Wendy Whelan is taking a busman's holiday from her day job, which, many would agree, is being the preeminent ballerina at New York City Ballet (and maybe everywhere else). In a master class at Jacob's Pillow, she's telling 22 pre-professionals they're “awesome" as she gives corrections and hard-won performance tips. Afterwards, she cheerfully poses arm-in-arm with each of the students, who capture mementos on their cells. Finally, she folds herself into a chair as they sprawl on the floor to ask questions.
Like her dancing, her responses are bracingly forthright and, when appropriate, poetic. How she came to the School of American Ballet from Louisville at 15. How she joined NYCB in 1984, right after the death of George Balanchine. How much she loved “the modernity, the economy, the attack" of his choreography. How her super-strong technique and angular physiognomy propelled her into the “tomboy" parts rather than the “girly-girl" roles she hankered after. And how the sleek, contemporary look that caused her (and her critics) grief was appealing not just to her bosses, Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins, but to the outside choreographers who came to NYCB to make new work. They offered the “huge gift," she says, of seeing more in her than she saw in herself.
She expounds on her favorite ballet (Liebeslieder Walzer), her biggest challenge (full-lengths), the choreographer she most regrets not having worked with (Jirí Kylián). When someone asks for a prescription for career success, she offers two words: “Try everything."
Scan the bios of the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre, and you’re treated to a world tour. Members have trained in Moscow, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Paris and London. Others are graduates of American dance academies from coast to coast, including, of course, the School of American Ballet. But in the last few years, a new name has been popping up with regularity, and it should come as no surprise: There are now 12 corps dancers who studied at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
In existence only since 2004, JKO began feeding the company almost immediately—two members of its first class, Nicole Graniero and Eric Tamm, went directly into ABT’s Studio Company, landed apprentice contracts and then joined the corps. But the pace has accelerated lately, and if artistic director Kevin McKenzie has his way, this “training ladder” will eventually provide ABT with the majority of its dancers. That ladder begins with JKO’s Children’s Division, which currently enrolls 180 youngsters—often recruited from the company’s summer intensives. Those who make the cut move on to the Pre-Professional Division, which now trains 52 students ages 15 to 18. The next step is the Studio Company—10 of its 14 current members joined directly from the JKO School. And as more and more of these 246 dancers filter into ABT, they will catalyze a momentous shift in the company’s DNA: It will move from simply employing dancers to generating them.
That, of course, was the idea, says McKenzie, who brought the school into being and then directed the creation of the ABT National Training Curriculum to guide its work. “ABT has celebrated diversity in the company on every level,” McKenzie says. “What I wanted with our school was to train dancers in a neutral place, so they could put on styles like we put on clothes, and also take them off. You’re not going to wear a tuxedo to a grunge party.”
The man charged with furnishing the company’s new wardrobe is the school’s principal and co-author of the curriculum, Franco De Vita. “I agree with Kevin,” he says. “ABT needs dancers with very proper classical training, but no affectation. When you train with a specific style, it’s very difficult to change from one ballet to the other. And at ABT we have such a vast repertoire—we have Swan Lake and Jorma Elo—so many different choreographers.”
Beyond offering “clean” technique, the JKO training also includes classes in modern and improv, and, in the Studio Company, students learn repertoire from outside experts in the requisite style. After mastering a “neutral” port de bras at JKO—such as having the arms rotate gradually in the shoulder socket as they lower from second to en bas—students can readily adapt to the crossed wrists of the Balanchine method or the exaggerated allongé of the Vaganova school.
On a recent winter afternoon, De Vita is putting his principles into practice in a studio at ABT’s Manhattan headquarters. Threading his way among five young men in black-and-white practice togs and 12 young women in purple leotards, he gives them tricky combinations, salting the corrections with good-humored jokes, like, “If I can do it at my age and with two hip replacements…” But he’s not coaxing smiles just for the fun of it. The class focus is as much on performance as on technique, and De Vita adjusts a blank stare with the same firmness he accords an incorrectly bent knee.
“When you perform onstage you need to give the maximum to the audience,” he says later. “It’s important to learn in class how to perform. And you can’t go on auditions with a flat, neutral expression. You need to have something to attract the eye of the director of a company.”
Directors at the Joffrey, Miami City Ballet and BalletMet are among those whose eyes have been caught. They and some dozen others have taken De Vita’s alumni into their companies, spreading JKO’s influence across the map of the United States. Other former JKO students are dancing abroad, with the Paris Opéra Ballet, the Berlin Staatsoper, The Royal Ballet, and companies in Canada, Estonia, Spain, New Zealand and the Czech Republic. De Vita notes with pride that three years ago, out of an unusually large class of 26, 17 left the school with jobs in hand. Funneling his students into ABT is the goal, of course. “But we can’t possibly incorporate all the students from JKO into the main company or second company,” he says. “There are not the openings. For me it’s fantastic when I have students leave JKO with a professional contract.”
On the receiving end of some of those newly minted professionals is ABT ballet mistress Susan Jones. For her, it’s fantastic to know that newcomers to the corps have a shared experience and, most important, a shared aesthetic. “Twenty years ago,” she says, “with 24 girls from 24 different schools, it took a lot for the corps to move and breathe and dance together.” ABT II, the Studio Company’s predecessor, was supposed to help solve that problem. But with its emphasis on performing, Jones says, “sometimes we were concerned that we were developing soloists instead of dancers who could meld into the corps.” She has less work to do with JKO alumni. “They’re getting a solid basic training and they’re able to work together. For me, that’s huge.”
McKenzie agrees that the school is having an impact on the way the company dances. “What has changed is there’s a certain sense of history that is being passed on,” he says. But before launching JKO, he thought long and hard about whether that shared “sense of history” would at some point lead to a company of look-alike dancers. It isn’t lost on him, he says, that “all the great schools eventually become caricatures of themselves.” But he believes the eclectic nature of the ABT repertoire will guard against cookie-cutter dancers and calcified style. “If you have the choice between someone with really straight legs and somebody with bent legs, you go for the one with the straight legs,” he concedes. “And if you’re looking for a corps de ballet of Bayadères, they have to have a certain similarity. But if you’re looking for someone for Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, you need something very individual. You need all types.”
Sometimes even a versatile, well-rounded company simply runs out of bodies. Last fall, when a rash of injuries in the ABT ranks punched holes in the casting of Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, it was up to Jones to plug them. Ten years before, she would have been scrambling, perhaps borrowing a dancer from ABT II (and possibly leaving them short-handed on the road), perhaps reaching out to someone who had left the company to return to school. To prevent just such an emergency some years ago, she had cut the number of dancers in McKenzie’s Nutcracker. But to reduce the scale of Ratmansky’s snow scene would “completely diminish the drama and the intensity,” she says.
Fortunately, a simple solution was at hand. She enlisted six dancers from the Studio Company and JKO and hoped for the best. “I was really concerned,” she says. “Not that they weren’t trying. But it was a push for a few of them. And they really, really rose to the occasion. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them onstage...They saved our butts.”