Interview with Olivier Wecxsteen
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR AND TENURED PROFESSOR AT THE EUROPEAN SCHOOL OF BALLET
Born in France, Olivier Wecxsteen graduated from the Princess Grace Academy of Monaco directed by Marika Besobrasova. Over the course of his career as a professional dancer, he was part of renowned companies, such as Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Boston Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. As a principal dancer, he performed many of the lead roles in the classical repertoire, while expanding his repertoire with ballets by the likes of George Balanchine and William Forsythe.
He transitioned to teaching in 2009 when he joined the faculty of the San Francisco Ballet School. He continued his career at the English National Ballet School, where he taught for two consecutive seasons. Next, he became an instructor at the Dutch National Ballet Academy, where he managed the Trainee Program. Finally, Olivier Wecxsteen was appointed Associate Artistic Director of the European School of Ballet and took over the position of Artistic Director in 2021.
The European School of Ballet is in Amsterdam, where it was founded by Jean-Yves Esquerre, who now serves as the school's director. It is a center of advanced training and professional development in ballet. ESB aims to perpetuate the legacy of academic European ballet expanded with contemporary styles. The school welcomes international students aged 13 to 19 and offers a variety of lessons and workshops fostering personal growth and individual coaching. Students enjoy a considerable advantage by having access to all the amenities they need under one roof: dance studios, dormitory, cafeteria and more.
How and why did you get into teaching?
When I was a principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, I gradually began helping my partners. In some classical variations of the repertoire, and especially pas de deux, I was in the habit of coaching them on their style and technique.
Then I began doing more and more shows as a guest artist. During one of those residencies, I was asked to give lessons to the dancers who were performing with me. That is how I really began teaching, alongside my status as a dancer in these companies and schools.
It all came together when I got my first teaching contract at the San Francisco Ballet School, then at the English National Ballet School and, finally, at the European School of Ballet where I currently teach.
You might think that teaching is the logical next step in the career of a professional dancer, but that is a total misconception. The two professions are really quite different! I did not fall into teaching by accident. Quite the contrary: I chose it because I felt that I had something to give and to impart to others. I have a constant need to be helping, sharing and passing things along.
Which sources of inspiration inform your teaching methods?
My main source of inspiration is my connection with my students. We are lucky to have a true team of instructors, which prioritizes the relationships between teachers, as well as the relationship between professors and students.
To me, it is essential not to feel a sense of superiority over one's students. And you should not put yourself above the student because it can create power dynamics. These days, you cannot force a dancer to do anything. He absolutely must be motivated and have the drive when he's in the dance studio. It is important for him to be able to be motivated by the professor's teaching, and vice versa. We are particularly proud to offer personalized coaching for each student. Because each body is different, we rarely offer general corrections to the group. The goal is to work together to find the best solution to the specific problem for any given student.
On the whole, we train them to become motivated dancers who are fully formed, both artistically and technically. Our students are also responsible because we teach them each day to respect and to listen to their bodies. From a technical point of view, our teaching method is inspired by the great masters of European dance.
It would be impossible for me to talk about my teaching inspiration without telling you about Jean-Yves Esquerre, Director of the European School of Ballet. It is truly an honor to work at his side and to be able to brush up against his artistic world, which is so unique and extraordinary.
In your opinion, what are the key qualities one needs to pursue a career as a professional dancer?
For me, poise is just as important as skill. Of course, it's crucial to be conscientious in your work, in your speed of learning, in your technique, in your artistic interpretation, in how you manage effort and energy, but that's far from being enough.
You also need personal qualities to become a good dancer. Your behavior should be irreproachable and respectful to other dancers, choreographers and professors. You have to know how to be independent and responsible, passionate and perseverant, how to stay humble...
What is a 21st century dancer? Can you describe that for us?
Here is how I would describe the ideal dancer for the 21st century...
First, I would say that the dancer has a strong technical foundation in classic dance. He must be perfectly acquainted with proper placement and proper posture and healthy work.
Next, he must be thoroughly familiar with the physiological capacity of his own body. Classic dance is an extremely physical training regimen that does not necessarily come naturally to the body. A dancer who is able to listen to and respect his body will be more likely to have a long, injury-free career.
The last, and certainly not the least, characteristic is his state of mind. A dancer must have a mind of steel or, more specifically, he must be very brave. He cannot give up when he encounters the many difficulties of life in a dance company. Knowing how to overcome these challenges and show resilience are of utmost importance.
And he will need courage for more than just those routine difficulties. It takes courage to go on stage or to be vulnerable in front of an audience. For me, being an artist is above all about accepting oneself and revealing oneself to the world, without a mask and with total authenticity.
How is your dance school different from others?
I would say that ESB's strength is that we offer a balance between a compassionate environment and the rigorous pursuit of precision we demand when teaching. That is what makes ESB a unique and world-renowned school. Our primary vocation is to train thoughtful beings before we train dancers. We try out best to nourish their minds so they can become independent and responsible. To do that, we instill in them a certain awareness that allows them to figure out how to manage their effort and to effectively manage pain and injuries. In fact, we have a very low rate of injuries at our school.
At ESB we focus on European ballet. We do not teach technique for the sake of technique. We are searching for meaning by probing the essence of the matter, all while maintaining tradition. We work on different styles to make our teaching richer and more technical. Our dancers touch on all styles of contemporary dance, inspired by the geniuses of our profession like Maurice Béjart, Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe. Sometimes one imagines a classical dancer to be rigid and cold, but in reality, classical dance is fluid and alive. I believe that the best dancers are the ones who excel in the contemporary repertoire because they can understand the movement.
Lastly, I would say that our faculty is one of our greatest assets. We are lucky to have four full-time instructors, including myself. Each week the school hosts guests, such as acclaimed choreographers and famous ballet masters who are known throughout the world.
Can you talk to us about the international reputation of your school? Where are your students from?
Although our institution is young, having been around for just four years, we have managed to cultivate an international reputation. Here are some of the home countries of our dancers, which clearly illustrates our global nature:
- South America, particularly Brazil and Chile
- North America, namely the US and Canada
- New Zealand
- All of Europe, obviously
- In light of current events, we are also hosting students from Ukraine
After completing their training at ESB, our students continue their careers — throughout the world, of course! We help them with job placement with no geographic restrictions.