Mary Pat Robertson Is Retiring From Princeton Ballet School After 35 Years
When Mary Pat Robertson and her husband Michael came from New York City to Princeton in 1980, she thought she’d be retiring from her dance career. But the town, where the Robertsons moved so that he could pursue his doctorate at Princeton University, turned out to have a lot more dance to offer than she expected.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Robertson began teaching at Princeton Ballet School. Six years later, she was named the school’s director. In June, she will step down after 35 years teaching and administrating hundreds of students, some of whom have gone on to professional careers.
“I’ll miss the kids,” she said during a telephone interview last week. “But it’s time. I’ll probably do a little private coaching, and I look forward to getting back to choreography. I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking and I hope to expand that. I’m even contemplating writing a book for parents about what to look for in a ballet school.”
While ballet has played a major role in Ms. Robertson’s long career, contemporary dance has also been a focus. Before becoming the ballet school’s director, she co-founded the company Teamwork Dance and did a lot of freelance dancing and choreography. In New York, she studied the techniques of José Limón, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham.
A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ms. Robertson danced in what is now known as Tulsa Ballet Theatre before moving to Massachusetts to attend Wellesley College. She transferred to Stanford University to be with Mr. Robertson, whom she had started dating in high school, and earned a degree in French Literature. “But I was dancing, too,” she said. “I found a great school out there. And Stanford has a nice tradition of folk dance classes, which I think really influenced my choreography.”
After some time in Berkeley, the couple moved to New York to experience the city’s burgeoning dance scene. Mr. Robertson, also an enthusiast, began writing about dance. “Those were the glory years,” Ms. Robertson recalled of the mid-to-late 1970’s, considered by many to be “the dance boom.” She took classes all over town and got to see performances constantly since her husband was writing reviews for the now-defunct Soho Weekly News. “The Dance Critics’ Association was born in our living room,” Ms. Robertson said. “I took two-to-four-week workshops with Twyla Tharp, Lar Lubovitch, and Douglas Dunn.”
Mr. Robertson earned a master’s degree at Columbia University before deciding to pursue his doctorate at Princeton (he is a highly regarded professor of English at the College of New Jersey). “I thought I’d be retiring from dance in general,” Ms. Robertson recalled of her expectations when moving to Princeton. “I didn’t know what I’d be doing. But a friend told me there was a good ballet school here. I started teaching (at Princeton Ballet School) a little bit, and then a lot — all levels of kids and adults.”
Within the first year of coming to Princeton, Ms. Robertson started to miss performing. She met dancer/choreographers Janell Byrne, John Stewart, and others involved in the local dance scene. She and Mr. Stewart co-founded Teamwork Dance as a non-profit group.
The Robertsons’ daughter, Miranda, was born in 1985. Ms. Robertson became Princeton Ballet School’s director when Miranda was a toddler. The school was then located in front of the Dinky train tracks on Alexander Street. Since then, it has moved to much expanded studios in Princeton Shopping Center.
Among Ms. Robertson’s accomplishments during her tenure at Princeton Ballet are the creation of a complete ballet syllabus unique to the school, the successful application to the U.S. government to be recognized as a school which can accept foreign students for advanced study, and the Trainee Program that links the school with its affiliated professional company, American Repertory Ballet. Ms. Robertson also helped establish the school’s program with Rider University, which provides Rider students access to a degree in dance, in part through classes at the ballet school.
She also created Cardio Ballet, a method based loosely on her experience teaching in her New York days for the Lotte Berk Method, where her students included actresses Maggie Smith, Ali McGraw, and Mariel and Margaux Hemingway.
Currently, Ms. Robertson teaches about 75 students each year. She has had many proud moments. “The most important moments are when I see a smile on the face of one of my students, when they understand what they’re doing,” she said. “Or when I first saw Unity Phelan, my former student, in a solo on stage with The New York City Ballet. Or going to see one of Baryshnikov’s solo programs, and Kraig Patterson, my former student, had created the choreography.”
“I’m thrilled by those achievements,” she added. “But that very real interaction with children, seeing them get excited about that antique art form that can still speak to so many people if transmitted correctly … that’s the most important thing.”