A Conversation with Smuin’s Ballet Master, Amy London

       Smuin’s Ballet Master Amy London would be the first to admit that her job title has a rather “zen” feel to it. The duties that accompany the position, however, are perhaps a little more demanding than one would think.Traditionally, a company’s Ballet Master participates in teaching company classes, holding rehearsals, and monitoring each dancer’s progress when learning repertoire. In her own words, Amy London is “the caretaker of the choreography,” but her day-to-day duties often encompass much more. In addition to teaching company class on a weekly basis, London is tasked with “teaching repertoire to [Smuin’s] dancers, rehearsing the repertoire and getting it ready for the stage, and helping choreographers translate their vision into the physical world.” 

       

       

       London’s history with Smuin dates back to 1996 when she first joined the Company as a dancer, dancing for four years under Michael Smuin’s leadership. After a brief hiatus, London returned to the company in her current role in 2008, one year after its founder’s passing. In addition to her performing career, she has spent nearly ten years on the faculty of Marin Ballet as a full-time teacher and administrator.

Celia Fushille, Garrett Ammon, Dawn Faye, & Amy London discuss “Madness, Rack, and Honey” in rehearsal. Photo: Chris Hardy

       “During my dance career I always had teaching jobs,” London says. “Working with students honed the skills I needed; being able to mobilize a group and being able to get people to work together and communicate is incredibly important.” Communicating dance, however, requires a very specific set of skills and is no easy task. “When a choreographer comes to create, it’s my job to learn every person’s part in the ballet, and then hold them to the choreographer’s vision,” she explains.

       “So many steps in contemporary ballet don’t necessarily have names,” London admits, “so I’m describing or drawing [each step].” In her office alone, there are shelves upon shelves of notebooks documenting each moment of every ballet the Company has recently performed. “I usually take notes on graph paper so I can draw formations if I need to,” London says, peering over her extensive notes. “Next to [each drawing] is a running column of musical counts, and then a description of what’s happening and who’s doing it.” This wealth of information is enough to make anyone dizzy, but as London affirms, she has “a head for math, so patterns and counts are things that [she] can memorize and retain pretty naturally.” Despite the meticulous nature of her role, the Ballet Master isn’t one to shy away from the creative aspect of the art. London jokes, Smuin isn’t just in the business of “putting graphs on the stage, there’s emotion being communicated too!”

An example of Amy London’s meticulous notetaking for Garrett Ammon’s ballet “Madness, Rack, and Honey”

       The art itself can be an incredibly personal and vulnerable experience for all of the creators and performers involved. She notes that when a ballet is being created, “all of the dancers are imitating or taking what the choreographer is doing and doing it within their own bodies. Each body does it differently, so, at some point you have to pare down to the version that the choreographer wants.” From London’s observations, no two choreographers’ creative processes are alike. “Some choreographers have a loose outline and fill in [the steps], and some choreographers are super detailed, and work incrementally. It’s a lot like outlining and coloring in the picture, or going square by square with the fine detail from the get go.”

       Wondering how she keeps it all straight? Much like the rest of the Bay Area workforce, London enjoys decompressing at home as well as exploring her surroundings. “I have cats that I love to play with, and I go hiking.” London is also an avid reader of historical fiction: “I like to escape into another time and place. If I have a particularly frustrating or intense day, I like to go escape into the Jacobite Revolution or 17th century Scotland for a couple of hours.” Her husband (also a former dancer) understands the stresses of the industry and is often her sounding board, when not trying to make her laugh. “He’s hilarious,” London quips. “Our house is like a constant Saturday Night Live skit!”

       When asked what continues to draw her to the art form after so many years, London thoughtfully replies: “Dance is like a window into an unending creative world. When we do our Choreography Showcase, for example, some of our dancers are choreographing for the very first time. It’s incredibly special to see how proud they are of themselves in creating something that didn’t exist a moment ago, which now has a community and a life of its own.”

       “Dance is like that everyday, every class. There is no finish line, there is no finished product; there is no perfect anything, because there’s always a little more that could be found or had.”

** Written by Eva Faizi, Smuin’s Communications Manager

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Single tickets for Smuin’s 2017/18 Season are on sale now! Filled with several world premieres by renowned and emerging choreographers, as well as Smuin favorites like The Christmas Ballet, there’s a lot to look forward to this season! Learn more here

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