Dd Exclusive Interview: Matthew Powell Juggles an Artist's Life in NYC
Being an artist in New York City is a juggling act. As the great Sinatra song “New York, New York” says, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” This city can be inspiring, yet it can also devour an artist. Recently, I sat down with Matthew Powell, who has quickly become one of New York’s most sought after teacher, performer, choreographer, ballet master, and confidant. His resume is extensive. As a young man, he trained at the School of American Ballet on full scholarship. From there, he performed with the San Francisco Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Kansas City Ballet, performing soloist and principal roles in works by masters like George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp. Only three months after moving to New York City in 2008, he was offered the role of A-rab in the international touring company of West Side Story. Upon his return to the states, he began teaching for Broadway Dance Center, Brooklyn Ballet—where he remains Ballet Master—Astoria Fine Arts Dance, Marymount Manhattan College, and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Despite such an impressive resume, Matthew remains humble and gracious with an optimistic outlook on his career and life.
Dd: When working with a range of dancers from student to professional, what do you find to be the “through-line” for teaching?
MP: The one thing we all have in common as [dancers], regardless of whether we are recreational dancers, professional students, or professional dancers, is that ballet is a difficult art form to take on, study, and get right. I feel that a lot of times people come into the studio with a closed mind, and so I try to create a nurturing environment in order to promote growth. If you come into the studio relaxed and ready to take in the knowledge without feeling intimidated, then you’re able to take the steps that you need in order to progress.
Dd: What differences do you see between teaching company class and teaching a class of students?
MP: A company is full of seasoned professionals who have been doing [ballet] for a long time. They need little tweaks
here and there to help them get on their leg, find their balance and things like that. But, a lot of times,, it’s mainly about preparing them for the day ahead of them. If they have a rehearsal day or a performance, I’m teaching them essentially a warm-up. I’ll go lighter for class before a performance. For a rehearsal day, I give them a warm-up that prepares them for the day in a way that will help them avoid injuries. With a company, you have to look at their work load and what they’re rehearsing at that time. For example, if the company is performing Giselle and they have Act II off, I may push them a little harder and give them double tours and more difficult steps, while I’ll go a little lighter for the ladies who have a harder show.
With students, I can push a lot more—not I can push, I DO push a lot more! They’re at a point where they’re trying to become professional dancers, so I feel like I can give them more challenging combinations, both mentally and physically.
Dd: In addition to the environment you try to create, what else do you incorporate into your teaching philosophy?
MP: I’ve studied ways to improve upon the ballet environment. From my own personal experience, if I’m intimidated, my brain starts to shut down. The teachers and choreographers I appreciated [the most] were the ones who allowed me to safely take in the material I was being given. When I was a student, I studied Alexander Technique for a summer, and I wrote a thesis on how you can apply the principles of Alexander Technique to teaching by being present and in the moment. As dancers, we often cloud our brains with emotions such as “How do I look?”-I mean, we’re in a studio surrounded by mirrors, and we’re expected to do certain things on the spot, and I feel like a lot of times you can easily cloud the brain and not get the results that you want. Learning Alexander Technique helped me to come into the studio with a philosophy that encourages the dancer to grow.
Dd: How long have you been teaching?
MP: I’ve been teaching for almost as long as I’ve been dancing professionally, so about fourteen years. I had a director at PNB who told me that it is good for dancers to teach right off the bat. Not only is it an invaluable tool for the future, you can [also] apply the corrections that you’re giving to the students to yourself.
Dd: As New York experiences go, you ‘lucked out’ when you got to the city as far as booking a show quickly, then moving right into teaching consistently. How do you incorporate your success into helping encourage other artists?
MP: For me, I’ve had such a positive experience with NYC. A lot of people feel like it’s a city that can kick you out at a moments notice, and a lot of that is true, but the city has treated me so well that I want them to have the same experience I have had. It’s a very personal and almost emotional response for me. That’s what drives me in the studio.
Dd: What do you recommend to students for making a positive experience in NYC who may be struggling?
MP: People talk about hard work and attitude, and those things are very important, but I think it’s also a matter of finding something, some way to create balance. People obsess over things like getting the job, perfecting their pirouette–things like that, and I’ve always wanted to have something completely non-dance related that I can go to. For me, that was college. I could leave dance behind and go study environmental issues or trigonometry, something different! Otherwise you obsess over the smallest thing, and before you know it you’ve burned out, not necessarily over the negative experiences, but from the environment that you’ve created for yourself.
Dd: You are still performing in addition to teaching. How do you balance the two passions?
MP: When I first moved to NY, someone very important in the business pulled me aside and said, “Matt, you’re going to have to choose between performing and teaching.” And I immediately set out to prove them wrong. I am fortunate to work for companies who encourage me to be out in the field whether it be performing, choreographing, or being assistant director for operas (he is about to assist Dorothy Danner at Ft. Worth Opera on Daughter of the Regiment.) Broadway Dance Center has been amazing to me. I was in L.A. shooting a film all summer, and I was nervous to tell them, but they were so supportive! They wanted me to grow as an artist. Every organization I work for is sees the value of my performing because it makes me a stronger teacher. If I can stay connected to the dance community by performing, I have more to give to the students.
I have taken Matthew’s class and worked with him professionally for seven years, so I have experienced first hand what it is that draws people to him both in the studio and outside of it. His generosity and humility drive his love for dance and life.
As artists, it is important to strive actively to improve upon ourselves. Matthew’s continued pursuit toward excellence is a lesson that can be learned regardless of whether one is a dancer, actor, or office worker.
Click here to get more information about Matthew’s teaching and performing schedule. Matthew has also done a bit of writing himself; click here to read an informative piece he wrote about managing time as a freelance dancer.