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Ballet duo Frederic Jahn and Patricia Ruanne share a formidable reputation. Among the companies for which they have worked are the Paris Opera, the Royal Ballet, La Scala, the London Festival Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, with job titles ranging from dancer to acting director. New Zealand dancers will have the opportunity to benefit from the pair’s accumulated experience when they present their week-long winter workshop in Christchurch at the end of July. Having recently finished re-staging Rudolph Nureyev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the Paris Opera, Frederic and Patricia have kindly let Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards steal a few pearls of wisdom to share with our readers.
What memories do you have of your time as a student and a dancer?
I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Royal Ballet School at the age of thirteen, and have lovely memories of my years at White Lodge. Having been convent-educated up to that moment (and my passion for dance strongly disapproved of by the nuns), it was a huge pleasure for me to be in an environment where everyone considered this passion to be entirely normal. By the age of seventeen I was dancing in the Royal Ballet and starting to understand that however much you assimilate, there is always more to learn.
I have very few memories of being a student dancer as I was only a student for three weeks before joining the New Zealand Ballet Company. Before that time I was still at King Edward Technical College in Dunedin doing ballet classes twice a week with my stepfather, Ludwig Werner.
I joined the company as a student dancer with another boy, but we were given roles right from the beginning. Although I greatly enjoyed the dance training and performance aspects, not all my memories are pleasant ones. Having been uneducated in the protocol and hierarchy of a dance company, I made many mistakes and was frequently put into my place regarding how things worked, and required considerable chastisement from established members of the company and staff, until I got the message.
Who were your favourite coaches and what did they impart to you?
I’ve had the fortune to work with the greatest dance personalities in the world. Some were teachers, some coaches, but all of them were theatrical personalities.The personalities that have influenced me the most were and are Russell Kerr and Jon Trimmer when I was in the New Zealand Ballet. Russell Kerr was director of the company, and his passion and energy remain firmly in my memories.
The Australian Ballet was also an enriching experience. Sir Robert Helpmann, Sir Frederick Ashton, Dame Peggy van Praagh, Ray Powell, Brian Ashbridge, Vera Volkova, Anthony Tudor and Rudolf Nureyev were all artists with whom I had personal contact and who helped me to develop the roles with which I was entrusted during my period with the company. It was Nureyev who advised me to go to Europe to widen my experience.
In Europe I had the good fortune to work with great choreographers such as Glen Tetley, Rudi van Dantzig, Ronald Hynd, Hans van Manen, and under the direction of Dame Beryl Grey, John Field and Peter Darrel. Those people had a tremendous influence on me as a dancer.
My leading light in the Royal Ballet was the director of the touring company, John Field. He had great theatrical input to give us, and was not afraid to give young, inexperienced dancers an early opportunity in roles that one would not expect to tackle so soon. He considered that time spent discussing the development of a role was of equal value to the time spent actively rehearsing the steps, and encouraged us to read the literature related to any interpretative role, to see the play and to never sit back ‘in safety’ with a role, but constantly try to see it with fresh eyes.
I was surrounded by some of last century’s greatest dancers, all of whom I tried to learn from, and danced roles in ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Anthony Tudor, Ronald Hynd, Hans van Manen, Barry Moreland and Rudolf Nureyev to name but a few. All these great creative minds gave me invaluable information and inspiration, which I try to transmit to the dancers I work with today.
What was it like working with Nureyev?
Rudolph was like another dancer, a chum to me, and that was the only way you could work with him. If you placed him on a pedestal he would treat you accordingly and wipe the floor with you. He was like a chameleon; grovel up to him and your life would not be worth a penny, act the snob and he soon put you in your place. He treated you as you treated him. He had his moods. His mind worked so quickly that he expected us to learn by osmosis. We could not guess what he wanted all the time, and this caused frustration. These moods passed quickly, however. We learned over time that we could always get him to laugh again with a few scatological jokes. There are so many anecdotes, but you’d need a book for those.
You also had the pleasure of working as étoile coach and ballet master with the Paris Opera under Nureyev. How does the experience of coaching at such an elite level compare to that of coaching students?
Working as Maestro with illustrious companies has broadened the canvas in terms of application to the younger generation. Being a Maestro seldom has anything to do with how much you know, it’s more about how to handle an individual dancer. It’s a psychological challenge until the ‘trust factor’ kicks in, at which point you can release all the information the dancer requires with impunity.
Patricia, you have worked as ballet mistress for the Festival Ballet and the Paris Opera. What were your particular responsibilities and has that informed your teaching style?
My initial responsibility in both cases was to coach young dancers in preparation for assuming principal roles. As I had already danced the full repertoire, it is helpful to a ‘debutante’ to know that you are aware of the difficulties and that you can help them to avoid the pitfalls through personal experience.
At the Paris Opera, as an English speaker, I was generally assigned to take care of all visiting choreographers coming from overseas, and thus became responsible for the works of Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Rudi van Dantzig, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, George Balanchine, Jiri
Kylian, and of course, the ballets of Rudolf Nureyev. Needless to say, working with such varied talents and requirements provides a wealth of information, not least the realisation that nothing is ever immovable. All these choreographers use the same base vocabulary of dance, but in totally different styles, and one can witness how they themselves are evolving over a period of years. This provides a constant reminder that without change, things become stagnant and we as teachers and coaches must always keep our minds open.
You were both involved behind the scenes of the current production of Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet for the Paris Opera. What is involved in ‘teaching’ a ballet?
Teaching a ballet involves everything; the steps, the dramatic intention, the working of the steps (in Romeo and Juliet, the fight scenes), the extras, the costumes, the tempi with the conductor, the sets, the lighting and lighting cues, the mechanical operations of the sets, the close relationship with stage manager, the control of over 75 dancers, and 65 extras, and the application of human resources to the limits. With all this in control, the transmission of the ballet as a theatrical experience, and how Nureyev would have wanted it, becomes feasible.
I echo all that Frederic has said. I would also add that it is important to both of us to encourage the dancers to discover the roles within themselves. We had the good fortune to create this ballet with Nureyev, but although we must remain true to his intentions dramatically, it’s vital that today’s dancers are not mere clones of the original cast, but able to do their own research and offer something of their own personalities to the production. This is what keeps it fresh and alive to both dancers and the public.
Having worked overseas and locally, how do you feel Australasian dancers compare to those working abroad?
There are a great many uncut diamonds in New Zealand, but maybe not enough diamond polishers. By that I mean that New Zealand students we have seen working for their professional vocation are of an excellent standard, but not brilliant. Brilliance and quality at the highest level can only be transmitted by people that have touched or worked on those levels themselves. It’s the experience that defines the quality. It can’t be read out of a book or taught from a film. What makes overseas dancers different is that they have a greater choice of teachers to learn from and absorb on a regular basis. Even Australia has a better advantage simply because of its larger population, and secondly because of its geographical situation. New Zealand dancers have got the icing on the cake – the only thing that is missing is the edible glitter and sparklers.
One of their greatest strengths is their enthusiasm when young, but one of their weaknesses is that it becomes ‘un-cool’ to demonstrate this passion as they get older. There is no shame in wanting to be good at something.
What advice would you give to your sixteen year old self?
Never type yourself as a dancer, listen and work to your limits. Never assume dance owes you anything, or that it’s fair. Respect others.
Watch, listen, and never assume that someone else’s corrections don’t apply to you. Don’t confuse a correction with a criticism. Try everything and refuse to accept the things that you can’t do yet – it will happen one day if you don’t walk away from it. Never be afraid to ask for help from someone whose opinion you respect. Never forget how lucky you are to be doing something you love, and always remember that you cannot dance forever, so don’t waste time.
You are both coaching at the New Zealand Dance Masters International Winter Workshop at the end of July, held in the earthquake-devastated city of Christchurch. How has the quake affected plans for this year’s workshop?
Frederic and Patricia
We were in Christchurch during the earthquake and witnessed first-hand the tragedy and trauma created by this event. Naturally, we wish to contribute in any way we can to re-establishing some normality, and we feel that it could be helpful for young aspiring dancers and their parents to realise that despite the possible logistical difficulties, these workshops can continue to take place. It can only be a positive sign that this type of activity can provide stimulation and encouragement to young people. Christchurch is recovering from a terrible setback, but is rebuilding for the future and we would like to help young dancers do the same.
The 2011 Dance Masters International Winter Workshop (July 24th-30th) will be held at 35 Archeron Drive, off Blenhiem Rd, Christchurch
Enquiries can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or Call +64 (0)226702971.
Published in Dance Informa magazine