(photo: Ken Sparrow)
The former Hamburg Ballet dancers now tour internationally as guest teachers. They tell me about working with John Neumeier in the early years, developing their own teaching ideals, and how they work to preserve and propel the art of classical ballet.
I recently had the opportunity to work with ballet teachers François and Robyn Klaus when they taught in Berlin for a week at the Deutsche Oper. They were stopping by before continuing their guest-teaching tour at Béjart Ballet in Lausanne, having just come from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Standing at the barre, we dancers smiled among each other as François fiddled with his iPhone to get the stereo to play – just as our parents might. But after the music had been sorted out, and we had completed the first few exercises, I knew that nothing else about the class was old-fashioned. My body felt correctly placed, lengthened, and able to react to any musical dynamic. From that first class, whatever the couple had to say, I wanted to hear.
“The best sign that professional dancers enjoy your class is how they are jumping at the end,” François tells me later in the week. We are sitting around my dining table drinking coffee. The former Hamburg ballet principal dancer still looks princely, with broad shoulders and a chiseled jaw. “First of all, it’s a good sign if most of the dancers are still there at all,” he says, smiling. Robyn finishes the thought. She has delicate features, and emphasizes what she says with very expressive hands: “But, assuming that they are still there – if their jumps have energy and attack, then they are enjoying themselves.”
Growing up in Townsville, Australia, (Robyn), and Cannes, (François), the two dancers came to Germany at a time when nobody spoke English, and where ballet did not yet have a long-standing tradition. They learned from great teachers like Truman Finney, who built their aesthetic for clean and musical dancing. They worked with choreographers, primarily John Neumeier, whose goal was not to preserve a classic or please a board, but to make dancing relevant to their audience. I was thrilled that they accepted my invitation for a coffee, because I was fascinated to learn about their experience. As they recounted stories and memories, I realized that their critique of today’s ballet industry could help support why I consider the art form relevant today.
Both François and Robyn admit that they weren’t yet fully formed dancers when they met in Munich as new members of John Cranko’s company. “The year we came, Cranko fired eight dancers, and hired eight new international dancers, including us. There were big differences in all of our techniques, and no good way to really bridge the gaps.” They both consider their artistic development to really begin when they joined Hamburg Ballet, where John Neumeier would arrive as director one year later. Here, they explain, the real discovery of the craft started.
Two teachers, Irina Jacobson and Truman Finney, greatly inspired the two dancers and influenced their understanding of ballet technique. Jacobson stressed logical coordination and cleanliness, demonstrated through perfectly constructed combinations. I think back to Robyn in class during the week, suggesting that we pinpoint our bad habits, using the barre exercises to bring our technique back to the basics. The simple and logically coordinated exercises that Robyn used to emphasize this point seemed to mirror her description of Jacobsen’s class.
Truman Finney, on the other hand, is remembered for his tangible passion for rhythm and musicality. “I think (Finney’s) energy and love for the music must have been an extension of what it was like to work with Balanchine,” Robyn says. “And he just loved Tea for Two; it was his most ideal music for ballet combinations.” The couple smiles, remembering. I think of all the teachers I have worked with who seemed to share this fetish for Tea for Two – Peter Martins, Thordal Christensen, Peter Bo Bendixen – and it occurs to me the great influence that Truman Finney has indirectly had on my own musical sensibility, and how it affects my dancing.
Over the years as directors and teachers, François and Robyn have found the words to articulate what they learned from Jacobson and Finney. And the result: they are not interested in technique alone, but argue that having the technique to express something creates a foundation for the dancer to create the magic that we see onstage.
I am interested in hearing more about this onstage magic. During the eighteen years with Hamburg Ballet, the couple was part of countless creation processes with Neumeier, originating numerous title roles in his ballets. “Those early days were very exciting, and Neumeier really involved everyone.” François tells me. He describes a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet in which Neumeier gave each cast member a name and a character. “Each dancer knew exactly who he was, and approached even a minor role with a defined purpose. You don’t always see corps dancers given that much guidance anymore. But Neumeier always gave a why in his story ballet interpretations,” he points out.
“When Petipa choreographed Sleeping Beauty, he was a contemporary choreographer of his time.” Robyn explains. “The Finger Fairy, who initiates each movement by shooting her pointer fingers, is meant to represent the new invention of electricity. It was exciting and relevant to the audience!” Her face glows as she recounts the story. She and François credit Neumeier for continuing to think progressively about the classics.
Already in those early days in Hamburg, Neumeier found ways to give classical ballets their contemporary relevance. François shows an example: In Neumeier’s Sleeping Beauty, Prince Desiree lives in modern times and wears jeans. He witnesses Princess Aurora in her kingdom a hundred years ago as if it were his dream. He sees her as a precocious child running wildly around the kingdom. He watches her on her sixteenth birthday, unable to react when she pricks her finger on the spindle and gradually loses consciousness. By the time he and princess Aurora meet, marry, and dance the traditional wedding pas de deux together, the audience has used Desiree’s visions to develop their own emotional connections to the story. Most of the choreography remains true to the Petipa version, but we become much more involved.
Neumeier was able to give new interpretations without destroying the tradition and beauty of the classics. “His stagings really attempted to refresh the classics with the relevance that they had when they were conceived,” Robyn explains. “And the classics are not famous for nothing; they’re great pieces! But if they are to be incorporated in today’s culture, companies need to do more than just present “their version” of a classic. Most choreographers today have lost that logic. If you can’t give it a real meaning anymore, then don’t do it.”
The couple has found that giving the meaning begins with technique class. If you can give reasons how and why the body executes movement in a certain way, you can just as easily approach the bigger picture. It isn’t a new phenomenon for an older generation to bemoan the fading of times past. But François and Robyn do not fall into this trap; they see their job as one moving forward: to simultaneously preserve and propel the art of ballet. Dancers are better now, they say. And there are so many more of them. Reviewers often complain that dancers are moving in a technical direction, leaving the artistry behind. François and Robyn articulate how they have tried to keep the artistry alive through their own classical ballet stagings.
As director of Queensland Ballet in Brisbane from 1998 to 2012, François followed Neumeier’s example by continuing to prioritize modern relevance in his own classical choreography. He and Robyn set more than one hundred ballets for the company, taking efforts to provide the dancers with background information to build their own emotional connections to the work. This process, they uphold, provides a whole new dimension to the audience experience. For François’ A Streetcar Named Desire, an actress coached the dancers through a process that involved reading and understanding the text. In his staging of Romeo and Juliet, dancers spoke in the Act II duel scenes until the dress rehearsal in order to help personalize conflict and make struggles more real. François describes the difficulty, but ultimate positive result, from pulling dancers out of their comfort zones: “They are afraid of looking stupid trying to interpret a role, and try to cover it up with an air of ‘I don’t care right now, I’ll be able to do it once I’m onstage.’ (But) you learn as much, if not more, from your mistakes as your successes, and this is what makes you grow.”
By now I’ve observed how considerate the two are with each other, always giving the other person room to express a thought without contradiction. When I ask how they found a working dynamic in the studio, I’m surprised at the answer. “At Queensland Ballet, we never worked together until right before a production opened,” François explains. He choreographed the ballets and coached dancers, while Robyn ran separate rehearsals as a ballet mistress, and organized the school program. Assigning these specific responsibilities permitted the couple to maintain a harmonious personal life.
And how do they work together now, I ask, expecting the pair to explain the development of their cohesive teaching aesthetic. “We haven’t,” Robyn laughs. “He likes coordination, and I like lines.” But by each maintaining an individual preference, they explain, they have been able to find and hone the most well-rounded dancers possible. “If I ruled a dancer out in an audition who didn’t instantly show good coordination,” François explains, “Robyn might point out something special about her line that I had missed. In that way, it’s always been positive that we are two sets of eyes.”
With that, our time is up – they have to catch a cab to the airport. Always on the move, I think to myself. It all happens in a blur; I help them carry their suitcases down the stairs, wave goodbye, and the cab drives away.
* * *
In the days that follow, I am constantly reminded of François and Robyn. There are the technical reminders in ballet class, of course: François explaining how the height of a kick is determined by the impetus of the take-off; or Robyn demonstrating how arms can tighten around the body’s axis to sustain a turn. And then there is a bigger-picture idea about dancing: how musical interpretation is just as important as technical ability, and one can’t exist without the other. I’m very inspired by this reminder.
I am also inspired for the future of classical ballet. Even though there is a demand for dancers to be better, stronger, learn more styles, and push themselves further, there are also teachers like François and Robyn to remind us of the beauty and pure logic of classical ballet. And luckily, there are still choreographers asking why. I think that Christopher Wheeldon has admirably refreshed some stories with his unique ballet vocabulary, excellent musical understanding, and great sense of humor: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Swan Lake are a few favorites. I am also grateful that John Neumeier is still creating new works today, pushing the boundaries of classical ballet by broadening the audience’s sensibilities for which stories can be told without words; Peer Gynt and Duse are a few recent endeavors.
Stopped at a red light during my bike ride home one evening, I see a poster for a drama production of Woyzeck which François and Robyn had seen during their visit to Berlin. They were blown away by the show; everyone onstage had a purpose, they said – each soldier had a motive. And the audience was completely immersed in the drama. That, they had explained, this all-encompassing, multiple-sensory transformative experience, was what theater should be. And they were waiting to see it again on the ballet stage. I make a note of the next performance date, December 20th. The light turns green, and I continue on my way.
(first posted 12/14/2015)