Thursday, February 24, 2011

An Interview with Nancy Raffa

Nancy Raffa is in Tulsa to set Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. This fast-paced ballet premiered in 1976 to rave reviews. The New York Times called the premiere "The Event of the Year". Nancy Raffa had the opportunity to dance in that premiere, along with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Raffa received her early training with world-renowned Kirov-trained teacher Madame Gabriella Darvash. In 1980, she became the youngest and first American female to win the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition in Switzerland. The same year, Raffa joined Makarova and Company on Broadway. This troupe was created by Natalia Makarova when she retired from dancing with American Ballet Theatre and was not chosen as the Artistic Director, a post she lost to Mikhail Baryshnikov. Makarova carefully selected several of the world’s top ballet stars for her company, but she also chose 29 student dancers she personally discovered in ballet schools. Raffa was one of those lucky students. Following a performance of Paquita, where she danced the lead role as the understudy for an injured Makarova, Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, “Raffa made a dazzling debut. This girl is the real thing.”

Baryshnikov agreed with Barnes and invited Raffa to take class at ABT. Six months later, at age 16, he offered her a contract to join the company. She remained there until 1986, when curiosity led her to work in Chile at the Ballet de Santiago where she was a principal dancer. She was also a principal dancer at Ballet National Française de Nancy and then with Miami City Ballet. She is currently the Ballet Mistress at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.

We caught up with Nancy after rehearsals to ask a few questions.

Your mother was a ballet pianist, and has worked for American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet. Who became interested in ballet first – your mother or you?

My mom became a pianist for ballet after I began studying ballet. I was at Ballet Arts Studio at Carnegie Hall when a pianist was a no show and my teacher was so upset there was no music. My mom was watching my class so she offered to site read because she did that well, and she did so well with that class that my teacher spoke to the head of the studio to give my mom work as a ballet pianist. Are you a musician as well? I come from musical and artistic family (my mom and two brothers play the piano, my dad was a saxophonist, my grandmother a singer, and another brother an actor, and another brother a film editor). I learned piano when I was a little girl and sang in the choir, but I did not stay with it; I dove into the ballet studies full time.

You trained with Madame Gabriella Darvash in New York City. She is said to have a unique teaching style. Does it follow the Vaganova method in which she was trained at the Kirov Academy?

Yes much of the basis of her training was the best of what she learned from the Vagonova method during her 9 years in Russia, but Madame figured out a way to teach technique that was unique. Her method stemmed from her scientific study of physics and its application to the human body and the body’s way of moving. She also has an amazing artistic and musical sense and was a choreographer.

It must have been truly amazing to win the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne at age 15. Do you remember how you felt at that time?

It was so unexpected. I had just turned 15 and it was by chance that a man by the name of John Potter discovered me one month before the 1980 Prix de Lausanne. He watched me in class at Madame's school in New York and offered to sponsor me to go. I came from a very poor family and my father suffered from Parkinson's; there were 5 kids and mom supporting us with freelance piano playing and welfare, so going abroad never even crossed my mind. Madame had given me a scholarship and I knew I loved dancing and wanted to be a dancer one day, so I just worked hard in my classes. The fight to Switzerland for the competition was my first trip on an airplane, to Europe and seeing other student dancers. Alexandra Ferri was at that competition, as well as Deborah Bull from the Royal Ballet and Gen Horiushi who later went to NYC Ballet. When my name was called, all I could think of was my family back home in Brooklyn, and I sobbed all the way to center stage to collect my prize money and gold medal. It was overwhelming, but one of my dearest and most special personal memories in my lifetime.

Over the years you’ve danced with many of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. Who would you say made the biggest impression on you?

Without a doubt Fernando Bujones was one of the most influential partners I worked with. He gave me support and encouragement, not only when I danced a lot with at ABT, but also later on in life we worked together in Miami and then when he was directing Orlando Ballet. Fernando became a dear friend to me and taught me the most important lesson after our debut in Paquita. He gave me a stuffed animal signed by him, love Fernando, with the message: Nancy never stop believing in yourself even when everyone around you seems not to at times. Have a goal, and no matter the politics, move forward with faith and courage. I loved Fernando dearly for so many reasons.

You were seriously injured during rehearsal with Miami City Ballet in 1992. Can you describe what it is like to be unable to dance, to perform?

It was in a way a loss of self. For your whole life you mold yourself into being the person that does that task of being a dancer, without that I felt lost for a long time. Who or what do you credit with your recovery? A need to know myself at a deeper level and search for a greater meaning and happiness in life than that which is limited to only one’s identity with the self. Dr Paul Canali a holistic healer from Miami, is who I credit with giving me the tools I needed medically, mentally, but most importantly spiritually to heal and make a growth and rebirth into a new person with a new identity that eventually brought me back to the world of dance again in a new and even more enriching way.

Is this your first time to visit Tulsa? What is your impression?

Yes, this is my first time. It is a friendly city that has a welcoming energy to it. Tulsa Ballet and its artistic staff and dancers are wonderful artists. They are so professional, and they are super people also. I am having a wonderful experience working here.

You danced Push Comes to Shove during your time with American Ballet Theatre. Do you have any specific memories of that time?

Oh yes: Misha dancing like no one I have ever seen in my life! And I remember all of us walking off stage, laughing, having had the best time. We joked about how scared we were of making a mistake in front of Twyla. And Misha's was telling jokes in the wings right before I went out to dance the quartet with him, Peter Fonseca, and Carolyn Brown!

Push Comes To Shove is known as a very fun but very fast-paced ballet. What is your process of teaching the choreography?

You bet it is!!!! Basically, I break down each section of the choreography and divided the necessary time to teach the steps. Then I put the rhythms and counts to the steps and give the dancers the essence of the sense and quality the steps need. Then, I put the music on. I do this with each section and then connect the different dancers/characters, and the repeat as time permits When all the material is taught, I can put the larger sections together and run them for sequence and stamina and finally, when I come back a couple of weeks before the show, I will coach it and clean it for the premiere.

1 comment:

  1. I studied at Miami City Ballet when I was about 10, and Nancy was my favorite teacher. Her classes were so inspiring, and I recognized that even at a young age. I'm so glad Tulsa Ballet was able to work with her....I'm excited for the performances!

    - Katie