"This is your self. Not the self you put on for the world. Not the self you think you should be. This is the real you."
This is a ballet class.
The teacher is Christine Wright.
Christine has been teaching in Toronto for over a decade through Toronto Dance Theatre, School of Toronto Dance Theatre and Peggy Baker's Summer Intensive. Last summer she relocated from New York City to Toronto, giving local dancers of all sorts a chance to experience her insightful and unique classes on an ongoing basis.
I have been a diehard fan of Christine's classes since the early 2000s. In my first class with her as I lay on the ground -- the usual beginning to her ballet classes, which takes dancers through images intended on functionally connecting body and self -- I was terrified that I wasn't doing it right and once on my feet, panicked that all my flaws were glaring. It took me a few classes with Christine to realize there was no 'doing it right'. The form is the form but it is not the goal. We are moving through technique, aiming for something else.
These are not choreography-heavy classes, instead exercises are focused on simple, full movements and transitions that allow you to feel how your energy works in motion, how you connect your movement to music, which is always live, and with some amazingly creative Toronto pianist-accompanists.
As a strong dancer who instinctually muscled her way through dance classes, Christine found more power and possibility in her dancing when she focused on moving her energy rather than her muscles. Her teaching style reflects this epiphany, developing dancers' individual sensations of energy to create more satisfying and efficient movement.
Christine lived in New York City for 40 years, dancing with Lar Lubovitch's company for over 10 years as well as Eglevsky Ballet, Zvi Gotheiner, Ohad Naharin, Kazuko Hirabyashi and Elisa Monte among others.
photo of Nancy Colahan and Christine Wright in work by Lar Lubovitch
Christine graciously sat down with me to answer some questions about her distinct teaching approach. We met at the beautiful National Ballet School facilities, where Peggy Baker is a resident artist. Peggy, who danced in Lar Lubovitch's company with Christine, has brought her here under the auspices of Peggy Baker Dance Projects and is offering daily classes for Toronto-area dancers in the light, airy National Ballet School studios.
I was curious to ask Christine about her transition from New York to Toronto.
"I needed to leave New York. The city has changed since I moved there 40 years ago. It has become stressful and expensive. I'd been coming to Toronto for 14 years and really liked the city. Peggy has been trying to get me to move here for years."
And how did Christine transition from performing to teaching?
Going through a divorce and quitting performing created a time of change and challenge.
"I had done some teaching with Lar, so I started with the idea I would teach until something else happened. I loved it. I didn't think I would always do it but I fell in love.
"Originally I wanted to be a ballet dancer because, growing up, I never saw modern dance. Then in New York I was exposed to contemporary dance...but I always trained in ballet. It has taught me so much. And to do Lar's work you need fairly strong ballet background -- the lines, the finesse of technique."
photo of Doug Varone, Christine Wright and Nancy Colahan in work by Lar Lubovitch
In Christine's classes ballet is a consistent structure through which dancers can experience themselves in all the minute and wonderful differences we are each day. Where contemporary classes can vary widely in form and content, ballet is fairly predictable, making the changes and sensations more easily and deeply felt. The approach is applicable to dancers of any discipline, so long as they feel comfortable with ballet vocabulary, or comfortable with not knowing the vocabulary and plunging in anyway.
"The sensation of form is more consistent in ballet [than in contemporary dance], so you can develop the ground underneath you. If you can't move you can't affect change. If you can move but you don't know what you're doing you can't go anywhere either."
The unusual way of starting a ballet class, lying on the floor, is not simply a variation on savasana pose from yoga.
"People have a glut of information in their conceptual minds these days. In order to experience imagination, intuition, energy, emotion and motion, you have to be in your body."
Christine leads dancers lying on the floor through images of systems inside the body, scanning the paths of energy, relieving the brain of its to-do lists and achievement-driven goals. Her words about tapping into your true self are not hollow aphorisms. The guided imagery stir up energy and warmth and sensitivity.
"Bill T. Jones said 'Our imaginations should exceed our language.' This is what the beginning of class is about." she explains.
The next step of Christine's classes are a series of image-based exercises targeting small muscles and movements that sometimes get overlooked in our pursuit of range and expanse in our dancing.
"I started including these exercises because I would see things in class that were too complicated to be addressed in the complexity of class itself. They deal with technical issues in a way that gets dancers to think physically and imaginatively."
Have there been breakthroughs in the course of her career as a teacher?
"My big breakthrough was when I realized what I was doing something wrong. I was enamoured with anatomy and was giving too much information. I saw a dancer going across the floor in my class doing one correct thing after another and I thought 'I have destroyed her'."
The coordination was right, but the art was missing.
She reevaluated her approach to teaching, looking to images and sensations that alleviate tension and free the body, allowing dancers to be more themselves inside the movement. These ideas create dance that is more compelling and expressive.
"Images are more effective than anatomical information." Christine tries to help people to tap into their own magical thinking. "Dancers who are unique are so because their mentality is unique, not their physique. There is something else going on."
When I asked Christine my question of the season: who or what was a transformational performance for her as an audience member, her answer is not surprising in light of her previous statement.
"I am not so much changed by a work but by particular dancers -- people who have inspired me or had qualities I wanted, or reminded why I had to dance."
A few of them: Violette Verdy, Mariko Sanjo, Gary Chryst, Soledad Bario, Shantala Shivalingappa.
Christine's classes have been transformational for me in the last 8 months. I can't make it every day, but often enough to feel reconnected and more like myself than I've felt in a dance class in many years. The last time I really felt this way was a brief time, also in one of Christine's classes, back in 2009. I was 6 or 7 months pregnant and I felt myself soaring through big jumps like a gazelle, a pregnant gazelle but a gazelle nonetheless.
"What interests me most is connecting people to a very personal experience of themselves. I'm not trying to make dancers adhere to a form. I hope they can learn to use the form in order to express themselves on a personal level."
Take your first class with Christine for $10!
photos of Christine Wright teaching courtesy of Peggy Baker Dance Projects, photos by Francisco Gransiano.
photos of Christine Wright with Doug Varone and Nancy Colahan from Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.