Princeton Ballet School: Champion for Diversity

Former Princeton Ballet School students Ellen Lou and Jacopo Janelli. Lou is now with Princeton Ballet School’s Trainee Program. Janelli, a former Trainee, is now a full company member. Credit: Caroline Pallat

Last month I was honored to speak with Mary Pat Robertson, the Director of the Princeton Ballet School, the school of American Repertory Ballet. A distinguished choreographer, Ms. Robertson has endeavored to create a learning environment that presents unique opportunities for dancers and which is helping to produce dancers who are better prepared to improve our landscape of ballet.

JD: What really sets you apart?

MR: For one thing, we are still interested in dancers who are college age. Many summer intensives don’t want to work with kids after high school. Many of those young people are about to become trainees, or are coming to the program in the hopes they might be invited to be a trainee. We strongly encourage our trainees to attend the summer program instead of going straight to the trainee program so they can become accustomed to the environment.

Also we’ve had a long-standing commitment to try to develop an early interest in choreography in the students. Many schools don’t do that until young dancers are much older. We all know how many young women dance, but so few become choreographers. The current model is that we have an optional choreography workshop. So the students who are interested meet with the teacher Janell Byrne, who talks about improv and choreography. And it’s entirely in addition to their other classes, so they don’t have to miss anything. 

Students in class at Princeton Ballet School's Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

Students in class at Princeton Ballet School’s Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

For many years, we did that as a way you could be in the performance at the end. In the last few years, fewer people were willing to take the risk of not being in a faculty led piece however, so now we do [choreography] on Saturday afternoons one evening a week. Then in addition to the sessions, we also have done interviews with the resident choreographers and on picking music. One of the most outstanding results of our choreography program is Amy Seiwert. We ran into each other at DanceUSA and she said, “If it hadn’t been for you all, I would never have started choreographing.” We’ve been introducing the dancers to choreography in this workshop for almost 25 years now.  The Summer Intensive itself is 32 years old – it’s one of the longest-running programs in the US.

In a lot of other organizations when you prep for a show, you are put in a dance with all other people in your level, but we don’t do that because we want [the students] to feel like each dance is a mini ballet. Each choreographer gets a group of dancers from each level so they can have a soloists, demi-soloists, corps, and so on. That gives everybody a different view. We vary them from high classical such as the vision scene from Don Quixote to pieces newly commissioned.

JD: What is the technique teaching philosophy?

MR: We have a very safety and anatomically based approach. We really want the dancers to think about how their bones align, and how their muscles are working. We ask them to use all the turn-out they have, but only the turn-out they have. We’re going to be making a lot of progress, but let’s keep it real. We have a lot of kids tell us, “You really made me feel like I had to pay attention to this and that helped me fix this or that.” I give a class once to each level weekly called body mechanics. How do we pointe the feet without crunching the toes? How do we turnout without pulling the pelvis out of alignment? I show them exercises that would help with that, and they can write it down. Each week we work on a different area. We also have a consulting physical therapist. 

American Repertory Ballet Resident Choreographer Mary Barton teaching class at Princeton Ballet School's Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet Resident Choreographer Mary Barton teaching class at Princeton Ballet School’s Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

It’s really about making a personal relationship so that they want to do what you want them to do because they know that it matters. Even the least advanced students get a week with the Artistic Director and with the resident choreographer – each of the teachers moves around. So all the guests work with all the levels. We also have partnering in all the levels, and it’s real partnering technique. I know from the young men we have taught that in a lot of other programs they are learning a whole pas de deux, but not necessarily the skills. We focus on partnering itself and that’s how we teach the skills. For the young ones its kept simple: Is she on her leg or not and how can we help you do that? 

We don’t have a lot of guests, because we want to make sure the students understand what each teacher is doing for them. Our guests are master teachers such as Kirk Peterson and Trinette Singleton, who are close friends of the organization and whose choreography ARB presents, or seasoned alums of our school. This year we had Unity Phelan, who left three years ago to train with [School of American Ballet]. This was her first corp year [with New York City Ballet], and Dance Magazine recently named her as one of NYCB’s five Up-and-Coming Women.

JD:  Any other details about the program you’d like to mention?

MR: Students choose us for a wide variety of reasons. Our students live on campus at Princeton University, so some students come here because they have heard about Princeton’s dance programs and are interested in finding out more about the University. We do turn out a lot of [professional] performers, but there are many kids who have a more intellectual interest who can get a lot out of the environment here. 

American Repertory Ballet Artistic Director Douglas Martin teaching class at Princeton Ballet School's Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet Artistic Director Douglas Martin teaching class at Princeton Ballet School’s Summer Intensive program 2014. Credit: Leighton Chen

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Diversity issues in dance are real and they are profound. Ballet has a long running culture of women being directed by men, and we must do more to prepare all underrepresented groups to achieve director and choreographer level roles if that will ever change. For years PBS has been offering opportunities for students to gain experience choreographing without sacrificing their own performance training, making it possible for students to receive all too rare preparation to achieve leadership opportunities and, in turn as they choose their casts and hire, to change the landscape of dance as we know it.

Princeton Ballet School classes being the Friday after Labor Day. Students interested in registering for advanced classes should arrange for a Placement Class, or an audition if they are interested in being a Trainee.  There are also Open Enrollment Advanced classes available. For more information, visit Princeton Ballet School. Thank you so much Mary Pat, for sharing your program with BalletScoop!

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Ballet in Print: YAGP (with Author Interview!)

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Few people outside of our insulated ballet world are aware of the intense “make or break” moments of dancers’ careers, and fewer still have documented them. So it is with great pleasure that I present to you YAGP, the debut book from photographer and photojournalist Drew Kelley, in which he chronicles some of the most beautiful and evocative backstage moments from the 2013 Youth America Grand Prix.

02.yagp.behind.the.scenesYAGP is a competition that has launched the careers of many outstanding ballet students, inspired far more, and shown the door to still others. In 2013, YAGP saw nearly 1,000 dancers in the New York City rounds, with 30 countries represented. I had the pleasure of speaking with Drew about his involvement and his approach to capturing some of the most fleeting, poignant moments experienced by the young competitors.

JD: How did you get involved in this project, since you had never been exposed to the ballet world before?

18.yagp.behind.the.scenesDK: I work primarily with newspapers, that’s my “day job” so to speak, and the topics can be really anything. So I was sort of thrown into shooting ballet, covering some girls from a local Southern California studio, and I thought, this is actually pretty cool! I was kind of blown away. I ended up attending the First Position premiere in Santa Monica and eventually approached my editor with the suggestion that it would be worth going to New York and documenting the experience.

JD: So how long were you in New York and did you get to stay until the end?

DK: I was actually embedded with the original school that got me involved, so I flew over with them and was there from start to finish. I got to watch the gala and everything.

06.yagp.behind.the.scenesJD: It must have been incredibly visually stimulating. How did you narrow your focus and choose your subject matter with so much to see, and what made you decide to focus on backstage moments versus the more often flashy onstage performance shots?

DK: It’s a little nuts, and it is hard to stay focused because there’s so much going on at once. It was definitely overload. I took a lot of pictures including onstage, but right now you can Google “YAGP” and you can find 90% of the photos are onstage performing. I found it was just as exciting to witness the moments behind the scenes. Because I was embedded and was with a woman who knew basically everyone, I actually met Franco De Vita, Larissa [Saveliev] – who founded it with her husband – and many other powerful people. I was shaking a lot of hands. Things kind of fell into perspective.

JD: I’m sure that each photo is very special to you, but do you maybe have any particular favorites?

04.yagp.behind.the.scenesDK: Actually there is one where you see the back of the girl with her arms out, and you see there’s this background of people and that’s actually the judges. The judges photo is hard to explain to people. To get access backstage is not that big a deal, but that was the scholarship classes. In reality, the point is not at all who will win, the point is to be seen. And that’s what that was. Seeing them perform [in audition class], if the Artistic Director liked them, they were approached right then and there and it was like, “Can you move to Monte Carlo?” And I’d think, but she’s only fifteen! Lives were completely changed in a moment.

11.yagp.behind.the.scenesJD: Anything else you’d like to add about your experience?

DK: It was really impressive to see all the kids from around the world that, once they were here in the same room together, it was like they all speak the same language. When I was a kid, I was into skateboarding, and when you’d see another kid with a skateboard it was like, hey, we understand each other. It was just like that. Here’s this kid from Japan and this kid from Brazil, and they can instantly bond. That was pretty great to see.

Thank you so much, Drew, for undertaking this project and sharing these beautifully captured moments.

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For more information about Drew Kelley, please visit http://drewakelley.com/

Fore more information about the YAGP competition, please visit http://www.yagp.org.

Dancewear en l’air: Boxy Cropped Cover-Up

productcojocaru13I think this is the first time I’ve posted two similar articles in a row… but I’ve waited too long to show you Cloud & Victory! I’m so in love with their spring/summer 2014 collection I could bust – Do yourself a favor and check out all their shirts and skirts, as seen on such inimitable luminaries as Joy Womack of American at the Bolshoi fame.

I’ve chosen their Cojocaru cropped cover-up because it absolutely embodies the effortless style of dancers. It’s made of soft Tencel to slide over your skin luxuriously, and this version’s print is inspired by gorgeous Alina Cojocaru to give you your day’s inspiration.

Have a dress code that requires coverups between classes? This is the perfect solution to stay breezy cool after a long sweaty class. This top would look completely fabulous over a tank or camisole leotard for the wide neck to show off your beautiful shoulders. Add one of their lovely lace skirts and voilà, you have an ensemble fit for a dancer of the Paris Opera. I would even throw this on for coffee or shopping. So chic!

 

Dancewear en l’air: Edgy Racerback Cut-Out Leotard

JulieDancewear1Jule Dancewear, made by Los Angeles Ballet dancer Julia Cinquemani, is most well-known for it’s wrap skirts but has also created two sporty leotards including this stylish racerback. I love this athletic take on dancewear. This leo pairs really well with the company’s famous wrap skirt color options as shown here, but also looks smashing alone.

Wear this stand-out style to your contemporary ballet class or modern dance rehearsal. If you’re not a skirt-wearer but still want additional coverage, a pair of short shorts or capri leggings goes equally well. Choose from a variety of color options, including innovative holographic trim.

Jule Dancewear is a perfect example of alternative income potential for aspiring dancers. Julia Cinquemani began selling her wrap skirts at an early age and was able to start her own company at 19 years old. In the competitive world of dance, Cinquemani aims to create dancewear that will set you apart and impart the confidence you need to be your best.

Keep up with Jule Dancewear by liking their FB page.

Building a Dance Studio

2009.0142A number of students and colleagues of mine have recently decided to open their own studios. This was never my goal – I love the freedom of teaching without worrying about the hassle of owning a building or harassing parents for their tuition payments – but if your goal is to own your own studio one day, one of the biggest concerns will be how to build it properly.

Rory Foster’s excellent book, Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching (highly recommended for any aspiring ballet teacher!) has some wonderful tips on this as well as John White’s Vaganova-focused Teaching Classical Ballet. White has some useful comments on studio structure, making sure you have ample space for students to do homework, parents to observe, etc. If you are considering opening a dance studio, do yourself a favor and take a look at what these two books have to say about it.

For the dancing space itself, there are many demands: tap shoes, ballet shoes, pointe shoes, rosin lovers, bare feet… We all know what a great dance studio looks like – big windows, wonderful lighting, high ceilings, sprung floors covered in marley and preferably pretty and stylish! If you haven’t danced in one, go find one and do it. It’s like nothing else. One of my favorite studios that I’ve seen (only in photographs sadly, since it no longer exists) is the studio of famed New Orleans teacher Harvey Hysell, pictured above.

Fortunately there are guidelines available that go beyond the guesswork and which provide specifics for measurements, structure, and fabrication. If you are hoping to build your own dance studio one day, visit the website of the British National Dance Teachers Association, or NDTA, and take a look at their Studio Specifications. After years of experience, they have thought of virtually everything! Ventilation and HVAC, piano space, acoustics, lighting, accessibility, barres and tons of details in between. Lucky enough to have an architect? Harlequin Floors has a whole resource section just for them.

If you have dreams of owning your own school one day, make it the best it can be! Having and safe, beautiful, spacious dance space is incredibly inspiring for dancers and will make a big difference in their experience in your studio.