Teacher's wisdom: Alfredo Corvino

by Joseph Carman

Alfredo Corvino taught ballet at the Juilliard School for forty-two years, and now serves as ballet master for Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal (Bausch was one of his early students). As a performer, he danced with the Jooss Ballet and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Corvino discusses his teaching philosophy and Cecchetti technique with writer Joseph Carman.

HOW HAVE STUDENTS CHANGED OVER THE LAST FORTY YEARS? A good dancer from the old days and a good dancer today are similar-their values are the same. A classical dancer has to be made. You can be born with facility, but you can't have the technique without the training. To be a great dancer is like being a stallion--you have to have the energy and the resistance. Only the training can do that. Today there is more knowledge about physicality and access to that knowledge. But there are still a lot of misconceptions about dance. Too many dancers get injured because they don't work Tight. You have to know which muscles to use when. It's a matter of economy.

HOW DO YOU STRUCTURE A BALLET CLASS FOR DANCERS WITH DIFFERENT STYLISTIC APPROACHES? Technically there is no difference, no matter what technique with which you approach. The style may have some preferences. But when you land from a jump, you're going to 1and, period. You're going to hit the floor. A tour en l'air needs to land correctly. If you're singing, you hit a high C, I don't care where you come from, it's a high C. Sometimes people say, "No, I do it this way." I say, "OK, as you like it. If it works, fine! If it doesn't work, maybe we can fix it."

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE IMPORTANCE OF WEIGHT CHANGE IN BALLET? Take a grand jete--it's a leap that goes from one leg to another [demonstrates an are with his hands]. Most people do a grand jete, they just do it in a split. You have to take the body with you by pushing off the back leg. In barre work, people do tendu after tendu, like tendu, fourth plie, tendu back, without pushing off. It comes from the torso and the back. Sometimes teachers say, "Lift!" It has nothing to do with that. There is push and pull.

WHY IS THE PORT DE BRAS USUALLY THE LAST THING FOR A STUDENT TO PERFECT? That is one thing that is very important front the Cecchetti method. He devised seven sets of port de bras. It was the same with Laban. Most people in ballet do port de bras [demonstrates limp, turned-in elbows]. Often the port de bras must precede the movement. Twenty-five percent of my jump comes from the arms. Learn the port de bras correctly with epaulement. Then you can break the rules. There are stylistic differences in choreography. If you do Les Sylphides, are you going to point your feet differently? No, but the port de bras is different. You do the czardas, the arms are here [demonstrates arms bent, held in front of chest, forearms parallel to the ground]. Anatomically, you still work correctly. Dancers must visit the Rodin Museum or study da Vinci.

WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF EPAULEMENT? It comes from the shoulders and back. The head moves five different ways [demonstrates up, down, right, left, neutral]. If I turn, I don't leave the head. If you ingrain in your body as second nature the inclination of the head toward whichever foot happens to be front, it helps you in a complex petit allegro. Like when you walk--the head and shoulders move naturally in coordination.

HOW DO YOU EXECUTE A PROPER GLISSADE? It's gliding. It's not a jump, and you don't drag it. It's composed of tendus. Demi-plie, tendu, tendu, plie. But the timing is important--it's ba-bamp [demonstrates quick closing action with the hands]. You have to know what gliding is. You have to recognize the principles behind movement.

CAN YOU TEACH MUSICALITY TO DANCERS? Yes, but music and dancing are very instinctive. We succeed in making people musical because of the way we structure our exercises. The dynamic is in the exercises. Sometimes people do a grand plie as demi-plie, full plie, demi-plie, up. It's not fluid. It's better to go down slower and come up slightly faster because that's the principle of the jump. With tendu, it's a question of the attack. You have to be there at once. With rond de jambe, there's a pickup: one, two, three. You have to let people understand why you do what you do.

WHEN THE DANCERS ARE ON A HEAVY SCHEDULE, DO YOU ADAPT THE CLASS FOR THEM? No. In the morning, I teach a regular class. If someone has to rehearse, go into a new part, they take the class and take a leave when they need it. Before the performance, I give them a half-hour of concentrated warm-up. I prolong the dancers' career by working the body correctly. That's my specialty! My idea of a wonderful class was if afterward I could go back and do the most difficult steps. You have to know the difference between being lazy and being tired. If you are tired, leave it for another day. But being lazy is something else.

DID YOU EVER HAVE TO BE AGGRESSIVE OR INTIMIDATING IN CLASS? They have to really get to me, like someone who doesn't listen. I have a little bit of Italian in me, so.... Do I raise my voice? [Turns to his wife.]

Mrs. Corvino: No. I heard yon say only once to a pupil, "Don't ever tell anybody you studied with me!"

Sadly, Corvino's wife, Marcella, died shortly after this interview took place. See "Transitions" on page 85.