Diana White was born in Park Ridge, Illinois and began her ballet training with local instructors when she was four years old. At fourteen, she became a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Ballet, then under the direction of Maria Tallchief. There, she was seen by George Balanchine, who awarded her a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. He invited her to join the New York City Ballet one year later. During her twenty-year career at NYCB she worked closely with Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Her repertoire included principal roles in works by both masters, including Balanchine’s Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Western Symphony, Serenade, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Jewels, as well as Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, The Cage, Goldberg Variations, Moves, a ballet in silence which was revived in 1987 especially for her, and many more. The year she was promoted to soloist, Peter Martins created a principal role for her in his ballet The Waltz Project. Ms. White toured internationally with NYCB and as a guest artist with other companies. She has appeared several times on public television’s Live From Lincoln Center, and Great Performances.
In 1992, while still performing with the New York City Ballet, she co-founded the Scarsdale Ballet Studio with former partner, Christian Claessens. In addition to teaching and coaching, Ms. White has choreographed several ballets for her students including the Carousel Waltz, which was performed at the Westchester Philharmonic’s 20th Anniversary Gala. From 1998 to 2001 and again in 2010 she was on the faculty of the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College. She is a master teacher and judge for the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition which awards scholarships to major international ballet schools, and is also a faculty member of Dance New York International, a summer program in Paris and Madrid directed by Kazuko Hirabayashi. As a repetiteur with the George Balanchine Trust, Ms. White stages his works worldwide. She is the author of a children’s book, Ballerina Dreams, published by Scholastic.
In this interview with SBS alumna Charlotte Stabenau of Pointe Magazine, Ms. White discusses her teaching philosophy and how it evolved.
CS: How did you begin dancing?
DW: My mother says I began dancing almost as soon as I could walk. She always had classical music playing at home, and I just responded to it. One of my earliest memories is of a book of ballerina paper dolls. I think that was it! I had a total passion for ballet even before I saw it in a theater. Funny how just the word “ballerina” conjures an image of beauty and ideal form.
What was your training like?
When I was four, my mother took me to my first lessons with Miss Willow in Park Ridge, Illinois. She taught us to sway gracefully. When I was six, I went to a new studio, where my teacher was Bonnie Mc Cullagh. I absolutely idolized her. She taught a very traditional ballet class, but also insisted that we study Graham and drama. Each year she staged really fine student productions, which she called dance-dramas. At the end of my first year, she let me perform a solo in my very first recital. I chose to do an improvisation to Prokofiev’s death scene from Romeo and Juliet. I had been dancing it alone in my bedroom every night for months, after seeing the ballet danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev with the Royal Ballet at the Opera House in Chicago.
When I was ten, I had a kind of epiphany. The New York City Ballet came to Chicago. They contacted local dance schools and held an audition for young ballet students to appear as bugs in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the hundreds of kids who showed up, I was one of the lucky ones to be chosen. I even had a solo moment; running in a big diagonal across the stage and doing a grand jeté. The whole experience of being behind the scenes among all those incredible dancers, rehearsing with Mr. B, and then going on stage with a live orchestra sealed my fate. From then on, my only desire was to become a member of the New York City Ballet and dance for Balanchine.
When I was twelve, Miss Bonnie closed her studio, and I went to the Evanston School of Ballet, where I studied the Cechetti Method. At 14, I joined the Lyric Opera of Chicago as a member of the corps de ballet. There, at last, I was seen by Balanchine, who had come to choreograph the opera Orfeo and later to help his former wife, Maria Tallchief establish a ballet company there. I wrote to him after he left, telling him that it was my dream to dance in his company. He offered me a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, and at sixteen, I moved to New York on my own. Nine months later I became an apprentice with the New York City Ballet.
My training had certainly been eclectic, and I never really stopped seeking and learning throughout my professional career. I had a lot to make up for, because though my early teachers were excellent, I didn’t get the daily intensive training that I really needed until I was fourteen. I was lucky that Mr. Balanchine believed in my potential and had the patience to let me develop my technique through the experience of dancing his ballets in his company. I don’t think that this would be the case anywhere in the professional dance world today.
Why do you teach?
By teaching, I stay connected to and share an art form that I love. I believe classical ballet is relevant and important, and it can only remain alive if it is passed on from dancer to dancer through teaching.
I owe so much to all the fine teachers who generously worked with me, especially Maria Tallchief, Alexandra Danilova, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy, Peff Modelski, Wilhelm Burmann, Stanley Williams, Valentina Kozlova, and of course, Mr. Balanchine. Now that I am a teacher, their words echo in my head, and sometimes I feel I am understanding them for the first time.
When I was still dancing, teaching helped me become a better dancer. It was Suzanne who encouraged me to start while I was still performing. She invited me to give class to her students at her summer camp at Cedar Island, NY. It was an honor and a challenge and it did set me on a course. I discovered that my passion for ballet had a new outlet. I did indeed have a great deal to give, not only on stage, but in the classroom.
Through the years, I continued to teach on my days off from the company, and it was shocking how much I learned from having to analyze each and every thing. Ironically, my career as a soloist, which had stagnated, now suddenly took off, and I started to be cast in the roles that I had always dreamed of dancing!
It is my duty to pass on each morsel of knowledge to my students and to help them to understand what it takes to become a ballet dancer. There is a sense of urgency because they are so young. There is so much to learn in such a short time, and there is no guaranteed outcome in terms of achieving a professional career. Nonetheless, I hope that each class, rehearsal, and performance is a reward in and of itself.
Why did you choose to open a studio in Scarsdale?
We chose Scarsdale because it was accessible from the city, centrally located, and culturally sophisticated. We knew that there was a ballet audience here. I wanted to teach REAL ballet, in a serious way, not just a little bit of everything.
What makes Scarsdale Ballet Studio unique?
I promote a healthy, balanced approach to training, tailored to each individual. Young dancers are like seeds. Their talents germinate at different times and each seedling requires different conditions to grow. My faculty and I try to nurture each of our students so that we end up with thriving, accomplished, well-rounded young people who can dance. Really dance.
My faculty is professional and diverse. Just as baby birds imprint on their parents, ballet students imprint on their teachers. This is why I take ballet teaching very seriously. I am constantly examining my own approach to technique, style, and curriculum, so that my students will not develop mannerisms. I am a great admirer of several styles of classical ballet. Though I danced for Balanchine, I can spend hours on YouTube watching Vaganova classes and Petipa variations. This is why I have faculty members from different dance backgrounds. I don’t want my dancers to become caricatures of any particular style; I want them to have a secure classical technique. However, I want their dancing to be natural and individual in response to the music, as I feel was Balanchine’s intention.
Our classes in character, modern, and contemporary ballet styles have been important additions to our curriculum. We also give our students the chance to become creators themselves, in choreography workshop class.
At my school, no one with the desire to dance is turned away. I believe there are strengths in a classroom of dancers with different attributes. Our teachers offer the same level of professionalism and dedication to each and every child, regardless of his or her ability. We guide our students to enroll in a program of classes best suited to their level of commitment, and then give each dancer an opportunity to share his or her accomplishments in performance.
Why do you feel performing is important?
All of us at the Studio believe that performing is not only enriching and inspiring, but it is a vital part of a dancer’s education. Dancing in a classroom and performing on stage are very different things. In the classroom you can try again. On stage you have to make it happen in the moment. Only through experience can you develop the confidence and the know-how to do this. In the meantime, you are learning the very specific protocol of the theater: how to behave backstage, how to be responsible for your costume, make-up, entrances and exits, and how to work with everyone who makes a performance possible.
What performance opportunities do your students have?
All of our students, age 4 and up, appear in the annual recital in June. Our spring Concertdance performance is an additional opportunity for more committed dancers. We rehearse on weekends throughout the late fall and winter. Each year we have done a classical ballet, a world-premiere, and a Balanchine ballet. We are the only studio in Westchester that is allowed to perform the choreography of Balanchine. Our 2011 Concertdance featured Act III of Swan Lake, Mediterranea, by Pedro Ruiz, and Balanchine’s La Source, in which our dancers performed alongside SBS faculty member and NYCB ballerina Abi Stafford and her brother, Jonathan.
Very often our dancers are selected to perform with other companies, especially in productions of the Nutcracker. We have a long roster of “Claras” who have performed at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase, for example. Often, our New York- based faculty members will invite select dancers to appear in their own works in Manhattan venues.
Looking ahead, I hope to start a studio company, so that my most dedicated young dancers will have more opportunities to perform and to share with the community. This would also be a laboratory for our choreographers. If ballet is to survive, we must inspire the young, train them, create new works while we keep the old ones alive, and perform for new audiences.
What does SBS have to offer aspiring professional dancers?
We have a special Conservatory program which offers intensive training with some of the best teachers in the New York City area. Dancers who aspire to a professional career can take advantage of all the classes available to them and find mentors within our faculty to help them become physically and mentally prepared for the demands of the professional world. The wonderful thing is that they can do this without sacrificing school, family, and friends by hours of commuting. They don’t lose their perspective on reality by being caught up too soon in the rarified and sometimes unhealthily competitive environment of New York.
Conservatory students who ultimately choose not to pursue a professional career have learned valuable life skills and cultivated a life-long love of ballet. I’m proud that so many of our former students tell me that the Scarsdale Ballet Studio feels like home!