En Avant is a “New Non-Profit Foundation for Specialised Ballet Coaching, Mentoring and the Awarding of Scholarships”. The Foundation is new, but what is it offering that's new? After all the world is full of dance master classes, workshops and scholarships. En Avant is different because it aims to put all these together to provide a set of tools to help younger dancers with every aspect of the art form. Cynthia Harvey, En Avant's artistic director, explains:
As well as class, we will be offering coaching of solos and pas de deux that the dancers bring to us to look at. These sessions will not be a replacement to work the student or emerging dancer does in the studio with their teacher or company; it is meant as a supplement and part of the never ending quest to improve. Coaching coming from wonderful and knowledgeable ballet dancers like Violette Verdy or Darcey Bussell, Edward Villella, Isabelle Guerin – they, and the others on our advisory committee are all stellar experts who are fantastic as coaches and teachers, so I'm fortunate that they've agreed with the premise.
The others on the advisory board are Ángel Corella, Dr. Linda Hamilton, Steven Heathcote and Desmond Kelly. A starry lineup.
There are others as well, not necessarily dancers, who I will get in: musicians to speak about the music and the importance of it in relation to a variation, and I will have people like Dr. Linda Hamilton [former NYCB dancer and clinical psychologist] who will be able to speak on the stresses of performance and the psychological impact performing has. Plus, I have in mind a few surprises , depending on the cities that we are visiting around the world.
But after the classes the participants won't be abandoned, because mentoring will be an important part of the Foundation's work, as well as scholarships to open up new horizons. The Foundation's new website says that the goal of En Avant is “to reaffirm the importance of quality, integrity, musicality and artistic meaning in classical ballet, thus achieving excitement in performance.” So why now? Harvey explains how it came about:
Friends of mine spoke to me at various times after witnessing what they considered some unsatisfying performances. I thought about the aspects that impressed me when I watched performances and related that to that which I'm not impressed by currently, and what were the possibilities of something tangible. We discussed a way of contributing to the art form.
All of the advisory board we have gathered, and others associated with dance, agreed that ballet has become slightly more of a sport and that some, not all, consider quantity to be more impressive than quality. I see it myself when I attend a performance or am teaching in the studio. Students in particular are really impressed by how many pirouettes are being done and how high the leg is lifted in arabesque or a la seconde, until it becomes distorted. The emphasis is askew. For me, this is what needs to change. I have said in the past that I am less inclined to be impressed with the performance if all I can remember is the physicality of it and not the dance quality – not how it moved me, and not the vivacity of it.
The first event will be in New York City on 7-8 June, with Harvey, Guérin and Villella. Linda Hamilton, advice columnist for Dance Magazine, will lecture on “Overcoming the Stresses of Performance”, and well-known pianists Steven Mitchell and John Epperson will be the accompanists. Pre-registration is already open. It will be the Foundation's first opportunity to convey its philosophy through teaching, but will its message be taken onboard? Few would deny that physical extremes are exciting, otherwise why bother with 32 fouettés? But most would agree that a meal of only desserts is nauseating; a good main course is necessary to make a dinner truly satisfying. Harvey is convinced that with different emphases in the teaching this message can come across:
What needs to happen is that we need to go back to the music. The music is what sets the dance – not the other way around and in most cases we're not teaching our dancers to listen. We're trying to make the dance comfortable rather than convey the music. I can't tell you how often I hear dancers tell me that something is too fast. And with the techniques that they have today, I find that is not acceptable. It wouldn't not seem too fast if they tried to do one less pirouette in order to finish with the music.
En Avant, meaning to move forward, and used in ballet terminology, is a well-chosen name for the Foundation. Board member, and former principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, Steven Heathcote, says,
If we can work towards encouraging artistic fearlessness in our young dancers we might be heading in the right direction.
They already are.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.