Body and Soul
A Conversation with Violette Verdy (Interviewed by Alexandra
Ballet Alert! Number 3, April 1998
colleges and universities are the last place one would expect
to find serious ballet students, much less a teaching ballerina.
But at Indiana University's Ballet Department (part of the School
of Music), students who enter with advanced training can take
technique classes and get performing experience as well as a
college degree. The department is chaired by Virginia Cesbron
[see box, page 17 for faculty details], and among its teachers
is Violette Verdy, a ballerina of broad experience-with Roland
Petit's Ballet de Paris and American Ballet Theatre, in addition
to nineteen years with the New York City Ballet as a dancer;
director of Paris Opera and Boston Ballets; teacher, coach, and
stager of ballets-and now a tenured full Professor. In a recent
telephone interview, Professor Verdy, whose conversation is as
rich and witty as was her dancing, talked about Indiana's ballet
program, the possibilities for ballet in a college setting, and
touched on some of the broader aspects of educating the dancer.
Alert: Many people assume that if you want to be a ballet dancer,
you should be in a company by the time you're seventeen or eighteen..
Verdy: Let me tell you what I think about that. I feel that we
are now seeing what is probably one of the most important advances
in the world of dance, which is that you can, at last, go to
a university and major in ballet and graduate. You will have
all the technique you need, plus you will have a degree of maturity,
and you will be equipped with possibilities of reconversion of
careers for later in a much better way. And especially, you will
have a much better sense of context of the world around you and
the world of dance, because you will have a more mature outlook
on life. This did not exist before to the extent we have it now,
because people who wanted to dance knew that they would have
a delay in their careers if they went to university, and the
so-called Modern Dance-which should be called Expressive Dance,
as Selma Jeanne Cohen was reminding us, and she's so right, because
"modern dance" is a very old-fashioned term, if I can
say that. But it was the only thing in the university before.
It was the dance for intellectuals, for people that were educated
and had enough ideas to do pieces of dance with, and the technique
was whatever it was, or the bodies were trained whatever way
they were trained, but the ideas were magnificent, and sometimes
made way for very beautiful pieces.
department is just ballet? There is no modern dance component?
Verdy: Oh, we have a ballet department. There are some modern
dancers somewhere else in the university, but I'm not sure in
which department they are. I remember meeting John Silber, years
ago, when I used to go Austin in the old days, about twenty,
twenty-five years ago, and he told me that in order to even get
a dance department going, he had to agree to have it with the
"Phys Ed" department. It was not possible to put it
with the fine arts, or with music, or anything like this, because
they regarded dance in the university as such an inferior activity,
such a weak activity, compared to everything else, that they
wouldn't have it anywhere. It was like an orphan, trying to relocate.
And now, it's a very different story, because Ballet Utah, Butler
University, different universities in Florida, of course, in
Texas, Texas Christian, all those places have good ballet departments,
and they are now finally considered on a par with the other departments.
But that is recent, and the extent to which it has changed is
amazing, over the last few years.
many students do you have?
they are ballet majors.
Verdy: Ballet majors. Many of them are double majors, too.
majors with what? Music, or something academic?
Verdy: Music, or something else. We had a girl who was going
to do criminal law. Jeremy Collins is with us. You know, he was
a principal dancer with Ballet Theatre. He's a medical student,
and he's studying to become a doctor, and possibly a psychiatrist
many men are there in the program?
Verdy: Oh, very few men. Jeremy's our best one, and then we have
five or six others. Some of them are quite nice, the others perhaps
a little less gifted for ballet, or perhaps a little late starting.
you place your students, when they graduate, in professional
Verdy: They audition all the time, and they make it into companies.
It's wonderful. Some of them, of course, by the time they get
to the end of their studies decide that they would rather do
something else, and they sometimes go into a related activity,
like dance therapy, or history, or arts administration. But it's
only very few. Most of our students audition as professional
dancers, and go to companies like Richmond, Kansas City, Chicago,
St. Louis, Louisville. At this point, we are auditioning so many
people every month. We have between twenty and thirty extraordinary
dancers auditioning, because the word is out about this particular
department, that it's very serious about ballet. So we get very
good ballet dancers auditioning for us, and our huge problem
now is that we just don't have enough room for them. Not physically,
but what I mean is the admissions department simply cannot do
it. So we have to refuse incredible dancers. I have some calls
that I'm going to have to make to a lot of teachers I know who
have sent me their kids, and the competition is so fierce that
we can't take some of them. And they can't understand it, because
those kids are so good that it's unbelievable that we can't take
them. But there you are. We're just so full.
do you do, as a professor there?
Verdy: I teach two classes every day, and I stage or choreograph
or rehearse ballets for the rest of the afternoon. I teach a
regular ballet class in the morning. Sometimes I do a little
bit of men's class, too, and every day, or almost every day,
also a toe class.
all the dancers that you take at an advanced level?
Verdy: Oh, yes. That's another thing we look at now, when people
are really late now, because we have a point of comparison, and
we can tell if someone is going to be able to catch up in one
year. And if so, if the talent is really so amazing, that's okay;
we can manage. You know, I can tell you something very touching.
It would be so incredible for George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein
to see that this is happening. Because before they considered
starting a ballet company, they couldn't find a place in any
university that could have been right to develop ballet there.
Because it was the great heyday of the moderns, and there was
no room for ballet at that point. And they tried, but they had
to give up. And now-but you see, their idea was correct. Higher
education should be in the arts as well, and ballet is a form
of excellence because of its extraordinary technique, and the
rigor of the demands of the technique, and the look, also, the
aesthetics of it. So it's a natural place that it should be at
a high level, in a university, but in those days, you couldn't
do it. To me, it's incredible, because I'm used to going to places
where things are just starting out. I'm so used to doing that
with so many places I've gone to, and I love doing it, because
people were worth it, and they were sincere, and it worked, but
I usually was not there to collect any of the dividends of my
work. It's so funny. I do all this stuff, because there's a half-pioneer
in me-only a half. The other half is, more than anything, a consolidator.
But in this case, it's almost like I came here to get my dessert.
I'm working incredibly hard, but what a pleasure.
you staging ballets as well, there?
Verdy: I just did the third act of Sleeping Beauty,
and I put two dancers for each solo, and you know, I have to
tell you something. The ballet was reviewed-there was one student
paper that never gave any attention to the ballet, or they sent
someone who knew nothing, and would crack some very stupid jokes
about the ballet. Well, this time, it happened a little bit again,
comparing dancers to some truck drivers, thumping around in Serenade,
or something. Something awful. Well. The polemic that ensued,
the revolt that came from the public, that person was absolutely
inundated with e-mail from people everywhere. Articles in the
papers condemning the type of review, the tone, the lack of respect;
it was unbelievable. And the reviews were glowing, of course,
the real reviews. That poor student, who was so completely out
of place in this situation, was literally bowled over.
you have any non-majors taking the technique classes?
Verdy: Yes. We have elective students in the morning. Lots of
them, almost more than we can accommodate. And we have pre-college
in the afternoon. So our students do a reasonable amount of teaching
with the elective students, and with the pre-college, and they
also earn credits for that. It's literally like a ballet company.
We just finished doing Serenade, Masque of the Red Death,
and Sleeping Beauty. And we just finished learning,
for next October, a new ballet by Mark Godden, who's a beautiful
young American choreographer who's the resident choreographer
of the Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. He was trained by David Moroni,
who's one of the best classical teachers anywhere in the world.
He was trained by Volkova. And Mark went to dance with Juri Kylian,
so there's all that wonderful quality of movement and freedom
about him, too.
choreographed Masque of the Red Death?
Verdy: Jacques Cesbron. He used a brand new score, composed for
it, by David Baker, who's a terrific jazz musician, and who's
the head of the jazz department in the department of music.
it a classical ballet, or a jazz piece?
Verdy: No, no. It was the Edgar Allan Poe story, and so it's
a very dramatic piece, and Baker composed very appropriate music.
often do you perform?
Verdy: We have a big performance in the fall, October, usually.
We have Nutcracker, which runs for about two weeks.
Full Nutcracker. And we have, also, a big performance
in the spring, which is the most important performance, really,
in many ways. The dancers also sometimes dance in some of the
opera productions. This year they had Eugene Onegin. And they
had some interesting things in the summer, too, because they
have some musical comedies and other things.
you teach character classes?
Verdy: No, and we were talking about how much we would like to
have a few.
you said Onegin-
Verdy: No. We had to pool all our resources together there.
wondered about that. If you said to dancers today, "Do a
polonaise," would anybody know what you meant?
Verdy: No, and especially a waltz. It's really funny. Nobody
dancing is becoming popular again, though, so maybe there's hope.
Verdy: Yes. I think that's going to help, because great ballroom
dancing is Heaven, and it's so far gone. In the fall, we're going
to do Divertimento No. 15, and then we'll do Four
Temperaments in the spring. We just did Serenade,
and they have Western Symphony, and they had Who
Cares here, too. They've done a lot of Balanchine pieces.
We do one or two a year.
does the audience there respond to those?
Verdy: Oh, they love the ballet. They love it, especially now.
Now we have full houses, and it's about 1400 seats. We are located
inside of the big theater. There's a commercial theater in Bloomington
called the Auditorium where all the big shows come-Phantom, and
Riverdance, and everything comes there. But we have, for ourselves,
in the university, something called the Musical Arts Center,
which is where we are, with our studios upstairs. And next to
us they have built another building more specifically for concerts.
So they have many, many different halls in different sizes. They
have at least eight events every day. You can't keep up with
the amount of activities here. It's frightening. You know, when
young dancers get into a company, they come out of the school
brilliant, like top dancers. They get in a company, they see
a lot of things that it's a little soon to see, sometimes. They
get neglected, because companies are big, and usually there's
no such thing as anyone in charge of the young dancers. They're
thrown in the pit with the wolves.
made to stand in a straight line.
Verdy: Exactly. And, you know, that's it. And they are suddenly
demoted, and discouraged, and not taken care of, not even made
to understand that it's a passage. It's a rite of passage, and
it depends on them.
the young dancers you teach still believe in ballet as ballet,
or do they think it's old-fashioned?
Verdy: No, no. They do, because there's something about ballet.
It's just like the power of myth, those wonderful things of Joseph
Campbell, you know. The power of myth is still with us, thank
God. And even if Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake
and all those pieces-yes, we have to have other things, too,
but they still hold a magic which is always going to be there,
because the content is so important. You know, all the fairytales
Charles Perrault wrote were metaphysical fairytales. And he came
from that time, in the seventeenth century, where all those people
were very well-educated, not just in the regular wordly way,
but in what used to be called a certain amount of esoteric knowledge.
The musicians and the dancers were in the same confrerie, and
they had that kind of education and knowledge that opens your
imagination by feeding the idealistic longing, and the sense
of perfection that people have inside of them. If you don't feed
that, it stops functioning, and you look for the commercial answers.
If you do feed it, you get a passport for eternity, because then
you do things on a deeper, larger, higher scale. That is Balanchine.
Why Balanchine-first of all, an incredible craftsman, a craftsman
like Fabergé was for his jewelry, Mozart for his music,
a craftsman like a great architect. Celestial architecture, maybe,
but architecture nonetheless. And on top of it, educated in St.
Petersburg with a lot of French influence, which was, at that
time, still very good, still very close to the great centers
of true education and artistic development and knowledge. And
he wasn't afraid of Hollywood or Broadway after that. Why should
he be? They represented a large scale of performance that he
understood was in a different formula, in a different country,
in a different time.
he had his own base.
Verdy: Exactly. He would never get lost. Once you have your base,
you never get lost. You get your road map, you get your compass,
and you know where the hell you're going.