Becoming a Cyber
Ballet Connoisseur

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the School of American Ballet has had to move all of its instruction online and is currently providing daily ballet classes to all levels of the School. But that’s not the only program that’s shifting to the digital medium. The latest unit of our adult education program, Ballet Connoisseurship begins this week and is being held online for the very first time.

To find out more about what participants can expect in this latest round of sessions, we spoke to Ballet Connoisseurship’s project manager, Alexis Branagan…

SAB: Tell us a little more about Ballet Connoisseurship. What is the program and how did it get started?

AB: SAB’s Ballet Connoisseurship is an educational offering for adults providing seasoned ballet goers, patrons, students, scholars, and newcomers alike with knowledge and perspectives that will enhance their appreciation of ballet. The program was launched in January 2019 as part of our new “SAB Open” division, which consists of Little Dancers and Ballet Connoisseurship, expanding SAB’s educational offerings on each end of the age spectrum. Ballet Connoisseurship’s seminars and lecture-demonstrations explore ballet history, technique, and choreographic masters.

Speakers are top professionals in the field — dance and music scholars, choreographers, current and former New York City Ballet dancers, and SAB faculty. It’s been a welcome challenge and a joy to program these evenings, giving patrons insights, viewings, and learning experiences they can’t find anywhere else. Here are some highlights:

Harrison Coll and Justin Peck answering questions at a Ballet Connoisseurship session.
  • Kay Mazzo, Chairman of Faculty; Katrina Killian, Children’s Division Manager, Mae L. Wien Faculty Chair; and Suki Schorer, Brown Foundation Senior Faculty Chair, with their students, have led various in-depth demonstrations of SAB’s history and training methods.
  • Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky (in conversation with one of his muses, now New York City Ballet Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan), and Lauren Lovette discussed their choreographic approaches.
  • Prolific former NYCB dancers Merrill Ashley, Kay Mazzo, Suki Schorer, and Edward Villella have shared stories about working with dance giants George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
  • As part of a unit on dance and visual Art, MoMA curator Samantha Friedman, dance and music scholar James Steichen, and art historian Olivier Bernier spoke, and New York Times dance photographer Erin Baiano led an interactive instructional session in the studio.
  • Kurt Froman, former NYCB dancer and current ballet coach for Broadway and Hollywood, spoke about ballet’s representation in film and his work behind the scenes with Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence for the major motion pictures Black Swan and Red Sparrow.
  • NYCB principal dancer and SAB faculty member Megan Fairchild talked about her experiences performing on Broadway, and transitioning back and forth between that and her career at NYCB.
  • Silas Farley, NYCB dancer and dance historian, produced a lecture-demonstration with advanced SAB male students to illuminate the technical and stylistic ties between August Bournonville and George Balanchine.

Ballet attracts some of the most interesting and intelligent people, all with a fresh angle from which to view dance. The goal of Ballet Connoisseurship is to open participants’ eyes to new ways of looking at the art form they already love and maybe even learn to appreciate aspects of it that they did not understand or had overlooked!

SAB: How is the program changing during this time of social distancing? Tell us about “cyber” Ballet Connoisseurship.

AB: We are taking Ballet Connoisseurship from SAB to Zoom! After looking into several platforms, I found Zoom to be best suited for creating a full Ballet Connoisseurship experience online. Our speakers for these upcoming sessions, Merrill Ashley, Faye Arthurs, Silas Farley, and Suki Schorer, have all been fantastic at charting this new virtual territory, approaching it with creativity and positivity. They have prepared full presentations, including videos and photos, to display on the screen! Patrons will have the opportunity to engage with a Q&A toward the end of the course, as they do in person. I feel fortunate that Ballet Connoisseurship can be adapted to a virtual format without sacrificing the content delivered to the patrons. I am grateful to the speakers for charting the course and to our Ballet Connoisseurs for coming along for the ride!

SAB: What are some of the advantages of this program right now?

AB: One of the aspects of Ballet Connoisseurship that’s so unique is that previously each session was capped at 50 people, as many as we can comfortably hold in our Vogelstein Conference Room at SAB. In keeping these sessions intimate, everyone has the opportunity to interact with ballet superstars in an up-close and personal way which isn’t often afforded elsewhere. Well, Cyber Ballet Connoisseurship is different, for sure. While we can now expand the number of participants, I think the intimacy is still there! Now, Suki Schorer will be in your living room! I for one certainly won’t judge if you want to enjoy these lectures in your PJs!

What’s more, bringing these sessions online allows us to broaden the scope of our attendees since geography is no longer a factor. While attendees must still purchase the sessions, these digital versions are now open to anyone regardless of where they are in the country!

Beyond these lectures being informative and stimulating, I hope in this distressing time of social distancing and uncertainty they will be a welcome conversation with fellow ballet fans and that the beauty of ballet will be particularly uplifting and refreshing.

SAB: Tell us more about the upcoming programs and what participants can expect. What’s special about these units on Balanchine’s Black and White Ballets?

AB: Every speaker delights us with little-known facts and fun personal anecdotes that I can never anticipate, so I’m looking forward to those unexpected moments! Participants can also look forward to viewing archival videos and images that are sure to be exciting. I’ve been running some Zoom “rehearsals” with our speakers to figure out the best ways to deliver these to our patrons over wifi smoothly, and I think they will enjoy what we have in store.

On April 22, Merrill Ashley and Silas Farley will speak about Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. On April 29, Silas Farley will be on hand again to moderate a conversation with Suki Schorer. Ms. Schorer will add in a few insights from her personal experience with The Four Temperaments, will speak at length about Apollo, particularly the role she danced, “Calliope,” and will talk a bit about Agon. On May 6, Faye Arthurs, who has become a dance writer since she retired from the NYCB stage, will lead us through a close look at Concerto Barocco. Ms. Arthurs was a senior dancer in the New York City Ballet corps de ballet, and Concerto Barocco is exceptional in the way that it challenges and utilizes its 8-woman corps as much as its principal roles. All the discussions will illuminate technical aspects and musicality, cover Balanchine’s creation of the ballets, and take a look at how these ballets have evolved over time.

Silas Farley giving a lecture-demonstration at a recent Ballet Connoisseurship session.

SAB: What do you hope participants take away from this program, especially during this unprecedented time in ballet history?

AB: I hope our Ballet Connoisseurship patrons come away from these courses with a stronger desire to see ballet LIVE, in a theater, in the flesh. This time of social distancing has shown us that we cannot take for granted the value of connecting with individuals and live, ephemeral moments of beauty—magic on stage that happens right there and then, without the option to rewind and re-watch.

I also hope these sessions spark a desire to become more of a Ballet Connoisseur! With nowhere to go, the silver lining is the luxury of time. Why not take a little of that time to learn more about things that bring you joy? I hope participants come away from these courses with newfound knowledge and an eye to learning more.

There’s still time to sign up for the latest online Ballet Connoisseurship sessions on Balanchine’s black and white ballets. Click the button below to learn more and secure your spot.

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