Art of Teaching Ballet: Ten Twentieth-Century Mastersby Gretchen Ward Warren
Interviews with ten 20th-century ballet masters,combining philosophical and pedagogical discussions with sample classroom exercises and photos.
- University Press of Florida
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Marika Besobrasova is one of Europe's most renowned ballet teachers. She has taught in Monte Carlo since the early 1940s. Her school, L'Ecole de Danse Marika Besobrasova, attracts an international array of students and professionals. Although born in Russia, Besobrasova was raised, and received her dance training, in France. She performed with René Blum's Ballets de Monte Carlo in the 1930s, and, in 1940, while still in her twenties, founded the Ballets de Cannes de Marika Besobrasova. From 1949 to 1950 she worked as ballet mistress and company teacher with the Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Subsequently, in addition to maintaining her own school in Monte Carlo, she also directed the schools of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Zurich, and the Ballet de l'Opéra de Rome (1966-69). She is a frequent guest teacher throughout Europe and, since 1970, has maintained a close relationship with the Stuttgart Ballet. In 1971, she staged Nureyev's Paquita for American Ballet Theatre in New York City.
During the 1960s, Besobrasova developed her teaching system into an eleven-year program. Based on Vaganova's Russian syllabus, but heavily influenced by the French School, her system, complete with examinations, is now used by teachers in several countries. Besobrasova is a frequent member of the jury at international dance competitions. She has been decorated on several occasions and is a close friend of Monaco's royal family. Prince Rainier provided her with the lovely villa, Casa Mia, in which her academy in Monte Carlo has been housed since 1974. It was there that I first visited her in 1991.
Each Morning, Marika Besobrasova takes a moment to enjoy the view from the balcony of her spacious apartment high in the hills of Monte Carlo. She has already exercised, eaten breakfast, and checked on her many potted plants, including an impressive collection of orchids. As she watches, the pink sun slowly rises through a thick blanket of gray mist over the Mediterranean. Below her, on rocky cliffs descending to the water, the tiny principality of Monaco, a picturesque collage of pastel buildings, flower-filled gardens, and winding streets, sits tightly packed around an azure harbor filled with luxury yachts. Besobrasova has lived herethe city where Diaghilev presented his famous Ballets Russes in the 1920sfor almost sixty years.
Early mornings are the only quiet time in Besobrasova's long days. Yet, even in these calm moments, there is an air of impatience about her. At seventy-three, with her tall, trim figure, she is still a very active woman. Her face, with its aquiline nose and flashing Nordic-blue eyes, reflects a strong, resilient character. Abruptly, she gathers her things, calls for her ever-present Bedlington terrier, Doucy, and descends to the garage for her car. Her first class of the morning begins at 8:30 A.M.
It was only on the five-minute drives to and from her school that I ever saw Besobrasova lose her aristocratic manners. Her performance rivals that of any Parisian taxi driver. Honking and swerving her deluxe sedan through Monaco's narrow streets, she comments colorfully upon the lack of driving ability of all around her. Upon arrival at her academy, Casa Mia, she leaves her car keys with the Italian caretaker, briskly climbs the stone steps to the vestibule, and swirls into her office, casting aside her silk scarf.
In the few minutes before she begins her morning class, Besobrasova may discuss correspondence with her secretary, take international phone calls, answer questions about costumes or music for upcoming performances, or discuss building problems. Perpetually besieged by all the mundane matters of running a large academy (sometimes even in the middle of teaching a class), she somehow manages to remain calm and businesslike.
Surprisingly, in spite of her fame and aristocratic Russian background, Besobrasova has no airs about her. She is neither grandiose nor remote. Polite, efficient, and often wryly humorous, she is simultaneously dignified and down-to-earth. She has a quick, delightful smile that can, in a second, interrupt the determined set of her jaw, causing years to disappear from her face. She moves fast and is by nature a problem solver. One can imagine her rolling up her sleeves without hesitation in order to mop a dance floor or mend costumes.
Her desire to be heavily involved in every aspect of her academyeven if it means, as it usually does, ten-hour work daysis, no doubt, one of the main reasons her school has endured successfully for almost half a century. The intensity of this involvement is reflected in Besobrasova's description of her relationship to her students. "I am not a teacher," she says emphatically in her delightfully accented English, "I am a mastersomething much more than a teacher." Her statement is not made in an egotistical way. As she explains, "If I'm only a teacher, I will make sure that you begin class on time, finish on time, that you don't miss the next class, and that you know your program. And I will correct your physical and even musical mistakes, but I will not look at your entire life. As a master, I have the right to examine the way a student livesif, for instance, he is not taking rest at the right moment, or not concentrating insofar as reviewing his day or properly planning for the next. As a master, I have the right to say anything to my pupils. I look further than just teachinginto their souls, not just at the skin."
Elizabeth Hertel, a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet who trained with Besobrasova for seven years, says: "I'm a very pessimistic person, and she taught me how to be a fighter, to push myself to get through things, to kick myself to go for it, not to waver. One of her favorite sayings is `Prenez vous par le main' [Take yourself by the hand]. In other words, don't just stand there and feel sorry for yourself"
Besobrasova feels this kind of personalized teaching is necessary to help students become aware of who they are and how they are acting. "Awareness" she says, "is the key to understanding one's problems. A person makes mistakes until he is aware of making them. A dancer will not correct his 5th position until he corrects his own way of approaching that 5th position." She believes students must be sincere: "They must be willing to be corrected and not pay you just to look at them and admire them, which makes no sense for either you or them."
She readily admits that she or any teacher can make mistakes at various times. "But" she says, "I always know why I have chosen a particular path for the moment. I know, for instance, that even though a mistake may result from my pushing him too fast in a certain area, that this is not as important as another thing I have to make him understand first. But I will always be sincere; if my method doesn't work, I'll say, `Excuse me. I made a mistake. Let's try something else'"
There is something motherly about Besobrasova. She is charming and earnest as she moves quietly along the barre using her hands to correct the dancers' bodies. Sometimes she leans close to a student, saying something in a low voice, and both will giggle. Often, narrowing her eyes, she will concentrate her gaze on a student across the room for several moments before she speaks. "I try to develop the capacity with myself to penetrate my students," she says. "I stop all my own thoughts and feelings and just go in them. It's a very difficult task because you agree to abdicate yourself, but, in so doing, you start to feel how they feel when they are moving. Then I understand how they are working their machine and what is wrong."
In order to make a student aware of his problems, Besobrasova often uses physical contact. She explains: "I will make him feel my breath, the pulsation of the muscles. I'll make him move my arms, or I'll stand in back of him and make him move." She may jolt a student into awareness by putting him on the spot with a question such as: "Why do you move your shoulders when you start to move your left foot? Can you explain that relationship to me?" One day, when a young lady was having trouble getting her hips into the air on a failli-assemblé combination, Besobrasova dragged a chair onto the floor, and, holding the girl's hand, commanded her to step up onto the seat ("Montez! Push up!"). Complying, the student immediately felt exactly which muscles must be strongly activated in order to elevate the body from the ground.
Just before 8:30 each morning, Besobrasova breezes hurriedly into the sunny top-floor studio at Casa Mia. It is a lovely, long, pale-pink room with a hardwood floor. A line of partially shuttered, arched, Renaissance-style windowsreminiscent, perhaps, of a set design for Romeo and Julietstretches along one entire wall above the barre. Through them one sees a vast expanse of blue sky and, on the rocky cliffs across the harbor, the palace of Prince Rainier.
As the students finish stretching and pulling on their shoes, Besobrasova disappears into a small dressing room adjacent to the studio. Quickly, she reappears clad in a dark knee-length skirt, pink tights, and a pretty black-lace leotard. Around her neck are a pair of delicate gold chains. She claps her hands. "Bon! Allez! Travaillez! [Good! Let's go! Time to work!]" The students space themselves a few feet away from the barre. Taking a deep breath, they lift their arms to the ceiling. As the music begins, they bend forward, heads dropping toward their knees, in the stretch with which Besobrasova begins all her classes.
Several mornings a week, Besobrasova teaches two classes, working from 8:30 until noon without a breaka very long stretch for anyone, let alone a person in her mid-seventies. Yet she does not seem to tire, perhaps because she paces herself well. She is also well cared for; midway through the morning, her secretary arrives bearing a small tray with biscuits and coffee in a china cup. Besobrasova dispenses with both quickly, almost without thinking and never taking her eyes from the dancers. Although she still has a lovely pair of long, shapely dancer's legs and can move easily and gracefully, she maintains a quiet, rather than demonstrative, presence as she teaches. Her focus is entirely on the students. Only occasionally will she draw attention to herself as a physical example, primarily when making a point about artistry. She is fond of demonstrating (to those who dance with dour faces) how vibrant a dancer's face must be in order to catch an audience's attention. Her students told me that Besobrasova's ability to transform her face momentarily from that of an elderly teacher to a beautiful young ballerina never ceases to amaze them.
Elisabeth Carroll, a former ballerina with the Harkness Ballet who studied with Besobrasova from age fourteen to seventeen, recalls: "When Marika demonstrated, we had to stand perfectly still and watch. Her artistry, coordination, and flow of movement were an inspiration. There was so much to learn by observing the care she gave to small detailsthe way she used her head and eyes in connection to the tips of her fingers, her feet, and beyond. I watched with my entire being and absorbed in complete trust, hoping to move as gracefully as Marika did. She always told us: `You must be as expressive with your feet as you are with your hands. Talk with them!'" Another former student, Tamako Akiyama, a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet, still returns whenever possible to study with Besobrasova and notes that "when Marika demonstrates she seems to extend herself beyond her body."
While Besobrasova can be stern and demanding ("Stop! Stop! Inadmissible!"), she exercises utmost patience in class when explaining things. She stresses that the students must understand exactly how to do the exercises. Nothing must be arbitrary. Precise placement of the toe or heel in all positions is essential, as is exact rhythm.
I enjoyed watching the detailed manner in which she worked with students' hands. For those with the tendency to curl their fingers, she had a unique solution. She placed a thin, light-weight stick, about the size of a cocktail straw, between their fingersover the middle finger and underneath the index and fourth fingers. This forced their fingers to lengthen, producing a correctly shaped balletic hand. At the barre, students would execute one side of an exercise with the stick placed in their outside hand, then quickly change it to the other hand when they turned to the other side.
Besobrasova told me, "The hand is made up of two parts: fingers and palm. The palm must be relaxedin the centerthen you begin shaping the hand from the middle finger. It gives the direction. You lift the index and fourth finger and the little finger highest of all. The thumb moves toward the middle finger" She added that she "hated" the old-fashioned curled hand, which she remembers Balanchine (with whom she had a fine friendship) describing as "like holding an orange." She explained: "If you learn to hold the hand like that, you stay like that forever." (In this, she parted company from Balanchine, who favored such a hand position for students.)
When her students execute an arm preparation beginning with a "breath" port de bras outward from 5th en bas, Besobrasova tells them not to start the movement from their elbow. "Start it from the middle finger-you have to see your fingernails when you allongé your hand. And the opening of the arm happens because of an inhalation. As the ribs expand, the whole arm moves outward. This is involuntary, but the fingersthe nails on top and the tips belowthese you must consciously move."
Attention to such detail is not unusual in Besobrasova's teaching. During an allegro combination, she repeatedly stressed the importance of coordinating a small movement of the head and body with the leg action in temps de cuisse. As the students did the initial petit passé, she wanted them to lean and look down at their working foot. As the foot closed in 5th, she instructed them to lift their chests and chins and look up and out while doing the sissonne that followed. "It's so important" she told them, "the movement of the body with the leg."
The breadth of knowledge Besobrasova offers her students has been accumulated during more than fifty years of teaching. "I never had the urge to make a big career for myself as a dancer or choreographer," she says simply. "My wish was always to teach." In Monaco, she is a venerated public figure. Everyone in the Casino plaza where we had dinner one night seemed to know her. The bellboys at the adjoining hotel ran to park her car, and our waiter, with whom she chatted cheerfully, produced steak tartare in a dog dish for Doucy. As we talked, she threw bread crumbs to the tiny sparrows that flitted around our table.
Besobrasova was born to Russian parents in the Crimean city of Yalta in 1918. The event took place, she notes, "in a villa in the garden of the palace where the famous Yalta agreement between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt was later signed." Prior to the Russian Revolution, her grandfather had been a general in command of the Czar's guards, and her grandmother had been a lady-in-waiting to the mother of the Czar. Besobrasova's father fought in the White Army until the last possible moment before escaping with his family (and many others of the Russian aristocracy) to Europe. She was two years old. The family was stopped in Constantinople. "We spent forty days on the pier lying out in the open on our luggage without any protection from the weather" she says. "I got double pneumonia and double pleuritis. Because of this, I have a large scar on my back from the operation I had to have at two-and-a-half." She was bandaged for months after this operation and, as a result, developed skeletal problems that were to plague her much of her life.
After leaving Constantinople, the family stopped briefly in Venice, where Besobrasova notes that, at two-and-a-half, she was taken to see Diaghilev's ballet company. Her family settled first in Denmark. "But my grandfather could not stand the difficult climate there" she says. "He soon left for the south of France, and we followed." During the early part of her childhood, she was educated in a convent where one day a week she spoke English, another French, and the rest of the time Russian. (Since then, she has taught herself Italian and German as well.) From the age of nine, she attended the Russian Lycée in Nice. She began to dance at the age of twelve with Madame Julie Sedova after her parents decided that ballet lessons might correct the weakness in her back, the result of her childhood operation. At fifteen, she started her professional career with the opera ballet on the same stage in Monte Carlo where the Diaghilev company had danced.
When her first opera season finished, Besobrasova completed her academic studies and, in 1934 at the age of sixteen, joined René Blum's Ballets de Monte Carlo. She recalls working with Fokine: "He was a geniusa real genius. You could see it in his eyes. The ballets were always ready in his head when he arrived to begin rehearsals with us."
Besobrasova remembers that when she arrived in Paris, she was told by the other dancers, "Tomorrow we will start Les Sylphides." She was very concerned because she seemed to be the only dancer not familiar with the ballet. "So, being sixteen, I had the guts to go to Fokine and say, `You know, it seems I am the only one who does not know your ballet, Sylphides. Would you please forgive me?'" She has never forgotten his reply. "Well," he told her, "you'll be the only one who will know it because the rest all think they know it, but they don't!"
She remembers Les Sylphides as "lightness and breathing." The movement, she notes, did not come from the arms. It was the arms that reacted to the breath. "Breathing and releasing" she says. "It impressed me so much that in my teaching, there is always a placement of the breath. It is not coming outside the movement; it comes with the movement" As she tells her students, "Breath is life. If you don't breathe, you don't live."
Fokine, who was residing in New York City at the time, returned to Europe to accompany the troupe to Monte Carlo, where, Besobrasova recalls, the dancers learned twelve ballets in two months! "We had a season here," she remembers, "and then we went to London. It was a rather peculiar situation because we danced in the old Alhambra Theatre, and the De Basil Ballets Russes was at Covent Garden, so throughout the season there was always this rivalry going on between Blum and De Basil. But we had an enormous success. I remember fifty-six curtain calls after Scheherazade."
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Besobrasova, then twenty years old, elected to stay in France rather than follow Blum's company to America. She returned to Monte Carlo and began to give ballet lessons. For a short time, she became involved with staging ballets at the Casino in Monte Carlo, but soon moved to Cannes, where, in 1940, she founded the Ballets de Cannes de Marika Besobrasova. "I was twenty-two" she recalls, "and I really knew nothing, but I took the responsibility of running a company, as well as dancing in it and teaching the dancers" Because it was wartime, many famous dancers came south from Paris to work with her company, among them Janine Charrat, Roland Petit, Serge Golovine, and Jean Babilée.
Babilée, a Paris Opera star, was sent to her by René Blum, who felt it was not safe for the young half-Jewish virtuoso to remain in Nazi-occupied Paris. She remembers the day he arrived. "I understand you are a dancer," she said to him. Without a word, she says, Babilée, then seventeen, assumed a preparatory stance and executed fourteen pirouettes. "Then he threw off his shoes, jumped in the air, and did entrechat douze. After that, he looked at me and said in an incredulous tone of voice, `Do I know how to dance?'"
She says she has known many great dancers. "But Babilée," she says, "did things no one else did. Can you imagine a grand jeté entrelacé with a double tour in it? And he did a double manège of these!" She remembers him as a "fantastic talent" but notes with regret that "he was very naughty, very undisciplineda mixture of tiger, monkey, flea, and grasshopper. When I would grumble at him in class, he would do a jeté up onto the barre, forcing you to look up at him standing there as you gave the correction. Then, he'd do another fancy jeté down. It was very unnerving."
The company in Cannes lasted until 1943. Because of the war, Besobrasova and her dancers endured many hardships, the worst of which was hunger. "There was hardly anything to eat," she recalls, "except olives, mimosa, and carnations." They were saved, she says, by a strange coincidence. The Aga Khan came to a performance one night and, afterward, came backstage. He had recognized the name Besobrasova on the program and wanted to know if she was related in any way to the Besobrasov who had befriended him many years before in St. Petersburg. This man, he told her, had been the president of the balletomanes of the Maryinsky Theatre and, many years ago, had given the Aga Khan, then a young prince, his first tickets to the ballet. The experience had begun his lifelong passion for dance. Besobrasova confirmed that she was indeed related to this man. He was her uncle.
Delighted, the Aga Khan immediately asked what he could do for her, and throughout the war, because his cars had diplomatic immunity, he brought her badly needed supplies from Switzerland: tulle for tutus, chocolate to eat, and vitamins for her dancers. At one point, knowing how exhausted the company was from hunger, he offered to pay for them to take a vacation in the mountains. There it was possible to obtain food, and Besobrasova remembers knitting and mending clothes for the peasants in return for butter and cheese.
In 1943, as the war intensified and the Germans moved south, Besobrasova dissolved her company. She moved to Paris and began studying with two famous teachers: Egorova and Gzovsky. "I worked with her in the morning and him in the afternoon, and between them I had to walk miles and miles because, due to air attacks, there was no public transportation."
She remembers Egorova with particular fondness and believes her greatness as a teacher lay in her wonderful musicality, as well as in her ability to cover in one year all the classical vocabulary. "You wouldn't see it if you only spent a week or two with her," Besobrasova says, "but her classes encompassed a huge amount of material including several steps rarely used in classes today, like temps de cuisse, which she'd give with a variety of accents and always with a strong focus on vitality." Besobrasova remembers that Egorova gave a certain grande pirouette combination "which was really a man's step" every day in order to build strength in her students. (See "Grande Pirouette Exercise" on p. 286.) Egorova was also, she says, adamant about developing strong backs. "We'd do a stretching exercise with one leg on the barre in which we had to maintain both arms in 5th position above our heads throughout, even when we pivoted to face a new direction. You had to really concentrate on holding your back and keeping your arms aligned with your ears if you wanted to do this without losing your balance."
Excerpted from The Art of Teaching Ballet by Gretchen Ward Warren. Copyright © 1996 by Gretchen Ward Warren. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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