BWW Interview: Remember Willy Burmann with Miro Magloire

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BWW Interview: Remember Willy Burmann with Miro Magloire
Miro Magloire & Willy Burmann
Neil Marshall; photographer

Today would have been Willy Burmann's 81st birthday. In celebrating his life, I felt that it was essential to speak with Miro Magloire, the artistic director of New Chamber Ballet. Miro was Willy's friend, confidante, and preferred pianist for class. I would argue that Miro was every dancer's preferred pianist for Willy's class.

17 years ago, an accompanist called in sick for Willy's class at STEPS on Broadway and instead of putting it on management to find a replacement, he said, "No" and spoke with Miro, who immediately took his place at Studio 3's grand piano, still in his ballet slippers, and began to play.

Obviously there was so much more to their relationship than this, but that moment--Willy automatically turning to Miro for help, and Miro automatically saying yes--communicates more than a thousand anecdotes ever could. In consideration for the dance community's mourning, I asked Miro if he would share some of his memories of Ballet's great sage.

Miro:

I started taking his class in 1998 and have done so until two weeks ago, more or less, without interruption. Over the years it changed from me going there as a young dancer, then as a working dancer, then as a choreographer, and in the meanwhile working with him as a pianist both at STEPS and in other places when he guest taught or coached people, and eventually making three CDs with him for dance classes.

It seems that everything I do, think, and try to achieve comes straight from something he taught me at one point or another. Going even further, even my choreography--which he wasn't directly involved in--goes back a lot to his thoughts... I hesitate to say "thoughts" because he was notoriously skeptical of "thinking".

What made Willy stand out for me is that he never questioned the validity of ballet and yet he was relentlessly about the need to move it forward. For him, moving forward didn't mean changing for the sake of changing; it meant realizing that you cannot freeze something in time.

It starts in the studio. Some people speak of technique as if it is a safety-net or toolkit; something you take out when you need it, that's predictable and safe. For Willy, it was exactly the opposite. He expected you to take risks, full-out with maximum engagement without a safety net, over and over again. What he tried to teach us is that if you approach ballet like that from the first moment you step into the studio in the morning, then it becomes second nature, and then you can go on stage and give performances that are full of risk in a knowledgeable way; that are incredibly expressive and captivating for the audience.

JMPII:

Really dancing instead of hitting fixed poses.

Miro:

Many beautiful ballet dancers and teachers will tell you, "You shouldn't just hit poses", but he found an approach to really make that the basis of our work. It wasn't "Work on technique and then you can be free"; it was work on technique and understand that you can never control your movement. You can only become an expert at letting go of control, and shaping that release in such a form that it becomes expressive, beautiful, and specific. That kind of letting go brings the body into an alignment that starts to look like an arabesque. Nobody will ever know that you maybe didn't do an arabesque, but you started to look like you did the most beautiful arabesque onstage. Most ballet training is obsessed with the idea of creating an arabesque, something like a French noun. Willy was all about not creating nouns, just verbs.

JMPII:

Yes. Dancing is ephemeral. It's an afterimage and then you move. He once told me, "By the time you get there, you've already moved on". You're already moving on to the next thing instead of trying to hold onto what just happened. It took me many years to understand that.

Miro:

There was this sort of commitment on his side to not just believe that as an inspirational message to dancers, but to to figure out what that meant as a teacher. Now that I'm in a position where I teach a lot, I realize that it's very helpful to say this to people, but there is a contradiction between that message and the reality of being in a class with the barre working through exercises. He really found a way of making that contradiction go away. You could be in his class and just by doing that--following the flow and his corrections--and your body and your mind would understand this particular message quite well.

And remember, he was very suspicious of words. He would give the bare minimum of verbal information during class. Or his notorious way of saying, "Just do one. No. Not one. ONE." You couldn't just come and get the verbal information pre-packaged and then go home and think you had learned it mentally. It was about letting go of the idea that you could capture it in words or concepts and then have it safely. No. You had to expose yourself every day from scratch and take the risk of failure. The possibility of failure was something that he was also expecting from you. Not expecting from you as a test of dedication or willpower, but as an understanding that when you accept the possibility of failure, you start to become an expressive dancer.

JMPII:

Many people like to say that failure is an option. Willy went beyond that. For him, failure was an inevitability and he wanted to see what you did with it afterwards. I think that's why so many of his enchaînements were impossible; until they weren't. I remember seeing him give a combination that no one could do, but then Maria Kowroski did it. People kept asking her, "How did you do that?", and she was like, "I have no idea." But she didn't have to know. It wasn't something she could talk about; she got there by doing it.

Miro:

I would add that this wasn't a pedagogic trick to get people to work harder. It was his philosophy of life and of dance. And he would hate now that I used the word "philosophy" because he would always say, "I have no philosophy". But that was his understanding of life. Can you go out in front of an audience and feel so secure in yourself that you can take a piqué arabesque that is so far out that you don't know for sure that you can control it, but your artistic ethic, so to speak, requires that you go there? You take that risk because if you do that every day, you will become an amazing performer.

You can see the people who really stuck with it. Some of them became very famous, but there were others who never made it past the corps de ballet or who went into small companies that were very far away. But you could see that in all of them, that willingness and stage presence, in people from all backgrounds. His own background was with New York City Ballet, but the dancers that worked with him came from all kinds of backgrounds. Every major ballet company in the US and Europe, and the modern companies as well. There was something about his approach to dancing that worked, even if you didn't do ballet.

JMPII:

That was something I always appreciated about him. It didn't matter whether you were specifically a ballet dancer; he invited everyone in.

Miro:

As a teacher and a human being, he was incredibly generous. Generous in the sense that he was willing to offer whatever he had to anyone who was willing to receive it, and to avoid being prejudiced. It's easy as a teacher to think 'I can tell the minute somebody walks in the door, what this experience is going to be like.' This whole idea that we have in the ballet world about who is talented; who has a good body, mind, or coordination. I think he was very disciplined about not going down that road and accepting that you can never predict who is going to grow. So every single person, if they came in and brought their willingness to engage in the process, they were going to get his 100% commitment.

It's funny because I have been talking to a lot of dancers, friends, and colleagues over the last few days, and everyone's experience when they first came in to take class was, "I'm standing between somebody very famous and somebody even more famous and yet he comes right to me and spends his time correcting me." It was surprising. I experienced it again later when I started to be a pianist for his classes. Many people have commented on how demanding he was of his pianists. Some found that to be a bit too much while others thrived on it because it's a rarity in this particular profession that somebody takes your craft so seriously that they ask for such top-notch quality for every class.

With every pianist, he was always like, "No. You can do better." Where other teachers would go to the management and say, "Can you give me a different pianist?" Willy would be like, "No. No. No. I'll fix this person." He was dedicated to taking anyone who came into his circle seriously, and then expecting their best from them.

JMPII:

He took everyone seriously no matter who they were. I think what shocks a lot of people is that this "intimidating" man would actually listen to and talk to people, no matter who they were.

Miro:

Yes. He was an incredibly gentle person. Maybe because of that he built a teaching persona that was quite some distance away from the real, gentle Willy. I think he found that there was a danger when you're the gentle teacher; that subconsciously students will exploit that in order to step back from their true potential.

Historically speaking, he started teaching at a time when everything started to be about, 'Well, the traditional ballet teaching is too harsh, and we want to be more gentle with students". He saw that going too far in the 70s and decided that he needed to create some distance. He needed to create the possibility for him to be very candid with the students. If it's "No", then it's "No"; not, "Oh, it's okay; you're almost there." No. You're not there. And to be candid about that, especially when you work with people for a long time. To work with someone for over 30 years and decades into that working relationship, to still not have given up on repeating something that you've probably said a million times before; and to say it with the same dedication and the same intensity; that takes so much stamina and focus.

When you play for somebody's ballet class you get to watch them really closely, and I've had the luck to watch a lot of fantastic teachers over a long time period, class-after-class-after-class for years, and have encountered almost no one who had this stamina that Willy had: to keep going back to correcting the person that he had been working on for 20 years as if this was the first ever correction to say, "No, that wasn't it. You can do better." That's a particular stamina that very few people have.

JMPII:

It's compassion. I think there is this idea that we need to give people approval in class, whereas with Willy, the work was the proof. That you were working was the only approval you needed.

Miro:

Yes. There are very many approaches. For example, I myself don't think I teach quite the same way as he does in that sense. But he brought it to a level of skill and--I can't say perfection because he would very much disapprove of the use of the word "perfection"--but he really figured out what he needed to do to get the results that he was after. And then he had that persistence of doing it over such a long period of time with the same person.

I think his teacher colleagues admired that about him because they knew how difficult it was. And his legacy includes so many others: he is Wendy Whelan's teacher; he is Alessandra Ferri's teacher; he is Julio Bocca's teacher; he is Isabelle Guerin's teacher; he is Desmond Richardson's teacher. There are a lot of teachers that he trained, and not in the sense that they teach like he taught, but that they learned something about how to teach from him. That could be 'the way to present exercises', or 'the way to give corrections', or the single-minded dedication to the task of teaching that his day was built around. What does he have to do in order to be at his best at 10:30? Not once in 23 years or something, but probably much longer, was he ever late to a class.

JMPII:
And always there ahead of time to set it up.

Miro:

Yes. Because he knew that that was what it took and he didn't get sloppy about it. Even now in the last few years, it was still: he came early, he warmed himself up. And not just some days or most days, but every single day, because that was the focus of his life. I have seen few people match that dedication.

JMPII:

How are you managing?

Miro:

From the very first day that he started to become my teacher-- And I mean teacher with a capital "T"; one of the persons, who you realize at that moment, is going to shape your life and the way you approach your life. And the minute you accept that, you start to have that little conversation in the back of your mind, "What happens if one day he's no longer there?" And you know that that will come sooner or later.

I had a long period of time with that question, and at some point in my life, I started to realize, "The natural dynamics of biological life means that he's not going to be there forever. And I have to start to think about "How much of this is in me?" and 'Can I wean myself off from a day to day need to be around him?" Then at the same time, I started my company, and I realized that the most natural way for this work was for my dancers to be around him as much as I used to be.

And then again, the same question. And then again, the same question. At what point can they function without him being around? What do I need to put in place for them to be both practically and emotionally ready? That's one of the things that I tried to do in the last couple years. And we'll see. Of course, this is all happening in a period of time that is different from anything I could have imagined even two weeks ago. So, we don't know how we're doing.

Note: It is telling to me that instead of answering how he is personally doing, Miro instinctively reached out to consider how the entire community is managing losing Willy.

Miro:

Because we were not prepared for this to happen in a situation where we're not really dancing. Although we are- everyone is their living room and we're doing Zoom conferences. We were not prepared for having to mourn and grieve without being able to hug each other and cry in a room together. We did that via Zoom as well.

I have to say, "Okay, it's working." It's been 15 years since I started the company, and so yesterday, dancers from 15 years ago all the way through the current dancers all gathered on Zoom. And we spent some time sharing stories; crying together; laughing together; and remembering him. And that was quite cathartic. Obviously it's more difficult for some people than others, but we're taking it day by day and trying to understand how to process this loss.

But then again, you know, when you go online you see this very strange phenomenon during our pandemic crisis; that the online world has sort of exploded in a way that is in no relation to what people actually need. There used to be a lot of content online and now it's like, "There's so much stuff", but is that what we really need right now?

Do we know what we need right now? And is it there? This may seem to be very far away from the question of "How am I doing?", and it is, but it's also not: I think that we're trying and we're learning something new; grieving and saying farewell to someone who has passed away without the tools that we normally have. And we're learning as we go along.

Now, obviously, one question to ask would be, "What would Willy do?" or "What would Willy tell us to do?" And undoubtedly he would be very down to earth about it and quite unsentimental. I try to be the same. I try to be there for my dancers, just the same as they're there for me. And we try to understand that everything that he has taught us is still there as vividly as it was two weeks ago when we were last in his class. That commitment to the moment is exactly what is going to get us through this situation.

Commitment to being in the moment to a degree where I- You know, over the years, I've sometimes wondered if the clarity with which he was able to commit to being in the moment and not get caught up in the past and the sentimental, had to do with his own life experiences with growing up in Germany during the last years of the war, and then after the war, in a situation where there was a lot of insecurity, suffering, and unpredictability and to just find a way to handle that, and to still be a complete and full and living and loving human being.

And it probably occurred again, over the years of his lifetime in other situations. Now we can tap into that to guide us through this as the best blueprint.

Willy's life was a beautiful blueprint for how to live life. With generosity, commitment to living in the moment, and moving with absolute truth. Thank you Miro for sharing your memories and for drawing the entire community together around the wonderful man that was Wilhelm "Willy" Burmann.


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