Artist Profile: San Francisco Ballet School Guest Faculty Cynthia Harvey

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Cynthia Harvey leads class during San Francisco Ballet School's Summer Session. (© Erik Tomasson)

Cynthia Harvey leads class during San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Session.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Cynthia Harvey performed with American Ballet Theatre and was the first American to join The Royal Ballet as a principal dancer.

Was there a moment in which you knew you wanted to be a professional dancer?
Yes. When I was 11 years old and studying ballet in Marin County, the Bolshoi came through San Francisco to audition kids for their ballet school performance. I saw Vladimir Vasiliev and Maya Plisetskaya up-close and live, and I reveled in the backstage experience. I didn’t know dancing was a career choice until then.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals that you still practice as a teacher?
When I teach, I always do an hour barre warm-up beforehand to keep the material fresh. It makes it much easier to give pointers and cite specifics because I’m aware of how a movement is supposed to look and feel on the body. I ask myself questions such as, “How high should this leg be?” It’s exhausting after three weeks of guest teaching! Throughout the day, I’m watching rehearsals, warming up a class, or coaching a solo. It’s like dancing with a company except with extra hours.

Cynthia Harvey is Manon. (© Roy Round)

Cynthia Harvey as Manon. (© Roy Round)

How has your training affected your teaching?
My teacher here in Marin County, Christine Walton, had syllabus books for the Vaganova, RAD, and Cecchetti schools. We didn’t take exams, but my diverse training gave me a broad knowledge of ballet. In New York, I mainly studied with David Howard. He has this kinetic approach like Mr. [Helgi] Tomasson. They both emphasize the steps that link together one movement to another, and knowing that helps propel you to the next movement phrase. It’s about moving your body in the most efficient way.

What were your favorite roles as a performer?
People associate me with Don Quixote, but my favorite ballet was Giselle. I danced that role many times with former SF Ballet dancer Ricardo Bustamante. Giselle is a complex role. You come back in Act II as an ethereal spirit, and I’ve always found the idea of forgiveness interesting. “What would you do in real life to achieve this enlightened level of forgiveness?” “Does Giselle ever meet Albrecht again?” These are the types of questions I asked myself and repeat to students who I coach. I also loved dancing Balanchine ballets. They make sense, physically and musically. I can’t imagine any other steps that match so well to the music.

Cynthia Harvey leads her En Avant workshop during San Francisco Ballet School's Summer Session. (© Chris Hardy)

Cynthia Harvey leads her En Avant workshop during San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Session. (© Chris Hardy)

What are some challenges with teaching students?
Nowadays, the challenge with ballet around the world is the refinement of port de bras. Sometimes, an arm movement helps you execute a step, but the arms feel too isolated because much of the focus is on the legs. The elegance is missing at times, and it’s a pity because a beautiful port de bras is what separates a good dancer from a really great dancer. I notice immediately when I see a refined port de bras.

What’s your impression of the SF Ballet School students?
I really love their eagerness and open minds. Students here don’t come in all-knowing. They’re ready to adapt, and that’s what’s so great about summer programs. For example, students may come in with a Balanchine mold, but they’re ready to learn a different style.

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