By Rebecca Martin of Dance Informa.
Tanya Pearson is Australian dance royalty. She is so well known and loved throughout the dance community that she is simply referred to as “Mrs. P.”
Prior to commencing teaching in the 1960s and establishing the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy in Sydney in 1991, Mrs. P had an illustrious career as a ballerina. Born in Russia, Mrs. P performed with the Borovansky Ballet as well as in films and television both in Australia and overseas.
Mrs. P was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2012 for her lifelong commitment and services to the arts, and the Most Outstanding Teacher Award at the Youth America Grand Prix in 2009. This year she has been nominated for an Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance Education.
Having trained many successful dancers who grace the stage worldwide, Mrs. P is taking a bow and handing over the reins of her school to former student Lucinda Dunn. Dance Informa recently spoke with Mrs. P on the eve of her retirement.
You’ve been teaching dance for over 40 years. Was it a difficult decision to retire from teaching?
“Retiring from teaching has certainly been a difficult decision. However, knowing that Lucinda Dunn is going to be the one carrying on the school and continuing to nurture and train students with the same fundamental principles that I hold in such high regard, has made the decision much easier. I also have my body telling me everyday now that it is time to take it a little easier. The brain may be active and alert, however the body reminds me of my age.”
Former student and principal dancer of The Australian Ballet, Lucinda Dunn will be taking over directorship of your school in 2015. What is Lucinda’s vision for the students and school?
“I am so thrilled to have Lucinda Dunn take over the school from me. Lucinda is not only a former student of mine but an incredibly successful ex-professional dancer and industry icon in her own right. We share the same vision for the school, which is to very much preserve and nurture the artistry of ballet – to teach dancers how to communicate and resonate to the audience – to nurture the “whole dancer” and create intelligent dancers that use their minds as much as their bodies and who are eager to grow, adapt, continue to learn and think for themselves as well as challenge themselves – to learn to be a smart dancer and understand his/her body and work with strengths as well as overcoming weaknesses.
Lucinda Dunn’s aim for the future is to have our own graduates gaining placement directly into companies straight after graduation and not necessarily having to travel abroad or interstate for the final pre-professional training.
Lucinda has achieved such success and sustained such an incredibly long career as a professional dancer through working smartly and intelligently. She has the most diligent and incredible work ethic and ethos. As artistic director of the school, Lucinda will now be able to share and pass on this knowledge and these skills to the current and future generations of students, along with all her professional performing experience. What fortunate students!”
Will you continue to be involved in teaching in any capacity?
“I am starting to slowly decrease my teaching hours and envisage that by mid-2015, I will cease my teaching routine altogether.
I do, however, plan to stick around still for a long time and remain a part of the academy. It is my home and the place where I feel most happy and inspired. Lucinda and my daughter (and general manager of the school) have assured me that they will keep my chair for me.”
You have trained and inspired so many students, myself included. Why do you think your students have been so successful over the years?
“I am a firm believer in the ‘3 D’s’ – Discipline, Dedication and Desire. Having the inner passion and desire is critical in this industry. You have to simply love what you do with immense passion as so much sacrifice, energy and work is required. However, desire is not enough – this must be supported with a disciplined work ethic and a consistent, dedicated approach in order to survive. This industry throws at you many challenges, demands and expectations all from a very young age. I believe our academy is one that provides a good balance between a nurturing, caring and supportive environment, but also prepares students for the realities of the industry and fosters self-motivation, a professional and disciplined worth ethic, and most importantly, resilience.
I also feel that our dancers have a quality and expressiveness that resonates to audiences. I am a firm believer in the understanding and use of ‘port de bras’ and that ballet must speak to an audience and tell a story through every movement and every step.”
What are some of your fondest memories of teaching?
“I have so many! I have so many memories that have inspired me from my many overseas tours where I have had the wonderful opportunity to watch and observe many great teachers.
I have many memories of taking my young students to the wonderful Prix de Lausanne competition, in particular Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, who both went on to such incredible careers.
I love that moment as a teacher when you ‘see the penny drop’ and your language starts to make sense to a student and you see the results of many weeks or months of hard work. Sometimes it takes time for the body to register what the mind is trying to tell it and sometimes old habits and ways of thinking are hard to break – so when you see this change take place, it is very rewarding.
I still get some joy out of seeing my students grow and develop as they work towards a production; watching the students grow and develop throughout the months of rehearsals leading up to a show and then seeing them blossom on stage and grow as an artist over the course of the week performing in a theatre.”
How do you think dance teaching and training has evolved over the years and what do you think the future holds for teaching?
“There are certainly more demands and expectations on dancers these days, and at a younger age. There is a push towards more athletic dancers who can master amazing technical feats. However, I feel that this is not what makes a true artist. I very much hope and pray that our teachers remain focused on ballet as an art form and as a language that is expressed through movement. Technical proficiency without artistry becomes boring and unmemorable for the viewer.
Dancers of today must be versatile – this is what will make them more valuable and interesting to companies. As a vocational school, it is important to provide the training that will create versatile and malleable dancers. We aim to achieve this by giving our students exposure to a large faculty of teachers, different teaching styles and syllabi and different styles of contemporary and neo-classical technique.
I can proudly say that Australia has a very high standard of training in the world of classical ballet. I hope that as teachers we continue to work together to sustain this. I am a firm believer of sharing our knowledge and passing on ideas and methodologies to assist others and most of all, our students. Many years ago, I started my sharing seminars for teachers and I hope these continue.
Students now have access to video clips and footage of every variation online. It is therefore easier for students to learn variations, however, without being taught the variation in context and developing a true understanding and knowledge of the ballet, history and story behind the piece to enable it to be performed properly. I feel teachers have more of a responsibility now to educate our students and teach not only age-appropriate variations, but with a understanding of why he or she is doing that step a certain way, not teaching just ‘what to do.’”
Photo (top): Mrs. P takes her bow beside Lucinda Dunn at the special gala event “Mrs. P – 50 Years – A Celebration.” Photo by Lightbox Photography.