Anna Maria Prina was the director of the La Scala Theatre Ballet School for thirty-two years, producing artists such as Mara Galeazzi, Massimo Murru, Roberto Bolle, Mick Zeni, Renata Caldarini, Alessio Carbone, Vito Mazzeo, Marco Pierin and Paola Cantalupo, among many, many others.
I asked her what the requisites are to become a dance teacher:
Teaching is an art, a science and a gift. It’s a gift to know how to leave a mark in the minds of those who wish to learn. Teaching dance isn’t for everyone: it is necessary to be generous, curious, authoritative and armed with great passion and patience.
You need to know how to communicate what you have learnt, and never stop to keep up to date with what is happening in the art world, to travel (or surf the internet) to see what’s new, and to share this with students and colleagues.
Efficient communication skills, both verbal and physical, are essential to form and educate good dancers, coupled with a thorough knowledge of all aspects of dance and pedagogy. Teaching dance is a process made up from many factors which we can define as being educative.
The verb ‘to educate’ comes from the Latin ‘educere’ (to draw out, to inspire), so dance education should be considered a mix of experience, comportment, strategy, methods, means and objectives that the teacher must establish and implement to allow the young student develop all of his potential and receive a complete and multifaceted training.Every student needs to be continually motivated to improve.
The educational relationship is a reciprocal one: it should be a process of exchange between teachers and students that, over time, as the knowledge of each other deepens, it becomes possible to build the student’s future together. In fact, there is no teaching without learning and vice versa.
Anna Maria Prina is a very practical woman, and was a no-nonsense director of the school, known for being firm yet sensitive to her students’ needs:
Forming a dancer also means looking to the future and the different possibilities that a working life might present. It is essential to take into account the student’s talent and limits and possibly point him toward other areas, including non-artistic ones, so that he will find his place in society and have other experiences.
In other words, we must avoid raising failed dancers by deluding them, maybe to seem kind or because it’s easier. Here, of course, I’m referring to the study of professional dance, whereas amateur study can help produce thousands of ballet fans!
‘La Prina’ is well aware of the important figures who have preceded her. I asked her about Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the creator of what we today consider to be ballet:
In 1760, Noverre wrote his Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets, where he indicates that one of the seven most important points for the evolution of dance and the way it’s taught, is the relation between teaching and the personality and style of the dancer toward the end of his artistic development. In his Treatise he also questioned the rather harsh teaching methods which were in vogue at the time, instead of advising and encouraging the student to make the most of his talent. For the last 30 years, we have celebrated International Dance Day on his birthday, 29 April.
Many other Masters of French and Italian dance have also contributed to the spread and development of classical study which remains the basis of neo-classical ballet, modern, contemporary and more.
She also underlined the contribution the Italian Maestro Carlo Blasis (1797-1878):
Blasis was an important theorist of dance, who received a refined education in France. At 23 he published, in French, his famous Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse and, in English, in 1828, the Code of Terpsichore. These lay out the philosophy of Blasis, who believed that the dancer had to be an intelligent person of great culture and, in particular, have a knowledge of the Arts.
The structure of the classical ballet class designed by Blasis has come down to the present day and his students have given prestige to Italy, dancing in theatres throughout the world and forming, in turn, other wonderful artists and teachers: among his disciples was Giovanni Lepri, who was the teacher of Enrico Cecchetti!
Signora Prina, like many teachers today, are concerned about certain trends they see among young dancers:
I have spoken about only a fraction of the proponents who have devised the methods that have enabled us today to arrive at the highest technical levels; but remember that all of them, and I include myself, have always recommended: “less circus and more expression”.
Photos by Lelli e Masotti © Teatro alla Scala
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.