In Studio: Malcolm Burn and Cinderella
January 21st, 2014
It’s Tuesday, and Malcolm Burn, Ballet Master at Richmond Ballet, dressed in his regular black t-shirt and jeans, walks into the Gibson Studio. It’s a small group this afternoon, just his Cinderellas and their Princes. With their flowing practice skirts cinched around their waists, Maggie Small and Valerie Tellmann make last minute adjustments to their ribbons and shoes. Marty Davis and Fernando Sabino stretch their arms across their bodies and behind their backs as they chat quietly. Burn removes his loose wrist watch, places it in his small, grey-green duffle bag, and begins his rehearsal unceremoniously, as if continuing a earlier conversation. Realizing his cues, the dancers gather around Burn as he starts to demonstrate, stepping in and out of the roles of his Cinderella and his Prince – “Not bad for an old man,” he says with a smile.
Quickly, Burn’s trademark characteristics arise. Burn can be direct and demanding and yet warm and reassuring all at once. He is a reliable conductor, even friend, who all the dancers at Richmond Ballet follow with a warm devotion. Retaking his seat, Burn now observes from the front of the studio, moving his head with the music’s time, offering an occasional word of praise. Burn seems relaxed and confident. “That’s it, that’s lovely,” he says quietly to himself.
Burn, who has been with Richmond Ballet for over 25 years, knows his dancers – their strengths and weaknesses – tremendously well, and as such, he has developed a collaborative environment in the rehearsal studio. On multiple occasions, Burn shows his willingness to be flexible, to adjust his steps and patterns, and he constantly encourages the dancers to fully trust in their own abilities. After a moment of silence, Burn walks to over to his Cinderella and Prince pairing. “Get braver,” he says as he looks directly at them. “Both of you are chicken!” Everyone smiles – they know he is right. He turns to his Prince. “Be daring. Don’t play it safe.” He knows this Prince can be pushed. “Find out what you’re made of.”
Burn’s Cinderella, which opens on February 13th, is a demanding ballet. Much of his choreography, he explains, is dictated by the challenging Sergei Prokofiev score, which is full of irregular patterns and accents, odd repeats, and the need to count in 7’s and 11’s. Pas de deux require throws, slides and intricate lifts, all of which the dancers are experimenting with today. They look unsure from time to time, and sometimes watch Burn demonstrate with inquisitive looks on their faces. However, questions never linger for long. Burn senses their hesitation, and quickly turns to humor. “It’s not you, it’s me. This is a crazy ‘Malcolm step’,” Burns says matter-of-factly, slapping his own hand and making light the difficult footwork that he has asked the dancers to learn. By the same token, Burn of course also has a fantastic ability to offer easy fixes that ease these intricate steps – Valerie Tellmann quickly learns this while experimenting with an attitude turn, and Fernando Sabino and Marty Davis discover this while testing out hand and head placement during dare-devil jumps and spins.
Immersed in a story ballet as Burn and dancers are these days, Burn’s rehearsals show off his own rich, storytelling abilities, narrating the story of the famous fairytale while also adding stories from his own life – stories of a father with a 20-something son (which spurs a spirited discussion about Grand Theft Auto with the company’s men), of walking around Richmond’s downtown streets and observations about VCU students, and of dancing all over the world during a lengthy professional career. His stories add levity to these rehearsals, where the dancers are being asked to absorb a great deal challenging “information” (a word Burn uses with extreme frequency), and quickly. The information is layered – character development, choreography, acting – and wrestling with Prokofiev’s score is proving to be an interesting, if not frustrating, test. The dancers look slightly overwhelmed, but somehow encouraged by the rehearsal’s progress as well.
Five minutes before rehearsal ends for the day, Burn pauses and laughs to himself. “I have one more thing to ask,” he says, turning around with a cheeky smile. Before beginning to craft his next question, he pauses once again. “If it is possible…”, he continues, and the dancers are already marking his words with their hands. Burn, of course, knows it already is possible. It always is.