Denis Malinkine (center) teaches Men's Class
PART ONE – MEN’S CLASS
One of the most common misconceptions people have about ballet is that it’s “just for girls”. In fact, just this morning I was doing a workshop and I asked the audience of 100 children to tell me what they thought of when I said the word, “ballet”. The first hand that shot up was a confident little nine-year-old boy who said, “Ballet is for girls!” Teachers tend to get very uncomfortable and shush their students at these moments, but I appreciate this door being opened. It gives me a chance to tell them that half of Milwaukee Ballet Company is made up of men; that tights are just like football pants without the pads; that a king invented ballet and that girls weren’t even allowed to do it when it first started; and that we couldn’t possibly do Peter Pan without boys – I mean come on, Captain Hook in a tutu and pointe shoes? No way!
Ballet is a classical art form but don’t forget, professional dancers are as athletic as any professional athlete. I spent yesterday watching men’s and partnering classes and seeing what the boys have to do only illustrates this point. Summer intensive programs are really important for young male dancers. All too often they are one of a handful at their home studios, surrounded by twenty girls in pink tights. Here, they get their own technique classes and the vitally important partnering classes that small studios can’t always provide.
Watching a class taught by Denis Malinkine is always an enjoyable experience. Denis is the Company Ballet Master*. He is Russian, trained at the esteemed Bolshoi Ballet Academy and when he teaches you can see how much he loves the intricacies and precise beauty of ballet. And yes, Ballet Master is his title! How cool is that?! Dan Boudewyns, one of our fantastic accompanists, begins to play and the boys execute the combination of steps across the floor, first to the right, then to the left in small groups until everyone has had a chance to go. When the boys are in their own class they focus more on big jumps or a la seconde turns for example, specific steps for male dancers. Denis gives corrections while they are dancing, reminding them to pull up in their chest, to stop looking at the floor, to point their feet. At the end of class a moment of humor comes as the boys do their formal révérence, or bows at the end of class. “Don’t be dramatic, just be simple.” Denis mimics the boys’ attempts to sweep through the air with their arms, thrusting their heads downward. Obviously they want to get it right; they try again, calmer now. “That’s it. That’s beautiful.” They all breathe a sigh of relief.
PART TWO – PARTNERING CLASS
The nervousness is a bit more palpable as the boys move next door to Studio A for partnering class. Denis lines both the girls and boys up, shortest to tallest and then assigns each boy one or more partners to dance with. The girl needs to be shorter than the boy as she will be standing en pointe. Some of the groups freely introduce themselves; others are shier, shaking hands and giggling uncomfortably. Over on the left I see Marc Petrocci, Leading Artist (last seen as Peter Pan) – what a great example for these young men and a testament to Marc’s continuous drive to be a stronger dancer! This class moves much slower. Partnering takes immense strength for both the boys and the girls. While it may look to us in an audience like a male dancer can just twirl a dancer around and balance her with one arm, it is incredibly demanding. Denis reminds the boys, “You aren’t just standing there behind the ladies, you must help them, otherwise what’s the point of you being there?” He will just as quickly remind the girls that they need to be strong and create beautiful lines with their bodies. The dancers just have to go for it – sometimes awkwardly stumbling through movement as they learn to trust each other and figure out the details – like where do they hold the girls, the waist or the hip bones?
The second combination Denis teaches the students takes nearly the whole class for them to perform. It includes four different partnering positions. As he talks through it with the dancers the first time, I can hear one girl say to her partner, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” This is why they’re here. Denis demonstrates the full combination with one of the girls, Gabrielle. But later, he does Gabrielle’s part in order to show the ladies what they need to do. He stops the group at one point and asks, “Ladies, what is your most important goal when you are partnering?” The room is quiet. “To be beautiful,” he responds. Everyone laughs but Denis continues, “Gentlemen, what is your agenda when you are partnering?” Again, silence. “To make the ladies look beautiful.” I laugh too but we all know when we’ve seen a really well done ballet, the dancers make it look absolutely effortless and this is what it’s all about.
After class I catch some of the boys. There’s 16-year-old Peter from Walworth, Wisconsin, here for his fourth year. He loves the intensity of the training and he’s hoping by the end of the summer he can do a double saut de basque. Micah, 21, and Christian, 18, are brothers who are both dance majors at University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point; they both want to gain an edge with ballet since they focus more on modern and contemporary dancing at school. The youngest boy Alex, who is 12, wants to be able to do the splits by the end of the summer. 16 year old Rei is from Japan and is here in the United States for the first time. His review of how things are going was my favorite. No words, just two thumbs up.
Director of Education
*A Ballet Master teaches the Company and is responsible for rehearsing the choreography – if it’s an old ballet like Don Quixote, he is expected to know it. If it’s a world premiere, he sits in rehearsal and learns alongside the dancers and then he will rehearse it with the choreographer.