The Advanced principles in teaching classical ballet, written by former soloist & ballet master of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, John White, covers a variety of subjects allied to ballet class for intermediate and advanced students.
White has taught over 800 novice and experienced teachers and bases his teaching on the Agrippina Vaganova method. He notes that unlike other arts, dancers cannot see their own dancing – they need an audience.
You may think that Jennifer Homans, with her Epilogue in Apollo’s Angels, was the first author to lament the decline in ballet seen today, but this book, first published in 2009, also references the general decline in standards and it’s one of the reasons that I wanted to review the book. Often I am asked why, for example, there are no British students at the Prix de Lausanne this year, or why the Bolshoi students look like soloists compared to the students studying at vocational schools in the UK ? White says that the Bolshoi Ballet company have long held an advantage with their ballet training by using the Vaganova method – as far back as April 1959 when the company made it’s debut tour to the United States and wowed everyone, even though they had left half of their company at home to carry on with their performance schedule. White suggests that, at the time, no-one questioned why they were so good – they just accepted that they were – and because that still persists today, lessons have not been learned and standards in teaching are slipping, leaving mediocre dancing at times. White says that some ballet companies – many, even – are run by people who are inexperienced in management, and that apprentice schemes provide under-trained, low paid (sometimes unpaid) dancers to struggling companies.
White says that the way to raise ballet from the dolrums is to have outstanding artists performing great choreography at reasonable prices. This much we know – the question is, how to achieve it consistently ?
Excellence on stage depends on the dancers education in class. Research shows that barely one in one hundred students has the potential to become a professional dancer, and to become a Principal the odds are even slighter. Add to that the subjectivity of an Artistic Director when the times comes to hand out contracts, and you can see how wide the pyramid base is, and how few rise to the top. Rather like cream.
White’s book, unusually, contains no photographs or pictures of any kind. He says that it’s been proven that mental visualisation is a vital part of learning and when teachers are prompted to find the right words, rather than actions, the students create a more accurate mental image of the movement, and that all good teachers can communicate in this way.
Great teachers can help modestly talented students rise to great heights and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, and it’s not hugely tricky to give daily class to dancers whose professional skills are already formed. White suggests ways to overcome lacklustre classes and to alleviate student boredom, by never being a predictable teacher. Always keep students guessing.
The book goes on to advise what you should look for in selecting a teacher – to check for evidence that the teacher is capable of giving students a clear understanding of what is required to progress to a higher level. One of the key things a teacher should impart to their students is the difference between warming up and stretching. The former is done before class and the latter, afterwards. They are not the same and have different goals.
There are lesson plans for teachers, going through barre exercises, centre, allegro and on to a section on pointe. There are further sections on the basic stance for a dancer, balance, jumping, turning, musicality & partnering.
The author, understandably, concludes that the Vaganova method, and in particular the model that the Cuban’s follow of having regional schools which feed into the national one, is a firm basis for producing quality dancers. Time will tell whether or not he’s right.