Dancers never stop perfecting the art of movement. Their day begins with a class whose pace would tax an entire football team. Just for the record, the Pittsburgh Steelers recently took classes with the Pittsburgh Ballet Company. After the first twenty minutes the entire team was wiped out — the dancers still had another hour and ten minutes to go. After a day of class and rehearsals, dancers have to be in shape for an evening’s performance. During intermission, while the audience relaxes at the bar, dancers can be found backstage at the barre doing additional warm-ups, and working on steps which may have been giving them trouble.
They never stop preparing themselves for the stage. They work in front of mirrors to shape and perfect the lines of their bodies, constantly improving their elevation, lifting their legs higher, working to get those additional pirouettes, more speed, to name but a few things.
One of the hardest working ladies in the ballet world is Anne Benna Sims of the American Ballet Theatre. She is the only dancer I know who can find a class with a good teacher on Christmas Day.
She is a tall, strikingly beautiful woman, who peers at you through enormous horn-rimmed glasses. The face and body appear to have been chiseled by a master craftsman.
At the time of the ROUTES interview, the ABT was on strike and Benna (as she is known to her friends) was walking the picket lines. Aside from those duties, she kept busy knitting, painting bottles, hanging out with friends, taking dance classes and guesting with the Puerto Rican Dance Theatre.
Her father, an architect, and her mother, an opera buff, were determined that the Sims children would be exposed to all forms of art. (her sister, Lowery, is the curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s 20th Century collection). At the tender age of ten, Benna started ballet classes at the Long Island Institute of Music under Helene Vinson. Those studies were supplemented with summer training at the ABT School under Michael Maule, Patricia Wilde, and Madame Swoboda; and at the New Dance Group Studio with Peter Saul and Margaret Craske.
After high school graduation, Benna was accepted into the trainee program at Harkness House under David Howard and Maria Vegh. She also trained with Helen Greenford and Elizabeth Carrol in ballet; Uigi in jazz and Teresita La Tana in Spanish dance.
Eventually, Benna was told that there was not much of a future for black dancers in ballet and that Harkness was not looking for her type. She spoke with her mother who suggested she go to college, lest she spend the rest of her life as a Sales lady at Macy’s. “I was horrified by all of these discussions,” Benna recollects. “But I was an intense snob and determined to prove all of them wrong. So, I auditioned for Les Grand Ballet Canadiens and got the job.”
In a ballet company, a dancer usually begins in the corps de ballet (chorus) and, if talented, slowly rises within the ranks to soloist or principal status. Benna, looking back to the Canadien days admits she was impatient. ‘‘I was suffering from being fresh out of ballet school and hot to trot. In the second company, I was given roles to dance. But in the first company, I was fifth cast corps de ballet. Technically, I felt I was much better than most of the other dancers. But I now realize that I was not nearly as professional.”
During a schedule break in 1972, Benna returned to New York to visit with her family. A friend introduced her to Alfonso Cata, director of the Geneva Ballet in Switzerland, who was in town looking for new talent. Someone told him to watch Benna in class. Cata watched and then told Benna, ‘‘I hate your dancing. You are a big girl who moves too small.” Having somewhat deflated her ego, Cata promptly offered her a contract with the Beneval Ballet. Since then Cata has become her mentor, a good friend and ally who taught the bronze beauty to move like a big girl.
When Cata took over the directorship of the Frankfurt Ballet in Germany, he invited Benna to come along as a soloist. One short year later, she was promoted to principal, dancer, During her four years with the company, she achieved much acclaim in ballets by Balanchine, Butler, and Cata. German dance critic Wilfried Hofmann began to refer to her as the ‘Judith Jamison of ballet’. British dance critic Noel Goodwin, after seeing Benna dance the Grand Pas in Raymonda, said, “Her black diamond personality sparkles. She brings to her solo an infectious yet disciplined exuberance. She dances with polished technique and a dash of the grand manner.”
Benna’s versatility and strong technique enable her to dance a wide range of roles. She was just as comfortable as the cool second violin in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco as she was in her witty rendering of the world-weary lady in pursuit of a bored gentleman in Cata’s Ragtime.
Benna returned to the United States in 1977 and accepted a principal contract from the Eglevsky Ballet Company. In May 1978, Dustin Hoffman and Alfonso Cata presented her as a star in the highly successful Ballet On Broadway at the Beacon Theatre. Her style caught the eye of the city’s top dance critics. Shortly thereafter, Benna auditioned for the famed American Ballet Theatre and was offered a corps de ballet contract.
Anne Benna Sims, the big girl who once moved too small, was now the first black woman to be invited to America’s premier ballet company. Says Benna of her tenure with the ABT, “I haven’t been doing the ‘white’ acts of Swan Lake or Giselle, but there is a bit of slush in the ‘Snow’ section of Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. But a sweeping change was just around the corner,
Anthony Tudor, one of the most important choreographers of 20th Century ballet, began to study Benna closely in company class. ‘‘She has quite a bit of command and authority,’’ he said, ‘‘I decided to cast her as Cybele/Medusa in my ballet, Undertow. During rehearsals, I had to remind her that everyone who has ever danced this role has been a recognized classic ballerina.”
The role proved to be the turning point in Benna’s career with the ABT. The critics were impressed and the ABT management realized that there were many roles in their repertoire that she could dance.
The recent ABT strike didn’t dampen her spirits. There were many lessons learned in the process. ‘‘I knew all along I would have trouble with the ballet companies in this country because I am black. Now the white dancers are beginning to realize that they have trouble, too, because they are not Russian!’’
The strike, of course, has been settled and the ABT will begin its New York season at the Metropolitan Opera House May 5 and stay in residence through July 12, Anne Benna Sims will be a vital part of this season. The lady loves to dance.
“As long as I can do it physically, I’ll do it,” she states. “Before I lose the joy of dancing, I’ll stop and do something altogether different. As for now, there is absolutely no feeling in the world like climbing up on those pickles!”