February 2012 | A Walk on the ‘Wildish’ Side

Lawyers, ER workers, bankers, and secretaries all dance their way into Kat Wildish’s Performing in New York Showcases. (Photos by Arthur Coopchik)

Kat Wildish on workshops for adults

By Joshua Bartlett

“Good luck, dancers!” shouts Kat Wildish. After teaching her adult ballet students a tricky relevé/piqué combination for their upcoming November showcase, she knows they need a little encouragement. At The Joan Weill Center for Dance, passing New Yorkers look through the floor-to-ceiling windows into a spacious ground-floor studio where Wildish is teaching a modified version of the Tarantella section of the ballet Etudes. Some of the dancers get it immediately; others look a little bewildered. “You’d better be good. The cab drivers are watching,” she adds for good measure.

Wildish has earned a reputation for producing inventive showcases that feature her adult ballet students who want to participate. Most of her dancers are age 23 and older and many started ballet as adults. Every August—and on Thanksgiving weekend and in March—she produces her Performing in New York Showcase, which presents her students and dancers from other classes at The Ailey Extension, as well as various dance studios around New York.

Her imagination and experience have also dictated how to produce an inventive summer intensive program that culminates with a well-drilled showcase. “Each workshop takes on its own life,” says Wildish. “In the spring I begin to develop the summer curriculum to educate the adult dancers about these ballets from the inside—a dancer view—and not just the outside view as an audience member, which they know very well. We do take into account what moves the audience and how we can create that onstage as dancers.”

In her ballet classes she works on steps from the choreography and alters them to suit the dancers’ ability. “We talk about that because it’s important that they look good and feel confident while performing,” she says. “They don’t need to be disabled by steps that can easily be adjusted—as choreography has been through the ages.”

Wildish is like a clever chef who uses the mishmash of ingredients in her refrigerator to whip up an enticing meal. She knows what she has and uses it to her advantage. “One of my first pieces had 50 people in it,” she says. “I had to figure out what to do with 50 people.”

Her summer showcase originally intended to feature 38 students dancing corps de ballet excerpts from Swan Lake, Act 2. But Hurricane Irene dampened their plans and reduced the corps to 28 for the rescheduled August 31 show and 27 for the September 1 show—plus one prince. “Most big ballet companies have 32 swans,” explains Wildish. “I have several men, so we made the men black swans. They all had feathers in their hair.” (You can see a video of that Swan Lake on her Facebook page or at vimeo.com.)

Since the showcase was formed in 2008, performances have included corps de ballet excerpts from Napoli, La Bayadère, and Le Corsaire. “When I structure for ballet performances, I want real ballet-type things,” she says in a throaty tone that sounds more like it belongs to a seasoned rock star than a ballet teacher. One show included a segment from Rodeo with original choreography by former New York City Ballet dancer Gloria Govrin. Another featured the women in cocktail dresses and heels gliding around to the “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. “They marched with a champagne glass. It was a drill-team-timing thing,” says Wildish.

Taylor Gordon, Wildish’s rehearsal assistant and a professional freelance dancer, says the secret to her performance successes is that she puts together pieces from much of the traditional repertoire she has danced over the years, and then some. “She mixes it up,” says Gordon. “Classical rep—that is her thing. She is a ballet teacher. She knows her stuff and diversifies.”

But Wildish also knew from the beginning how tough it would be to produce showcases that feature only adult ballet students. “My thoughts were always, ‘Let’s bring in the jazz and hip-hop people and put together a program with everyone on faculty,’ ” she says. Over time, she has added African dance, tap, belly dancing, ballroom, and liturgical dance pieces.

Wildish attends performances around New York regularly to scout out choreographers. “I invite choreographers from all over the city—the people I know,” she says. “Very few teachers and choreographers want to work with adults.” But she finds them.

She wisely recognized that street hip-hop dancers don’t often have the opportunity to perform onstage. So she has invited hip-hop choreographers like Pavan Thimmaiah, who was in the studio across the hall whipping up a routine to Chris Brown’s “I Can Transform Ya,” blasting through the loudspeakers.

Her motto for the showcases could best be summed up as “whoever is taking class and wants to perform gets to.” The summer 2011 showcase featured a cast of 198 dancers.

“When you offer a workshop, you can’t discriminate,” says Wildish. “It doesn’t matter what their skill level is. We all learn. I try not to discriminate about who is good and is bad.”

The deal with her students is this: each student pays $20, which goes toward the theater rental and also covers 12 rehearsal sessions, three performances, company warm-ups, and tech rehearsals.

Wildish’s students include lawyers, ER workers, bankers, secretaries, and other New York professionals. Adults enrolled in the full Ailey Extension summer intensive take 10 classes a week of their choice, including pointe and cross-training classes like power yoga. They rehearse the chosen ballet on Monday and Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons for three weeks. During the rehearsals, they explore the history of the ballet and view various videos of the piece with question and answer sessions. Anyone who misses a rehearsal is responsible for learning the material. “The fact that they show up for rehearsal after working 10- to 12-hour days is an amazing thing to me,” Wildish says.

She also makes sure they understand terms like “upstage” and “stage right,” how to avoid scrims, wings, and shin-busting light booms. They discuss hair and makeup whys and why nots (no glitter!) and the psychological aspects, such as fear and excitement about the performance.

After the spring performances, Wildish usually takes a holiday to focus on the upcoming summer intensive and to decide which ballet to set. “I prefer to do excerpts from the big white ballets to feature them all working as a group,” she says. “Well, this summer was a no-brainer with all the hoopla over the Black Swan movie. Also all the major companies here and abroad had Swan Lake in their rep, so everyone was excited to learn more about it and take part.”

When Wildish was a child, she claims, she was “uncoordinated and not the greatest dance specimen.” Her first dance teacher, Anzia Arsenault in Tampa, Florida, encouraged her to take all classes, including the adult beginner classes. Wildish would often demonstrate for both “baby” and adult classes, and sometimes, as a teenager, would teach the adults.

“You can’t fool the adults; they are not like children,” she says. “You can’t just say, ‘Do it because I say so.’ They want to know why they have to do this.” She took the time to research anatomy, finding out how core muscles worked and how muscles like the iliopsoas and the quadriceps affect extension.

“Each time I watch this come together at the opening performance, I have tears in my eyes because it’s all the work they have done as adults. Some of them have fears of being onstage or of remembering the steps. You feel for them. You are proud of them.” —Kat Wildish

Her first dancing job was with Louisville Ballet, which received grants through CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, established in 1973). With grant money paid to Louisville Ballet, she and two or three other company dancers introduced dance classes and lecture-demonstrations to schools, jails, hospitals, and nursing homes.

Wildish saved her money, came to New York and was given a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet during George Balanchine’s last years. Professionally, she danced with Eglevsky Ballet, then directed by Edward Villella, and Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

But she has always taught. “Through high school and between jobs during my dance career I taught because it was extra money and it was a great passion,” she says. “The more I taught, the more I learned about teaching. Now I’ve been teaching almost 37 years. I adore teaching the adults and I’m really rather an expert on it because I don’t treat them like children.”

When Wildish speaks, her eyes pop with an intensity that gives credence to her last name. Her energy never seems to flag—she’s like Joan of Arc on a mission for adult ballet students. She eventually established a big following at Broadway Dance Center on West 57th Street, but BDC lost its lease in 2006 and had to close abruptly. It rented studios elsewhere, but they would hold only 30 people. And Wildish’s classes were huge.

“That meant 20 of my people didn’t get into class every time,” says Wildish. “One of my students said, ‘If I come one more time and can’t get in, I’m not coming back.’ So I went to Ailey and said, ‘Here is my problem. Until Broadway Dance gets their new space built, I will lose my following. Could I please move my classes over here?’ ”

Reluctantly the Ailey people said yes. “I told them, ‘I will show you how the Ailey Extension can grow like you’ve never thought.’ Sure enough, I registered 2,000 people in two weeks—new people that had never registered! [The Ailey people] thought the golden girl had just walked in the door,” she says with a bellowing laugh.

While teaching at Broadway Dance Center, Wildish began producing student showcases for performance at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School near Lincoln Center. Since joining the faculty of The Ailey Extension, whose tagline is “real classes for real people” and is open to students ages 16 and up, Wildish uses Ailey Citigroup Theater for her showcases. (She initially rented an Ailey double-wide studio, but when 300 audience members showed up, it was considered a fire hazard.)

Her approach to casting is as democratic as you can get: anyone who shows up gets to be a swan, a wili, or a courtier.

“I think she believes in everybody,” says Dara Jenel, who started training with Wildish in July and performed in Swan Lake during the summer Performing in New York showcase. “There was someone who had never taken a dance class—just walked in off the street and had no idea of the terminology. [Wildish is] patient and encouraging for people who have no experience. For people who know a little bit more, she will say, ‘You need to do this.’ She has a good balance. She’s tough on us when she needs to be but encouraging when we need it as well.”

Evgenia Ilienko, who does the costumes for Wildish’s showcases, was not accepted into ballet classes as a child in the Czech Republic because she was too tall. She later took adult ballet classes in Prague and began studying with Wildish when she came to the United States three years ago. “I learned technique before, but I really feel like Kat has the power to make you a dancer,” she says. “It’s a great experience to be onstage. For some, that’s the only chance they’ll have to perform. I love it because I feel like what I learn in a classroom I can apply to my dance performances.”

Wildish says she has learned how to teach from her students. “As an adult we all have established the way we learn things,” she says. “Some are visual, some learn by touch, some by hearing. I have a blind woman who learns from hearing my voice and by my touching her. Some people need to go over and over something to learn it; some people can grasp it right away. All of that needs to be nurtured in adult classes. These people are professionals in their own right. They have experienced life in their own way—ups, downs, and traumas that affect their bodies in different ways.”

As an example, she points out tension in the back that prevents some students from doing a proper cambré. “Yet you can show them how a forward bend is going to help them backbend. As a teacher, you must be open to different ways people learn. These are not disabilities; they are actually assets.”

Curtis Etheridge, now 53 (one of the black swans in Swan Lake), had studied at the Ailey school in 1984 and came back to it because of Wildish. “I had stopped dancing just to survive, by getting regular jobs here and there, but dance has always been close to my heart,” he says. “I wanted to dance in the Performing in New York Showcase because it allows me to continue the experience of performing onstage without having to audition. I hate auditions.”

Wildish never tires of coaching her adults for a show. “Each time I watch this come together at the opening performance, I have tears in my eyes because it’s all the work they have done as adults,” she says. “Some of them have fears of being onstage or of remembering the steps. You feel for them. You are proud of them.

“Some don’t get the steps and they know it,” she continues. “Maybe their foot isn’t pointed or leg straight but they are doing their very best. They just love performing for sold-out audiences. The energy in the building is amazing.”