On the Teaching of Nora Kiss
by Bjarne Hecht
27 March 2010
| 1221 visits / visites
Former soloist, Royal Theatre at Copenhagen
Washington DC, February 2010
My start in ballet was somewhat unorthodox, in that I never had a ballet class till I was 14 years old. I had taken ballroom and jazz classes, but a teacher suggested ballet. I tried it and immediately felt I had found the right thing for me.
Two years later, in 1974, I was accepted into the 10th grade at the School of the Royal Theatre. In Denmark in those days, most serious teachers outside the Royal Ballet had also been dancers with that company. The style then taught was a mixture of Bournonville, with the rounded arms and épaulement, and Vaganova’s Russian style. This created one of the strongest classical training of the day. The emphasis was laid on musicality, batterie, strength and jumps, never on “circus tricks”. Steps were not to show off, but had a meaning. They told a story.
At the Royal Theatre, the style taught was strongly influenced by another truly great and caring teacher, Vera Volkova, who was still teaching when I started and who had melded the two styles together.
I was extremely lucky to study with Volkova, during the last six months she taught at the Royal Theatre. Her style of teaching was very different from Madame Nora. Volkova’s genius lay in understanding the importance of Bournonville to Denmark. Instead of the big open arms of the Russian style, she taught the rounded form of Bournonville and kept the emphasis on speedy footwork and effortless jumping. And unlike Madame Nora, Volkova was a quiet, almost serene woman. She would verbalize an exercise almost in a chant, not unlike a priest, to help one understand the musicality of a step. Often, she would talk “in pictures”; for a port de bras she might tell one to hold a balloon or hug a tree.
Vera Volkova was the first teacher to show a true interest in me. On my second day at the theatre, she stopped in the hallway to welcome me, and said she was looking forward to see me in her apprentices’ class that Flemming Flindt had asked me to attend. A request for which I will always be thankful.
For despite their differences, Madame Nora and Volkova were essentially teaching the same thing – dance as art.
Whether this were real or imagined, for the first several years in the Royal Ballet I always felt behind, owing to my late start. And so, during my first four years with the company, I never took a vacation, but studied wherever I could find a class.
In the summer of 1976, I went off to Paris clutching a short list of recommended teachers. First on that list was the most popular teacher in Paris. I went, took class – and was deeply disappointed. Second on the list was Madame Nora Kiss. To my dismay however, there was no longer a studio at the address I had been given. When you are 18, you have little patience, and I felt that maybe coming to Paris had been a mistake. However, with the help of Erik Aschengreen, I found Madame Nora the following day at the Studio Chaptal.
The moment we met there was instant chemistry. Madame Nora must have been 68 at the time but seemed ageless, with an artistic intelligence I was eager to learn from. After my first class, I knew that I had found what I was looking for. Over the next several years I often travelled to Paris to work with her.
Her class at Studio Chaptal was open to anyone with discipline and an honest interest in learning. At first, I was a little surprised to see a handful of the not-so-talented working alongside students from the Opéra, professionals from around the world (even Nureyev …) and local dancers, but in time I came to admire this in her. She paid attention to all and could make the worst dance from her heart.
Like most Russian teachers in the West then, her style was rooted in Vaganova, though like most others, she gave it her own interpretation.
Fundamental was a flawless technique, with every little detail being important. There was no point in having a perfect upper body with floppy feet, or turning 10 pirouettes with crooked arms. But just as important, maybe even more so, you have to enjoy your technique. You have to dance.
The connection between technical ability and one’s emotional life is what makes a dancer. I believe that she was one of the very few who not only understood this, but actively taught it.
There is no doubt but that she had a deep knowledge of anatomy, and knew every bone and every muscle in the human body. To correct posture, she might put a finger on a specific point on one’s chest or back, and the body would react and correct itself instantaneously.
Once she had me draw the human foot on a napkin and mark the three spots where one puts the weight and “grips” the floor – this to make sure I had understood her. She would even teach breathing; at times she would have the whole class sing along with the pianist while doing an exercise at the barre, then go around and check each dancer’s diaphragm, stomach and chest. By putting her hands on the lungs, she would show one how, where and when to breathe, very unorthodox – but again, very helpful and important. It is not so much that she altered received opinions, but more that she touched on things ignored elsewhere. She had a keen eye for what was needed, and saw more and better than most.
Although she took in no children, she did teach students. I thus met several students 15-16 years of age who came (in secret) from the Paris Opera School. Rather than dwelling on flaws, she would diplomatically steer a student in a slightly different direction, often with amazing results.
As mentioned earlier, the Bournonville style had, over time, been melded with a bit of Vaganova, but it was still a very distinct Danish style with rounded forms. Madame Nora had the highest respect and regard for Bournonville. Her style, however, differed greatly from what I had been taught in Denmark. It was bigger, more open, proud without being arrogant. In conversation, she told me never to let go of Bournonville, but to open up to other styles and incorporate what worked for me in them. She insisted on my opening up the arms and back, and on posture. Though I had always had good posture, she wanted me to show it to the world, so to speak.
She would spend time on tiny details, and I really believe that pushed me forward. I thus learnt that nothing is unimportant and the whole will only become perfect if all the details are in order. Most of all, that first summer, I learnt not to try to dance say, Balanchine, in Bournonville style, but to throw oneself into the new style rather than impose one’s own on it.
Madame Nora had no class structure per se. At times, she would repeat a general structure for a couple of days; at other times class would be different every day.
Her sense of what a class needed both in terms of technical needs and general mood was keen. She could go from being very strict and demanding to being light-hearted and funny. If we had gone through 3-4 days with high technical demands, the next class would almost always be all about dancing and having fun with it. This was part of her genius.
When she had a guest, she would take this into consideration in planning the class, without forgetting the needs of the regular students. The class followed the normal structure - about half an hour at the barre, then sometimes but not always, a grand port de bras in the middle, followed by adagio and allegro.
She always carried a notebook with her; I have a feeling it was a mixture of notes on students’ needs and specific exercises.
Madame Nora’s teaching rarely ended with the class. She would have lunch at a local eatery, where students would gather to talk with her about the class, or about performances they had seen, and so on. Often she would take a smaller table with me, and go over what I needed to work on, asking me to write it down in my own words to make sure I had understood her correctly and wouldn’t forget back in Denmark.
Music and musicality was everything to Madame Nora. Like Balanchine, she wanted the dancer to be part of the music. She worked very closely with her pianist, and would at times stop an exercise if she felt he had chosen the wrong music.
Despite spending so much time with her students, Madame Nora was a very private person. She never spoke of her past nor even of what she did in her time off, although I know she went to every ballet performance she could, and to galleries and museums. She would encourage the students to discuss shows they had seen and suggest they see a certain show or exhibition. At times she might be annoyed or even angry if she saw a real talent delivering sloppy work, but it was always out of respect for the gift and the possibilities of such a talent.
In my opinion Madame Nora was one of very few truly great teachers. She never taught just steps, or even how to execute them flawlessly. She taught dance as art. By this I mean that she incorporated so many elements into her teaching. She understood that details make the whole, that musicality and enjoyment along with a flawless technique make a dancer instead of a gymnast, this not unlike Bournonville.
This I knew from my own background – every step has a meaning. She understood that your soul has to be involved and that you can find inspiration from many sources. And she knew how to convey all of this to her students in many different ways. What also made her great was that she evolved with the times she lived in, with the way demands changed over time, and so would alter aspects of her teaching. I think she knew her dancers’ careers would depend on that. Although her temper was notorious, there was never any doubt that she cared deeply for each student. She gave them all, all that she had.
I was never among the greatest dancers in the world but what I did accomplish was in large part thanks to Madame Nora. I will always be thankful to her. She was a major influence not only in my dance, but in my life.
I spent many wonderful years in the Royal Ballet, but during the last couple of seasons there I felt I was losing enthusiasm, and I did not want that to happen. The company was moving in a new direction that did not inspire me. So I decided the time for a change had come and left. I only danced for three more years, partly studying intensely with Stanley Williams in New York - but that was really the only dance inspiration I found. It was a time when so many teachers were putting all their emphasis on technique and ignoring most other aspects. This became disillusioning and I decided to take my life in a new direction.
Classical dancing will survive. New great teachers will turn up, and hopefully students will leave their computers and go out and find them.