NEW YORK—”My neighbor was a ballet dancer and she taught her daughter and me ballet lessons in her kitchen when we were little. I think I was 3! We bought the whole outfit, turned on music, and she started teaching,” said Kate Lydon, the newly appointed artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s Summer Intensive program 2017.
“I think the music drew me in—the combination of movement and music and the idea that you could express yourself without words. You didn’t have to talk to express yourself—I loved that.”
For Lydon, ballet and artistry are inextricable. Pure technique can still be incredibly moving, but what’s very important to her is that every student who attends one of ABT’s summer intensives learns what it means to be an artist.
“You are more than a technician. You are a storyteller and an artist,” Lydon explained.
ABT is America’s national ballet company, and the only major national cultural institution to have toured to all 50 states. It has been recognized as a living national treasure.
“We have a major responsibility to do right by all of the students who come to train with us,” Lydon said. The mission is to uphold and instill excellence.
Lydon, who is also the artistic director of the ABT Studio Company and coordinator of the apprentice program, was a founding faculty member of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2005. She is an alumna of both ABT and San Francisco Ballet.
Training and Being Inspired
The Summer Intensive program, as it is, was established in 1996. There are four locations across the country, in New York, Alabama, California, and Texas. There are also the College Summer Intensive, held in New York every year, and the Young Dancer Summer Workshops (ages 9–11 and 12-year-olds at the beginning pointe level), held in California, New York, and Florida.
The purpose of the programs is to give students a fully rounded, immersive experience wherein they receive solid classical ballet training.
ABT has a national training curriculum it adheres to, and Lydon credits the faculty members (most of whom are former ABT dancers) for making the elements of ballet—technique, pointe, pas de deux, and so on—come to life.
“There is just so much to be learned from these people,” Lydon said. “Like Leslie Brown in the New York Summer Intensive, who has danced all of these roles and has so much experience—to see her [teach] a piece of repertoire or coach a piece of repertoire that she’s danced for so many years.”
A good teacher is scientific in the way they teach a course, but also adapts to who is in the room and what those dancers need, Lydon said. “And they’re fun and lively and, as our director of education and training Mary Jo Ziesel would say, magical.
“There is a little element of magic that comes along with the teachers, because you want to inspire the students. [The students] are interested in becoming better at what they do and they’re driven. [The teachers] inspire them to push themselves, to take a correction, to open their minds to maybe a different way of doing something … to inspire them to be better.”
The classes aim to develop well-rounded dancers and include a wide array of disciplines, like yoga, jazz, and musical theater, that help inform ballet.
Starting in January, ABT staff will see about 5,000 people in auditions across 26 different cities, and about 1,300 students will be placed.
The students they are looking for need to demonstrate discipline and ability in these audition sessions, but the teachers are also looking for another element—potential. You never really know what it is until you’re looking at it, but when you see it, you can tell immediately, Lydon says.
Still, some talented dancers slip through the cracks. “Some people aren’t good auditioners, and auditioning is really a skill,” Lydon said. “We ask them to definitely come back.”
Artistry and Technique
Ballet is very much about refinement. One of the things Lydon loved about it from the beginning was the fact that you practice your technique daily, to perfect it. She liked repeating the movements, always refining them.
As you grow as a dancer and as a person, your idea of what those movements should be and goals for improvement shift and change.
Improving technique is crucial to growing as a dancer. “Oftentimes when you’re a dancer, you’re interpreting something,” Lydon said. “Your technique allows you to be able to express something more clearly. You absolutely need clarity—clarity of technique, clarity of line, understanding of the ballet canon, everything [in terms of technique].”
But artistry is what moves you from the purely technical into the human, Lydon said. What makes a dancer an artist is a whole mix of things: passion, love for the art, inspiration, the wish to communicate to others, and also a point of view.
The technique is necessary because it allows you to express something clearly, “but it is really all about the expression.”
“Whether it is about the expression of the music, or telling a story like ‘Swan Lake’ [and] ‘Giselle’ … being able to use your imagination and to bring that across the footlights is very important for a dancer,” Lydon said. “It’s what touches people.”
“That’s why we have class every day and are constantly trying to perfect our technique—so we can tell better stories.”