Learning a variation for the first time is definitely one of the most rewarding parts of ballet. And when American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston teaches you that variation as part of a master class series hosted by dancewear brand Cloud & Victory, the whole process gets even more exciting. Dreamt up by Cloud & Victory founder Min, the day-long workshop at Joffrey Ballet School in New York City consisted of a technique class taught by fellow ABT principal Gillian Murphy, as well as variations from both Murphy and Boylston. After Murphy taught Black Swan, Boylston gave the dancers another classic with Act I of Giselle. If you weren't lucky enough to be among the dozens of aspiring ballerinas gathered at the master class, check out some of Boylston's tips for learning Giselle at home.
Kitri's Act I variation in Don Quixote is short—but not exactly sweet. Though this clip from a 90s documentary lacks the ballet's usual setting of matadors milling around a Spanish plaza, former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe doesn't need scenery to draw her audience in. Kitri's power moves are all about passion, and they require a certain abandon. Jaffe delivers. From the moment she snaps her fingers in her preparation to that crowd-pleasing diagonal of consecutive pirouettes, she's all fire and spice.
Susan Jaffe was barely 19 years old when she leapt into the spotlight at American Ballet Theatre. 1982—the year that her Swan Lake debut had critics raving—also revealed her contemporary chops in works like Lynn Taylor-Corbett's Great Galloping Gottschalk. In this clip from a 1985 recording, Jaffe dances a pas de deux from the piece with Robert La Fosse, who had a successful career as a principal dancer at both ABT and New York City Ballet.
Growing up, Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller often heard teachers compare the feeling you have during pirouettes to a corkscrew. But then her teacher, Diane Partington in Ellenton, Florida, offered up a surprising new analogy. Partington suggested Miller imagine a bank tube—a simple cylinder that uses suction to transport a round canister from a customer's car to the teller. Picturing this straight, narrow tube drawing energy up and into itself struck a chord with Miller. “It worked instantly!" she says. “It clicked in my head and it gave my body the right feeling." Even now, if she needs to refocus her pirouettes, Miller thinks of that image. “If I'm having a bad day, it helps me find my center."
Why is it that one ballerina moves you to tears while another leaves you cold? The answer, in a word, is artistry. Not all dancers are artists, no matter how accomplished or experienced. Some dancers create roles and some perform them. Those wielding the most brilliant technique are not necessarily the most expressive. Occasionally a dancer is blessed with exquisite precision and soulful interpretation. Seldom does this synchrony happen by accident; just as dancers work to mold the body, they must also train the artist within.
“You can’t really get artistry until there is a trust between teacher and dancer, when they feel they can make mistakes in an effort to achieve something,” says Suzanne Farrell. Considered Balanchine’s final muse, in performance she was transcendently expressive in the full range of abstract to narrative ballets, combining lyrical freedom with technical ease and dancing with fearless abandon and sparkling musicality in some of the most devilishly difficult repertoire ever created.
“[Ours is] a visible art,” says Farrell. “You don’t just send your legs out onstage, but you send your whole self. [Artistry] is who you are, how you carry yourself—not how your legs dance, but eyes, head, shoulders, arms—the uniqueness of all of that.”
When we watch a dancer, we are drawn to the persona unveiled on the stage. The most intriguing dancers are those who pull us into their world as we watch. “Often dancers masquerade behind their technique and don’t reveal anything about themselves,” continues Farrell. “The more you reveal, the more interesting you are.” And the stronger a dancer’s sense of self, the more fully he or she can interpret each role, bringing the steps to life through the many small choices in accent, attack and expression that make it his or her own.
“My honesty was the most alluring quality I had,” says Stephanie Saland, whose 21 years at New York City Ballet were marked by a transparency of feeling unusual in a company known for abstract ballets. Dancing lead roles in ballets by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Saland illuminated each step and gesture with a clear sense of intention.
But how exactly can artistry be cultivated? “I think you cannot just be artistic,” says Susan Jaffe, a former principal with American Ballet Theatre. “You can’t just throw everything to the wind, but understand [that] there is a depth and seriousness in the work.” Jaffe is famous for delving into her roles with such intelligence and subtlety that she seemed to reveal something new about every familiar character. Now, she encourages her students to develop artistry through awareness. “Even when you are standing at the barre,” she explains, “there is an inner core, an understanding on a deep level of where a movement comes from and your own experience of it.”
Farrell, Saland and Jaffe were noted for their artistry as dancers; now as teachers, their task is to pass their knowledge forward. They share a generosity of spirit as they step into line with their own teachers and mentors.
Saland credits her teachers—Stanley Williams at the School of American Ballet, independent teacher Tina Bernal and, of course, Balanchine—with pushing her to explore new ways to work. She refers frequently to the idea of leading with the heart, an approach she learned while being coached by fellow NYCB company member Gelsey Kirkland.
Developing artistry is a matter of both working closely in class and rehearsal with a teacher or coach and working in the studio alone. Farrell remembers working long hours by herself “as if the most important person in the world were watching me.”
Studio hours may be spent perfecting steps, which need to be understood, conquered, embraced and celebrated, but the individual dancer also needs to embark on a process of discovery, studying those who went before as well as exploring phrasing and musicality.
To dance with artistry is to use every aspect of the music—even its absence. “Silence also has an energy, a beauty,” says Farrell. In terms of music, though, “some people will hear a big cymbal crash or an oom pah pah,” she continues. “Sounds are important in different ways and require different energy. All the nuances and shades of the music should be how you move.”
Jaffe encourages her students to imagine that they are the music, to use “the breath within the adagio, to find what is sharp, bright, staccato, lyric, soft, dynamic—all the different ways a dancer needs to move.”
To develop the whole self, reveal that self through movement and go beyond steps, the dancer must cultivate the imagination. While it is important to spend hours in the studio, too many can limit a dancer’s experience of people, the other arts and all that bring color and life to performance. To deepen her knowledge and fuel Farrell’s imagination, Balanchine took her to visit museums and art galleries in Europe; now she takes her own dancers to see sculpture and paintings.
While studying acting, yoga or meditation can facilitate the performer’s craft, to expand one’s artistic reach, Saland recommends dancers “go to a comedy improv class, a voice class for actors or anything else that makes you uncomfortable… and see it through. We dancers are in a constant state of vulnerability,” she says. “[To dance is] quite courageous. Things that are usually covered or concealed for us are square one. That is a lot of exposure.”
Discomfort—pushing past the safety zone—is part of developing artistry. “It takes daring,” says Farrell. “Ballet is moving time through space, not standing in one spot! Be adventuresome. Use gravity to enhance movement not to inhibit it. What makes artistry is how you conquer space.”
Ultimately all this homework—transforming steps into choreography, living through the music, reading plays, seeing paintings or studying the historical context of a role—must evolve into dancing. “It’s one thing to stand at the barre, use the épaulement and understand body position,” says Jaffe. “But it’s different to take those ideas and energies through space. You have to commit not just physically, but with your soul.”
Choreographer, teacher and dance writer Suki John lives in Connecticut, where she is earning her PhD.
Sometimes ballet can feel a bit like arithmetic: Turnout should stay at exactly 180 degrees, arabesque should rise to at least 90 degrees, fifth position should have zero space in between your toes and heels. But although there are certain marks we all aim to hit, the artistry in ballet comes from the limitless ways there are to get there.
Last night at the Dance Magazine Awards, former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe recounted the first time she met legendary ballet master Irina Kolpakova. At the time (1989), Jaffe had already been an ABT principal for six years, but she was so in awe of Kolpakova's talent and background as one of the last students of Agrippina Vaganova that she went up to Kolpakova, stood in parallel with her hands limp at her sides and said, "I know nothing. Teach me."
As Kolpakova graciously accepted her award, she spoke of how patient Jaffe was as they went back to the beginning every day so Jaffe could unlearn and relearn everything she knew about technique, and discover an entirely new way of using her head, arms and épaulement. It was astounding to hear how even a principal at one of the top companies in the world would go back to the square one to try a completely different approach to moving.
Even though class can feel like a never-ending quest for perfection, a place where we all try to be "correct," there's never just one right way to dance. Because, if you really think about it, how boring would that be?
Having trouble with your attitude turns? Susan Jaffe has some tips to offer. Our sister publication Dance Teacher filmed a short how-to video with the former ABT icon to help you find that beautiful place where you can simply soar around. Check it out on dancemedia.com.