BWW Interviews: Stephanie Saland
Stephanie Saland entered The School of American Ballet just before her 15th birthday. Three years later she was invited by George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet for the remarkable Stravinsky Festival. In a 21year career with City Ballet, she was showcased in leading roles under Balanchine's direction, as well as principal roles in Jerome Robbins' repertoire. Before moving to Seattle in the fall of 1993, she taught movement for student actors at Playwrights' Horizons and helped develop a body-awareness class for actors with theater teacher Caymichael Patten.
Ms.Saland has been a freelance instructor traveling to teach in NY, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Madrid, Mallorca, Mexico and Canada. In 2005 she was invited to judge and teach for the burgeoning Youth America Grand Prix in both the regional and final competitions, and has been with the organization ever since. Some of her strongest influences were from ballet teachers and fellow performers such as Stanley Williams, Maggie Black, Tina Bernal, and Gelsey Kirkland.
She has been equally inspired and informed through other non-ballet sources including Gyrotonics, Pilates, Zeena Romett floor barre and Eva Nemeth, who mentors and shares a wealth of training and invention based on Rhythmic Gymnastics and Physical Therapy from Hungary. The influences of having been treated in of a variety of modalities including cranial-sacral, physical therapy, network chiropractic, soma and Aston Patterning also play out into her classes, as well as her sessions in Body Balancing with Mark Kane and Qi Gong with Marc Heusner.
Broadwayworld Dance recently interviewed Stephanie Saland.
Q. You came to ballet rather late, I believe it was age 14 or 15? Usually women begin much earlier. What made you decide to pursue ballet?
A. The pursuit was not conscious, but evolved as opportunities presented themselves. Until the age of 14 I had no prior interest in ballet beyond the occasional class on Long Island with Andre Eglevsky's wife.
On the last day of 8th grade someone passed me in the hallway as I shut my locker, and I heard him say that the following year's report cards would be computerized. At that time, this was a new and troubling development for me. I interpreted going from hand written, personalized evaluations and contact to one that was depersonalized and mechanized. In my mind, it incited a fear of autonomy, of disappearing into the crowd, something highly disturbing and inhuman.
So I went into some default escape plan. A beautiful, mature woman who took class locally urged me earnestly pursue dance. I had dismissed her suggestion until that moment. That afternoon I went home and discussed this new direction with my parents. It was quite out of the blue. They then called Andre Eglevsky to ask his advice about schools and how to audition and apply. He told them the pros and cons of a dance career and then proceeded to list five options in New York. The School of American Ballet (SAB) was the first.
Q. You entered SAB at age 15, if I am not mistaken. What was it like to enter such a competitive atmosphere?
A. 14 and ½. When you are young those are important differences to note! I was placed in level A with 11 year old students.
To answer from a sensory part of my memory: it seemed to be a pulsating atmosphere of energy, an attenuated and rarefied world, one of a constantly heightened level of readiness. It was overwhelming in the intensity and single mindedness of its vision of beauty and perfection. Terrifying, stimulating, thrilling. It was as if I were a young astronaut landing on a new planet and discovering a variety of exotic life forms; perhaps like an anthropologist learning about a new tribe.
In all honesty, I was awed, enchanted and more than slightly intimidated by the talent of the people and characters surrounding me.
Q. Who were some of your teachers at the School of American Ballet and was there anything in particular that they imparted in terms not just of dance, but of worldly wisdom?
A. I came into the school at a wonderful time when the Russians that Balanchine had installed were still well in force, and the boundaries between the old world and contemporary America were blurred. We had a sense of etiquette that was not only pertinent in the ballet world but in and of the larger world much wider than the walls of the school.
In addition to the Russian contingency, we had the British Muriel Stuart who had worked with Pavlova, and seemed to have a kind of generosity tinged with a bit of wicked humor. Stanley Williams, who came from the Royal Danish Ballet, was the irreplaceable center of restraint and refinement. His teaching was like no other: understated and utterly to the point. To this day, his instruction resonates on all levels.
Q. How old were you when you entered the company and how did it come about?
A. 18 years old.
I was just about to graduate from Professional Children's School. I had been in SAB but was simultaneously preparing to apply to NYU for psychology. I did not have the expectation of a ballet career in the way that most dancers do from an early age. While I loved to dance, it seemed that my peers were so much more proficient, knowledgeable and gifted that I made no assumptions about going into any company. Also, coming from a "normal" family with two sisters, I was expecting to continue my academic education.
NYCB was about to mount the Stravinsky Festival in 1972 and it came at the same time as the yearend SAB workshop and my high school graduation. It just aligned in a certain way. Balanchine came in and, needing more dancers for the upcoming festival, took six of us from the school.
So I veered unexpectedly into a new realm.
Q. Do you think that Balanchine was watching you with interest?
A. In the school I was part of the lecture demo circuit with Suki Schorer, and in workshop I performed Flower Festival for Stanley Williams. Mr. B came often to the school at that point and observed classes and rehearsals, occasionally participating. For two years prior to getting into the company he would follow me in class, although I would hide in the back from my feeling of insecurity, so he would come in the back door.
Q. Once you entered the company, you danced in a number of corps roles.
A. Not many, as my lack of recall and memory made it a challenge. This could be interpreted in any number of ways. I was in a very competitive atmosphere and just slow and not a good a functionary for the corps. My having come to ballet late and the way that my mind and system organized information was not linear. I was not versed in sequencing in a way that helped me get a handle on the material/choreography first. The process was inside out. I used to approach a ballet from a feeling and interpretive space instead of understanding the choreographic/architectural elements.
I don't know if this is the brain or the way that an organism makes choices. In my understanding of the mind and nervous system, we are always making choices from an early age.
The ones that came more organically were the first to be favorites, in part out of insecurity. As I became more stable and understood what was required technically, the penchant for other roles grew.
Q. What do you think are the qualities that made you stand out as a dancer?
A. Imagination. I had a certain impetuous or intuitive side that, for some reason, I trusted. I felt so many discrepancies and deficiencies. As a result, I needed for something to work, as my technique was on the lower end of the spectrum for the Company. At least I perceived it that way. It always felt like I was trying to compensate for a late start, so I had to capitalize on my other more unique qualities.
It also seemed to me that Balanchine appreciated my energy and recognized it and so, given his trust, I let myself ride on that. And, perhaps, a certain brand of honesty pervaded my life and work.
To this day, I feel like I value honesty and a certain quality of courage to stay the course. In hindsight, I feel that I have a quality of accessibility and consideration that allows people to relate to me.
Q. What about your repertory?
A. I believe that many of the Balanchine roles given to me were apropos of the way that my physiology and spirit translated onstage. For the most part I joke that I had all the feminine "swooning" and glamorous roles early on, and they held me in good stead over the years. Additionally, I had and have a comic bent and find that it is a wonderful tool in which to open up. So anything tongue in cheek, or with a comic arc, was always a bonus for me.
I was never an athlete or workhorse, and the truly difficult ballets aside from a few (Square Dance, 1st Movement Bizet) were not the mainstay in my repertoire.
I would have loved to do more of the hallmark leotard ballets, but my body at that time was not the archetype for those more pared down ballets and did not lend itself as easily to the more stringent architecture or translation of those pieces.
Had the Company been a smaller one with fewer dancers, the story would have perhaps been a different one. We had such a rich reserve of dancers with varying qualities and techniques, so it was, and often is, that the dancer most suited to the requirements of the ballet will be cast. In a smaller company a dancer may not always be cast in appropriate roles, but can be stretched out of the comfort zone.
Q. You had a wonderful working relationship with Jerome Robbins. Could you elaborate on that?
A. I immediately felt at home with the Robbins' approach and work. I understood Jerry on some subterranean level. Not at ease but in exactly the right place. His theatrical bent, his perfectionism all spoke to me. That kind of connection or fellowship is hard to explain. I felt seen and valued, even with some challenges. I also needed him, his particular and vulnerable approach for survival in the NYCB atmosphere. His was a wider world than the ballet sphere, and his interests and scope was so inclusive. In the rarefied world that I inhabited I needed that vantage point. It was definitely worth the effort.
And knowing West Side Story and Fiddler, and then having Jerry as part of my day-to day existence with someone who was the pulse of this theater world was something I could never have concocted. Had I been more directed and clear in shaping my future, I would have gone into film or to Broadway. To date, I still have a tinge of yearning while the cast rolls on a Woody Allen film.
So here it was on a platter in my own theater.
I loved his ability to articulate the qualities of what he needed and wanted for a piece, for a role. His approach to "mark" or sketch rather than maintain the same pitch throughout was a revelation.
It allowed for so much layering and nuance to emerge. To actually retreat from giving 100% so often allows other qualities to rise to the surface.
Jerry's own dissatisfaction with us mere mortals and his own search often ended with him in a short temper, sometimes insulting and often defeating the energy in the room. My interpretation was that expectation and reality were at odds.
Q. And what if you couldn't do exactly what he envisioned?
A. The discrepancies were a strain for him.
My reasoning with my own psyche to deal with his moods was the following: "How would it feel if I had sketched something out for myself, seen it in my mind and in preparation and then come to the studio and no one could realize it fully?" The endless struggle was something Jerry brought to himself and then to us by default. It is hard to listen to direction and sift out the mood of the choreographer. Dancers have a wonderful series of skills to manage many levels at once. We hold and are containers for paradox.
Q. Any favorite Robbins roles, and what makes these roles special?
A. I loved the third pas de deux in In the Night: The tension and passion doused with anger was such a release and the closest ballet to Cranko's Onegin, which I would have loved to bite into.
Dances at a Gathering. Everything in Dances was a joy, with the movement being like breathing and playing.
Goldberg Variations. I loved the nuances and acrobatic pas de deux. Playful and yet with the aspects of period and etiquette.
Opus 19. I loved the more dynamic and dark aspects of the ballet, although it did not read as well onstage as it did in the creative process in the studio. I think it needs a smaller scale to reverberate more.
I also love the role Jerry created for me in Antique Epigraphs. The process was painless and personally rewarding, and I appreciated that he allowed more silence to be incorporated throughout the entire work. I felt "seen" in Antique, that the shadows were allowed and emphasized.
Q. After Balanchine passed away, you were promoted to principal dancer. Did anything change for you in terms of repertory?
A. My repertoire was the same more or less from corps to principal, so no.
Q. You were with the NYCB during the first ten years of the Peter Martins administration. How would you describe that administration as compared to that of Balanchine?
A. An impossible act and situation to follow.
Peter needed time to find his own voice, as well as continuing to support the Company and the legacy. A double edge sword. I think that in the first two to three years he tried to be democratic and understand the next steps, but then began to see that he needed to forge his own profile.
What I witnessed was a climate change. A female to male orientation, A shift in aesthetics and process.
A change from old world, with its deep layers and connections to a time long gone to a truly contemporary organization. The voices that drove and fed Mr. B were in no way like Peter, so it was natural for the shifts to occur.
Q. What made you decide to stop dancing?
A. Physical challenges and injuries, a feeling that I wanted to leave before it became painfully apparent that I would be overstaying my welcome. My mantra to myself was if we as dancers were striving to be graceful in all ways, why would we not want to retire gracefully? I observed instances of supposed retirements that were not done with integrity, so I saw them as examples of how not to proceed. I was fortunate to have voices outside of the theater that were able to help me bounce feelings and thoughts off in an informed and compassionate way.
Q. After you finished your stage career, you moved to Seattle and have since begun a career as a freelance dance teacher and instructor? Yet you haven't been associated with a professional dance company?
A. I have found that a Company is a less than ideal place to actually teach. By the time dancers are working professionally the other pressures and time constraints, as well as the mindset, are working at a different dynamic than that in a school or academy. The class where the participants are not looking to work, or with younger students, is more porous and viable as a learning atmosphere. I have honed and improved my pedagogic skills by teaching outside of the professional arena. I feel that the skills I bring to the studio are a facile, very organic and creative response to a life in dance and a life at large, observed and hard won. It is truly a joy to come into the studio and know that dancers and students want to trust you begin to plumb their own capacities.
Q. What would you consider the best knowledge you impart to dancers?
A. It's almost like de-cluttering a living space.
Stay curious and find and cultivate friendships that are stabilizing and supportive. Be very conscientious about health and wellness, as the body is the tool and needs full attention. Surround yourself with people you respect and trust. Learn to be persistent, but not without awareness.
Love and admire other gifted people; it enlarges the experience.
NYCB alumna Stephanie Saland performing in George Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
NYCB alumna Stephanie Saland in rehearsal with George Balanchine for his ballet Apollo. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik