Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Cynthia Harvey, speaks with Terence Kohler, our International Summer School Artistic Director, about the rare opportunity to audition for their school and why Australian dancers are so unique.
Terence Kohler: In 2016, you returned to the American Ballet Theatre after a long and illustrious career with the company, however, this time as Artistic Director of the ABT JKO School. Together with your team of celebrated teachers, what do you see as being the most important goals for your tenure at the school.
Cynthia Harvey: I have several goals. First, to move into a building where we’d have more studios and dorms. This is something we’re in the process of doing. Currently we have four studios and some 400 children. This makes a difficult task even more difficult. My team is incredible at juggling the schedule. Our dorms are for students aged 15 and above and they are about a half hour away from the studios.
Secondly, I’d love to create an academy for the Upper divisions primarily; students 13-19, where they can do their academic courses on site. Currently, students in NYC attend either privately funded or city schools. There are performing arts schools that work with us to allow the students to leave early to come attend our dance classes and many students over age 15 do online schooling. We begin classes around 13.30 or 14.00.
With those things, then I would create programs for the specific age groups. Right now, though the teaching is excellent, I would love to have further mentoring, more events, and stream the classes into two divisions for each level – one for students of talent, and one for students who only wish to work recreationally. This year, and in the future, the Upper divisions are made up of students who I feel have potential to move onto professional careers but in the past it was a bit of a mixed bag.
TK: What qualities do you look for in your students when they audition for the ABT JKO School?
CH: I’m looking for a dancer who moves with ease, who has long arms and legs; who has easy coordination and good proportions. I’m personally looking for a fearless and imaginative, musical dancer with something in their eyes; a hunger or focus.
TK: You have chosen Robert LaFosse as your personal representative at our masterclass.audition in ISS2018. Could you tell us why you have chosen Mr. LaFosse specifically and what he might be able to offer young Australian dancers?
CH: Robert had been one of my favourite partners when I was dancing at ABT. He is positive, he’s highly musical, with a background in training with David Howard, who was my teacher and mentor in NYC. He understands exactly what an ABT dancer is. He understands how possible it is to make kinetic movement in ballet. Robert is versatile and has trained in the ABT curriculum but also challenges and asks questions. He’s not a yes man. He will be honest with me and lets me know if something doesn’t seem to be working and he does that in a very positive way by adding a possible solution. Most of my Upper division teachers are of a similar mindset. We all are ballet advocates.
TK: Often parents find it difficult to know whether sending their child overseas to study is the right thing or not. Would you be able to offer any advice in coming to such a decision?
CH: General advice is tough to give. Much depends on the student; is he/she adventurous? Are they shy? Would they be comfortable in a large city? Are they somewhat independent and responsible? All I can say is that we have very nice dorms, though limited in numbers, with two dorm matrons on duty, kitchen facilities and a meal plan. We have wellness lectures and social workers with whom they can speak if they get homesick or feel anxious about any aspect of their lives during their time here. We try to nurture our students. We are all too aware that nothing can replace parental love, but we have the wellness program which is truly up and running this year, and an open-door policy that we hope averts real problems, before they arise. Having said all that, if they want to see what the competition is like outside of their home studio, and the expectations from another perspective, then send them overseas.
TK: Alongside the ABT JKO School you are also the Artistic Director of the En Avant Foundation. What prompted you to establish this unique cultural venture and could you explain a little about the philosophy at its core?
CH: I began the En Avant Foundation, a foundation for specialized ballet coaching, because I was frustrated at reading and hearing that ballet wasn’t what it used to be – that the focus became about quantity and not quality. I was fortunate to work with Ashton, DeValois, MacMillan, Tetley, Kylian, Baryshnikov and Makarova to name but a few, so I am in a position to pass down my knowledge. I can call on my colleagues who worked with these and other geniuses of the ballet world, to pass down what they know-directly. The likes of an Edward Villella, who knew exactly what Balanchine wanted, is usually only available to company members who are working on a Balanchine ballet. I felt that it would be beneficial to pass the knowledge sooner, rather than when a dancer is already in a company. I don’t want the information that comes to a student to come solely from YouTube.
TK: You are no stranger to young Australian dancers having joined the International Summer School’s faculty in 2008 at the invitation of our founding Director Jacqui Dumont. What were your impressions of young dancers in Australia?
CH: I love how the Australian dancers reflect their geography – they dance big and are open. It is a joy to work with such physically gifted, serious students. I look forward to doing it again in the future!
TK: What advice would you give students participating in our ISS2018 masterclass.audition series?
CH: Come prepared to listen to Mr. La Fosse regarding musicality. He is wonderfully musical. Don’t be nervous – be yourselves and really dance, and don’t hold back.
masterclass.audition for ABT JKO School is exclusive to International Summer School. Find out more here.
January 9-19 2018