Teacher's wisdom

Mary Ellen Hunt

At 54, Jorge Esquivel has the noble bearing that marked his fourteen-year career with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. He gained international recognition as the chivalrous partner of Alicia Alonso in the 1960s and '70s, and now brings the benefits of his Cuban training and experience to students at the San Francisco Ballet School, where he has been on the faculty since 1993. Writer Mary Ellen Hunt talks with Esquivel about his passion for teaching.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO DANCE WITH ALICIA ALONSO? Alicia is amazing. A genius who dedicated more than 100 percent of herself to the dance. I was 18 years old the first time I danced with her in 1969, and she had already been a star here in America. She had danced with Balanchine and was a superstar in ballet.

She had confidence in me, but, also, always she had respect. When I danced with other principal dancers, some had the attitude of, "I am the star. You are a student. You are an apprentice." But with Alicia it was different. There was respect--me for her, of course, but she for me. And that was amazing, because I was nothing.

Alicia gave me little details: things in the music, how you do a step, what it means. When we were dancing she'd say, "Okay, give this little movement some gesture when you walk on--something to create a story." Style was very important to Alicia. Not only technical precision, but more this sense of story. I don't see enough of this now. Now the dancers dance, but it's steps that they do. Without motivation, their performance is monotonous.

WHO WERE SOME OF THE MALE DANCERS WHO INSPIRED YOU GROWING UP? Fernando Alonso [Alicia's ex-husband] was the director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and one of my teachers, and Azari Plisetski, who was my teacher when I centered the company. For the male dancer, Plisetski set the level high. At the beginning--technically, artistically--it was woman, woman, woman. Before the revolution in 1959, there were no Cuban men in ballet. The problem is machismo. I think Plisetski was one of the more important dancers to my generation.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT YOU GIVE TO YOUR STUDENTS? I want to teach the students the sense of the art, out the sense of the technique. I want to give to them the spirit, the energy, the passion for ballet. Then, with this energy, it's like when you fall in love: The universe starts to move. Over this base they start to develop the other things: the artistic sense of the movement, the technique--jumps, batterie, many things.

But attitude is more important to me. Ballet is not only to put the leg here and to turn out and point a beautiful foot. You have to work, to be passionate, and to try to understand that when you want to reach for something, you don't wait for it to come from the sky.

HOW DO YOU KEEP STUDENTS FROM GETTING FRUSTRATED WITH THEMSELVES? Ah, the derrotismo [defeatism]. Don't let yourself get down. The problems are there, but you must get over them with a positive spirit. Be patient with yourself. OK, you cannot do it today, you'll see tomorrow. And you do other things wonderfully, beautifully. Ballet is not only one step. It is many things. Don't drown in one glass of water.

YOUR STUDENTS HAVE SUCH BEAUTIFUL PIROUETTES. IS THERE A SECRET TO HOW YOU TEACH TURNS? Well, it's different for each person. In general, you must find a good position and a high releve, and then keep the position. It's like when you jump: You try to stop all the movement in the air to get an effect. You have to keep the rhythm with your spot and push with the leg when you start. Don't push with your back because it changes the accent of your turns.

But, above all, yon have to want to turn. Why do some people have good jumps, or batterie, or balances? Because they love to keep practicing it. You must be confident and you'll start to improve.

YOUR STUDENTS SEEM VERY ENGAGED IN CLASS--THEY GET EXCITED ABOUT TRYING THINGS AGAIN AND AGAIN. I try to give them the habits of artists--because they think that maybe taking class is sufficient. No. It is necessary to do extra. Practice exercises to get the muscles strong for a good jump.

There are times when you reach for some big step and you have it in your pocket. But if you don't practice? This step starts to go out of your pocket. You need to practice to keep it. Work, work, work. It's not only to reach or to arrive, but then to stay. And to stay, there is sacrifice.

SFB MEMBER AND FELLOW CUBAN JOAN BOADA SOMETIMES ATTENDS YOUR LEVEL 8 MEN'S CLASS AT THE SCHOOL. HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOUR STUDENTS? In Cuba I was in the first generation of male dancers to become a principal. But I admire Boada because he is of the new generation, and technically better than us. He is such an example for the students. In class, I can say to him, "Okay, let me see pirouettes." It adds a little stimulation. They see how he does this thing and they want to compete, in the good sense. That is beautiful.

It's necessary for the professionals to he careful and to not show the students bad habits--hanging around, being lazy. Professional is like Alicia Alonso. She is a star, a great name, a principal dancer, but when she takes class, Alicia says she is a student. She is a student!