Charles Askegard

The NYCB principal moves on to the Next big thing.

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Was it a big deal for you to go to San Francisco because suddenly there were other guys in class?
It was. There were guys! I was 12, and I had seen things on TV and company members [in Minnesota], and I knew that I had to do double tours and pirouettes and things like that, but I didn't know that the other guys were already doing them. I was looking around and going, Oh my God—you have got to work really hard. That summer really opened my eyes in a big way. I realized there was lots of competition. I went there when I was 12, 13—came to the School of American Ballet when I was 14. ABT when I was 15 and then back there when I was 16. But then I moved out here to study with Maggie Black.

I didn't realize you went to ABT for the summers. Was that Baryshnikov's program?
Yes. It was terrific. It was literally 40 people, and we danced basically all day, from class in the morning to variations and pas de deux and then modern class and jazz class—it was great and intense. A lot of times, you go to SAB, and I'm not putting it down, but there are hundreds of kids.

And ABT now.
Yes. They picked people they thought were not [ready for] this year, but maybe next year. I was certainly in the next-year camp. I was still a boy. I grew until I was 21. When I joined American Ballet Theatre at 18, I was maybe 6'. And I just continued to grow for three years. I'm 6'4."

That's awkward, too, because you're always trying to find your balance, right?
Oh, it was horrible. Horrible. The strength: You lose it. You're trying to find the balance, the core strength.... Yeah. I wasn't that good when I was 18.

Well, you slipped through somehow.
[Laughs] I don't know how it happened. I'm joking.

How did you like the School of American Ballet?
It was great. I had Stanley Williams, Richard Rapp and [Andrei] Kramarevsky, and it was incredible. I don't think I fully understood Stanley's technique at the time. It was really advanced, and when I came back to it later in life I was like, Wow—this guy's a genius. Arch Higgins was the star of the class.

Why didn't you go back to SAB?
I don't really know. Okay, this is the thing. ABT would come through Minnesota for a week or two every year, and Lise Houlton, who was Loyce's daughter, was at ABT, and at the time I just felt like I wanted to dance at ABT. I wanted to do those ballets. I would super with [the company], and I looked up to them and I was just trying to figure out a way to get in: They didn't really have a school at the time. That's why I went to train at ABT, but that was the last year they had the program. I was going to go back to San Francisco, but then I'd already gotten in contact with Maggie Black. Bonnie Mathis was a principal dancer at ABT, and she was also teaching in Minnesota. She had introduced me to Maggie, and I trained with her for a while when I could; she expressed a good interest in me, and I was her lone scholarship student. She said, "I don't know where you're going to go, but I'm offering to have you train with me," and that's what I decided to do. At the time, it was unbelievable. She would have 80 or 90 people in class, know everyone's name and not only that, give everyone a correction. It was the most intense class around. There was the professional class at 9:30am and another class at 12:30pm; the later class was a more modern crowd, but the earlier one was everybody from ABT—and there were people from City Ballet and the Joffrey. It was in a loft on 21st Street. For some reason, that's what I wanted to do. I felt like it was where I could really learn to dance. It was a very odd choice to make because it was connected to nothing, no company. I guess I just got lucky.

What attracted you to her teaching?
It was about cleanliness and strength. It was helpful in strengthening my weaknesses. She made a huge difference, and having that strong technique is great. It really set me up for a good, long career. I always realized whenever I started to get hurt or feel that I was about to get injured, I had to go back and look at my technique and realize, Ah—this is why it's happening. I'm compensating, I'm pushing here too much. She had a very interesting style of teaching. It helped a lot of people and it certainly helped me.

Doesn't Baryshnikov always refer to her as "Black Magic" or something?
I think it was Mr. B, and people took it.... I don't know. It caused a lot of people to look up to her like she was a guru, and I think that was their problem: They became too focused on that one person.

I got the feeling she was doing something modern.
No. It just had to be clean. She was like, "That's just crap. Take it all out!" It was a real strong foundation, good ballet technique. It was incredible. Lots of times you'd be working on your port de bras and you'd forget that you'd have to turn out, or point your feet and then you forget about the port de bras. To put it all into one package is what she helped me do.

Where do you train now?
She quit teaching in the early '90s. I took classes with David Howard. I still am taking a class with him now, but in between, there were a lot of other teachers. When I came here to City Ballet, I realized I had to learn a whole new style of ballet, and so I went to Stanley and Willy Burmann, and they helped a lot. At ABT, we could sort of pick our own tempo. [Starts to crack up] Do you know what I mean? Like, "I need this a little slower." It was a solo for Swan Lake or Bayadre or whatever, and they're like, "Okay, you can have it slower."

And then you get here.
They're like, "Well, you never know what it's going to be out there, so if it's fast you should be able to do it fast." It was pretty early on—sometimes the conductor gets into a thing, and there are lots of times when you're just all of a sudden going, Oh my God! What's happening? I don't know if I can keep up with this. I remember one Symphony in C. We were doing the adagio, but it was like an allegro. [Snaps fingers twice] Wendy Whelan and I were like, I can't believe we're doing this this fast. I don't want to say anything bad about conductors, but sometimes Andrea Quinn would play it really fast.

She did!
And you just got out there and did it. But that was a very old-school Balanchine kind of thing. We didn't really get to talk about tempi so much, because it was in the context of a ballet a lot of times: Your solos happened within a piece of music. It wasn't a set piece. And you had to dance on the music.

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