Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A New Chapter: A New Joy

July 25th marked the end of something special, an experience I will treasure always. 

It all began towards the end of our New York City Ballets spring season, when Peter Martins, the head of the company, approached Troy about participating in the School of American Ballet Summer Course's Choreographic Workshop. Although Troy already had a busy summer lined up, he felt this was too great an opportunity to turn down. So starting July 15th, the day after we returned home from our New York City Ballet Saratoga season, "we" began working with the students. 

I mentioned "we" began working with the students. That's right! I was involved, not as a choreographer or my usual position as a dancer, but as Troy's ballet mistress. This was a position I had not experienced before.  

Last fall when Troy was choreographing for New York City Ballet's New York Choreographic Institute, I came as close as I ever had to experiencing a position as a ballet mistress. I "helped" out the two days leading up to the workshop showing. My job was to "clean up" arms and heads, which means make sure the positions are crisp and clear and relay corrections from Troy to the dancers on their movements; I was a last minute "dust bunny". (This was only a small taste of what I would come to experience this summer, which would turn out to be ten-fold more work and responsibility.)

For nine days, during the last two weeks of the School of American Ballet summer course, the advanced levels, both male and female, take their normal two, two-hour classes, daily and in addition work with a choreographer from 6-9 pm. The goal of the program is to give the advanced students an opportunity to work with a professional, experience new movement, and perform. Not only does this benefit the students but it also allows the School of American Ballet faculty to see what the dancers can do outside the academic ballet class. 

On Monday, July 15th, Troy entered the studio as choreographer and I entered as ballet mistress. 

Troy began and so did I. As I had no hand in casting the ballet, my first step was to learn each student's' name, all 18 of them! This was the easy part. Getting them to dance the way Troy and I wanted them to was the most difficult part. 

Being a dancer, not only at City Ballet, but also working under Troy as a dancer in BalletCollective, I have a pretty good understanding of what he likes and what he is looking for. Although Troy usually tries steps out on me before the rehearsal process begins, for this SAB ballet, just coming off choreographing his latest BalletCollective ballet, The Impulse Wants Company, he wanted a more spontaneous approach and to feed off the youthful energy of the student dancers. 

Troy's job: to choreograph a great ballet. My job: to help with the demonstrating of steps, cleaning arms and heads, helping the students grow as dancers, building their confidence, and teaching them to perform and use their whole bodies to help them when they dance. All of us, the choreographer, the dancer and the ballet mistress, each face challenges!

Troy's Challenges
"It's a really fun and different challenge to work with students, especially those on the brink of making the transition from dance student to professional dancer. As opposed to simply just choreographing, I also get to teach them how to be choreographed on, which is always very different from ballet class. It was fascinating to watch all sixteen kids grow exponentially from the first day to the last." 

A Dancer's Challenges
Below is an interview I did with Olivia Behrmann, one of Troy's dancers. Olivia describes her experience this way:

Photo of Olivia and Ashley

Me: Where are you from and how old are you?
Olivia: I'm from Indianapolis, Indiana and am 15 years old.

What are the challenges you face as a dancer in a new choreography piece? 
I think some of the challenges I face as a dancer in a new choreography piece are being able to pick up the choreography quickly and doing it exactly the way the choreographer wants. Also, it is important to understand the mood or tone of the piece and what the choreographer's vision is so I can convey his message through my dancing.

What helped you the most in this experience?
What helped me the most in this experience was having you and Troy there for the rehearsals. You were both good at explaining the steps and paying attention to every detail. It was helpful that you were there to clean sections while Troy worked with a particular dancer or small group of dancers. It was also helpful that Troy explained what the piece was about before we started. We knew the piece was supposed to be happy and playful.

Did you feel accomplished after the showings?
I definitely felt accomplished after the workshop performance. It was a great feeling to have the piece come together because of everyone's hard work. 

What did you learn or take away from the SAB summer course workshop experience? 
I took a lot away from the SAB summer workshop performance, and for me, it was one of the best parts of the summer course. First of all, it was amazing to have the opportunity to work with you and Troy, two real New York City Ballet dancers! Also, working together as a group to get a new choreography piece performance-ready (and something you and Troy would be proud of) was hard work, but very gratifying. It taught me that you have to be ready for the unexpected and be prepared to do your part to fulfill the choreographer's vision. The SAB summer course workshop was an example of how hard work and team work pay off!

What were your feelings after the workshop performances?
My feelings after the workshop performances were mixed. It was bittersweet because I was happy that the performances went well, but I was sad that the experience was over. I was also hopeful that you and Troy were proud of how the piece turned out. It was such an amazing experience, and I was so grateful to be a part of it. It was truly one the highlights of my summer course!

My Challenges
Being on the other side of the spectrum, now as a ballet mistress instead of a dancer, lent itself to different challenges. Such challenges include:

  • Clarifying the Choreography: I would translate what Troy showed and help to make everyone unified. Yet, there were 18 students to coordinate! 
  • Corrections: Getting the kids to remember their corrections from hour to hour and day to day. As a ballet mistress, I could clean the piece and have the dancers looking great one minute and the next, they have forgotten everything we just talked about! 
  • Counts: Learning the counts to the whole ballet was tricky. I now know why at times Troy counts wrong or forgets the counting sequence. There are so many counts and it's hard to yell them out, while watching for mistakes, and counting for all different groups (at times three dancers maybe counting something completely differently than another group or solo dancer.)
  • Young Students: Working with young students. These students ranged in age from 15 to 17 years old. Some have had lots of choreographic experiences and some have had none. It was a process to get the students to watch the choreographer or me explain the step and then replicate it. 
  • Corps de Ballet: Getting the students to work together as a corps de ballet. The dancers were not great at staying in lines or dancing as a group. Each dancer would be "dancing to his/her own drum!"

Lessons Learned and Techniques Used
In an effort to combat these challenges I turned to simple techniques.
  1. Communication: Learning how to saying things in many different ways helps with the absorption of corrections and choreography. Each dancer responds to different words. Learning how each dancer thinks and processes is key.  
  2. Break steps down: Learning to slow down helps tremendously. Steps can be complicated, so taking one step at a time often helps with coordination. 
  3. Show don't tell: Some dancers respond and perform better by watching you or their peers try the steps and/or apply corrections. If they can see the difference, often times they can then apply it to themselves. 

Pizza Party
As the students often only had 30 minutes (dinner break) in between their last class and the beginning of our rehearsals, Troy and I threw them a pizza party one night during our first week of rehearsals. It was an opportunity for Troy and me to not only feed the dancers, but also to get to know the dancers outside of the studio. Soon after the initial scramble to get pizza, each dancer settled into a spot on the couch. Pizza in hand, casually chatting amongst each other, someone bravely asked me a question: "What is it like being a professional dancer in New York City Ballet?" For the next hour, small talk seized the stage and all of us were conversing about the professional world. 

Photo: Troy Schumacher
Pizza Party Talk with Ashley

I never thought the pizza party would turn to this subject, but I was so delighted to talk to them. To share with them my experience, my ups and downs as a dancer, and the things I have learned throughout my career was amazing. I hope that through our conversations I was able to provide clarity and answers about things one could only know by going through a professional career in the ballet world. The students left that night hopefully more informed, hopeful about their dreams, and with more confidence. Troy and I left feeling closer to these dancers and inspired by their love for ballet and its art form.

A Dancer Injured: The Show Must Go On
Tuesday night presented the biggest challenge of all! Just two days before the showings, as the clock struck 9 pm, Troy finished the ballet! It was a very exciting and relieving moment to have finished the ballet with two days to clean and perfect. That night as Troy and I boarded the 1 train, heading back home, we both felt accomplished a lot. It had only been 7 days but the dancers were looking great and had come so far. 

Wednesday morning I headed to the School of American Ballet to take the highest level ballet class. During the last few minutes of the difficult class, one of our dancers, who danced the lead in our ballet, tweaked her ankle. I panicked for only a split second because in a blink of an eye she was dancing again. She even finished out the class doing quick pointe work.  

I returned home to relax before our last late night rehearsal before the showings. At 3:30 pm Troy suggested that he and I both go get massages at the new massage place just steps from our apartment. He referred to it as "His Treat! And thank you for all the work I did". An hour later I had a 45 minute body massage with 15 minutes of foot reflexology. It was pure bliss!

As Troy and I left, he got a phone call from the School of American Ballet's registrar, who sadly had bad news. "The dancer, who tweaked her ankle, was injured and would not be able to dance in the workshop showings". Our relaxing state of mind and body lasted all of two seconds. We scrambled to the School of American Ballet to re-stage the entire ballet; this time in only three hours!

As the show must go on, Troy and I came up with a reasonable solution: to split the lead girl's part into six parts. This allowed more dancers to benefit from the experience and gave Troy and me a way to get the ballet ready for the showings the next afternoon. 

It was a stressful few hours, but we pulled it off! Both the dancers and Troy and I worked together like a team! 

Cut Capers
Early Thursday afternoon, Troy and I conducted our last rehearsal for the premiere of his ballet, titled Cut Capers. We wished everyone "Merde!" (a ballet dancer's tradition for good luck) and in that instant our jobs as choreographer and ballet mistress were done. I explained to the dancers that the ballet was now theirs and theirs to have fun with. It was up to them now to remember all that we had discussed the past nine days and to put their performing touch on each step. 

Both showings went extremely well! The music started and the students danced! The dancers showed off their individual personalities, performed and executed the steps with ease. It was a joy to watch. Each teenager entered that studio as a student and walked out as a dancer. Troy and I couldn't be more proud of the work they have accomplished in such a small amount of time.

Cut Capers was a hit!

The Cast!

The Ballet Mistress - Dancer Bond
Ballet mistressing has proven to be emotional. Throughout the process I began to notice attachments toward certain dancers. Working with the students day in and day out created an undeniable bond. Seeing them blossom into dancers only made that bond grow. 

At the conclusion of the two weeks, while writing their "merde cards" (a tradition that most choreographers/ballet mistresses perform for the dancers in their piece. It is a way to write a personal message about your time working with each dancer), my heart was sick. I knew this was going to be the last time I saw them dance Cut Capers, but also the last time I would be in their presence, there as an encouraging light in their ballet careers. 

I didn't know how attached I was to the dancers until it was time to say goodbye. Each good bye was hard, but giving my last hug to Olivia Behrmann was by far the hardest. Both of us in tears, and with a sick tummy feeling, it was then in that instant that I knew my experience as Troy's "dust bunny" was all worth it! Olivia is something special. Someone I will never forget. 

Exceeding Expectations
Looking back at Thursday, July 25th, which marked the final day Troy and I would work with the most amazing group of students at the SAB summer course, I smile and then fill up with tears. It was an indescribable experience that I will treasure always. The dancers all performed so well! Each dancer pushed his or her self to the max, performing with such energy, and personality. 

I never thought this experience, as a ballet mistress, would be this rewarding. Not being compensated for this adventure, as a choreographer might, I definitely underestimated my reward. My experience was priceless! I learned so much about working with students and the choreographic/staging process. Night after night, seeing the students learn and grow, was beyond refreshing and opened my eyes to the other side of dancing: the creating or staging of a ballet.

Still today, almost two weeks now, I get emotional when I think of my Cut Capers experience. The feeling of having an impact on these young dancers and possibly inspiring them to grow and become better is a feeling I will hold on to forever. 

Cut Capers... Thank you for opening my eyes to joy and a potential future as a ballet mistress!


  1. Great post and so cool you get to work with children doing what you love