Martine van Hamel: How I Teach Ballet
February 27, 2017

When Martine van Hamel burst onto the New York dance scene in the 1970s as a ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, she was a bit of an anomaly. At 5′ 7″, she was taller than most ballerinas at the time, but what really made her shine—in a company already filled with stars like Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova—was her immaculate technique, poignant interpretations of dramatic roles and extreme stylistic range. She could embody the fragile Odette in Swan Lake as convincingly as the sultry female lead of Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove, a role created specifically for her. Her ascendance was astronomical: After just one year in the corps, she was promoted to soloist. Two years later, after a particularly brilliant performance of Swan Lake, she was promoted to principal.

Despite a wealth of ballet knowledge acquired over her 35-year career dancing with ABT, National Ballet of Canada, Joffrey Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater III, it’s only been the past few years that van Hamel has truly embraced her role as a teacher. Today, she translates the unique combination of intuition, musicality and crystalline form that made her a star to the young pre-professional dancers at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and with the ABT Studio Company, where she is on faculty.

Born in Brussels, van Hamel joined ABT in 1970, after six years with the National Ballet of Canada and one with the Joffrey Ballet. She retired from dancing professionally at 53, after 21 years with ABT and another 6 with Nederlands Dans Theater III (a company created by Jirí Kylián featuring older dancers). Unlike many retiring dancers, who go straight into teaching, van Hamel eased her way into it. “It was a transition that was really tough,” she says. “It scared me at the time. I knew I would find it hard as a novice teacher, even though of course I knew a lot about dance and had my points of view.”

It took founding the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in 1990 in upstate New York to convince her that teaching was the right next step. Van Hamel co-founded the center with her husband, Kevin McKenzie, her frequent partner at ABT and now its artistic director. At the 153-acre farm, which hosts choreographic residencies, performances, an academy and a summer intensive program, she helms the ballet component.

Van Hamel takes on the occasional character role with ABT: the queen in Swan Lake (seen here), the witch in La Sylphide or Carabosse from The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of ABT

Now 71, van Hamel still has the impeccable posture, grace and magnetic presence of a prima ballerina. With calm command of the studio, she looks completely at home, illustrating combinations efficiently and effectively, accenting the musicality of the steps with her voice. “You have to let me see what the music is,” she tells her JKO students, a large group of teens from around the world. “If the music went away, I should still know what song the accompanist is playing.”

Healthy alignment is a priority, thanks to her training with Maggie Black, a beloved mentor of dozens of professional dancers in New York City in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “I think I gained a real understanding of the physical body with Maggie Black,” she says. “She was smart on every level—emphasizing how to work most efficiently with your own structure. So that is very much where I’m coming from.” For instance, van Hamel isn’t a fan of perfectly flat turnout. “I don’t think everyone is gifted with 180-degree turnout,” she says. “Forcing that hurts the knees and ankles, and a lot of unnecessary physical problems happen that way.” She emphasizes to her students that they move in one piece. “When you travel through space,” she says, “it’s important to realize that the whole body goes through space—not just your legs.”

Van Hamel’s pure love of moving is apparent even in the way she guides her JKO students through a simple révérence of four grand pliés at the end of class. Former students, like Miami City Ballet principal Simone Messmer and ABT soloist Blaine Hoven, are confirmation of her influence. They experienced her guidance at Kaatsbaan and ABT’s Studio Company before joining the ranks of ABT. “You start to go, ‘Oh, I can make a difference,'” she says. “This makes sense. I do enjoy seeing them progress.”

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