Yvonne Mounsey, bringing Ballanchine to the Westside
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During much of her celebrated career as a ballerina, which included performing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Colonel W. de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe, Yvonne Mounsey never imagined one day becoming a teacher.
“I was a dreamer and only wanted to dance. I thought of teaching as just saying ‘first position’ over and over again,” she says.
But working with George Balanchine during her decade as a dancer with New York City Ballet prompted Mounsey to rethink the vicissitudes of teaching. “Balanchine made you do this footwork that was about precision and attack, and I’d been in the company a couple of years before I got it,” she recalls. “He said to me one day, ‘Now you know what to do with your feet,’ and I saw all those little details that went into my getting the footwork, with the heel coming forward and the toe going back.”
Discovering that teaching “came naturally,” Mounsey went on to co-found the Santa Monica-based Westside School of Ballet and pre-professional Westside Ballet company in 1967. For 39 years she has staged an annual production of “The Nutcracker.’ And she has also successfully channeled the Balanchine aesthetic of musicality and precision in her training of generations of students, many of whom continued on to professional careers in a number of ballet companies.
“Yvonne really brings the Balanchine technique and spirit to Westside Ballet,” says Rachel Schwartz, 16, who has studied at the school for 11 years. “It’s the way she teaches footwork, the way her hands curve. She’ll say, ‘This is the way Balanchine did it,’ and it’s so amazing to learn from her since she had firsthand experience with him.”
In addition to Balanchine, Mounsey also credits Igor Schwezoff, a Russian teacher who trained her for 18 months in England during the late 1930s, for imparting to her the importance of artistry both in dancing and teaching. “Igor wasn’t so much a technician as much as he taught feeling and interpretation of the movement. I still love this,” she says. Francine Kessler Lavac, a veteran teacher at Westside Ballet and a former soloist for the Utah-based Ballet West, credits her professional career to studying with Mounsey, “who encouraged my artistry. She also encouraged your technical capability, but what sets you apart in the ballet world is your artistry, the way you reflect and bring out the beauty of any movement,” she says.
At 92, Mounsey remains devoted to her weekly teaching schedule, and while she no longer engages in full-bodied movement, she’s still physically demonstrative with her students. “I might stand at the barre and demonstrate a little or show them what I want with my hands and they understand what I mean,” she says. “Teaching gives me something to get up for in the morning. I’ll say to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to teach now,’ and I just keep on going.”
-- Susan Josephs