"
I like to know a ballet inside and out.
"

 

 

 

An Interview with Mark Goldweber,
Ballet Master, The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago
June, 2002

By Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

 

 

A Passionate, In-Depth Commitment to Keeping the Ballet Flame Alive

On a recent sunny Seattle Sunday, we conversed with Mark Goldweber about his career and ballet-mastering.


How long have you been Ballet Master for the Joffrey?

About six years. After retiring from performing with the Joffrey Ballet in New York, I went to Pacific Ballet Theatre in Portland, Oregon which later merged with another company to form what's now Oregon Ballet Theatre. I was in Portland for a total of 9 years.

How did you arrive at your current position? Was it a natural process for you, e.g., do you learn parts easily or have a gift for teaching and coaching?
Yes! I'm actually from Miami where as a young boy, I studied and performed with Miami Ballet under Thomas Armour and in hanging around the studio, I learned parts of dancers fairly naturally. Everyone realized I had an eye and talent for ballet-mastering when at age sixteen, I staged the “Pas de Dix” from Raymonda for The Miami Ballet. Sally Bliss saw me while she was an adjudicator for SE Regional Ballet Association and recommended me to Mr. Joffrey. I always was one who seemed to know everyone's parts!

Tell us a little more about your background where you trained and of your professional career.
As I mentioned earlier, with Thomas Armour in Miami and also with Martha Mahr. I spent one year at Mary Day's in Washington, D.C., and one summer at SAB when I was 12. I lived in Violette Verdy's apartment with her mother, along with a couple of other young male ballet students, including Victor Barbee. NYCB was in Saratoga, so her place was free, but she did drop in now and then. I also got to know her as she would come as a guest artist to Mr. Armour's company.

What are some of the pluses and minuses of what you do?
Probably the biggest minus is not so much the work itself but funding or lack thereof for ballet companies. We produce so many fine and wonderful ballets that, unfortunately, end up having only a short life-span and I'd like to see these ballets “live” longer. For example, our recent showing of Taming of the Shrew was done six times and Prodigal Son only five times. And we don't get to tour these ballets. So clearly, funding to enhance longer seasons and more touring would be better. Pluses include the joy of being around music and moving all day and getting to travel and perform in great theatres.

Are you responsible for the entire Joffrey repertory, or only for certain ballets or choreographers?
We have three ballet masters who share responsibilities, including sometimes having joint watch for certain ballets, such as Trinity. I'm the caretaker for Lilac Garden, Square Dance, Prodigal Son. Currently we are at 32 dancers strong and six apprentices.

What are some of the challenges in staging a ballet?
I like to know a ballet inside and out, so the time spent in doing this is often a challenge, as we frequently have several ballets being rehearsed at once and I'd prefer one thing at a time!

How do you learn ballets? From different sources, I'm sure...
I have good recall of ballets I learned long ago. I use video of course, but also like to physically learn parts as well.

You've known some "greats." Tell us a few stories...
Well, I had had success as the 'Blue Boy' (a turning part) in Les Patineurs. In 1978 Agnes de Mille came to create A Bridegroom Called Death at the Joffrey and asked, “Can you do 12 pirouettes every time?” Being honest, I had to reply that I couldn't guarantee 12 EVERY time. I didn't get the part [laughs]! This was a lesson for me in needing to be more confident. Mr. Joffrey always seemed to be very “in tune” and I always liked him, even as a 12-year old. As I could learn quickly and was open, I seemed to be a bit of a muse for him. I really enjoyed the collaborative choreographic process.

Do you have any creative impulses yourself? Any ballets that you've made or will be in the future?
I'd like to complete a work to a suite of Milhaud but I find that I can't be both a ballet master and choreographer; there isn't time! I do find however, that I tend to give “choreographed” classes and have to restrain that impulse!

How has the Joffrey changed since its much-publized move to Chicago?
I would say that it's “grown up” with the world around it and how the world is going. We've had to rent sets and costumes for some ballets, whereas we would have built them and owned them ourselves before. It was initially a shambles coming from New York, starting from zero. Patience is required and I think we'll get there!

Do you have a favorite step or sequence?
I try to create Center work the night before, starting with petit allegro. I try not to repeat combinations and don't want to get into an auto pilot mode.

As in music, ballets are stylistically different from each other. How do you handle this?
We handle it as we were raised to do. Joffrey dancers have been always used to changing styles. We don't use any one style of technique in class. The dancers are very skilled in picking up styles and are very versatile.

How big is the Joffrey repertory? Tell us more...
We do a two-week Fall season, Nutcracker and a two-week Spring season plus some touring. There are 20 ballets up at any one time. Our Nutcracker is a unique collaboration. It's a George Verdock production. Mr. Arpino did “Snow” and “Flowers” and Mr. Joffrey the rest. Sets are by Oliver Smith.

Tell us about balancing challenging company dancers with not pushing them too much, particularly at "sensitive" times such as performance time...
The model of the ballet master used to be that of a dictator. “You never got out of 5th until you were told to.” Times have changed there's more collaboration, as dancers have a lot to contribute too. I think we've struck the right balance and are quite a happy company right now.

What's fun in ballet for you?
As a dancer, I loved performing Puck and Mercutio. As ballet master, I like seeing growth and find it very rewarding when dancers become great artists.

We have a lot of work left to do here in Chicago but I'm very optimistic. We still have a connection with our school in New York and in fact, I'm guest teaching there this Summer; 18 classes a week!

 

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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin


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