Audiences and critics often praise OBT’s unison dancing in big ensemble moments. The high quality of OBT’s corps de ballet work is one of Lisa Kipp’s accomplishments as ballet master for the company since the 2004-05 season. Because so many of Swan Lake’s most beloved scenes depend upon a stellar group of swans, it’s a good time to learn more about Lisa and her work as a ballet master.
“Ballet Master” is a mysterious job title…what exactly does a ballet master do?
The components of the job include scheduling, teaching, staging (when a ballet exists already, and I either know it because I danced it, or I learn it off a video tape), and assisting a choreographer or stager as they bring a new ballet to the company.
When I arrived at OBT I was totally green. I could teach company class, no problem, and I could stage things, that wasn’t hard. Scheduling was hard at first and always will be hard. It’s a giant puzzle to make the best use of everyone’s time in our two studios.
But to assist a choreographer or stager, to write down a new work or ballet so we will always have it at OBT, I literally did not know anything at first. I knew I was supposed to put something down on a note pad. Francia [Christopher Stowell’s mother Francia Russell, who is a stager for the Balanchine Trust] guided me about the sort of thing I needed to be writing down, and how to organize it.
How on earth do you write down a ballet?
It was a big learning curve for me, and it took me a couple of years to get the hang of it. When a stager would come in I would spy on their notes to see what they were doing. Most stagers are pretty generous with their notes, even offering to let me photo-copy them. I eventually came up with my own method.
I usually notate the work by musical phrase, however it’s being counted, and I really write the whole step out, in terminology, what foot, which arm. Not all people do it that exhaustively, but I do. I can’t possibly keep all the ballets I have to deal with in my head. (That’s true of all ballet masters, we deal with such large amounts of material.) I have to be able to go back to a set of notes where I can read them and really know what those phrases are. The way my notes are written, they could probably be useful to someone else too.
You spend a fair amount of time in front of a screen with headphones on. What are you doing?
I’m notating a ballet from video—I’ve gotten pretty adept at learning a ballet off a tape. It can be fairly tedious. You get used to automatically reversing things.
That’s impressive, automatically reversing a whole cast of dancers in a video. Are there other hidden challenges to the job?
Learning to be at the front of a room of adults was hard for me when I started, because I had only worked with kids before. I had to figure out how to be authoritative, to get the job done, yet be personal and respectful of the accomplished adults in the studio.
It’s not enough for me to stand up at the front of the room and command attention. I’m not the boss. I need to give a little bit more to keep the room motivated and interested. The thing I remember the most about ballet masters was everyone thinking they were boring, thinking, “God, is this day ever going to end.” So I try really hard not to be boring. Some days I feel like I’m a circus performer trying to keep everyone engaged. It’s a bit of a performance all the time. It’s kind of an extroverted job and I’m not really extroverted. I might seem that way, but I’m really not. I’m not sure if I’m effective, you’d have to ask a dancer!
Right now, your efforts are focused on Swan Lake.
“I really like Swan Lake, I danced it a lot and I think that you feel good doing it. I like the aesthetic of the swans—it’s very feminine and very beautiful. The use of their arms as swans—the port de bras—is pretty unusual and specific, so I talk about that a lot. I try to instill in the corps dancers that although there are 18 of them and they can feel anonymous, they’re really not. “Each one of you is so special, each one of you has to be beautiful.” I like teaching the swans.
The music is very understandable, so that’s not hard, as opposed to some of the very contemporary ballets we do. But there’s a whole bunch of information to get out. There are a lot of formations and spacing involved in the big group dances.
How do you achieve the unity and geometry of the swans?
I did a lot of corps work when I danced at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I took a lot of pride in doing that well. It was important to me that I knew how to stay in line, that we all watched each other, that we all breathed the music together. Because I did so much corps work I know what it feels like and I think I have some tips on how to make it work.
It’s different from being a principal, where you’re completely focused on what you are doing in that moment. In the corps, you’re focused on that technical aspect of executing the steps but you also have every sense alive, you’re listening, you’re watching, you look out of the sides of your eyes. I say, “You’re like a bug, you can sense everything that’s going on.” We’ve talked a lot about moving as a big symbiotic group. Always looking across to see that you’re the same as the girl across from you, always looking downstage. It’s constant vigilance. Get it right and the swans in Swan Lake are breathtaking.
Do many dancers aspire to be ballet masters when they retire from performing?
I think that some people who envision being ballet masters actually envision coaching, but coaching is really different. With coaching, the dancers already know all the steps and you go in and work on intent, approach. When people find out that they actually have to teach every single step, some of them aren’t so interested. Usually dancers who learn quickly and retain well can be good ballet masters.
Do you end up coaching also?
I coach the corps, but I tread a little bit lightly with principals. I don’t coach solos unless I really know what I’m talking about because it’s a role I danced and I know exactly what it’s supposed to be. I’ll give technical corrections, fix a pirouette, but leave the interpretation up to them.
Just before you came to OBT, you worked in the costume shop at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tell us about that.
I went to school for a year to learn apparel design, with the thought that I would do costuming. I learned how to sew really well; I learned to make patterns. I liked doing that. It was so straightforward. You’d come in, do your project, and move on to the next thing. It was really intense, focused and quiet work. There are elements of the costume shop that I miss.
Being OBT’s ballet master is not the only gigantic job you have in your life. Over the last six years, as a single mom, you adopted two children from India.
I like people to know about my kids—they’re awesome possums! Raj has been here five and a half years, he’s seven. Ashmeena has been here two years, she’s twelve. Raj was born in Bangalore, and Ashmeena was born in Delhi.
I just always knew I would be a mom. My sister adopted three girls, so that was familiar to me. Going into it, I probably wasn’t fully prepared for all this was going to mean, and I think that’s probably just as well. It’s my reality now, so I don’t really know if it’s that much more difficult being a single mom.
Being a ballet master is so output, output, and both of the kids have big boisterous personalities, so sometimes I get really tired. The scheduling is impossible. It’s hard to get them to extracurricular activities. And when OBT is in the theater it’s really challenging.
What brought you to OBT way back in 2004?
Christopher Stowell and I first met at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in 1981. I danced in Pacific Northwest Ballet, and both of OBT’s predecessor companies—Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre. When Christopher came to OBT, I was directing the ballet department at the School of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle and working in the costume shop at PNB at the same time. Christopher was looking for a ballet master, and Mark Zappone [dance costume designer for PNB and many freelance commissions] suggested me to Christopher. It was a good time for me, I was looking for a change, and I was familiar with Portland. I was hired for three months at first and I’m still here.
Any final fun facts about yourself?
I’m a hair-trigger liberal responder on Facebook. That’s my weakness, for sure. I get myself all worked up. And I have a lifetime’s worth of boots. shoes and vintage clothing.