Saturday, July 28, 2012

at the Washington School of Ballet

from left to right: Kate, author of blog post below, Stephanie Walz, and Jenifer Ringer in the 1980s before a performance of choreography by Choo San Goh performed by the Young Dancers of the Washington Ballet.

Two years ago I attended a performance of students at the end of their summer program and wrote a post that still holds true today. The presentation by these young dancers at the culmination of a 5-week program is phenomenal. This year there were surprises added to the afternoon that reinforced the ways in which students at WSB’s summer intensive gain unique access to living histories.

Yesterday’s performance began with the presentation of the faculty, including former NYCB principals Nilas Martins and Monique Meunier. When school director Kee Juan Han then introduced teacher Kristina Windom she paused to acknowledge her own teacher in the audience: Julio de Bittencourt, a teacher at WSB in the 1970s and 1980s.
This respect for knowledge and legacies is one trademark of a quality school. Teachers invest in students who are inspired to carry on their ideas, and who continually acknowledge their influences and mentors. I vividly remember Mr. de Bittencourt’s classes: exact, meaning precise, and exacting, meaning demanding. When we spoke for a moment yesterday before the show began he smiled mischievously when I said I was a student of his in the 1980s. He knew this comment meant I had encountered what discipline is all about: insisting on a particular way of doing things.

This may sound harsh, but it is an essential part of learning or maybe, more broadly, any kind of growth or change. What ballet continues to give young people, and this was on view beautifully in the performance, is an aspiration towards something greater. Perhaps this is ballet’s signature characteristic: it’s an art that is not about being content with mediocrity but striving toward a form of beauty that involves grace, strength, flexibility, and joy. The students’ facial expressions – from furrowed brows to playful grins – marked their commitment to and enjoyment of this process. It was wonderful to see their progression from the youngest dancers who at times struggle to hide their efforts, to the older performers who master the difficult steps with a sense of ease and assuredness.

Several works during the program stood out as highlights: the staging of Petipa’s Raymonda by Kristina Windom as well as the choreography by Elaine Kudo, Nilas Martins, Luis Torres, and Edwin Aparicio. In each the young dancers inhabited the dancemakers’ movements with a sense of musicality and poetry. Either coached beautifully or made for individual dancers, steps turned the students into stars, displaying prowess and poise. It was also wonderful to see the students perform a part of George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” a piece that demanded speed unlike the other works, and that gave the students a history lesson through physical sensation rather than reading about this master’s creations in a book.

I loved seeing the students’ own choreography – like I did two years ago – and this time noticed how much more sultry, flashy, and acrobatic the students’ movements were when given a chance to express themselves.

Last memento of a memorable day: the students’ introductions of each piece. For each part of the program, one dancer came forward to tell us their name, their home city, plus the choreographer, title, and composer of the next performance. These moments made me smile as each young artist was not only discovering the challenges and joys of performing, but also understanding what respect and composure entail, physically, mentally, and verbally. 

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