New York City-based ballet master and teacher Matthew Powell has turned to his dancer colleagues and the spirit of his city to create a new ballet class video, Find Your Fifth: A Ballet Class in New York with Matthew Powell. In this video, Powell, who teaches at Broadway Dance Center, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and was recently Guest Ballet Master at Royal New Zealand Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, leads six professional dancers through a ballet class, complete with combinations and helpful tips, aimed at the advanced beginner or intermediate dancer. Powell hopes to express the vibrant and collective experience of a ballet class in NYC.
Find Your Fifth was released on May 29 and is available for purchase via DVD or download at www.findyourfifth.com and at the shop at Broadway Dance Center, along with the accompanying ballet class CD, played by Patrick Gallagher.
“I drafted the idea of a video that would offer a true cinematic experience of a ballet class in New York City to anyone around the world,” Powell explains. “I say ‘experience’ because I hold the belief that one cannot learn classical ballet from a DVD. Find Your Fifth offers helpful tools, tips and combination ideas, but I am not teaching anyone how to do classical ballet here. I think that’s what makes this so unique. Dancers will get a lot out of it, but really anyone who loves classical ballet or who is curious about getting an inside view of the life of a dancer will enjoy Find Your Fifth.”
The cast of Find Your Fifth includes current and former dancers from companies such as Dance Theatre of Harlem, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet: Sarah Atkins, Megan Dickinson, Chrystyn Mariah Fentroy, Dimitri Kleioris, Sean Rollofson and Nicholas Sipes. Powell says that many of these dancers are friends or students whom he has admired as dancers for a long time. But most importantly, they are real, working dancers.
“I wanted a cast comprised of real, accomplished, everyday professional dancers,” Powell adds. “We are not showcasing someone balancing on a yoga ball while doing a developpé à la seconde next to their ear. We are showing the process, and I’m so appreciative to the dancers for letting me show the odd mistakes here and there. The reality is, dancers make mistakes, so why not show that part, too!”
Atkins, a NYC independent dance artist who dances in the video, first took Powell’s ballet class when he was leading a pre-performance warm-up.
“I like that Matt is very clear, direct and positive,” she says. “His combinations are simple and effective. I always feel ready to go after his class.”
A teacher’s style and approach may not come right away, and is something that grows over time. Powell, who started teaching at a young age – around 20 – says he always idolized David Howard and his ballet class because of its “perfect” structure and Howard’s sense of musicality.
In addition, and perhaps surprisingly, Powell was also influenced by a non-dancer.
“I was home sick with the flu one day and was watching the Food Network, when Ina Garten’s show Barefoot Contessa came on,” he recalls. “I remember she was explaining how to roast a chicken, and I found myself enamored by the way she broke everything down step-by-step but with a nurturing and ‘how easy is that’ approach. I started cooking her recipes and essentially became a student again but with a different form of art. It was just what I needed – to start from scratch and learn something other than ballet in order to really understand the principles of teaching.”
Just as the kitchen can be a place to experiment, Powell sees ballet class as a “safe” place, to practice, to make mistakes, to learn.
“As a dancer, I was one of the strange ones who enjoyed class more than performing,” Powell explains. “I love the idea of a group of dancers getting together and working to improve upon their craft as a collective whole, and I’ve always found it interesting how each class develops a unique energy all its own. Different accompanists, different teachers, different groups of dancers – the varying ingredients all come together to create a one-time experience that is unique from the class before. I love that.”
Atkins agrees. “Barre can be almost meditative in the way that it is a period of focused, undivided attention,” she says. “What is nice about ballet class in New York City is the variety of options regarding teachers and styles and the ability to pick the class that is right for you. Also, class actually becomes a great place to network and form community. The majority of the work that I do now comes, in one way or another, from that community.”
In Find Your Fifth, Powell shows even more than just a 90-minute ballet class. He also offers a “Handy Tips” section, during which he takes specific steps or issues and gives tips and advice on how to help others better understand those steps properly. Finally, Powell and the dancers sit and have a 20-minute “Group Chat” session. Here, dancers talk about life in NYC and even some onstage mishaps.
“I want the viewer to get to know our dancers as humans as well,” Powell explains. “Dancers are often thought of as untouchable creatures, but of course the reality is we have the same problems as everyone else. The rent is still due on the first of every month for dancers, too. The talkback goes specifically into the life of a dancer in New York City, which has its own set of characteristics unlike anywhere else in the world. We chat about the importance of getting a phone call from the almighty 212 area code, and we even talk about the mariachi band that rides the subway. It just feels like a bunch of dancers hanging out talking about what it is to live and dance in New York City, and we had so much fun doing it.”
Find Your Fifth is a video that can be enjoyed by anyone – dancers, students, teachers, even simply just dance enthusiasts.
“I think it’s perfect for teachers and students,” Atkins says. “It is genuine and strives to make ballet class accessible. It presents a high level of quality but as an attainable goal. The dance world is changing so much, and careers are far less linear than they used to be. Each of us in the video has had a very different career from the other. Ballet is such a strong foundation to have, and it sets you up for success in many paths.”
“I can honestly say that yes, the film is for dancers, teachers and students, but it is also for anyone who has a passion for classical ballet,” Powell adds. “I hope teachers and students can bring many new ideas from Find Your Fifth into their classes, but what makes this different is the fact that we really get to know the cast in this film through our group chat section.”
Powell also hopes to express that “Find Your Fifth” can also be a motto for dance, and even life.
“I often describe fifth position as home base,” he says. “Literally anything is possible from a good fifth. You can travel forward, backward, side to side, up or down, but not until you’ve found your fifth. I suppose you could take that metaphorically, or even as a life lesson, but for me it’s quite simply a phrase I use to help students develop a good base to move forward. Anyone who has ever seen Balanchine’s Theme and Variations knows the beauty of a good fifth.”
See a trailer of Find Your Fifth below. To purchase a DVD or a video download, visit www.findyourfifth.com.
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): The cast of Find Your Fifth. Photo by Shane Ohmer.