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Gloria Govrin, Associate Director, San Francisco Ballet School

Govrin's Glorious Students: A Pedagogue's View

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

2004 -- San Francisco

We met with San Francisco Ballet School Associate Director Gloria Govrin in her office early in the afternoon of the dress rehearsal for San Francisco Ballet’s new production of "The Nutcracker." We had just watched her teach a class and so got to see first-hand her working in the classroom.

DS/FT:  I was very impressed by the students and enjoyed watching your class. Can you tell us how you got started in ballet?

GG:  We lived in Newark, New Jersey and I had a mother who had wanted to be a dancer. She was a very arts-savvy person and found a Russian teacher that she took me to when I was only two and half. I was lucky she was a good teacher! I next went to Fred Danieli who had Marie Jeanne teaching for him. I didn’t get to SAB until I was 12, took one class and knew SAB is where I wanted to be. I was put into level C.

My mother’s philosophy was that if you’re the best in your class, then it’s time to change classes; and if your school is not training you to standard, then it’s time to change schools. She was very mindful of getting the best training.

When I was only 14, Mr. B. watched class and wanted me to go to Australia on tour but I was too young and when he found out how old I really was, he said it would be too much trouble, having to have my mother along as a chaperone, tutor me, and obtaining a visa. I worked hard to graduatefrom high school – going to summer school and never taking time off – so I could graduate at 16.

Please tell us what it was like to work with Mr. Balanchine.

The first thing he choreographed for me was one of the variations in "Raymonda Variations," which is really a waltz with variations, in 1961 when I was 18. He did the whole variation in only 45 minutes. He treated dancers very kindly and would work with you to make us look good. He expected loyalty, dedication, and hard work. He made the role of Hippolyta in "Midsummer Night’s Dream" for me. I was kind of like a short-distance runner in that it’s all jumps and entrances andexits. He revised Coffee for me in "Nutcracker." He told me he had wanted to do a ballet version of Salome but was not sure how much he could have had us take off! [Laughs]

We got to tour the recent remodel and expansion of the building. How has this impacted the School?

There is now an extra studio – we have 6 – which really helps out in the Summer. The studio floors were never sprung before and now they are, so this is really great.Sometimes the Company also uses the Harold Christensen studio for rehearsals and this is really great for our students.

I love ballet and I try to have the students here share in that joy. You have to be very focused and, in a very real sense, leave everything else behind. It means that you have to keep “climbing the mountain.” I try to inspirethe students to work harder and know there is a lot more in the well – if they are not digging deep enough.

I retired from performing in 1974 and am now 62. I decided at 50 to get back in class. I was at Pennsylvania Ballet and can still recall the feeling that came over me when the pianist struck the first chords – and remembered what had been missing from my life.As a teacher, I consider myself a taskmaster and ask a lot from the students. They know it’s possible. Effort counts, although results often come later. The body learns through repetition. With command of the body and native intellect, you can learn choreography. I believe we can focus on only one thing at a time and that it’s better to be simple. Class should be about basics.

Tell us more about the San Francisco Ballet School.

The teachers get together in the Summer to talk about curriculum. The students get more than one teacher and we want them to be available and open to different styles. We want the girls to look feminine and everything they do to look “beautiful,” otherwise they can get buried in among the competition. We look for footwork, pointe work, extension, musicality and strength. All of the teachers watch each other’s classes and we borrow and learn from each other.

We do student evaluations twice a year. In January I meet with each student and their principal teacher. I try to be very aware of all of the students and of their strengths and weaknesses. A big cutoff for us is at Level 6, as we don’t allow those whom we feel do not have potential for a performing career continue to Level 7. Several girls in that level are only 14 and are very talented. Many of our students come to us during the Summer although many have trained exclusively at SFB.

I want our students to be hungry for ballet and ambitious. I want them to eat, drink, and sleep ballet! They do all have a good attitude. I love talent and talented people. Being surrounded by people who are better than you – it’s what makes you reach. I can take no credit for people’s talent. I love and revere ballet.

SFB School doesn’t take students we don’t feel have a shot at becoming professional dancers. We have to keep standards high in order to keep attracting talented people.

Let’s talk about one technical thing, frappé.

Frappé is a hard step to do right. Brush along big toe should always emphasize out, out, out (demonstrating), not “in.” Sur le cou de pied should be a hair from the floor. Tendu battement was Mr. B’s thing, and is mine – everything starts and ends in fifth position. If you could do the perfect tendu battement, you could dance!

Edited by Staff.

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