A Pair of Aces
Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul Coaching at Pacific Northwest Ballet
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
Published April, 2009
We met with Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul, original cast members of Balanchine’s “Emeralds,” who were in Seattle to coach Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in their original roles.
This may be a bit like a minister preaching to the choir but could you each talk a little about the importance of coaching dancers in the ballet. [Verdy gestures to Paul to begin.]
Paul: As a young student dancer in Washington, D.C., I looked forward to any opportunities with anyone who came through – and always found that dancers were more than helpful. It was and is extraordinarily useful.
Verdy: Once you get a taste for it, you want it all the more. It helps you become more of yourself – encourages you to express and explore.
Paul: Dancers here have appreciated it so much...
Verdy: We’re not used to that sort of reception everywhere...
Paul: Extraordinary work ethic...
Verdy: Coaching time often is sacrificed to the need to get things onstage. In our “era,” Mr. Balanchine had more time to get to know his dancers.
Paul: Then, New York City Ballet was about the same size as PNB; 50 dancers. Principals were much more interactive with the younger dancers, than they are able to be with a larger company.
Verdy: Succession is a big deal due to the short life span of a dancer’s career – it gives it the continuity that is needed. When we were dancing, there was no question about us helping each other. Even though a part may have been made on you and it was “your” part, even the most senior dancers went out their way to teach and coach their parts to alternate and successive casts. Not only do they know the steps and the original intent of the choreographer, they can also literally point the way with tips like knowing how far a particular sequence travels or how it feels a certain way and how best to prepare for that.
How set in stone are the steps? Do you have any leeway?
Verdy: “Emeralds” has a certain amount of leeway, especially the variations. It may be more of having options about where to take a step, than modifying the step itself.
Paul: Yes, the “walking pas de deux” has be to very specific.
Verdy: The sentiment of the movement can come through...
Both of you performed for American Ballet Theatre during the years that Lucia Chase was director; Violette left ABT to perform with NYCB, and Mimi, did just the opposite. I like to glean from those that had the opportunity to work with her anecdotes and stories about her.
Verdy: Lucia was amazing – she was always there, watching everything. When we did “Peter and the Wolf” on tour in Europe, she liked to do the narration herself in the local language. While her French was actually quite good, it was amusing and delightful to hear this in her marked Yankee “down-east” accent. She paired me with Erik Bruhn in this piece, with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting. [Verdy then imitates Chase reciting in “Yankee” French how she had paired her with a beautiful blond-haired dancer – Bruhn.]
Paul: I remember the bus tours. My first one was to Wheeling, West Virginia!
Verdy: How Nora Kaye would bring along her little dogs who shed everywhere, particularly as they got increasingly stressed out as the tours wore on.
Violette, you’ve not only taught PNB’s company class while you’ve been here but also some classes in the school. You are also a distinguished professor at Indiana University. Can you please comment on teaching in general, and specifically, on how teaching ballet in a college setting differs from more typical conservatory settings?
Verdy: And I’ve also taught children. You have to do this very carefully and go slowly for placement. Legs are often taught more readily than arms.
One of the biggest differences between ballet schools and university is that in a real ballet school, a curriculum is followed. However, college ballet students tend to come from a melange of different trainings. I try to evaluate what each student needs most from the work, then help certain missing things.
Overall, the level is so much higher now and it keeps getting better every year. Regional teachers are better.
Could each of you please provide a Balanchine “nugget?”
Paul: Eight months after I joined the company (New York City Ballet), I was cast in the second movement of Bizet (“Symphony in C”) and was taught the part by Diana Adams and Mr. Balanchine, with Francisco Moncion as my partner. Yet due to the busy schedule we had not yet done the finale. Mr. B asked me to meet him at 5:30 in a studio, which was demarcated by two folding chairs – the rest of the cast theoretically being on the other side of the chairs, and being admonished to stay in place without knocking over the chairs. We went over the part and amazingly enough, with Moncion’s help, the performance went fine.
Verdy: He had special names for all of us. I was “Pregnant Robin!” He’d joke that I had five pounds too much... “In case nice man would come around...” to notice me. His interests were so varied. When we’d summer at Saratoga [New York City Ballet’s summer home and performance venue], he’d take us to see the trotters.