“God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it – from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do.” George Balanchine
I follow many composers, musicians, performers and many other artist types on Social Media. Before COVID-19, I did so to keep up with what was happening in many different genres which might inform my own work. Now I purposefully take a look at those artists’ pages to take a break and get some mental relief from the news. Many artists are commenting on Pandemic news, of course, but many reflect on their work, lives and who and why they are who they are.
Our Governor here in Illinois recently extended his “shelter-in-place” order, and I’ve been reflecting on my own life, my own journey to being a choral conductor. It was not as straight a line as many of your journeys but is a big part of who I am. For the next two weeks, I’ll be blogging about my early artistic background and how it has influenced my Choral Ethics outlook on our profession.
I was never meant to be a choral conductor; please note—a choral conductor–and not director. I wanted to become a ballet conductor after my dancing days were done because, dear Readers, I was a DANCER. I come from Chicago Dance Royalty–my Dad was Bob Fosse’s vaudeville partner and a respected ballet dancer, choreographer and pedagogue in his own right—and I studied with the best teachers in the Midwest. There was a real chance for me of dancing with the Joffrey after high school, if I had not injured my ankle.
I loved choral music but it was not my “be all/end all.” From the time I was about 6 or 7, I sang in a church’s children’s choir. Our Mom was one of the paid ringers in their adult choir, so when the choir director decided to start a children’s group, Sissy and I were recruited. Sissy sang soprano because she was so young and I sang alto because I could read. Both of us could hold our own parts at that young age, we didn’t think it was impressive, but apparently it was.
Sissy and I sang duets for various events at the church, in addition to choir, and both of us studied piano with the choir accompanist. We also studied Tap with Dad’s friend and business partner, Benny Smith, but Sissy wasn’t good at it and I didn’t like it.
Sissy decided she wanted to take guitar lessons but I wasn’t interested, I wanted to study ballet. Weeks during our childhoods ended with choir practice and piano lessons on Fridays, with my ballet lessons Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and Sissy’s guitar lesson on Wednesdays.
Dad had strong opinions on ballet study as you might imagine, since he was a ballet dancer and opera stage director (my parents met during a production of “Bohemian Girl,” with Mom the Diva and Dad the stage director). Dad felt girls shouldn’t begin pointe work until they were 12. I didn’t care about pointe, I just wanted to dance! So when I was about 11 or so, I began lessons with two of Dad’s friends, John Kriza and Ruth Ann Koesun. Johnny and Ruth Ann were former American Ballet Theater dancers (Johnny was in the original “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo”) and taught ballet for Hull House in Chicago. I didn’t know at the time, but studying with them was a sort of try-out for me; if I did well, I would go on to study with all of their teachers, Walter Camryn and Bentley Stone.
I loved Ruth Ann and Johnny and began to feel like myself in their classes. Instead of an awkward pre-adolescent girl, I began to feel good in my own skin. When I got to Stone-Camryn, I began to feel I BELONGED somewhere. I forgot to feel ugly and not popular because during class, I was part of something greater.
I started high school at the age of 13, and began my ballet classes at Stone-Camryn School of Ballet around the same time. I took lessons five days a week, studying not only classical ballet but character ballet. On Fridays, since I was too old for the children’s choir, I took a character class and then a ballet class for professionals. Those Friday night classes included Dad as one of my classmates—it was fun and strange to be in class with him!
Soon after I began ballet classes, I noticed something; Dad wasn’t dancing as much as he used to. I had recently helped him with a production of “Die Fledermaus” and was fascinated with the music direction. Before class, while waiting at the bottom of the long stairway leading up to the Studio, I mentioned to Mr. Camryn I knew what I wanted to do when I could no longer dance—I wanted to be a ballet conductor. He smiled and patted my arm and told me not to be silly; girls don’t conduct orchestras! I mentioned a famous woman conductor—Sarah Caldwell—and he told me I didn’t want to be like her but I could probably conduct choirs. And so I do.
I loved both Mr. Stone and Mr. Camryn but Mr. Camryn saw something different in me. He SAW ME for me, not my Father’s Daughter, but ME. He called me Zazu Pitts, teasing me and so I “mugged” for him. He laughed and corrected and cajoled me. Many times, his criticisms stung but still I persevered.
I come to you today, remembering how it felt to be called Zazu Pitts in the middle of a ballet class. And when I feel like that awkward fifteen year old, I just remember who I am and who believed in me and carry on.
Next week, I’ll talk about what I’ve brought from the Barre to the choral rehearsal hall. Until then, be well.
I am taking my Choral Ethics Blogs to my chamber choir’s Facebook page for the foreseeable future. Please join me there this morning!