Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly explain your training and performance background?
Elizabeth Castaneda: I started in ballet when I was three. I went to a school in Austin, Texas, called Austin Dance Academy with an artistic director who was really focused on performance and student choreography. I started choreographing at a very young age, we actually had to present work on stage… I think I was nine when I presented my first work. I was with that director for nine years, and the influence was very strong, even to this day. I still reference her a lot and feel as though that creativity and movement quality are still really in my body. That’s where I received my Royal Academy of Dance training. I then moved on to Ballet Austin for a while, then moved to Spokane, Washington, where I went to a Ballet Arts academy. There I was also encouraged to choreograph a lot and did a lot of choreography with big groups of teenagers and a lot of performances. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle for dance for two years, and then I moved to San Francisco to join Lines Ballet School.
It was the first year of their training program, and my twin sister and I did the training program there. We kind of initiated the student choreography aspect of that program, because there wasn’t any student choreography when I arrived and I was kind of bummed, so I talked to the director about it, pulled some strings, and tried to twist people’s legs, and we ended up doing a piece there. Then I started my own company called the Fossettes, which is a Broadway dance group that has been performing in the Bay Area for 8 years or so. I started teaching at ODC about 6 years ago and before that I was running my own dance studio called Twin Space, just right around the corner from here. Actually, ODC was really affiliated and helped a lot, because they were demolishing the old ODC building—the theater building—and they were about to renovate it and I just got this space, so I talked to Kimi and she said I could take whatever I needed, which was basically everything. We pulled all of the hardwood flooring out, and we pulled all the mirrors and we took all the chairs, all the lights, all the hardware and made a dance studio, but unfortunately we lost our lease because of everything happening these days. After I lost my lease, I really started working more here with the school. I was here 5 days a week for a couple years working with the youth program and the adult Rhythm and Motion program.
MK: What is important for you to communicate to your students?
EC: I would say the most important thing is learning, understanding and integrating how human emotion is the basis of movement and that ballet is purely a vehicle for expression. I emphasize that a lot in my classes; creating a storyline for yourself or even referencing things or thinking about things that you’re going through at the time and using the physicality almost as a therapy to move through different feelings or experience them deeper. I emphasis what we call epaulement, which is how you dance with your arms and how you incline your body in order to express. In some ways it’s like physical theater; I’ve had a lot of theater background and I teach in the theater department at SOTA also and I talk a lot with them about how a human being is always looking to the other humans faces and upper body to understand where “they’re at” naturally, without knowing the person. When we do ballet, there’s all these shapes we make, but they resemble these different feelings, so I’m always trying to pull that out of them and get them more focused on the quality versus the quantity. I’m not the kind of teacher who’s trying to get perfect turnout and high legs; I don’t really care too much about that, the shape has to be right, but I think the shape actually comes from a full body integration of the feeling.
MK: Do your choreographic inclinations inform your teaching practices?
EC: This past year I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit more. I’ve been repeating the same adagio combination for two to three weeks, and I’m making those combinations more choreographic. From a dancer’s perspective, it would seem more choreographic because some things aren’t really classical at all or there might be a little contemporary in there or an unusual port de bras and the reason I do that is because I want them to work on it over and over again, kind of similar to a rehearsal in the way we workshop combinations. All the other combinations are like a normal ballet class, but that is kind of the climax of class even though it happens in the middle; it’s the longest duration of time that you spend dancing and in the center floor with no barre and it’s a lot of exertion. I use that as an opportunity for them to really pull out the qualities that I was talking about before and understand more deeply every time they do it and how they execute the movement.
MK: What have you personally gained from teaching?
EC: Teaching is a very interesting thing, it is very hard. It’s hard to be disciplined enough. In a way it’s like a one woman show every time, so there’s an adrenaline that goes along with it. In the past couple years, having the opportunity to teach here so much and having the opportunity to teach at SOTA, I really learned how to balance disciplinary aspects with my generosity. Generally, I think as a human I’m way more accommodating. In some ways that is a hinderance to a teacher; you can’t accommodate too much, because then they’re not really getting anywhere. Not a totally difficult process, but I have learned about when to put my foot down and why. Teaching at a high school has really helped me with that. Just being able to stop things before they get too far. Paying attention is really the hardest part about teaching because you’re thinking about the combination, you’re performing the combination, you’re talking about it and then you’re also having to watch everyone and watch them well enough so that you can see and be able to explain what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s like a lot of things going on, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that in the past couple years, here especially.
MK: Do you have a moment or memory that has been particularly inspiring or significant for you?
EC: One of the students that I had an opportunity to work with a couple years ago just won the Grand Prix, she just won the silver medal. She moved on to City Ballet a couple years ago, but before she did she was my student for a year. I got to work with her a lot and she obviously had lots of talent, but she was still growing, she was like Bambi a little bit. There was this one class where she stayed for pointe class afterwards and we were doing pique arabesque at the barre and her legs were just not working the way they should and I just did what I always do to people and gave her a little tactile information, like brushing the leg, showing the energy needs to go this way, that way, and she had a total epiphany and all of a sudden she went from not right to perfect. I think she might have even started crying because she felt it, all of a sudden felt what it was that I was trying to get out of her for several months at that point. And that was really nice because I just saw a little documentary about her on Facebook that just got posted with beautiful arabesque photos and I thought, “I was there when she realized what an arabesque really feels like!” That was a really good moment even for me to just have her reaction be so strong.
MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance centers and communities?
EC: The facility is beautiful. I haven’t been to all the studios in San Francisco, but I’ve been to a lot of them and it’s a really nice, beautiful space. The vibe here is very communal and the way they set up the design of the building itself actually facilitates community. Like Lines Ballet, beautiful building, gorgeous studios, but it’s down hallways and different levels, it’s like you’re on one floor or the other, there’s not like a commerce kind of feeling. It’s called the Commons for a reason, it’s definitely a feeling like that. It’s a really special quality that they have and I think Rhythm and Motion facilitated that as well coming in because I know I had never been to their building before, it had that fire, but I know that they’re really grassrootsy and really family-oriented, so I think the two merging together have come a long way. It feels cosy and professional.
Elizabeth teaches intermediate ballet followed by intermediate pointe on Tuesdays and Thursday, starting at 6:15pm and 7:45pm respectively.