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In ballet class, ‘I want kids to be happy’

With an emphasis on technique and also inclusion, new director Katarina Svetlova is leading Oregon Ballet Theatre School in a fresh direction.

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Students from the OBT School traditionally have some key scenes in the company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” Above, a scene from 2021. Photo: Randal Milstein

“Ballet’s history is a record of teachers and students; what the teacher handed down, what the student learned, what he carried forward and extended, what he rejected, what he changed.”

— George Balanchine, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, 1954

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Or what the teachers, plural, handed down, because ballet students and dancers have many teachers in the course of their training and careers. Like any practitioners of classical art, they are lifelong learners, and every working day begins with company class, often taught by the company artistic director. Over the years I’ve watched a lot of them at Oregon Ballet Theatre and elsewhere—the Royal Danish Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Trey McIntyre Project–and many student classes at the OBT School, and I love doing it.

There are several reasons. Looking at dancers perform the ritual of the daily barre, the pliés and relevés, the way they use their fingers, straighten their spines, point their feet, gives me an indication of where they might be headed professionally. Company members going through the same ritual often dance the way they do on stage: Anne Mueller, who danced for OBT for many years, infused her daily barre with the same wit and musicality as in her performance as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker.  And seeing dancers move across the floor, doing what’s called center work, reminds me of how liberating it can be to leap through the air; to dance.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


 

So when Katarina Svetlova was appointed permanent director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre School in August (she had been named interim director in May), I happily looked forward to watching some classes and talking with her about her plans for the school at a time of great change in the ballet world, at OBT itself, and in the culture as a whole.  An October conversation with Interim Artistic Director Peter Franc about the current performance season, which among other things gives OBTS students an unusual number of opportunities to perform, whetted my appetite further, as well as the sparkling, disciplined dancing by the children in OBT’s October production of Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Oregon Ballet Theatre School Director Katarina Svetlova, working with some of the younger students. Photo: Apis Photography

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, when Nutcracker rehearsals were under way, I met with Svetlova in her office at OBT headquarters on the South Waterfront. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, dressed in casual pants and sneakers, Svetlova remains every inch the ballerina that she was, starting at the age of 15 when then artistic director James Canfield took her into the OBT company and immediately cast her in principal roles in his ballets. Many of them were not classical. But she danced the Arabian/Coffee variation and the Sugar Plum Fairy in his Nutcracker, and in 2002, as a guest artist with the Ballett Am Rein, in Dusseldorf, Germany, she performed the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake

Those performances earned her a place in Ballett Am Rein as a principal dancer, and her repertory there included Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, the title role in Giselle, and leading roles in works by Roland Petit, Mats Ek, John Neumeier, John Cranko and others, for which she received much critical acclaim from European critics. When she stopped dancing in 2007 she returned to Portland, and has been teaching ever since.  In 2011 she founded her own school, Dance from the Heart PDX, where in her decade as owner, choreographer and sole teacher, she trained hundreds of children and adults. 

Throughout her professional career, Svetlova learned from many, many teachers: She has a lot to pass on to OBTS’s students,  OBT’s dancers, and  also the faculty she heads. In this country, her teachers have included Haydée Gutierrez, OBTS director from the early ’90s until 1998; Canfield; the late Mark Goldweber, who exemplified discipline, courtliness, good manners, and yes, fine tuned technique; and the late Elena Carter Richardson, whose photograph graces one wall of OBT’s headquarters on the South Water Front.

Arguably it is Gutierrez who influenced her the most:  As a director and a teacher, she is maintaining her instructor’s Vaganova-based teaching of technique at the same time that she is rejecting Gutierrez’ old-fashioned approach to dealing with students and their families. Gutierrez was single-mindedly focused on training professional dancers and getting her students into major companies (which she did), but did not emphasize their emotional well-being or accountability to the parents who were paying the bills.  

Katarina Svetlova, in the studio: “I want kids to be happy.” Photo: Apis Photography

“I want kids to be happy,” Svetlova told me. “This needs to be a safe place for everyone, and any student with a history of bullying will not be admitted. And I want parents to advocate for their children. I don’t want to exclude them.” If a child is eating too much, or not enough, at home, Svetlova wants to know about it; if she notices sudden weight gain or loss she will consult with parents to see if they know what might be bothering their child. Inclusion, of parents, students, faculty, dance forms, is Svetlova’s watchword. It’s all part of the package.

“I want to make the school less elitist and increase the diversity of everyone involved, including the teaching staff,” she told me. Her approach is part of a long-needed national trend in ballet schools. Take a look at the faculty photographs on OBT’s website and you’ll see that diversity in the senior faculty alone: Ye Li, who was born in China, for example, directs OBT2; and Svetlova, whose maternal grandparents were Cherokee, specifically spoke of Joe Wyatt, the founding director of Pacific Ballet Theatre’s School, who is Black, and whose approach to teaching is just what she wants for all OBTS students, whether they intend to be professional dancers or not. “He asserts authority over students without being destructive,” she said.  

There are reasons for that approach in his own background. Wyatt cites Maggie Black, from whom he took class during his years with the Dance Theater of Harlem, as “the foundation” of everything he does as a teacher. “She could make you feel you were the only person in a class of 40 students,” Wyatt said, and he wasn’t alone in feeling that way about her. Every leading dancer in New York took her class, including Baryshnikov and Merce Cunningham.

As for Vaganova-based technique, Svetlova told me she is “altering it to teach kids as much versatility as possible. We’re threading in different types of training, and creating a new syllabus, which will have the best of Haydée, the best of Tony Jones (one of her predecessors as OBTS Director), and Elise Legere, to create a consistency of teaching.” Legere, who received her training on the East Coast, has been putting students through their ballet paces at OBTS since 1998. Before that, she danced with Ballet Oregon under the direction of the late Dennis Spaight, before the company merged with Pacific Ballet Theatre in 1989 to become Oregon Ballet Theatre.

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Agrippina Vaganova performing in “La Esmeralda” in St. Petersburg, Russia, circa 1910; photographer not known. Wikimedia Commons

Who was Agrippina Vaganova? Some sources refer to her as as one of the most important teachers in the history of ballet. As a dancer with the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg she was once labeled by a critic “the queen of variations”, such as the solo turns performed by Coffee, Candy Cane, and other characters in The Nutcracker, or the national dances in Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.  Born in 1879 and living until 1951, she danced briefly–her competition was Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Mathilde Kschessinska, all of them great ballerinas.

Yet while they may have overshadowed her on stage, Vaganova’s contribution to the art form was equal to theirs. In the course of her long career as a teacher she developed a system that continues to be in use all over the world, and is in itself an amalgamation of styles. It includes elements from what one source characterizes as the “graceful French school, the more athletic Italian school, and the dramatic soulfulness of the Russian national character.”

Vaganova’s system, or in today’s terminology, her curriculum, is as fundamental to today’s ballet training as is Martha Graham’s to practitioners of traditional modern dance. Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, with whom Svetlova studied, and in whose work she performed, is now back at SOBT, working her magic with the young. Svetlova describes the School as a “big tent,” drawing teachers from all over the city. That’s new: previous directors did not want OBTS faculty teaching anywhere else. “OBT alumni,” Svetlova said, bring in “the heart and soul of the company and believe in the School.” Zachary Carroll and Elizabeth Guerin, who also teach at The Portland Ballet, are examples of this, as is Vanessa Thiessen. 

Thiessen, whose family is from the Philippines, is one of the most stylistically versatile dancers OBT has ever had. No one who saw her perform in Trey McIntyre’s Speak can forget her phenomenal hip-hop dancing, in which, at McIntyre’s insistence, she was coached by Mariecella Divine. Her classical technique got her a job with the Smuin Ballet at about the same time that Svetlova embarked for Germany, and she subsequently danced and taught for a number of modern companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Margaret Jenkins’, and ODC/San Francisco. She came back to Portland several years ago, and I last had the pleasure of seeing her dance about five years ago, with the Skinner/Kirk company at BodyVox.

Students from OBT’s school performing with Nicholas Sakai as Puck in October’s production of Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Just as I was preparing to leave Svetlova’s office, another OBT alum came rushing in and greeted me warmly. Davida Hass Oglesbee danced with the company during Canfield’s tenure, coming from Houston Ballet, where she received much of her training. She left for the Joffrey Ballet with her husband, Eric Oglesbee, also an OBT dancer, who followed his own dancing career with a long stint as an Air Force psychologist, and Davida has taught ballet wherever he has been stationed, most recently in Okinawa.  And raised two children.

Oglesbee retires from the Air Force in April, and the family is back in Portland to stay. “My first day of teaching here was strange and comforting,” Davida told me.  “Katarina was here, Anne Mueller was staging something on OBT2, so was Elizabeth Lewis, and Josie Moseley. My heart filled. It’s strange to be a teacher after being a performer, but I’m honored to be here. It’s a bit like coming home.”

Davida, who teaches “whatever level includes students from 11 to 18 and also some of the adult ballet classes,” has been rehearsing the children in Nutcracker roles, specifically angels and candy, and her focus is “on enjoyment; you have to love what you do.” She is also concerned with musicality. “Lots of students can’t hear the beat,” she said.  “I think it’s because music education has been cut from public schools.”

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Joe Wyatt, right, teaching a pas de deux class earlier this year in OBT’s Studio 3. Photo: Brian Simcoe

On a dark, chilly afternoon a couple of weeks after my meeting with Svetlova, I sat in the lobby of the building waiting to observe Wyatt’s technique class, and watched Franc conduct a Nutcracker rehearsal in Studio 1, which I could see through its plate-glass wall. Several small girls, their hair in buns, came scampering into the lobby to meet their parents. The young dancers were wearing little puffy coats over their dance clothes, still joyously doing the steps they had learned in beginning ballet, showing off to each other and anyone else who might be watching. Svetlova had gone home to her own family (she has two children still at home, her 15-year old son Michail James and  her 12-year-old daughter Alexandra Elena, who is an OBTS student) and I wished she had been there to see these clearly happy kids: one goal met in just a few months.

The girls nearly tripped up Wyatt, who was coming down the hall to meet me and escort me back to Studio 3, where he would be teaching technique to level 5 students, some of whom were in the Nutcracker rehearsal. His class, therefore, started a bit late; so I could observe some of the students warming up at the barre while they waited. One, a tall, long-legged blonde girl, was clearly destined to be a professional dancer, elegantly extending her foot in a tendu, one arm holding onto the barre, the other raised above her head. 

The Nutcracker cast members came trickling in after Wyatt started the class. He spoke softly through his mask, walking around the room, adjusting a foot here, sketching out an exercise with his hands, authoritative without being destructive, just as Svetlova had described him. There were only two boys in class that day, and they took places at the barre in the back of the room. Wyatt told me later that he prefers to teach boys separately, because in mixed classes they are exposed only to what the females do. “They, regardless of how many are in class, should be trained to jump high and slower than the traditional tempi,” he said. “This gives them the ability to do both the classical and the faster neoclassical jumps.”

Throughout the class, Wyatt kept consulting his notes—every class he teaches is carefully planned. And in every class he focuses on the little things “to accomplish the big things better.” He is constantly refining the technique, the placement of feet, correcting the turnout from the hips, paying attention to the details, as all good ballet teachers do.

Traditionally, ballet teachers correct turnout and spinal placement physically, putting their hands on the students and manipulating a hip or a foot. That can no longer be done without the student’s permission and advance notice to the whole class. Wyatt touches only the feet. 

 He also uses video to teach, specifically video of himself and Carter, to whom he was married for many years and with whom he danced at the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Ballet Nacional de Mexico and Pacific Ballet Theater. One video he shows them is of Victor Gsvosky’s  Grand Pas Classique, like Balanchine’s Tchaikowsky Pas de Deux, which OBT performed in its season-opening concerts, a lexicon of classical steps.

***

It’s a pleasure to watch classes at OBTS these days, because these hard-working students are having some serious fun learning to dance. I’m betting they’re enjoying themselves on stage in OBT’s production of the Balanchine version of The Nutcracker, too. (See Amy Leona Havin’s ArtsWatch review of this year’s Nutcracker, here.) There are six more performances of the holiday ballet this week, Wednesday through Saturday, Dec. 21-24, and multiple roles for the student dancers. They’ll be dancing quite differently in February’s La Sylphide and April’s The Firebird, both of which are technically challenging. But I’m betting they’ll dance well, and happily, every time they’re on stage.     

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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