Beyond Vassar

Continuing the Legacy of Dance: A Conversation with Russell Baker '91 & Merrill Brockway

By Peter Bronski

When PBS’s Emmy Award-winning series Dance in America debuted in 1976, it brought ballet to television and a mainstream audience for the first time. Dance in America introduced millions of people to ballet during the late 1970s and early 1980s, often described as the Golden Age of American ballet. Earlier this year, Merrill Brockway, producer/director for the series, donated his video archives to the National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI-NM), where Russell Baker ’91, a former dancer, serves as executive director. NDI is a non-profit with several dance programs, including one that provides dance classes for children age 5–13 as part of the curriculum in New Mexico public schools.

During fall 2011, the duo came to Vassar to screen several of Brockway’s films and participate in a panel discussion with several prominent dancers who appeared in the videos. Brockway and Baker also observed one of Professor John Meehan’s ballet classes. In between events, they sat down with the Vassar Quarterly to talk about the history of Dance in America, its impact on our culture, their collaborative efforts at NDI-NM, and the role of ballet for America’s youth today.

Merrill Brockway: I was from the Mid-west originally. After the war, I came to Columbia University and stayed on in New York City. It was in New York that I first saw Martha Graham. I don’t even remember what the program was, but I remember one piece, a solo. This tiny lady was onstage, doing things that I’d never seen before, which grabbed my gut and threw it in the air and swung it around and banged it on the ground. And then very tenderly picked it up and held it to her breast.

I had been trained as a pianist. But at the age of 30, I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was the very early 1950s, when television was beginning. With a bachelor’s and master’s in education from Columbia, I sent my résumé to every television station as far south as Washington, DC, as far north as Boston, and as far west as Philadelphia. CBS in Philadelphia was the only one I heard from. They hired me as a stagehand in 1953 at $45 per week.

So I would go up into the control room of the studio at night, and I would practice. And I studied two “models”—one was a director who did musicals; the other was a film director. I watched all their programs. They taught me how to tell a story, how you shoot it, the frame sizes. That was my education, and in a matter of months, I was made a television program director. The thing I wanted to do most, which I did, was cover the Philadelphia Orchestra in the late 1950s.

In 1962, I went back to New York, to the CBS station there. By 1967, they asked me to take over as series producer for Camera 3. Its slogan was “A walk through the marketplace of ideas.” I felt it had been neglected, but I was able to revamp it. That’s where I got experience doing programs on architect Paolo Soleri, poet Anna Akhmatova, and Twyla Tharp. Then came Merce Cunningham. He wanted to do a project where we would divide the screen into four equal parts, and do a different part of the same dance in each area.

Then in 1974, I got an invitation from Jac Venza, the executive producer of Great Performances on PBS. The National Endowment for the Arts was funding a series on concert dance, which had never been done. I had had more experience with dance than anyone at the time, and he asked me to be the series producer. And so began Dance in America in 1976.

Russell Baker: One of the things that Merrill has done with Dance in America is to capture the choreography and the dance in a way that’s incredibly sensitive to the choreographer’s intention. He did a really wonderful job of honoring the work of the performers as well: legs never cut off, arms never cut off, ensuring that their performance is really featured.

MB: When transferring a dance from the stage to television, you don’t want to diminish its value. You want to increase it. But how to do that? The directing needs to be musical; the editing needs to be rhythmic.

Two years into the program, I worked with Martha Graham to do Clytemnestra, which was Martha’s masterpiece. I consider it the best thing I ever did.

RB: As a dancer in the Kansas City Ballet, I had performed some of these ballets. But I don’t think I understood them completely. Watching episodes of Dance in America, I saw a whole new layer. I felt like I understood them, in some ways, for the first time.

Merrill’s work opens up the history and the tradition of the art form. Dance is a kind of tradition that’s passed along.You don’t read the book of Swan Lake. You have the woman who was the Swan Queen teach the next one who’s going to play that role, and she teaches her everything she knows, so that she becomes the one who knows the story and passes it along to the next one. That’s what Merrill has done. He’s passing along these stories so others can see and understand, and he’s used television and film as a way to do that.

MB: Russell had that kind of training. His mentor at Kansas City was Todd Bolender, who had been a member of George Balanchine’s company. [But] Russell was needed at NDI.

RB: I was dancing in the Kansas City Ballet, and had been there for 10 years. I was really fortunate to have that experience. That’s kind of a long time for a person to be in a ballet career. It was time to think about what would be next for me. Would I be a teacher or a choreographer? Something totally different? Would I become a writer, like I thought I wanted to be when I went to Vassar?

I had this opportunity to go to Santa Fe to do NDI’s two-week Teaching Excellence workshop. Kansas City sent me on a grant. It was September 2001, a crazy time for everyone. I was in an elementary school, all the kids came in, and I instantly knew that was the place for me to be.

I started dancing at Vassar, and I had found something in dance. I wanted to be able to open up young people to this incredible thing that I experienced, to open up this world and what it could mean for them.

In New Mexico, students don’t have the opportunity to go down the street to Lincoln Center and see the New York City Ballet or the Martha Graham Dance Company or the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Dance in America opens up a window or a door for them to look through, and for some of them, to walk through.

MB: This little boy, Glen, was in a ballet class at NDI. I first saw him when he was nine. He was in a performance, Singing in the Rain, and he did it with an umbrella. And he natively had what Balanchine called “in between the steps.” Some people have it. Some can learn it. Some never do. But this boy had it. I followed his evolution into ballet. He was the best in his class. And I thought to myself, ‘Here he is, doing impossible things, and he’s never seen anybody else do it.’ That’s when I made the resolve, that I must give my library—144 tapes—to these kids.

RB: What we do at NDI is more than dance for the sake of the art. It’s about what you gain out of that process of studying—working with a teacher, developing discipline, persevering, developing a work ethic. It’s about working toward an ideal that you know takes a long time, and requires putting 100 percent commitment of yourself into it, so that in the end what you get out of it is self-confidence and self-esteem and self-worth.

In schools in New Mexico, largely there’s no physical education, no art or music class. I could see in class that they almost knew there was something missing, but they didn’t know what it was. Having this experience—of dance at NDI, of watching Merrill’s Dance in America—they could see it. It was like their sails were full of wind.

We work with almost 7,000 kids per year. The test of whether we’ve been successful is not whether they can jump up in the air and spin around three times, or can kick their leg and balance in some position. It is whether they can walk up to you, look you in the eye with confidence, shake your hand, and be real people; that they know who they are, how they can move about in the world, and do something, be a part of the future. That, for us, is success.