Interview with Yannick Boquin
by Toba Singer
While in Houston in late February, Toba Singer was able to observe two company classes taught by Yannick Boquin and interview him for criticaldance.com’s online publication, Ballet-Dance Magazine. Boquin is a former dancer with the Bonn Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and former Ballet Master at Vienna Staat Oper. Boquin has also worked as a guest teacher with Stuttgart Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, and Dutch National Ballet. Singer is the author of First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists (Praeger, 2007).
There is a vibrancy to your company class that generates a very natural esprit de corps. You don’t see any dancers holding back or leaving early. How do you create such a positive force field?
Firstly, as a guest teacher and because you are spending just a few weeks at a time with a company, dancers will be eager to learn as much as they can from you in that short time frame and are therefore more likely to bring their best to your class, utilizing it to the maximum. To keep them in shape and happy is another thing, and I always try to remember what my needs were as a dancer and do my best to meet those needs.
During my career I had a few serious injuries and had to battle to get back to my best again each time. I learned so much from those times and though I may have been sad and upset back then, today I am so grateful to have found a way to benefit from those experiences and apply them to my teaching.
To warm up the dancer without tiring them requires sending oxygen to the muscles by changing the speed and rhythm of the music, using in and out accents in the exercises with a lot of plié, keeping the tempi danceable, not forgetting to coordinate the port de bras, and placing as much emphasis on the academic exercises as the dance combinations and not to succumb due to adrenalin to accelerating the music and speed of the exercise. For me, rehearsal is the appropriate time and place for gaining the speed required by the choreography the dancers are performing. One must always maintain a good and aware relationship with the pianist, who is also largely responsible for the good development of the class.
The class is too brief to allow a dead moment to set in; consequently, a good rhythm is very important. It is necessary to keep the body and spirit of the dancer awake and to be there for everyone and keep them all involved. My exercises are simple on the whole, though I will always add an unexpected step or two, with a musicality that will surprise or a port de bras sequence which will draw the dancer’s attention in a different way and keep them engaged and focused.
Between the daily ups and downs, rehearsals, which are often long and demanding, various injuries and differences in age and experience, even though technique must be observed and is de rigueur, ultimately, it is my responsibility to offer a class that is accessible to everyone. I apply myself to that commitment every day and to listening and remaining open to the dancers and being there for them.
As a young person, I myself knew what it was like to be in good form, wanting to be pushed or alternatively—tired, injured. Mondays, and the days on which one returns from holidays after heavy performances, I try to bear these factors in mind when giving class so that all the necessary technique is found, but comes via a serene, healthily structured class. In class, I give myself to the dancers body and soul, which is as it should be. The dancers usually give back to me as well; it’s a real exchange, which is very satisfying.
Most teachers give one stretching interval during barre. You offer several. How do you space them and what made you decide to incorporate more stretching time into your class?
By starting each day with the same exercise facing the barre which includes a first stretch linked with grands pliés, I manage to save some time by not having to show it after the first few classes. And again, by omitting the grand plié inforth position, I save another two phrases of eight counts on both sides.
My port de bras in first and fifth position pliés are with the feet in parallel, which offers another kind of small stretch.
Some of my exercises include a final "set" section, which again is a time saver once the dancers know it. My first real stretch comes at the end of rond de jambe a terre, on a slow tempo and I leave the dancers free to do whatever they need. Later, I give a "battement cloche en attitude" or a "passé, in, out, développé à la séconde" exercise and then at the end of petits battements I give a second stretch without slowing the tempo, in order to keep the energy. In response to that, the dancers will stretch in a different way. At this stage of the barre they will be warmer and their stretching will be more energetic. On top of that, with adage and grands battements being the next exercises, I find that the dancers always appreciate stretching at this stage of the barre. This done, the dancers don't usually need to stretch anymore at the end of the barre and can really take their two minutes to relax. By saving time, in the way that I have explained, I still manage to give a barre of around half an hour, leaving plenty of time for the center.
I believe that the stretch offers a moment when the dancers are on their own and can do whatever they need or want and reflect on the day ahead. I think that two such moments in a 35-minute barre are not too much and are very much appreciated.
You danced the role of The Victim in Christopher Bruce’s “Swansong,” and I noticed that you observed a “Swansong” rehearsal recently at Houston Ballet. Dancers who have performed “Swansong” have said that it is a life-altering experience. Was that true for you and if so, how did “Swansong” change your life?
Oh yes! I can remember that the six weeks before my premiere in the ballet were spent in the “Swansong Zone”! My mind was constantly occupied with this ballet. I remember that even on the way to the canteen for breaks, I would be practicing a section of the tap dance I had to do crossing the stage down the long corridor. Less amusing is the memory of also having to struggle with an injury to my foot. I was returning from surgery on my Achilles tendon and the ballet was intense, both mentally and physically.
Two weeks before the premiere, I went to see Christopher to tell him that I was ready to give up, that I didn’t feel up to the expectations of such a ballet, that I didn’t want to ruin his work, and that I would be sad but relieved if I could be taken out of the cast. Two weeks later, I was dancing the premiere and it was one of the few performances of my career where I had complete satisfaction in every aspect. After the show, back in my dressing room, I collapsed in tears! Empty, after this six-week journey! Christopher trusted me and believed in something I never thought I could achieve. Today, as I watch the Swansong rehearsals and performances with the dancers of the Houston Ballet, I find them amazing. I observe the dancers and I can feel their pain, read their eyes and minds and I go back in time. Speaking with Dawn [Scannell], the ballet mistress in charge of the piece here, who also has danced the role, we can understand each other with very few words needed. “Swansong” marks you on different levels, it takes so much out of you, but at the end of the journey you really get something back. What a fantastic experience!
There is only one set piece in “Swansong”: the chair. What is suggested to you by the chair that you pass on to other dancers?
The dancer clutches at the chair during the interrogations; it becomes a burden when carried on the back, a ball and chain when the feet are between the bars holding you back from advancing, a protection from the blows of the cane during the torture sequences and it helps you to rise up to foresee a semblance of hope.
The chair accompanies you throughout this ballet through various aspects, but in the last analysis, tense, scared or hopeless, what a joy it is to sit on it and recover from your burning legs! Then at the end of the ballet, after 30 minutes onstage, to leave it behind you, framed by the two guards, while death has greeted you and you are finally leaving the stage.
I witnessed dancers begging you to stay in Houston. Why don’t you settle down and stay with one company? What advantages do you find in being a moving target?
It is nice and very flattering to be asked to stay by the dancers, but it is just not tempting to me. Firstly, Stanton doesn’t need another ballet master; he has enough and they are all very competent. I’ve been asked several times to join the artistic staff of companies, most recently again by a beautiful company in Germany. I stopped my career as a dancer six years ago, and immediately discovered the freedom afforded by being a guest teacher. Two years later, I was invited to be Ballet Master at Vienna Staatsoper under the direction of Renato Zanella and I stayed there for two seasons. I have nothing but admiration for all the ballet masters I know because they are doing a tremendously difficult job. I did it, perhaps not in the easiest Opera House, but the job still is what it is and for me, the satisfaction of the job is heavily outweighed by the energy it takes.
The advantages of freelancing? I get to travel the world and meet lots of people. I see so many ballets and dancers, different cultures, enjoy great food, great hospitality and…I am free!
The DVD "Masterclass" featuring Yannick Boquin, Alessio Carbone and Larissa Lezhnina, will be available in September, 2008. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.