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Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Art to Heart

January 7, 2021

By Nicola Conraths, Director of Artistic Studies

Art to Heart is my monthly column dedicated to the arts, including faculty, alumni, students, and guest artists.

In the weeks following Boston Ballet School’s Professional Division at Walnut Hill’s first performance, my mind wanders back to the beginnings of our partnership. Has it really just been one year since the Boston Ballet faculty visited campus to discuss the possibility of a joint program? A lot has happened since then.

Back then, pre-COVID, nothing prepared us  for a future that would shake our community at its foundation, threatening the very thing  we would often turn to in times of distress and need: the sacred sites of the arts - our studios, practice rooms, museums, theaters, and concert halls. As the pandemic wears on, some communities remain sheltered in place until the vaccine will bring back some normalcy to the world.

But here at Walnut Hill, student artists are dancing, singing, acting, and making films and music online (and some in person) like never before. In the studios here, 63 dancers have resumed in person classes for several weeks now. What a relief to see these spaces come back to life! Dancers are wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart, which has been a challenge, but both the students and dance faculty have been flexible and accommodating with these protocols, designed to keep everyone safe.


I sat down with our newest Dance Faculty member Miranda Weese, a longtime New York City Ballet principal, to talk about her background, and how it led her here. This year, she has been working with the first cohort of students in the Boston Ballet School’s Professional Division at Walnut Hill. She coaches our young dancers and inspires them to express themselves and thrive in these extraordinary circumstances.

NC: What were your first impressions of Walnut Hill?

MW: I remember thinking I would have loved to have been at a school like this in my high school year! My own high school years were very different, mostly done by correspondence, while I immersed myself in the pre-professional world at the School of American Ballet in New York. I was a  professional child, living like a working adult, dedicating adolescence to my art and eagerly awaiting – and training for – acceptance into one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies.

NC: What do you remember most about that time in your life?

MW: The pace! We were constantly learning a huge amount of repertoire. I consider myself lucky to have been given so many performance opportunities in my career and to work with wonderful artists in dance, music and design.

NC: Did you have any opportunities to teach back then?

MW: As far as the company goes, there was an informal mentoring culture where we would learn the material and stories from our coaches, and watch other dancers, and I remember teaching one of my roles to an understudy when I was injured. I also taught in Saratoga Springs, the company’s summer retreat, for over 20 years, and that was amazing.

NC: What is the biggest difference between performing and teaching?

MW: As a performer, there is a necessary level of selfishness, of self-scrutiny and focus that has to completely shift when you teach. Teaching is about being of service: it is an act of service. You're there to help someone else realize their potential, nurture their artistry, or guide their journey. It’s not about you.

NC: As a dance teacher, how do you link creativity with discipline in a brand-new program? And, what kind of a dancer are you hoping to develop at Walnut Hill?

MW: The way we approach pedagogy is multi-layered. Of course there is the technical foundation, but then we want students to understand the many layers of the work; understanding the music is the work, exploring dynamics is the work... and the way you approach your work is the key to understanding and fulfillment. We are asking our dancers to make a personal investment into the process of investigation, to become aware of the many choices of interpretation they have, and prepare them for this career if they choose, and are able, to pursue it.

NC: How has the pandemic changed your outlook?

MW: COVID really puts your life into perspective. I'm so thankful that I’m still working, contributing to my art, and that I have my health and people in my life that matter. Most of all, I feel so inspired by these young dancers I work with every day. Understanding their point of view, being there when they discover a new perspective, and just having the interaction and collaboration in the classroom is really, really special.

NC: I’m always so curious about whether a faculty member might keep a secret dream hidden in their back pocket. Is there a secret desire that you might be willing to share?

MW: I was just telling my colleague Denise [Lewis]  about this! My original desire, my biggest desire, was to be a singer. I sing all the time! There was an event when I was younger that sort of discouraged me from doing it, and then I actually discovered that dance was really where my stronger talent was, and I loved it. The funny part about singing is that when I was growing up I was very shy, very introverted. The thought of singing in front of people terrified me. Dancing in front of people was when I felt the most like myself, the most confident and fearless... so I think I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

NC: What 5 things can’t you live without?

MW: 1) Music: I absolutely would not be able to exist or can't imagine existing without it; 2) Human Connection: interacting with like-minded people, that I can explore and communicate with; 3) Love, I hope to my life partner in the near future; 4) Good food; 5) Dance: my art, it’s another limb of me.

NC: One last question -  in your wildest dreams, what happens?

MW: That’s funny! In my wildest dreams I imagine myself expressing many different ways - not just as a dancer – in the hopes to discover something different about my personality and range. (As far as any social dancing goes, I love Latin dance!)

In the meantime, while we wait for vaccines and approach the holidays, you can see her in this beautiful Swan Lake video partnered by Damian Woetzel at New York City Ballet in 1999.
 

Sending everyone warm wishes and happy transitions into 2021,

Niki
 

Want to see more dance at Walnut Hill? The senior showcase of the Dance Department will be premiered on our Youtube Channel at 7pm ET on January 8.

Photo of Miranda by Igor Burlak Photography.

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