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By Lynnda Greene
Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Ballet
Ballet’s history is relatively short; less than 400 years as the formal art we know. Americans knew little of it until the young George Balanchine left Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes in 1933. The next year, he established the country’s premier school—and, later, company—in New York City.
The Balanchine tradition took root here in St. Louis the day 15-year-old Alexandra Zaharias stepped off the train in Manhattan and into the master’s studio. It was 1944, and over the next two years the young dancer, whose gifts had won her a chance to study at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, would absorb every rudiment of his rigorous regimen—and she didn’t even want to dance.
“I always wanted toteach,” the petite, silver-haired “Miss A.” tells me one winter afternoon at the Chesterfield studio of her Alexandra School of Ballet, which she first opened at Olive and Boyle in 1950. “Balanchine told his backers before he would start a company, ‘First, a school.’ That’s what I wanted, because teaching is the essence of the art.” She got the school, and at 56 years and counting, it’s the oldest continuously operating ballet school in the metro area.
Back in the ’50s, ballet hadn’t achieved much of a presence in St. Louis, she recalls, aside from a scattering of teachers. “I’d had good basic training, but I knew once I saw [legendary ballerina Alexandra] Danilova dance Swan Lake at Kiel Opera House that there was much more to it than I could find here. So I went to New York to find it—not just technique and discipline, but this whole world. But I didn’t want to be a dancer; I wanted to create dancers. I came back because there was nothing here!”
Since then, of course, St. Louis has supported several companies, plus dozens of schools and teachers who’ve trained legions of fine dancers and choreographers. Through it all, though, Zaharias—arguably our oldest and most direct line to Balanchine—has upheld both Balanchine’s teaching legacy and his classical ideal.
“He was an excellent teacher,” she remembers, “but very demanding, insisting that we were all well trained, disciplined, artistic and driven. Much more than classes, though, he gave us something rare even then—sustained guidance.”
She notes with irony that although his trademark technical excellence has declined in his own company over the last decade, it thrives in other companies, all led by former protégés dedicated to his teaching discipline. That may explain why the Midwest has become a hotbed of some of the country’s finest dancers and choreographers. Ballet’s dependence upon the personal transmission of a very intimate kind of knowledge—how to connect with your body, how to speak through it—means that teaching is central to its very survival, she says.
“Many performers find the transition from speaking through the body to explaining it to youngsters ranging from age 4 to 19 difficult, because teaching isn’t just about the steps; it’s about a whole body of work, too. They’ve got to know the history, the stagecraft and costumes, the leading dancers and choreographers through the years, the lore of it. Unless they feel that what they’re doing is part of an ongoing narrative, they’re not going to understand what they’re dancing—and that shows onstage.”
It also shows when class lets out and Miss A., suddenly surrounded by excited youngsters clamoring for her attention, lights up. There have been somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 just like them over the years, her staff estimates. “No wonder I’m so tired!” she laughs as she sends them out the door to practice—and maybe, in a few years, to join fellow alums who’ve danced their way into the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Houston Ballet, the Boston Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet ... and, if we’re lucky, their own schools.
For more information about Alexandra Ballet, visit www.alexandraballet.com.