by Risa Gary Kaplowitz
Maggie Black, one of the foremost ballet teachers of a generation of dancers, died on May 11, 2015. Her death initiated a flood of Facebook posts and even a Remembering Maggie Black Facebook page, where former students can write their memories about Maggie and her infamous quotes. I was happy to relive those years, as even now, three decades after having danced in Maggie’s class, it is often that I dream of dancing in her studio–or have nightmares of not being able to find it.
I first went to Maggie’s classes in 1981 at age 20 during what became the first of many summer lay-off periods. I was just starting to get principal roles at Dayton Ballet, and Christine O’Neal, formerly of American Ballet Theatre, Broadway’s A Chorus Line, and Dayton Ballet’s reigning principal dancer at the time, had recommended that I spend the summer taking Maggie’s classes. They were held in a loft in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, which was at that time a rather decrepit part of the city filled with warehouses and, from my vantage point at the barre peering into the neighboring building, sweatshops. I found a sublet nearby in the Chelsea Hotel and took Maggie’s 2.5-hour class every day for close to a month before she must have realized that I was committed to her and so finally descended on me with my first personal correction.
But before I received that coveted attention, I tried to learn as much as possible by watching the amazing dancers in class and hearing their corrections. During those initial summers at Maggie’s, I watched as ABT’s Martine van Hamel and Joffrey Ballet’s Gary Chryst recuperated from torn Achilles tendons. ABT’s Julio Boca, who had just moved from Buenos Aires and was beginning his company career partnering the spritely Cheryl Yeager (also a Maggie student), was arguably the class crush as he adorably struggled with the English language and made even Maggie blush. Kevin McKenzie, who was ABT’s reigning prince and now its Artistic Director, seemed to be very much the boy-next-door in his affability and openness to Maggie’s persistent corrections.
Other regulars included: ABT’s gorgeous Magali Messac, whom I had known when she first came to the states to enter Pennsylvania Ballet; the imposing Christian Holder of Joffrey Ballet; the rising ABT star and now Orlando Ballet Artistic Director, Robert Hill; the other-worldly international ballet star, Eva Evdokimova; and the ABT corps girl who I stood next to at barre every day and is now ABT’s Executive Director, Rachel Moore. There were also dancers from New York City Ballet and almost every major and minor modern dance company.
Maggie, with her red-pigtailed head cocked just so and shuffling in bedroom slippers, which could not hide her huge bunions, would narrow in on one of her 40 or more ballet students and give a shorthand correction repetitively in her no-nonsense nasal voice. Corrections such as “up, up, up” dotted the class like a never ending Morse code, which took me a while to understand.
The first time Maggie corrected me, I was taken by surprise. I was in the middle of a tendu combination at the barre when, suddenly, I felt as if a bear had wrapped itself around me from behind and threw me up and forward. Maggie had “placed” me. Surely, I thought, no one could dance that far forward! I was confused but determined to succeed in what she wanted me to do. Every day for weeks, I would get the “fix” along with the repetitive admonishment, “Reeeese, get your seat up!”
By the end of that first summer, my inner thighs and rotators had finally engaged to keep me upright. The moment the placement clicked was magical. There was so much strength and freedom at my disposal—a grounded and strong machine below the belt line and a breathing human being above it. Her teaching transformed my dancing completely.
Years later, after having moved to New York City to dance there permanently, I asked to speak to Maggie privately. As she had done numerous times before, she took me into her little makeshift office and let me ask her advice of which she was always so generous. In this particular case, I was asking her about the transition out of performing. I wanted a “normal” life and she understood my feelings and supported the decision. The next day, she called me over after class and asked if I wanted to be the ballet mistress for ABT former principal dancer Bonnie Mathis, as she was setting a new piece at The Juilliard School. Just as Maggie had given me the physical strength and support to eventually dance with Houston Ballet, Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Ballet Manhattan, she gave me the emotional support to leave performing along with my first non-dancing job inside a studio.
Ballet teachers such as Maggie produce a family of like-minded dancers who have had similar religious-like awakening in their understanding of the art form and happily subscribe to a list of disciples. And like any disciple, those dancers feel the need to carry forward their savior’s teaching. This is what many of Maggie’s former students, myself included, are doing. We are passing on her belief that ballet need not look tortured but, rather, if done correctly, can create an individualized vehicle of pure grace, movement, and artistry.
In this way, Maggie Black will never truly be gone.
Risa Gary Kaplowitz is a former principal dancer with Dayton Ballet and member of Houston Ballet and Manhattan Ballet. She has also performed with Pennsylvania Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet and as a guest artist with many companies nationwide.
She was originally trained at Maryland Youth Ballet by Tensia Fonseca, Roy Gean, and Michelle Lees. She spent summers as a teen studying on scholarship at American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Houston Ballet. As a professional, her most influential teachers were Maggie Black, Marjorie Mussman, Stuart Sebastian, Lupe Serrano, Benjamin Harkarvy, and Ben Stevenson. She has performed the repertoire of many choreographers including Fredrick Ashton, George Balanchine, Ben Stevenson, Stuart Sebastian, Dermot Burke, Billy Wilson, and Marjorie Mussman.
After spending ten years in a successful business career while building a family, Risa returned to the dance world and founded Princeton Dance and Theater Studio (www.princetondance.com) and DanceVision, Inc. (www.dancevisionnj.org) with Susan Jaffe, former ABT principal ballerina. Risa is now PDT’s Director, and the Artistic Director of DanceVision Inc. Risa also founded D.A.N.C.E. (Dance As a Necessary Component of Education), an outreach program that brings dance to New Jersey schools.
Risa has choreographed more than twenty pieces, and her original full-length ballets, The Secret Garden and The Snow Queen, premiered with DanceVision Performance Company in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Additionally, she has choreographed for several New Jersey Symphony Orchestra family and school outreach concerts.
Risa is an ABT® Affiliate Teacher, who has successfully completed the ABT® Teacher Training Intensive in Primary through Level 7 and Partnering of the ABT® National Training Curriculum, and has successfully presented students for examinations.
She has lectured the ABT/NYU Master candidates on starting a dance studio. She is most grateful for her teachers who gave and (in the case of ABT® Curriculum) give her the exceptional tools necessary to have had a performance career and the opportunity to train others in authentically. She also feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to dance with and learn from many exceptional dancers.