BWW Interview: Chris Alloways-Ramsey
Chris Alloways-Ramsey began his early training with Barbara (Olewine) Wouters, later completing his classical training with Mira Popovich and Dame Sonia Arova. He attended summer programs on full merit scholarships at Kirov Academy, School of American Ballet, Houston Ballet Academy, and the San Francisco Ballet. Her graduated from high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts with a focus in Ballet and received his A.L.B, cum laude, from Harvard University in 2003.
Chris was a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet Met, Ballet West, and Alabama Ballet. He was a guest artist with regional ballet companies around the United States, dancing the majority of classical principal roles, including Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Paquita, Les Sylphides, Monotones 1, Midsummer Night's Dream, Les Patineurs, Nutcracker, and a wide range of Balanchine ballets including Symphony in C, Concerto Barocco, Western Symphony, and The Four Temperaments.
He was formerly Ballet Master at Boston Arts Academy, a public, performing and visual arts school in Boston; a faculty member at Boston Conservatory, American Academy of Ballet, and Boston Youth Moves. He completed ABT's Certification for teaching primary Level through Level 3 and was a 2013 National Artist Teachers Artist Fellow Awardee
Chris is currently Head of of the Classical Dept. Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA), Senior Ballet Master, Cape Dance Company, Cape Town, South Africa and Ballet Director of CAPA Pro-Track Program, training pre-professional students, ages 9-19.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Chris.
Q. You've had a very interesting background. Can you tell me about your early dance training, influences?
A. I grew up in rural South Georgia until I was 9 and then we moved to Statesboro, the nearest "large city," and a great den of conservatism, though more progressive now. It was a time when boys did not dance. This caused, predictably, terrible turmoil with my step-father.
Thankfully, I was a very stubborn child.
My first teacher, Barbara (Olewine) Wouters is an amazing woman; she inspired a curiosity to always want to know more, not just about dance, but about life.
I fell in love quickly with the class and the meditative aspects of the daily grind, but I was, throughout my career, a reluctant dancer. By that I mean there was always something that I also wanted to be doing, reading primarily. I also loved writing, painting, and photography. Cooking, too. All things most little boys in the south weren't supposed to do.
Q. Besides schools in Georgia, where else did you study?
A. My training in Georgia was brief, and the majority of my classical training took place away from home. My teacher wanted me to go away to the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), the school where her son had attended. After a year and half of begging my parents, I was allowed to go. Duncan Noble, Melissa Hayden, and Fanchon Cordell were my primary teachers. Mr. Noble especially took an interest in pushing me, but I was a distracted student, being away from home for the first time. I graduated from high school there, but my time was not well used. I quickly became waylaid by boys and social distractions.
Summer programs were spent at SAB, Kirov Academy, and the San Francisco Ballet School. The Kirov Academy was especially good for me. I was in Rudolph Kharatian's class, and he was an amazing teacher for young men. Very masculine dancing, but thoughtful and serene. I remember that Mr. Kharatian would meditate, and I tried as well, but not so successfully. He also suggested I read the philosopher Gurdjieff. This was major heady stuff for a student. There was a period there where I was devoutly reading everything I could about philosophy.
Q. Sounds like you had the making of a very successful career.
A. As many teachers pointed out in my training, I was blessed with good ingredients for a ballet career, but I'm not certain that I was always the most willing of students. There are days now when I'm teaching that I see a student and recognize parts of my younger, willful self in them and say a silent apology to my own teachers
Q. Where did you first begin your professional career?
A. My career actually began with Alabama Ballet when I was 18. During my final year at NCSA, my classmates began auditioning and getting jobs at ABT and Miami City Ballet. But I needed more training. I had long hyper-extended legs and very archy feet. Excellent things when you have control of them, not so much when you are a growing boy struggling for technical strength. At this point, I still wasn't sure I really wanted to dance, but out of a weird kind of peer-pressure to at least try auditioning, I took a weekend trip to see a former classmate from NCSA, Lisa Wolf, who was then attending Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA.) While there, I auditioned for Dame Sonia Arova and her husband Thor Sutowski, the directors of the school and the company.
In the late 80's there was a stream of amazing talent coming out of ASFA and its affiliated company: Wes Chapman, Kathleen Moore, and Shawn Black. Wes and Kathleen were then principals at ABT and Shawn, a soloist; James O'Conner was a soloist at the National Ballet of Canada; David Moore was a soloist with New York City Ballet.
There was an article published in the New York Times a few years before that where Baryshnikov was quoted as saying that ASFA was one of the three best ballet schools in the country, along with Washington Ballet and SAB. I didn't do any other auditions after learning this. I knew I needed more training and Alabama was close to home. I would get the needed training with lots of attention from Sonia, tour and perform, and have a paycheck.
Alabama Ballet was a smallish company of 20 professional dancers, but had the great luxury of having an excellent school to fill out the larger ballets. This was an ideal way to begin a career. Sonia was tough and demanding. We were not a union company; therefore, our rehearsals could, and did, go on upwards of 12 hours. I was one of the youngest company members and my friends were mostly in their last year of school at ASFA. I would make myself take every school class I could fit into my rehearsal schedule. I was there for four years and danced a great range of ballets and roles, from Balanchine to Limon, Bournonville, Petipa and a lot of choreographers in between. Being a small touring company allowed me to have opportunities early on.
Q. You had quite an array of outstanding teachers?
A. Having pedagogues that are passionate, demanding and still caring has made a difference throughout my career on the way I teach. The most influential for me have been: Mira Popovich, who is an encyclopedia of balletic knowledge, and a perfectionist to boot. Mira was an artistic mother to many, but when the door to the studio closed and class began, all bets were off. She was meticulous and determined. Others were Sergey Berjnoi, Madame Tatiana Legat, Sonia Arova and Yoko Ichino, who was ballet mistress for Ballet Met (her husband, David Nixon, was the director.) Her ideas and very original way of structuring class had a big impact. At the time, I really didn't like it because it was something different from what I recognized and was used to. Years later, and only after breaking my neck and beginning the process of analyzing the break-down of steps and teaching methodologies, did I deeply begin to appreciate my year of work with her.
The greatest upside to being exposed to so many teachers, methodologies, repertoire, is that it forms a bank of knowledge on which to draw. I've always had a curious mind and asked many questions as to why things are done the way they are, and why and how they are pertinent to learning.
Having the very best coaches and teachers during this period laid the groundwork for my teaching career. I paid close attention to my teachers, coaches, and ballet masters and tried to incorporate the best of what I learned from each. I also have a knack for pedantic details and a mind that needs constant stimuli, which, for the bigger picture and a longer career, teaching, serves me quite well. Performing requires a successful dancer to be very self-focused, and teaching requires that you focus on everyone else but yourself. I'd much prefer being the latter.
Q. After Alabama Ballet where did you go?
A. I danced for Ballet Met, Cincinnati Ballet, and Ballet West, but I was undisciplined in many ways. Instead of buckling down and always doing my best, I would stay for a year here or there and leave. If I didn't feel like I was dancing what I was capable of, or getting the right training, I just moved on to the next company. I was a tall man, reasonably good looking, and had a clean technique with a good facility that could partner well. All together, this is not a good formula to follow.
Q. When did you first start dancing at Boston Ballet?
A. I began in Boston in 1994. This was a very ripe time in the history of the company. Bruce Marks was the director for two years, then Ann-Marie Holmes, and lastly, I danced under Mikko Nissinen. Boston was the largest company I worked for, and certainly I was on stage more there than any other company--we did 135 shows in a season my first two years. But I was on stage every night because I was dancing corps roles. On weekends and summer layoffs when we were not performing, I was doing a very healthy guesting schedule around the country, flying to Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, my home state of Georgia, Tennessee, etc. During these trips, I grew more as a dancer with endurance and range, allowing me to work on Siegfried, Albrecht, Cavalier, Beauty grand pas, etc., things that I would not have danced in Boston Ballet. It's much more common now to have guesting engagements as a part of your side-line career,
Q. What was the rep at Boston Ballet?
A. Largely full-length classical ballets. Anne-Marie would bring in répétiteurs like Natalia Dudinskaya, Gennady Selutsky and Tatiana Terekhova.
The ballet masters for the company from this period were phenomenal: Madame Tatiana Legat and Sergey Berjnoi were from the Kirov; Caroline Lorca, Arthur Leethe, Elaine Bauer, Ann-Marie Holmes, Dede Miles. For a young dancer, this was ballet heaven, and I tried to take in as much as I could. Sergey especially was a gentle man that could bring out your best during class and rehearsals. His class remains my favorite: beautiful, exquisite combinations that were both academic and made your heart sing. There is this wonderful clip on YouTube of Alexander Pushkin teaching Baryshnikov as a student. Sergey is also in the class-he's the boy that Pushkin is correcting at the barre. Knowing Sergey's roots and watching his performances via VHS was, well...I was always slightly star struck by him.
Sadly, Sergey died in 2012.
Madame Legat, a descendant from ballet royalty who is now in the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, was also someone I loved and respected. She could be a terror in class, but it was all sincere love of her art, and she wanted us to always be better. Company class was, like most union companies, optional (but heavily encouraged obviously), and by the end of Legat's men classes very few were still standing, usually leaving when the allegro began. Madame Legat's class was very beautiful academically. It was not an easy class, and she expected your full attention and effort. There were days that I would be falling over, but I stayed to the end for every class. This paid off in my growth as a dancer; what I was able to take in from her teaching and structure of her class was invaluable.
Q. In 1999 you had a terrible car accident. Tell me about that experience?
A. I was driving my Ford Explorer and towing a small U-Haul trailer, and then the tire exploded and my car flipped into oncoming traffic. Not something one plans for. I have very splotchy memories of the actual event. I remember being upside down after the accident and hearing the fireman say, "That's spinal fluid coming from his nose." I remember the sound of the helicopter and the jostling of the gurney and protesting mightily when the trauma team began shaving my head. All said and done, I had a whopper of a concussion, a brain bruise, road rash on my shoulders and back, nerve damage in my left hand and left calf, a loss of some hearing in my left ear, and most significantly, fractures in C 5, 6, and 7. The surgeon later said that I only survived the head damage due to the extreme mobility in my neck and shoulders.
When it occurred, it took months of stewing and thinking, and then something welled inside me that wouldn't slow down. I wanted to live more deeply and thoughtfully and lustily than before. Having taken everything for granted until this point made me re-evaluate my values, my desires, my goals. This horrific thing became life defining.
Going back into the studio after an intense year of physical therapy was my opportunity to truly re-learn everything from the first step, and I made good use of my time. Simultaneously, I was attending university and reading constantly about the cognitive learning process in education. Applying educational teaching methodologies to classical training seems like such a no-brainer, but not enough teachers do this in ballet. There are too many teachers willing to stay with exactly how they were taught without evaluating if the student actually comprehends the material. Yelling condescending things at students does not make them perform better. It only makes you look like an asshole.
Q. What was the process of healing like?
A. I had been a dancer. That was my identity. Losing that was shocking. The structure, the schedule, the glue in my life up until then. That was most important.
There were other more obvious, outward changes, too, especially my face. The jaw had shifted from the impact; I had bright red eyes for nearly a month that were disconcerting to everyone that spoke face to face with me. The internal injuries were terrible, but having to cope with dramatic changes to my face was an entirely different adjustment. During my recuperation, I used my former physical therapist from Boston Ballet, Mikey Cassella, through Boston's Children's Hospital, which had an amazing team of Dance Medicine specialists, especially Dr. Micheli, who had been my surgeon on a previous operation for my feet and took me on to monitor my progress. The resources that were readily available were likely the primary reason I healed so well.
Through Dr. Micheli's recommendation I began using water therapy with Igor Burdenko. Having a water therapist guide me through balance, strength and coordination exercises in the pool was a major step forward. There was a few times the figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was in the pool next to me. Merrill Ashley had also used Igor to rehabilitate, and there was always an assortment of professional players from the Celtics and Patriots in the pool, too.
Inspiration was in no short supply.
Q. But then came the process of waking up to a new reality.
A. After having the accident I woke up to many realities, but most important was that ballet did mean something significant to me, and I had wasted a lot of time with many natural gifts that I never fully developed in the way they should have been. Not so much regret, but rather looking at what had occurred, weighing the best options and figuring out the best next step forward. The here and now became much more relevant than regretting what might have been. I've tried never to waste time on worrying about the past
Q. It was during your physical therapy that you decided to go to college. What prompted this?
A. I was desperately trying to give myself an identity, a goal to strive towards. University provided this. Having the time to write essays, read whatever I wanted, study history, literature, psychology, religion and philosophy was, for someone that had always wanted to know more, the perfect balm. It would have been very easy to allow the depression to take over and immobilize me. Luckily, I have a little devil in me that always seems to spring forth when most needed, kicking my own ass into gear and not allowing for paralyzing depression to take hold.
I attended Harvard University, but not the college. The University is the overarching institution that contains 12 schools, both undergrad and graduate. I attended the Harvard University Extension School and three years of summer programs at Harvard. The program was ideal for my schedule of PT and healing. The program is less exclusive than Harvard College in acceptance, but there is a rigid GPA that must be maintained.
At university, I took a handful of courses with Dorothy Austin. Some were religion/philosophy based, but the most important for me was her course in memoir writing. Dorothy has a way of inspiring thought. She was an enthusiastic professor and encouraged my writing and personal growth.
I earned a bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts, an ALB. The Liberal Arts program was a great fit for me in that I was allowed to sample a wide variety of topics. I love creative writing and took four years of it. When I try to sit and write now, I'm out of practice. I miss having the time to create. Like dance, writing requires the discipline of making oneself sit and work daily. The devil is in the details.
Q. Once you regained strength you returned to Boston Ballet to resume classes. That must have been hard. What was the reaction of your fellow dancers when they saw you at the barre?
A. I think the initial concern was that class was safe for me to try again. My friends were all very supportive throughout the time and maybe surprised I was tenacious enough to go back so hard.
I had a close friend, Robert Underwood, who recently passed away and later told me upon seeing me for the first time post accident, that he thought I'd never look normal again. My friends in the company were great sources of support when I was healing.
Q. You were later asked to re-join the company in the corps.
A. About a year after my accident, I began to make class and training my priority again. I was very fortunate in that, upon healing, I had had very strong training drilled into me as a student and a solid foundation to return to. At first, there was no goal of dancing professionally again, only the desire to move and be back in class for my self-satisfaction. The body was still willing, and I wanted to put it to the test. I began taking company class every day and then running as fast as I could to Cambridge for academics.
Around this time, Mikko Nissinen took over as artistic director and was short of a corps man for the bigger ballets. I was brought in to dance the corps roles in Onegin and Romeo and Juliet. I was asked for Nutcracker--all hands on deck for the long Nut run--but had already signed guesting contracts to do five weekends worth of Nutcracker pas with Emi Hariyama. Emi and I were very busy that year touring around the country with Nutcracker, but also Swan Lake pas, and the second act of Giselle. Those performances were actually very important emotionally for me as a grand pas was something I thought I'd never do again.
Q. You were asked to teach classes in Cape Town, South Africa and are now living there. How did you get to Cape Town?
A. I had worked for Mignon Furman, who was South African, teaching in her summer program, American Academy of Ballet (AAB), for a few years. When Mignon passed away, her son took over the program and held auditions in Cape Town. I was brought along to teach the auditions in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
During my summers teaching for AAB, Janet Lindup, my great friend and former Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) ballerina, told me of a school located in Cape Town that was looking for a ballet director. While in Cape Town teaching the auditions for AAB, I taught a few master classes for CAPA and the rest is history.
Q. You were also teaching at the Boston Arts Academy, American Academy of Ballet and Boston Youth Moves. So you must have been commuting a great deal between South Africa and Boston?
A. For a year after the invitation was made, I continued teaching at my full-time job at Boston Arts Academy and made two trips during the year to assess the levels of students at Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPA), working on codifying so that we could bring together a faculty of disparate teachers together in a teaching philosophy.
My work life, like most ballet teachers, has almost always been a frenetic one, teaching in multiple schools. The Boston Arts Academy (BAA) provided me with a full-time position that included teaching academics along with ballet. I think my teaching in the ballet studio became better for working at BAA. This is a wonderful school, but it can be a tough one. BAA is a public school in downtown Boston for the arts. Mostly, our kids were beginning their dance training at 14 upon entering high school. This is not ideal to create pre-professionals, but somehow we did, and they continue to do so. The school has had two graduates, Kirven Boyd and Belen Estrada, join Alvin Ailey, and a 95% university acceptance rate.
I have former BAA students at Julliard and UNCSA, and a few other top university programs. Not many schools anywhere can say that. For a small school, BAA produces.
I am extremely proud of the work I put in at the Arts Academy and of all of my former kids. I was there for six years.
Boston Youth Moves (BYM), where I taught for eight years, is an after school program in Boston, housed at the Jeanette Neill Studios. The school is very productive, and many great dancers have come out of this program. One of my former students, Skye Mattox, has pretty consistently worked on Broadway since graduating from high school. I feel like a proud ballet-poppa bragging about my former students, but Skye has been in West Side Story and On the Town understudying Megan Fairchild, and was a regular in the TV show SMASH. She was recently profiled in Dance Magazine.
I taught at Boston Conservatory (BOCO) for five years in the musical theater department. Watching the BOCO kids graduate and go on to successful Broadway careers has been rewarding and a great deal of fun to follow. Broadway is so far removed from my classical world, but somehow I've managed to become a component to helping a generation of students that are now doing cool things on Broadway.
Q. You also like to express yourself in words. Having read a few of your works, I was very impressed. Do you plan to pursue writing?
A. I love to write and harbor a secret desire to be able to do it one day. Growing up in the south, my family would spend nearly every Sunday at my grandparents' house with my very large Irish family. My mom is one of eleven children, and my many cousins were the closest things that I have to brothers and sisters.
The adults would sit on the porch and talk all afternoon. Story-telling, yarn spinning, and church gossip are a part of our southern culture. So I learned to tell stories, too, but I can only express them on the written page. I dislike speaking, and especially publicly. I've battled my whole life with a very slight stutter, and public speaking has never been a comfortable thing for me. Writing gives me greater clarity in communicating and, I would love to have the time to work more on it.
Q. You were a 2013 recipient of the National Artists Teacher Fellowship Award? What was this for?
A. I was awarded the grant for my submission based upon aging and self-perception in dance. How we view our bodies, as dancers, as we change and morph into something entirely different. It was cathartic for me to write the grant. Every dancer, nearly from the first day of your career, is keenly aware of limited time, but my "dance clock" was shaken by my accident. Over the intervening years since my accident, it's given me time to reflect and appreciate what the body can do now at middle age and what it can't do any longer.
Q. You are now Head of the Ballet department at CAPA (Cape Academy of Performing Arts.) Can you tell me about the company?
A. Yes, happily! CAPA was a full-time tertiary program for post high-school students. The school has always been very strong producing working performers, but the director, Debbie Turner, desired a more cohesive classical program. I was brought in to streamline and intensify the existing program. After the first year, it was decided that we needed to create a true classical major for the students as opposed to having ballet class as a required auxiliary to support their contemporary dance and musical theatre.
I've loved working at CAPA for the last year and a half. To be an active part of a progressive team is inspiring for me. To be one of the primary catalysts that is creating change has been professionally rewarding.
My background is firmly rooted in Russian training with, like most Americans, a heavy dose of Balanchine. My goal for the school here is to establish a Russian based methodology. To this end, I've been very fortunate to have a willing, strong, international faculty. I've been working on a syllabus for the school and a methodology manual as well. I'm up to my ears in technique books; Vaganova's handbook; John White's great book, Teaching Classical Ballet; Bazarova's book, Alphabet of Classical Dance; and Golovkina's technique book. There are others, too, but, these are some of my primary references.
The process of creating a full-time classical major has been an exciting one and will have its debut with the intake of the 2016 first year students. Unlike the states, our academic calendar in South Africa is January-December. I'm very excited to see this program take off.
I've also created, with Debbie Turner, a professional track, after-school classical program that trains six days a week. CAPA is one of the few institutions in South Africa that offers an option of six days a week professional training. This has been a nice success. The students are required to audition and must have the physical qualities, musicality, and commitment that a classical career demands. We've named this the Professional Track Ballet School at CAPA, and the students are offered technique, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, character, body conditioning, and contemporary dance.
On any given day, it's a bee-hive of activity. The school has a vocal program for Musical Theatre majors, and a Drama program. Our facilities are some of the best in the country. There are four dance studios, a theatre studio, a music studio, a Pilates studio, and a dance supply store.
CAPA has an affiliated professional company, Cape Dance Company, that has short seasons during the year, and I am the Ballet Master for the company. Cape Dance Company has acquired some excellent contemporary ballets from choreographers from all over the world, but Christopher Huggins from the US has five or six ballets in the active rep. Currently, we are working on a ballet called A Thousand Shepards by Jose Agudo., the Ballet Master for Akram Khan and an amazing artist.
I know that I've played a major role in establishing something very fruitful. The groundwork for continuous, professionally viable students is well established and will continue onwards.
Q. What can we expect from you in the future?
A. My life is a continuous mystery. I'm not sure how to accurately answer this one. If you'd told me five years ago, I'd be living and working in South Africa-I wouldn't have believed you. I've loved the journey thus far and have faith that I'm well prepared and curious enough to have many more ahead.
I'd like to begin writing more extensively again, and I've developed a passion for simple living and sustainable environments. I love gardening, too. My ultimate goal for the future is to have a small cabin on the ocean with a garden and live very peacefully. And read. Simple goals.
But for now, the future is an open book. I just need to begin writing it.