by Janice Barringer
Under normal circumstances I feel that my life is interesting and eventful even when no special events are taking place. That’s because, as a dancer, even the most commonplace activities have meaning. Just daily classes, whether I take them as a student or if I am doing the teaching, are something I look forward to. Of course, they can be frustrating when the students are not putting forth their greatest efforts. The low point, when it comes to class, is lethargic students. If they don’t put all of their mental and physical energy into this activity, there is not much even the most determined teacher can produce.
If my day-to-day activities are interesting to me, can you imagine how excited I am when something very special is on the horizon? January and February 2013 provided two extraordinary opportunities for me to further enjoy this career that I love so much.
In January, sandwiched between teaching at a Dance Makers Inc. convention in Pittsburgh and one in Detroit, I spent the week at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C. This boarding school which serves students in grades seven through twelve, offers a high school diploma in addition to its dance instruction. It was founded to train dancers in a pedagogy based on that of the Vaganova Ballet Academy and the performance aesthetic of the Kirov Ballet, recently renamed The Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Martin Fredmann, the Artistic Director and Executive Director of the school invited me to give a lecture to his students, staff and faculty on pointe shoes. For four days I observed classes from 9:30 in the morning until late afternoon and sometimes until 7 in the evening. The classes, taught by masters of the Vaganova system, were creative, artistic and demanding. While some classes are the traditional hour- and-a-half in length, many lasted two, three and even four hours. These lengthy sessions allowed the teachers to work on details and the students to apply corrections over and over again.
While I was in the Nation’s Capital, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland was being presented at Kennedy Center by The National Ballet of Canada. This version of Alice has garnered much attention due to, not only the stature of the choreographer, but also its outrageous sets and costumes. The company shares the production with The Royal Ballet. Of course, I had to attend, and it didn’t disappoint. While many of my ballet friends felt it was too long and “over the top”, I felt it was a very entertaining evening. As I discussed it with the Artistic Director of a major company, we both agreed the technical rehearsal must have been a nightmare. The sets were huge, complicated and almost as spectacular as a Broadway musical or Radio City Music Hall. After all, the story demands a fantastic imagination.
In an exchange program between the Kirov School and Kennedy Center, later in the week the company sent one of its teacher’s, Lindsey Fisher, to give a master class to the Kirov students. In addition to its wonderful staff, these fortunate students work with master teachers from around the world frequently.
There is nothing I enjoy more than watching incredible teachers work with selected and motivated students in an accommodating atmosphere. Therefore, my week in Washington D. C. was inspirational. In a week-and-a-half I was off again on another adventure in yet another fantastic city, London! Unpacking and packing again in a short period of time is definitely a hassle, but I felt privileged to have this great opportunity.
The day after I arrived I attended an “Open Day” at the Royal Ballet School. Over the last twenty-five years I have observed and notated classes there, interviewed the teachers, and had photographs taken of the students by highly-respected dance photographer, Rosalie O’Connor. The School has been included in the three editions of the book I wrote on pointe shoes and pointe training, “The Pointe Book”, and I wrote a cover story about it for Dancer Magazine. No matter how many times I have been there, I am always thrilled to have another opportunity to visit one of the very best ballet schools in the world.
The school, which was founded in 1926 by Dame Ninette de Valois, consists of a Lower School for children between eleven and sixteen years of age, housed in White Lodge in Richmond Park which is on the outskirts of London. The Upper School for ages sixteen and over is located in Central London, directly across the street from the Royal Opera House where The Royal Ballet rehearses and performs. There’s a gorgeous spiral walkway several floors above the street that connects the School with the ROH called The Bridge of Aspiration. Both the Lower and Upper Schools are under the direction of Gailene Stock A. M.
The School has trained some of the world’s most famous dancers and choreographers including Margot Fonteyn, Kenneth MacMillan, Anthony Dowell and Darcey Bussell. For the past six years every graduating student has secured a contract with a national or international ballet company. Currently over 70% of The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet are alumni of The Royal Ballet School.
The Open Day I attended was a special event for the Friends of the Royal Ballet School, an organization that supports the school in many ways including financial. One of the main studios in the Upper School is outfitted with lights, curtains and bleachers which support comfortable chairs for informal demonstrations and performances. This is where the day-long event took place.
From 9-10:30am the 2nd Year Girls and Boys combined class presented a typical class complete with corrections. In major ballet schools the boys and girls are taught in separate classes. Today was an exception because the boys’ teacher was on an audition tour seeking out prospective students. Later, the 1st Girls’ Class and a 1st Year Pas de Deux class were a part of the program for the invited guests. The day ended with a tea break (of course, this is England) and ended with a champagne tea.
Just walking into that beautiful building is an inspiration. There are walls of photographs of legends in the ballet world, and the studios are named after these same luminaries. I felt honored to be within its walls.
Fortunately, while in London it just so happened The Royal Ballet was presenting one of my favorite ballets, Onegin, AND a friend of mine, Sara Lamb, was dancing the lead. What perfect timing! Sara grew up in Boston and was trained at the Boston Ballet School. After dancing as a Principal with The Boston Ballet, she joined The Royal Ballet in 2004 as a First Soloist, and was promoted to Principal in 2006. This passionate ballet was choreographed by the late, John Cranko, in 1969. It demands great acting, sensitivity, and artistry. Sara brought all those qualities to her role as Tatiana. She seems to simply float above the earth disguising the very strong technique that is securely underneath.
My guests at the ballet were enamored with her performance, as was I. What a thrilling evening! Because I have attended so many ballets over my lifetime, sometimes I can be bored—-lose interest— but not tonight. Tonight I felt like a novice seeing a ballet for the first time. It was lovely; it was inspiring; it elicited a strong, emotional response. It made me realize once again, that despite the hardships, the injuries, the disintegrating hip sockets, the challenges and uncertainties—-despite all the reasons our parents don’t want us to go into the arts—-it has all been worth it. To be moved by an artistic creation that takes years to create—there’s nothing like it in the world.
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Contributor Janice Barringer was raised in Florida and received her early training in ballet, jazz, tap and acrobatics from Edith and Bill Royal. Upon deciding to focus on ballet, she moved to New York City and traveled to Europe where she studied with leading teachers in the field.
Janice danced professionally for many years before becoming a ballet teacher and writer. She has written for Pointe, Dance, Dance Teacher, and Dance Spirit Magazines, and is the author of 9 cover stories for Dancer Magazine. Her first book, The Pointe Book, has given her a reputation around the world as being a leading authority in this field. An updated third edition was published in May, 2012. She also is the co-author with Thalia Mara of another book on pointe work called On Pointe. In addition to detailed information about working en pointe, it has a history of the first International Ballet Competition in the United States which is held in Jackson, Mississippi, every four years.
Janice has written a ballet syllabus, produced by Music Works Unlimited, complete with corresponding CD’s and DVD’s for each grade. It is specifically created for the dancing school teacher. The last four years she was employed at Pace University in New York City as a ballet instructor. She now spends most of the year in her native Florida teaching at South Beach Dance Academy in Daytona Beach returning frequently to New York, as well as teaching as a guest instructor in studios, at workshops and conventions around the world.