Franco De Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, spends most afternoons taking young ballet students through the details of correct placement, port de bras, and other fundamentals that make up the foundation of ballet. But during a recent week-long intensive, De Vita faced a very different audience. A rapt room filled with current and former ABT dancers had come to hear De Vita's and Raymond Lukens' introduction to a new National Training Curriculum that ABT launched last December.
Designed to help dance teachers in studios around the country create a structured, age-appropriate approach to training, the curriculum will be taught in ABT-sponsored teacher workshops beginning this June. The syllabus spans teaching kindergarten to pre-professional level students. A teacher who successfully completes the training receives certification and can opt to have his/her students examined annually by ABT's faculty. For those who want to expand their training to the graduate school level, the company has partnered with New York University's Steinhardt School to offer a Master's degree in Ballet Pedagogy, which includes immersion in the new curriculum.
The curriculum's purpose is two-fold‹it emphasizes healthy training and purity of technique. "We noticed during our summer intensive audition tours‹we audition over 4,000 students every year‹that there isn't a great deal of quality training," says Executive Director Rachel Moore. "We saw a lot of students who had been pushed too early, and our physical therapists were seeing younger and younger dancers come in with serious injuries. Plus many professional schools have a specific approach that trains dancers to enter a particular company, and our repertoire needs dancers who aren't wedded to one style."
ABT also felt there was a need for a curriculum that would engage young dancers regardless of natural facility. "This is not only a curriculum for pre-professional students," notes Moore. "Ninety-nine percent of the students who take classes in this country don't become professionals, but we want them to have a good experience that develops a life long love of dance. They are our future audience."
To that end, the curriculum's yearly benchmarks allow students of all abilities to make measurable progress. "Some teachers tend to push students too fast," says De Vita. "The children end up struggling to do steps that are too difficult. Our curriculum paces the students, with certain steps to cover each semester."
The company began rolling out the program by offering ABT alumni a first look, since many former dancers now run studios or teach master classes. For Paul Sutherland, a noted dancer turned master teacher who stages Agnes de Mille's Rodeo for companies around the country, the session proved eye-opening. "ABT has created a system that isn't going to ruin dancers or demand a perfect body to begin with," he says. "The Curriculum can train any child who wants to be a dancer. Even if he or she doesn't have perfect turnout, they'll get great training."
From the start, the company wanted to emphasize healthy development. ABT chairman emeritus Lewis Ranieri asked Dr. Gary I. Wadler, clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU and a sports medicine expert, to head up a medical advisory panel. "Today young people are expected to achieve at very high levels at very young ages. An array of problems can arise from putting those demands on them," says Wadler, who has been an advisor on the women's tennis circuit and seen the pressures on young players. He recruited experts in specialties that range from orthopedics to nutrition and tapped ABT's own staff of physical therapists and medical consultants to help create teacher guidelines.
Ultimately these medical guidelines were broken down in a detailed 150-page document that is a core element in the curriculum. Topics range from anatomy, proper turnout and injury warning signs to more insidious challenges like burnout and eating disorders. "We want to help teachers be educated providers," Wadler says. "We're not asking them to be doctors, but if something seems awry, they will have an idea of where to go and the next steps to take."
Teaching ballet safely may be paramount, but De Vita also wants to encourage a clean, unmannered technique that will allow young dancers to perform a wide range of choreography. "We tried to put the best of the Italian, the Russian and the French schools into our approach," he says, "but we wanted the results to be very pure. The goal is to enable the students to switch styles easily, since most professional companies now require dancers to do modern, Balanchine, and classical work."
For dancers like ABT soloist Craig Salstein, who attended the introductory seminar, De Vita has more than accomplished that mission. Salstein now teaches ABT company class and is eager for new insight into demonstrating steps. "Technique is our language‹we need to learn how to use it correctly," he says. "You don't want to use bad grammar or the wrong word. The curriculum is like a thesaurus. It gives you better words for what we do."
Salstein welcomes the amount of explanation the curriculum includes. "Teachers say, 'Support your arches.' Franco wants you to know why it's important to land correctly, why you want to avoid rolling in, what the bones in your feet are doing." He praises the curriculum's step-by-step structure, but notes it's not a rigid one. "You can't ever be absolute," he says. "What works for one student may not work for another. As a teacher, you don't know what it feels like for a student‹you need to study their bodies and be flexible. This curriculum is full of that kind of thinking."
The NYU Master's program, which will see its first class enter in September, enlarges on this approach, offering its graduate students a chance to explore all the elements involved in the learning process. "So many working in the private sector teach ballet without formal preparation," says Susan Koff, director of the Steinhardt School's dance education program. "It's incumbent upon teachers to be knowledgeable, usually from their experience as performers, but offering a degree at the Master's level allows a wider scope. It becomes about how human beings learn; it's a fuller comprehension of who the student might be." The degree, which requires 36 credits, will include a teaching apprenticeship at the JKO School, as well as units that include classes in anatomy and somatics.
The ABT curriculum's goals are lofty, but Koff believes that the benefits could be equally great. "We hope to see a completely different type of ballet education come out of this," she says. "There are spectacular teachers out there, but not everyone has a chance to have one of them‹this will build up that pool very directly."
Paul Sutherland sees the effort as long-overdue in this country. "ABT is trying to train American dancers," he says. "Technique should not destroy you, and they're on top of that. What they're doing is beautiful, not mannered‹they aren't fanatics. It's intelligent, rational training and I hope it seeps through to the entire dance community."
For more information about American Ballet Theatre's National Training Curriculum, please contact ABT's Education Department, (212) 477-3030.
Hanna Rubin in the Managing Editor of Dance Magazine.