Balancing Somatics and Classical Ballet: A Conversation with Marisa Castillo | By Maya Kitayama

Marisa Castillo

Marisa Castillo

Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performance experience.

Marisa Castillo: My training might be considered a little unorthodox. I started really trying to train seriously at about age 11 or 12, that’s when I decided I really wanted to be a ballet dancer. Like a lot of people, I just went to a studio around my home. In my opinion now, it wasn’t the best training, but it also didn’t deter me, it made me really excited about ballet. After that, when I got a little bit older, I decided to train with Karen Morell who studied pedagogy at the Vaganova Academy, and I credit her with cleaning up my technique and polishing me up, demanding the precision and the clarity of technique. She was passionate about ballet but didn’t have compassion for her students. It was at this point that I decided it was time to venture to the city and that’s when I met Augusta Moore, started taking her classes and studying Feldenkrais as well. That started my somatic education. I ended up going to Columbia City Ballet and I did a season performing with them, and it was a good experience in terms of being able to perform. I wasn’t really that thrilled with the environment, but it was a good experience. After that I came home, did some other projects here and there, and then decided to go to The Ailey School. I did a year at Ailey. I loved New York, and I thought this was my chance. So I went and danced in New York. After a year of that, I came back here and Augusta asked me if I wanted to start teaching in the ballet program. I also earned my B.A. in Dance from San Francisco State University in 2014.

MK: As a Bay Area native, how would you say the dance scene has evolved?

MC: In terms of the dance scene, I’ve seen it be more experimental. There is a lot of dance theater happening. There’s a lot of innovative uses of media, of film, and of different sets on stage and how that’s used to accentuate the choreography. I see new technology emerging, like the use of video as backdrop or technology interacting with the dancers. The movement is based in contemporary and modern techniques and styles. Others that should be included are contact improv, release, site specific, hip hop and house. I think that’s just because of the culture here in San Francisco. This has allowed artists the freedom to be experimental and have the space to express unique and diverse points of view.

MK: What do you try and communicate to your students as a teacher?

MC: What I try to stress is that, as a dancer, you have to know your instrument and your instrument is your body, so knowing how it works and accessing these different places and being introduced to basic anatomy and moving from different places is really important to be able to attain the technique without being traumatized by it. It’s been kind of an experiment in the school, teaching from that point of view. When Augusta and I have spoken, she believes that a lot of people come to the somatic approach after they’ve been injured, after everything else they’ve tried isn’t working. So to be able to continue [dancing], they have to do something drastic and that takes them to the somatic modalities. But here, we’re giving it to them right off the bat, and they don’t have that experience of injury or bad habits that have haunted them. It’s amazing, the kids can grab on to that information. Especially for the ones that came from other schools and maybe were dismissed because they couldn’t do certain things and maybe thought that ballet wasn’t for them, they come here given that information, and they just blossom, they are able to keep up with the class. In that way I feel very strongly about giving them this education.

MK: How is the somatic information incorporated into your classes?

MC: That’s the balancing act that we have to do. How to keep the class moving, but still try to get this information into them. [I give] just a quick little introduction about it before class starts and then try to remind them throughout class. But it is a balancing act, I don’t want to overload them. I do give them a classical ballet class, but when I see we’re running into problems with body mechanics then I will stop and address that issue. I have also been known to bring a skeleton in class and pass out anatomy coloring pages. One summer I cut-out felt circles to represent the seven chakras for dynamic alignment. Each class we would attach one to the leotard going all the way up to the crown of the head. The kids had fun and it really helped them to get a concrete understanding of a sometimes difficult idea.

MK: What is a memorable or significant moment in your time teaching?

MC: When students express how grateful they are for me being their teacher and the notes and the cards that I get. It just really makes me realize how much it’s affected them and how they’re appreciative of it. One time I asked my class to tell me why they’re taking ballet or why they choose to dance. The responses I got were really interesting, but very true. I remember this one student said that she loved ballet because she felt that the precision and technique allowed her to be free and that she also didn’t mind being royalty at some point during the day. I thought, “yeah, all right!”

MK: What have you learned personally from teaching?

MC: It’s a whole different ball game being on the other side in the studio. There’s a lot that the ballet teacher has to do. One, organize and make a lesson plan. Two, with the younger kids, you have to be on top of them with discipline and etiquette. Three, the music, being ready to have the music right there and if you’re lucky to have a pianist, knowing how to direct the music. [Lastly], being present, giving the class what it needs in that moment and being able to really look at the students, and just really try to see what is it that they need at that moment to complete the task at hand. There’s a lot going on, I’m always amazed at just being in there and being able to conduct all this. Sometimes it feels like a miracle when it all comes together.

MK: What is something that sets ODC apart from other schools and dance centers?

MC: I think the fact that ODC values all genres of dance, it’s not one over the others. Of course it’s a modern dance company and focus, but the school strives to provide the opportunity to study the spectrum of dance and the school’s production of Uncertain Weather is proof of this mission. It is also hands down one of the best school productions around. The kids are well prepared and the choreography is perfect for these young performers. The ballet program shares this mission by adding world dance. In levels two and three it was adjacent to their ballet classes on Mondays. We’re not trying to make them into little bun heads. We really want them to experience all types of movement and to know that not one is better than the other, but that they all are valid and you need them all if you want to dance professionally.

MK: Any additional thoughts?

MC: Working at ODC has been been very rewarding for me. Augusta Moore has a beautiful and innovative vision for the ballet program. She makes every effort to provide us with opportunities and tools to add our own voices to this vision. I feel we get a lot of support, for us teaching and our ideas that we bring to the table. We get listened to and the school office staff and directors are really interested in what we have to say. Everyone here want students to succeed and work to get them on the path to accomplish those goals and dreams.

Marisa teaches within the youth program, as well as various adult ballet workshops. This fall, she will be teaching a Bridge to Advanced Beginner Ballet workshop for adults on Saturdays at 9am, as well as partner teaching with Augusta Moore, running a Monday/Wednesday Beginning Ballet workshop at 1:15 and 6:15, respectively. 

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