On a bright morning early this past March, the atmosphere in American Ballet Theatre’s Studio 4 was palpably tense. It was the first day of the 2011 exchange between ABT II and London’s Royal Ballet School, a unique collaboration begun in 2003 that allows the two groups to periodically take classes and perform together. On one side of the studio, a jet-lagged group of graduate-year RBS students warmed up quietly. On the other, a cluster of ABT II dancers stretched and whispered. Many furtive sizing-up glances were cast across the studio.
Then ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie entered, and the dancers were all-business. McKenzie put them through their paces with a thorough, well-balanced class, giving corrections about the placement of the hip and torso and encouraging them to stay on top of the music. Initially the two groups kept to themselves, and McKenzie cracked jokes about the Sharks and the Jets. Eventually they relaxed and began observing each other with interest rather than apprehension.
And that’s what the exchange is all about, says ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman. “The program is designed to allow these dancers to see where they are peer-wise—how they compare and what their relative strengths and weaknesses are,” he says. “It’s nice to have those reference points during your training, particularly right as you’re about to begin a professional career.”
Over the course of the weeklong exchange, the 34 (21 from RBS) participating dancers took master classes with RBS director Gailene Stock and RBS senior teacher Gary Norman, as well as McKenzie and Chapman, and gained exposure to a variety of teaching styles and techniques. As a grand finale, the two groups put on a joint show at The Ailey Citigroup Theater, with carefully chosen repertoire designed to showcase the dancers’ range. The RBS students performed the pas de quatre from Royal Ballet legend Frederick Ashton’s Swan Lake, plus contemporary pieces by Gary Norman, Alistair Marriot and Parrish Maynard. ABT II danced Ballet Theatre icon Antony Tudor’s Continuo, the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes (“to bring a little Americana to the program,” Chapman says) and Jodie Gates’ A Taste of Sweet Velvet.
British dancers have long had a reputation for refined, exacting technique and conservative port de bras, while American dancers are generally thought of as more explosive, speedy and dynamic. But during McKenzie’s class and in performance, the RBS and ABT II dancers were stylistically almost identical, which predicts the students’ future collaborations. “It’s good for them to spend some time together,” Chapman says, “since many of them will probably end up in the same company.”
The companies last swapped places in 2005, and the 2011 exchange will culminate next year when ABT II visits London. DT
Photo: Kevin McKenzie at the barre with ABT II and RBS students (by Rachel Papo)