“He'd hold my hand and say, ‘No Vulgarity!’”

photo Erik Tomasson @SFBS

The acclaimed American ballerina Cynthia Harvey talks to balletposition.com about learning from Mikhail Baryshnikov and passing on his exacting standards to 21st century ballet dancers.

Cynthia Harvey wants classical ballet to have a future, but only if it remains true to its classical roots.

“We’re seeing students using social media, for example YouTube, to learn solos,” she told balletposition.com. “And they learn what they see, which is the technical aspects. I felt, along with some colleagues, that the emphasis has been on quantity – how many pirouettes, how high the leg goes. And the intention of the choreographer is lost.”

So, having dedicated her whole life to ballet, she decided to do something about it. Two years ago she set up En Avant Foundation to provide specialised coaching to professional dancers and students. “The way we can help is to coach soloists primarily. In San Francisco we focussed on Swan Lake, also in New York last year. What we do is bring in experts who have danced these roles and can explain [beyond the technique] why you do what you do.”

She warms to her theme: “When you’re Odille, for example, you’d be surprised how many dancers just make faces because they think, ‘this is evil.’ But to have someone like Isabelle Guérin (a fellow member of En Avant Foundation) say ‘you walk seductively’ or ‘it’s mysterious, think about it…’ – coming from a person they respect means they’re more likely to take it on board.”

All this was drilled into Cynthia Harvey from an early age. Trained in her home state of California, she joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1974 and quickly climbed up the ranks to become one of the company’s best loved principals.

Cynthia Harvey as Aurora Royal Ballet photo Leslie Spatt
Cynthia Harvey as Aurora Royal Ballet photo Leslie Spatt

Twelve years later she would join Britain’s Royal Ballet at the personal invitation of Artistic Director Sir Anthony Dowell – the first American principal to be awarded a company, rather than just guest, contract.

“I’d been a huge fan and idolised the Royal Ballet my whole training,” Cynthia told balletposition.com. “If I’d had the opportunity to go to the school in London, I would have; but they didn’t seem open to people from the outside then.”

She spent three years in the company, and danced all the major classical roles. She didn’t feel too foreign – she did, after all, speak the same language – and is discreet about the other dancers’ reaction to her arrival.

“There was a sense of nationalism that I was very aware of. I think it’s different now, 20-odd years later because there are so many more international dancers in the company.”

ABT beckoned, though, and she returned three years later. The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov was still Artistic Director, and his influence on Cynthia Harvey’s approach to ballet cannot be overstated.

Their 1983 performance of Don Quixote has been filmed and is a must watch for ballet lovers. She recalls it as “a wonderful experience that I’ll always hold dear to my heart,” even though, she says, “I felt like I was so beneath him, not only because he was my boss, but he was already a megastar when I was coming up in the company, so I was scraping with my nails to try to come up to his level.”

Baryshnikov’s approach to the classics – his “exacting standards” – rubbed off on her. “Most people feel that Act III of Don Quixote should be a very dynamic performance, very show off-y; but before we went on stage he would hold my hand and say ‘no vulgarity! I want to see a classical piece, totally classic.’”

And that “totally classic” quality is what Cynthia Harvey is trying to impart to productions of ballets that she’s been invited to mount in companies as far apart as Norway and Singapore since her retirement from dancing in 1996.

Singapore Dance Theatre Don Quixote photo Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre Don Quixote photo Bernie Ng

Her production of Don Quixote for the Singapore Dance Theatre was an unqualified success, described by the Company’s Artistic Director, Janek Schergen, as “unique.” He told balletposition.com: “Cynthia has first hand knowledge of all the aspects of Don Quixote in choreography, characterisation and detail. (…)The dancers of the company responded to Cynthia’s brilliant way of working in the studio, which allowed them to bring out the best in their technique and artistry.”

En Avant Foundation is still in its embryonic stage, but already extends not only to professional dancers but to students, too. Is Cynthia’s method when teaching students very different from her approach when coaching professionals?

“Yes. I’m fortunate that I’ve been asked to coach ballerinas quite a lot. I’ve been working with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden and they have some wonderful, wonderful dancers. You don’t have to teach them how to move, so I tend to speak more about what they are thinking or what works and what doesn’t work. It’s more about the flow, the fluidity or where they’re directing their gaze.

photo Bernie Ng
photo Bernie Ng

“With students you have to feed them a little bit less at a time because they can’t take it all on board… they like to think in technical terms.”

photo Daria Klimentova
photo Daria Klimentova @Prague Masterclass

Cynthia Harvey believes classical ballet can thrive in the 21st century. She’s scathing about the notion that everything is evolving away from ballet and into “dance,” because ballet is becoming, some say, obsolete.

“No! I mean, you don’t say that about Mozart – ‘obsolete!’ The classics are classics for a reason (…) but our emphasis must be a little less on quantity and more on the story and moving people. It can be classical and still be pertinent today. “

So how must young dancers play their part in keeping classical ballet both true to its roots and pertinent to our times? Cynthia doesn’t even hesitate:

“I would suggest that they learn the difference between what is beautiful and what is not.”

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"Do Class… Everyday!"

Iconic Dutch Ballerina Igone de Jongh talks to fellow Royal Ballet School alumnus Matthew Paluch exclusively for balletposition.com

When you enter the Muziektheater in Amsterdam you know immediately who the First Lady is. Her image is everywhere from press cuttings and digital screens to posters.

Igone de Jongh is the Prima Ballerina du jour – has been for a while and isn’t going anywhere soon. We managed to sneak thirty minutes out of her hectic schedule to have a quick chat. She’s a dancer, wife, mother and recent TV star, so there’s a lot to discuss.

Her diverse career is of most interest as the muse of the Dutch master Hans van Manen. She’s created many works with him, as well as being in the opening night cast of existing pieces.

“My relationship with Hans (…) didn’t start straight away because I was young.” Explaining
the importance of continuity, she said: “You cannot have this with any choreographer, anywhere in the world, if you go from place to place.”

Not that it wasn’t contemplated – in fact, a move to America was very much on the cards at one point: “l‘ve tried to leave… I’ve auditioned.” I asked why. “To see something else.” But thankfully for dance in the Netherlands she stayed put.

de Jongh and I were peers at the Royal Ballet School in the mid-90s. She arrived so different from everybody else: tall, extraordinary line, technically proficient and with a natural coordination that made her very watchable.

London had come about after an invitation post-Prix de Lausanne: “I was very excited… I was very honoured, I really wanted to get into the Royal Ballet but they didn’t take me. When I didn’t get the job I was devastated… really really devastated.”

She remembers calling her mother and saying, I want to come home, I want to come home.” And that she did, though she still regards the experience as “really useful for me as a teenager…to get away from the country.”

It shaped the artist we see today.

At 36 her career is peaking and shifting at the same time. When asked if she didn’t feel the need to do certain repertoire anymore, within a millisecond she exclaimed Swan Lake without a flinch.

She’s currently coaching the junior/main companies

igone-de-jongh-junior-companies“I love it because finally I feel I can give something back. I’m very happy its not about me, because it makes me very nervous when its all about me all the time. I really feel like I’ve got something to say – I can help them.”

And watching, it’s clear her decisive yet generous persona is greatly appreciated from the studio floor.

I asked for her advice from the unique perspective of a senior principal on training for both students and professionals: “Do class everyday till the end.  Full class.  Six days a week. For me it’s really key. I see people get injured because they come in cold and just do a ballet (…) and if I have time yoga; the hot [Bikram] yoga.”

de Jongh is a public figure, but clearly it’s the intimate studio experiences that propel her to continue to dance, be these with van Manen, partners or visiting choreographers.

The recent acquisition of Neumeier‘s La Dame aux Camélias by Dutch National Ballet was one of those cherished moments both with Neumeier himself and her Armand, Marijn Rademaker: “We have this intimacy without really talking about it – it’s just there. For my heart and my soul as a ballerina, he ‘s the one I’ve been waiting for for a long time. He could be a reason for me to dance longer.”

Igone de Jongh and Marijn Rademaker in La Dame aux Camélias April 2015
Igone de Jongh and Marijn Rademaker in La Dame aux Camélias April 2015

Intimacy seems paramount in her work. Of van Manen she said: “I don’t care what the audience thinks, or what the papers are going to write, l want him to be happy. We are so close, if he’s not happy he’ll tell me (…) The only thing that’s important to me is his opinion in his ballets.”

de Jongh’s career is the stuff of dreams, but a juggling act also: “I’m making it work as I go along. My family is obviously in my heart number one, but so is my dancing. The TV thing is new to me, but l’m enjoying it because it’s been a very good experience so far and it’s something else, and I’ve never done anything else.  When I think about retiring I don’t know… I don‘t think I’m ready to retire now, but l don‘t think I’ll dance another ten years – no way! I want to keep on teaching because I really enjoy it.”

Dutch National Ballet – and Holland, in fact – have nurtured de Jongh from the get go. And when this strong, yet unassuming leader takes the reins fully, Dutch dance can be assured of a glowing future.

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Audition advice from the Scottish Ballet Artistic Director Christopher Hampson

Here’s an invaluable piece of advice from the Artistic Director of a leading European Ballet Company: make mobile technology and the internet work in your favour.

This is what Mr. Hampson told balletposition.com:

A great way to get initial interest from an Artistic Director (without the expense of traveling to each Company) is to send a link to either a YouTube or Vimeo clip.

I suggest your clip is no longer than three minutes.

It should include a maximum of one minute of technique (centre practice / a pirouette exercise / a pointe work enchaînement / grand allegro); one minute of a classical work; and one minute of a contemporary work.

Don’t password protect the link. Emails get lost, and if a Director can’t find the password the chances are your link just won’t get seen.

It’s unlikely you’ll get a job offer from a web link, but you’d certainly know if it’s worth making the journey in the future.

For more useful advice from other Artistic Directors click here

Elsewhere on this website you’ll find more useful advice on auditioning in Auditions Advisory

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A Very Special Pas-de-Deux

Photo Of Sophie Yassaui Megaliyev

Husband and wife dancers, Yassaui Megaliyev and Sophie Rance talk to balletposition.com about finding love in the ballet studio.

Ordinarily, Sophie Rance and Yassaui Megaliyev would never have met, let alone fallen in love and got married.

23-year-old Sophie comes from the leafy surroundings of Royal Tunbridge Wells in the English home counties.

Yassaui, Yas for short, is eight years her senior and grew up half a world away in Almaty, in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan.

Ballet brought them together.

Sophie started as a junior associate taking ballet class on Saturdays at the Royal Ballet.  Aged 11 she entered Elmhurst School for Dance, graduating in 2011.  She then joined the Estonian National Ballet.

Yas trained in Almaty acquiring all the bravura style of classical Russian training. He entered sixteen international competitions and has a slew of medals to show for it: five gold, five silver and one bronze.  His most cherished is the gold he won at the Varna International Competition.

He joined the Ukrainian National Ballet and toured internationally.

Then he, too, joined the Estonian National Ballet.

So, was it love at first sight?

Sophie smiles. “Well, Yas spotted me first.”

It’s not surprising she caught his eye.  Tall and long-limbed with mellow caramel eyes, there’s something of a skittish gazelle about Sophie; and that, together with a strong technique and a breath-taking ability to turn, makes for a very attractive combination.

But when did the course of true love ever run smooth?

“We had a language barrier at first,” says Sophie. “Yas didn’t speak much English, so the relationship started over Google-translate.  We’d say something and had to go back, and then go back again.”

Weaker souls might have given up, but not Sophie and Yas.

“It was very romantic, says Sophie. Yas smiles.

Language was not the only barrier to their relationship.  When they decided to get married in September 2013, bureaucracy got in the way.

Sophie tells the story: “We got married in Kazakhstan, but had a problem with my visa, so we didn’t have time to do all the legalities there.  We just had the traditional wedding; and were eventually officially married in August 2014 in Croatia.  We weren’t sure we’d get the paperwork together both coming from different countries and doing it in a third country, but we got there in the end.”

Croatia was where a couple of years earlier they had decided to move from Estonia, when both were offered jobs in the Croatian National Theatre Ballet in Split.

“The style in that company is predominantly Russian, because most dancers are from former Soviet countries and trained in the Vaganova school,” says Yas, whose English is now completely fluent.

And Sophie adds proudly: “Yas had an opportunity immediately because one person was injured, so he took the lead part in Zorba the Greek and quickly won over audiences there and everybody got to know him around the town.”

Both Sophie and Yas loved their time in Split. “They were interested in our backgrounds and what we could bring to the company”, says Sophie. “We had many opportunities and roles we wouldn’t necessarily have got to dance in other places.”

Then Sophie was offered a short contract in the Royal Swedish Ballet, but Yas couldn’t get a visa to audition.  They decided she should take the job anyway, as pay was so much better than in Croatia.

Yas stayed in Split but accompanied Sophie to help her settle in Stockholm, three days after their Kazakh wedding.

Sophie: “We didn’t have an apartment in Sweden, so we were both walking around trying to find a place, and stayed in a hostel for a week in a room with no window.”

“And that”, laughs Yas, “that was our honeymoon!”

Though Sophie enjoyed her time in Sweden, being apart for so long was not an option, so she returned to Croatia.

From there both went on to a medium-sized American company. “When I was younger everybody always said, ‘oh, you’re too tall, you’re more athletic, you’ll never be able to dance in England;’ so inside my head I had this kind of American dream, and that’s what I geared up for,” says Sophie.

But the American experience wasn’t a happy one for either of them.  For one thing, Sophie’s visa never materialised. No visa, no paid work. For another, both felt hemmed in.

“In America it’s more about your personality.  How you look.  How you smile,” says Yas. “In Europe it’s more about who you are as a dancer. If you are a good dancer, you have the chance to dance – it doesn’t matter if the director doesn’t like you.”

And Sophie adds: “We found it quite difficult to adapt.  I felt that in class we weren’t able to be ourselves and work on areas we needed to work on.”

Now back in Britain, they’re looking to Europe for the next phase of their careers together.  But living together, working together, being with each other 24-hours a day, does that pose problems?

“It works very well” says Sophie.  “Yas is more experienced than I am, so he helps me in my career. Also, although sometimes we have moments when we’re both stressed with the work, it helps to be able to talk to somebody who understands, because it’s so different in the ballet world.”

Does Yas agree?

He does. “The most important thing is, you never argue with your wife, because at the end of the day she’s going to be always right.”

Both laugh.  The love, trust and complicity between them are plain to see.  As is their determination to make a go of their lives and careers together, regardless of any obstacles.

“We’ll get there in the end,” states Sophie.  And you just know they will.

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"These Young People Need to Dance"

Ernst Meisner, Artistic Coordinator of the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company, talks to balletposition.com about the job he loves and his young dancers.

Ernst Meisner is a man on a mission.

Still only 33-years-old, he carries a huge responsibility: to prime 12 exceptionally talented young people for a life as professional ballet dancers.

And he loves it.

“I teach class at least three times a week and then spend most of my days working with them, rehearsing them, which is wonderful – the best part of it! – and also creating my own work.”

Meisner spoke to balletposition.com in the artists’ café at the Royal Opera House, the day after the triumphant premiere of his company’s recent visit to the Linbury.

“The dancers were very nervous,” he said.  “It’s funny, they’ve performed in all sorts of different places, but when you get to this House….”

He, of course,  knows all about “this House,” having been a dancer with the Royal Ballet for 10 years. He moved on to the Dutch National Ballet as a First Soloist, but then they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“This job came up. I was always interested in organising and choreographing.  When I was 23 I organised a gala with some principals from the Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky. I did everything from taxi receipts to the programme –everything!

It almost killed me… I slept for four months afterwards.”  He laughs.  But then, more seriously,“It was such good experience to do it all, though.”

Following a short stint studying management, he shadowed the Dutch National Ballet Artistic Director, Ted Brandsen.  And when the idea of setting up a Junior Company came to fruition in 2013, Brandsen approached Meisner.

“Ted and I had a long conversation.  Did we want six boys and six girls that are all the same height and all look the same?  And that’s exactly what we decided not to do.

We decided to choose 12 talented individuals with physical talent, musicality, coordination…”

 

Young dancers stay with the junior company for two years and Meisner plays a key role in their selection. There are auditions, of course; but he also talent-scouts at international youth competitions.  Does he zero in on the winners?

“Absolutely not!  As a matter of fact, at the recent Youth America Grand Prix I picked a wonderful girl, Melissa Chapski, who’s coming next season.  She was a finalist, but she didn’t win a prize.  I think she suits the Dutch National Ballet, what they’re looking for for the main company.”

Preparing young dancers to join the main company is, of course, the first aim of the Junior Company.  Its members take class with the main company three times a week and dance in some of its productions.

Beyond that, though, they have their own repertoire, including pieces created specifically on them, and their own touring programme.

“I think these young people need to dance and dance a lot.  We take them to cities the main company doesn’t go to, they dance in all kinds of stages, museums, parties, dinners…  

They gain experience.  And because of that, the ones that have now gone into the main company, they’re not afraid of anything – you can throw anything at them.”

The junior company is not only for young dancers, though.

“My belief is that the junior company is also there for young technicians that we bring on tour every year, young composers, young designers, young choreographers.”

Meisner himself is also an accomplished choreographer and has created works for the main company as well as the juniors.

He is, in short, having the time of his life – and is justly proud of what the junior company has achieved in its short life.

“Last year we had seven out of 12 that went straight into the main company and three remained in the Junior, so we kept most of them. One went to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and another to America.  So, it’s working.”

And with this, we came to an end. The afternoon’s rehearsal was about to begin.

“I must give them some notes!”

And off he went to do what he likes best – spend time in the studio with his young dancers.

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