It Takes a Team to Raise a Dancer

23 Jul

Perhaps the greatest challenge artists face is how to shape their career, when there is never a clear-cut path. In the development of a professional ballet dancer, most of the time there is the added obstacle of having to figure it all out at an early age. It would be like trying to graduate with a master’s degree at the age of eighteen—that’s a lot of work (understatement of the century!) and it’s a decision that requires a sensibility and maturity not always found in teenagers (those of us who are older and wiser know this to be true). While I do find that there are many adolescent dancers who are mature beyond their years, they’re still kids and that means parents have to make some decisions and provide guidance along the way. Unfortunately, the “stage parent” (a term I hate because it implies that overbearing parents are a problem exclusive to performing arts) is a stereotype closely linked to ballet, and while there are some seeds of truth, stereotypes are useless when it comes to seeing reality. Thus, my feeling is that healthy relationships between parent and dancer need to be a part of the discussion.

I became interested in the topic of the dancer/parents relationship upon learning in the Twitterverse that two people I followed separately, are in fact related. Dylan Gutierrez, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet was trained by his mother Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, an accomplished ballet dancer in her own right (having danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet among many other professional endeavors) and is now President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Obviously, Andrea comes from a different perspective from other dancer parents, having been a dancer herself, but it could have easily been a double edged sword—maybe she knows too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time an impassioned stance led to irrational behavior. Having a parent who was also a dancer is like the set of ingredients needed for the perfect storm—though a storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just tumultuous. The end result for the Gutierrezes is a good one, with Dylan living the dream in Chicago, and judging by their interactions on Twitter, they’re close. Curious as to how they’ve gotten to where they are, I asked them if they would discuss their past and the nature of their relationship.

YDF: When did you both realize Dylan had what it takes to be a professional dancer? 

Andrea Paris Gutierrez (Photo ©Rose Eichenbaum)

Andrea: Well I knew he had a lot of passion, but because he was one of the first boys I trained I did not realize the things he could do were quite exceptional for his age. He really loved it [ballet] and after a trip away and an inspiring conversation with a certain prima ballerina, he began to talk about becoming a professional dancer. Being that I was also a professional dancer I did not find this unusual or daunting which I think some parents might. We got a lot of positive feedback whenever people saw him dance but I had no idea where it all was leading us. We took things slowly and methodically and did not rush into any offers or programs that many people wanted to scoop him up into. He rode his skateboard, played basketball and other sports like all of his friends. He didn’t leave home until he was sixteen years old and going into eleventh grade.

Dylan: When I was ten years old I decided I didn’t want to play basketball and that I wanted to pursue ballet; it interested me more as I had been inspired by Angel Corella, Patrick Bissell, my mother, and Susan Jaffe (who I heard speak at a summer program). I realized [Jaffe] felt the same way as I did when she was young; she said that she always knew she was going to make it but never said it out loud.

YDF: Andrea, how did being a dancer affect your approach in teaching him? Did you ever set boundaries for yourself and what would you say was your biggest concern during his formative years?

Andrea: Well I was very fortunate; I was trained in dance by my mother Bernice McGough at her school in New Zealand and we always had a great relationship. I modeled how I teach my children (I have a dancing daughter as well) on how she taught me. [Dylan and I] sort of compartmentalized our relationship. When we were at home I was mom, when we were at the studio I was the teacher. I can’t say there is no ballet talk at home—there is—however, I tried really hard not to play favorites at the studio or be overly hard on my own children. Ethics and impartiality are important for my children and for everyone else. Many people at the studio did not know that Dylan and Veronica are my children. I think that treating everyone fairly is important and then if my children did get a special role they knew they earned it like everyone else.

YDF: What was it like to transition from working together as a team for so long, to sending him off to The Royal Ballet School? Dylan, what was it like to train there under new teachers and different circumstances?

Andrea: I knew when Dylan was offered a scholarship to Royal Ballet School it was an amazing opportunity and a chance of a lifetime. I was confident that the training was the best in the world and when we visited the school in the summer I was given plenty of information on how the school ran and what was expected. Once he got there, it was hands off for me…I know that teachers and directors do their best work when they are given the freedom to do so. I never spoke to any teachers or the director until I came to visit at the end of the first year when I had a short conference. I did all the support from behind the scenes. I let them do their job and just supported and encouraged Dylan through the tough times and the good times. I did work with him when he came home on breaks but the school supported that. But I was happy to have them work with him their way, and I was thrilled with the training and support he received at the Royal Ballet School.

Dylan Gutierrez (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

Dylan: I had [already] learned how to work with other teachers and was comfortable with that, but The Royal Ballet School is a whole other beast. They have the luxury of expecting greatness, not good or okay, and I was no longer in the position of being one of two boys everyone thought was good.  I had to prove myself, and thanks to my mother and my father (who is also a huge support to me) I understood that. I didn’t expect anything, and I wasn’t given much at first. They were actually a little weary of me early in the school year; they thought I was a troublemaker, that I had to shape up, be willing to be tamed and pay attention. I started out a troublemaker and about six months into the year I was going on special trips with two of the best boys in the class. One of whom was Vadim Muntagirov, which I am sure if you know that name you know what kind of talent I was holding my own with. 

YDF: Obviously, Andrea, you’ve passed down a lot of your schooling to your son but do you see qualities you had as a dancer in him, or is he his own entity? Has he seen any of your performances and if so, what did he think?

Andrea: When I was dancing we did not tape everything like we do now. I have some pictures but not much tape of myself. Also professional productions are not taped although I have a few things. We are similar in many ways…both tall—but fast movers. I used to love fast allegro and quick footwork. I was a turner and jumper and he is too. I was also very competitive and still am—I love the struggle to be the best and I think he does too. I always used to watch and wonder at dancers who wished their careers away or worse yet complained their careers away. All of sudden its over and you did not enjoy the experience. I try to instill in him to appreciate the gift of dance and enjoy the experience. It goes by fast so make sure that you LOVE every experience you have. Dylan always compliments my demonstrations or my classes. We have mutual admiration of each other. It’s fun.

YDF: Are there ever any “I told you so” moments now between the two of you?

Andrea: Oh yes many, haha. When he was younger he would often “try” things for the first time on stage. I would beg him not to. If you were to tell him for example, that the director of the Nutcracker would be upset with him if he fell on his pirouette by trying to do too many, he would go for the extra one or two or three anyway—it would make me so nervous. He also did a double sissone for the first time on stage and as he ran by the wings he said “how did you like that mom!” as I almost collapsed! He was a daredevil.

Dylan: DEFINITELY! Example one: My mother always told me to think about quality not quantity and at the time I was so obsessed with pirouettes I didn’t care about much else. One day I was doing a Nutcracker where the guests were Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorevenko and I went up to Maxim and I asked “How many pirouettes can you do?” and he answered “It is not about the QUANTITY it is about QUALITY” and my mom looked at me [with that look of] “I told you so.”

Example two: I had auditioned for Houston Ballet, ABT,  Staatsballet , Dutch National, and I had NO OFFERS. I had one more audition to do and it was San Francisco Ballet…after company class Helgi Tomasson said “well I will contact you tomorrow and let you know if we have a spot.” When I came out my mom was really worried saying “You have to audition with smaller companies, you have too” and being young and stupid I said “NO—I want this.” She [kept] saying things like I don’t think he’s going to give you a contract and I just said “wait until tomorrow.” She had a lot of doubts and was really worried. The next day around noon the phone rand and it was Helgi offering me the job, and I thought: “Mom, told you so.”

YDF: Andrea, Dylan spent a year with San Francisco Ballet and now he’s been with the Joffrey since 2009, both two of the top companies in the U.S. Have you been able to attend most of his performances? What’s it like to be a teacher/mother/audience member? It’s still early in his professional career, but is there a performance that stands out to you?

Andrea: That’s a loaded question! In the first performance he danced with SF Ballet, he danced the first Temperament in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I had an ominous feeling. I worried that it was too much responsibility for an eighteen-year-old apprentice and that he would look too young next to the very experienced SFB soloists and principals. It was a good performance but I felt that he needed to be developed more slowly and methodically. I feel that [this] has happened for him at Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater seems to know what to put him in and when is the right time. The Joffrey also seems to prepare him very thoroughly. I was so thrilled to see him dance with Jaime Hickey in Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the pas de deux chosen for them suited them and they handled the material very well, but honestly the moment I saw him step out on stage in Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker as the Snow King I was [even more] thrilled. He looked so mature and confident and matched with Christine Rocas so magically that I honestly could not believe it was him. I don’t get nervous anymore because it is out of my hands now and I know he is prepared. I sit back, enjoy it and think how fantastic he is. It’s really such a pleasure to see my students and my own son in the professional environment. I absolutely love it.

YDF: Dylan, does having your mom in the audience add additional pressure, nerves, or excitement for you?

Dylan: It used to make me really nervous when I was still a student; my mother seriously knows a lot and she is not afraid to tell me when I look bad—professional, Royal Ballet School student—she doesn’t care. It’s her job to let me know and she does, but once I went pro I [began] working properly and she seems to be ecstatic every time she sees me dance now. I do always get a little nervous because she is my teacher and mother and I want her to be proud—she’s my teammate.

Dylan the "Daredevil" (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

YDF: Okay, so…because I’m an Ashton junkie, I have to ask—how was it to dance in his Cinderella? Besides that, what have been your favorite roles/performances so far?

Dylan: Oh I love his version—it’s so classy and glamorous and tells the story extremely well. This is also special for me—it was like my first soloist, first cast role. I was one of the prince’s friends the “Summer Cavalier” and it was so challenging. It takes so much technique to execute that men’s dance and it’s really exciting. Also, my little sister Veronica was an extra in the ballet when we did it in LA so that was fun because we get along so well and she got to meet the company. Other then that I have two favorite performances and one is when I danced the Aria II pas de deux in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Jaime Hickey. This was my first principal role that I had ever danced professionally and it was so liberating and freeing to be onstage by myself and just go at it with that intricate choreography. I used all the space I could, I focused and my mind was right. Our pas de deux went well for both shows and I feel like we really understood it. My MOST favorite performance to date was when I danced the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux at The Joffrey Ballet’s Spring Gala. The man who was supposed to do it (who is also my friend) hurt himself unfortunately and that was not fun to hear about but getting to step up was a great challenge and triumph. I had about four hours of rehearsal total and I had no choice but to go out, relax and just dance it. After the pas de deux, doing my solo [alone on stage] was incredible—it was some of the most fun I have ever had dancing and those two roles will always have a special place in my heart. 

Andrea: May I mention Steve, that as student at the New Zealand School of Dance we did Cinderella for our end of the year performance and I danced the role of the Fairy Godmother so seeing the Joffrey dance this version of the ballet bought a lot of memories for me too. 

YDF: Finally Andrea, what did you take away from the experience of simultaneously raising and training Dylan, and are those experiences helping in teaching your other children now?

Andrea: Well the road to becoming a professional dancer is long, tedious, complicated, and thrilling and traveling that road as a dancer myself and then with Dylan as his teacher and mother, I feel that I am able to see and understand many facets of the process. I think that helps me to guide and mentor my students and to be able to see what their parents are dealing with as well as the dancers. I feel I have a unique and special view of the process and am in the fortunate position to help young dancers and their parents navigate their way through. All situations are different though and as a teacher you learn something new with every dancer. My daughter has aspirations of being on Broadway so now I am learning all about that process and path. It’s quite different and equally as interesting. I’m glad I get to go on this journey with my son. He always asks for my perspective, he always shares things with me, and I’m always so happy when he arranges for me to watch a class or rehearsal. I love to have a special peek at the process and the Joffrey Ballet is always so warm and welcoming when I go to Chicago to visit. I’m already planning my trip(s) for this season. I cannot wait. 

Ballet parents need to remember that the motivation needs to come from the dancer. The parents’ job is to facilitate and support the dancer and the teacher. It’s very hard for a young dancer to travel this road alone—they need a back up who can remain calm in the difficult times. However, my advice is to make sure you take the time to sit back and appreciate the privilege of being in the profession and enjoy the process as much as the product.

* * * * *
Well friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed interview as much as I have and if you ever hear anyone making some wisecrack about stage parents in ballet, I encourage you to kindly point them to this article! Even if it’s common sense to us, the world needs to know that stereotypes represent certain extremes (as they always do) and that the healthy, happy people are never discussed as much in comparison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andrea and Dylan Gutierrez or have any questions you’d like to ask them, follow them on Twitter! Dylan says a lot of things like “swaggin” and “balcony life,” the meaning of which elude me (best explained by a generational or coolness gap I suppose), but he’s a good kid. Also be sure to check out Dylan’s Facebook page, for a bunch of awesome photos and his YouTube channel for videos of him dancing. For more information about Andrea’s work as a teacher and artistic director of LA Ballet, please visit their website at www.laballet.com

Follow Dylan Gutierrez on Twitter @DylanthaVillain
Follow Andrea Gutierrez on Twitter @drummamamma

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