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

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!

Advertisements