Get to Know the Chicago Ballet Center Dance Teachers

October 23, 2022


Paul Abrahamson, Abigail Newlon, and Emma Barnhart at the Chicago Ballet Center, Sept. 18 2022.

The Chicago Ballet Center Faculty sat down for a Q&A at an open house on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. Attendees got to hear from some of the Chicago Ballet Center dance teachers and get to know them a little better. Participants included Paul Abrahamson, founder and director; Abigail Newlon, faculty; and Emma Barnhart, faculty. It was moderated by CBC parent and volunteer Tracy Baldwin.

Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity.

CBC: Can each of you introduce yourself, and what you teach here, for how long and/or what’s your association with the Chicago Ballet Center?

Miss Emma: Hi, I’m Emma Barnhart and I teach Ballet/Jazz, Ballet/Tap, Ballet IV, and Contemporary II. I trained here at the Chicago Ballet Center from childhood through high school, and started teaching here regularly this year now that I’m back in the city after college.

Miss Abby: Hi, I’m Abby Newlon or Miss Abby. I teach Ballet V and Ballet VI and Tap II and III right now. I’ve been here for five years. And I was introduced to ballet at a young age. I came to CBC because of Miss Rose, a former teacher here. She left Chicago to dance and train in New York City. I met her there. She said, ‘’I know someone who needs a teacher.” So here we are.

Mr. A: My name is Paul Abrahamson . . . Mr. A. And I’ve been with this organization since it’s founding in 1999.

What is Cuban Methodology?

CBC to Mr. A: What is your overall philosophy? What is Cuban methodology and why is it important? How is CBC different from other studios?

Mr. A: The super short version? Within the historical context of ballet technique, it really started in France and then progressed to England which was the primary producer of outstanding dancers. And then for quite a few decades it went to Russia and the Vaganova Institute in 1934. And then in the early 1960s, Alicia Alonso who was from Cuba, a brilliant dancer and one of the leading dancers of her generation. And her husband, Fernando and her daughter, Laura Alonso, were trained through the Vaganova system in Russia. Alicia Alonso and her husband really took the Vaganova Institute syllabus and examined and changed it quite a bit. The length of the syllabus went from eight years to six years. It’s very streamlined, it’s super-efficient. And it only teaches you what you need to do to give you as many options as possible.

So, in a non-ballet context, let’s say you had 15 different pasta recipes. Well, what the Cubans did is they created the most common elements to create 5 base recipes. And each one of those five is going to give you a million options. In the end, you’re going to achieve the same goal, teaching your muscles fewer things. And that’s why the syllabus was cut down to six years.

Through a set of phenomenally lucky circumstances, I ended up working with Laura Alonzo as a ballet coach, and it totally changed the way I approached ballet technique. That transition was very difficult for me, mentally and physically. But then dance and specifically ballet, was very economical, very exact, but it was so much easier. Working with Laura probably added at least 10 years to my professional ballet career. I was the first American ballet teacher to go through the formal teacher training down in Havana.

CBC: So translating that you said six years. So is year one of the syllabus equivalent to Ballet I here, and then Ballet VI would be the sixth year of ballet in the Cuban method?

Mr. A: Not exactly. One of the things to understand about the Cuban syllabus is the sociological, political arena. As a whole, the country is a mess. However, if you get into their National Ballet School, you are guaranteed two meals a day. And there is a bus (in a country that does not have enough fuel). There is a bus that will pick you up to go to ballet class. There is an enormous amount of pressure on the dancers to succeed. There are siblings in the school that will literally save the lives of their entire family because they’re getting fed and they have class seven days a week. So, although the idea of our syllabus is the same, the schedule is different. Our dancers get ballet training 3 times a week. When you get to the end of your six-year syllabus down in Cuba you have about 2 years of many, many pre-professional performances. After that time period, you can pretty much decide when in the world you want to dance.

Faculty Background

CBC: Wow. All right. So Emma, the next question goes to you. Tell us a little bit about Hope College and how you got to Hope College and what you did there.

Miss Emma: I went to Hope College is in Holland, Michigan. It was a really great school for me. I wanted to go there because they have a really incredible dance department that’s nationally accredited and it’s close enough to home which was important for what I needed at the time. Going to Hope also allowed me to study sociology, and double major, and graduate on time. In my time at Hope, I studied dance with several professors and guest teachers/choreographers, especially Matt Farmer and Sharon Wong, but they’re just a couple from a long list of people that I’m really grateful for. Mr. A actually knows one of Hope’s former department chairs, Linda Graham, from his own training. In the department, I had the opportunity to be one of the directors of Ballet Club, and I was in both of the resident companies, Strike Time Dance Theater and H2.

CBC: Tell us about the awards you received while at college.

Miss Emma: I received the senior sociology award, which is given to an outstanding senior sociology major, and the Maxine DeBruyn esprit de corps award through the dance department, which is given to a senior dance student who exemplifies the mission and spirit of the dance department.

CBC: What are you doing now with all of your dance experience that started here when you were how old?

Miss Emma: I believe I was seven when I started here and continued until I graduated from high school.

CBC: And you majored in it in college. So what does one do with a dance degree and all that experience?

Miss Emma: I dance with a few companies here in Chicago and am the managing director of one of them. So dancing professionally is an option, if you have the drive for it. But teaching is a big thing — when you are a dancer you teach dance, and share your passion. It’s so important to pass on your knowledge and educational lineage to future generations and keep the art alive and just to share your joy and expression with the people and help them do the same. There’s also arts management and administration. That’s mostly what I’ve done, but there are a lot of other adjacent fields especially in exercise science/PT.

Mr. A: Would you say dance or your intellect made it easier for you to go to Hope College?

Miss Emma: Yes, thank you for that leading question. I was always academically-minded. I went to Northside College Prep here in Chicago, if you’re familiar with it. Because of my scores and grades I won an academic scholarship for Hope, and through an audition I won the distinguished artist award for dance through department, and I wanted to go to Hope partly because they wanted me there — and so both dance and scholastic ability helped me get there.

CBC: That’s great.

Miss Emma: Thank you.

Mr. A: So an artistic merit scholarship, a scholastic scholarship, a double major, an esprit de corps award, and sociology graduating senior award.

CBC: And we’re lucky to have her back here at Chicago ballet. And we’re also lucky to have Miss Abby who has been teaching with us for five years. Miss Abby went to Loyola, so it was also in dance that you majored in.

Miss Abby: Yes, I also did a double major, but with political science. But my dance program was a conservatory-style program. I took ballet five days a week. I took modern five days and I did pointe three times a week. I did tap. For performances we performed ballets, we performed mainstage-style concerts. I also ran our school’s recreational camps and dance company.

CBC: What are you doing now with dance or what are you doing now with your double major?

Miss Abby: My political science major is on the back burner for now. I took the LSAT, but then I said it’s not quite time yet. Now you don’t even need the LSAT, which is crazy. But to be a lawyer, yeah, you can just take your grade average.

Mr. A: Wait a minute. You took the LSAT?

CBC: I guess Mr. A is learning some stuff in our q&a. Get to know you is allowing him to get to know his dance faculty better. Where do you dance now?

Miss Abby: I dance at two different companies. One is located in Chicago, one is located in Los Angeles where I rehearse virtually. I essentially dance for two hours on Zoom every single week. And then once a season, I fly out there. We don’t do on-stage performances. We dance on film, so we’ll spend the weekend filming. It’s not because of COVID. The founder of that company has always has been a little bit ahead of her time and her style has gotten more popular with COVID. She’s rehearsed via Zoom or some kind of platform like that for a handful of years prior to COVID. So she adapted well.

Mr. A: What is it like? When you get to Los Angeles, and you’ve only been rehearsing via Zoom, does everybody really know the same thing? Are there things that are different?

Miss Abby: I am a dancer that does not need individual attention in a physical space. I am a dancer who can pick things up, figure out the spacing, figure out directionality. I think that is something that some people can struggle with though. But we get there and then have two days where we’ll have a six-hour rehearsal each day. Everyone is in the same space because about half of us rehearse on stage and the other in our houses. In Los Angeles, it’s the first time we are with each other.

Mr. A: It’s good to realize what options there are with dance. What’s possible. There are a million options. If you love dance, dance can be a part of your everyday life for your entire life.

Story Ballets at the Chicago Ballet Center

CBC: So, switching it over to what we’re doing here. I think something new that we did last year, and I would say successfully, is the Snow Queen. A narrative ballet. Mr. A, what is your philosophy about bringing that form of performance to CBC? How do you think it will unfold in the future?

Mr. A: I think the biggest advantage that we have to do in our narrative ballet is the fact that everybody has to be together. When we do Extrava-DANCE-A!, each class has their own dance. And it’s all separate and it’s all wonderfully focused on the technique of that dance class. And in general, I would say the teachers have a lot more leeway and creativity with the choreography. But there’s never a moment when it’s, “Okay, we are all this community of brilliant, creative, young people. So let’s all work together to create something that’s bigger than all of us.” And one of the ways to do that is with a narrative. There is always going to be some editing and slightly changing of the components of the story to make sure that we can stay within the confines and push and expand our student population in a way that is suitable for them. So there’s no sense in me thinking we’re going to do the full Sleeping Beauty next year including every single cut piece of music that’s like four hours long. Okay. I don’t want to do that in the first place.

CBC: But I’m looking at you like you’re crazy.

Mr. A: Yeah. It really really is. So that idea and that’s why the Sunday rehearsals are there. For me, they are so much fun. They are so chaotic. There’s so much energy going on. And then finally, everybody seeing how everything is integrated and group Sunday rehearsals are the only way that you can really do that.

Audience member: Remind me which classes do this at what age do they start?

Mr. A: For the story ballets, basic level and up can participate. The combo classes, Dance Tales and higher up do Extrava-DANCE-A! in the Spring, after they have more experience in the studio.

CBC: And I would say also you took some creative liberties if you will. So it was not a four-hour ballet. It’s usually about an hour or so. And you adapt it so it is modern. And in the storytelling for instance, we did Snow Queen, right and it was Kai and Gerta or Kay and Gerta but it was a boy and a girl in the real story, but two girls in ours, right? So we do some things where we take creative liberty. So it’s our take on a famous ballet or what’s that they say? heavily edited based on, but it is our narrative our spin on it. Speaking of Snow Queen, Miss Abby, what was your greatest unexpected Joy during the Snow Queen process?

Miss Abby: I had to work with the eldest three dancers in the studio at the time. Our one graduating senior and then our two other high school-age dancers and I spend a lot of time with them in the studio rehearsing pretty intensively. They’d tell me, ‘I just don’t think I can do it. I think it’s too hard. They really not only went through a creative process and a physical rehearsal process of learning all of the steps but they also, all three of them, have to go through a really big learning curve of how to be confident in what they were doing on stage like that. And then once we got the whole group together, it translated to them leading youngers. It turned into them being leaders for the future, which was really nice to see.

CBC: So what do we have to look forward to this year Mr. A? What’s coming up for the narrative? What what’s our version of based on?

Mr. A: It’s called Coppelia, which is a classic ballet from a long, long time. It’s one of the few comedies. There is a doll maker who’s Dr. Coppelius, who makes a doll and there are people in the town that are convinced this doll is real. Going back to the original ETA Hoffman, who is the same author that gave us the story of The Nutcracker, I discovered this story to be so dark and filled with psychological distress, and the philosophy of why certain things and ideas get control of our life. It ends in a murder-suicide.

CBC (laughing): We’re gonna take some creative liberty to change that, right?

Mr. A: Yes. In the ballet version is the doll who is known as Coppelia, who is the creation of Dr. Coppelius. She’s always reading a book. And the whole thing is the doll tricks everyone because they don’t really know who this doll is. But you also don’t really know who this doctor Coppelius is. So those two things, now become the germ for everything else: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

There’s a mysterious library in the town that constantly has new books to borrow. And through the course of the ballet you discover it’s actually Dr. Coppelius who is leaving these books. Oh wow. you’re this eccentric, crazy old man who’s really nice. Great, let’s all dance together. That’s the majority of our creative liberties.

The girls still break into the doll maker’s shop and then there’s the Festival of the bell. The overarching theme is simply “don’t judge a book by its cover. Just take a moment and get to know someone. It doesn’t have to be deep. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime but just pause and let’s just know each other because we are way more alike than we are different. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Definitely our version of Coppelia. We got a little poli sci in there, a little sociology.

What’s Next at CBC

CBC: So this could be my last question or not, but what’s next for CBC? We’re here. Post COVID. We made it.

Mr. A: Yes, we did. And I have to make sure everyone knows if not for our landlord our doors would not be open. He’s been nothing but phenomenally supportive and generous and patient. Just an amazing, amazing, amazing man who supports the arts. And the understanding, patience and flexibility of all our dance families continues to be amazing. This year I’m putting out an invitation to all CPS and private schools to come to our performance on a field trip. We will be doing a performance of Coppelia on Friday, early afternoon, and there will be busloads of children coming to see us perform which is going to be really exciting for the dancers. It’s also really good for the organization to get the word out. And besides that it great to expose more people to more things.

We are going to continue our work-study program which was funded through the National Endowment of the Arts and Illinois Arts Council, which basically lets the two dancers that are in the program do some marketing, some front office stuff, some registration, our website. They do a lot of business things and giving them the opportunity to see that there’s a lot more that goes into running a business. There’s social media, office management, and graphic design. For high school students. And they get paid.

Speed Round

CBC: Should we do a speed round? Like a fun speed round for like a minute or two? Or is that too scary? When I’m gonna ask them questions. You have to answer fast because it’s getting to know you. Ready? Are you ready? I can do a timer. I mean, I’ll do like three or four questions. Ready? Okay. First question. And we’ll start with Emma and come here and then we’ll go the other way. Okay. How old were you when you took your first dance class?

Miss Emma: 6.

Miss Abby: 3.

Mr. A: 19.

CBC: What is your favorite ballet to dance?

Miss Emma: Oh, I don’t know.

Mr. A: The most fun I’ve ever had dancing was doing the square dance by Balanchine. It’s a blast. It is just a blast. There’s other ballets that I would choose for different reasons, but the one that I really enjoyed in that moment dancing without a whole lot of pressure was square dance.

CBC: All right, I’ll just answer for Emma because I saw you dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. You are really fun to watch and to see. All right, how about who’s your favorite choreographer?

Mr. A: John Neumeier.

CBC: I’m gonna check him out. Okay, how about who is your favorite dance company to see live? Paul, you go first.

Mr. A: American Ballet Theatre.

Miss Abby: Belize Dance Theater.

Miss Emma: One of my favorite performances that I saw was Royal Ballet when they were here in 2014; it was Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta on his final tour and it was incredible.

CBC: OK, last question. Morning person or late-night owl?

Mr. A: Late, late, late night

Miss Abby: Late night.

Miss Emma: Late.

CBC: All right. That’s it. Thank you!

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