Image: Diana White coaching Jia Zhang and Sarah Kundi in The Cage by Jerome Robbins © Laurent Liotardo

Diana White, former Soloist with New York City Ballet, where she danced for 20 years, is coming to teach and stage Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, as part of Voices of America.

We asked her a few questions ahead of the first rehearsal.

There are few dancers in the world who can match Diana White’s pedigree when it comes to knowing and embodying the ballets of legendary American choreographer Jerome Robbins. Over her 20-year career at New York City Ballet, she worked with him almost daily, and was original cast in nearly all the ballets he created between 1977 and 1997.

She also performed in many of his classic works, including The Cage. In the lead role of The Queen, she became famous for “giving a phenomenal performance of toe-stabbing aggression” (New York Times).

We can’t wait to learn this piece from her.

Diana White © Kyle Froman
Diana White © Kyle Froman

Who are some of the creative voices that inspire you, and why?

The easy answer is: first, George Balanchine, followed by Jerome Robbins, a close second, for the simple reason that I am inspired by genius, and I have been steeped in the works of these two masters for most of my life.

Do you have a favourite dance work?

I’m still a bit old school: I love the 19th and 20th century classics, including the plotless works of Balanchine and Robbins, which were contemporary and ground-breaking in their time.

Most all of those ballets are still fresh and timeless to me. In fact, I love many of them more now than I did when I was younger. I no longer live in Manhattan, so I am less exposed to new works, and I look forward to seeing the more recent pieces on this programme by Aszure Barton and William Forsythe.

You will be staging The Cage. What is special about this piece for you?

I remember seeing it for the first time while I was a 16 year old student at School of American Ballet, and being blown away by its startling and ferocious beauty. It was quite a shock!

Then, it became one of the first ballets I performed as a corps dancer at New York City Ballet. Somehow, the movement felt natural to me. Mr Balanchine loved this piece by Jerry, and he always watched it from the wings. He recognised it as a masterwork, and he loved seeing his female dancers letting loose on stage.

Now, as I study the films in order to teach it, the ballet’s emotional impact doesn’t diminish with each repetitive viewing. It was daring in its time, and still just as provocative today.

The Cage, Nora Kaye & Nicholas Magallanes, courtesy NYCB Archives © Walter Owen
The Cage (1955), Nora Kaye & Nicholas Magallanes, courtesy NYCB Archives © Walter Owen

You learnt one The Cage’s main roles, the Queen, from the master himself, Jerome Robbins. What was it like?

Jerry was very particular in choosing the dancers he wanted to work with. If you clicked with him, and he liked your artistic choices, it was wonderful. Luckily I did!

For some, he was quite the taskmaster, and it could be difficult when he wasn’t seeing what he wanted to see or if he couldn’t get his vision across.

He was very, very specific about the intent of the choreography: I never felt unprepared in a Robbins ballet! We rehearsed hours and hours only for the dancing to look spontaneous and unpretentious. After that, if he liked you, he trusted you.

The Cage is new to our dancers. What do you want them to bring to rehearsals? 

I hope the dancers will come to rehearsal without any pre-conceived notions. In this case, they have to forget about how they look, and just work with the choreography itself and the specific imagery Jerry used.

How should they approach the piece?

It’s all about the intention, the steps, and the energy. That’s all that should inform how they look and move. It doesn’t need an interpretation. In fact, Jerry would say that the dancers are just acting on instinct.

Tell us about the process of coaching dancers. How do you work with them?

First, I like to teach just the steps and counts. Then the energy.

I consider myself to be in service to the choreographer and the composer, even when they are no longer alive, and I hope to be able to transmit their intentions to the dancers as faithfully as I can. I just use my eye and my words to help guide them.

Read more: Five things about The Cage

We perform The Cage, by Jerome Robbins, as part of Voices of America, at Sadler’s Wells, 12 – 21 April 2018. Book your tickets now.