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Studying for the barre

Lessons for body and mind

photo of ballet students in classCLASS # CT110:
"Beginning Ballet I"


Theater Department Faculty Margot Parsons

Dance as 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

Caroline 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 favorite—even a life-changing—BC 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 artist—everything."

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 body—and mind—into 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 teachers—it 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 sets.

"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 it—like everything in life," she says, turning philosophical. "I once said I could never do ballet."

Vicki Sanders

Photo: Parsons (front center)—"Gravity will give you what you need." By Lee Pellegrini

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