Welcome! Today I’m trying something new. I thought it might be interesting to interview one of the most prominent guest teachers in the business (art form?) to see what knowledge he could share with us about ballet culture and his long experience as a dancer and teacher.
Yannick Boquin is a guest teacher at many of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Dresden SemperOper Ballet, and of course, my home, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Educated at the Paris Opera Ballet School, and having danced as a principal dancer with several companies, most notably the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Yannick has traveled the world and seen many of the similarities and differences between ballet company’s cultures and dance styles. Yannick has his finger on the pulse of the ballet world. He teaches a supremely well thought out class, and has identified a logically consistent view of ballet technique that he teaches in his company class. I recently had the chance to sit down with him and ask him a bit about himself and about the wisdom he’s amassed through the years.
My original intent was to do this in podcast form, but the program I was using ate up my audio file right near the end of my editing process. Ugh. Luckily I had just made a low quality mp3 version of the edit, and instead of posting a crappy quality audio file, I decided to transcribe our interview to text. Please let me know in the comments if you enjoyed it and if you would be interested in hearing podcast interviews in the future!
One last disclaimer: a lot of this interview presumes knowledge of a ballet class and the structure behind it. If you have no idea what it’s like, or if you’re just curious and want to see a live demonstration, here’s an example of the Royal Ballet’s company class.
Okay, enough background. Here it is:
- Lucas: Welcome Yannick, thanks for doing this with me.
- Yannick: Thank you for having me.
- L: So, to start off: where do you live?
- Y: I am based in France in a small town close to Paris, 80 kilometers away from the airport, which is very important for me.
- L: Right, because you’re pretty much spread out everywhere. Your title at the companies you visit is guest teacher. What do you see as the role of a guest teacher?
- Okay… freshness. When you go to a company for a period of two or three weeks, you come with a new face, new steps, with new energy and all that, so this is supposed to bring some fresh air to the company. I don’t just give classes and a warm up, I teach a class: I’m very particular on many aspects and I don’t come just to give a nice time. I will insist on certain things, and most of the dancers appreciate that. Some don’t, and you cannot please everyone. Two or three weeks doesn’t allow you to put an imprint on the company, but you can bring something positive to a company.
- L: Right. I think the point of you coming is to show a vision of ballet technique and a sound approach to achieving it.
- Y: And the thing about technique is, unlike what many people might think, it’s not only about steps and the number of pirouettes or saut de basque’s you can do. In my class I really insist on the coordination of arms, and musicality, which is also part of the technique. Steps without any refinement or finesse, off the music, I call “bla bla.”
- L: And it’s visible too. In the past couple of classes, you’ve told us when it’s “bla bla” and it’s quite apparent because it becomes something that’s just jelly, where there’s nothing really happening, nothing interesting, no accents.
- Y: And then you have the pianist in the corner and he or she is doing their best. Very often, dancers don’t connect the steps with the music, so I would rather stop the exercise and make them do it again with the right energy and musicality “Guys, sorry, it’s not what I want, and it can be much better, anticipate, think before you do.”
- L: And being hard on dancers can be a dangerous thing, because in order to have a good class environment you need to play to the company. You need to be a character that they respect and you can’t just drive with a whip all the time.
- Y: Exactly. So, in a way, the guest teacher has to adapt to the company, because you cannot just come and make a revolution in two or three weeks – you won’t get anything, you will just confuse the people and it will be a shock – it won’t work. So you adapt, but you cannot be the only one adapting. You also have to ask the dancers to adapt to your classes, so actually, it’s a give-and-take. Of course I understand that dancers can be tired, from rehearsals, from the process of learning a new ballet, from many, many things. There are some dancers that will always find an excuse or reason, to, that day, take it easy, and I respect that. When the class starts at 10:30, I’m not supposed to know what happened at home before. So I have to consider that, to not take things personally. When people are changing steps I’ve given maybe it’s because they’re just tired, maybe they’re not there in their mind because something happened earlier, or maybe they just didn’t see the step the moment you were giving it. But I will find this out myself depending on if it’s only for one exercise or if it’s constant.
- L: Right. You’re here, there, and everywhere for two or three weeks at a time so you get to know people’s habits. Of course, dancers can be going through serious life issues.
- Y: Yes, but then I will first analyze this person. In the past I’ve already had to throw people out of my class. I’ve gone to see the director and warned them that this might happen if their disruptive behavior continues, and if it does then I take it personally.
- L: Is that because this person is a disruptive force and is getting in the way of you teaching a good class for everybody?
- Y: Exactly. I mean, first, it distracts me. There is no respect in that case. If you want to do your own class you take another studio, you put a walkman on your head, and you go and do your own class. But on top of that, those dancers don’t even go to the corner, they’re quite central, so they disturb me, they disturb the people around them trying to do the steps I’ve given by doing something else, so at that stage you go “That’s enough.”
- L: What style do you teach?
- Y: Well, it’s French, but there are no borders anymore, and traveling around I see what’s good in other schools. I wouldn’t change my school, because even if I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to. But I do take some things here and there to adapt to my class, to fit the french school.
- L: How much do you think that dance technique is a science?
- Y: Well, okay, you have the positions. Of course you can do many steps in many different positions of the arms. But, for example with the coordination, as I’ve been talking a lot about in class as you can see, I can see when the arms are not in the right position in the right moment. They are not helping, and not only that, they’re going against the movement. You can see that there is a big conflict between the upper body and the legs, and you see eyes going a bit funny… I mean, you see that there is tension in the body. They feel it, I see it, so it’s like 2 and 2 is 4. 2 and 2 will never be 5.
- L: We’re talking about physics here. You need to use all of the momentum in your body to get up in the air. If only your legs are pushing off and your arms are doing the opposite…
- Y: Then there’s a problem. It’s like trying to run with walking arms, or trying to walk with running arms. It doesn’t fit – they have to go the same speed. They are connected, and ballet is the same. You also need to know where your axis is. So you have your axis, you have coordination, you have arms, and you have to use all that together to make the movement correct. Of course after you can go outside the borders because you move, you dance, so your movements can be more expansive, but still you have a center to respect, you have positions to respect, and you want to have a good flow. It’s hard to tell in written form, because I’d prefer to demonstrate, but in that sense yes it’s a science. You have to follow some rules, you have to make it look nice, and organic.
- L: We’re dealing with physics, to a certain degree. And it’s true that when you’re choreographing you don’t have to follow – well you have to follow physics – but you don’t have to follow technique as it’s taught. For example, in a jump, you can actually want your arms to do the opposite.
- Y: Sure, that can be the signature of a choreographer. He might do something funny with his arms, but that’s his style. If you do that in a class, that will be a one-way ticket and you won’t be invited again, because dancers won’t find this funny and they’re not here to be guinea pigs for you in the class.
That’s the end of part one. If you have any thoughts or ideas about the topics we discussed, please share in the comments. And hit that follow button if you enjoy these topics, plenty more to come.
Next time, we’ll explore what Yannick calls his second career and how he was able come to terms with his boundaries and imperfections, the difference between preparing a class and choreographing a ballet, and how becoming a teacher changed his relationship with some of his colleagues.