January 24, 2022


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Connie Hochman on Exploring an Influential Choreographer’s Teaching Style with “In Balanchine’s Classroom”

Connie Hochman on Exploring an Influential Choreographer’s Teaching Style with “In Balanchine’s Classroom”

Connie Hochman on Exploring an Influential Choreographer’s Teaching Style with “In Balanchine’s Classroom”

Connie Hochman was a professional ballet dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet where she performed many Balanchine masterworks. In 2007, Connie began a series of interviews with former Balanchine dancers – 90 in all – to explore the phenomenon of Balanchine’s classroom. Their remembrances of his unorthodox methods and transformative teaching form the basis of her directorial debut, “In Balanchine’s Classroom.”

“In Balanchine’s Classroom” opens September 17 at Film Forum in NYC and September 24 at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles and additional cities. Find screening info here.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

CH: The film shines a light on George Balanchine the teacher, whereas up until now he was regarded as arguably the foremost choreographer of the 20th century.

It opens the door to Balanchine’s private studio, off limits to all but his New York City Ballet company members. It’s there where he created the dancers and dancing that revolutionized ballet.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CH: I was compelled to investigate the phenomenon of Balanchine’s teaching due to an insatiable thirst to understand why he taught, what he taught, and how he taught. His dazzling New York City Ballet was made up of dancers he had hand-chosen for their individual allure and technical proficiency, but still he taught them every morning. Why?

In interview after interview, their memories and insights rendered the subject matter even more fascinating, entertaining, and addictive. I couldn’t get enough.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

CH: I don’t expect or want people to necessarily be thinking after they watch the film, but to instead find themselves in an experience of fullness and wonder, transported by the power of dance and music to a place where the heart is stretched and sadness, joy, longing, and hope coexist.

Questions that the film may give rise to may include the master-disciple relationship: who gives, who receives, and are they separate in the end? Audiences may also consider the interconnectedness of rigorous, precise technique, and freedom of expression, and in terms of art, what is the value of one without the other? Also, what of Balanchine’s teaching will be lost? What will live on? What should live on — or not?

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CH: There is not one aspect of making this film that was not extremely challenging — except for finding a continuous well of inspiration and drive to make the film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CH: “In Balanchine’s Classroom” is an indie film – as independent as a film can be. At the outset, we thought we’d find funding because there’s a lot of love not only for Balanchine, but for his dancers as well — people who experienced the Balanchine era.

When we got word out about the project, someone offered a matching grant and there was a level of grassroots support to get us started. We received a grant from the Ford Foundation, as well as several private family foundations. But it was a difficult film to produce, and we faced many serious hurdles.

I believe people began to question whether we would ever get to the finish line. It became next to impossible to raise the support needed and often it felt like climbing a mountain growing higher before our eyes — a demoralizing time.

Outside of filmmaking circles, people don’t understand the costs involved and the sheer number of professionals required to make a film: cinematographers, light and sound technicians, editors, assistant editors, story consultant, graphic artist, composer, rights and licensing expert, archival producer, etc. — it is endless.

When we finally had a rough cut, we thought it would get easier, but it didn’t. It was agonizing.

I want to end this subject on a positive note: each individual and organization that contributed financially did not only provide funding, but they gave us moral and spiritual strength towards completing “In Balanchine’s Classroom.”

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

CH: Necessity is the mother of invention: I had to. But I did not learn in an ideal way. I was a ballet dancer by profession, then a ballet teacher. Learning on the job how to direct a film was hard not only for me, but for those around me.

Early on someone lost her cool saying, “Maybe you should find a real director.” I understood her frustration but also knew that I was the one to direct this film. It came out of my mind, my life, my heart.

Surrounding myself with artists experienced in their respective fields and committed to bringing this particular film to completion ultimately resulted in a wonderfully collaborative creative team. They recognized that what I was bringing to the effort was critical and that I was able to guide and sculpt the work while constantly learning what the painstaking process of storytelling entails.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

CH: Good advice: “Make sure everyone in the room is smarter than you.”

I actually can’t remember any bad advice. I must have let go of the bad advice — except for “maybe you should find a real director!”

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

CH: It’s too early and I am still too close to the process to offer advice. My team was almost exclusively women, but the few men involved made incredible contributions. The most I can offer is to work with people whose approach you respect, whose work you generally love, and then be willing to bend or hold strong as needed, and give clear, straightforward notes to ensure there’s continual progress toward shared goals. Women tend to be communicators. Clear, respectful communication is essential.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

CH: Not saying it’s my favorite, but Cindy Meehl’s “Buck” comes to mind. It’s a very satisfying, moving experience that teaches about its subject and edifies through a lyrical story and deep character study. It doesn’t force — instead, it flows. It reveals more with each viewing. It’s rich and beautiful visually, but still meaty in its delving deep into the subject of horse — or actually — people training.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

CH: I find the promotional work that’s happening now for “In Balanchine’s Classroom” to be a very creative endeavor. I’ve been directly involved in designing the trailer, poster, and website. I have also begun work on organizing all of the interviews and vérité footage which formed the basis for “In Balanchine’s Classroom” into a user-friendly digital archive — another long-term project.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

CH: Each of us need to do as much as we possibly can to wake ourselves up to a greater awareness. For example, bring up the subject as you do right here in this interview — bring it into the conversation so it is at the forefront of our minds. Make it a focal point. Brainstorm, expose oneself to others’ experiences, give opportunities, find opportunities, create opportunities. All of the above and more is our everyday responsibility and moral imperative. This cannot be just words, but action in our professional, civic, and personal lives.

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