OBT staff members Linda Besant and Claire Willett sat down with retiring Principal Dancer Anne Mueller to interview her about her life and career. Over the next few days we’ll be sharing with you some of her stories and anecdotes – from her childhood as a touring ballet dancer, to the craziest photo shoot she ever worked on, to how she ended up living on a “nano-farm” with her husband and two goats. Enjoy these behind-the-scenes peeks at the life of one of OBT’s most engaging, colorful and unique personalities, beginning with these two tales from her student days.
Anne meets her teacher, Dame Sonia Arova
This is an image of Anne’s teacher, Sonia Arova. You can check out a video of her dancing in Coppelia here.
Anne remembers: I’d started studying in the D.C. area at the Washington School of Ballet. My dad was in the military, and he got transferred to Atlanta. I was heartbroken that I would have to leave D.C. and I was not interested in moving my training. What I had loved about Washington School of Ballet was this sense of history and elegance and etiquette. I really loved that. It had a feeling like you were being prepared for the knighthood or something like that.
My dad did a lot of research during my training, and looked into the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He took me on an advance visit and I was initially very skeptical, but I agreed to audition.
I auditioned with Sonia Arova, who absolutely terrified me. She taught from a chair, and it sounds so cliché, she had a stick in hand and she would tap that stick on the floor to keep the rhythm.
She had some of the dancers in the school take the audition class with us. It was very hard to tell how old they were, they were small young women, and they were very, very, very good, and that intimidated the bejesus out of me. She gave this really hard class, and when it was time to pirouette, she would yell, every time she would yell, “Six pirouettes.”
I had never encountered anything quite like that, and I thought, “If I do not do six pirouettes, this woman is not going to let me into this school, and I think I really want to be in this school.” I tried very hard to do six pirouettes, and of course I wasn’t doing six, but I think I was maybe doing three. They might not have been good, but it was an interesting strategy.
What she was trying to get us to do was just go for more. All I was focusing on was what I was not accomplishing correctly, and I didn’t see what she had gotten me to accomplish in trying to do more. That was my first realization about Sonia and her training style.
I did get accepted into the Alabama School of Fine Arts and decided to go there. So in the eighth grade I moved away from home and into a dormitory. The facility was not glamorous at the time. The dance studios were in a converted warehouse. The dormitory building had been a sort of mental hospital for women in the 1950s and 60s, so it was a bit of a bleak place, it had bars on the windows.
We had an integrated schedule of dance classes and academics. Somewhere through my first year Sonia decided that I should take private lessons. It was a bit of a terrifying situation. You would be in your afternoon class and she would send someone to get you to go into the small studio with her. You would spend somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, with no accompaniment, sometimes not even doing combinations, just practicing skills, really hard skills, over and over and over again. Every lesson was different, always on pointe, you never worked with Sonia in flat shoes.
The first day of school of my freshman year, I was sitting in my dorm room, and I got a call at the one of the pay phones in the hallway. Those were our only phones. I got on the phone, and Sonia said, “Anna.” She always called me Anna and in eight years I never corrected her that that wasn’t really my name. She said, “Come over here for a private lesson.”
I was crestfallen, it was the first day of school, I was not in good shape, but dutifully I marched myself over there and did my private lesson. The deal was that she wanted me to be Clara in The Nutcracker that year. It was a really technically demanding role for a young girl, on pointe, and she knew I needed a little extra skill building to be ready for it.
This was not for a school production, this was for the Alabama Ballet’s annual performances of Nutcracker. Any time the company would go on tour doing a larger production, students in the school got to go along provided that their grade point average was high enough, so that was a tricky thing that you had to maintain.
So I started touring with the Alabama Ballet in the eighth grade, and we would leave at Thanksgiving and be gone for two or three weeks, and tour continually up until we came back to Birmingham for the run of Nutcracker. There would be a couple of us in eighth or ninth grade and together we would have to get our school work done, figure out the finer points of like, geometry, on our own. So I would tour Nutcracker every year, and then starting in the tenth grade I starting touring other productions as well. At fifteen, I was already touring and performing a lot with a professional company.