Interview with
Kathleen Thielhelm

06.20.2019

Master Teacher, Bejart Style and Repertoire

The idea of this interview came as a result of our new collaboration with medici.tv, an online streaming platform that generously sponsored PBSI Student Awards. 

   

Among fabulous ballet videos offered on medici.tv there are two ballets starring Kathleen Thielhelm, one of our students’ Favorite Master Teachers:

 

The Ninth Symphony by Maurice Béjart, music by Beethoven, performed and filmed in Tokyo’s NKH Hall in 2014, and Bolero and Other Works, performed and filmed at Château de Versailles during The Orangerie Nights festival, also in 2014. (Click on the links to watch full ballets!)

 

In Tokyo Kathleen danced the Second Movement of The Ninth, partnered by Masayoshi Onuki. In Versailles, partnered by Valentin Levalin, she performed Second pas de deux of 7 danses grecques (7 Greek Dances). 

 

PBSI student Madeline Glinski asked her about working on these ballets and about her process. 

The Ninth:   

 

What was the hardest part of the piece? Was there anything you found particularly challenging?

The hardest part was calming the enormous sense of responsibility that I felt performing The Ninth.

 

When we first started learning the Second Movement with our repetiteur Piotr Nardelli, I was one of five or six contenders for this lead part. To begin with, the steps and speed were very technically challenging, but somehow it reminded me of the Balanchine dynamic, and that early approach helped me. I felt I was just ‘playing around,’ and actually I was. As we got further along with the rehearsals, it was the very idea of this joyful play between me and my partner, the joyful music and the drive in it that were hugely helpful in keeping my focus. Once Masayoshi and I were confirmed for the piece, the approach changed, of course, and the really difficult work began. But I’m sure if I wasn’t so free with my initial preparations, I would’ve ended up having a much more difficult time later on.

 

As we got closer and closer to the premiere, working on the Second Movement didn’t seem to get any easier. It felt like the moment I made a bit of progress in one area, there was always some other thing in need of more work and attention. Working on technique was relentless. This part requires a ridiculous amount of stamina, and I always felt I was running out of it too soon. At times, during training, it felt like I just didn’t have anymore strength to go on, and the movement wasn’t even half-over... And so the work continued. 

 

The important part for me was not the need to be perfect but to be able to channel all the work I put into this part, and all the struggle, and turn it into JOY, which was Béjart’s view of the Second Movement. Feeling and expressing that joy onstage, being a part of something bigger than ourselves was key. 

 

 

Kathleen with Masayoshi Onuki in The Ninth (photo by Kiyonori Hasegawa, © Béjart Ballet Lausanne)

 

What makes for good partnering work? Is it hard adjusting to new partners quickly for performances?  

I’d say, trust and communication. I do change partners often, but Masayoshi and I are old friends. While, physically speaking, Masayoshi and I don’t necessarily look as if we’d be paired together, when the opportunity presented itself for The Ninth, we went for it. I’ve been a fan of his since we danced with the Joffrey Ballet at the beginning of our careers, and I’ve always felt a great connection with him, and a huge admiration for his talent.

 

I think, we both felt a significant challenge of the Second Movement as something mutual. We helped each other. Eye contact is a big part of that, but so is breathing. Just as you can control your own breathing and calm, I find that a partner can do the same. In the Second Movement there were specific moments when I know I was struggling, and Masayoshi also. Luckily, we didn’t have to do it alone. As I tried to push him with my energy, I know he did the same for me.

 

When changing partners, especially with not much time before going on stage, I’d say that the importance of breathing together and being efficient with your energy is key. You must adapt to that person, and they to you. You’re sharing the stage with someone, and everything that goes with it. If you trust each other, that always comes across, even when things don’t go perfectly on stage. And communicate! Communicate whatever you want, especially if you find yourself more nervous than usual.  You must use each other. That can be very reassuring, if you let it.

How does the piece change every time you perform it? Does it feel different every time, or does it feel roughly the same?

Every day is different, so every performance is definitely different. Your body may feel more sore or you may have a personal problem that’s weighing on your mind. I find it helpful focusing on what’s actually happening around me: keep your eyes open, look around the theater, but don’t let it overwhelm you. And take a proper class that day! Most importantly, remember that the stage is a sacred place.

 

I like to rely on my adrenaline, instead of pushing it down and controlling it. This energy surge, I like to think of it as a little extra something from the universe. It’s also something you cannot recreate, so second and third performances in a run can be challenging because you have to actually focus more. That’s where all the hours of rehearsals will support you. 

 

That being said, I’m notoriously nervous, especially before the premieres. I do all sorts of breathing exercises and mental mantras, talk to myself out loud, and now I say “Thank You.” For the Second Movement I wrote a yoga mantra for stability on the bottom of my pointe shoes!  And if I’m so nervous that I need to cry, I do. 

What was harder to adjust to, the artistry or the technique of the piece? 

If you only focus on the technique, you’ll miss so much! The Ninth Symphony is [performed] in pink tights and a leotard, so that’s an extra kind of work, clean and pure just by costume design. It has to be technically pristine, but that wouldn’t necessarily bring the JOY across. My teacher, Maniya Barredo, always told me, “You should be the hardest worker, and it’s up to you to do that. But when you go on stage, I don’t want to see the work”.

 

Fifth positions must be respected, along with all the other classical requirements, but without the spirit and artistic interpretation, those steps are just classroom exercises. For me, the artistic side is something I love to develop, and is perhaps a stronger skill of mine, but the technical side is something I will always feel I have to spend more work on, so I accept that and do the work. At the end of the day, you always know if you’ve done what was needed or not. Then on stage, artistically, you can be free.

 

7 Danses Grecques:

 

How do you prepare for a role like this? Do you research the backstory or do you let the movement lead you to artistry?

The history of Maurice Béjart and his love and fascination with other cultures plays a large part in so many pieces of his repetoire. Translated into our studio daily life, bit by bit, as we rehearse, we start hearing phrases like, “it’s as if you’re feeling the hot sand” when you touch the ground, or “take in the sun” on this port de bras. Such metaphors and simple reminders can completely change the way a simple gesture is executed.

  

One must do some research: not merely watching whatever old videos you can find, but asking questions of your ballet masters, older colleagues, drawing parallels between choreography and cultural characteristics: Why do the men move the way they do? What is the women’s role?

  

Learn about the composer: did they have a connection somehow, when was the music composed, which part of history was it, why does it sound like that, is it typically used for a specific style of dancing, etc.

 

 

Kathleen with Lawrence Rigg, in 7 dances greques. (Photos by Ilia Chkolnik, © Béjart Ballet Lausanne)

 

 

The Greek culture is very rich, so the connections are endless, and I find them very beautiful. This is how the ballet becomes more than just steps. Everything has a reason, which is then woven into your steps and interpretation.

 

Seven years ago I did a yoga retreat in Agios Pavlos. That was the beginning of my love of Greece. Then I met my Greek boyfriend, and now I spend at least one month a year in Crete! Since then, performing 7 Danses Grecques has become even more personal, thanks to all my experiences there.