Coaching and Trends in Ballet Today
Interviewed by Alexandra Tomalonis
published in Ballet Alert! (No. 31-32) 2003
copyright © 2003 Alexandra Tomalonis
Bjerknes was a soloist with the Houston Ballet and a principal dancer
with the Joffrey Ballet as well as a guest artist with the Royal Winnipeg
Ballet and Northern Ballet Theater of England. Gerald Arpino, Robert
Joffrey, Agnes de Mille, Moses Pendleton, Ben Stevenson and Choo-San
Goh choreographed original roles for him. In addition to the classics,
he performed ballets by Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, John
Cranko, Hans van Manen, and Jiri Kylian.
After he stopped dancing, Bjerknes became a teacher and ballet master,
at the Washington Ballet and the Universal Ballet. He received a Master’s
in International Management from the University of Maryland University
College and worked for the General Electric Company (GE) as a Senior
Bjerknes has founded a school, the American Dance Institute, whose
slogan is: “The American Dance Institute builds artistic, athletic,
confident individuals. Our faculty and staff strive to make everyone
who enters our doors feel better on the way out than they felt on
the way in.” An unusual attitude in these competition-driven,
technique-oriented ballet days. I spoke with Bjerknes recently about
the ballet scene today.
comment that’s often made about ballet performances today is
that there is a concentration on technique at the expense of expression.
Dancers can do every trick in the book —
do second act Swan pas de deux absolutely flawlessly, perfect
lines, perfect musicality, but there’s no story line. As we
get more physical, the characterization side tends to get lost, and
when everyone has the same level of physicality, then you have to
rediscover the characterization to make a differentiation.
are some of the reasons for this? Is it the coaching?
think it comes down to time. It comes down to the age of the artist.
It comes down to training. With students, you have to focus not just
on what the step is. You have to focus on different ways to do the
step. How to do the step to this movement, or that movement, or what
ballets this step might be in. Or even, “Hey, did you go see
a play? Or did you go see the art exhibition,” or that kind
of thing. One must draw the artist out of the individual as well as
I think it falls to us [teachers], because you have to have an artistic
environment that will encourage the kids to ask questions. Not rote
training, but training with a little variety — “Try it
this way,” “Try it to that tempo,” or “Try
it to that music and see how it changes the dynamic of the step,”
and build that kind of curiosity from the beginning.
you don’t grow up in a company, you don’t get to see that
as a student.
think even if you grow up in a company, if you don’t grow up
where there are lots of companies, you don’t get to see the
differences in emphasis and expression. Michael Porter, a Harvard
Business School professor, has written several books on competition
and in his “The Comparative Advantage of Nations,” he
talks about industrial clustering, and why high tech succeeds in San
Jose or in Austin or in Boston, and doesn’t succeed in Birmingham,
Alabama. And it’s because people from different firms see what
the other firms are doing, they have informal chances in the bars
to talk about it, and there’s a whole culture around the industry.
And I think that’s what happens in New York or London, places
where there’s lots of dance going on. Certainly my experience
in New York was that way. You took class at Maggie [Black]’s
with principals and kids from City Ballet and ABT; it was a real melting
pot. And then you would go to see the different performances and talk
about it, and you learned that there was more than one way to skin
a cat, and I think that’s missing from places where they don’t
have access to many companies, or the schools don’t encourage
them to try other people’s classes, or look at other companies,
etc. After sixteen or so, it is crucial to learn how to adapt one’s
body to various demands.
change I’ve seen in the past few years is that it seems as though
they rehearse the pas de deux in Swan Lake, say, separately
— in a separate room from the rest of the dancers, the rest
of the ballet. And in performance, it looks as if they lower a glass
cage down in the ballroom scene, and out of the cage steps the leading
couple, and they perform their pas de deux, and then the cage comes
back and lifts them out of the ballet.
where I’m really thankful to Ben Stevenson, and my time in Houston,
because we did that. We would have rehearsed it separately, but we’d
also have rehearsals where you’d start at the beginning of the
second act, and go through that whole opening scene, and why you’re
doing this, and how you walk out here, and we would have mime rehearsals
— in the first act, the Queen Mum would be there. In the third
act, the same. Mom, Rothbart, me. You would go through those scenes.
And they are important, because that’s where the story’s
told. And then it frees you up in the pas de deux. What I mean is
that the character built up in these scenes drives the pas technique
in a freer way than just worrying about the steps. If you do the beginning
well, you can let go of that a little bit and really dance it.
Some of it’s because of time, some of it is because of what
I call Opera Syndrome, where they do Monday nights in London with
the Royal, Wednesday nights with ABT at the Met, Friday night —
they don’t have time to get to know the productions, so either
the productions have to be more generic, or you have a mime scene
that’s completely out of context with the rest of the production.
do you think it is, when this is a general complaint, or observation,
about the ballet scene today, that the problems aren’t being
think it goes in cycles, like everything else, and it has to do with
the taste. I think the popularity of skating has done a disservice
to dance in a way, because we’ve become more competition and
In a way, the audience that once would have gone to ABT or the Ballet
Russe, is getting the four-minute Romeo and Juliet at a skating exhibition
where you just get the high points. And then if they ever do see the
real thing, it’s not as exciting.
a lot of the way our culture is going, too. Instant gratification
and reward in the shortest time possible. Remember when a one-act
a ballet used to be 45 minutes? And then it got down to about 25,
and now it’s about 12? You used to do Ashton’s Dream
with Giselle. And that was an evening. Or Theme and Variations
with La Sylphide. And now we’re down to three
twenty-minute ballets, or just La Sylphide.
may be a part of the financial pressure, and the pressure to be popular
and instantly successful. Does that affect dancers, too?
ABT and City Ballet in the ’40s and ’50s were more of
a project-based companies, and they all got to know each other. So
if you were involved, or got to know them and hung around awhile,
people found out what you could do. And these days, at a company audition,
you’ve got an hour and a half, and that’s it. If you’re
shy, or you have the type of personality that needs to walk around
the situation before you blossom, or you have an innocence about you
that’s quiet, that tends not to get across.
repertory today is another influence. Fifty years ago, you had repertories
that could use dancers with less than perfect bodies, and less than
perfect techniques. When a company decides to dance Swan Lake,
the equation changes, and they start recruiting dancers who look good
standing on a line, but who were not put on this earth to do Rodeo.
would rather watch Gary Chryst do even Siegfried, with his bad feet
— bless his heart — but he would be more interesting to
me than to see someone who’s young, with beautiful lines, but
can’t act. And part of my aesthetic comes from that company
of Joffrey, with people like Gary and Becky Wright — real performers.
I remember when we first did Cranko’s Shrew, we all
got together, we rented the Zefferelli film with Burton and Elizabeth
Taylor, we read the play, we did our homework. And I don’t think
people do that any more.
What do you think about the current methods of staging ballets?
many things are set from notation — or video. They’ll
say, “But that’s not what’s on the tape,”
and you say, “Yes, but I worked with the gentleman who choreographed
this over periods of time, and the tape was a bad performance.”
I’ve even done it with tapes of me — I was off the music
on that. And they say, “No, no, no. I don’t believe you.
It’s on the video. It has to be that way.”
and until very recently, you became a stager because you had a memory;
that’s what gave you the right to set a work. A colleague pointed
out to me once, to develop that memory, you had to be able to watch,
to see detail, before you could remember it. And now, it’s,
“Here, take the video home and learn it and dance it tomorrow.”
I learn a ballet off a video and have to go in and set it, I do not
put the video on in front of the people I’m working with. Number
one, that ruins my credibility; two, I feel like I haven’t done
my job. It’s easier to say, “Here’s a video, go
learn it.” That’s one of the things that Joffrey was great
with when he was alive. He had the respect for that tradition, and
tried, as much as possible — to the point of bankrupting the
company sometimes, I’m sure — to get original cast members,
or people who had worked with the original choreographer into the
studio, even for small sessions. Also with principals dancing in several
companies and directors changing every few years, it is harder now
to pass on a company tradition
it’s also a management issue?
focus has shifted more to hiring glamour names due to board and funding
pressures from building on a company’s style. A ballet’s
details are at risk in this environment. It boils down to the money
versus art compromises that are fought on a regular basis.
think that’s a very good point, too. We don’t have the
Lincoln Kirsteins, the educated manager any more. You have a lot of
well-meaning people who are not educated in it, and — this goes
to what you said before — they want results NOW.
you look in the business world, you’ve got to produce for the
stockholders, no matter what. And it’s better to make a change
drastically and fast than to nurture something along. And I think
that’s leaked over into the arts world.
talked with several dancers who have the same frustrations. Is there
a change in the wind, or is this the way it’s going to be for
goes to a larger question: “Is ballet going to be here in 50
years?” And I don’t know the answer to that. I think people
will always want to dance, but I think it will take different forms.
And what’s weird to me is that opera seems to be taking off,
at least in the Washington area, and ballet audiences are declining.
Dance doesn’t seem to have the same vitality any more.
it doesn’t, and I think part of it is a confusion of identity.
In trying to attract audiences, sometimes they’re trying to
sell something that isn’t the product — which is ballet,
find what’s happening in the ballet world, is that choreographers
are more interested in creating their own vocabulary and their own
thing than they are about using a language to tell a story, or using
a language to paint an abstract painting. Audiences want to participate
in a performance, but they want to participate in a language they
can settle into. You can go listen to someone speak Italian, and even
if you don’t know Italian, you just like it. But if you go listen
to someone speak a combination of Italian, and then in between, Russian,
and then Japanese and then Chinese and then German and then back to
Italian, just to be different, you’re too busy trying to figure
out what’s going on. You’re almost overwhelmed.
there’s so much pressure to do this. “No tutus and toe
shoes for this troupe! They’re going beyond the rigid confines
of ballet” — you read this over and over and over.
think that’s a lot of crap. I know with a lot of people that
do that, it’s because they can’t. Those that have succeeded
(Mark Morris for example) let their work speak out.
think so, too. I’ve asked choreographers why they don’t
choreograph a classical ballet, and I’ve gotten, “But
it’s so hard.”
Any of the arts, or any communication that’s to be effective,
has to have a plan, has to have a form. And it has to speak to a person.
Even if it’s intense hatred, it has to involve some kind of
emotion, and I think even in pop culture, if we’re getting to
the point where it’s only one consistent formula, or you just
throw stuff out there because you throw stuff out there — and
I know that’s certainly a lot of dance these days.
and ballet seems to have inherited the aesthetic from the Judson era
in modern dance where it was “everybody can do anything.”
Which of course, technically, they can—
I’m not going to pay to watch it. And I think that’s crept
over into the ballet world, that sensibility. Everyone feels that
they have to make a contribution. Not everyone should choreograph,
not everyone should teach, not everyone should dance?. That’s
The choreographers that I’ve enjoyed working with are intellectuals,
in that — this is a generalization, they think about things,
and they have a curiosity about it, and they like to play. They look
at life like a writer, or like a painter. They look for the in between
parts, and that’s what helps make their work interesting.
And this gets back to the whole has to be greater than the sum of
its parts — which is a very anti-American ideal, because we’re
a very materialistic society. I think the thing that makes Americans
so wonderful is that when we do ballet, we have such an energy and
an abandon to it. And I think that that’s getting lost these
days, in American companies, that sense of an American dancer.
When I go to auditions, and I see these people who can do eight pirouettes,
but they can’t do glissade jeté tombé pas de bourrée,
or something. And I think that we’ve become so focused on the
technique that young men, especially, they’re just into how
many double tours can I do, and how many pirouettes can I do, and
they don’t join the steps. I think this is a Tudor line. He
would look dancers who could do all these tricks, and say, “But
can they waltz.”
now you have a school. Tell me about American Dance Institute.
original vision, is that the years from eight to twelve would be strictly
ballet: you start out at eight, twice a week, and then build up to
age twelve, where you’re going four or five times a week and
you’re just starting the harder pointe techniques. Now, at that
age, or a little bit older, thirteen, there’s a natural selection
process there, either by body type or by interest, or by family situation,
external and genetic factors, and at that point, I thought we would
have — it would be like a tree, with a strong root, which would
be the formal ballet training, and then we would break off into three
The main branch would be to continue on in pre-professional ballet.
Then the second branch would be a pre-professional contemporary program.
I think the best technique that I’ve seen for that age group
on the modern dance side is Horton, and some jazz, and you would still
have ballet, but not go on pointe. But it would be five days a week
and repertory and the similar rigor as a pre-professional ballet program.We
tried that for two years, and there really wasn’t any interest
in it, mainly because of marketing, and we haven’t found the
right person to do it. And that would be a branch.
And then the third branch is what we call our Dance for All, for people
who want to continue dancing, but they don’t want to do it five
days a week, four hours a day. But they still want that kind of excellent
training, be it in jazz, be it in modern, be it in ballet. So we have
kids that come one, two, three times a week for ballet and then they
take jazz as well, and the training is the same, but it’s more
about attitude: “I’m here because I’m enjoying it.”
We don’t put them down because they don’t have a great
body, or they don’t want to make the commitment. There’s
no prejudice or bias, and we try and keep the whole school that way,
even in the pre-professional program, when it tends to get a little
cutthroat and competitive, we try and maintain a teamwork type atmosphere.
your school have a performance workshop?
kids do a showing four times a year for their parents, and once it
becomes more performance-based we’ll open up. We’re so
young that I wouldn’t inflict this type of class concert on
If you look at the big companies, the kids do things with the company
and it’s very age appropriate. It’s not on pointe, it’s
generally corps group dances. No one’s a big star. And what
happens in America is that we all do these big recitals and everybody’s
a star, and it’s not a process of their training to become a
dancer. It becomes an end in itself. Another thing that happens is
that kids want to work only on steps that will be in the dance. And
I’m very much against that.
My philosophy is — and maybe it’s naïve in this world
today — but I think that if you create somebody who is happy
with themselves, and confident, and you provide them good training,
if they’re meant to be a dancer, you’re going to produce
a professional dancer, who’s also a great person, and interested
artist and active individual.
Michael Bjerknes, front, as a student, working with Robert Joffrey.