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"Balanchine Technique" with Merrill Ashley in Dresden at Palucca Schule - Hochschule fr Tanz1465

Merrill Ashley was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1950. She studied at the School of American Ballet and joined the New York City Ballet in 1967. She was appointed soloist in 1974 and principal in 1977. One of the last ballerinas to be trained by Balanchine. Known for her brilliant, dynamic allegro, precision, and musicality.
Balanchine created two showcase roles for her in Ballo della Regina (1977) and Ballade (1980). He also revived Four Temperaments and Square Dance especially for her in 1976.
Between 1969 and 1973 she toured the US with a small company headed by d'Amboise and between 1980 and 1981 she was director and dancer with her own group, Merrill Ashely and Dancers. She retired from the stage in 1997, setting a record as the dancer with longest career at NYCB.

Energy and articulation: Merrill Ashley gives the basics of the Balanchine technique. A documentation about the workshop by Edith Boxberger
Invited by Tanzplans education programme, Merrill Ashley, one of the greatest Balanchine ballerinas, came to a three-day further training workshop in the Palucca School in Dresden to teach the basics of George Balanchines neoclassical style of ballet. For more than 30 years a member of the New York City Ballet ensemble, since the end of her career in 1997 Ashley has been teaching mainly NYCB dancers and coaching them in particular roles, but she also imparts her knowledge to other ballet ensembles and regularly in courses over the summer.

When Ashley trains dancers, she normally teaches one theme once in various classes. She prefers working in a way that allows her, as did the workshop in Dresden, which was full of final year students, to return to themes and work more intensively on detail. She delivered her knowledge in various formats and media (a master class, practising variations, screenings from the video series entitled The Balanchine Essays, of which Merrill Ashley is the co-author, and discussions) so that knowledge development was linked to practical experience, explanation and reflection. Incidentally, the video series was produced shortly after Balanchines death in 1983 and covers the basic principles of his work in thematic chapters. It should shortly be available on the Internet.

Ashley says of her own training at the School of American Ballet, which is closely linked to the New York City Ballet, that she went through it with a mind to learn there what would later be expected of her. When Balanchine took Ashley on at just 17 years of age, she had to recognise that his style was more detailed and every simple step contained much more than I could ever have imagined.

Lecturers and professors from seven public training bodies and students from various schools (some were unable to participate because of rehearsals) followed the work with great interest. Using a wealth of varied material, Merrill Ashley, precise and focussed throughout, succeeded in leaving behind a clear impression of Balanchines technique. In doing so, the ex-ballerina did not lay claim to any exclusive truth but continued to stress: That is how I understood it, that is my interpretation.

In doing so, it was one of Ashleys main concerns to clear up any misunderstandings and wrong interpretations. For example, she said that Balanchine often exaggerated to clarify a point, for example when articulating the arms or when preparing for pirouettes and jumps, but you cannot make any generalisations. Balanchines highest goal was the beauty of the form, the basis of which is a complex, very logical system of working on classical rudiments and the quality of the movement.

And this is precisely what distinguishes Balanchine. He took traditional material and gave it a new look using his own methods of treatment. Ashley paid special attention to explaining why Balanchine wanted things done in a particular way, because: He created, organised and linked steps with a particular technique, and if you dont use this technique then the step is not quite as effective.

Body in movement

The big lesson of this further training session was that the body is in motion. Ashley sees a certain danger in becoming academic in classical teaching, i.e. thinking in positions and then forgetting that there is a way of getting into this position and then out of it again. Ashley said that one of Balanchines achievements lies precisely in linking movements together with great finesse, making them big and exhausting the whole range.

Merrill Ashley stressed that the energy used to move the body is crucial. It comes from emphasising the approach into the movement (attack), from playing with various tempos and from the resistance that the body works against. This means that every individual movement is precise and articulated very carefully, e.g. how the foot is presented, how it is raised and set down or how the arms and the whole upper body are designed. The entire body is structured throughout, because this way you bring life in. And every position is important and precisely defined.

In the ports de bras and paulement video from the Balanchine Essays series, a young Merrill Ashley demonstrates the importance of what the energy of the movement, its emphasis and reach is all about. Every individual limb of a part of the body is articulated in a specific way: finger, wrist, elbow. It is not about form, it is about energy. There is always an accent in the movement. At the start it is strong and quick, then it becomes softer: There should be phrasing in all arm movements. Balanchine often worked with various speeds, different levels of slowness and speed to unfold the whole range of possibilities.

Freedom and control

Energy also arises from the quality of the movement: the arms are guided as if working against resistance, and in every direction, including downwards. According to Ashley, although the arms should look weak, they are in fact full of energy. They move the air. Use the air, hold it with your the hands was the image that Balanchine drew for this, and: the air is thick. Ashley continued to point out that movement is constantly guided; freedom grows from subtle control.

It is not only the arms that move, of course. The torso must participate, accompany. To which degree is difficult to define, explains Merrill Ashley, it is always something individual and this is how you show individual expressivity.

Ashley makes great effort and takes great care with footwork. As with the arms, the entire foot from the ankle to the toe is articulated and it also applies here that the work begins with the leg. The feet are not very important aesthetically but also technically. In Balanchines opinion, they had a central function in the preparation of turns and jumps, so Ashley pays great attention to the pli.

In jumps, it is a matter of handling the weight in the foot with awareness: using the toes to grip the floor and sinking the ankles depending on the depth of the pli without relaxing at the same time but, as with the arms, working with resistance. With turns it depends on developing an awareness of the toes that turn: If the toes are used to grip the floor, you have to feel it en pointe shoes.

The importance of these basic principles that Ashley demonstrates and explains, mainly in the master class, can be seen in the rehearsal of the variations. Firstly, Ashley works on a sugarplum fairy solo from Balanchines Nutcracker, a difficult solo with a great deal of pointe technique that she herself used to return to the stage after a long break following an injury. Balanchine wanted to direct the attention in this solo to the feet and emphasised rolling and being en pointe: He loved to accentuate the foot.

Ashley works intensively on pirouettes, one of the most difficult things for her. She says that it is crucial here too to develop an awareness of the toes that turn. She works in detail on the individual momentums, such as the arms working in opposition to each other and supported by the upper body that help the body to turn, while the swing is taken from the sideward position, the other side moves at the same time and the head is used to help swing around: a pull and push with lots of back muscle work and in the upper body. At the end, the feet are placed not heavily but gently on the floor, in order to maintain the tension.

She points out over and again how difficult this solo is. She says that it requires a great deal of control and needs a lot of strength and is also very difficult for the NYCB soloists: You dont have to master it straight away; you have to let the fundamentals grow. And she drops the tempo for the next rehearsal.

The art of preparation

The preparation for a pirouette in classical dance is generally easy to determine: both knees bent, the arms rounded in front of the body. Ashley says that this was not a very attractive position in Balanchines view: He wanted every position, every transition to be formed beautifully, but it was the element of surprise that was above all important in his ballets. In his opinion, preparations must be developed in such a way that anything could result from them: a developp, a jump or a turn.

Merrill Ashley works quickly and with focus, the material is expanding continuously. See looks on closely and listens carefully (timing helps the technique), makes people enthusiastic to ask and test out. She talks a lot, explains and comments; she laughs a lot and joins in almost every time. One sentence is always falling from her lips: I know, its difficult.

Balanchine himself, Ashley says, was an extraordinary teacher because of the standards he stood for, because of the ways he developed that Tsarist Russian ballet that he had learned in St. Petersburg by increasing the speed, making the movements larger, creating more room for the dance, giving it more attack and bringing in jazz elements and all this in a logical and meaningful way. He taught every day himself, unless he was ill or away, and often on the day off, on Monday.

Because he choreographed himself, he researched new possibilities and therefore pushed the dancers beyond the standards they had achieved, says Ashley. Balanchine often had a theme and then worked on variations on this theme, different tempos, turns, etc. and he worked for whole periods on, for example, the expression of the upper body or on arabesques: He had new ideas when he asked us to try something out, it sparked his imagination and it also led us to consider how we could do something.

To conclude rehearsing the sugarplum fairy solo, Ashley works on jumps and concentrates on preparing for them: the pli that is crucial for launching and landing. The goal is to use its potential. This is why she deconstructs it and explains the details and correlations in the performance of it. Every joint that is explicit in the various exercises is included: hips, thighs, knees, ankles and toes.

Ashley goes into detail about the work involved in the pli in the last training class, which is the preparation for the rehearsal of new variation and supports the jumps theme. The pli should be full of energy. To achieve this, you have to use the toes and slowly come downwards and, as with the arms, feel as much resistance as possible right up to the toes. Ashley: With the pli you have to find the feeling not only of bending the knees but feeling the strength in coming up and going down.

The pli takes on a specific function in connection with jumps: you go into pli to go up into the air. It is about using the pli properly, says Ashley, not just jumping up but controlling it, not too fast and not only to demi-pointe but to the ankles going down as far as possible, and engaging the feet and legs in the process. It is difficult to learn but once you have done it you get a lot from it. She doesnt expect that it works immediately. She herself took several years to learn it.

There is a lot of precision work to follow, also in the different jump combinations. Ashley tirelessly works out the basis principles: touching the ground with the feet provides rhythm and looks a lot different when the pli is used properly, because then there is a lot of strength, you jump more easily into the air and stay there longer, otherwise it is always the same rhythm and same energy and there is no phrasing.

The information gathered is expanded and enhanced in the rehearsals for the first solo from Theme and Variations. This solo is simple, but difficult, says Ashley, and that is no contradiction because there are no easy variations with Balanchine, even whey they look it.

Again and again she returns to the pli, to the down and up process and how almost the whole body is involved in it. Thighs and gluteal muscles, everything is working. And then you have to come straight up into the air, which requires lots of work in the middle of the body. The paradox is valid: When you can control your body, you enjoy dancing more and it looks easier.

Ashleys farewell performance is breathtaking: herself dancing the role that was created for her in Ballo della Regina, very fast, very difficult and it looks easy. Everyone now knows what that means. There is prolonged applause. Everyone has learned from these three full days: that is reflected in many talks and discussions and not least the bodies of the young dancers.1467

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[ Period ]676
September 22nd to 24th1468