As we near the end of our 40th Anniversary year, we spoke with former company dancer and ballet master Meredith Webster. She reflects on breaking out of the need to be correct, helping dancers reach new levels, and the lessons she learned from her parents. Working alongside Alonzo King on all of his 2022 commissions, Meredith sheds light on the core values that have kept LINES Ballet touching hearts and stirring minds for four decades.
Interview by Erin McKay | Videos by Jamie Lyons
You were LINES’ Ballet Master for six years from 2014–2020. How did you step into the role?
Arturo Fernandez, LINES’ Ballet Master for 25 years before me, was ready to retire. He and Alonzo talked to me about potentially moving into the role, and I was really interested in doing it. I was ready for a chapter change myself after dancing in the company for nine seasons. I was interested in how the ballet master could translate what Alonzo asked for and help the dancers grow in their artistic trajectories.
I was also excited to help LINES Ballet run more smoothly. After nine years, you see how the company operates. You notice areas where things could be smoother from the dancer’s point of view and where things get held up, difficult, or sticky. You are also aware of what already works. I noted the things that made me feel better as a dancer and allowed me to do my job to the best of my ability. I wanted to keep momentum going where I saw it and make improvements where I could. It was a new level of responsibility with Alonzo’s work, and I looked forward to that.
Arturo and I actually did the role together for about three years. He stayed on to help me transition, and I was very lucky to have him. Much of the ballet master role centers around communication between Alonzo and the dancers. You anticipate what is helpful for both of them and try to intuitively facilitate that dialogue. Arturo fostered this kind of communication for over two decades. I was honored to learn from him, especially when things got difficult. Sometimes just having another person acknowledge that, “yes, this is challenging,” can be so helpful when you’re new.
Arturo worked with me during our San Francisco rehearsals and home seasons for those three years. He taught me the order of operations at home, showing me how things worked best and what ways were most efficient for him. When the company toured though, it was just me. I tested out how it felt to do things on my own when we traveled. I continued discovering who I wanted to be as a leader and how I hoped to operate in my role.
How did Arturo influence you as a leader?
Arturo’s ability to remain unoffended, empathetic, and focused on the work is inspiring. I’m curious who else influenced your leadership?
I was influenced by the dancers in the company. I learned a lot about work ethic from Laurel Keen, Brett Conway, Chiharu Shibata, and many, many, others. They taught me how to keep a sense of play, interest, and exploration in the work. No matter how deep you go, there’s always something more to discover.
As far as leadership, I learn a lot from Alonzo. I think he views his role as service and vocation and feels that the work is not about him personally. Alonzo hardly ever says “I would like…” in rehearsals. He talks about what “the work needs…” He rarely refers to feedback as his own personal desire, even though, of course, he is a human being, and it is coming out of him. My impression is that he believes the direction comes from a source larger than himself, which means he is less attached to things going as expected.
For the most part, Alonzo focuses on the overarching goals of expansion and truth-telling. He’s able to take on a more expansive perspective when things get hectic because he’s done the work for so long. He is truly interested in what the dancers bring to the table, so the door is always open for them to reveal something to him about his own work. Not many leaders allow so much space for that.
I also learned from my parents. My dad is a business leader, and he has respect for everyone who works for him on all levels. He talks to each person like they’re equally intelligent, important, and capable of teaching him something. My mom is a more quiet leader. She made me feel that I had a lot of space to understand myself while I grew up; she wasn’t overly controlling.
In what other ways did your mom and dad impact you?
My mom gave me the space to make decisions about what I wanted, and she supported those choices. She noticed when I committed to dance, and she viewed it as important. Although my moving out at 14 to attend a ballet school wasn’t what she had in mind, she saw the opportunity as necessary and meaningful for me. She gave me that gift to go.
I also remember something my mom said to me while I was playing basketball. I was terrible at that sport. I couldn’t dribble the ball, and I wanted to quit. I told my mom, “This is too hard. I hate this. Why would I do it? Basketball is no fun, because I’m not good at it.” She responded with, “You know, you can’t quit everything that’s hard,” and I was shocked by the fact that I hadn’t realized that before. The concept is so simple and obvious in a way, but when you’re young, words like that can last forever.
I think my dad taught me the same lesson as my mom in a way that was a little more overt. He gave us chores to do then inspected our finished work. If we wiped down the counter and missed a corner, we’d know. My dad gave me my detail-oriented nature. I have it to a pretty extreme degree, but I’m grateful that the instinct is now a part of my hardware. Even though his expectations were intense for me as a kid, he showed us something valuable: a job is not finished until you’ve done your absolute best. No matter what anyone else sees, you have to know for yourself that you gave it your all.
This quality came in very handy as a rehearsal director. In the role, you have to let go of the results. Because the outcome of your work is a dancer on stage that isn’t you. You can’t move their body for them, but you have to do everything you can before they perform. You must follow through in every way possible, and then you have to let go. If they don’t reach where you wanted them to in the performance, you might feel that you’ve failed. But if you can hold onto the conviction that you’ve done everything you could, you can see whatever happens up there on stage as just another step in the artist’s pathway.
Alonzo’s pathway led to some exciting commissions this year with American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Rambert Dance Company, and, most recently, The National Ballet of Canada. You supported him in every one of these processes. Why do you think you two work so well together?
I think our working relationship is strong because of time and a lot of trial and error. I seem to have some level of natural intuition with him too. He shares something that I can understand. It’s like he’s speaking with words through his work, and I can usually hear them. Over time, the message became clearer and clearer, and a part of me as an artist and human was built by embodying his ideas. So after all this time, I feel pretty confident in our dialogue and my instincts about his work. Of course, I don’t want to assume anything still, even though it’s been so long. But I do feel sensitive to what he’s trying to say.
Our understanding allows me to translate Alonzo’s thoughts to people who may not have the same initial ease with him. I’ve done this over the years with musicians, designers, and dancers. I still remember the nuggets that helped me while working in the company, so I can better identify when certain advice or reassurance could serve someone.
I also have a balance of the two sides of the brain. I can function on an intuitive level and be comfortable there. I can go to a place where I receive information that’s beyond my cognitive thinking, either from Alonzo’s choreography or from the people in the room. And I can think creatively, whatever that means. But I also have a very logical part of my brain that really likes organization, clarity, and spreadsheets.
What part of the position is most fulfilling?
The best part of the role is helping dancers reach a new level. It’s something a little deeper though than corrections like, “Your arm needs to be more round,” or, “Your foot needs to point.” Helping people unlock access to their own power and artistic voice is the reason I am drawn to this work. The training for ballet is often so disciplined that it can train the creativity out of you. I’ve encountered principal dancers at top companies who have never been asked to make choices about how they want to dance—sometimes they don’t even think of themselves as creators! They get coached on every single detail down to their pinky finger. So when we show up and start asking dancers to decide about their musicality and to have opinions and ideas about how the choreography should be done, it can be overwhelming. Some dancers get frustrated because as much as it’s an opportunity, it is also a responsibility; we are asking them to bring their inner selves fully to the work, which can feel vulnerable and daunting.
So I feel it’s my job to help them learn to trust that they are capable, that they are unique and interesting, and that they already have everything they need inside of them. Sometimes that means giving them a bit of a push! But when that spark gets lit, it is extremely beautiful to see how it starts a fire burning: freedom has its own momentum. It will last and grow far beyond the time I am in the studio with them. I see the practice of choosing the personal values you want to share with the world, and then embodying them in front of an audience, as a sort of testimonial that ripples beyond the theater. For me, this is why dance is valuable in the world.
What have you noticed in working with artists on pas de deux over the years?
I really enjoy working with pas de deux. There are times where the guidance is functional: “You need to put your hand here. Get there earlier.” But dancers can also communicate on an intuitive level. Encouraging partners to trust that innate dialogue between each other fosters their ability to work interdependently as one. I am interested in trying to open up that connection between artists. It was one of my favorite things to search for as a dancer myself, so it’s nice to dig into that with others.
Although it’s hopefully starting to change, in classical partnering, the representation of a male-presenting figure dancing with a female-presenting figure is ubiquitous. The male figure is mostly a frame for the female figure, and he tends to facilitate her being the the center of attention. I noticed this while working with Alonzo at classical companies, and I knew it from my training. Alonzo’s partnering is completely interdependent though. He doesn’t want women to feel like music box figures that you twirl around and put down in places like an “objet d’art”. He aims for partnerships that require both people to do something that they could not do alone; that takes trust. Alonzo’s approach varies greatly from what most classically trained dancers are used to.
Pretty commonly, a female-identifying dancer tries to do too much to help the male-identifying dancer. She’s trying not to give him her full weight in an attempt to minimize his work. I think that comes from a caring nature, but there’s also a LOT of self-consciousness in dance about weight. So it’s fun to ask dancers to try and let go of their weight and trust each other. I love reminding a dancer, “You’re NOT heavy, and he’s really strong. If you actually let him have your weight, he can better feel what you truly need and what he can do to give you more freedom. This also means he can be more involved—which means he gets to dance too.”
Giving in to this idea takes practice for all dancers, but this is the kind of partnering that creates an honest experience of relationship in real-time in front of the audience. We can feel when a connection between two people is being created and lived in front of us, and a duet becomes more than a routine made up of a to-do list of complementary shapes.
In what ways do you think further trust and connection can be developed in pas de deux?
Well, at many ballet schools, pas de deux lessons start very early. It feels so arbitrary, especially in 2022, that kids assigned male at birth are supposed to carry around and hold up the weight of kids assigned female at birth. Young dancers are strong, but at the age when they usually start classical partnering, they are not often strong enough to actually do the lifting– which is part of why they take the classes: to get strong enough! But at that young age, I’d say no gender is physically stronger than another. Over time though, the dancers who present as boys practice strengthening their upper bodies and backs, while those who present as girls practice holding themselves up and being less of a burden. Those separate mindsets and habits persist. I wonder how things would be different if every partnering class for 11-15 year-olds involved the students switching roles halfway through?
Do you notice when dancers struggle with feelings of not being enough? If so, how do you encourage them to confront those fears in the middle of an artistic process with Alonzo? Is your approach individualized or universal?
What was one of the highlights of Alonzo and your recent work with The National Ballet of Canada?
We were setting The Collective Agreement and working with an amazing dancer. He’s super dynamic, really quick, and beautiful, but he held some tension in his face. He repeated a pattern of facial expressions, and I could tell he didn’t need them. It was a piece of the puzzle that wasn’t assisting him; they kept him from being seen. So we talked about it. I actually asked Sandra Chinn, a teacher at LINES Dance Center, for insight on the types of words I could use to help him; she’s so great with verbal cues that lead to more freedom and fluidity.
I returned to rehearsal with new ideas for him to focus on while he did the phrase. And I stopped him every time that his face tensed up. This approach worked, but it took some time. Tension spots are habitual, and they aren’t always easy to unlearn. When he let the expressions go though, even for a short period, I was able to see him in a way I couldn’t before. It’s as if his facial tension was a shield, and when it dissolved, his whole presence was more powerful. Everything was brighter and more integrated. It looked like he felt the difference viscerally in his body. I shared that with him, and he confirmed it was true. He was even able to stay in that place during the performance—he broke his habit! That was really beautiful. I have goosebumps just talking about it.
Do you see a shift in the way that you work with dancers at LINES Ballet vs dancers from other companies?
In some ways, yes. I think it has to do with communication. LINES dancers are immersed in the world of Alonzo’s work, some of them for many years, so you don’t have to start at the beginning with them. You can get down deeper into their approach earlier in the process. They have a richer understanding of exploration and play the longer that they’re in the company. And the deeper their understanding, the more interwoven their artistry can be with the world, blueprint, and lyrics of Alonzo’s choreography. As dancers learn to integrate these things, they can maintain the idea offered by Alonzo while still, “taking it out,” as he says. The artists know how to go pretty far from the basic choreographic concept without losing the central idea. Their knowledge opens up a wide range of investigation.
This year, I’ve been working with a lot of dancers from more classical and repertory companies. They are used to changing styles several times a day and getting varying inputs. They are skilled chameleons; their breadth is wider, but they don’t often get as much depth with each choreographer. Each choreographer creates their own culture in the studio and dictates what is crucial, as does each company. So when Alonzo and I go into a new organization, there’s a learning curve. His crucial elements differ from every other choreographer’s. They must be taught, and a big part of my job is to teach them.
In many companies, hierarchies exist as well. There are principal dancers, soloists, the corps, and apprentices. The artists know what is allowed within their roles: how things work, what is okay, and what jeopardizes a job. The hierarchy is an established structure in these environments; LINES Ballet doesn’t have a system like this.
When Alonzo and I come into a space, we want people to feel free to explore and mess up, which isn’t always part of the existing culture. We encourage people to do what they think the choreography is vs getting stuck on what is right or wrong. Of course, we want them to do the choreography, so there is a “right” in that sense. But we don’t want them to get hung up on, Was it my left arm or my left elbow? Because then they get pulled out of the flow of the bigger picture: commitment, exploration, and play.
Our approach to the work often has to be taught. It’s a technique. For some people, it’s intuitive, and for other people, less so. Alonzo is very skilled at creating environments where people feel safe and responsible to explore from the start. He encourages them to take on the work as their own and use their individual voices to make it sing.
I love how you speak to the practicality of risk-taking and exploration. Making that safe in a space takes steps.
What would you define as the crucial elements of Alonzo’s work?
Part of my job as a stager, ballet master, or rehearsal director is to understand the arc of the story. Alonzo’s works aren’t story ballets, but I can understand the structure of the house that he has built. What is the architecture? What are we creating? I also know which parts ask for heat, call for serenity, and need to build. These arcs are visible to me, and I can help translate them to others.
I think the things that are crucial for each ballet are specific to the moment. Yet, despite this dependency, there are a few elements that matter overall. In every one of Alonzo’s works, it is necessary to find a balance of science and emotion. You are equally invested in the integrity of what you’re doing, the honesty of your experience, and the depth of sensation. And you share all of this with those who watch; you don’t want the experience to stay inside your own world. Alonzo explains it like this: “You might eat the most delicious meal and think, Mmm! This is so good. Every bite’s delicious. But the audience asks, ‘Are you going to share any of that? We’re glad you’re enjoying the food, but you’re not letting us taste it.’ So how do you, as the artists, open the doors so that we can receive the meal?”
I think another central element to Alonzo’s work is that gender is not a limiting factor. People who identify as female are often strong, opinionated leaders in his choreography. At the same time, they can share and be soft and vulnerable. This is true too for people who identify as male. They are able to show the gentle and emotional sides of themselves, and it is not a sign of weakness. They are allowed to be interdependent and generous. There is also room for people who don’t feel that they fit clearly into either the male or the female category. No matter a person’s assigned or expressed gender, the multitudes they contain are celebrated. So even though on the surface we often see what might look like a heteronormative pairing onstage in Alonzo’s work, in my opinion, the ways the dancers are encouraged to express themselves, their physicality, and how they exist in relationship to each other, do not fall into those tired old tropes of “there is a women. She is emotional, delicate, and pretty, and she dances with a man who is strong and stoic.” To me, the work feels much more expansive than that.
A spirit of play, exploration, and personal choice about what matters is essential too. The work means nothing to me unless the dancers have opinions about each moment. They should show you why every movement matters and communicate that with their bodies. When you watch a performance, you see the artist’s value system.
What do you think are the core values and culture of this organization?
What brings you joy today?
It’s the changing of summer to fall. I’m really appreciating the things that are fading as summer fades. I got some strawberries at the market this weekend, and I noticed that they were not quite as perfectly ripe as the ones I got the week before. I’m grateful for the fact that I still have strawberries; they’re not going to be in season for much longer.
In celebration of the end of our 40th Anniversary year, we invite you to help us continue touching hearts and stirring minds through the power of dance with a donation of any amount: DONATE. All contributions received by December 31 are eligible for a 2022 tax deduction.
Banner Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancer: Meredith Webster | © RJ Muna