for body and mind
Faculty Margot Parsons
a Theatre Art,
edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen; Inside Ballet Technique: Separating
Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class, by Valerie
Grieg; selected essays and critiques from Ballet Review
Hofeller '03 does not consider herself the ballerina type. She's
tall, large-boned, and says she's not coordinated in any exceptional
sense. But today she's standing at a barre in a Robsham Theater
studio, alongside 24 students (23 of them female), trying to bend
her knees sideways in a plié.
A transfer student majoring in international affairs, Hofeller is
taking "Beginning Ballet" because she needed a break from
the regimentation of her core course work and wanted to try "a
different type of learning." What she didn't expect was that
ballet would turn out to be "the most challenging course I've
had, physically and mentally."
Teacher Margot Parsons's combination of technique classes and academic
requirements that include readings on dance history and physiology,
weekly quizzes, a term paper, and the creation of a two-minute piece
of choreography, surprises a lot of students with its rigor. But
few ever drop the course, and many call it a favoriteeven
a life-changingBC experience. Dennis O'Connor, for instance,
was a student of Parsons's in 1981, his only year at BC; he went
on to become a professional dancer, working with, among others,
the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and he says of Parsons's influence,
"Her class was the beginning of everything I've done as a career
and an artisteverything."
Parsons is a tiny dynamo who calls out instructions as she moves
around the room, adjusting the curve of an arm here, the position
of a leg there. She studied with some of the 20th century's dance
greats, including Eric Braun, Louis Horst, Bessie Schoenberg, and
Anna Sokolow, and she's become one of Boston's best-known choreographers
and dance instructors. She's been teaching at BC for 21 years.
The new batch of hopefuls assembled in Parsons's studio classroom
in September embodies the kind of challenge she's seen hundreds
of times before. Their backgrounds range from none to a few years
of tap or jazz dance to extensive ballet training. Because most
of the students didn't begin ballet as children, when the growing
body can be trained to affect the turnout essential to the classical
aesthetic, few of them can hope to perfect the form. That doesn't
mean, however, that they can't learn to dance and to have fun doing
it, Parsons says. So she gamely begins the job of molding each bodyand
mindinto the best instrument for dance it can be. "I
want you to be informed about how the body works. This is not about
making cutout designs in space. It's experiential," she tells
the class. "Ballet is a performing art, not just a form of
exercise, and as such it is part of a history."
A short time later, the introduction over, the students are on their
feet. "Get the bars, that's b-a-r-r-e-s," Parsons
spells, laughing, as they carry the portable stands into the center
of the floor. She starts with the basics: "Face the barre and
put your feet straight ahead. Place your hands on the barre, the
wrists are straight."
The hour-and-a-half lesson goes quickly, with Parsons demonstrating
each movement. She supplies a constant stream of instructions and
corrections, laced with imagery and history. She wants their arms
to curve outward from the shoulder, so she tells them, "Feel
as though there's a balloon beneath your armpit." To get them
to open their chests, she reminds them of ballet's roots in royalty
and suggests the students present themselves, "as if you were
wearing the czar's jewels, so the audience would see them on stage."
Ben Cortes '90 studied with Parsons while an undergraduate and because
of her decided to pursue a dance career. It wasn't until he was
at the University of Utah working on his master's degree, however,
that he realized just how special her brand of teaching is. "To
have that person in life as one of your first teachersit was
like I had an angel on my shoulder," he says. "She'd look
at me performing a movement and not doing it quite right and she
could show me what I was doing and how she wanted me to do it with
her words and her body, and I could see the transformation in a
split second. Like a surgeon, she can go into your body and show
you what's not right, and then change you."
Week two of "Beginning Ballet," Parsons is adding one
movement to another, until the students find themselves executing
increasingly complex combinations to the piano accompaniment of
her assistant, Robin Cho. Then they try some steps and leaps across
the floor. "Push away from gravity and gravity will give you
what you need," Parsons calls out. Four abreast, the students
practice a sliding step called a chassé. They move gingerly;
most are prancing, not pushing. "I don't want you to think
of the surface," Parsons corrects. "Under the floor is
your root structure. A little troll is under the floor pulling down
to pull you up. Feel always that you go under the floor to go up."
Accounting major Alissa Chang '03, who's studied ballet since elementary
school, appreciates Parsons's efforts to "tell us where ballet
is coming from. Sometimes she shows us other dance forms,"
Chang says. "It adds to your performance ability and also adds
to your appreciation of the art."
Theater Department chair Stuart Hecht says that Parsons's course
"is not about people prancing around in leotards. It's about
the serious, concentrated study of a discipline with longstanding
traditions, a knowledge base, and sophisticated technique that requires
dedication and concentration and many hours of work to master, even
at the rudimentary level." He believes students' lives are
enriched in many ways by the experience.
In September, Parsons arranged for her students to attend a Boston
Ballet performance. Many had never been to a professional dance
concert before or had only dim memories of having seen The Nutcracker.
Most were expecting a traditional, storytelling ballet. Instead,
they got a program of modern, abstract works by Mark Morris, William
Forsythe, and the lesser-known Jorma Elo. In the latter two works,
the dancers wore unembellished unitards and they danced on minimal
"I was watching their moves more closely because of class,
and I was thinking, 'So that's how they do it,'" Hofeller says
later. She's in the studio the next day, still struggling to get
her feet into a configuration known as fifth position, but newly
inspired to do so. "The more you do it, the more you can do
itlike everything in life," she says, turning philosophical.
"I once said I could never do ballet."
Photo: Parsons (front center)"Gravity will give you what
you need." By Lee