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Reflection: A Rehearsal Gives Another Dimension As A Ballerina Returns To Stage

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Lithe and assured, Amanda McKerrow dances with students in the Principia College studio with the same ethereal grace and authenticity that characterized her celebrated career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.

One of the things that makes watching her special is that she has not performed on stage since 2006, although earlier videos of McKerrow’s exquisite artistry can be viewed online. This weekend, however, she will perform in an original piece, “Found,” choreographed by her husband John Gardner, also a former ABT soloist.

“It’s really cool that this is the first time that John has choreographed something on me that I will get to perform,” McKerrow said. “This experience feels both completely raw and comfortable at the same time — I’m hoping to be able to give him the physical visualization of what he wants. When I retired, I was ready to move on and try other things, yet I really have enjoyed rehearsing this ballet; it’s simple really — to move to music makes me very happy.”

Even though she dances daily, McKerrow acknowledged feeling a bit “sore” following the first week of rehearsals.

I have seen ABT perform many times in New York and Chicago, and the intimacy of the Principia rehearsal studio adds a completely different dimension to my appreciation of dance as an art form — and seeing these two dancers up close allows me to appreciate them as wonderfully generous human beings. There is no question that both McKerrow and Gardner approach dance with great passion and discipline, acknowledging that it is very hard work; yet, they genuinely appreciate the inquisitiveness and openness of the Principia students in a way that is both unexpected and refreshing. They seem energized by the students’ questions, rather than seeming bogged down by having to pause and reconsider what they are doing.

There’s laughter, good-natured teasing and, yes, Gardner pushes the students to do their best work but with encouragement, never criticism. He has a deep sonorous laugh that I would never have expected of a ballet dancer — it’s almost startling if all you have seen is a public performance where there is only music and the sound of shoes softly clacking against the stage.

According to Gardner, each movement has a purpose, and he patiently demonstrates the significance of a pause, an arm movement or the tilt of the head. I never considered how complex it can be to bring your hands together and symbolically offer your heart to another — the gesture is so much more effective if it is a sweeping movement involving a slight lift of the torso. More than about learning steps, the rehearsals focused on the students’ ability to project emotion, which I didn’t anticipate.

“I feel really creative here, and when I walk into this studio, it just flows,” Gardner said. “There’s a real atmosphere of trust; so this gives me a great deal of freedom to explore ideas, and I think the kids feel safe here too.”

The same easy rapport can be seen between McKerrow and her fellow dancers. Quieter in demeanor than Gardner, McKerrow tends to interact with the students one-on-one, offering support with an incredibly warm smile and a gentle touch on the arm.

McKerrow leapt to prominence in the dance world when in 1981 she became the first American dancer to receive a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow. During their careers, the couple has performed for such legendary artists and choreographers as George Balanchine, Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Martha Graham.

With such a distinguished dance resume, no one was more surprised or delighted than Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen, head of Principia’s dance program, when McKerrow accepted the part.

“I asked Amanda to take the role — it was my wildest fantasy that she would agree to do it,” Harper-Wilcoxen said. “I was ecstatic that she said yes — in my opinion, she is one of the greatest dramatic ballerinas of the 20th century and will bring tremendous subtlety and expression to the role.”

Motivated by the sheer pleasure of dancing, McKerrow can’t anticipate what it will be like to perform in front of an audience once again, an experience she did not plan on having at this point in her career.

“I honestly don’t know how I will feel,” she laughed. “This will be really interesting for me personally.”

The dance, a contemporary piece with a ballet vocabulary, has evolved since Gardner began to imagine the choreography — without McKerrow in the lead.

Watching rehearsals, the fluidity of the process was striking. Clearly, Gardner had preconceived ideas and emotions he wished to convey; yet he never hesitated to stop and ask students how movements felt to them, making the piece a truly collaborative learning experience.

There is something extraordinary about seeing the two dancers work together, intuiting one another’s moods and wishes through the simplest of gestures in a way that resembles a beautiful pas de deux.

Gardner, a founding member of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project, describes the process as being similar to “doodling on paper.”

McKerrow says, “I’m always impressed with John, usually I’m just trying to keep up with his choreography (as his ballet mistress).” The couple serves as répétiteurs for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, staging and coaching this famed choreographer’s repertoire for students and dance companies across the world.

“I’m loving being able to work together with John in a new way,” she said.

And, I love seeing world-renowned dancers in a new light, as very approachable people who are simply sharing the joy of something they truly love with others.

The piece, part of Principia’s Spring Dance Performance, will be performed with McKerrow at 8 p.m. April 11 and a 2 at 8 p.m. April 12 in Cox Auditorium on the Elsah campus. Harper-Wilcoxen will perform in a preview at 8 p.m. April 10.

For information on tickets, contact Harper-Wilcoxen at 618-466-2429.

Kathie Bassett is a dance fan who used to work at the Alton Telegraph.