Despite what some might consider arid conditions, ballet continues to strengthen its hold as a legitimate arts offering here in the desert. So much so, that last year Las Vegas was added as a stop on the tour for the Youth American Grand Prix, a worldwide ballet competition that produces the best of the best young talent, including our very own Monika Haczkiewicz, who placed at the top and has since joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada.
This year, a group of young dancers under the guidance of ballet teacher, mentor and coach Monique Meunier, were not only able to compete at YAGP, but were able to dance their hearts out. With a career that embodies the ultimate in a ballet dancer’s aspirations, including principal status at the New York City Ballet, Meunier now shares her knowledge of what it takes to dance professionally and bestows it upon her students with a nurturing approach based on love and confidence building.
“Find your zen,” she offers patiently during a recent class that we were invited to observe and document. The dancers are at the barre holding a relevé at the end of an exercise, which requires hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible muscular adjustments to maintain the balance on the ball of one foot. The other is pointed, stretched out at the end of what appears to be an effortless, ethereal arabesque. There is no sign of exertion or frustration here, only joy and the occasional light dew of perspiration. Meunier’s teaching style is by no means aggressive or forceful, her energy is light, and her corrections are received and acknowledged with cheerful gratitude.
The barre is pushed off to one side of the room, and the young women congregate on the floor to change into their pointe shoes for the center portion of the class, lightly chirping as they slip on protective toe pads and criss-cross their ribbons. Their entire body weight will soon be placed upon a surface area not much larger than a half dollar, but it doesn’t appear to be a concern. It’s all part of what has become natural progression of their art. One young lady moonwalks across the floor on pointe, and the classroom erupts into laughter. “I like to let them be silly with each other,” says Meunier. “Their friendship and support of one another is just as important to me as their technique.”
A quick moment later, they are all up on their feet, eyes shining and postures returned to elegance, ready to continue with the class without any prompting whatsoever from Meunier, and she begins to lay out the choreography for their first center exercise. Steps must be quickly memorized and internalized, moments later they will be expected to reproduce everything they just learned, executed in perfect time to the music. They do it beautifully, each expressing a unique grace, which Meunier has undoubtedly helped to cultivate. Years of training with some of the best choreographers and ballet masters have prepared Meunier for this stage in her career, and it is very clear that stepping into the role of mentor and coach has become a labor of love, an extension of a passion that still burns strongly and must now be shared.
Tell us a little about your ballet career in NYC.
At New York City Ballet I was a principal, but I was also a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, and principal with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. I am so grateful at how well rounded my career was, which helps me daily in my teaching and mentoring. I have danced the classics, Balanchine, Tudor, Kylian, Forsythe, Rhodin, Robbins, Dove, Ashton, MacMillan, Cranko, Neumeier, Wheeldon, etc. The companies I danced for had such a variety of repertoire it was truly incredible. All the ballets I performed had a purpose in my life and dancing. Of course dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake was transforming and I loved all the years I worked with Forsythe. He taught me real contemporary dancing. Which is why I was able to dance with Complexions which is only contemporary. I love everything I danced and accomplished in my career. I joined NYCB at 16 years old , American Ballet Theatre at 29 years old and then danced with Complexions until I retired. I knew that it was important to me to make the transition to teacher/ballet master/coach while I was still dancing at my best. I never wanted to show decline, so I retired at the right time. I also wanted to someday have a family and knew that there would be no way for me to do both. I now have a 3 year old daughter and to tell you the truth, nothing I ever did or felt in my career compares to having my daughter. I feel that in many ways, my career prepared me for this moment. And now that I am a mother, I have a deeper understanding of everything, which makes me a better teacher and mentor. I love my journey!
What brought you to Las Vegas?
My husband, Nilas Martins, and I moved to Las Vegas to be directors of the Academy of Nevada Ballet Theater. While we were there, the students and parents were so inspired and most of all grateful. The end of the year spring performance was magical. It showed how positivity and encouragement is the key to this art-form. Unfortunately, the other side of the organization was not the right fit. We are just on opposite sides of the spectrum. The way I see it, at least we were able to bring a bit of our world to these loving kids and parents for the year we were there.
How did you connect with this group of young dancers? Did they select you or vice versa?
It started by some of the parents contacting us about helping their kids with their ballet training. So I started giving privates to help them improve. The word got out that I was still living in Las Vegas and all of a sudden their was a big group. The dancers I have now are 15 years old and up, but there was an entire other group under 15 that I couldn’t take this year due to studio time. I am working on accommodating the demand for next year.
How was the competition experience at the Youth American Grand Prix?
How has the experience been working with this group of dancers? What are their strengths? Challenges?
Working with them has given me so much joy. To have a group of dancers that are so devoted to ballet and to me is so rewarding. Their strength is their determination. They are all strong young women and are kind to each other. It is so beautiful to see them working so hard and encouraging and inspiring each other. I brought in a friend of mine who teaches at Boston Ballet and he was so impressed with their conviction and improvement. I am also bringing in another friend that runs a top university ballet program. I want to give them everything I can and use my network I have accumulated throughout my career to make that happen. Everyone has challenges, especially in ballet. So we work on turn-out, straightening knees, rolling through the feet, Port de bras, epaulement, everything!! There is always more and more to work on and that is the journey believe it or not. Ballet is truly about the process and not the outcome.
Photography by Chase R McCurdy
Interview by Cat Treu
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