much.” What stupidity! Just like the mother who enrolls her three-year-old child into ballet to gain grace, they were after the residual effects of having studied ballet. We don’t teach arms, we teach the entire body and mind. You cannot have good arms without turned out legs. You cannot have aesthetic beauty of any kind unless the entire body has harmony in its poses and movement. 
 
The study of classical ballet is the study of position.  Dances are like animated movies that, in reality, are a series of drawings, which, when strung together, give the impression of movement.  I must say that American ballet does, as a result of having no real school, try to develop a kind of sinew and sensitivity, though often not supported by technical correctness. 
  
This is not to say that only classical ballet is an art or that only classical ballet should be presented. To the contrary, all art, be it classical or pop, is a reflection of our society or the values of our society. Classical ballet, when pursued with truth, reflects our human nature’s desire for the ideal. Contemporary ballet, like contemporary art, reveals the inner landscape of its creator. This isn’t to say that we don’t need these works (we do), however, there is a danger that this work may not exist for the purpose of enlightenment but rather self indulgence.  A beautiful song may tell a personal story in the hopes that others might relate and, at the same time, demonstrate the composer's talent, but if the song is composed simply because the singer/writer loves the sound of his own voice, then this is false art. We could also say that false art is likened to amateurism, where only the performer is intended to enjoy, even while the audience suffers.
 
Since the ballet boom of the late sixties and seventies, ballet has slipped into the world of our pop culture. Our prominent dancers are those with remarkable physical aptitude for ballet technique, not for their command of the ballet stage. Swan Lake has become a “whopper.” Though not inexpensive, it certainly contains the nutrients we need from our arts and is heavy in fatty crowd-pleasing, not crowd-enriching, execution. Of course, after every performance the entire audience stands to applaud the spectacle, determined to have gotten their money’s worth, but one step farther from realizing what could be presented and what was experienced in the days of Rudolf Nureyev, Vladimir Vasiliev, Maya Plesetskaya, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov - a time when technical prowess met cultured artistic control. If we dub someone a Ballerina or a Danseur Noble, by what means can we validate this view?
 
Antony Tudor, in the “Ballerina” program produced by Natalia Makarova, stated that in order to be a ballerina, one must perform Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle perfectly. I agree completely. These ballets are examples into which all the training and study culminate. Technique, control, a large dramatic spectrum and, of course star quality comprise the prerequisites of being able to perform these works with true academic purity.
 
Now we have choreographers who put in our face how little we actually have come to expect from the performing arts. Childish choreography formed on music that should insult our intellect is now sought after, thinking this might serve as some kind of outreach tactic. The popular view is to build audiences by being attractive to the ignorant. It would be my wish that audiences were given a chance to know what power and beauty truly lie in a ballet performance when presented with detail by enlightened artists on both sides of the curtain. Don’t most good things in this world, that are not needed for survival but rather for psychological or philosophical enrichment, require a developed taste? Give 100-year-old cognac to someone who’s never had it, and they will probably not be able to appreciate it, because their palate is insensitive to the nuances that a connoisseur would easily detect. I do believe that classical dance with all its refinement, would thrive if the standards were raised. Even MacDonald’s, which is a business with it’s sole purpose being to make money, is becoming aware that nutrition is now a popular consideration and has begun adjusting its menu.
 
 
- Mark Mejia
 

Choosing a Ballet School

In the United States, unfortunately, there are no restrictions on who can and cannot teach ballet or open a studio; it is possible for anyone to have a ballet school. In other words, anyone who can lease a space and pay for the advertising may do so, regardless of their background or experience in the field. All that is necessary is that they convince YOU that they are qualified. Before you send yourself or your child to a teacher or school, research the teacher's background. REMEMBER! You cannot teach what you could never do!
 
Always observe a class. Real teachers conduct their classes in an unmistakable way. First, there is never chaos. Classroom protocol is required to learn the material presented. Students who work with professional teachers are always focused and NEVER talk unless they are addressed by the teacher. Does the teacher seem to be prepared? A real teacher does not ever give class in an impromptu manner. Unless the teacher appears to have a clear class plan, this person is either a fraud or is not seriously concerned with the students.
  
What does the facility look like? It may be beautifully decorated and spotless, but are the floors constructed properly and covered with a dancing surface? Are the studios big enough to allow students over 12 years of age to move in a manner that resembles stage movement? It is not uncommon to see advanced students who move in a stunted manner because they studied in a tiny studio. Also, a proper studio will have adequate mirrors and barres and a ceiling that is high enough for high lifts and jumps. A professional dancer or teacher would not find any other condition acceptable.
 
The study of classical ballet is the study of body positions, not of steps or movements. When you go to the ballet and watch dancers in action, you are witnessing something akin to an animated movie where you see one picture after the other flash by so as to look like movement. First, positions are studied, and then the transitions from one position to the other. Finally the elements of turns, jumps, lifts and pointe work are incorporated. A good teacher always stresses the correctness of position and avoids encouraging expression such as looks of longing or “recital smiles”. The artistic aspects of ballet come with the growth of the student. In the perfection of each body position, there exists a built-in dynamic that suggests a certain emotional condition. Ballet is NOT an art of self-expression. Dancers are instruments with which choreographers compose their visions.
 
Training in classical ballet is based on the formation of habit. Once these habits have been set, there may be no changing the faults that might have been allowed in the initial study. A famous teacher once said “a dancer is like a loaf of bread, if you’ve left something out, you can’t add after it’s baked”. No words were ever so true. We (professional teachers) often see dancers and students work hard to correct mistakes and problems; however many of them never realize their true potential because it’s nearly impossible to reprogram everything no matter how hard they try. Teachers that allow less than perfect body position and execution of exercises, particularly at the barre, are to be avoided. It is possible to see if a student has trained with a competent teacher by the way muscles are developed. Amateur teachers leave a signature of oversized buttocks and thighs because of the lack of stress on turnout. It is a common misconception in the U.S. that forcing turnout is dangerous, however it is the students and dancers who do not work with correct turnout that suffer chronic injuries.
 
Be careful of the traps! Trophies, pictures of famous dancers on the wall, certificates by dance organizations are known by real professionals as meaningless fluff. Amateur teachers use these to acquire credibility and prestige by association. The amateur dance studio captures its students by presenting the fun aspect. On the other hand, the teaching atmosphere should not be excessively harsh or cruel. Students should be corrected constantly but never insulted. Students need to be guided, encouraged and nurtured, but not coddled, and the teacher should NEVER appear to be making friends with the class. The pervading atmosphere should be one of mutual respect.
 
When should children be put "en pointe" ?  Pointe work (dancing in pointe shoes) seems to be a mystery among amateur schools and teachers. It is very common for students to be made to wait until they are as old as 12 or 13 years old, and then to be told that they have to acquire the proper strength before they can go "en pointe”. After that, they attend a “pointe class” where students are asked to perform exercises for up to an hour. This is absurd! This approach is akin to thinking that a child should not attempt walking until they have acquired the proper muscles and coordination. The correct approach is to introduce pointe work into the student’s everyday practice, executing no more than two or three exercises per class. In this way, the students experience the feeling of pointe work while they are as light as possible and can grow into their pointe technique. For a beginner to wear pointe shoes for up to an hour is more of a torture than a lesson.
 

Why is it important for students to participate in performances? 

First and foremost, ballet is a performing art. For the student, it is a reward for the work put into class day after day, week after week and year after year. Performances serve as a gauge for students to chart their own progress. Each year students are given more and more responsibility in each performance. How they execute their assignment will have some effect on how they will be cast in future performances. For those who have chosen to pursue classical ballet as a profession, it is a glimpse into what their future may hold - the class, rehearsal and performance cycle - which is what a ballet dancer’s life consists of. For the parents, it is an opportunity to see their child on stage, watch their artistic growth and lend their support. This aspect of support is vital to the student’s existence in the school.
 
Although KMAB is not a recreational facility (even though not all of our students choose to go on to become professional dancers), all students are taught with the same attitude in regard to their training and ballet education. From the youngest to the oldest, they are asked to exert themselves mentally and physically. A parent’s moral support is the indispensable nourishment needed by all students.
 
For the students of Ballet I and up, the major performances provide inspiration and energy that catapult them to a higher level of technical proficiency. For our youngest students, from Pre-Ballet through Ballet Prep., it is not really the actual performance that is the most instructive, although becoming familiar with "the stage" and it's own world is certainly important. It is the process of rehearsal, the participation in a group which, like a sports team, must act as one, that confers the greatest benefit. 
 
We do not limit our concern to only the children. Our adult students are as much a part of the school. They have found that the vast complexity of classical ballet, and the physical mastery which must be pursued with a ritualistic commitment, compelling. We are proud that our adult students of all ages have been able to begin their studies with us and, at some point, appear onstage displaying some degree of professional quality.
 
Some dancers are natural performers and must work to develop and maintain a classical correctness and approach. Others are strict followers of rules and respectful of the traditions and must strive to overcome stage fright and nerves. The performances are the remedy for both.