The day that Julian walked into Wilhelm Burmann’s advanced professional ballet class at Steps on Broadway in New York City he became one of the many dancers whose careers have been touched by this ballet teacher. In fact, on that morning, like most others at Steps, Willy’s class was filled with soloists, principles and corps members from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater as well as from lesser known companies and Broadway shows. Additionally, at each barre stood numerous aspiring young dancers just like Julian—far from being professionals despite the name of the class.
The first day Julian took class, I remember him being a bit awestruck by some of the professional dancers. Willy picked him and another young male dancer out and took them under his wing. Julian had recently been turned down by ABT’s year-round program; Franco De Vita of ABT and Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden of Complexions Contemporary Dance had all told Julian to go home and get another year (maybe two) of classical ballet training. He had two weeks to train in New York before going back to California. The other boy was going off to the Royal Ballet School in England. Julian had not yet decided to become a ballet boy; to date he though he would be a contemporary ballet dancer.
I watched from the door as Willy corrected Julian and this other boy over and over again. The rest of the class was forced to wait while he had them repeat turns and jumps over and over again. They definitely got more of his attention then anyone else.
Julian showed up in class again…several times each week for the next two weeks. And then again then next summer for two weeks straight. Willy not only became one of Julian’s favorite teachers but he advised us when it came time to decide if Julian should attend the School of American Ballet, and Julian went to talk to him when he had to decide between the offers he had from regional ballet companies here in the states and Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany. Willy attended the SAB Workshop with us at the end of the SAB season. And Julian took class with him again this summer—to get “fixed” prior to going to Germany.
In August 2011, I interviewed Willy about boys and dance just after Julian finished taking class once again. As usual, I watched from the door. Of course, Julian got corrected, as did the other dancers. But he was not singled out as much, and he was no longer star struck. David Hallberg of ABT, who was just about to go off to Russia to dance, was in class and was asked to provide an example for Julian at one point. I smiled watching my son at center with David. I wished I had been allowed to take photos of the two of them with Willy standing nearby watching intently–and then correcting both of them.
It’s taken me until now to edit the transcript of that interview, done in the little coffee shop at Steps. Here is the first part, which covers much more than the questions I’ve asked. It’s a valuable conversation for parents of young male dancers, male dancers of all ages, and dance teachers. And I’m honored to share it with you. (For more information on Wilhelm (Willy) Burmann, please see the bio at the end of the first part of this blog post.)
As I’ve been watching you teach class this summer, every day I’ve seen you work with so aspiring young male dancers as well also seasoned principle and soloist dancers. There’s a correction for everyone, no matter their level. Is it possible for any ballet dancer to ever get it right, or to be perfect? Should boys reading my blog aspire to that?
Well, we can only aim, because we are dealing with an imperfect instrument that we have to fine-tune every single day from scratch. From combination to combination you have to sometimes let go and you have to pull back and you have to fine-tune. You have to register that the body is not doing anything by itself.
People always say, “muscle memory,” and I don’t believe in that at all. If we had muscle memory, all the kids that were in class today, like David [Hallberg ] and Julian and the people from the New York City Ballet, if the bodies would remember they did there, then we wouldn’t have anything to correct tomorrow. It’s not that the body doesn’t want to remember…You still have to give the initial signal to the muscle to react, because nothing reacts by itself. When we walk we don’t think about it anymore, but there are signals going in the parts of the body that make the body move. So, muscle memory to me is the wrong thing to say.
I would say you have to fine-tune the body, not just tune it. It’s like a piano.
And don’t exercise. Exercise when you want to get certain things stronger. And ‘til you don’t do anything specific, move. It’s like walking in discipline to me. You walk, you walk a little faster; that’s a different energy. You run, then you stop. Everything has to do with movement, ‘til you finally sit down, and you finish.
Can you tell me more about how movement fits into this, since dance is all about movement?
Teachers should give dancers the movement first, no matter how they execute it, and then clean it up. You cannot start the other way around. A lot of men, less than women are taught to be so precise. And then they end up like sticks by the time they’re eighteen.
Ballet is not discipline. This is natural body movement that we have to use to dance. Not from an exercise to another exercise and stop, and do another exercise. Let’s say you do plié and you go on from plié and then you go to second and port de bras. You don’t really go from second to fourth. So you go second and then you go fourth and then you continue and the body doesn’t stand still. The old schooling we did step by step. But no one taught us really that one step is feeding the next step. It’s like the pebbles when you have a stone on the water, you start and then you hop hop hop hop ‘til you finally sink, then you are finished. But you’re not finished in between.
This is especially a problem with boys with double tour and entrechat six. I have very little hair left, but it makes my hair fall out that people still teach entrechat six, sit, entrechat six, sit. The whole point is that you have to use the floor to push the body back up into the air. You don’t sit.
It’s like jumping. People get it all wrong for some reason. You don’t jump into the air; you push the body into the air. You use the floor. You push yourself away from the floor, and then you have the movement of ballon in flight, and if you do it right, if you push yourself away, you also know how to land.
What mistakes or problems do you see most often in male ballet dancers in general?
Not paying enough attention to the movement. Paying too much attention to individual steps.
And male dancing has changed, choreography has changed…You know, in my time everybody danced the same way, except for the French; there was the French way. The Russians would dance a certain way, but they did one repertoire. Now the dancers have to be so much more skilled than we were, because they have to do classical ballet and they have to do Forsythe. They have to roll on the floor, and they do modern stuff. They have to be ready.
For a dancer to skip on training today is fatal. If you do the same stuff all the time, you’re in less danger, because you’re skilled to do that. If you do many other things, the body has to be ready…
But nowadays, anything goes, you know. We call it contemporary. There should still be a discipline behind all of this.
What advice would you offer to young male dancers to help them navigate these changes as well as these common problems?
Well, it’s up to the teachers…but it’s the basics. They have to be taught that proper way. They have to be taught movement from when they are little on.
Once someone can move, you can put them in shape. If you start to put someone into shape, and then suddenly [ask them to move], they break their legs.
Why do dancers break themselves and break legs? Because they stiffen up when they see they’re falling. Now, if you’re a natural mover, you just let it go, and you save yourself. There are some people that fall all the time, they’re never injured.
We’re all afraid of failure in general, as a human beings, but it’s being so afraid that you actually hurt yourself. If something goes slightly off [while dancing], register, and then go back later and do it again, but don’t try to save it to a point that you actually hurt yourself. I think it’s very difficult for young kids to accept that we aim for perfection, but in reality we aim for an illusion of perfection. Because perfection we never get. It’s impossible. Parents and teachers must help the children understand this.
What would you say are the qualities a male dancer needs to succeed?
Determination. If you have a difficult body you have to really have a good look and try to correct things that are sticking out. Nowadays, dancers have it more difficult on one side, but easier on another side. We have physical therapists. We have doctors that can change your body, the way you work, when it needs work. So some people are just not willing to put that extra work in.
Hard work every day. It’s like dentists always said, if you don’t brush your teeth every day, you get cavities. It’s the same thing.
Listen. It’s very hard for a young person to really understand what an older person is saying. They’ll try to. I mean when I was younger, I tried to understand, but I didn’t really understand. But they made us listen at that time. Now no one listens to any of it. You see, and that’s why if the [young male dancer] cannot listen, he cannot learn.
When I was dancing, the minute we had an injury, we had to sit down in class and listen, and then we had to learn about combinations and theoretics. And now, once a dancer turns to the other side, they’ve forgotten the combination. It’s not really anybody’s fault, except the times have changed.
When I was a dancer, there was nothing else to do but go to a studio and do some extra work. Now the dancers avoid the studio. Sometimes I get so furious with people. They always complain that they have no money. Here at steps, before my class we have the studios two hours ahead of time. There are two studios that are free. One is free ‘til ten o’ clock, the other one is free ‘til ten-thirty. There isn’t one person that comes in there and works. They come in early, but they are on their cell phone and their iPods, and they keep contact with the world, but would they ever get up and do an échappé or try to do a turn? They wait ‘til the time comes for class, and then they miss. You would think if they [get it wrong], they would think, “Oh, tomorrow morning maybe I’ll come in a little bit earlier and be ready for the teacher not to again correct me and have me repeat it.” They don’t think that way, they would rather sit with someone having coffee, donuts or Starbucks. Then they complain about money. And they would save hundreds of dollars if they’d just practice in the morning instead.
Also teachers don’t want to wake up. It’s like everybody’s going into Vaganova and Cecchetti and all that. They were innovators in their teaching at that time. If they would be teaching today, we don’t know how much more advanced they would have been. These people are not alive anymore; they cannot defend themselves, but everybody’s teaching by a book. So if you read a combination, there’s no musicality really in there, which is the most important thing in a combination.
In teaching in general, if the music is not right, you don’t dance right. I can give an incredible combination, if the music is not right, it doesn’t work. Now, if I give a mediocre combination, and the music is extraordinary, it has value.
You have to feel dancing and music, you cannot just exercise. Like Balanchine said, it has to be a calling, not just because your mother and father sent you to a school and you’re talented.
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.