French Impressions: Brooke Desnoës on dance, the finest expression of freedom
31 Wednesday Oct 2012
AADP, Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Alexander Bennet, Alexander McQueen, Anton Dolin, ballet, Ballet Pedagogy, Ballet South, Brooke Desnoës, Christian Lacroix, contemporary dance, Coppelia, dance academies and schools in Europe, dance professor, dance workshops in Paris, Early Childhood Development, France, French cooking, French system of education, Gailene Stock, Gainesville Ballet, Gary Norman, George Mason University, Georgetown Ballet, jazz, Joel Robuchon, Jolinda Menendez, La Belle au Bois Dormant, Louis XIV and ballet, Louise Bourgeois spiders, Maria Tallchief, Moby Dick Paris, Mr and Mrs Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, Nutcracker Ballet, Paris, Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Sonia Arova, Suli Schorer, The Annenberg Foundation, The Triumph of the Egg by Sherwood Anderson, Thoreau, Violette Verdy, Wadja Paris, Washington School of Ballet, Yvette Chauviré
Brooke Desnoës discovered dance at the Alabama School of Fine Arts where she was a student of Sonia Arova, a former partner of Anton Dolin of the Royal Ballet. After graduating from the Performing Arts High School, she began in the corps de ballet of “Ballet South.” She joined the Scottish Ballet in 1987, under the direction of Alexander Bennet. Her most noted performances there were as The Blue Bird in “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” and Priere in “Coppelia.”
Returning to the United States, Brooke danced for the Gainesville Ballet, performing leading reparatory roles before returning to her studies. In 1990, she obtained a degree in Ballet Pedagogy and Early Childhood Development, which prepared her for her future career as a dance professor. Returning to France, she obtained a diploma as a professor of classical dance, but it was in Washington D.C. where she first began teaching at the Washington School of Ballet, all the while dancing in the Georgetown Ballet. In 1997, Brooke returned to France and founded the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris. http://www.aadp-fr.org information: email@example.com
AWP: You are the founder and artistic director of the first American dance school established in Europe to offer students living in France an approach to dance education that is specifically American (U.S.). Why Paris? What is specifically American in its approach and philosophy?
BD: Certain circumstances drove me to France in the first place, but later, my decision to live in Paris was deliberate. Twenty years and a dual citizenship later I really feel that I belong to both countries.
My opinion of the French system of education is not very positive. I truly disagree with the French approach to teaching that I find both elitist and dated. And since I happen to believe that art and education should be anything but elitist, I knew from the start that I would never feel comfortable teaching for the “conservatoire,” or any other kind of government affiliated school, even though I had been awarded the rightful qualification by the ministry of culture.
AWP: What inspired you to compete among the many dance education schools and academies in Europe? What influenced your vision?
BD: I did not open my first ballet school in Paris with competition on my mind. From the very beginning I knew there was room for another school that would offer a different approach to the teaching of ballet. I basically happened to be in Paris and only wanted to teach ballet according to my own rules.
AWP: In 1998, after much experience as a dancer with the Scottish Ballet, Georgetown Ballet, and having taught at the Washington School of Ballet, you returned to Europe and founded the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris, in Paris. Why was then the right time to open your academy? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place for students living abroad in the style of American dance?
BD: Once again it all fell into place quite naturally. My husband had completed a graduate program at George Mason University and we both felt that the French capital should be our next stop. I had learned during my first stay in Paris that there was a niche for a ballet school that would nurture a love of ballet. I had also learned that a large Anglo-Saxon community did not feel totally comfortable with the various options offered to them in terms of artistic education.
AWP: In 1990, you had obtained a degree in Ballet Pedagogy and Early Childhood Development. What sparked your interest in teaching?
BD: I feel that teaching has always been part of my ballet training. Indeed, in the U.S. it is very common for someone who is part of a company to teach. I was also very fortunate to learn ballet under the direction of Dame Sonia Arova who greatly inspired me as a teacher. Miss Day from the Washington School of Ballet was also someone whose advice I still follow today. I have a passion for ballet, so it is quite natural that I should want to pass on to future generations what I have learned from truly great teachers. And, by the way, I am still learning today from great dancers such as Violette Verdy, Suli Schorer, Gailene Stock, Jolinda Menendez, and Gary Norman who are, among others, regular guest teachers at AADP.
AWP: In your research of dance academies and schools in Paris, both public and private, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
BD: I learned how American I am. Whatever that means.
AWP: What were the challenges? How did you overcome them?
BD: The main challenge was bureaucracy and the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the numerous government employees, who did not understand why a young American lady should come to Paris to open a school and teach an art that they regarded as quintessentially French. I have a clear remembrance of pessimistic prognoses delivered in neon-lit offices that reeked of stale smoke. Some days I felt a little homesick for my imperfect but sunny native South.
AWP: How would you describe your philosophy and approach to teaching?
BD: I strongly believe that teaching students to love ballet helps them learn the technique with more ease and less apprehension. Students, no matter how young they are, should never be underestimated. Brains and muscles must be at work in a dance studio. Going through the motions is not enough. Our students are encouraged to ask questions and our teachers are asked to deconstruct movements. And, of course, mutual respect between dancers and teachers is a prerequisite at AADP.
AWP: Can you share experiences from your personal diaries?
BD: No. I must be old fashioned, but I strongly believe that what is personal should remain personal. No one gets invited backstage unless they are part of the performance.
AWP: The Academy is organized by you and includes six permanent instructors who are joined each year by visiting professors all coming from prestigious dance backgrounds and all originating from esteemed American or European dance companies. Who are these teachers of dance?
BD: I invite teachers with whom I share common values and whose background and experience help our students broaden their knowledge of dance.
AWP: Students who are more than ten years old participate in an audition supervised by you. What are these auditions like? How do they compare to auditions at French conservatories, academies and schools of dance? Can you share any experiences from the perspective of students?
BD: I do not believe in putting pressure on students during auditions. I want them to be relaxed so they can show me their best. I am usually kind and positive. It is a more productive attitude that allows me to see through the students more rapidly.
AWP: Who are the students who participate in the intensive and pre-professional program? What countries are represented? Tell us about the rigors of their studies and performances.
BD: We select them from all over the world. They are intelligent, hardworking and focused young adults. Most of them want to become professional dancers.
AWP: The Academy also organizes dance workshops, lasting three to four days, which offer certain technical aspects of ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. What is the aim of these workshops? How are they different? Who participates?
BD: For the older students, workshops are an occasion to focus on a particular technique or a selected ballet. For the younger ones, it can be an opportunity to explore ballet, learn about its history and basically acquire serious knowledge in a relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes it is also a time to verify if one’s passion is strong enough to consider a pre-professional program.
AWP: The Academy is sponsored in large part by the generous financial support of Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Annenberg Weingarten and The Annenberg Foundation, among other sponsors, with the goal of rewarding excellence in the domain of culture and education. As a result, in 2006, the Academy opened its 950 square meter (10,440 square feet), space situated at 100, rue du Cherche-Midi, in the sixth arrondissement of Paris to accommodate your 750 students. How had this experience changed your world?
BD: I will start by saying that I am greatly thankful to Gregory and Regina Annenberg Weingarten and the Foundation for their unsurpassed support, which has helped AADP become the school it is today. I think that Gregory, Regina and I share common values and this why our partnership was a success. When we met, my teaching and my philosophy was what it is today. The Annenberg Foundation liked the work we did at AADP and made our relocation to state-of-the-art premises possible. The continuous help of the Annenberg Foundation has allowed me to build one of the largest and most respected ballet schools in existence today.
AWP: You state: Art only has meaning if it is an act of generosity, a philosophy clearly shared with and put into practice by Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Annenberg Weingarten. Why is this message significant, especially in France and America (U.S.) today?
BD: When my dancers go on stage I want them to give to the audience. We live in an increasingly self-oriented society that does not seem to produce happiness. I believe that dance is about reaching to others. When a dancer transforms a mere performance into an act of generosity, the audience unfailingly reacts to it.
AWP: One of the goals of the Academy is to bring a fresh approach to France, an approach which includes anyone who takes pleasure in dance, not only students with perfect bodies. How does this work? Can you still keep a French “air” to the Academy? Do the students quickly separate—those who aspire to the life of the professional dancer versus those who love music, movement and rhythm, and the culture of dance?
BD: It is a very natural process. By treating all the students the exact same way we ensure that no one feels like she or he is put on a pedestal. Indeed, some will become dancers and others won’t—but, as for myself, I never felt that a dancer was in any way superior to any other human beings. AADP is open to the world at large. AADP is a place where students learn to accept their differences.
AWP: Trained as a ballerina, you’ve been a pioneer in bringing the American (U.S.) side of dance education to contrast with the more rigid French methods. What is the most significant change you have witnessed in your students?
BD: Our students gain confidence by working hard and learning to think for themselves.
AWP: Your career as a ballerina had taken you to the corps de ballet of the Scottish Ballet, Scotland, Ballet South and Georgetown Ballet in the U.S. How would you describe your life as a dancer?
BD: Hard, but full of joy.
AWP: How has the experience as founder and artistic director changed your world?
BD: As a dancer you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself. Mirrors do that to you. As a director I have to think of others.
AWP: Some women and men are predisposed, each in their own way, toward the passion for dance: through fantasy, family or a cultural context. How did your interest in dance unfold?
BD: I was seven when I saw the Nutcracker live for the first time and I was hooked for ever.
AWP: In addition to being a student of dance history and culture, literature and politics: what French cultural nuances, attitudes, ideas or habits have been adopted by the Academy? In which areas have you embraced a similar aesthetic?
BD: AADP is American in the way Thoreau was American. If AADP had a motto it would go like this: “We dance to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration and bigotry. To the dancer all religions, all nations are alike.”
AWP: How has the idea of studying abroad changed since you came to Europe? Do you think the internet and other new technologies make a true study abroad experience obsolete?
BD: No, it is vital for a young person to study another language and see the world from a different viewpoint. The internet cannot convey tastes or smells yet. So, unless you go someplace, you have no idea what it is like. When we travel our senses are more at work than our intellect.
AWP: What is it about the French and dance?
BD: There are actually more dance students and comparatively more companies and schools in the U.S. than in France. So, the pertinence of your question is perhaps questionable, but Louis XIV is definitely the culprit in this love affair.
AWP: Who is the most revered ballerina to come from France? To come from America?
BD: Yvette Chauviré et Maria Tallchief. Dance.
AWP: How has the idea of dance changed since you began?
BD: There is nothing static about dance. Dance changes, evolves, it is a living creature. But when a performer or a performance is good, hard work remains at the core of it.
AWP: What is it about girls and women and dance?
BD: Men used to have boxing. It was a violent but somewhat beautiful art. A form of dance actually. Women, we have dance and we will always have dance. It is the finest expression of our freedom.
AWP: Tell us something we don’t know about dance?
BD: If you think that the training is hard, think harder.
AWP: Your passion for the culture and teaching of dance is extraordinary. What’s next?
BD: A surprise.
AWP: Napoléon Bonaparte, (1769-1821) Emperor of the French, who established the bureaucratic structure of the modern French state, and reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does Napoléon’s statement hold true with your experience living in Paris? How is Napoléon’s statement understood by women of today?
BD: Dead French men bore me. Hopefully, in 2012, what is due to a woman in Paris, and elsewhere, is commensurate to her output. Accomplishment and power are seldom related.
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad or have worked in France or Francophone countries. Many followers are preparing to study in Europe. What would you say to them?
BD: Keep your expectations moderately low and your chin moderately high.
AWP: In your youth, what did you imagine your adult life would hold? What influenced this vision?
BD: My imagination, my passion for ballet and a strong work ethic, helped me face the present with confidence, so I never worried too much about the future.
AWP: Name the single book and movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you. Tell us why.
BD: Louise Bourgeois’ spiders. I feel I am one of those.
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
BD: The Triumph of the Egg, by Sherwood Anderson. The wisdom, the clarity, the rhythm. His writing is a beautiful dance.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up? Is it now?
BD: If stylish also means being comfortable, then I have always had style. By comfortable, I mean that I do not try to apply the style of the moment to myself. I pick my clothes to please myself and perhaps my loved ones, not to make an impression on the streets. I like fashion in the same way I pay attention to costumes I use in a performance. Life is a stage. I am not the first one to say it. I am, actually, quite admiring of what Christian Lacroix, or the late Alexander McQueen have created during their careers.
AWP: How do you define style or fashion?
BD: Style is being effortlessly unique. Fashion should be an inspiration to do that.
AWP: In our story, Ballet Flats in Paris: And God Made Repetto, published in A Woman’s Paris, the author notices a Parisienne sense of elegance and confidence on the streets of Paris and wonders: has every Parisienne been instructed in the practice of ballet? — surmising about the French woman; how she carries herself, aware of her body and the space around her. Parisian Christine Loÿs comments at the end of the story: Every little girl in France has known about Repetto forever, or as soon as she takes dancing lessons, and most have done so and still do at school in their early years. What have you observed? Do you agree with Christine’s comment?
BD: Elegance is nothing but a state of mind. To me these comments are about decoration.
AWP: In the streets of Paris, and throughout France, we see women adopt the aesthetic of the ballerina, particularly in the ballet flats worn by the very young and older woman alike. In your opinion, how has the culture of the ballerina — or the culture of dance—influenced fashion?
BD: Fashion is always influenced by the arts. Ballet is only one of these influences.
AWP: How do you express your own style or fashion? What style advice do you take from the “ballerina?”
BD: On stage, a dancer must feel comfortable in her costume in order to perform to the best of her ability. The same rule applies to life off the stage.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
BD: Good fish, good meat and a little help from Joel Robuchon who has been unsurpassed in French Cooking. His cuisine is simple, healthy and flavorful. I am a fan and I learned a lot from his books and his advice have allowed me much freedom in my cooking. French and Indian cuisine are our favorites.
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
BD: I have a few since my husband used to work with gourmet magazine. However, the last meal we had at Wadja with Violette Verdy was very noteworthy. The food was amazing and sharing it with one of the greatest ballerinas in the world who enjoys food with a passion similar to mine was a tremendous experience. I hate this idea of a dancer living on apples and smoking cigarettes. Dance and cuisine are not antonymic and they are both about balance.
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
BD: Not much. We are lucky enough to live next to the best butcher (M. Bajon) and the best fish market in Paris (Moby Dick). So I always pick up something fresh on my way home or before I start my day at the school.
Art of Living
AWP: If you were at a dinner party, what question would you be asked?
BD: Long time no see. Where have you been?
AWP: Tell us something we don’t know about Paris—its style, food, culture or travel.
BD: If you come to Paris, throw away your tourist guide book and walk the narrow streets. Something good is bound to happen.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Ballet Flats in Paris: And God made Repetto, by Barbara Redmond who shares what she got from a pair of flats purchased in a ballet store in Paris; a feline, natural style from the toes up, a simple pair of shoes that transformed her whole look. Including the vimeos “Pas de Deux Coda,” by Opening Ceremony and “Repetto,” by Repetto, Paris. (French)
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation. Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide. (French)
Paris photo shoot – in search of the perfect Moroccan slipper, by Lisa Rounds who tells of her adventures in the North African neighborhood of Barbès in Paris searching for the perfect slipper in red, of course, for a Cosmo photo shoot. Her story of “living the dream,” working for a publishing company in Paris.
The Child Madeline, by writer and educator Natalie Ehalt who shares her love of Madeline, who brings a deserved respect for girls and children worldwide. Excerpts from Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales, by Ludwig Bemelmans.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Brooke Desnoës. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.