Robert “Bobby” Barnett is one of the few living performers from Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballets Russes. He began his ballet study with Bronislava Nijinska, danced with the New York City Ballet from its founding in 1948 to 1958, then directed the Atlanta Ballet for 32 years. He is perhaps best remembered as the lead Candy Cane in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, but Balanchine also set several original roles on Barnett, including the lead in the men’s movement of Stars and Stripes and the third movement lead of Symphony in C. At 82, Barnett maintains an international schedule of teaching and staging Balanchine ballets. Sandra Neels, associate professor of dance at Winthrop University, talked with him while he was teaching and coaching at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
How did your mentors inform your technique?
Nijinska, my main influence, would teach the same barre every day but vary the center. Her pirouette combinations constantly changed, and she would teach three or four petit allegro exercises that would change direction; then she would put them all together in a variation. Her grand allegro was always in a circle, and she would finish with beats and turns in second. This was great for me because it built stamina and strength. What was missing was port de bras, but I learned this from Dorothy Alexander, who had studied with Fokine and The Royal Ballet. Anatole Obukhov was like Nijinska and trained my brain by making combinations out of several exercises. Balanchine was influential in terms of movement, attack, rhythm, and musicality.
How has your teaching changed over the years?
At first I copied my mentors. Now, I teach a combination of all my influences, beginning with Nijinska. I have taken the best from each teacher and created a new syllabus. However, my classes are spontaneous; I don’t plan. I walk in, look at the students to determine their needs, and then create the class specifically for them. Teaching is what I love most about being in dance.
What about your Ballets Russes experience most shaped your professional life?
I had been in the Navy and hadn’t studied ballet until I was 21, so everything in the Ballets Russes experience influenced me because I had no previous professional life in dance! I was so fortunate to be in a group of young dancers whom Anatole Joukovsky took under his wing, teaching and encouraging us. Dancing the wonderful ballets by Petipa, Fokine, Massine, and Lichine, as well as ballets that were created especially on us, which were all different, made for a well-rounded experience.
When you are coaching Balanchine repertoire, do you teach class differently?
No, but I do address Balanchine’s style. Balanchine himself taught straightforward technical classes. Then he choreographed. He was so pure in what he wanted us to do. Dancers have to be extremely musical in order to perform his ballets.
Should a company’s artistic director also teach?
This is terribly important, because one has to be connected to one’s dancers. This is not the norm now, and it is a big mistake. Balanchine was always in the studio because he was making the decisions about casting and choreography. He knew what every dancer could do. This was true of me also when I was artistic director of Atlanta Ballet. A person who doesn’t teach company classes cannot really be an artistic director.
What is the secret to mastering excellent pirouettes and jumps?
Dancers must be placed correctly and use their feet. Many dancers crawl up into their turns, which takes too long. They have to plié with correct placement, attack the pirouette, and be in position to turn on one count. They also have to close their ribs, pull up, and use a spot that works. As for jumps, Nijinska never allowed boys to stretch before jumping because they would lose buoyancy. However, male dancers now must have the same extension as females. Teachers have to give extra exercises that strengthen males for jumps. The brush determines the height of the jump, but the supporting leg—along with timing—gets the dancer there. Dancers have to brush and push at the same time in order to fly.
How have ballet classes changed over the years?
They are more technical. Young dancers are performing incredible feats now, which they didn’t do in the past. I think this has gone too far, because the art and classicism of ballet is lost. Épaulement and refined port de bras are being brushed aside for super technique. The demands from audiences and those who are hiring are greater, so that is why this is happening. What is missing from training today is a variety of styles and understanding of time periods. This is killing the artistic aspects of classical ballet in our time.
Your students have gone on to dance everywhere it seems—NYCB, ABT, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Europe. What is it in your classes that makes them so versatile?
Strong basic training. I give my students structure, placement, port de bras, and knowledge of movement. Dancers these days must be on as well as off their centers, depending upon the choreographic material. They have to be able to switch styles with ease. Placement and basic training are the keys.
What advice would you give young dancers?
First of all, take care of your body! Come to class to work hard. Leave your problems outside. Attitude is everything. See in the mirror what’s really there, and not what you want to see.