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Ballet Scene | Teaching Young Eagles to Soar

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Classical training meets the art of storytelling at Gelsey Kirkland Academy
By Joshua Bartlett

“You have to be more like an eagle than a sparrow,” Gelsey Kirkland tells an aspiring teenage ballerina who needs help with jumping and covering space during technique class. Kirkland lifts her arms in the spacious studio to simulate a broad wingspan, bringing to mind the combination of a sparrow’s fragility and an eagle’s prowess she brought to the stage during her performing career.

Wearing shaded glasses and a pink button-down shirt over a simple black shirt and pants, Kirkland demonstrates juicy pliés and beautifully coordinated port de bras that make it seem as if she might launch into one of those lightning-fast allegro solos in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

The legendary ballerina—some consider her the greatest of all—has traveled long and far since the publication of her autobiographical page-turners Dancing on My Grave in 1986 and The Shape of Love in 1990. And she has settled quite naturally into her role as co-artistic director of Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. Opened in September 2010, GKA is co-directed by Kirkland’s husband, Michael Chernov, who also acts as executive director and has provided necessary grounding through the tough process of founding a business.

Establishing a new ballet academy in Manhattan, with stratospheric real estate prices and competition from ballet-company–affiliated academies, might have deterred less determined souls. But Kirkland and Chernov had drive and vision.

It’s easy to spot the Vaganova pedigree in the GKA classes. The dancers execute well-placed pirouettes and travel across the floor and jump with a Russian abandon.

“We wanted to give what we believe is good training to dancers here, and we had the opportunity to unify that training,” says Kirkland. “Obviously you need a team—people who are coordinated in what they are teaching students and have different teaching strengths. But the ‘what,’ the coordination, the system has to be the same. Otherwise the students are confused.

“Also, our background is theatrical,” she continues, “so we wanted to interpret the system used through the theatrical lens, so that all the focal points are radiating through a theatrical geometry. So you have to have people who are anatomically working with the same principles and also understand that the end aim is to be an actor onstage.”

Although the couple had never owned a school, they had directed and taught extensively. Kirkland had a roaming post-performance career, teaching ballet in Australia (where she met Chernov), directing the classical division of Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and teaching at Steps on Broadway. Chernov, an alumnus of the National Ballet and Theatre School in Melbourne, Australia, danced professionally in Australia and abroad and worked as an actor at the Hartford Stage Company and Asolo Repertory Theatre. He taught classical ballet at Victorian College of the Arts in Southbank and at Dance World in Melbourne, where he and Kirkland co-directed the ballet program.

Over the years the duo developed a teaching method based on their combined years of learning, teaching, and performing experience. And they decided that the best way to disseminate this method was to create a school. “We thought we’d give it a try, one last go,” Kirkland says. “After that, if it didn’t work . . . well.”

But so far, it has worked remarkably, maybe even miraculously, well.

After viewing a few rental spaces in the spring of 2010, Chernov and Kirkland found two floors—in an 8,000-square-foot abandoned space in Tribeca, surrounded by a patchwork of fabric shops and odd commercial offices—with no plumbing, no wiring, crumbling plaster, and little to recommend them save for good light, the absence of columns, and possibilities.

“As is” were the landlord’s explicit words upon offering a 10-year lease. The first contractor Chernov hired quit after less than a week, deeming the task impossible. Even though their vision “was all based on hope,” within four months they had built five large-to-enormous studios, most with skylights, with double sprung floors and mirrors. They also had cellar space, used to store costumes acquired from a defunct Russian ballet company and the Metropolitan Opera, and room for a Pilates Reformer studio.

The entire renovation cost roughly a quarter of a million dollars, most of which came from their own investments. And the entire space leases for nearly $20,000 a month, which in Manhattan, believe it or not, is a bargain. The academy’s annual working budget is $1.6 million.

The first year, the full-time program enrolled 45 students; in 2011, 65 enrolled. Last spring they added a children’s program with six levels for youngsters from age 2 to 10. This season four levels of 80 pre-professional students attend class five and a half days per week, dancing six to seven hours per day. There’s an annual summer intensive as well, which enrolled 250 students in 2012. All classes are accompanied by a pianist, supervised by music director Olga Bazilevskaya.

GKA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which, with a two-year proven track record, can now credibly apply for large corporate grants. Chernov says the academy has consistently run in the black and has existed entirely on tuition. (Tuition can be pricey—the pre-professional full day program, for example, which offers 36 hours of training per week, runs $12,000 per year.) GKA, according to Chernov, has granted the equivalent of $180,000 in merit and needs-based scholarships in the last year.

The summer program brings in a respectable sum that helps stretch the academy’s budget throughout the year, but it provides just enough to survive, Chernov says. Small individual donations have helped. The academy has also received branding support from Tutu.com, Gaynor Minden, Stagestep, and Grishko, among others.

While teaching class, Kirkland assembles points of wisdom and technical concepts with laser-like clarity—including the focus of the eyes, giving breath to a balance, proper placement of the shoulder blades, the meaning of épaulement and, not surprisingly, her trademark musical phrasing, ranging from presto to adagio. The students in an early July pre-summer intensive class, 17 girls and one boy, absorbed the class with unusual concentration—they knew they were getting it directly from the master.

It’s easy to spot the Vaganova pedigree in the GKA classes. The dancers use their entire bodies, with port de bras emanating from deep in the spine; they execute well-placed pirouettes at the barre and in the center; and they travel across the floor and jump with a Russian abandon.

While in Australia, Kirkland and Chernov studied the Vaganova method at Victorian College of the Arts and continued to do so with Russian master teacher Nina Osipyan. Most of the GKA faculty is steeped in Vaganova: Lyubov Fominich from Perm Ballet; Vera Solovyeva and Nikolay Levitsky from Leonid Jacobson Ballet Company in St. Petersburg; Yaroslav Fadeyev from Maryinsky Ballet; and Vaganova-trained teachers Varvara Kalinin and Alexandra Lawler. Danish teacher Karina Elver teaches Bournonville technique and Pilar Garcia teaches mime.

But why Vaganova? And especially from the ballerina who personified the essence of American know-how, eclecticism, and perfectionism, the ballerina who was featured on the cover of Time in May 1978 with the title “U.S. Ballet Soars.” Kirkland had grown up studying at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, training with teachers like Stanley Williams, and then independently with Maggie Black and David Howard. And it was Kirkland, after all, who seemed to be rocketing ballet into the 21st century and away from 19th century Russian mustiness. So why, people wondered, did Gelsey “go Russian”?

To answer the question, Kirkland looks back in time. When she left NYCB in 1974 to join ABT and dance the classics with Baryshnikov, she underwent what she calls “a traumatic transition.” She worked out some alignment issues: squaring hips and shoulders and working without distortions in the body.

“I learned kinetics from David [Howard]—how to live inside movement,” she says. “I imitated certain things, and I was very good at imitating. But there were certain things I didn’t learn. Baryshnikov used to say, ‘You should study Irina Kolpakova’s port de bras.’ And I was so mad. I told him, ‘I don’t have time to do that. My port de bras is OK.’ ”

When Kirkland took the Vaganova teacher training at Victorian College of the Arts, the “hows” and “whys” fell into place. “When you get inside the system, you understand what’s going on,” says Kirkland. “And you go, of course, that’s what I was trying to imitate. That’s what I’ve been looking at that I’m interested in being able to teach someone.”

She had admired—and imitated—the best qualities of many dancers, including Natalia Makarova, Margot Fonteyn, and Carla Fracci. The result was something of a hybrid, albeit a remarkably stellar one. Kirkland says, “You have to choose a system. And then I bring all of my background to that. It’s very obvious that the Russians are producing great dancers. If you know why that is, then why not take all that knowledge and try to wed it to what else you know and learn from that? So we find that it is a very magical system created in a certain way. People are hiring a lot of Russian dancers.” (She has a point: more than 42 percent of ABT’s principal dancers during its 2012 Met season were born and trained in former countries of the Soviet Union.)

Kirkland says all the GKA teachers are well versed in the agreed-upon system of teaching: “It’s not an image-oriented system. Without my background with Stanley Williams, David Howard, and Maggie Black, I would not be able to penetrate any of [the Vaganova technique]. The training is a wedding all of these different things.”

Last May, GKA presented an evening showcase of its dancers performing excerpts from La Bayadère, La Sylphide, and Swan Lake. The dancers demonstrated an impressive unity of style and consistency of technique: their pirouettes were steady and their jumps buoyant. Some stood out for their individual qualities of lightness and poignancy. And they all understood how to move—how to really dance without hesitation.

“You couldn’t say these people were trained in Russia, but they could do Bournonville and Petipa,” says Kirkland. “You can’t train somebody generically and then expect them to do Petipa or Bournonville. A classical dancer is not a generic dancer. A classical dancer in my mind is ready to do everything—to move from the center out. It’s very difficult if you’re taught from the outside to move in to the classical.”

An example of why Bournonville and Petipa—two very different technical approaches—are taught at the school lies in how GKA dancers are trained to jump. “There are all different kinds of jumps,” says Kirkland. “You won’t learn grand allegro by studying Bournonville. But for middle allegro, it helps you tremendously—those hidden steps that get you into the air, the joining steps, the binding steps.” (Think of a Bournonville sissone with the back leg in attitude and the arms presented forward.)

“The big jumps—that’s the Vaganova stuff,” says Chernov. “It’s about how you do the preparations.” For tour jeté, for example, a dancer can approach the jump conventionally through a chassé, or by taking two steps into it. Or he can do a “chug step,” a hidden sauté almost like a cabriole without the beat to propel himself into the air, which is a distinctly Russian approach.

GKA teachers follow the Vaganova principle of “the divided exercise,” a way of teaching in progressive stages. For example, an assemblé can be broken down as demi-plié, tendu à la seconde to fifth position en l’air. But what they say is unique to GKA training is the complete coordination of the exercise that results in movement quality.

“Children learn one element at a time through building blocks,” says Kirkland. “So that is very important to build into the early training. But if you don’t have it in your early training, we have remedial ways of getting people to do it quickly, which are not necessarily orthodox. You can’t teach someone who has been badly trained [the same way] you would teach a dancer from the beginning. First you have to break the habit and replace it immediately with something exciting for them to think about and feel in their body.”

Therefore, remedial corrective classes, designed to overcome specific deficiencies in training, are an essential part of the curriculum. A teacher can spend half an hour on the shape of the hands, the mechanics of cambré derrière, the placement of the spine in plié, or whatever needs specific individual correction.

Every morning the students go through the Core Dynamics- and Pilates-based exercises that Chernov and Kirkland learned in London from Dreas Reyneke at The Royal Ballet. (Once when Kirkland was working with The Royal Ballet, Makarova came to Reyneke’s studio and said she recognized the exercises Kirkland was doing from her early training in Russia.) “These [Russian] children start very early building their strength, core, their spine, and how the mechanics work,” says Kirkland. “We want to build that into children’s ability before they have to deal with a normal class.”

Of course, technique onstage means nothing without the proper context and motivation for movement. Kirkland and Chernov stress that they are training dancers for the theater, performers who can move deeply into a character and comprehend the holistic connectivity of a story. In fact, GKA’s branding phrase is “The Art of Storytelling.”

Much of that context relies on understanding classicism, the principles of which are taught to GKA students not only from the point of view of ballet, but of art in general. (In addition to ballet and Core Dynamics, the students are given lessons in performing and fine arts, such as drama, mime, history and period movement, music, and art.)

“Classicism is the search for nobility, harmony, simplicity, and beauty, among other things,” says Chernov. He gives, as an example, ballet’s use of the head. If the training of the head and focus is generic, he says, “you’ve lost a whole scientific principle that the head needs to coordinate with the body. If the head disappears, the harmony is decreased. You have to look at it from classical principles.”

More specifically, if a student at the barre looks straight ahead without using the head, says Chernov, one part of the body gets left behind. Instead, by turning into the barre and away from it, the head moves naturally with épaulement. This also develops the neck muscles needed for spotting.

Both Chernov and Kirkland feel that abstraction, which has dominated much of contemporary choreography, is aesthetically pleasing, but only to a point. “Abstraction can’t hold a thought for very long,” says Chernov. “By definition, it’s abstract. So you have a
number of disconnected things that are perhaps beautiful by themselves. There is that moment and that moment. It’s harder to see a whole. A good story always has a whole. We find that is more expressive.”

That doesn’t mean Kirkland and Chernov are training dancers only capable of performing story ballets. They simply feel that if the classicism comes first, then anything else can be superimposed stylistically. “I think if you need to do a Balanchine ballet and twist your hips or cross your leg over, that’s not so hard,” says Kirkland. “But you can’t train like that and then go back to the center. We’re trying to build instruments that can make those changes.”

While GKA’s recent student showcases have almost exclusively featured classical warhorses, that’s been the result of necessity; those pieces require no royalties for choreography and they’re also great training for students. Kirkland and Chernov would love to acquire ballets by Tudor, MacMillan, Ashton, and Balanchine (they have already performed Balanchine’s seldom-staged À La Française), as well as nurture new choreographers.

Kirkland and Chernov haven’t concerned themselves too much with the idea of competing with other established academies like SAB or ABT’s JKO School. “People who want to go to SAB will go to SAB,” says Chernov. “It’s a different idea. Since it’s a very big, established institution now, it draws the biggest talent. JKO and SAB attract students not necessarily because of the training, but because of who they are—students want to get into the company at the other end of the training.”

Ultimately, he thinks, students should be drawn in by the training. “The students who come here either want to study with Gelsey or they’re attracted to the idea of story ballet training. Others have heard about the training and this is what they want.” Among their students are some graduates of the Vaganova-based Kirov Academy in Washington, DC.

As of now, Kirkland is teaching quite a bit, Chernov not as much, due to executive demands. They hope to be able to concentrate more on directing and choreographing in the future. Their 5- to 10-year plan includes establishing a professional company large enough to stage the classics and hiring choreographers to create ballets for the dancers.

Back in the studio, Kirkland, moving effortlessly through her eloquent port de bras, leads the students in the class-closing révérence with dignity, musicality, and elegance. “You’ve got to love what you do,” says Chernov after the class ends. “We love what we do.”

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Gelsey Kirkland Students Present Program of Bournonville, Petipa

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“Mostly Bournonville and Petipa,” a program of excerpts from ballets such as Swan Lake, La Bayadère, and Napoli, will be performed by students from the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet on December 16 at 7:30pm at New York’s Symphony Space.

Dancers under the artistic direction of Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov will showcase the various styles taught at the school, from Petipa to Bournonville (taught by Karina Elver, formerly of the Royal Danish Ballet), and from ballet mime scenes to character dances.

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet (Photo by J. Cervantes)

The program includes: Napoli (excerpts), “Pas de Sept” (Act 3) and “Birthe the Troll” from A Folk Tale; Pas de Quatre; “Russian Dance” and “Gypsy Dance” (traditional music); La Vivandiere; “Neapolitan Dance” and “Hungarian Dance” from Swan Lake; Sleeping Beauty’s “Bluebird Pas de Deux,” “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” “Dance of Aurora’s friends” (Act 1), and “Jewel Fairies” (Act 3); and “Drum Dance” from La Bayadère.

Symphony Space is located at 2537 Broadway (at 95th Street). Tickets are $35 or $20 for children. For reservations, call 212.864.5400 or visit www.symphonyspace.org. For more information on the academy, visit www.gelseykirklandballet.org.

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