This is the third and final part of my interview with Wilhelm Burmann, who many professional and aspiring professional dancers take class from daily at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Willy has trained the best of the best in the New York dance community. From corps members to principles and soloists to Broadway stars, and those who would like to be the best of the best (including my son, Julian), show up in his studio, to be “fixed.” There are other teachers known as “ballet master to the stars,” but those really in the know come to Willy’s class most morning—or as often as they can. This is where they find a “real” teacher who makes “real” stars—those with beautiful technique and the ability to dance well.
This part of my interview with Willy, whose bio is at the end of this post, covers everything from how to keep your technique up to par once in a company to how to get good counsel for your son (or yourself) when you don’t know who to trust to what to look out for in your New York YAGP experience. (If you want to read part one, click here. Read part two here.) I hope you enjoy it and learn from it…and that when you take your son to New York for some reason, you at least watch one of Willy’s classes from the door, stop and seek his counsel or send your son on into his class. Your life and your son’s life will be forever changed—as were mine and Julian’s.
Once a young dancer makes it into a company, how does eventually stand out from the rest of the corps? If he is ambitious and doesn’t want to be a core member forever, what would you advise so he can to improve?
Do something in front of a director that the director hasn’t seen.
This is the most difficult thing to do in a big company, because there’s a mass of people, and the people just sit in front. [The director] sees the same people all the time. You have to cast ballets, so you cast them, and then you cast them again. Sometimes the same people are cast all the time in the same kind of ballet. If that person doesn’t do anything different, either onstage or in a rehearsal, where the director actually has the opportunity to be stunned by the actions he just saw, nothing is going to change for that person. The days that the director comes in and discovers someone and makes him a principle and stands behind him are over.
What about their technique? If they are in company class doing the same thing over and over again, not getting corrected, how do they make sure that their technique improves so that they stand out from the pack?
That, again, is up to the individual. Some of these kids that come to my class, they sneak out of company class. It shouldn’t be like this. It’s like having a family, especially when you grow up a certain way. If you give the children a free day, or an hour of reading space, they love you more. If you take that away, it will end up poorly. To me, to do this in a small city, is different; there’s nothing else to do. But in Manhattan, where they can just get away for an hour and a half and be with a teacher that they like and that will actually make them do things, and then they can go back in to the company and they’re fine, that’s a positive thing. But if you feel trapped, that’s not good.
I don’t recommend it that they sneak away, but it’s not a new thing…No matter how good the teacher is in the company, the dancers will always complain about the teacher in the company. They want to just do something else; they could always choose a better teacher in that sense. Let them get away from the family for an hour and a half, and, suddenly, they go back and they enjoy seeing the family again.
To me, it’s just so human, and the directors that I know that behave like this, I know where they were when they were dancers. We were dealing with Mr. Balanchine, who was a genius. Everybody said he was a genius; they still didn’t take his class. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t forbid them to go elsewhere and take class.
In other words, if a dancer’s stuck and feels like he’s not getting better, then he should get out once in a while and take class with someone else. But this is also a message to artistic directors…
Yes. Just because you’ve become a director, people know you as a dancer, too. Be a little bit more human, because also you avoid any kind of confrontation. If I give you the freedom and you abuse it, then I can come down on you, but if you haven’t abused anything, then I cannot come down on you.
You told me, “You need to find someone you trust to give you advice about Julian.” When we were trying to decide if we should send Julian to SAB I realized I needed to find people who were not invested in Julian financially, people who had his best interests at heart but had no vested interest in him other than wanting him to succeed. If a parent doesn’t have that—only has teachers who want their son to continue in their school—where can they find professional advice when they need it?
They can come to you. You can ask me, or they can ask questions in Dance Magazine.
If they write to you or to me, and maybe I know someone where they live. Maybe I know that person they’re teaching; the ballet world is so small; maybe I can find out if they are good people that they should contact. I mean, everything is so reachable, nowadays, you know?
How to you feel about sending young boys away from home to study ballet I residential programs?
It really is individual; some kids do very well, and some really need more time at home. It’s up to the individual and the parent. It depends how the home is. One thing feeds another. And it depends on how big your dream is and your ambition… You have to have a big dream, you know?
You’ve offered so much wonderful information. Is there anything else you would want to say to young male dancers or parents about helping them succeed?
For the parents, I would say to support their sons because it’s not an easy profession, because we’re constantly frustrated—not in a bad sense. I mean we always want to do better, and, like I said in the beginning, you have an instrument that you cannot fine-tune and then just play it. You have to fine-tune it and then fine-tune it and fine-tune it; it’s a constant tuning. And that’s what a lot of people cannot do.
To the boys, if you are lazy, don’t even start thinking about it. We have to really think like sports people. Look how far sports, like gymnastics for example, has come. Still people are bickering about different methods for how to do Plié and tendu. It’s physicality.
When parents have a child that is very talented, don’t make them showpieces—don’t let the teachers do that. I see it when the competition [YAGP] comes around in the summertime. It’s like if I would have a school and I would bring someone to New York, I would know exactly the teacher that I would bring my student to. But they don’t do that; the teachers become actually the main focus. They have a product to sell, but they want to be the ones admired because the student comes out of their school. They aren’t saying, “I’m sending them to you. I’m a teacher somewhere in Timbuktu, and I have this extremely talented person…” They go from teacher to teacher, one day to me, one day to you…They are trying to get the credit for themselves, not for the child. That’s the last thought for them, to really think of the child.
And a lot of times, teachers have very little to do with it. They have sometimes one kid that is so extremely talented and ambitious that the teacher doesn’t do basically anything.
In addition to showcasing the students before different teachers and schools, when the boys come to New York for YAGP, they get seen by ballet company representatives. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It is a good thing, but they’re children, and companies don’t hire children.
Had Julian competed in 2011, he would have been almost eighteen; he would actually have been looking to get into a company.
Then, as a parent, you have to ask, what company? What repertoire? Do they have a teacher who can keep his technique up. Those are the things that a lot of people don’t do, and then the boy accepts a contract. Then they hate every minute.
Now you can Google anything. There are no more excuse, “I didn’t know.” That’s bull.
About Wilhelm Burmann
Wilhelm Burmann danced with New York City Ballet for four years, was a Principal Dancer for Frankfurt Ballet and Grand Theatre du Genève for whom he was also Ballet Master. He was a Principal at Stuttgart Ballet and danced for many other companies including Pennsylvania Ballet and New Jersey Ballet.
He has also been Ballet Master for Washington Ballet and Ballet du Nord and has personally coached many of the biggest names in American Ballet. Besides being on the faculty of Steps he has also taught on faculty at the Melissa Hayden School of Ballet, Harkness Ballet School and Ballet Arts in New York. He is a guest faculty member for a host of companies including American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Milan’s La Scala, and Australian Ballet to name but a few. The University of Iowa and Skidmore College’s Saratoga Program also benefit from their association with Wilhelm Burmann.