Susan Jones, or the Art of the Ballet Mistress
Not long ago, in a studio at American Ballet Theatre, I watched a rehearsal of the entrance of the Shades in La Bayadère, directed by the ballet mistress, Susan Jones. The dancers – representing spirits descending from the heavens – slowly wended their way from upstage left to the front in zig-zagging lines. With a gentle but steady eye, Jones noted a multitude of details: the height of the legs in arabesque, the spacing between one dancer and the next, the depth and pliancy of a plié, the tilt of the head, the angle of the gaze. Most of all, she exhorted the dancers, in a reassuringly un-exalted tone, to breathe together, to sense each other’s presence and become a single organism, without losing pliancy or intention. An air of quiet toil, focussed and effortful, filled the large, stuffy studio. The scene reminded me of a time I saw a group of women making lace on the island of Burano. How much work and physical discomfort goes into the making of something that is so delicate and beautiful!
Even in this bare room, with the dancers looking pale and tired under the fluorescent lights, there was the sense that more was at stake than straight lines and clean steps. The work of the corps is a kind of spiritual labor, through which a group of individuals builds the ineffable atmosphere and perspectives that lie at the heart of La Bayadère, but also of the lakeide scenes in Swan Lake, the nocturnal forest of Giselle, the dappled glade of La Sylphide. It is no wonder, then, that when we see excerpts of these ballets performed at galas, they seldom move us. Without the sustenance of the corps, the scenes lose resonance, almost as if the orchestra had gone silent, or the lights had been dimmed. The corps provides the emotional essence that allows these scenes to come alive.
Since 1980, Jones has been responsible for preserving this essence. She is one of four Ballet Masters at ABT, along with Irina Kolpakova, Clinton Luckett, and Nancy Raffa, but her particular portfolio is the corps de ballet. (Since 1982 she has also been a régisseur.) Having first joined the company as a dancer in 1971 – after a short stint with Joffrey II – she is also a repository of the company’s institutional memory. In her eight years dancing in the corps, she worked with Agnes De Mille and Antony Tudor, and was in the original cast of Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. Tharp was one of the first to recognize Jones’ ability, as she says, to “see the big picture.” When the original ballet mistress of Push was taken ill, the choreographer leaned on Jones to help keep track of the choreography. In a way, the experience was the perfect training for her life after retiring from the stage. Later, when Tharp made Bach Partita for the company (in 1983), she called on Jones’s services again, now as official ballet mistress. Thirty years later – and twenty-eight since the last performance of Partita – it is Jones who is responsible for its re-staging. It will be performed this fall during the company’s season at the Koch Theatre (Oct. 30-Nov. 11).
Jones wears other hats as well. She has staged several ballets for the company, including Les Sylphides and Don Quixote (in collaboration with Kevin McKenzie). She also makes frequent appearances in character roles like the roly-poly nurse in Romeo and Juliet and the washed-up, but still flirtatious “Dacha-Dweller” in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream. She’s a natural actress, exhuding warmth and a bit of mischief. Most of all, she looks right at home, both onstage and off, with her company and her dancers.
This August, we spoke in a café near the ABT studios, just north of Union Square.
MH: Tell me about your background. Do you come from an artistic family?
SJ: I was born in York, PA. That’s where I started my dance training. There were a lot of good singers in my father’s family. My father had a beautiful tenor voice, and there was always music in the house. I had lots of 78’s, everything from Spike Jones’ Nutcracker and Ella Fitzgerald to Beethoven. Whenever Danny Kaye or Perry Como were on TV, I would flit around the living room. My aunt gave me ballet lessons for my birthday when I was five or six. I ended up going to a teacher from Dutch Indonesia, Sophie Timmerman. She gave me the basics. When I was twelve we moved to Rockville, MD. I studied with Lucille Hood, who had an affiliation with Mary Day at the Washington Ballet. That led me, when I was thirteen or fourteen, to dance in the Nutcracker with Mary Day and do the summer course there. Eventually I went to the Academy of the Washington Ballet [which, at the time, included academic subjects as well as dance] with Kevin McKenzie [now artistic director of American Ballet Theatre]. I went there in tenth grade and he had just come into 8th grade. Virginia Johnson was a senior, or maybe a junior. She was the president of our school. We did our academic classes there as well. How phenomenal is that? Unfortunately they ran out of money at some point and I guess the academy closed in the seventies .
MH: Where did you go from there?
SJ: I actually got expelled from Washington Academy. My father asked my original teacher in Rockville, Ms. Hood, whether it was viable for me to become a dancer, and she said she thought I could, even though I wasn’t blessed with beautiful legs and feet. But I had a lot of other assets. I was fourteen. She said, “I want to take Susan to New York during spring break and just see what interest is generated and whether she gets any offer for the summer.” So we went to New York, but decided not to tell the school unless I had an offer. We went to Harkness Ballet; Ben Stevenson was there and he wanted me to come, like, the next week. Then we went to the Joffrey; I knew they were going to be starting Joffrey II. I took class with Jonathan Watts. Then we sat down with Edith d’Addario who ran the school and she said they didn’t have any openings at the time. We asked her to please call me or Lucille Hood if anything changed, but I guess she forgot because two weeks later she called Mary Day. She was genuinely heartbroken to have to let me go. At the time no one left Mary for summer courses. A week later I was living in New York with a friend of a friend’s mother and her daughter, who studied at Harkness, on Fourteenth Street. I went to the Joffrey school and was put into a scholarship class. A few months later I became a member of the newly established Joffrey II.
MH: Did you finish high school?
SJ: By correspondence, quite a few years later. Because I hadn’t completed my junior year by two months, I had to repeat all of those credits. At first I was devastated by how things had happened. But if I go back and ask myself if we should have done anything differently, I don’t think I would have. The bad thing that happened was the catalyst for everything else that would happen over the next two years.
MH: What was your first job as a dancer?
SJ: My first professional job was in 1969 at New York City Opera. Bob Joffrey was the director of choreography there at the time and used his apprentices and scholarship students in the operas. I was in Boito’s Mefistofele, which was a new production that year, directed by Tito Capobianco. Bob did the choreography. And I was in Bomarzo [by Alberto Ginastera]. Jack Cole did the choreography. It was very jazzy, very ji-ga-dah. It was great prep for Twyla [Tharp] and Jerry Robbins. Also through Joffrey II we performed at schools and toured in Connecticut and Corning NY. We did Konservatoriet [Bournonville], and Ashton’s Façade – I did the milkmaid, and the foxtrot – and Todd Bolender’s Still Point. I think I was getting paid fifty dollars a week. I joined the union, so the opera work gave me a little bit of money too. My dad paid my rent. I was the youngest, the baby, so this was my college.
MH: What did your parents do?
SJ: My dad was a shoe salesman. He managed and eventually owned his own shoe stores. He sold Selva pointe shoes, which became a big point of contention once I got to New York and realized nobody wore Selvas in the professional world. My mother was a housewife while I was growing up, but she always baked. And then when my sister went to college she got a job at a bakery. She was a master at wedding and birthday cakes. Eventually she worked with my dad in the shoe store. I have all these letters from when my dad was in the Marines – somehow he saved all of my mother’s letters when he was in Okinawa and Guadalcanal. She would send him the Top Ten list every week. Whenever he had a little extra money he would buy records. He had a wonderful ’78 collection. I think my dad would have loved to have a professional career as a singer but the timing just wasn’t right.
MH: What were your strengths as a dancer?
SJ: I was always very musical. I had good turnout and good flexibility, but I didn’t have the greatest feet in the world. Lucille Hood used to say, “Dear, if you have a beautiful upper body, they’ll never notice.” I was so responsive, like a sponge. I read everything about dance I could; I was a good actress; I could move. I was always really well coordinated and quick to pick up material. I couldn’t turn very well. But I managed.
MH: How did you know you wanted to be a dancer?
SJ: I think there was an element, like a lot of people, of being in my own world when I danced. It was that connection to the music and the concentration level. That was something that was within my control; it was my territory. I also felt that I was doing a good job, and getting positive feedback. I don’t think I was the most confident kid in the world, but I felt grounded when I was in the studio. I just loved to dance. And I loved performing.
MH: Was the field as pressured as it is now?
SJ: I didn’t get that at all. I was doing my thing. Of course at the Joffrey, we had people like Francesca Corkle who had just joined the company. She would come and take class and she would do six pirouettes on pointe. It was phenomenal. I came up with Christine Uchida and Denise Jackson. I looked at everybody for what they could do, but it wasn’t like “I have to do that or I’m going to pushed out.” I felt like as long as I was working hard and trying to get better I would be valued. I felt that way at ABT too.
MH: How did you come to American Ballet Theatre?
SJ: On off periods from Joffrey II I would go and study with Patricia Wilde at the ABT School because I was trying to inch my way toward the company. I had seen ABT in Washington; I saw Giselle with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn, and I saw [Massine’s] Aleko and [Harald Lander’s] Études with Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez and Bruce Marks. I felt an affinity with Fracci. She was an amazing ballerina but she wasn’t a super-technician. She didn’t have amazing proportions at all, but she had this artistry that was so extraordinary. And in the back of my mind, I wanted to be like that and work with people like that. Probably if there was one dream ballet at that point in my life it would have been Giselle. I used to listen to the music in my bedroom and I could hear what was happening even before I knew the choreography. I had my own version. So, I would take class with Pat Wilde when Joffrey was closed and she would come to our showings. Jonathan Watts told her about me around the same time Bob said to me, “I’m not going to have a place in the company for you.” He said, “you know, you’d be very good on Broadway.” Maybe my feet and legs bothered him, but he had always liked me.
Pat (Wilde) came to a showing and she said to Jonathan, “I think we have an opening coming up at the company. Why don’t you tell Susan to come to City Center and take company class?” It was December 1970. I took class for the whole month. Natalia Makarova had just defected and Lucia Chase didn’t come to watch class until the very last day of the season because she had been so consumed by Natasha. Meanwhile I was getting to see things backstage and making friends. They had promoted Zhandra Rodriguez and they needed to replace her and there I was.
MH: You were in the right place at the right time.
SJ: Exactly. And the funny thing is, Lucia said to me, “we like you very much, you’re exactly the right height, and you have very nice legs and feet.”
MH: Did you have aspirations to become a principal?
SJ: I think at one point I thought maybe I could do some soloist roles and might be able to become a soloist. I was featured in a lot of ballets. I did the cowgirl in Rodeo, and Agnes adored me. I did little Lizzie in Fall River Legend. We did Lichine’s Helen of Troy, which is just a lark of a ballet, and I was Paris’ favorite lamb. And the peasant girl in Swan Lake. I was the second cast for Marianna Tcherkassky’s White Girl in Monument for a Dead Boy [by Rudy van Dantzig]. And in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire as an Innocent. I loved what I did.
MH: There seems to be so much pressure now for women in the corps to rise through the ranks, as if being a member of the corps weren’t a valid career in itself.
SJ: But then there are a lot of girls who really value what they do in the corps. Of course they all want to get opportunities. Marion Butler [of ABT] has done a lot of roles. But she is really the backbone of the corps de ballet. When she was out having her baby, I could hardly face going to Bayadère rehearsals.
MH: There seems to be a real distribution of work in the corps…
SJ: People like Adrienne Schulte, Luciana Paris, Kelley Boyd and so many more have such respect for the job itself. It’s not to say that they wouldn’t want to be soloists, but they really respect what they do.
MH: Was that a struggle for you, balancing that commitment with personal ambition?
SJ: I think I went through a phase at one point where I didn’t know where I was going in the company and was confused. It happened to coincide with John Neumeier coming to do Baiser de la Fée. So I contemplated, “should I go to Hamburg?” I thought about that. But this was also the period when Scott Douglas was saying, “have you ever thought about becoming a ballet mistress?” It was my fifth year of dancing – like 1976. I was a bit confused about which way to turn.
MH: What do you think he saw in you?
SJ: By that time I was already helping to teach new girls the material in Swan Lake and Giselle. I was always in the front because I was small and I had this capacity to see the bigger picture. I picked up choreography, and I was always the one who remembered it.
MH: How long was your dancing career at ABT?
SJ: I retired in the summer of 1979, and I had joined in January of ’71. When Misha came he knew I had been an assistant ballet master, so he asked if I would be a ballet master. The transition was very organic. The only other significant thing that happened was when Twyla choreographed Push Comes to Shove in 1976. Our ballet mistress at the time was Fiorella Keane. She was in her mid forties, very energetic, very passionate, never got sick, never wanted anyone to be “out”. But she very suddenly got ill; three or four months later she died of cancer. It was a total shock. She was the ballet mistress on Push and there was no one who could take over and teach the material so Twyla said, “I want Susan to take care of the first movement corps – I was still in it – and Warren Conover to take care of the third movement corps. The principals will take care of themselves.” We did that for a year. Before we went on tour to Europe in 1977 Warren was really busy so I ended up teaching someone the third movement corps. We made Kirk Peterson understudy in case something happened. All of a sudden we’re going to Bucharest, and of course Misha couldn’t go, so Kirk and I worked together on it in stairwells and backstage while we were on tour. I taught Kirk Push. I think we had one rehearsal with Misha in Athens. That was a significant moment in the eyes of the artistic staff.
MH: What is your trick for remembering choreography so well? Is it a verbal skill, or is it visual, or muscular?
SJ: It’s visual, but it’s also tied to the music. If I haven’t done a ballet in a really long time, I’ll hear the footsteps in my head with the music. Eventually it will trigger something. I do look at videos and use them as a prompt. But there are some ballets I can just get up and teach, like Bayadère, Push and, I hope, Les Sylphides [which ABT will be performing in its fall season at the Koch Theatre Oct. 30-Nov. 11]. I’m going to be so busy with [Tharp’s] Bach Partita this fall so I’ll be teaching Les Sylphides in my spare time. [The company is reviving Bach Partita, which hasn’t been performed since 1985.]
MH: How exciting that ABT’s bringing back Bach Partita.
SJ: This is huge for me personally, because I always felt it was one of her masterpieces. It was always really hard for her to settle on a cast after the original one. I talked with her in the nineties and said, “this is going to get lost.” There are only two tapes: a studio tape with people missing because it was Nutcracker time and she also hadn’t finished the ballet, and an archival tape from way back at the Met, in black and white. The lighting along with the faded videotape totally obscures the center of the stage. I have my brightness controls all the way down so I can see a bit better. The figures are miniscule. I was a fourth year ballet mistress when Twyla made it and I was also running the cassette machine. She walked in the first day and said, “can you read a score?” Thank God it was only for solo violin. “I want you to tell me as I’m going along how many bars I have left.” At that point in my life I thought I would remember everything. I never wrote anything down. I just didn’t think such an important ballet would go to sleep for so many years.
MH: Do you write things down now?
SJ: I do. I find, especially with [Alexei] Ratmansky, that he changes things so frequently that you need to know, count-wise, where he was one day and where he’s putting that material another day. But even with a ballet like Romeo or Manon, I find it helpful, count-wise, to do a shorthand. In The Dream, all that intricate mime with the lovers has to be so precise in order for it to work. For the last five years I’d say I feel pretty confident about what I write down. Every now and then I pick something up and think, “what is this stuff?” I’ve been researching Bach Partita for about a year and a half and I’m almost finished recording every step. In some cases that meant finding it on the studio tape and then going back to the performance tape and getting the musicality even if I can’t see the details. There are notes I haven’t looked at since February of a year ago. It has three principal couples, seven soloist couples, and sixteen corps women, all to solo violin. And the content of a two-act ballet. It’s amazing. If I live through the process…
MH: How long is the rehearsal period?
SJ: Six weeks. Twyla’s coming the third week. Ratmansky is coming the second week to start The Tempest [his new ballet for ABT, which will première during the fall season]. So it’s going to be intense. Then there’s Les Sylphides with Kevin.
MH: What was your relationship with Twyla like as a dancer?
SJ: She walked into the room to rehearse the corps of Push and said, “oh, there are so many people here, I have to learn all these names.” And I said, “I’m Susan, and this is Denise [Warner], and we always dance together.” In Push, there’s a moment when Misha’s left alone onstage after the first movement, and two corps girls come on in silence. That was Denise and me. A year later Twyla said, “Susan can take care of the corps.” She knew I got the bigger picture. She totally takes responsibility for my career as a ballet mistress.
MH: What was it like when Baryshnikov came to ABT in 1974?
SJ: It was phenomenal. Those tours with Gelsey and Misha and Makarova and Cynthia Gregory and Fernando [Bujones], they were really the golden years. It was wonderful because we still had people like Johnny Kriza and Dimitri Romanoff, and Agnes [de Mille] and Tudor were still around. There were still a lot of people from the past but there was this whole influx. It was incredible.
MH: Was it hard to give up dancing?
SJ: No, because my path was pretty clear, and I was going to stay with the company. I was ready.
MH: Have you ever thought about running a company?
SJ: I could. I have thought about it. I think the trend is for people to hire people that were principals. During the Misha years I helped a bit with the programming, the puzzle of the subscriptions at the Met, and casting and scheduling. Maybe someday, but I’m busy now.
MH: Tell me a bit about mounting Makarova’s La Bayadère on different companies.
SJ: When Makarova set Bayadère on ABT, it taught me so much about corps de ballet work and gave me a vision of how the corps could function in just about every ballet. The whole concept of breathing together and being “married” to one another; it creates an organism as opposed to a group of dancers dancing together. And I felt that as a corps dancer I watched so many dancers get bored with their work or disgruntled or bitter. So as a ballet mistress, I wanted to fortify that point and get everybody on board. One girl phoning it in affects the whole group. I try to be the catalyst for the girls so they have respect for their work and really understand the importance and function of the corps de ballet and how elevated that can be. It’s more than just the support system. It contributes this extra creative and spiritual energy that imbues a performance. Without that, it’s flat. That integrity is really important to me.
MH: How do you encourage that mindset?
SJ: Sometimes it requires a stern hand for people who are lagging, or a quiet word alone. But Bayadère taught me about breath. That it has to be a genuine breath; it’s not a matter of floating an arm, it comes from the solar plexus. I want them to do that in Swan Lake, in Giselle, in every ballet. When Alexei comes, he wants the same thing in his works. Just about every choreographer does.
MH: Are you also a confidante?
SJ: You have to be careful these days. You can’t talk to people about their weight; there are certain boundaries in the times that we live in. But most of what I deal with are people who come to me because they’re lost. They want to get a clear perspective, or they feel like they’re being forgotten, or they want advice on how to approach their work. There are times when I notice someone is having trouble and I say, “you know, I’m here, talk to me.” I feel very maternal. I try to make myself available to everybody, but it’s virtually impossible. I respond to people’s work ethics. If someone’s working hard and they’re responsive to me, I’m going to respond to them. That’s life. I’m sure not everybody would vote for me if I were running for mayor.
MH: Maybe you should. [The interview took place just before New York mayoral primary.]
SJ: Yeah, maybe I should! Now, we’re finally getting a stream from the school, through the studio company and our apprentice program. It’s finally flowing and I think that’s a very good thing. Before, in the eighties and nineties, we had twenty-four girls from probably twenty-four different schools. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to teach dancers with different training to have the same port de bras, the same level of the legs, that unison. I’ve had to do a lot of teaching ballet within rehearsals in order to get everybody on the same page about where their tendu en effacé is and where their arm is in second. It’s always a challenge to make them aware of the stylistic differences from one ballet to the next.
MH: The rehearsal periods are so intense at ABT; it must be hard to instill the style in such a short time.
SJ: It’s hard to get the quality time you need. Even one more day, sometimes, would help. Like Sleeping Beauty; getting Beauty together this year was difficult because it was late in the season. Before the season, I had taken care of the friends and the prologue, but we didn’t rehearse the vision scene because there were so many people injured that we wouldn’t have had a full contingent. But I found that because I’d worked on the prologue – so much of the style of the ballet is in the prologue – that when I got to the vision scene it went much faster than I thought. ABT has a good staff. We work in tandem. People are amazed sometimes when they come in to rehearsal and see us giving notes. Kevin goes there, I go there, Victor goes there, and Clinton, Nancy, Irina go there. We’re all dealing with our different factions, respectful of each other, and it gets done.
MH: What are the hardest aspects of the job?
SJ: In the past, juggling raising a daughter [Sarah] and being a wife and a mother has been difficult. And I commute. It’s hard for my husband and me to find time for ourselves. But I think that the hardest part about ABT for me is not the time situation but the fact that we only work thirty-six weeks per year. I get outside work but we’re not always available when other people want us to come. College is expensive. That’s still difficult, after all these years. I’m still collecting unemployment when I’m off. But I can’t complain. ABT has been good to me. Sometimes I work with the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School students [affiliated with ABT] or the ABT Summer Intensive. I actually did a little bit of workshopping of Bach Partita with the apprentices and JKO girls for two weeks last November. It was great to know that I could spit out a certain amount of material in a given amount of time.
MH: Do you enjoy doing character roles?
SJ: I adore it. To go onstage and not have to think about anything but your character – well, The Bright Stream [the Ratmansky ballet, in which she plays the Dacha Dweller] required a little bit more than that. I hadn’t been on pointe for 30 years! It was quite an experience. To work as a dancer for Ratmansky was extraordinary. You bust your butt, and he says, “well, this part could be a little bit better.” I love it. There’s a kind of freedom now; you know what makes things work. But I also love doing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and Giselle’s mom. Actually, I love all my parts.