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Damara Bennett - Director, Oregon Ballet Theatre School

Bennett's ballet stars of tomorrow

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Portland, Oregon

Damara Bennett had just finished giving the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre their on-stage warm-up class prior to one of their early in the run performance of George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker." We met with Ms. Bennett in Artistic Director Christopher Stowell’s dressing room to talk about her vision as head of OBT’s School.

DS/FT:  I enjoyed watching you give the Company their class. From the first exercise, I could tell that you were trying to get them on their legs right away. Not with a plié sequence, but with a tendu/sur le cou de pied and stretch facing the barre. A very nice class, with lots of things to prepare them. I see from your background, we share a teacher: Tatiana Grantzeva. I knew her from Paris and you knew her from ...

DB:  When she was company teacher for San Francisco Ballet and I was in the Company. We had excellent directors and choreographers but not really anyone who was a great teacher for the Company, and so we lobbied hard (myself at the forefront!) to get us a Company teacher. We were so lucky to have her! I learned a lot about teaching from her and in a way, she taught me how to teach.

And how she taught in her turban...

Yes. And I got to know what was under that turban: curlers! [laughter]

Tell us about your teaching background and how did you connect with Mr. Stowell?

I had my own ballet school in San Francisco for 20 years, only two blocks from San Francisco Ballet! At first I thought we were a bit crazy but it actually worked out really well. When Christopher was just beginning his performing career, he agreed to role-play for a program at Theatre Artaud for Career Transitions, which was a program I was helping out with. I asked him to make one of his first ballets for my school. I used to give workshops in Japan and he came to one of these and got to know me better as a teacher. He even ended becoming my neighbor in San Francisco. I was over for dinner one night, found out the apartment upstairs was vacant, and so we lived in the same building.

He had asked me about this job when he was flirting with the idea of perhaps becoming Artistic Director of OBT and we talked about the possibilities and what it could be like and what our goals might be. I decided it was my chance to become part of an organization that had a professional company attached to it. My school was associated with a Regional Dance America and was an “Honor” company for 8 years, and that was a great experience.

When we moved up here, it was in a caravan with my husband and I in one car and my daughter and Christopher in another, including our pets. I experienced a bit of anxiety during the move, as it represented such a huge change for me and my family. I thought while we were driving, “Oh, my god! What have I done?!” and “Where exactly is Portland anyway?!” – not being that familiar with Portland at the time. I’ve settled down now and am happy here and particularly like the Pearl District.

And what are some of your goals for the School?

I want to produce professional dancers, but also those who are well-rounded and well-informed, who will become, at minimum, well-informed audience members. We are setting examples of what is important in life – dedication and a work ethic. Professionalism. This doesn’t happen everywhere and requires commitment.

There is lots of talent in the School and I’m so fortunate that all of the teachers are very enthusiastic and that I have a great team that goes the extra distance. It’s exciting to see results of such effective teaching.

One of the continuing challenges any teacher has is to figure out how to give the right combination of corrections and explanations so that the students can understand, respond, and produce it. I love the process [of teaching]! It’s fun to see the light bulb go on when learning has occurred.

Do you follow a syllabus?

My teaching method is based on Vaganova. I’ve found that it gives a great framework and allows for creativity. It shows us what should be taught first. I’ve “Americanized” the syllabus. At OBT, we start the kids at age 6 or 7 in Ballet I.

I try to get the students to think about technique and ask a lot of questions as a result. Why does the heel need to forward? What does tendu mean? This involves the student in the process, gets them thinking, and perhaps prepares them for teaching later.

In the beginning levels, we keep them with the same teachers while they’re young, as we’ve found it helps to keep them focused. The boys have one class by themselves each week, and we make sure they always have something special to do. The training for boys and girls is pretty much the same but it’s great when the boys can have their own class. I do like to have the boys in with the girls as well, as it helps give them a better sense of line, otherwise they tend to want to throw themselves around.

Performing is a very important part of training and we work to give the students an experience that’s, to me, the difference between a recital and a performance. I think they need real choreography by real choreographers. It’s not just only about showing studio work. It’s all part of their education and it makes me very proud to see my students on stage.

We have a strong Parent’s Association with its own board and fundraising efforts. They’re very supportive and not at all intrusive. They are active with raising scholarship funds.

Is there a particular “look” or style that you’re trying to develop?

We try to be very clear in our expectations and teaching. We have lots of people from all over the country and getting them to the level we expect here is a process and its starting to improve but it takes time.

I think dancers need to learn different styles and we need to bring dancers up to the level of what’s expected of them in terms of the repertoire. We do offer Modern once each week. Space is an issue for the quantity of offerings.

What else would you like the readership to know?

I love being in on the ground floor and I’m excited to be at OBT from the beginning of Christopher’s tenure. I’m proud that while I was a dancer, I was involved in the “Save the Ballet” campaign for San Francisco Ballet. I’m currently re-reading J. D. Salinger’s Nine Short Stories, and I like to knit and cook.


Edited by Jeff.

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