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Photo by Chris Smith
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Burn adjusts apprentice Samantha Benoit’s attitude position. Photo by Chris Smith
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Malcolm Burn with Paul Sutherland, who is staging the company’s Rodeo.Photo by Chris Smith
Malcolm Burn describes himself as the regimental sergeant major of Richmond Ballet. During his dancers' morning training sessions, he patrols between the barres, his lower lip pushed out as he peers over his glasses in a way that indicates nothing pleases him. This isn't the case. He's as free with praise as he is criticism.
Though they're as defined and muscled as highly trained athletes, the 14 dancers and eight apprentices of Richmond Ballet are artists who use their bodies to realize the metaphors of choreography. They possess the same need for validation as any other practitioner of a creative endeavor. Burn knows when they need to be pushed and how much. It's a tight dynamic that he manages well.
A younger dancer unfamiliar with the Burn style may find him somewhat intimidating, until he makes his first wry observation in a voice revealing traces of his native New Zealand. His seriousness about ballet and his great love of the form are demanding and exacting.
A ballet dancer's life is about mirrors and precision, constant adjustments and physical exertion. Dancers may watch their reflections turning in the mirror, but it takes Burn, watching them move, to fully see what they cannot.
Moving from Lexington, Ky., in 1993, Valerie Tellmann came to Richmond Ballet as an 11-year-old student. Now, she dances with the company while also teaching dance at St. Gertude's High School.
Tellmann recalls her first dance for Burn — following a Spanish theme. "You know girls," she says, managing a fair Burn impression. "You have to give us the Spanish intensity, the Spanish face." She lowers her eyes to switch on a high-intensity smolder before breaking into laughter. "I was looking in the mirror and pretending to hold a rose in my teeth." The experience taught her that, like an actor, a ballet dancer also creates a storyline for everything.
Prior to working with Burn, she hadn't received direction from a male instructor. That alone took some getting used to. Over time, this relationship has taken on a father-and-daughter dynamic, Tellmann says. She recalls her first time dancing in Romeo & Juliet, when he coached her in his own choreography. Afterward, he came backstage profoundly moved and congratulated her.
As the ballet master and artistic associate of the Richmond Ballet, Burn tends to the details that create the illusion of flight. Demanding as he may be, those among the company who've danced in other places miss his exactitude and humanity when they don't have it.
"It's the difference between cultivating artistry and being told how high the leg is supposed to be," Tellmann says.
Jesse Bechard, who danced with the company from 2000 to 2010, says that he didn't come to ballet through formal academic training, and he credits most of what he knows about dance from Burn.
During his years in Richmond company, Bechard says, the company performed at many schools around the state. Burn insisted that their touring ballet at small venues, such as schools, was the most important performance audiences would see all year, not only because it might inspire a new generation but it showed the strength and dexterity of dancers. "We'd be doing Swan Lake on a high school stage somewhere in Wise County — this is coal-mining country," Bechard says. "And for Malcolm it's no different — and shouldn't be any different — than doing it on a main stage anywhere else. We didn't know when some of our audience would ever see a ballet again. So it needed to be memorable. It needed to be excellent."
Occupation: Ballet Dancer
It's an overcast and unseasonably warm, even humid, mid-March afternoon. This is tech week for the opening of two studio pieces, the world premiere of Ma Cong's Luminitza and a reprise of Jessica Lang's La Belle Danse. The shows open at the ballet's Canal Street space the next day.
The studio is alive with the company's lithe-limbed dancers. Katie Skaggs, a former company member, has dropped by to visit her dancer-husband, Phillip, and to show off their 9-month-old son, Louis, who draws oohing and awwing from the company.
Burn, acting as a surrogate grandpa, mock-growls, "Put the kid down and get on the barre."
The dancers laugh.
In his uniform of a black T-shirt and jeans, Burn has been in meetings all morning that aren't nearly as enjoyable to him as watching the dancers work. He's encouraging, cajoling, engaging in the easy raillery that comes from years spent with some of them. They begin with stretches, pliés, foot exercises and leg extensions, working to jumping turns. Burn peers at their foot placement. He's making sure, too, that their balance is proper, that none of them is working around an injury. The class usually lasts an hour and a half, though today it's slightly shorter because the dancers need to rehearse.
"Lower heel dig in," he instructs. "Inside of the thigh, working on the drag."
The dancers move like sensual spiders. Spectral piano music adorns the scene like aural pointillism — the accompanist is in an alcove next to the entrance. Here's a snippet of "42nd Street," there's a bit of "Rhapsody in Blue."
Rugby, Horseracing and Beer
For Burn, ballet is the highest point of human development and interpreting our experience. He was introduced to it by accident. At age 12, he jumped into a sand pile on the beach near Auckland, New Zealand, where he grew up, and broke his left foot. Physicians said both he and his older brother, Robert, needed strength training. Burn for his foot and ankle, Robert his back.
"Lady Betty Swaffield was my first ballet teacher," Burn says. "We used the back chairs for pliés. We knew it was ballet but didn't broadcast it." There was still a stigma attached to boys who learned formal dance techniques.
Their school classmates learned all at once when the headmaster announced to 1,200 students a benefit ballet recital for the Red Cross and how very proud they were that two of the school's boys, Robert and Malcolm Burn, were participating.
Burn and his brother walked out of the assembly and into a fight. The two stood back-to-back fending off their tormentors.
"Things have changed somewhat for men in dance," Burn says, chuckling, "but I came from the land of rugby, horseracing and beer."
His parents were both involved with music. His father sang in what was then the Auckland Oratorio, a large chorus, and his mother taught singing and violin. For a while, Burn sang in church as a boy soprano.
He decided to further his dance studies in London — then the dance capital. To make ends meet, he needed a job, and fast. What opened up for him was summer work in a slaughterhouse. He didn't kill anything, but he worked on a line, processing the meat.
Burn auditioned for several companies, finally getting into Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal Ballet, later the State Theatre Ballet, in Johannesburg, South Africa. "It was a big company known all over the world," he says. "At the end of the day, I decided to go where the sun shined."
It's also where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Jasmine Grace, a fellow dancer.
There, Burn won the Ivan Soloman Award for Best Male Dancer in 1973, 1976, and 1980. He appreciated the recognition for what it wasn't — not the best dancer for the year — but the best performance in a role.
The ballet was connected to the Royal Ballet of England, then at the top of the ballet world. Great dancers and choreographers visited, including Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and the legendary Australian dancer and choreographer Robert Helpman.
In 1980, Burn answered the call of Salt Lake City's Ballet West, and Grace accompanied him. Because she required a visa for entry to the United States, the couple decided to marry in Vancouver, British Columbia — in the law offices of Shrum, Liddle & Hebenton while the staff hummed "Here Comes the Bride."
By the mid-1980s, Burn had moved again and was co-artistic director for the Ballet Arizona.
Several years later, he attended a Richmond Ballet audition in Los Angeles.
"We had two auditions," Winslett says — one to hire a choreographer for the ballet company and one to teach summer school. Burn was so exceptional, she says, that she hired him for both positions.
Winslett knew from the beginning that Burn had extraordinary gifts in coaching and in partnering. Unlike other good partners, she says, Malcolm can recall every lift he did in his life, where his hands were, where the weight was, and he can teach the way he did them. "A lot of people can bring up the recollection, but not teach other people how."
With his new position, Burn and Grace put down roots in Richmond with their son, Douglas Burn, who attended Monacan High School, graduated from VCU and is now pursuing a master's degree in piano performance at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn.
Crazy Long Days
When Burn arrived, the Richmond Ballet was a younger company abounding with an eagerness to prove itself.
Brett Bonda, a company dancer when Burn joined, recalls touring with Burn. "Crazy long bus trips," Bonda says. "Crazy long days. We'd come home after a full performance, three to four hours traveling back." Present restrictions limit the amount of time for dance and returning home. "But we did what we thought needed doing," he says.
Ballet dancers are like athletes in professional sports: They have a limited active stage life. Burn was expected to dance a couple of years then retire. Instead, he danced for six. His last company performance in 1993 was as Death in The Green Table. "He was brilliant," Winslett says.
Burn assumed the role of ballet master because he loves the dance, the mission of the company and its community of artists. "I didn't want this to be an abusive situation as one can find in other companies," he says. "True, we hire dancers on a year-by-year basis, but we've had some dancers for 12 years. I've got some kids now who are 30. I've known them since they were 12. Turnover isn't what it usually is elsewhere, but we've built something tremendous here."
Winslett sees their partnership as a rare blending that manages to work. Their backgrounds and education are quite different, but their devotion to excellence is what unites them.
"He tells me, ‘We're dinosaurs, darling,' but he's got those important old-fashioned values of integrity, discipline, compassion."
Burn cites the company's performance over the years of an unprecedented 55 new works for the stage. And he credits Winslett's leadership. Then, too, the 2009 Carpenter Center expansion greatly enhanced the space for the ballet to use. Prior to the expansion, the stage depth was for vaudeville. Burn jumps up to measure the depth on the studio stage: 25 feet. At one point, Burn had dancers running around the back of the old Carpenter Center to make their entrances. He allows a brief grin. "If you don't screw it up, they'll never change it," he philosophically says. "We did shows to fit in there, and did them so well for so long, that it looked as though that's the way it was supposed to be."
Burn works with his dancers to make shapes and diamond patterns with their bodies. This is what Luminitza's choreographer, Ma Cong, wants, and what Burn and the company want to give, how to do this quicker, or slower where it counts. "Don't get pedantic with your music," he counsels. Then he asks them: "Are we doing all right? Are we surviving?"
Then everything stops.
Burn asks for the meaning of vollée. The dancers wait. Burn asks a beautiful and perspiring ballerina who gives a brief smile that goes out like a shut-off light.
"Whatever I say will be wrong."
This causes some chuckles around the studio.
"Think through the problem," Burn replies. "That's how you learn what it is."
"To fly!" Tellmann exclaims.
Burn pauses several full moments. He at last says, "It's a different thing. Education is when you've forgotten what you know and you know what to do." He lets that sink in and then mentions a viral Internet video he had seen that morning of a man flying on his own body power using mechanical wings: "Man has now independently flown. Guy in the Netherlands flew 100 meters. At the end of it he was completely exhausted. Took him eight months to train to work his arms and legs to manage this feat."
Some skepticism is in the room — and, in fact, the video turned out to be a hoax — but that doesn't matter. The point is: Burn's dancers must fly.
The Richmond Ballet has gone to New York City four times since 2005. In June, the ballet takes its first company trip to London for performances at the Royal Opera House. These and other achievements please Burn.
The tough New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay in 2010 went around the country to see regional ballet versions of The Nutcracker. "He hates provincial ballet," Burn says. "Hates it. But not ours."
Macaulay wrote, "This is a real company, dancing a show it knows intimately with pride and pleasure. In my dream version of America, every state has at least one Nutcracker this good."
"We are so technology."
After their training workout, the dancers scatter for a break, and then within 15 minutes gather at the studio theater for rehearsal of Luminitza and La Belle Danse. The rehearsal process began in February, and now Burn is using his keen eye to apply the needed burnish to make the pieces magic for an audience.
Though he disdains video, here is a case when it is useful. When Cong was here recently, the company presented the dance, while committing it to video for later review. Burn shows this visual record to get his corps into the right space.
They cluster around the monitor. All those defined, incredible forms, muscles coiled and prepared, ready at instruction to leap or twirl, lift or kick. They don't often watch themselves except in the mirrors. While viewing the video, they remain in motion in an abstract dance. They mimic their movements, how their wrists cross. A few roll their backs along a black tube to ease physical tension. One rolls on a ball, another is lacing up her pointe shoes, another scissoring his legs on his side. They are zipped up in pullovers or wearing sweaters to keep warm before going into rehearsal. Burn, hands on hips like a coach, observes his team and interjects what needs to go better.
Time for dancers to take places: The sonorous music for La Belle Danse begins. They emerge, singly, or as a sudden group, drifting in and out like lines of poetry or breathing. The viewer realizes that for a few moments there was one dancer, now there are six or more, and then as quickly, gone as though never there. The women are suddenly in the air, held up by their partners, and then they all disappear like wind-borne phantoms.
Burn stops jotting notes. He watches. Even at this point, without costumes or theatrical lighting, the dance is remarkable for a visitor.
Burn seems to try to keep stops and starts to a minimum. He is tweaking and finessing.
Here, Burn is joined by ballet master Jerri Kumery, who danced for George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and here she provides additional eyes and expertise when Burn cannot be everywhere. When they confer, it is rapid, immediately understood and Burn agreeing.
This is tech rehearsal, and in performing arts parlance this means what can be a laborious, glitchy procedure akin to surgery. The lighting and soundboard are amid the seats. People are carrying coffee in to-go cups.
The audience isn't full of patrons eager for amazement — it's the production staff, costumers and the artistic bench, along with Burn, Kumery and Igor Antonov, who joined the ballet in 1990 and recently retired as a full-time company dancer. They're here to give the pieces the once-over before the show goes up. Burn and Kumery sit together and during the presentation, they'll go like telegraphs to each other.
A 23-minute set change follows La Belle. There is a complicated backdrop requiring Tab-A into Slot-B construction, but the downtime means patrons go to the bar. Luminitza's set is based on Romanian Easter eggs. The name is derived from a Romanian word for "little light."
Cong will watch this rehearsal in California via video feed. When Cong comes online, Burn asks the assembled to greet him.
The company choruses, "Hello, Ma!"
"Hello!" the amused choreographer announces through the digital feed.
Technicians at the board try to sort out whether Cong is seeing dancers or the Richmond Ballet logo, spurring dancer Fernando Sabino to comment on the glitch: "We are so technology!"
The company laughs in good nature. Sabino, a Brazilian native, shrugs, "Hey, I dance. I don't speak."
In some ways, the career of a ballet dancer is like any other job. Nothing's ever perfect. Things go wrong. People have their bad days. But in a fundamental way, it's a job few if any of us ever may hope to have — including dancers who train their lives for the opportunity. Due to tight budgets and recessionary times, dance companies — like many other arts groups — have frozen hiring, laid off staff and shortened their seasons. Yet dancers continue to emerge from schools and into a vacuum.
At the end of the dress rehearsal, Burn turns to Winslett and staff and says in his understated manner, "It was a pretty good rendition, wasn't it?"
The dancers circle around Burn and Kumery resembling a mid-game huddle as Burn discusses positions and movements. Costumers fuss with the leotards. A dancer questions his placement on stage. "From out here [in the seats], it's an optical illusion," Burn tells the dancer. "Yes, you're right; it's wrong, but from out there, you look like you're in the right place." For the first time in the day, the company looks tired.
Burn's office is cluttered but in a neat way. There's a small guitar leaning in a window. Asked if he plays, he shakes his head. It's a prop. "All ballet masters have strange things in their offices," he says, opening a desk drawer. "Like scarves." He pulls out several examples of different hues. A picture of Burn stepping like Victory on the tight tummy of a dancer is marked: No Pity From the Ballet Master.
His office bookcases are filled with VHS tapes, marching from 1986 to 1999 until turning into rows of DVDs. The method of recording has changed. The years passed along. But not the ceaseless striving to approach perfection.
On the phone with Cong, Burn writes down observations from the video feed. The method is somewhat unusual and Burn, no fan of the distancing effect of technology designed to bring people together, says wryly, "I hope this is not a wave of the future."
At the end of this long day, Burn thanks Cong for the notes, managing to sound cheery despite an edge of fatigue as the hour pushes toward 10 p.m. He says to Cong, "I had some of these already — but it's good as this reinforces what we can see."
Burn makes notes to himself about aspects to mention to the dancers.
Later, he will reflect on this day-to-day process of moving a company of dancers to the stage: "It's an incredible job I have, you know. I get to spend the day looking at the most beautiful people in the world performing at the height of human endeavor," he shrugs. "Not such a bad way to spend one's later years."