Beyond the Steps

When Sarah Van Patten first danced the lead in a Royal Danish Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet, it felt like a cinch. Just 16 years old, she was an apprentice in the company and it seemed very real. “I didn’t even think about acting,” she says.   

Now 24 and a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Van Patten has often been praised for the way she interprets roles. But when she was cast as a woman quarreling with her lover in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, she felt a little daunted. “I can play the lyrical young girl in love,” she explains. “This was a woman with far more wisdom and experience. To be that, I needed to research it.”

Achieving the heights of artistry can challenge the most experienced dancers, coaches and choreographers. According to Violette Verdy, coach, teacher and former New York City Ballet principal, artistry means expressing all the dimensions of a role, whether or not the ballet tells a story. And ballet without artistry? “Boy, do you get bored!” she says.

Yet many dancers receive little training in how to portray a role beyond its technical demands. That may be one impetus for a burgeoning educational movement to help dancers explore ballet’s vast emotional range. Playing a glass-slippered Cinderella liberated from hearth and rags presents one challenge, but how does a dancer in an abstract ballet convey the steps’ essence? And how does one learn such subtle, hard-to-define skills?

Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has grappled head-on with how to approach teaching artistry. You want to do as many pirouettes as possible? “Fine,” she says. “But what are you saying?” She notes that in most companies today, repertoires are taught quickly, with little time for dancers to fine-tune their understanding of a piece. So a decade ago, Staines started a class to help students learn how to tackle the process themselves. “The schools have to take responsibility,” she says. “In companies, you can’t expect to get coaching like you used to. Students have to be self-sufficient. You have to give them the tools.”  

To develop those tools, she invited former Royal Danish Ballet soloist Sorella Englund to Toronto to teach an annual five-week improvisation course, “Drama and Expression.” Englund limits the class size to create a close-knit atmosphere and also sets strict rules to encourage openness and experimentation. “We can laugh together,” she says, “but not at each other.”

Englund then assigns a simple exercise like walking. Next, each student attempts to display a particular emotion while walking. “I ask them how it feels walking in different moods—somebody excited, aggressive, amused by a little thing, seeing a light in the sky,” she explains. Eventually, students take a partner and trade those emotions. “It forces them to concentrate on what they’re doing, and the other person’s emotions.”

To help students learn expressiveness in abstract roles, Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s Dance Division, urges dancers to keep in mind that there may be more to dancing than meets the eye. “An abstract ballet that doesn’t have named characters still has character,” he explains. “Think of a Balanchine ballet that’s very particular in music, style and technique. There is real drama and tension.”

Sometimes ballet masters can share a piece’s history, and what the choreographer originally wanted. But dancers must also look inward. “Don’t be shy about digging into yourself to realize a piece you’re working on,” says Rhodes. He defines that process as finding a way to live with the music, connect the movements and inhabit a piece. Even technically gifted dancers can struggle to achieve artistry, he cautions. “It’s about how deeply you sense character, space, music and relationships,” he says. “And about relating to a partner, a group, the space. And how you move through space and how you decide to develop a dance in space.”

Nonetheless, Rhodes agrees artistry can be achieved to some degree by working hard to learn the steps, counts and music and then adding elements like phrasing and épaulement. In “Modern Solos and Duets,” Juilliard students spend two or three sessions learning a solo or duet. The following 10 classes then are devoted to repetition and coaching. “You have the steps,” Rhodes explains. “Now where can you go with the piece? How do you develop it? We teach students how to dig. With feedback from the instructor, they learn how to refine it, make it better. They understand intrinsic musical values and how to investigate a work.”

Even when dancers become professionals, the digging isn’t over. In the Night’s three couples portray complex relationships. To find her interpretation of an aggressive and emotionally scarred woman—and to avoid provoking laughter as she’s hoisted upside down, arms flailing—Van Patten mined performance videos for nuance and detail, from timing to eye movement. “A lot of it has to do with watching other dancers,” she says. “You have to study them in fine detail to portray a part realistically.”

When Van Patten danced the role of Juliet with SFB, she could still tap into the same well of innocence she felt at 16, but this time, she’d seen more of the world. She realized the significance of the story, including the poignant death scenes. “It was a stronger performance,” she says. “I had more mental awareness.” And if she performed Juliet again? “It would be different,” she says, “because I’m different. With every role, you start at the beginning.” But, she adds, “If the passion’s there, you’ll want to improve. If you have the will, you’ll have the way.”

Melding all these ephemeral qualities with technique is artistry at its apex—and the future of ballet, says Englund. Like many, Englund laments that dance education has become purely physical. Yet she has no desire to return to yesteryear. “We’ve forgotten that ballet is a language to express atmosphere, emotion, energy,” she says. “I realize we can’t go back. Technique is at a high level and it should stay there. But the mind and emotions have to be hand-in-hand with physicality. If you only think of the perfect turnout, the perfect extension, then you’re trying to make art perfect.

“Art,” she says, with absolute conviction, “should be full of life.

Former dancer Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in NYC.

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

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Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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