by Evgeniya Koptyug
“Please close the door quietly, especially during rehearsals,” reads a sign at the Wigman studio in the Ballet Center John Neumeier in Hamburg. Not a sound is heard from inside.
I pull open the heavy outer door, and then a second one. The bit of autumn sun Hamburg got today is shining through the high windows of the studio. Nineteen students are standing next to the bar that spans the classroom walls. It’s warm. I try to be as unnoticeable as it is possible to be in office clothes in a room full of hard-working future dancers. But thankfully my presence doesn’t seem to disturb them, because they are concentrating 150 percent on the class. And on the ballet master who is moving around the studio.
Kevin Haigen teaches the boys in the theatre class at the Hamburg Ballet School. He has been part of the company from the beginning and became principal dancer in 1977. His amazing ballet career includes dancing with the American Ballet Theater in New York City, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and the Nederlands Dans Theater, among others. He has also worked with such choreographers as Maurice Béjart and Nacho Duato. His passion for teaching has been enriching the Hamburg Ballet School since 1991. “At the moment I’m very happy with what I do. I love it,” he says simply.
So what is a day at the Hamburg Ballet like for him? Kevin Haigen normally comes to the ballet center at 9 o’clock. He teaches at the school in the mornings and in the afternoons at rehearsals for John Neumeier’s ballets. “So much of the repertoire I danced, and some of the repertoire I created, so I know the pieces by heart.” Not only Kevin, also his dog, Zorro, is a big favourite at the Ballet Center. He is currently recovering from an operation. When Zorro isn’t in the Ballet Center, Kevin Haigen takes him to a colleague who lives nearby and who also has a dog. Zorro, a Japanese Chin, and his Labrador neighbor are best friends.
Back at class the piano is playing. It’s definitely warm in here. “Don’t let your calves touch, open your calves,” Kevin Haigen calls out to the students. “Pull in the hips.” “Place the wrist.” “Inside stomach.” Every detail is important. Kevin Haigen sees everything going on in the studio. The counting of the steps sounds complicated – to me, as I’m not a dancer or a teacher. But every one of the students knows what the ballet master is talking about. It’s quiet for a while. “Stretch!” Kevin Haigen approaches students individually, correcting, talking, showing. “Make the toes like steel.” He watches. He winks. He hums melodies.
“That whole thing about weight forward isn’t about doing this.” Kevin Haigen does a walk that makes laughter ripple around the room. He effortlessly combines focus on teaching with relaxing jokes and funny observations. “Not today, it’s Monday,” he says about a complicated routine and grins. Those small breaks come at exactly the right moment, after a particularly challenging sequence when everyone needs to catch their breath.
Kevin Haigen stops between parts of the class. He sits down, bends his head slightly, closes his eyes. His hands move in time to steps and music that must be going through his mind at the moment. The students watch intently. Many move their hands and count quietly along.
“What’s very special about dance is that what you learn as a child is the same for adults. When you learn the bar, it doesn’t change. It’s the same: what you do at 10 you do at 45,” says Kevin Haigen. “Art is a philosophy. Ballet is an art. It’s not only a science.”
“Beautiful, amazing,” repeats the ballet master as the class progresses. One can hear the pride in his voice. “Good center, good foot,” and “Yes, you got it.” Detailed instructions about the posture of heels, toes, backs, waists, and legs keep coming. From time to time he sits down at the front of the room and watches. He smiles. “Alright men, quite good.”
Almost an hour has passed by. And suddenly things get fast. “Waist is your attitude pose.” “Better, the position is starting to look beautiful.” The students are training in the middle of the studio now without the bar. Here, the ballet master also comes up to some of them individually. “Sometimes what you do is this…” he shows the movements. “The Russian head goes first. The head will lead you.” “Eyes open.” “Keep the circle in front of your body, in front of your ribs.”
At some point Haigen stands in the middle of the group of students and shows the steps. They follow him. It’s a lovely scene, almost like a performance. His movements are mesmerizing.
The pianist is quietly humming along to the music escaping from under his fingers. Close to the end of the class things get very intense, very physical. “Alright, it’s coming,” says Kevin. Praise comes from him more and more often. Sometimes he is sitting there with his hands on his knees, watching. “You can’t say to the audience, ‘Excuse me, I’m not on today,’” he says during a pause and gets everyone laughing again. “That was much better, all of us” is the resumé at the end of the class.
A poster hanging on the wall in the Hamburg Ballet School says “Dance is work.” Observing Kevin Haigen teaching class and all the young men following his instructions, one sees firsthand the visual confirmation of that sentence. The whole beauty of the ballet and the incredible amount of work behind it are apparent in this studio.
Kevin Haigen knew from an early age that he wanted to be part of this. “I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve been teaching since I was a child. When I was at the School of American Ballet, I was already teaching. I had great teachers myself. I remember when I was ten years old, I was asked to teach an autistic child. They didn’t tell me the child was autistic. They just thought a child could relate better to another child, then to an adult. So I taught the child tap-dancing. I always found it OK to teach. I think I always just wanted to do it.”
Photo © Holger Badekow
This blogpost is courtesy of Evgeniya Koptyug, Hamburg Ballett