An Interview with James Clouser on Injury Prevention
(Some Thoughts on Classical Ballet Training and Injury Prevention)
20 June 2005
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James Clouser who holds both MA and MFA degrees, began dancing while at the Eastman School of Music on an orchestral scholarship, studying the French horn and musical composition. He became familiar with the classical and contemporary ballet repertory as a member of the American Ballet Theatre and as principal artist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada. A recipient of a Canada Council grant in 1965 he studied pedagogical styles in London, Copenhagen and Moscow.
He first came to Texas in 1970 after having served on the faculties of the Juilliard School and Connecticut College. For the next several years he served as Ballet Master, Choreographer-in-Residence and Acting Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, staging inter alia, "Swan Lake, Act II" and "Napoli, Act III", and choreographed numerous original works including "Carmina Burana" and the rock-ballet, "Caliban".
In 1982 he accepted an invitation to head the dance program at Loretto Heights College in Denver, where he subsequently became the Chairman of the Programs in Fine Arts. In 1988 he was appointed Full Professor and Chair of the Department of Ballet and Modern Dance at Texas Christian University. In 1990 he moved briefly to Ohio where he served as Artistic Director of the Dayton Ballet.
He returned to the Southwest in 1993 to accept a faculty position at the University of North Texas where he remained until his retirement in May of 2000.
He continues to be active as a choreographer and master teacher, as well as lecturing on kinesiologically sound methods of ballet training.
Over the last decade his choreographic work has been presented in Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Lexington, Cincinnati, Greensboro, Tucson, Denver, Des Moines, and Chicago, as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in Paris, and at the Avignon Festival in France. A special collection of materials concerning his earlier work is housed in the Performing Arts Library at the University of Texas in Austin.
(Biographical notes from the University of Houston Website)
Q/ Where did you train ?
A My first ballet teacher was Olive McCue, whose fierce but gentle approach to ballet could be traced to one of her influential teachers, the Englishman Aubrey Hitchins, who settled in New York City after the dissolution of Pavlova’s touring company.
When I got to New York myself, I concentrated my studies at the (not yet American) Ballet Theatre School. There I had the good fortune to study intensively with such Russian émigrés as Igor Schezzof, Valentina Pereyeslavic, and Anatol Vilzak (Ida Rubenstein’s partner), as well as with Robert Joffrey and Edward Caton. Caton (who was the son of Czar Nicholas’s stable master) had studied with Agrippina Vaganova at the time she was developing her ideas on the three way relationship between épaulement, efficiency and aesthetics.
In my years with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada I was introduced to the RAD system and further benefited from guest teachers such as Audrey de Vos, Vera Volkova and Kirsten Ralov. My physique and my personality seemed to fit with the Bournonville style and I went twice to Copenhagen where I worked closely with Ralov’s husband, Fredbjorn Bjornsen. In Russia I was most influenced by observing the classes of Asaf Messerer, which moved swiftly and prepared every muscle in a tossed off but clearly well thought-out fashion.
Q/ And your interest in movement theory ?
A/ My interest in dance kinesiology began, not surprisingly, with my first serious dance injury, a severe trauma to the ilio-tibial band of my left ankle (which was weak after a childhood bout of poliomyelitis) accompanied by a green fracture of the fifth metatarsal. Throughout the early part of my dancing career I was plagued with aching knees, diagnosed as bursitis. The knees stopped aching when, at the admonition of Beatrice Tompkins (a fine dancer who began her career with Balanchine and later danced and taught for Robert Joffrey and had herself suffered severe injury) I simply stopped doing grand plié.
The repetitive quick battements tendus that many teachers give early in their class had never made physical sense for me: they left me tight and somewhat immobilized, clinging to my supporting leg. From Rosella Hightower I learned how a few scarcely stretched battements tendus done at the beginning of the class were more effective at getting me warm and fully stretched out.
A recurrence of the original ankle injury came while practicing a double saut de basque. It led me to Dr. Ben Benjamin and six months of therapy, and eventually to Sally Fitt, the renowned American kinesiologist. While on the faculty of the Juilliard School I was able to work with Lulu Sweigart whose concept and techniques of "constructive rest" were enlightening.
Q/ And what of the knee-joint ?
A/ Essential to my understanding of how the knees operate was a summer’s workshop I took at the American Dance Festival from Frances Cott, a maverick kinesiologist whose ideas about the knee came from intuition rather than laboratory research. At that time, in the early 70’s, the few teachers who were becoming kinesiologically aware felt it was of utmost importance to maintain a certain alignment of the knee at all times. That the knee is able to inwardly and outwardly rotate when in moderate flexion was considered a structural weakness. Miss Cott considered it an advantage. The injuries came, she pointed out, if the knee lacked the flexibility required when experiencing the torque produced moving forward (or back) with the legs turned out …or landing from a turning jumps !
While pursuing my Masters Degrees at Sam Houston State University in Texas, I had the good fortune to study under Dr. Cora Lee Emmons who made sure I understood the muscles of the back and the complex role of the ilio-psoas. She also gave me an awareness of the importance of reverse action and reciprocal enervation.
My investigations of the foot (how it can most efficiently and most beautifully bear the full weight of the body on full pointe) were aided by Miss Karen Williamson, my Ballet Mistress when directing the Dayton Ballet. Her pointe class included a floor barre that featured the identification, strengthening, and slow stretching of the gracilis and the abductors and adductors of the upper inner thigh.
One of the most important periods of my teaching experience came with an appointment to the University of North Texas where even my most advanced students were, by professional standards, barely beyond the level of beginners. There was little competition and none of the students seemed to be in a rush, which suited my classroom approach. Much of the work to be done was remedial. Legs, feet and posture improved as, of course, did mobility.
I now teach at the School of Dance of the University of Arizona where the level of talent is high as is the spirit of competition. It is an intensive atmosphere, more like a conservatory than a BFA program. When a student is not in a class he or she is in a rehearsal. During this past year over 65 works were performed, ranging from Balanchine’s "Concerto Barocco" and Paul Taylor’s "Esplanade" to other demanding pieces of original choreography. Our dancers come to us with promising techniques in ballet, jazz, and modern dance, are required to take courses in biomechanics and injury prevention. The entire faculty is kinesiologically aware. Still, injuries abound.
I find that ankle injuries are more prevalent among students who were taught to use the wrapped coup de pied position at the ankle at the beginning of developpés or in the retracted position of battements frappés. Knee injuries happen to students with swayed backs. The swayed back (the forward pelvic tilt) is probably the most common fault to be found in young American dancers today.
Q/ So you do not accept that injury is part and parcel of the trade ?
A/ I once accepted the assumption that injuries were an inevitable cost of my profession, to be expected, and to be displayed like badges of courage. I believe differently now. An injury that is an act of fate, entirely out of the hands of anyone who could have prevented it, must be accepted. All other injuries are unacceptable; they delay a dancer’s progress towards artistry. We can blame faulty teaching methods, misunderstandings, and professional demands if we want to, but injuries are a result of neglect, ambition, anxiety, impatience and confused ethics. Dancers dread injuries and are reluctant to report fatigue, the teacher or choreographer is reluctant to slow down. Time and production needs are constantly breathing down our necks but we are all to blame, even the audience and the balletomane.
My responsibility as a teacher is twofold, to nurture and develop the artistry of the dancers who walk in my door, and to make sure that their instrument is sound, strong and flexible, able to side step the inevitability of injury. I often think of myself as a mechanic who has been engaged to tune things up and correct any misalignment.
Q/ How do you structure your class ?
A/ I begin with slow stretching of the ankles and the neck. Each exercise is designed to feature some aspect of counter-balance. I believe that épaulement is essential to classical deportment and conducive to proper mechanics. I introduce it early in the class. Undue repetition of the same movement is avoided and change of weight and muscle groups is quite frequent. I concentrate more on the bottom of the foot than the top. I insist that battements tendus be deeply brushed (rather than quickly snatched) and not disengaged.
If I give a grand plié at all it comes about halfway through the barre and is done in first position only. Although I avoid the grand plié in fourth position I am fanatic about the correct demi plié fourth position in the center of a temps levé or chassé, hips centered, thighs equally rotated. I am convinced that, like the knee, which can avoid injury by taking advantage of its rotational opportunities, the calcaneus, too, can provide a cushion, and should be encouraged to move independently of the rest of the foot, inwards and forwards, of course.
I avoid long stretching at the beginning of the class and I seldom give a long barre stretch unless the dancers are unduly sore from rehearsals and need to hear some soothing music. What stretching I do is designed to prepare certain lateral muscles of the leg and knee (muscles that in ballet are required to be short and strong) to be ready to give in when they are asked to stretch in the other direction.
Q/ And what of the over-crossed or "Balanchine" Fifth ?
A/ I discourage the aesthetic of the fully or over crossed fifth position. In the fifth position, it is mechanically most advantageous when the dorsal arch of the foot is directly under the center of the connection of the femur to the pelvis. This connection is made by presenting the inside of the thighs forward, and that is accomplished by the muscles of the leg as well as the muscles of the torso. A constant fight between the tight lower back and the correcting abdominals is not necessary.
I use the term aplomb often, in reference to maintaining an erect and serene posture of the upper body while the lower body is moving rapidly through a number of positions. At the barre I often give a Bournonville aplomb exercise, which consists of swift, low swings of the legs front, side, and back, while maintaining a position of deep fondu on the supporting leg.
Those dancers who pay attention in my class, and those who manage to achieve and maintain the alignment I suggest, move with flowing freedom in the joints. Their extensions are not forced and they jump well, both in petit and grand allegro. When asked what school or style I teach I respond by saying, very Vaganova on top and very British, or maybe Danish down below. But I like to think that I give a class that is "style-less", with no affectations or exaggerations that would prevent the dancer from excelling in several styles as is required of the young American dancer today.
Q/ Music ?
A/ I don’t think that a short discussion of music for the classroom would be out of place here in this discussion of injuries. I do suspect that the constant turning of the teacher, from his or her class to his or her tape, CD, or remote control, results in a stop and start, explosive approach towards both focus and muscle use. Live accompaniment for the class allows the teacher to be sensitive to matters of tempo and dynamics. When a dancer learns to dance as a partner with the music, rather than just using it for his advantage, he or she moves with more ease.
Despite Balanchine’s example, the dancer who has had good musical training is rare on this side of the Atlantic. Sometimes the ballet class is the only place they are asked to hear, not just listen. I have been fortunate to have wonderful pianists to accompany my classes. I am eclectic in my taste and enjoy a light approach from my accompanist for the swifter, dryer exercises at the barre. The dancer’s ears must be carefully prepared for complexity.
For Adagio I ask for something classical, perhaps from the Opera repertoire, that will help the dancers hear and react to harmonic and formal structure as well as create an emotional line. At this point in time, my students need to hear something familiar but the ballads of the thirties and forties are as close as I will get to popular music. I love ragtime and tango…any Spanish rhythm…and I confess a love of the "boopy" waltz. I like to begin and end the class with something as simple and noble as Mozart.