The Contemporary Ballet Master

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, December 2009

With an Eye to the Past

When we hear “ballet master,” most of us think of wooden canes or demi-heeled ballet slippers. In today’s most demanding contemporary ballet companies, these images could not be further from reality. At Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the role of ballet master is one in which ballet comprises only a fraction of the job’s demands. Working for repertory companies, Complexions’ ballet master Jae Man Joo and Cedar Lake’s ballet master Alexandra Damiani engage with a diverse group of living choreographers and artistic directors. Joo calls himself a “translator,” while Damiani refers to her role as that of an “engineer.”

The ballet master’s role has always been to maintain the choreographer’s vision from the inside out, and this often includes tasks from teaching technique class, to rehearsing the company, to coaching dancers on individual roles. Many of the dance world’s historical luminaries are remembered more for their roles as choreographers or artistic directors, but such roles can go hand in hand with that of the ballet master. George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Agrippina Vaganova, Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton, and Michel Fokine have all held the position of ballet master at one point or another.

One aspect of the ballet master’s job that has remained constant is the idea that choreography should be passed down from generation to generation. To bring a piece back into circulation does not necessarily mean dusting off a 19th century story ballet. At a new company like Cedar Lake, which commissions works by Europe’s most sought after choreographers, it is the ballet master’s job to teach new company members roles that might have been created on the company just several months prior.

Becoming Ballet Master

In smaller contemporary and modern companies, the role of ballet master can be a matter of terminology. For example, Damiani herself began as a “rehearsal director.” She explains to me that often injured or aging dancers accidentally slip into the role of rehearsal director, no longer able to sustain performing careers. However, her own decision to move into the position of Cedar Lake’s rehearsal director at the peak of her dancing career came about at the request of its artistic director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Having worked together as dancers in Complexions (directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson) and Donald Byrd/The Group, Pouffer and Damiani already had an understanding of each other’s movement tastes and rehearsal modes. Before being approached by Pouffer, Damiani had added to her dance resume jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Rubberbandance, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. Looking for a new challenge, she accepted Pouffer’s offer. Damiani’s newly revised title of ballet master “gives more weight to the job of rehearsal director.”

I had the privilege of meeting both Damiani and Joo during the time we were all dancing for Complexions, and I can attest to the fact that Rhoden demands of his dancers quick uptake, as phrases are generated at lighting speed. Thus, the process requires collaborative effort in order to maintain material. Additionally, while some steps have balletic names, others are referred to by a sound or nickname. Working with a contemporary choreographer often means working within an abstract movement vocabulary that does not rely on centuries-old steps, dramatic impulse, or narrative plot. In the case of Complexions, budgetary concerns did not allow for an official ballet master during the company’s early years. Such a position allows for increased company unity, which is important in an environment such as Complexions in which dancers must embody Rhoden’s specific style (in addition to those of its guest choreographers). Today, Joo’s position as ballet master for Complexions thus provides a crucial element that will help ensure the long-term health of the company.

Joo’s path to ballet master was rather organic. He began choreographing at Hankuk University in Seoul, South Korea. After training in ballet with Um Ballet Studio, studying modern techniques such as Graham and Limón in college, and dancing with Korea Contemporary Dance Company, Joo earned the Best Individual Dance Award in the Bagnolet International Choreographer Festival in Paris. Upon his arrival in New York in 1996, he danced for companies such as Ballet Hispanico and that of Igal Perry. After dancing with Complexions for more than 10 years, Joo was promoted to ballet master in 2007. In 2009, Joo earned a Princess Grace Award for his work with Complexions.

Damiani’s training also began with classical ballet, starting with the Geneva Dance Center and continuing with Attilio Labis from the Paris Opera School. After winning the International Competition of Marseilles in 1995, she was awarded a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Thus, like most Complexions dancers, both Joo and Damiani’s training began in classical ballet and was augmented by several years of training in modern techniques such as Horton and Graham. It is important for the ballet master to understand the larger context of the piece, while paying attention to the specificity of each movement phrase. As Damiani explains, the job of ballet master requires “certain important qualities, and not everyone has them or gets a kick out of [the job]. It is important to feel a passion for it…fulfillment. Not every dancer can become a ballet master.” Joo concurs: “It is the most difficult task. It’s not easy.” Nevertheless, Joo finds that “when you teach, you learn more.” Though not an official prerequisite, having danced in a company environment for many years greatly informs the multi-faceted task of ballet master. But what sets contemporary ballet masters such as Joo and Damiani apart from those of yesteryear is their ability to jump out of their chairs and step right into the movement the dancers are rehearsing. In visiting both Complexions and Cedar Lake rehearsals this season, I observed Joo and Damiani teaching as much by dancing (and sweating) as through speech. Forget about proper dress and shoes; this is a job done best in lycra and bare feet.

A Day in the Life

For Complexions and Cedar Lake dancers, the day begins with company class. Joo usually teaches daily company ballet class, while Damiani only teaches when on tour or during performance runs. This structure mirrors the companies’ repertoires, as Complexions’ choreography is mainly comprised of Rhoden’s work (with the occasional guest piece by William Forsythe or Joo himself), while Cedar Lake is a multi-choreographer repertory company. Cedar Lake offers its dancers a variety of teachers and techniques, “depending on the work [they are] doing” at any given time. These classes range from ballet and modern, to yoga and gaga (Ohad Naharin’s technique). Nevertheless, Damiani explains that for their repertoire, “ballet is still the foundation…the best way to get the body ready.” Joo thinks of his ballet class as “ballet for modern dancers…with a very dance-y combination across the floor.” It is important that the style of ballet executed in the class Joo teaches reflects the movement demands of Rhoden’s highly articulated, yet sweeping choreography.

After class, both companies embark on rehearsal, and more often than not, they are working on brand new material. Joo tells me that he, Rhoden and Richardson “discuss” the next day’s rehearsal “the day before” in order to be “organized and efficient.” Each day is mapped out ahead of time, dedicating two to three hours to each piece or section, depending on the stage of creation. Damiani also takes preparation seriously: “The dancers are top notch, and they expect the best. For me it’s a lot of prep before rehearsals, but the dancers take responsibility for their role too.”

Both Joo and Damiani stress the importance of their emotional (as well as functional) role in their respective companies. Joo calls himself the company “translator” and feels that his presence has increased the sense of trust in the company, between its directors and dancers: “It’s emotional; I am the middle person.” Damiani, similarly, is Cedar Lake’s “engineer.” “I am a link between the artistic director (or choreographer) and the dancers… There are so many ways to mold the dancers. You can really leave an imprint. In that you have so much power.” She explains that dancers who have been in the company for several years have had the advantage of engaging in a three-month workshop with Ohad Naharin to learn his gaga technique. “A new person,” she says, “only has two weeks.” In that time, they must learn an entire piece and its accompanying technique and philosophy. “Teaching them the part is easy,” explains Damiani, “but to have them do it the right way is challenging… To reset a piece you need to know what the intention was behind the movement—concepts, keywords. If I need to coach a new dancer who wasn’t part of the creation process, it takes time, [working] privately with that dancer. Sometimes the choreographer returns to re-inspire the dancers.” Ultimately, Damiani tells me, “To keep the choreographer’s vision fresh and maintain the integrity of the work… I need to speak multiple movement languages.”

What does the “right way” of moving mean to companies that privilege such abstract, yet physically and technically demanding choreography? Damiani has the added task of reassessing preferred modes of movement with each new choreographer who sets foot in Cedar Lake’s studios. She says, “I really need to comprehend the movement physically, not only verbally. It needs to make sense in my body. Because I’m in shape, I can use my body. For my relationship with the dancers, it’s really important for them to see that I can embody that movement and understand it so they can respect me.” Some choreographers prefer Damiani to be dancing just as much as the company members, while others (like Stijn Celis) need her “to be next to him, sharing eyes, being able to talk to him, to understand his images.” Damiani admits, “I didn’t understand [Celis’] vocabulary easily, but I realized that he needed me.” If Joo sees himself as a translator of movement, Damiani often finds herself in the role of linguistic translator, as her mother tongue—French—comes in handy when working with European choreographers. Recently, she found herself conversing in French with Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for the recent “Orbo Novo.”

No doubt, ballet master is a full-time job. Somehow, Joo has made time to work on his choreography, photography and costume-making. He appreciates the various dimensions of each one of his interests, but never forgets that, as a ballet master, he works toward the vision of “someone else.” “As a choreographer, I’m just me,” he says. For better or worse, “Everything’s mine: 100 percent freedom.” In a sense, to work as ballet master is to be assured a set of tasks. To choreograph is to be creatively unlimited, and as liberating as it can feel, it comes with its own set of risks. Damiani does not know where this job will lead her, but by the looks of Cedar Lake, she has done an incredible job of negotiating multiple choreographic styles to ensure a unified ensemble of virtuosos.

Ariel Osterweis Scott, a PhD candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley, is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator, and scholar. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.