The small city in which I now live cannot offer such varying delights. We do have a ballet school offering graded classes in the English system to children, and a very few evening classes for adults. The children look good--especially for kids who are not going to become professional dancers, they have nicely trained legs and feet and dance prettily in a style strongly influenced by Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor that remains elegant and vivacious, although too prim for my taste.
In the sort of gross generalization that is sure to be knocked down somewhere, English dancers are known for their effortless precision of placement, while the Russians are known for spectacular displays of hitting the position with unmatched melodrama (remember Pavel Dmitrichenko, known for dancing Ivan the Terrible, who just got six years in prison for hiring somebody to throw acid in the face of the Bolshoi director). If you want pyrotechnic power, take the Russians, but if you want "flow," head west. The East is all about extremes, just the way it is in politics. The West has a certain democracy: you don't have to have the perfect straight leg or the perfect arched foot. You might end up in modern or jazz or contemporary dance, or just dancing as a hobby, but nobody's going to do what the wonderful Mme Vera Nemtchinova did : she grabbed my not-too-well-trained teenaged and hyperextended legs with her still very strong eighty-three-year-old hands and tried to pull them into a perfect position. She genuinely believed that she could say: "Let there be a perfect position!" And in her universe, there would be one, because my leg would actually change shape under her hands.
The thing was my knees. They did not like this. As soon as I felt sure her myopic eyes could no longer see my feet, I resumed the slightly incorrect position that is possible for a dancer with hyperextended legs: the kind that didn't play back in Imperial Russia, but it'll do here in the democratic west. But we of the imperfect bodies all loved (at least a few classes with) Mme. Nemtchinova, because who else would have you link arms with two other students and dance a spirited troika across the floor? Who else wore their hair in a bun that dipped over the ears like Alexandra Danilova, like Carlotta Grisi, we muttered when she couldn't hear us? Who else wore an elegantly transparent floral chiffon ballet skirt in which was allegedly concealed a little flask of vodka? Who else provided the legacy of the Ballets Russes, of Diaghilev, of Nijinsky, of Pavlova? Who else, according to legend, stopped onstage in the middle of doing thirty-two fouetté turns and announced: "You wait. I do again. Better." She did do them again, and got a standing ovation. She took the same gutsy approach when applying for American citizenship. Asked to name three American generals, she answered: "General Electric, General Motors and General Mills."
It was great to watch her, to hear her accent--but in ballet, as in all fields, one must ultimately think for oneself, no matter what the teacher says. Perhaps the only stereotypically American quality she possessed was her ability to say "no" to age: from the legs down, you'd clock her at under thirty, and she had the spitfire energy of a teenager. Most important for a teacher, she had a vision--hers was delusional, but inspired: by molding imperfect legs in her tough little hands, she'd make them straighten out. After a while I went to teachers with different visions: a vision of how you get the feeling of being completely on your feet. For this, I'll bless Maggie Black forever. Another vision: of how you never stop moving, especially when you are standing absolutely still. For this, I bless David Howard.
Now, none of these folks had degrees. They had their eyes. They were, all three, observers of the highest order: they knew what they wanted to see and they did everything in their power to see it, by making us students perform a series of exercises at the barre designed to bring that vision to fruition. They also watched us--they geared comments to individual legs and feet, and thought up exercises just for those particular legs and feet.
Nowadays, I have teachers who--never rising to the visionary brilliance of my former instructors--did have some wonderfully original ideas which they now seem to be polluting with academic theory. One of my teachers insists on an aerobic "warm-up," justified with the notion that the "heart rate" must be raised in order to begin barre work. How often I have wanted to ask her whether she would enjoy this so-called "warm-up" which she forces upon us, and which just jerks my muscles around. Her partner subscribes to the latest scholarship on pliés (did you know they're bad? Because the quadriceps this and the patella that and too much strain according to. . . some dude who never did a plié but who has an advanced degree). A little learning is a dangerous thing: my teacher has glommed on to scholarly theory like a Calvinist to his dogma; has he noticed that I am not a statistic? He's actually gone so far as to ban the grand plié, substituting it with a demi-plié into a roll up.
But you see, I can't get on my legs unless I do a grand plié. Especially now that I am fifty-seven and have had three C-sections. So now I do them in the dressing room before class, after a bunch of tendus and about sixteen cloches. And I do them at home. Don't let them bean-counting rule-makers get you down, girls! The Critical Mom does a grand plié:
Here I'm almost on my legs. Two more pliés followed, by which time I had my tailbone down and was able to keep my stomach in. Next time I'm in New York, I'll enjoy classes with Richard Marsden, whose calm, placement-oriented approach reminds me very much of my former teachers. Surely grand pliés will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of my New York ballet teachers forever . . .