Jaffe takes a healthy approach to dancing Dance: American Ballet Theater's principal dancer says doing thing correctly and not cheating on form will prolong a career.

September 28, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Susan Jaffe, principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, is as thin as a rail and as strong as steel.

When I saw her teaching a master class for Ballet Theater of Annapolis two weeks ago, I thought she weighed maybe 102 pounds. Edward Stewart, artistic director of BTA, guessed 93 pounds.

Exercising nine hours a day every day of your life will do that.

With her shoulder-length bushy black hair unbound, Jaffe looked like the girl from Maryland who went to New York to join ABT's junior company 20 years ago. Later in the class, she pinned it up with a tortoise-shell clasp and began to look more like the swan, the Princess Aurora or the shrewd village girl Coppelia she plays in ABT's signature story-ballets.

Jaffe, 36, is from Bethesda and began studying ballet at 8 with Hortensia Fonseca and Michelle Lees at Maryland Youth Ballet.

Originally, her mother enrolled her in a modern dance class to compensate for the fact that Susan's twin brother, Brian, began archery lessons at the local YMCA. "I hated it," says Jaffe. "But at the end of the year, we had a recital of all the dance students -- and I saw the ballet girls."

At 16, she joined ABT II, the apprentice company, and entered the main company in 1980, when she was 18. By 1983, she was a principal dancer and subsequently has danced every major role in ABT's repertory.

This week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, she will perform the title role in "The Merry Widow" (Friday-Sunday), a ballet treatment of Franz Lehar's tuneful comic opera by Australian choreographer Ronald Hynd. She'll also dance in the late Clark Tippet's "Bruch Violin Concerto," a romantic nocturne for four couples, which is on a mixed-rep program (Tuesday-Thursday) with Jerome Robbins' ballet of three sailors on liberty, "Fancy Free," and Jiri Kylian's extraordinary "Sinfonietta," set to music of Leos Janacek.

Jaffe's master class in Annapolis was just the fourth time she has taught, but it was a careful, clean class in which she sought to impress the young dancers with the need to dance safely as well as expressively.

"Having had the experience of being injured," she says, she wants dancers to be aware that forcing their feet to turn out and flinging their legs to the moon are not going to prolong their dancing years.

"It took me a long time to appreciate doing things correctly and not cheating," she says. "What really happens then is you cheat yourself out of years of dance."

She credits Christina Bernal, a private teacher with whom she's worked for years, with her healthy approach to dancing. Jaffe's class stressed a long warm-up period, gradual expansion of the body's limits (such as the height the leg can be lifted) and the full tension and relaxation of every muscle.

"The beauty of seeing someone [dancing] with absolute integrity in their body," she says, "is much more satisfying than seeing someone doing it just for effect."

Her marriage to Paul Connelly, a former ABT conductor who now works mostly in Europe, has given her an unusually keen ear for music. "It takes you back," she says fondly of Lehar's turn-of-the-century music, including the "Merry Widow Waltz," a ballad called "Vilya" and a famous can-can.

At the New York premiere of "Widow," she says: "People left the theater singing the melodies and dancing down the aisles."

Tickets are $30 to $75. Call 202-467-4600.

Dancers in 'Paris'

Best-Kept Secret Dept.: Besides 86-year-old harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, also on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's pops programs this weekend are Leslie Browne of ABT and Robert LaFosse, once of ABT and now with New York City Ballet. They'll be dancing -- elegantly -- to Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Concerts are at 2 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call 410-783-8000.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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