Alfredo Corvino was born in Montevideo, Uruguay on February 2, 1916. He studied ballet there, eventually joining the Uruguay National Ballet. He later danced with The Jooss Ballet, The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet of which he became ballet master. He taught at The Juilliard School for more than forty years and at The Metropolitan Opera Ballet School for almost twenty. Corvino also traveled the world teaching, in his later years as ballet master for Pina Bausch/Tanztheatre Wuppertal. He accrued numerous honors including an honorary doctorate from Juilliard and The Martha Hill Dance Fund Award to outstanding professionals in dance. Mr. Corvino passed away on August 2, 2005. His wife Marcella passed away on April 30, 2004. Their two daughters Andra and Ernesta continue the family tradition, teachers extraordinaire! Andra Corvino teaches at The Juilliard School. Ernesta Corvino teaches at The University of Nevada at Las Vegas as well as continuing open classes in the Corvino approach in New York City.
I started studying with Alfredo Corvino when I entered Juilliard in the fall of 1986. He was my teacher twice a week in my first year. I was fascinated by him. His calm, quiet manner was a contrast to many ballet teachers I had had over the years. He started class in same way each day: “First position, finger tips to the shoulders.” We would stand feeling our centers, and the music would begin. I was fortunate to have in my beginning class two more advanced students who were recovering from injuries. Their clear demonstrations gave me guide posts. I remember my enormous satisfaction in receiving Mr. Corvino’s approval for a given movement. Although I always felt that he was working to build us up, not break us down, his moments of praise were few and far between. This made the moments of praise all the more sincere and significant. I studied with Mr. Corvino throughout my four years at Juilliard.
On school breaks, I sought out his studio, Dance Circle on 8th Avenue and 47th Street. It was here that I met his wife, Marcella who administered the school, and his daughters Andra and Ernesta who also taught there.
Up the staircase, to the second floor, through the reception area with pictures of Mr. Corvino and his daughters dancing, which spanned decades. Into the small women’s dressing room, where faces began to look familiar. (The Corvinos had a loyal following.) Into the back studio and over to the window, my favorite spot.
Hearing Mr. Corvino’s corrections and directions through the voices of his daughters, I began to understand even more clearly what Mr. Corvino was teaching. As I came to understand it, the Corvino approach was about simplicity, using gravity as a helper, finding the most economical ways muscularly to perform certain movements. It was also about building a body through the use of a system of exercises Mr. Corvino had developed. Although influenced by the teachings of Enricco Cecchetti, who was highly esteemed by Mr. Corvino, they also have their own uniqueness and singularity. Standard in the Corvino class is the plié/passe exercise following the first pliés and the foot stretch exercise that follows tendus.
During my last year at Juilliard, I asked Mr. Corvino to help me with one of my “jury” pieces. In the spring of our final year at Juilliard at that time, we were asked to perform three dances in the theatre just for faculty to judge our performances. Mr. Corvino started teaching my partner, Christopher Hemmans, and me “Peasant Pas de Deux” from Giselle, and then passed over the reins to his daughter Ernesta. These were fun rehearsals, hard work but satisfying in the feeling that more was accomplished each session. I also was experiencing the Corvino method applied to repertory. I learned that “line” was more important than the height of the leg.
Within a few weeks of working with Ernesta, she asked me to join her company, Ernesta Corvino’s Dance Circle Company, on a tour to Virginia. She had just lost a dancer and needed a replacement. I was unable to go as the tour overlapped with the final rehearsals of the Juilliard Dance Ensemble before our spring performance series. However, just after I graduated, Ernesta asked me to work with her company on a new piece, Jai Ma, a ballet inspired by the Indian aesthetic. I danced with the company for 8 years performing at least eight different roles. We performed on stages and in studios, with lighting and without, inside and outside. Marcella Corvino made every beautiful costume. A personal highlight was performing the role of Whistler’s Mother in Ernesta’s Sujets d’Art. In this ballet, Ernesta’s lively sense of humor shows forth brilliantly as different works of visual art literally come to life.
Through the years of dancing with ECDCC, I, along with a faithful group of students, continued studying with the Corvino family. We followed them through the closing of Dance Circle, to the New Dance Group studio in midtown, to Battery Dance Company’s studio in Chinatown, to Studio 5-2 in the 890 Broadway building. I developed a strong personal friendship with the family, enjoying their camaraderie and generous spirits.
As I began teaching ballet, it was the Corvino approach that colored my teaching. I found myself performing Mr. Corvino demonstrations such as balancing a yardstick or pole on my palm to demonstrate the difficulty in thinking of balancing from the feet up instead of from the head down. I often quote Mr. Corvino telling me “all that rotation will not help you if you cannot move.” This was in response to my early insistence on forcing rotation with my rosined feet that I could not hold from my hips. He was right, of course! As I began to work more from the inside out instead of the outside in, my natural sense of movement could be set loose instead of stifled. This is an elemental concept I try to instill in my students. The Corvino approach is not a set of exercises. It’s a way of thinking.
Mr. Corvino was a fundamental force in the global world of dance for more than sixty years. His tradition lives on through the grand legacy of his students.
Editor’s note: Elizabeth McPherson, PhD is an assistant professor at Montclair State University and a free lance writer for various publications. She has written the book The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995, and is currently working on a book about The Bennington School of Dance.
Each time I ask my six questions, I think: “How would I answer them?” There is one question to which I always have the same answer: “Which masters will you never forget?” For me it is Alfredo Corvino who unfortunately died in 2005. But he has two daughters who teach in New York and one of them, Ernesta, comes regularly to Wuppertal to train the Pina Bausch dancers just as her father had done earlier. On her most recent trip to Wuppertal, Ernesta spent four weeks training the company, so I had the opportunity to watch her classes and to ask my six questions. The instruction is simple and unaffected however, not easy. At the barre, the dancers maintain excellent alignment and are able to practice and stretch in between exercises. In the center, the practice is simple but rhythmical, in fact, so rhythmical that they are, in effect, very demanding. Because of the use of epaulement (directions of the head and shoulders), they are very “dancey”. With passion, Ernesta can explain and demonstrate the head for pirouettes (turns). It is impressive how she can turn and quote her father at the same time, “Tune-up your turns!” When Pina’s dancers have to perform something technically difficult such as Le Sacre du Printemps or Iphigenie et Tauris, Ernesta is called in to do the training. She maintains and develops the work of her father (The Maestro as he is respectfully called by the dancers here in Wuppertal) illustrating the quote by Gustav Mahler, “Tradition is not the preservation of ash, but rather the transmission of fire.”
With members of Tanztheater Wuppertal in the new Balletsalle in the Opernhaus
1 – How and when did you come to teach? I taught my first class at the age of 16 as a last minute substitute for my father, Alfredo Corvino, at The Metropolitan Opera Ballet School in New York City. I was his assistant for a class of girls who were only one year younger than I. He and his pianist were detained next door at The Juilliard School in Lincoln Center and my mother, who was the administrator of the Met School, informed me that I would have to take on the class – with no pianist! So there I was with no experience, no preparation, no music, and a class full of girls almost my own age. I think I got through a 30-minute barre in only ten minutes. I was very nervous and I was counting too fast. But the rest of the class went well and shortly thereafter the Met School closed and my family opened The Dance Circle on 8th Avenue in the Theater District. I continued to substitute teach for many years until, by the age of 30, I was teaching full-time. Even after I began to teach full-time, I continued to keep in training, perform, and direct. I believe that each activity complimented the other. Teaching improved my dancing and performing, choreographing, and directing made me a better teacher.
2 – Which masters will you never forget? My first teacher, Margaret Craske, with whom I studied until the age of 14, was a master at teaching children. I was very fortunate to study with her. Her syllabus was simple and very clean, with emphasis on correct placement and musicality. She was a strict disciplinarian, but she was also British and had a very dry sense of humor. She gave me a great respect for the structure of classical training and a love of working methodically. My next main teacher, and the one who influenced me the most, was my father Alfredo Corvino. Not only was he a genius about all the important elements such as how the body works, how it moves dynamically, how to hear the music and respond to it with sensitivity, how to distinguish different qualities of movement, etc. but he also had a Zen-like quality about his persona. He was able to set up a non-judgmental atmosphere so that everyone in the class could work at his own pace and absorb the material without ego. He always said, “I see the movement, not the person.” He always emphasized that he taught from “The Principles”, not a particular style. Therefore he became a very effective teacher for dancers of all persuasions: ballet, modern, jazz, etc. He was also able to teach beginners as well as advanced professionals, very often all in the same classroom at the same time. Not an easy feat! Over the years my sister Andra Corvino (who teaches full-time at The Juilliard School) and I have come to call this approach to teaching The Corvino Approach. We are dedicated to carrying it on and feel very strongly that it is a living legacy that must be passed down from master to student through direct contact and experience, not from a book. I also studied for a brief two-year period as a teenager with the choreographer Antony Tudor. Bored, by his own admission, with teaching classroom technique, he was always using his classes as a chance to experiment with movement phrases and with some rather unconventional exercises. Although he wasn’t a trainer per se (and he also had a tendency to play psychological games with his students) I really benefited from his creative approach to movement and his unique way of exploring the meaning of a movement.
Underneath the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal's monorail
3 – Do you think you can learn to teach? If yes…What should a teachers’ course be like? Yes. Some people have more of a natural inclination than others, but all people who desire to teach must first study, as a dancer, with a good teacher and then “apprentice teach” under that teacher’s guidance. The guidance should include a level-appropriate syllabus outline as a starting point with the novice teacher checking-in with the master teacher quite frequently with questions. It is also imperative that the novice teacher continues to train as a dancer with the master teacher. An understanding of how to teach “The Principles” is more important than the syllabus itself, but a syllabus outline is certainly helpful to start each grade. A syllabus is a drawback when it becomes too rigid. A teacher needs to develop a feeling for the right time to introduce new material. A good teacher is sensitive to how much repetition to give and how much variation of material to give. The most common fault of a novice teacher is to “over-teach”, to give far too much information at once to the point where it cannot be absorbed and/or it becomes confusing to the student.
Coaching the Grand Jete
4 – Must a dance teacher have been a professional dancer? I think it helps although I’ve seen very good teachers who never danced professionally and a lot of professional dancers turned teachers who are disastrous! I think the question is not so much “professional” experience (as in being paid to perform with a company) as “dancing” experience. Good training and a fair amount of artistic performing experience with good choreographers who may not officially be “professionals” can give the dedicated dancer the tools to become a fine teacher.
5 – What is the most important thing for you to teach successfully? That would be a true understanding of “The Basic Principles of Classic Dance”, not only in words but also in action. The seven basic principles: stance, turn-out, placing, the law of balance, the basic rules of classic technique, change of weight, and coordination, must all be understood physically as well as intellectually and must be transferred to the student in the simplest and most visceral way.
6 – What do you want your students to remember? What works, and what doesn’t – and why!
DANCE MAGAZINE ARTICLE.....NOVEMBER 2004....by Joseph Carman
Alfredo Corvino taught ballet at the Juilliard School for forty-two years, and now serves as ballet master for Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal (Bausch was one of his early students). As a performer, he danced with the Jooss Ballet and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Corvino discusses his teaching philosophy and Cecchetti technique with writer Joseph Carman.
HOW HAVE STUDENTS CHANGED OVER THE LAST FORTY YEARS? A good dancer from the old days and a good dancer today are similar-their values are the same. A classical dancer has to be made. You can be born with facility, but you can't have the technique without the training. To be a great dancer is like being a stallion--you have to have the energy and the resistance. Only the training can do that. Today there is more knowledge about physicality and access to that knowledge. But there are still a lot of misconceptions about dance. Too many dancers get injured because they don't work Tight. You have to know which muscles to use when. It's a matter of economy.
HOW DO YOU STRUCTURE A BALLET CLASS FOR DANCERS WITH DIFFERENT STYLISTIC APPROACHES? Technically there is no difference, no matter what technique with which you approach. The style may have some preferences. But when you land from a jump, you're going to 1and, period. You're going to hit the floor. A tour en l'air needs to land correctly. If you're singing, you hit a high C, I don't care where you come from, it's a high C. Sometimes people say, "No, I do it this way." I say, "OK, as you like it. If it works, fine! If it doesn't work, maybe we can fix it."
CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE IMPORTANCE OF WEIGHT CHANGE IN BALLET? Take a grand jete--it's a leap that goes from one leg to another [demonstrates an are with his hands]. Most people do a grand jete, they just do it in a split. You have to take the body with you by pushing off the back leg. In barre work, people do tendu after tendu, like tendu, fourth plie, tendu back, without pushing off. It comes from the torso and the back. Sometimes teachers say, "Lift!" It has nothing to do with that. There is push and pull.
WHY IS THE PORT DE BRAS USUALLY THE LAST THING FOR A STUDENT TO PERFECT? That is one thing that is very important front the Cecchetti method. He devised seven sets of port de bras. It was the same with Laban. Most people in ballet do port de bras [demonstrates limp, turned-in elbows]. Often the port de bras must precede the movement. Twenty-five percent of my jump comes from the arms. Learn the port de bras correctly with epaulement. Then you can break the rules. There are stylistic differences in choreography. If you do Les Sylphides, are you going to point your feet differently? No, but the port de bras is different. You do the czardas, the arms are here [demonstrates arms bent, held in front of chest, forearms parallel to the ground]. Anatomically, you still work correctly. Dancers must visit the Rodin Museum or study da Vinci.
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF EPAULEMENT? It comes from the shoulders and back. The head moves five different ways [demonstrates up, down, right, left, neutral]. If I turn, I don't leave the head. If you ingrain in your body as second nature the inclination of the head toward whichever foot happens to be front, it helps you in a complex petit allegro. Like when you walk--the head and shoulders move naturally in coordination.
HOW DO YOU EXECUTE A PROPER GLISSADE? It's gliding. It's not a jump, and you don't drag it. It's composed of tendus. Demi-plie, tendu, tendu, plie. But the timing is important--it's ba-bamp [demonstrates quick closing action with the hands]. You have to know what gliding is. You have to recognize the principles behind movement.
CAN YOU TEACH MUSICALITY TO DANCERS? Yes, but music and dancing are very instinctive. We succeed in making people musical because of the way we structure our exercises. The dynamic is in the exercises. Sometimes people do a grand plie as demi-plie, full plie, demi-plie, up. It's not fluid. It's better to go down slower and come up slightly faster because that's the principle of the jump. With tendu, it's a question of the attack. You have to be there at once. With rond de jambe, there's a pickup: one, two, three. You have to let people understand why you do what you do.
WHEN THE DANCERS ARE ON A HEAVY SCHEDULE, DO YOU ADAPT THE CLASS FOR THEM? No. In the morning, I teach a regular class. If someone has to rehearse, go into a new part, they take the class and take a leave when they need it. Before the performance, I give them a half-hour of concentrated warm-up. I prolong the dancers' career by working the body correctly. That's my specialty! My idea of a wonderful class was if afterward I could go back and do the most difficult steps. You have to know the difference between being lazy and being tired. If you are tired, leave it for another day. But being lazy is something else.
DID YOU EVER HAVE TO BE AGGRESSIVE OR INTIMIDATING IN CLASS? They have to really get to me, like someone who doesn't listen. I have a little bit of Italian in me, so.... Do I raise my voice? [Turns to his wife.] Mrs. Corvino: No. I heard yon say only once to a pupil, "Don't ever tell anybody you studied with me!"
Dr. Corvino leads a recent class through an exercise to perfect the port de bras.
Soft-spoken, kind, precise, gentle, elegant. These attributes are a small part of what made up Alfredo Corvino's character. His popularity as a teacher resulted from his extensive knowledge, his patience, his diplomacy, and his belief that dancers must possess an inner fire in addition to refined technique.
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, the young Corvino studied violin with his father, a violinist in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Montevideo. He went on to study ballet at the National Academy of Ballet there. Corvino later toured LatinAmerica with Kurt Jooss' company and toured the United States with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
He arrived in New York around 1940 and began studying the Cecchetti Method with Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor, who later asked him to join the newly established dance division at the Juilliard School. He began teaching there in 1952, and remained for 42 years, receiving anhonorary doctorate from the school in May 2003. In 1968 he and his wife, Marcella, founded The Dance Circle in New York City. It was here over the next 25 years that Corvino and his daughters, Ernesta and Andra, developed a unique approach to ballet training for all types of dancers. His students included Bebe Neuwirth and modern dancers like Shelley Washington, Joyce Herring, Christopher Pilafian, and Pina Bausch. Tanztheater Wuppertal employed him as their ballet master on tour. Last year, at the age of 88, he traveled to Japan, France, and Germany with the troupe. Mr. Corvino is remembered fondly the world over by dancers.
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9 -Ernesta Corvino choreographed Perry-Mansfield's production of The Pirates ofPenzance. Performances were July 29th through August 1st 2009 at the Julie Harris Theatre in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Click here to read a review.
10 - A review by Elizabeth Zimmer of Equipoise - The Life and Work of Alfredo Corvino appears in Ballet Review - Spring 2010....(You may fax a credit card order to 212-924-2176)....Also in this edition of Ballet Review is a wonderful article on Pina Bausch by Sandra Genter!