5 questions with ballet master Charthel Arthur of the Joffrey Ballet

January 26, 2011
Detroit Free Press
Susan Hall-Balduf

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When the Joffrey Ballet appears at the Detroit Opera House this weekend, the dancers will perform choreography they learned from onetime Michigander Charthel Arthur.

Arthur danced in the original production of "Reflections," a pure classical piece from company cofounder Gerald Arpino. Also on the bill will be the intense "Age of Innocence." "It's inspired by Jane Austen's novels and the repression of women in the 19th Century," Arthur says.

Arthur left her starring roles at the world-renowned Chicago company in 1983 for Grand Rapids, where she was artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company until 1998. She returned to the Joffrey and now is one of the company's three ballet masters.

She talked with us about working with the dancers and why life at the Joffrey is not like the Natalie Portman movie "Black Swan."

QUESTION: What is a ballet master?

ANSWER: We are like coaches. We teach classes, we warm up the company for rehearsals and we learn the ballets. We teach the dancers how to carry out what the choreographers want. It's up to us to make sure the ballet company is ready for performance.

Q: Portman's character in "Black Swan" has a lot of physical problems. She vomits; she breaks out in a rash. How does the Joffrey keep its dancers in good health?

A: We all work with them. We're very careful with anorexia. We've only had one case since I've been back. Of course, the dancers are under a lot of stress. They really need to have that discipline. There are great disappointments, when you don't get that big role, and there are injuries. It's a very individual thing. We say, "You have to tell us when it's too much."

Q: Portman trained for a year before shooting "Black Swan" and had a dance double. When Neve Campbell came to the Joffrey to make the 2003 movie "The Company" with James Franco, how was she?

A: She really became part of the Joffrey Ballet. She took class with the company for three months before filming started, and she did her own dancing. Working with (director) Robert Altman was so fantastic. Everything came from real life -- except that no one ever ran across the stage during a performance the way James Franco did in the movie!

Q: Portman's character is told she's a beautiful dancer, but not a good enough actress to be the Black Swan. How do dancers learn to act?

A: When you're learning a ballet, the choreographer gives you very specific coaching. You are taught very specifically what the role entails. I teach the children in "The Nutcracker." I tell them: "Now you're scared. Now you're happy to get your presents." But when they get onstage, they put themselves into the performance.

Q: Being a ballet dancer takes so much dedication. Why does anyone want to do it? Why did you?

A: I wanted to express myself through music and movement. I love being onstage. I love getting immersed in a part. When you're performing, you go beyond the work, beyond yourself.