Professional pointers | AspenTimes.com

Professional pointers

Stewart Oksenhorn

Melanie Doskocil, school director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, has brought a sense of professionalism and artistry to the schools programs. (Jordan Curet/Aspen Times Weekly)

When Melanie Doskocil appeared with the Aspen Ballet Company in 1998 and 1999 as a guest dancer in the organization’s production of “The Nutcracker,” she was instantly comfortable, and felt she was destined to find a home with the company. It took five years, but Doskocil has returned. In 2004, she gave up her position as director of the ballet program for the Center Stage Performing Arts Studios, in Orem, Utah, to become the school director for what is now Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.”I think we just got the sense then that we’d probably work together,” she said, referring to Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, co-directors of the ASFB. “We stayed in touch, and I’d get phone calls: ‘We want you to teach.'”We had a strong connection. I appreciated and admired their vision for the company. But I had no idea when, where or how that would happen.”

When Malaty finally called and offered the director’s position, “I thought about it for all of five minutes,” she said.It was with a similar swiftness that Doskocil, who grew up in Albuquerque, took to the ballet studio. Actually, her first brush with dance, at age 3, didn’t take. But Doskocil says her earliest memories are of begging her mother to let her take up dance again. When those pleas didn’t cease, Doskocil’s mother plopped her daughter, then 10, into the studios at Southwest Ballet. And there she stayed.”I was determined,” said Doskocil, who at 36 still carries with her a palpable sense of purpose. (When I asked Mossbrucker about what it was he saw in Doskocil, several times he mentioned her “professionalism.”) “I remember my teacher put me in class two days a week to start with, and by the end of the month, I was taking classes six days a week. I just knew I wanted to live at the ballet studio, and spend as much time there as I could. If I could get there early and stay late, if my mom let me, I would.”Doskocil’s commitment to dance was put to the test when her ballet teacher told her she had to choose between competitive swimming and dance. Swimming, she was told, was making her shoulders too broad for the ballet stage. In an easy decision, she chose ballet; a few years later, she also gave up skiing in deference to her dancing.Doskocil put in 17 years as a professional dancer, working with the Oakland Ballet, Ballet Arizona and Odyssey, a “very contemporary” Utah company. Beginning in 1997, she taught in the ballet program at Utah’s Center Stage Performing Arts Studios; from 1999-2004, she directed the program. But ballet was one of several disciplines taught at Center Stage. The acting, singing and jazz classes overshadowed ballet, making it a challenge for Doskocil to create an effective program. On top of that, the promise of Aspen was always hanging over her head.Mossbrucker says the connection was felt on the ASFB side as well. “She was so professional and wonderful to work with,” said Mossbrucker, who co-founded the ASFB, out of the Aspen Ballet School, 10 years ago. “We always had a hope she would come work with us, and when the position opened up, she was one of the first people we contacted.”

During her appearances as a guest dancer in “The Nutcracker,” Doskocil also did some substitute teaching with Aspen Ballet. Mossbrucker was impressed with her knowledge of dance, and her way of conveying dance techniques. “Not every dancer has that ability to translate what she knows to teaching,” said Mossbrucker.In a little more than two years, Doskocil has seen enrollment in the School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet increase from 95 to 185. She credits the growth to the basics of good educational management: “being accessible, communicating with the parents, creating a nurturing environment for the kids.”Doskocil measures the success, however, in more than the overall size of the program. (One number she wouldn’t mind improving is how many of her students are boys; that number currently stands at one.) A measure of the quality of the program is seen in how many older students, teenagers in the combined level 4/5 class she teaches, are retained from the beginning classes. There are now seven students in that class, an indication that the kids are taking dance seriously. Among those is Lisl Bellack, a 14-year-old who will dance the role of Clara, for the second year, in ASFB’s production of “The Nutcracker.” The performance will be staged Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16-17, at the Aspen District Theatre, with shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m.”The older they get, the more serious the training gets, the more hours they put in, and days,” said Doskocil, who teaches students from 8-18, plus the school’s small adult program. “It takes a real dedicated student, one who has the real passion for ballet and dancing. We give them the best possible training we can, in hopes that if they have professional aspirations, we’ve given them the grounding to go for those goals.” On one level, ballet for 4-year-olds – the youngest students taught by the ASFB – could be taught as a simple athletic exercise. (On an even lower level, it can be glorified baby-sitting.) But Doskocil emphasizes the artistry of dance even with her youngest students.

“It’s very important, because ballet is such a beautiful, graceful art form,” she said. “I have to work with the kids to remind them it’s not all about pointed feet and straight knees. It’s also about the quality of their movements, the mood they present. It’s acting, smooth movements.”Doskocil is a true believer that such lessons are not wasted on the tiniest of dancers. “Young children are really creative,” she said. “They haven’t lost that sense of creativity and that freedom of expression. They’re not self-conscious, not worried that other people are watching.”In fact, Doskocil leaves the youngest ballerinas to her fellow teacher, Charlotte Bowlby. It is a division of labor that makes intuitive sense: Bowlby is, by comparison, more outwardly cheerful and expressive.”She’s a goddess,” said Doskocil. “It takes a special kind of person to work with 12 4-year-olds in a classroom. She really instills the love and passion for dancing in the kids. Charlotte really brings that [creativity] out of them and nurtures it.””The Nutcracker,” an annual tradition that dates back to when the ASFB was the Aspen Ballet School, is a vital part of the training process. Virtually all of the students of the ASFB have onstage roles, from mice to alphabet blocks to partygoers. The production is not only of professional quality, but professional in strict terms: The performance features the dancers of the ASFB company, as well as some nine guest artists.”It’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids to see firsthand the time and the dedication the professional dancers put into their art form,” said Doskocil, who, as a teenager with Ballet Arizona, once danced in 42 performances of “The Nutcracker” in one year. “Little things like watching the ballerinas do their hair is sometimes so inspiring for the little girls. Because when you’re 8 or 9, putting your hair up can be the biggest challenge of the day.”

An even bigger stage for Doskocil is the annual spring performance. That production doesn’t include the professional dancers, so the students get more stage time to apply what they’ve learned. The older students take the solos. And Doskocil and Bowlby choreograph the dance, create the story, choose the music and pick the costumes.Teaching ballet to girls comes with an added responsibility, of looking after the students’ psyches. Girls in leotards, looking in the mirror, in groups of other girls, tends to be more fraught than, say, piano lessons.”You’re staring into a mirror hours a day, and being self-critical,” said Doskocil. “And you’ve got to make sure that doesn’t destroy your passion for life. When you have to look into a mirror four days a week and are looking for things to correct, you can develop a harsh inner voice. I try very hard to balance expecting them to work hard and be precise and be demanding of themselves, with reminding them of the joy of why they’re in the room: Because they love it.”Doskocil doesn’t cite it as a reason for coming to Aspen, but her favorite perk of the job is being able to take classes with the company dancers, a benefit she partakes of fully. The teacher remains a student as well.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com