“I see a bunch of swans,” said American Ballet Theatre’s Cynthia Harvey to a lawn full New Yorkers performing port te bras during a free master class with the ballet master herself. The flattery, coming from such a renowned artist, could have caused even the dowdiest of pigeons to swan about.
The master class took place last Friday at Bryant Park as part of ABT’s “A Night of Ballet,” a three-act event that included a discussion with ABT principal dancers Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, and a suite of performances from three New York dance groups: CONTINUUM Contemporary/Ballet, Doug Baum & Artists and Da’ Von Doane & the Artists of the Shift. At its peak, the event drew some 1,350 people. Joining Harvey, artistic director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, was Richard Toda, ABT artistic coordinator of educational outreach.
There is something defiant — almost jubilant — about taking a dance class outdoors. An inside activity turned outward and democratized to a world beyond the spring-floored innards of ballet studios. All levels were welcome, from the very beginning of a beginner to the advanced, and all levels, it seemed, showed up.
While the grass presented questionable conditions for wearing soft-soled ballet slippers, a handful of the 222 counted class participants risked soaking the green stain of grass into their leathers and canvases to properly articulate through the selection of foundational steps that Harvey presented. A few, including the man directly in front of me who wore grey slacks, a dark blue sports coat and tasseled loafers, retained their work clothes, proving that dance knows no limits.
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We used folding chairs as barres, working through plies, tendus, degagés, rond de jombe and battement on both sides. By the time we “moved to center” to lengthen our bodies, I noticed that my shoe had ripped up the grass underneath me — a satisfying feeling of accomplishment akin to scraping ice off a windshield.
When the class was over, participants whisked their chairs toward the stage to hear Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo discuss their experiences coming up through the ballet ranks — Cornejo began as an ice skater and took ballet lessons so that he could spend more time with his sister; Lane took her first dance lessons at a community center that offered 10 ballet classes for a dollar. Both were drawn to the acting that is central to ballet’s artistry. When Harvey asked Cornejo if he considers himself a dancer or athlete first, he responded: “I think neither. I always wanted to be an actor on stage, so I would go toward being an artist.” Echoing this sentiment, Lane said, “I’m the kind of person that gets really nervous with technique — it wasn’t something that came so naturally to me.” She added, “So if I have a character behind all of that, it distracts me a little bit from getting nervous and worrying.”
The evening concluded with the trio of performances, all of which were elating in their own ways. As the groups performed, the sun began to set, casting a warm haze over the lawn. The final piece, billed as a “celebration of the divine creative force that lives within us all” and performed by Da’ Von Doane & the Artists of the Shift, took place in this glow, almost as if the sun was choreographed as part of the movement’s vibrant spirit. Here and throughout the evening, the park truly came alive with dance.
Top Image: Courtesy of Andrew Fassbender for Rachel Neville Photography