Ballet masters of the 21st century

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Lisa Kipp and Jeff Stanton put the backstage beat and precision into "Romeo and Juliet," mastering the art of mastering everything

I wish the phrase “Ballet Master” would go away.

Those two words, put together, conjure up the image of a haughty, stern old gentleman in breeches, pounding out musical tempi on the floor with his cane and poking dancers’ bodies into desired positions. Ballet may be a traditional art form that’s proud of its roots, but it’s safe to say that — thankfully — this dusty figure no longer exists.

But ballet masters do still exist, and are important players in the daily operations of a ballet company. While the precise parameters of their role get fuzzy, they are as critical to the success of a ballet company as the dancers and artistic director. In many ways, they are the linchpin holding together the various artistic limbs of the group. They are the go-between, the conduit, the channel through which everyone communicates, and the person fielding every request, demand, and complaint. They’re the triage nurse at the ER. But they also sew up the wounds, monitor their healing, and make sure they don’t happen again.

Ballet 19th century style, complete with stick: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Ballet 19th century style, complete with cane: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

“You really do have to know what you’re doing,” Lisa Kipp, one of two ballet masters for Oregon Ballet Theatre, says. “You have to know exactly what you’re teaching, every count, every step, every detail. The dancers can tell if you haven’t done your homework and don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kipp and fellow ballet master Jeff Stanton are responsible for much of the look and movement of OBT’s revival of James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened last weekend and continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Originally, the “ballet master” was a man (always a man) who choreographed and designed dances for a company, and while these days a ballet master may also be a choreographer, that is not part of the job description. Based on my own experience as a dancer, teacher, (and occasional ballet master myself), and my talks with several people who have found their niche as ballet masters, an accurate depiction of the job today’s world includes:

  • Teaching daily company technique class;
  • Setting existing choreography (ballets that the company has performed in the past) on the dancers;
  • Conducting rehearsals to make that choreography look as good, clean, tight, and fresh as possible;
  • Assisting choreographers as they create new work (notating the steps and musical counts while the choreographer designs them on the dancers);
  • Arranging casting, either independently or in cooperation with the artistic director and/or choreographer;
  • Configuring the daily rehearsal schedule (including costume fittings and special events);
  • Creating final performance casting (which is different for every performance as dancers switch between multiple roles);
  • Formatting that casting so it’s easily readable, and ensuring it’s correct;
  • Fixing it if it’s not;
  • Coaching and mentoring the dancers;
  • Making last-minute casting changes when a dancer becomes suddenly injured;
  • Watching every performance, on the lookout for mistakes, problems, or potential weaknesses that need to be re-addressed in the studio;
  • Being a “voice” for the artistic director, acting as a liason between him or her and the dancers;
  • And vice versa;
  • The ballet master’s employment contract will also inevitably include the phrase, “And any other additional duties as deemed necessary by the Artistic Director.”

Many people’s jobs require a multitude of varied tasks, it’s true. But what I think makes ballet masters such interesting characters is, well, their character. The jobs they do on a daily basis are so varied, require so many skill sets, and so often fall outside any specific category, that to juggle them well takes a really special someone. Lots of people (always ex-dancers) can do some aspect of the ballet mastering job just fine, but managing all of them — and wanting to — is an incredibly admirable feat.

Kevin Irving, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, was himself a ballet master (at Nacho Duato’s Compañía Nacional de Danza in Madrid, Spain) before taking over the helm of OBT. He has a special empathy, therefore, for the team he supervises now: Kipp, who danced with many companies around the country (including Pacific Ballet Theater) before becoming OBT’s ballet master in 2004 (and assuming the additional title of Rehearsal Director two years ago), and Stanton, who joined her in 2013 after a career with San Francisco Ballet and as a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“Since I was a ballet master myself for many years, I look through the prism of my own experience and what I tried to do as a ballet master,” Irving says. “I feel the tug of really trying to support them, because they’re in a really difficult situation a lot of the time. There’s a kind of implied sense that anyone who’s been a dancer can be a ballet master, but if you don’t have competence to back up your experience, it’s revealed very quickly.”

In Lisa and Jeff, OBT has two uncommon individuals whose capability is clear when you see them in action. While putting out the proverbial fires is something they do behind the scenes on a near-daily basis, they’ve both put in so many years in the ballet business that nothing is really unexpected.

So, what does it take, beyond a knowledge of the ballet company’s inner workings and an ability to multi-task, to be a successful (and happy) ballet master?

Lisa Kipp. Photo: Tatiana Wills

Lisa Kipp. Photo: Tatiana Wills

As Lisa says, you absolutely have to know what you’re doing. “And I have a really loud voice, which comes in handy.”

She didn’t really need it in a recent rehearsal for Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet. This scene, a lighthearted dance for Juliet’s four friends, is short but full of intricate patterns and specific musicality. Lisa’s homework had clearly been done, as she efficiently took the small group of corps de ballet women through the dance they’d barely begun to learn. She has to switch a few dancers into new places before they start — a frequent occurrence as a ballet’s casting becomes finalized during the rehearsal period. (“So, guys, I need to move you around a little bit… Emily will do Ansa’s part, Katherine, you’ll be the general cover for all the spots …”) Lisa then “talks” the first cast through what they’ve learned so far, meaning literally saying the name of each step as they do it, calling out musical counts and pattern shifts. No music plays. She stops the dancers often to troubleshoot: “How can we get you further apart there? What marks are you on? This should be symmetrical.” Then, describing how to execute certain steps the way Canfield wanted them to look: “Try to get your arms round by the time you finish the développé side— that’s right! And make sure you get on your leg in the swivel so you can relevé.” They go back to the beginning of the dance. This time Lisa turns to the CD player housed in an alcove at the front of the studio and (after a quick check of her notes to find what minute-mark she needs on the soundtrack), starts the dancers again. She still talks as they dance, though, calling out counts to reinforce them in the dancers’ brains, and cues to keep them moving into each new pattern correctly. It sounds something like this: “1, 2, 3, 4, step-lunge, piqué, AND 1, 2, bourrée, 5, 6…”

After a few more stops and starts, explaining exactly where each dancer should face at each point of a traveling formation, Lisa has the second cast try it. One dancer has just barely learned the steps — this was her first day in rehearsal — but Lisa lets her jump in and try to keep up instead of re-teaching her from the beginning. Time is at a premium, and spending even ten minutes on one dancer when the others are waiting around isn’t a good use of precious rehearsal seconds.

The rehearsal just before had been an example of that. It was the crowd scene in Act 1, when the tension of warring allegiances between “gangs” has erupted into sword fighting amongst the village men. The studio quietly hummed with work: pairs of men (each of whom has their own specific sword-choreography) concentrated on coordinating their moves (precision and timing, for obvious reasons, is critical). Jeff consulted his notes on the choreography, explaining to a small group of men gathered to peer over his shoulder. Lisa checked a video of the scene from an earlier production. (Video and written notes are main tools in the ballet master’s toolkit). But the audio-video setup in the studio has a mind of its own. “Who knows how to make this thing make sound?” she calls out. A few guys leave their note-consulting and fight-practice to come play sound engineer. “This is what we do sometimes …” Jeff says, with a sigh. As in, fiddle with technology.

Sound comes out of the machine, finally, and the guys mark through the scene. There’s so much going on in this particular part of the ballet that two pairs of eyes are needed to catch everything. Between them, Jeff and Lisa cover the room and sort out the snarls, pair by pair.

Victoria Epstein, the company’s stage manager, has been hovering by the door. The moment there’s a pause in the action, she pops in to ask Lisa a question about dressing room assignments at the theater. Jeff leaves for his next rehearsal in another studio, talking with Peter Franc, one of the three Romeos, about the “game plan” for that afternoon’s runthough: which cast will rehearse? Those that don’t get a runthrough today will need to squeeze in some practice time on their own, and need to plan ahead for that. (Dancers hate not knowing in advance what and when they will dance).

As choreographer James Canfield takes up the foreground, ballet master Jeff Stanton carefully backs him up in rehearsal for "R&J." Photo: Sam Cole

With choreographer James Canfield in the the foreground, ballet master Jeff Stanton takes note in rehearsal for “R&J.” Photo: Sam Cole

Very often, when there’s a question, problem, concern, or frustration of nearly any sort, the ballet master is the first stop in the search for a resolution. Therefore, a thick skin is needed to repel a sense of being attacked or accused or criticized — and to stay neutral. When asked how they manage that, both Jeff and Lisa spoke of personality characteristics that set them apart from, say, a choreographer or director. “I think one quality I have that works for being a ballet master is a sensitivity to others,” Jeff said. “A person in this job has to really look outside themselves. I’ve worked with a lot of ballet masters, and one of the main things I appreciated as a dancer was when it was really just about the work: there was no ego involved. We’re just working together.”

That mutual respect breeds trust, which both Jeff and Lisa know is essential — for everyone. Lisa: “Dancers are really intelligent and have valid points of view. I want to hear what their reasoning is for doing something a certain way. If they have a thought that contradicts what I’m saying, I’m open to hearing it. Then they know I’ve got their back. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get a great ballet onstage.” It’s true. The dancers’ moment of glory is on stage with the curtain up and an audience in the seats. But in the hours upon hours leading up to that, they’re more like cogs in the wheel, taking orders, obeying commands, and conforming to the group. It’s easy to start to feel belittled, put down, or as merely a body without human needs and an independent will. An acknowledgement of your autonomy is like a vote of confidence: the dancer can’t be brave, or vulnerable, onstage without knowing that the people who have put them there are not also their puppeteers.

As ballet masters with extensive experience as dancers themselves, Jeff and Lisa remember that feeling well. Now, in positions of authority and giving sometimes-distasteful orders, they must be commanding, but approachable. The dancers see them as allies, if not friends.

Wouldn’t you think the ballet masters themselves need support, after spending all day tending to everyone else? Absolutely. Lisa was OBT’s only ballet master for nearly ten years before Jeff came on board, and she’s quite happy to have a partner. The two of them are a team. Their skills are complementary (Lisa does more group rehearsing, corps de ballet casting, and scheduling; Jeff’s strong in coaching principal and soloist dancers), and personality-wise, they’re both fun, funny, and able to create just the right balance of hard work, focus and levity in the studio — and back in their shared office space. It’s a hard job to do by oneself, and recognition of that isn’t often forthcoming. “We do the tough work together, and having someone to share the difficulties and to vent with helps. We’re laughing all the time. We support and recognize each other’s work, and that’s been really good,” Lisa says.

No one gets into the ballet mastering job for accolades, but there are certain quiet gratifications that are just as good. For Lisa, it’s being able to keep the ship sailing smoothly, even if no one realizes that she’s doing it. “If I can bridge the gap between the artistic staff and the dancers at all, and advocate for everyone … I do a fair amount of mediation — I’m the middle child in my family, so I’m good at that, I just want everyone to feel good, look good, and not feel alienated or isolated, on either side.”

The hard work pays off: Ansa Deguchi as Juliet in Canfield's "R&J." Photo: Jingzi Zhao

The hard work pays off: Ansa Deguchi as Juliet in Canfield’s “R&J.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Jeff’s relatively recent entry into his ballet-master career means he’s still finding his way, figuring out his place in the company dynamic, and building up the confidence to take on a supervisory role. But one place he already feels secure is in the studio. “I love it when I can get in there with a dancer or two and really get in the zone with them. Sometimes you just ‘get’ each other, are in tune with what each other is saying and doing, and I can really see where they’re at and what may help them. It’s a real mutual exchange of work. And with that openness, it can have a really nice outcome.”

The resulting success of Jeff and Lisa’s work is apparent not only every time the company performs, but in the tone of easy camaraderie they set for the group’s daily life. Their benevolent care, watchfulness, ambition, and sense of responsibility filter down the chain of command, to the dancers, as well as up the ladder to their own boss, Kevin Irving. OBT’s two ballet masters are a dynamic duo, and once in a while, even outsiders can get a glimpse of their act: the lucky (and observant) Nutcracker attendee at the annual Christmas Eve matinee might spot their hilarious comedy routine as the Grandparents in Act 1’s party scene. But they’re not just hams on stage: Lisa appears at Lady Montague, and Jeff as Escalus and the Friar in the company’s current run of Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet.

Yet another unexpected element of a 21st-century ballet master’s job.


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