Keith Saunders wasted no time Monday night.
There were no getting-to-know-you games. He did not outline his pedigree or boast about his abilities. He cracked only one silent joke before beginning, playfully imitating a student who scurried back to the stage after retrieving her forgotten water bottle.
The girl took her place at the barre with the others.
Then he spoke.
“Let’s do ballet.”
For the next hour and a half, Saunders, a ballet master at Dance Theatre of Harlem, led 22 young dancers in plies, ronds de jambes and pirouettes on stage at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island.
He gave the sequences, then moved through the lines of dancers, stopping only to offer corrections and reposition body parts.
“Articulate through the foot.”
“Don’t leave that stomach hanging out.”
“Wow, we’re all very serious. They’re just tendus ...”
The class was very serious, of course. These corrections were coming from a man with a 45-year professional career in ballet, most of which has been spent perfecting technique at the iconic Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first classical ballet company for African-Americans.
Only one student had tried for a smile Monday night — a performance smile, the kind you practice, the one you have to remind yourself to do — but it wasn’t long before she reverted to the impassivity of her classmates.
What could she do? Ballet is like this.
It’s not exactly an art known for its goofiness, which is why I love it. It is the literal embodiment of precision and discipline, two things I do not have.
My appreciation of ballet was instilled at a very young age from a ballet-obsessed aunt who had season tickets to The Boston Ballet.
I always enjoy the performances, the swans and nutcrackers, the sleeping beauties and dances of the knights, but this is not my favorite aspect of the art.
I prefer to see the battle, the striving, which is why I wanted to watch the master class given in conjunction with the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Nov. 1 and 2 appearances at the arts center.
On Monday night, Saunders brought out the battle and the striving.
“Nothing is complacent,” he said when he saw a soft posture or an unsquared alignment. “Everything is involved in the movement.”
He later told me that nothing he taught the students — who were from Hilton Head Dance Theatre and The Ballet School in Savannah — was any different from the lessons they receive in their own dance schools. Ballet has a language, an order, and he stuck to those. The positions and sequences were the quiet and physical equivalent of a pianist practicing her scales. He was there to tell them when they hit the wrong key.
He was there to tell them they cannot be satisfied by the average.
Ballet is bones.
It is subject and verb.
There is nothing extra and nowhere to hide mistakes.
“Every moment that you’re in the studio ... you must be and do and give your best at every moment.”
Perhaps this is an obvious notion. If you want it, you must work hard for it. But it’s not always clear what that looks like.
In ballet it looks like fire. I could see it in a few of the students. The pain and the pressure.
Those who got this were the ones who didn’t just move through the positions and correct themselves when Saunders called them out. They were the ones who watched others be corrected and who watched Saunders for the exact alignment, who mouthed the words he said after he said them and who kept trying even when he couldn’t see them to say “That’s better!”
There were no motivational speeches, no participation trophies, no blanket compliments to hide under. Just the reality of connecting mind and muscle.
“If you had to grade yourself, what would you give yourself?” Saunders asked the group after a sequence.
They called out their answers.
“A D.” “An F.”
Saunders gave them a C-minus.
“No guys. No no no no. You cannot be satisfied with a C-minus.”
And then he led them through the sequence again.