I have for you today a fascinating essay by Cherie Magnus.
An essay about her son's famous Russian ballet teacher, one I'm very excited to share. It is a wonderful example of the relationship that can blossom between mentor and student. Every word is true with the exception of Galina's name and her friends' names. Take a look.
Galina had known them all: Fokine, Balanchine, Lichine, Nijinska, even Picasso and Stravinsky. She herself was a superstar of the Ballet Russe in the thirties and forties before retiring to teach in Los Angeles.
No book on 20th century ballet omits her name. Rarely does a month go by without Dance Magazine mentioning her, even now. Those who saw her dance in her hey-day were stunned by her leaps and jumps and were positively leveled by the force and radiance of her personality. Beautiful pictures of her fill every ballet book in the library.
Her powerful personality is still her main asset today, though her dancing days have long been over. She has grown roly-poly, but when she smiles, hers is the identical dazzling face that graced the covers of souvenir ballet programs in the thirties. If you're the one she smiles at and calls "dahling,m" you're ready to be her slave.
With ammunition like this, at sixty-eight she's still a considerable force. Combined with Russian prima-ballerina artistic temperament, a delightful sense of humor, and stubborn childishness, she's irresistible and immovable.
She is extremely emotional about her teaching, her studio, and her students. There's no sense in trying to be logical with her; just pray she likes you.
My son Jason went to her ballet academy when he was a dissatisfied scholarship student at the Los Angeles Ballet School. As long as he took class twice a week at LAB, they didn't care what else he did. Actually we felt that they didn't particularly care about him anyway.
Only one teacher at LAB, Olga, taught the daily technique class, and she obviously favored the girls. Two classes per week were girls' pointe classes and the rest of the time she ignored Jason and the other less-advanced boys.
We had heard that Galina's studio had a man teaching a weekly men's class and were eager for Jason to try it out. We thought it was important for a boy to learn how to dance like a man. Jason was then thirteen and didn't want to pick up any effeminate mannerisms.
We traveled across town every Wednesday for the 7:30-9:00 p.m. class. It was a killer class, chock full of strenuous leaps, turns and male-bravura steps. We didn't get home until almost 10:00 so it was a killer that way too.
There were six men in the class including Jason. For various psychological, physical, and emotional reasons they dropped out one by one. When the star student stopped coming to class because he got an acting job, the teacher had it. He canceled the class.
In the meantime Galina had seen Jason dance and offered him a scholarship. After one class with dynamic Galina, Jason didn't have to think twice about changing schools.
The big disadvantage of the change was the increased distance and travel time. But the advantage was overwhelming: Jason had a school--and a wonderful teacher--who took a personal interest in him. In addition, several teachers, some men among them, shared the responsibility of the daily technique classes, none of which were devoted exclusively to girls' pointe work (there were separate pointe classes).
The biggest plus was Galina's classes themselves. When she taught her exciting Russian way, punctuated with wit, humor, and malapropisms, Jason got so energized he couldn't sleep at night. He would sometimes say that he was too exhausted to take anyone's class but Galina's--her energy made tired students achieve new heights, literally.
Parents loved to watch her classes too--unlike LAB, anyone could watch any class they wanted. There was even a mezzanine overlooking the main studio.
Each of Galina's classes had many memorable moments. One of my favorites was short, round Galina running around the floor in her tennis shoes after a leaping dancer, commanding, "Stay in the air! Stay in the air!"
Her pet saying to cherished students was, "I'm going to kill today!" which meant extra work and attention for that particular dancer--who was thrilled to be "killed."
Our family dinner conversation after her classes (always after as Jason couldn't eat beforehand) would consist of many Galina anecdotes. All of us enjoyed by association her warmth, good humor, and affection for Jason.
Unlike cold and competitive LAB, Galina's studio had a warm family atmosphere, where most people seemed to care about everyone else. Friendships were formed and people socialized outside of the studio. Frequently during the Friday night three-hour marathon of technique and pas-de-deux classes, my husband and I would go out to dinner with the parents of other students.
Compared to other studios in general, jealous bitchiness was at a minimum. I admit I enjoyed being part of the family. I loved Galina as much as her students did, but I was never "Cherie," only "Jason's mother."
But as in any family, there were some rough moments.
Los Angeles Ballet closed and Jason's old teacher, Olga, came to Galina's to teach, bringing lots of devoted students with her. Slowly Galina's regulars, many of them men, began to take class elsewhere as Olga usurped the other teachers' classes. Finally they only returned for the classes Galina herself taught. Two of Galina's most prodigious little girls accepted scholarships to other schools.
If you pay for your classes, there's not much anyone can say about what you do. But if you have a scholarship and all classes are free, there is still a price: nothing is ever without obligation.
Jason asked Galina if it's be ok if he took a men's class elsewhere, and she blew up: "No, no, you come here. I make you great dancer!"
"But Galina, you hardly ever teach anymore."
"Is ok. Olga is good teacher. I watch."
"Galina, Olga is why I came here in the first place from LAB. Olga doesn't like to teach boys."
"No. I talk with her."
Which I suppose she did, but nothing changed. Olga was teaching almost every night. She had a strong and faithful following of girls which really boosted Galina's financial grosses. Galina was too kindhearted and romantic to be a good businesswoman. She carried people for months and even loaned money to students. She frequently invested in plans to resurrect her old ballets. And her coffers proved it. Olga meant income.
Jason started missing two or three classes a week.
We finally decided he should take additional classes elsewhere and not tell Galina, since that hadn't worked anyway. The only other choice was to quit Galina's entirely, something he didn't want to do. He loved her.
Two hours after taking a Saturday class at another studio, Jason got a call from Galina who was practically in tears. "I am so hurt. Why you do this?"
She asked to talk to me, and with Jason on the extension, we both tried to tell her at once that he simply wasn't learning from Olga and needed other classes. He was able to calm her down and assure her he'd be there on Monday, which is all she wanted to hear. She'd won that round.
Galina also went through the roof when Jason won a summer scholarship to the Boston Ballet for eight weeks when he was fourteen.
"I don't know why he needs to go away," she pouted. "Some of my students came home after two weeks last summer, it was so bad." And confidentially to me, "I just worry about something happening to him away from home, you know, some bad boys or men making him, us, funny."
When he returned home in August, it hurt her to say it, but she had to admit his technique had improved. Soon she got use to the idea of his leaving every summer on scholarship ballet programs to San Francisco, Houston, Interlochen, and North Carolina School of the Arts, but she never stopped arguing about it. When he was sixteen she tried to get him a long-term professional job in Los Angeles so he wouldn't leave for his last year of high school at North Carolina's NCSA.
But after too much of Olga, Jason had had enough. He couldn't let politics dictate his training. He and I made a plan for him to take classes at three other studios as well as attending Galina's technique class on Tuesday nights.
We didn’t say anything this time, but sure enough, jealous and gossipy people made sure Galina knew about it instantly. This time when Galina called, hysterical, Jason simply said, “I’m sorry you’re upset, Galina, I love you,” but made no promises. She yanked his scholarship and slammed down the phone.
When Jason and I showed up on Tuesday as usual, his framed picture over her desk was gone. Many photos had disappeared lately. But she didn’t say anything to him, and when I started to repeat what Jason had told her on the phone, she interrupted me. “Let’s forget it?” Another mother told me later that Galina had breathed to her, “I’m just happy to have him back.”
Galina and Jason loved each other, but as another mentor could put herself aside and think only of the student, Galina could not. After not seeing him for nine months when he was at NCSA, all she could say when he first took her class again was, “Oh, I’m so happy to see him, I’m so glad to have him back.”
In fact, Galina did have students who stayed exclusively with her for years, as did Olga, and they were still only students. Galina, Olga, and many more ballet teachers are mama-birds who can’t push the babies out of the nest.
Way back in 1840, American transcendentalist, teacher, writer and father of Louisa May Alcott, Amos Bronson Alcott observed, “A true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-trust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple.”
Rare in any field, but in the world of ballet especially, such a teacher is unfortunately rare. Ballet teachers crave disciples. Every ballet school has at least one teacher who has intense symbiotic relationships with favored students, who adore them. Most schools demand an exclusive on the very talented. Competition for tomorrow’s stars is keen and no one is positive of anyone’s motives.
If there were more true mentors, there would be less need of ballet mothers.
For more of Cherie Mangus, be sure check out her memoir:
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Rhiannon Pelletier -