Your Training: On the Spot

July 29, 2012

Terrified doesn’t quite express how Boston Ballet’s Kathleen Breen Combes felt when choreographer Helen Pickett chose her to dance the opening solo for Pickett’s new ballet, Etesian: One and a half minutes of pure improvisation. In deafening silence. Ninety seconds suddenly seemed like an eternity.

“It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” Breen Combes says. “I’m a ballet dancer. I like being told what to do!”

Before Pickett came to Boston to choreograph Etesian in 2006, Breen Combes had little improv experience. “My tendency was to choreograph something in my head beforehand,” she says. “But Helen was adamant that I be in the moment. She didn’t want to see the same thing twice.”

Most ballet dancers have to improvise at some point in their careers, especially since more companies are adding contemporary works to their repertoires. But while their modern dance cousins seem to glide effortlessly into choreographic spontaneity, ballet dancers often feel self-conscious, resistant and inhibited.      

Get Over the Fear

“One reason ballet dancers have a difficult time letting go is because they’re not often asked to contribute to their art,” says Pickett, who first started using improvisation with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. “A dancer who is accustomed to being told what to do can have a very hard time making decisions in the studio.”

If dancers approach their work from a right/wrong standpoint, they judge themselves too harshly, numbing their imagination. “They see what’s wrong instead of seeing possibilities,” says Pickett. Instead, dancers should try to shift to a mindset where process takes precedence over the result. “Allowing choice to be an active part of your work not only builds confidence, it also builds identity,” says Pickett. “I see more of the human behind the dancer guise when I ask for their contribution.”

It’s Part of Your Toolkit

Some directors include improvisation during their audition process—and it’s not always the dancer’s choreographic skills that are evaluated. “When someone auditions, I don’t necessarily expect them to be good improvisers,” says James Sewell, artistic director of the James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. “I can teach them that. What I can’t teach is an open-minded, hungry attitude.” Sewell’s ballets are often a blend of set choreography and improv, so he needs dancers who are willing to think on their feet. “Someone who throws themselves into it and says, ‘I don’t know if I’m any good, but I’ll go for it’—that’s the quality I look for.”


Practice Letting Go

Like ballet, improvisation takes practice. “It isn’t just doing whatever you want,” Sewell says. “It’s learning how to craft a well-choreographed dance in the moment. You have to get into the mindset for a while and let it assimilate in your bones.”

Improvisation classes are a great place to start. In a traditional class, teachers may give a set phrase, then ask students to reverse it, transpose sections, change directions, play with levels or adjust tempos, gradually opening the parameters to allow room for new movement ideas. In Forsythe-based improvisation, which Pickett teaches, emphasis is also placed on fragmenting different parts of the body and extending limbs beyond their natural reach. (See sidebar.) All through her classes, Pickett asks questions, encouraging students to participate and voice their opinions.

Gaga, the movement language developed by Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin, incorporates some improvisation as well. The instructor uses imagery to prompt dancers to explore movement. Seattle-based Gaga instructor Danielle Agami has noticed that ballet dancers sometimes need time to adjust to Gaga’s questioning philosophy. “It’s hard because ballet has a specific aesthetic, while Gaga says, ‘We don’t want to be sure, we just want to research possibilities,” she explains. “You have to practice letting go with your brain and improving the connection between your mind and body.”

Stay Open

Remember that improvisation stems from your existing knowledge. “It doesn’t just come out of the ether,” says Pickett. Rather, dancers pull ideas from their own mental libraries and a lifetime of technique—and the more details they glean from an initial set phrase, the easier it will be. “That realization helps quiet the fear.”

And when things go wrong? “Laugh at yourself,” says Sewell. Besides, he continues, the result may be more interesting. “Your body goes into pure instinct mode and you’re forced to make choices so fast that you can’t micromanage them. A mistake can open the door to the magic.”

Breen Combes’ initial fears about improv subsided as she grew more comfortable in the moment. She learned to regroup through stillness when she wasn’t sure what to do next, and to not always face front. “We have a whole other side of the body that we never think to use,” she says. Suddenly, one and a half minutes seemed like nothing. “I wanted my solo to be longer by the end of the run.”


Cross Hemispherics

William Forsythe’s improvisation system, called Improvisation Technologies, creates movement through a series of spatial tasks. Helen Pickett always starts her Forsythe-based classes with an exercise that uses cross hemispherics, in which you continually cross the body’s midline with your limbs. For example, you’ll touch the right hand to left elbow, then slide the left hand behind the right knee, followed by the right hand to the back of the left shoulder, and finish with the left hand brushing down the right leg to the pinky toe. After repeating to the other side, students then reverse the phrase. “It starts with four cross hemispherics, but you can work up to however many you can remember,” says Pickett. “This trains the dancers’ memory, warms them up and allows them to move beyond their natural reach.”

Pennsylvania Ballet’s New School

For the past 20 years, Pennsylvania Ballet has been one of the only major companies in the U.S. without an affiliated training program. That changes this fall with the launch of the new School of Pennsylvania Ballet.

Director William DeGregory, who also heads Pennsylvania Ballet II, says the technique taught is Balanchine-influenced but varied enough to train dancers to perform PAB’s current range of repertoire. “It’s not all about the pirouettes and how many tours you can do,” he says. “We want to teach students how to perform as human beings, to dance with personality.”

For its inaugural year, the school accepted 120 students, split among six levels. All weekday classes will take place in the evenings so dancers can attend regular high school. Technique will be followed by pointe class three times a week for the higher levels, and dancers will also take partnering, modern and character. All students will have opportunities to perform with the company whenever possible.

The school’s inaugural summer intensive will take place in 2013. For more, see

Welcome to Miami

Florida’s beach bums will be joined by bunheads this fall during the International Ballet Festival of Miami. The event features gala performances; dance-inspired works at a fine art exhibition; a series of dance films, including First Position, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance and Makarova: In a Class of Her Own; plus workshops and master classes.

August 24–September 16

Performance highlights:
International Young Ballet Medal Winners (August 31, September 1), Étoiles Grand Classical Gala (September 15), Festival Closing Gala of the Ballet Stars (September 16)

“A Life for Dance” lifetime achievement award to choreographer Heinz Spoerli; “Criticism and Culture of Ballet” lifetime achievement award to René Sirvin, a French journalist who writes for Le Figaro

Past participating companies:
English National Ballet, Staatsballett Berlin, Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, Ballet de Santiago


Technique Tip:

”Your legs are the longest part of your body—?to not use them fully makes everything harder! Really thinking about my plié helps the height of my jumps incredibly.”?  —Amar Ramasar, New York City Ballet principal