Legendary Ballerina Cynthia Harvey’s Second Act as Artistic Director of the ABT JKO School

Classic Arts Features   Legendary Ballerina Cynthia Harvey’s Second Act as Artistic Director of the ABT JKO School
 
Cynthia Harvey instructing JKO School students
Cynthia Harvey instructing JKO School students Richard Corman

Cynthia Harvey, the legendary American Ballet Theatre ballerina, is on the edge of her seat. Deborah Wingert, former New York City Ballet dancer and Balanchine Foundation répétiteur, is rehearsing Level 7 students from the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) in George Balanchine’s La Source. Harvey, her eyes bright and her petite frame humming with energy, is pitched forward in her chair, giving dancers instructions, pointing stage directions, and correcting port de bras.

While this is Wingert’s rehearsal, the dozen or so girls in royal blue leotards serve two masters. Harvey is the artistic director of the ABT JKO School, having taken up the appointment last September, at the invitation of ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. Founded in 2004, the ABT JKO School fosters the dance education of over 400 students. Harvey is not just a second pair of eyes but an invested educator, looking for progress and potential.

Wingert is setting the dreamy but brisk work on the students in preparation for a March performance. She purses her lips and chases after the girls: “Pretend the wind is blowing you.” The girls smile, bourrée faster, stretch their necks and lift their eyes, their bodies appearing more weightless. What started as murky marked steps and doubtful stares in the mirror turns into the beginnings of a polished piece, more radiant, more balletic.

For Harvey, this progress is essential. One of her goals is to “bring the dance element back.”

Sitting at the desk of ABT co-founder Lucia Chase in a modest corner office at ABT’s Broadway studios, Harvey ruminates on how challenging it is to make dance students really dance.

“I find when I watch class, that there is not enough épaulement,” Harvey says. “There is a lot of staring straight ahead and looking in the mirror. I want to put more dynamism into their work, and to turn that into what American Ballet Theatre is about, to put more emphasis on the theatre.”

It is hard to think of a better artistic director for the ABT JKO School than Harvey. A versatile dancer, Harvey was one of ABT’s brightest stars among a defining generation of dancers that included Cynthia Gregory, Susan Jaffe, Martine van Hamel, Mikhail Baryshnikov and current ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. Working with ballet greats, including Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn and others, she regularly appeared as an international guest artist, and, at the invitation of Sir Anthony Dowell, became the first American dancer to perform with The Royal Ballet as a principal.

Returning to ABT has been a homecoming of sorts for Harvey, who was previously residing in Norwich, in the East Anglia region of the United Kingdom, before taking on the position.

“I said to Kevin when I came, that being in this building, seeing the same chipped paint in the same places, hearing the radiators make the same clunky noises, is familiar,” she says warmly. “It’s where I grew up.”

Since her retirement from the stage in 1996, Harvey has been dedicated to education and training. In addition to staging ballet productions internationally, she was previously a standards assessor for The Council for Dance Education and Training in the United Kingdom, a coach at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and the founder of En Avant, a foundation formed to nurture professionals in areas beyond technique, like musicality and performance quality.

“I prefer being busy,” says Harvey. “I’m not good on holidays, although this year,
I may need one,” she laughs. Using ABT’s National Training Curriculum, the ABT JKO School provides high quality training consistent with ABT’s style and diversified repertoire.

The school’s robust coursework educates students ages 3 to 18 across two divisions, and includes classes in technique, pointe, partnering, men’s class, character, modern technique, variations, ballet history and Pilates.

Promising upper division students may be invited to join the ABT Studio Company, which prepares dancers for a professional career, either at ABT or elsewhere. Much of ABT’s star-studded roster, including Isabella Boylston, Misty Copeland, Herman Cornejo, David Hallberg, Hee Seo and Cory Stearns began their careers with the Studio Company (formerly ABT II), in addition to 11 out of ABT’s 13 soloists.

Harvey has plans to tweak the coursework, including adding mime (a tip from ABT’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky), focusing on the importance of port de bras, starting a male mentor program, and eventually adding a music syllabus. ABT alumni Ethan Stiefel and Robert LaFosse are among the staff this year, and Amanda McKerrow, Lupe Serrano and Martine van Hamel are guest instructors. In an art form as ephemeral as dance, which is taught from one dancer to another, faculty is key.

“The alumni get it,” says Harvey. “They get the family feeling of ABT,” she says with a smile. Also of importance to Harvey is to continue the ABT JKO School’s Wellness Program, which aims to help budding dancers manage the physical and psychological demands of training.

“In my day there was less concern as to your mental well-being,” Harvey recalls. “The Wellness Program is our ethos, to make sure we train healthy dancers. We are artists but we’re also athletes.” The program includes a lecture series addressing key challenges facing dancers, and keeping a physical therapist on staff.

For Harvey, training a complete dancer goes beyond the dance studio. A recent assignment involved students visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with dance history teacher Allison Eggers, “to look at classical sculpture which has innate épaulement.” Students wrote a brief report and choreographed an enchainment inspired by their visit.

“I want them to be hungry,” Harvey says. “Things happened to me before I was ready, and then I was playing catch up. I would perform and then study. I don’t want them to be in that situation. I want them to already know, and to use that information to enhance themselves and not the other way around.

Lauren Gallagher is a contributing writer to Dance Tabs and formerly a dance critic for the San Francisco Examiner