Monday, August 25, 2014

A Fly On The Rehearsal Studio Wall

Jacques d'Amboise with Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
If you love dance, the most wonderful place in the world to hang out is a rehearsal studio.
I've spent hours watching patient (and not so patient) stagers and choreographers at work. I love to see how most dancers use the skill and experience stored in their bodies to replicate an idea, to make the dance bloom.

When you sit up close, you get to see all the hard work that goes into learning and perfecting a dance. By the time they're ready for a public performance, the dancers have practiced steps and gestures, polished and refined them, so that everything looks almost (almost) effortless to the audience.

Usually, rehearsal sessions involve a lot of movement; this is dance, after all. But recently I spent an hour watching a master transmit not so much the physical as the spiritual aspects of a dance; the all but intangible details that transform craft into artistry. It was fascinating.

Most ballet fans know the name Jacques d'Amboise. He danced for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet for more than three decades in the 1950's, '60's and '70's.  After his performing career ended, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, a school that was documented in the Academy Award-winning film "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'."

Last week,d'Amboise was in Seattle to coach the Pacific Northwest Ballet company members for their upcoming performances of Balanchine's "Jewels." This is a dance d'Amboise performed often; it's one he helped Balanchine to create. "Jewels" is embedded in d'Amboise's long muscle memory bank.

Jacques d'Amboise is 80 years old now. His hair is white, his posture just a tiny bit stooped. But as he stepped over to the barre on a recent sunny afternoon, his feet in sensible brown shoes, the man's vitality flooded out through his broad smile and enveloped the whole studio.

D'Amboise didn't concern himself overly with the "Jewels" choreography. After PNB principals Carla Korbes and Bakhturel Bold briefly ran through a section, d'Amboise stopped the action and gestured them and the six other dancers to his side. He pulled over soloist Jerome Tisserand and asked him to stand in first position, heels together and toes pointed out. "Don't look at the floor," d'Amboise admonished. Tisserand grinned as he flowed through a series of basic barre exercises.
Jacques d'Amboise with PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch and Soloist Jerome Tisserand
photo by Lindsay Thomas

"I don't have anything to tell you, except that this is a performing art," he told the younger dancer. "Take the stage for others to look at you perform a skill they don't have."

Then d'Amboise demonstrated what he was after: a lifted chin, eye contact with an imaginary audience, an assured sweep of an arm upon entering the stage. And, when the final jump is landed, a shared moment with that same audience, an acknowledgement of what has just transpired.

"Be proud," d'Amboise told the dancers, who by now had re-donned fleece jackets and leg warmers, certain they weren't going to be moving around much during this particular rehearsal hour.

Corps de ballet member Steven Loch's turn came next. d'Amboise placed a folded dollar bill on the floor at Loch's feet. He asked the young dancer to jump and land crisply on that bill, feet held tight in fifth position. When Loch mastered that single jump to d'Amboise's satisfaction, the mentor asked his pupil to execute a series of four jumps around that dollar. Smiling, Loch did.

D'Amboise regaled his audience with tales of Balanchine, of the legendary choreographer's intentions, and about his experience taking Balanchine's work beyond a mere repetition of steps to create something bigger, an experience that would remain with the audience long after they filed from the hall. Remember, he told the PNB dancers, to "carry yourselves with a modesty that springs from the knowledge of what you are." In other words, a confidence in training, in experience, in abilities.

That confidence is what makes a particular dancer transcend the ordinary, what makes him or her stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, d'Amboise told the group, it's what transforms all the jumps and steps and waving arms from mere movement into art.

Jacques d'Amboise hobbled back to his chair at the front of the studio, a bit winded from his demonstrations, but his smile still broad, eyes twinkling.

"Okay," he said. "Now who's going to run through this next? Without looking at the floor?"

Everyone laughed.
PNB Principal Dancer shares a laugh with Jacques d'Amboise
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet's season opening performances of "Jewels" begin Friday, September 26th at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

No comments:

Post a Comment