Skidmore-based summer program finds a new home at Mount Holyoke—and keeps on making memories
By Karen White
In a spacious dance studio at Mount Holyoke College, a class is in the able hands of Viktor Lytvynov, a ballet teacher and company director from Kiev, Ukraine. But Mireille Briane just can’t help herself. “A little lighter—bounce!” she calls out to the aspiring ballerinas from her seat on the side. “Croisé, croisé!” She strides among the moving bodies, chooses one, and fixes some fingers. She no sooner retires to her seat than she’s up again, this time adjusting a head. Lytvynov waits and smiles. There’s just no way to keep this teacher in her seat.
There’s also no way to stop Briansky Ballet Center, the summer intensive program Briane and her husband, Oleg Briansky, founded 45 years ago at Skidmore College in Saratoga, New York, under the name Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center. In 2006 it appeared that the couple—respected throughout the dance world as teachers and accomplished professional dancers—planned to close the curtain and take a well-deserved rest. But those rumors of retirement were, apparently, premature. After a one-year break in 2009, the program has re-emerged in a new home, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
What happened? “I don’t believe in retirement,” says Briansky. “You retire if you have no energy left and nothing to contribute to society. My wife and I have worked all our lives. As long as we have the energy, the will, and the desire to continue, we will.”
Standing against the barre in a sunlit studio, he tells of receiving cards and emails from friends and former students praising the program and begging for its return. But Skidmore had expanded its summer programming and the Brianskys’ old space was no longer available. The couple began researching other New York colleges, and then, on the advice of a friend, broadened their search to Massachusetts, settling on this quintessential, red brick, New England–style campus.
“We love it here,” Briansky says of Mount Holyoke. “There are lovely dorms, state-of-the-art studios, and the nature is lush and verdant. Everything is so green; the trees are beautiful.” Briane chimes in, telling of the stream with a waterfall that runs through campus, populated by ducks and one “mother” goose. But it wasn’t only the setting that attracted the Brianskys. The encapsulated campus is only steps from the dorm, allowing for close supervision of the dancers, ages 10 through teens.
The sports and dance complex, with two dance studios and a theater, also has a swimming pool, and the Brianskys make sure the dancers have scheduled swim time every day to work out aching muscles and help their bodies recuperate from the hours of daily dance class and rehearsal. “It’s an intense program. Some are not used to it,” Briansky says. “We want them to at least put their feet in the water.”
As Ann Dylewski of Suffield, Connecticut, mother of dancer Emily, 13, says, “The girls who swim aren’t the girls looking for ice.”
“Intense” also describes the Brianskys’ approach to their performing careers. By the 1950s, Briansky was performing with Ballet des Champs-Élysées, Ballet de Paris, London Festival Ballet, and New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet, partnering top ballerinas such as Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief, and Violette Verdy. By age 16, Briane was a principal dancer at the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux, France, and also danced with Ballets de Paris and London Festival Ballet.
When severe arthritis struck down Briansky’s rising star, he turned his attentions elsewhere in dance. His wide-ranging resume includes judging at the Prix de Lausanne and other competitions, serving as associate artistic director of the Ballet de Rio de Janeiro, artistic and art director for the documentary film Children of Theatre Street, and translating ballet books such as the Vaganova textbook 100 Lessons in Classical Ballet. As a guest teacher at festivals, Briansky taught and directed principal dancers from major companies such as New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Boston Ballet. For a short time he served on the faculty at the School of American Ballet, and many of his summer intensive students have gone on to professional ballet careers.
Briane created a year-long series of educational ballet programs for Britain’s Independent Radio Television, led her own ballet school in London, and taught at the School of American Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Alvin Ailey school. From 1994 to 2006, the couple directed the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
And, of course, there was Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center. From its inception in 1965 (when it was one of the first summer intensives) until 2008, the program attracted top teachers such as Peter Martins and pre-professional students such as Marianna Tcherkassky, later a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and Katita Waldo, a longtime principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and now a ballet master there. Briansky says students hailed from Japan, Morocco, the former Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, and Canada. For the program’s grand 40th anniversary in 2005, well-wishes were sent from dance luminaries such as Leslie Caron, Clive Barnes, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Natalia Makarova.
The program had “a long and wonderful history” at Skidmore, says Sharon Arpey, director of institutes, conferences, and summer operations at the college. But officials at Skidmore were under the impression that the Brianskys planned to retire after the summer of 2008. With the arrival of a new dean of special programs in 2005, and the college’s decision to make dance an academic department, its own summertime dance offerings were expanding.
News that the couple planned to continue the program at Mount Holyoke took Skidmore officials by surprise, Arpey says, adding that they wished the Brianskys continued success.
“The Brianskys are really hands-on. They come to class and connect with every student. And all the kids are very motivated.” —student Dora Novak
Arrangements with Mount Holyoke were not finalized until January 2010, too late to do much promotion for the summer program, Briansky says. Enrollment for the first two weeks was small (about 17), but by the third week roughly 50 dancers were taking class from Lytvynov, artistic director of the Kiev Ballet of the National Opera of Ukraine; Alexandra Gonzalez, a dancer with Ballet Hispanico; and Jessica Hilf Greenlaw of Orange School of Performing Arts in Virginia. Ninety students attended all or part of the four-week program, but Briansky expects the number to return to previous enrollment levels. (At Saratoga, 100 to 180 students attended each summer.)
With three teachers handling classes in ballet, pointe, and Broadway-style jazz, plus logistical details to tend to (such as meeting with the health inspector), Briansky and Briane are not teaching—at least not officially. In one class students go over some Briansky choreography they are preparing for a demonstration showcase on the final day, and he can’t resist a comment or two. Briane fusses over the dancers—every time one group exits after a combination, she straightens a shoulder or demonstrates where a gaze should fall before sending them back out on the floor.
Gonzalez doesn’t mind the interruptions. “They have so much knowledge; I learn from them every day, either something about ballet or the people they talk about,” she says. “They are demanding, but it’s a good thing. They take this job very seriously, and these students are very well trained.”
This one-on-one attention has kept Dora Novak, 21, of Des Moines, Iowa, coming back. She first attended the program at 12, and in 2008 she became a counselor, taking class herself but also mentoring and supervising younger girls. “The Brianskys are really hands-on. They come to class and connect with every student,” she says. “And all the kids are very motivated. A lot want to be dancers, but even those who don’t [plan to dance professionally] enjoy learning this level of technique.”
The in-class atmosphere is strictly professional—perfect hair, leotards colored by levels, and 100 percent attention. Briane insists on live music, and smiling pianists play the grand pianos that sit in a corner in both ballet studios. There’s an international flair in the air, as Briansky discusses a point with Lytvynov in Russian, or notes are given to the Brazilian students in Portuguese. “We speak so many languages,” Briansky says, “that I don’t know sometimes which one I am speaking!”
Later at lunch, a group of dancers ages 11 to 17 all nod when asked if they want to be professional dancers. “I want to be one, but not full-time,” says Veronica Kelegian, 11, of Manhattan. “I also want to be a veterinarian.”
The girls are “exhausted and sore,” according to Gabrielle Rerra, 13, of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The daily schedule includes class from 9:30 to 11:30 A.M. and from 2:30 to 5:30 P.M., with a one-and-a-half or two-hour rehearsal at night. But they’ve also improved, they say—in particular, they mention turnout, posture, and strength—and learned a lot from Briansky and Briane. “They are strict, but you improve a lot in a few days,” Hannah Babb, 12, of Grafton, Massachusetts, says.
“I think [the program is] special—they’ve been around a long time,” says Natalia Kurpiel, 14, of Dudley, Massachusetts. “I will remember the Brianskys and how they wanted to teach us everything.”
While teaching solid ballet technique has always been the focus of the summer program, Briansky says, “we are committed to developing more than just technical abilities.” Instilling discipline and respect for ballet training is paramount. He says he and his wife have always loved children, and they seek to develop character and self-confidence in their students by showing “interest in them as people more than just dancers.”
Their approach works. “I see a big improvement in attitude with the little girls,” says Maria-Luisa Noronha. “They look at the work differently, and make progress.” Noronha, director of Escola Estadual de Dança Maria Olenewa, a school in Brazil, started bringing her students to the program about 20 years ago. Last summer she was back again with 40 Brazilian dancers, some older pre-professionals and some “little girls” who dance for fun. Years ago she taught with the Brianskys at Saratoga, and while the program’s location has changed, Noronha sees “the same quality and caring and professionalism.”
Away from the ballet barre, there is plenty of fun. The Brianskys lead weekend trips to Jacob’s Pillow to see Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal or to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see New York City Ballet. Gemze deLappe dropped in one evening and regaled the girls with stories of Agnes de Mille and Oklahoma! Two Swiss students “roasted” the counselors and were the hit of an informal talent show. The college’s track-and-field area makes a perfect setting for the “Briansky Olympics.”
Veronica’s mother, Ludmila Kelegian, calls it “a great experience. They see the older ballet girls and look up to them,” she says. “They all cry when some leave. I think these girls will be friends for some time.”
Back when arthritis forced Briansky off the stage, it was “a shock. I could dance one day, then other days I was in so much pain I could hardly walk,” he says. “Mr. [George] Balanchine wanted me to join his company, and I told him I couldn’t. I wasn’t thinking of becoming a teacher, but I think it’s natural for dancers to become teachers. It’s an extension of the profession.”
That’s why, on the first day of the Briansky summer program, the teachers always introduce themselves and talk about their dance backgrounds. “You can’t go to ballet class and do a few battements and not know who your teacher is,” Briansky says. “You have to remember your teachers. It’s an important part of the art form. It’s an important part of life.”
And as teachers, Briansky and Briane are remembered. The two Swiss students’ teacher at home attended the Briansky program, and every year sends a few of her students to it. And the couple still receives letters from students from 25 years ago, who speak of the imprint the couple made on their lives.
With such an impact on young dancers, how could they close the program and retire? “I never said retire,” Briansky says. “It’s against my religion.”