In costume for Robert Binet's The Blue of Distance (photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Last December—a few days before her 23rd birthday—Indiana Woodward did a quick barre backstage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. In the purity of her port de bras and articulation of her cambered feet, she epitomized Russian-style elegance. Then she removed her warm-ups and suddenly looked more French than Russian, her pastel practice tutu and black choker evoking Degas' paintings. Rehearsal began, and as the music gathered speed, she transformed again. Sweeping headlong across the stage, buoyant and boundless, she was pure New York, pure Balanchine.

Born in Paris and trained in Russian technique before coming to the School of American Ballet, Woodward brings an unusually diverse perspective to her growing repertoire at New York City Ballet, which she joined in 2012. She's the rare dancer who can project worldly glamour and youthful exuberance simultaneously, who can toggle between the precision of the Russian style and the freedom of Balanchine's. One senses she'd make a regal Theme and Variations lead, or an eloquent Odette. But while she's had many opportunities at NYCB, she's such a natural soubrette—petite and bubbly—that we've yet to see the other sides of her artistry. Recently promoted to soloist, she seems about to fully flower.

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(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)

Nikiya’s epic “death” solo at the end of La Bayadère’s second act is more than a test of stamina: It’s integral to the ballet’s plot. In it, Nikiya laments her doomed relationship with Prince Solor, rejoices upon receiving a basket of flowers she believes to be from him and collapses after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket. “There’s a lot of storytelling in the steps,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, who danced the role this spring. Here are her tips for navigating the variation’s technical and emotional complexities.

 

1. Let the Character Drive the Choreography

One of the most difficult aspects of the variation is making the spare choreography fill the music. If you’re having trouble slowing down, focus on what Nikiya is feeling as much as what she’s doing. “Her love has betrayed her—and she’s mourning,” Erickson says. “When you grieve, it’s like you’re suspended in time, and that’s exactly how the variation should feel.”

 

2. Stay Grounded

Maintaining your balance through the solo’s prolonged sous-sus, penchées and backbends can also prove challenging. “Feel a constant connection to the floor,” Erickson advises. “In sous-sus, for example, I think about rooting my legs in the ground, while simultaneously growing taller in my upper body.” Once you’re given the basket of flowers, let the prop work for you. “When you penchée, you naturally want to hold on to something—and the basket is something to hold on to!” Erickson says. “Its steadying influence may be all in your head, but it helps.”

 

3. Relish Small Details

Because the solo is so slow, it leaves room to play with the port de bras. Erickson likes to incorporate Nikiya’s “sacred, palms-to-the-heavens” gesture from the first act’s choreography. “In the context of this variation, it becomes especially powerful—like you’re asking, ‘Why, God, why?’ ” She also repeatedly reaches the palm of her flexed hand toward Solor. “It’s a very exposed, very human movement,” she says. “It reads as pleading.”

 

4. Don’t Oversell It

It’s easy to get swept up in the variation’s swoony theatrics. But a little restraint makes Nikiya’s suffering even more acute. “Don’t give too much face,” Erickson says. “The port de bras is doing enough to speak for the emotion.” So, she adds, is the “beautifully sad” score. “I almost cry just listening to it! Subtler interpretations give the audience a chance to hear the music as well as see it.”

 

5. Avoid Fake Snake Syndrome

Making Nikiya’s death by snakebite look believable can be tricky. “I definitely got called out on that in rehearsal,” Erickson says, laughing. “My fix is to bring the basket of flowers very close to my face, enveloping it, right before the bite is supposed to happen. That way, there’s no visible hand-going-into-the-basket moment.” It’s a character-driven solution to a logistical problem. “I’m inhaling the flowers’ scent, having a moment as I remember Solor’s love,” Erickson says. “And then the snakebite shocks me out of it.”

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Rachelle Scott may have a dance-filled life, but that doesn’t mean she has to tote her supplies in a “dance bag.” “I use this really nice leather bag that I got during my second year at Juilliard—there’s nothing dance-y about it,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s a relief to have something beautiful and functional that makes me feel like a human being, as well as a dancer.”
That said, Scott enjoys thinking analytically about her craft. She always carries Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book that discusses ways to avoid creative roadblocks. “A good school friend of mine recommended it to me three years ago, right at that moment when I was transitioning from student to professional,” she says. “Its way of talking about the artistic process grounds me and gives me a sense of perspective. I’ve been living by its philosophies ever since.”



The Goods

Thermos, water bottle, massage ball (“It’s actually a lacrosse ball, which gives the perfect pressure in my deep tissue”), The War of Art, leather bag, journal, arnica gel, hand sanitizer, perfume (“so my partners feel like everything’s nice and fresh!”), Tiger Balm, Thera-Band, Yogi teas (“I like to drink green tea, to help cleanse my body—lemon ginger is my favorite”), phone charger, extra contact lenses (“in case I lose a pair during a performance, which has definitely happened”), deodorant, hand cream, floss, roll of tape (“I’ve had a few ankle sprains lately, and tape provides a little support”).

A few months ago, Tiler Peck turned 25. It’s an age when most ballet dancers are earning their first breakout roles, gradually discovering who they are onstage.

Not Peck. She followed an uncommonly accelerated path to the spotlight, joining New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 at age 15 and becoming a principal in 2009. An enormously versatile dancer with prodigious technical gifts, she already has an enviable ballet resumé. She knows exactly who she is on NYCB’s stage.

Yet Peck has an appetite for challenges that has led her outside the ballet world. Her growing list of musical theater credits isn’t a surprise to longtime fans: Peck started out in jazz and commercial work, earning a role in director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s production of The Music Man on Broadway when she was just 11. She and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Robert Fairchild, had a well-received turn in the New York Philharmonic’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel last year, which was later broadcast on PBS.

In October, Peck will take on her biggest theatrical challenge to date: She’s set to dance (and sing and act) the title role in the new musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center. The project reunites her with Stroman, who custom-tailored Little Dancer—the story of the student who inspired Edgar Degas’ iconic sculpture—to Peck. “I was envisioning Tiler even as we were writing it,” Stroman says. “From the earliest stages, it was always her in my mind.”
In a way, Peck is a throwback to crossover dancers from 50 years ago. She’s a modern-day Vera Zorina, with that dare-you-to-look-away star quality many of today’s ballerinas lack. There is a certain hardness to that kind of glitter; Peck has yet to master the more soulful roles of the classical repertoire, and Broadway’s razzle-dazzle seems unlikely to deepen that side of her artistry. But few performers feel as at home singing Rodgers and Hammerstein as they do dancing Balanchine. What other 25-year-old could inspire a Broadway director to conceive a musical for her while simultaneously serving as a muse for contemporary ballet choreographers? Peck is a true stage animal.

Navigating her jam-packed schedule—at the moment, she’s essentially working two full-time jobs as she rehearses for Little Dancer’s opening—requires exceptional drive. That’s never been a problem for Peck. Even as a young child studying jazz and other styles at her mother’s dance studio in Bakersfield, California, she was always hungry for more opportunities. In her jazz classes, she discovered the freedom that now characterizes her performances at NYCB. “I think that background gave me something unique—it kept me from being afraid,” she says. “In jazz, you’re throwing your body around all the time. You learn to just go for it.”

At 7, Peck began studying with former Bolshoi dancer Alla Khaniash­vili. Though it took her a while to warm up to ballet—“I was always ‘sick’ when it was time for ballet class,” she remembers—her mother insisted that she develop a solid technical foundation. Later Peck worked with former NYCB dancers Yvonne Mounsey and Colleen and Patricia Neary, who introduced her to Balanchine technique.

At the time, however, Peck was more interested in commercial work. When she got the call for The Music Man audition, she figured it was a long shot—previously, the role of mayor’s daughter Gracie Shinn had been played by an 18-year-old—but ended up booking the job. She moved to New York for a year to perform in the show, accompanied by her grandmother. While in New York, Peck began studying at the School of American Ballet, and found that she relished the difficulty of Balanchine’s style. A few years later, she enrolled in the school’s full-time program.

Peck loved living with like-minded ballet students, including Fairchild, in the school’s dorms. “It was like college, but at 14,” she says, laughing. Soon Fairchild became her first boyfriend. He also came from the jazz world—they’d first met a few years earlier in a jazz class at Steps on Broadway. “What we felt for each other was so big that at that age, we didn’t know what to do with it,” Peck says. They were an on-again, off-again couple for years. “I always knew she was the one,” Fairchild says, “but we both needed to grow up a little.”

At 15, Peck became a NYCB apprentice, and a few months later she joined the corps de ballet. Before long, artistic director Peter Martins had cast her as the lead in his Friandises, a showcase for rising corps dancers. Roles began coming thick and fast; Martins felt she was ready. “You would have to have your eyes closed not to recognize Tiler’s gifts,” he says. “Even at a very young age, she had an uncanny ability to understand the essence of each ballet—be it classical, romantic, contemporary, or neoclassical.”

Peck was just 20 when she became a principal. A couple years later, Stroman arrived at the NYCB studios to choreograph a new work, Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, with Peck at its center. By then Stroman had already begun thinking about Little Dancer. When Stroman asked Peck to participate in the musical’s workshop, the ballerina was initially taken aback. “I knew I wanted to come back to musical theater eventually, but I thought it would be something I’d do later on, a transition out of ballet,” she says. “I love City Ballet, and I have so much more to accomplish here.” Still, she found herself drawn to the show’s story, which follows the spirited Paris Opéra Ballet student who posed for Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen sculpture. Stroman and Martins worked together to ensure that none of her work on Little Dancer, which has a limited run at the Kennedy Center, would conflict with her NYCB schedule. “I didn’t want to choose one or the other—I wanted it all,” she says. “I’m so happy that somehow it worked out.”

Peck and Fairchild also worked out: In June, they married in New York City. Over the past few years, as they began dating seriously, they have danced together with increasing frequency, both at NYCB and on side gigs. “Not only do we have a great time together—she laughs at my jokes!—but we also push each other to be better,” Fairchild says. Peck appreciates that the two of them share the same drive. “When I’m working with other partners, I’ll say maybe five of the 10 things I want to fix,” she says. “With Robbie, we’re so close that we can both say it all, and make everything as perfect as possible.”
Though Peck sees more Broadway in her distant future, her current goals remain ballet-focused. She still dreams of conquering the dramatic roles that have so far eluded her, particularly Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She has also enjoyed showing more of her natural persona onstage through the vibrant ballets of Justin Peck. There are more ballet mountains for her to climb, and she’s not a timid mountaineer.

 “The thing about Tiler is that you always have fun watching her onstage,” Fairchild says. “She works incredibly hard in the studio, and that’s how she’s become such a powerful artist. But by the time she gets to the performance, there are no nerves. You know it’s going to be spot on.”

Raven Wilkinson was the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which she joined in 1955. A gifted artist, she nevertheless faced difficulties while on tour with the company—particularly in the Deep South—because of her race. In 1961 she left Ballet Russe, and a few years later joined the Dutch National Ballet. Wilkinson returned to the United States in 1973, and began performing as a dancer and actress with the New York City Opera—a job she continued until 2011, when the Opera folded. Pointe spoke with Wilkinson about her extraordinary life.

 

How did you first come to ballet?
I was so little! My mother took me when I was about 5 to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They did Coppélia, and I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying. At that age I was too young for the School of American Ballet, so my mother took me to the Dalcroze school, where I learned tempi and meter and things like that—well, a young person’s version of them. Later, my mother asked me if there were a special ballet teacher I was drawn to. I thought Madame Maria Swoboda was a queen, and I started studying with her. The lessons were a present from my uncle for my ninth birthday, I remember. I was thrilled by ballet. We used to go to the beach in Saybrook, Connecticut each summer, and when the tide would go out, I’d dance on the sandbars.

 

What was your path to the Ballet Russe?

Eventually Sergei Denham [director of the Ballet Russe] bought the Swoboda school, and it became a Ballet Russe school. He started taking the most talented students into the company. I was considered talented, but I never got in. After my third audition, a friend who worked at the school took me aside and said, “Raven, they can’t afford to take you because of your race.” But I went back for the next audition anyway.

[Ballet Russe dancer] Frederic Franklin gave the audition class. Last year, just before Mr. Franklin passed away, I went to visit him in the hospital. He said to me that the day of that audition, he went to the company staff and said, “You just have to take her—she’s a beautiful dancer.” That was the first time he’d ever told me that.
Mr. Denham took his advice. After the audition, he said to me, “How would you like to be in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo?” I almost fell over! The next week he asked me to come to his office. He said, “I have a girl in Chicago who I want to give a chance. So you’ll tour with us as far as Chicago, and then we’ll see.” I knew that the itinerary that season took us through the South before we got to Chicago, and realized that he had decided to give me a trial run. So I told him: “I think I understand what you’re trying to say, and I’d rather we spoke about it openly.” He stared at me—not unkindly, but he was definitely surprised—and said, “If I say there’s a girl in Chicago, there’s a girl in Chicago.” [She laughs.] In those days ballet companies were like armies—I was just a little private, and he was the general. You didn’t tell the general what to do!
During that same meeting, I also told Mr. Denham that I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but I also never wanted to deny what I was. If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, “No, I’m not black.” Some of the other dancers suggested that I say I was Spanish. But that’s like telling the world there’s something wrong with what you are.

(Photo courtesy of Raven Wilkinson)

What happened when you began touring with the company?
For two years, everything went very well. We had many foreign people in Ballet Russe, lots of South American dancers, so most of the time I didn’t have to worry too much; we all looked a little different. I got some nice solos to do, like the Waltz in Les Sylphides.
Then I started to have problems. I remember one time in Montgomery, Alabama, the tour bus rolled into town, and everyone was running around with white robes and hoods on. They stopped traffic, there were so many of them. There was a rapping sound on the bus door, and this man jumped on in his hood and gown. Several big strapping male company dancers got up and moved toward him. He threw a fistful of racist pamphlets all over the bus before they chased him out.
That afternoon, when we got to our hotel in Montgomery, a bunch of us went down to the dining room for dinner. When we walked in, it was full of lovely couples, families with little children—a wonderful family atmosphere. Then, as I pulled out my chair, I realized that they all had Ku Klux Klan robes on the seats next to them. I remember thinking, here are people who can be so cruel and ugly, and yet they’re so loving toward their own families. In a way it made me less frightened of them. They lost some of their power in my eyes.
 

How did your fellow company members react to things like that?
They were so wonderful. My roommate, Eleanor D’Antuono, was incredibly protective of me. And if it looked like there might be trouble after a show, company boys would appear at the stage door to escort me back to the hotel. They were just elegant in their way of understanding and helping.
Experiences like that are revelatory. But I was lucky. The fact that anybody had an opportunity like mine that many years back, that’s really quite a considerable thing.

(Photo courtesy of Raven Wilkinson)

How did you end up joining Dutch National Ballet?
When I left Ballet Russe, I stopped dancing for a while. It wasn’t me running away from dance, though I did feel a little disappointment at the limitations that were placed on my career. But I found that I missed dancing terribly. Eventually my friend Sylvester Campbell, an African American who’d gone to Europe to dance with Dutch National Ballet, came to town. He was just extraordinary, with grand jetés that topped Nureyev’s. He asked me if I’d be interested in coming to Holland—he said, “You should be dancing Giselle!” Eventually I did get a Dutch National contract, and I danced some nice things there. A lot of Balanchine, which I hadn’t done much of until that point, and the Swan Lake pas de trois.


Why did you return to the United States?
I loved Holland, but I missed my own country. I missed the very thing we complain about when we’re here—America’s diversity of philosophy, of feeling, of custom. It makes for a difficult society sometimes, and yet you feel its absence in a place like Holland, where everyone has the same history. So I came home.
Soon after I got back, I walked by Lincoln Center. I remember thinking, Oh, dear, I wish I’d had a chance to dance here. I was nearly 40 and assumed that I never would. Yet the next day I got a call from the ballet master for the New York City Opera, who asked if I could come in and dance in two operas. I’d just stopped taking class—I thought I was retired! But I couldn’t say no. So I went to the New York State Theater and learned the operas, and I ended up enjoying it so much that they found other work for me to do, both dancing and acting parts. I didn’t stop dancing completely until I was 50, and I continued doing acting roles until 2011, when the poor New York City Opera got swallowed up. I told people that I had “organically retired”—the company went out of existence, so nobody had to say, “OK, Raven, it’s time to stop!”
 

What are your thoughts on ballet’s continuing diversity problem?
My never-ending question is: When are we going to get a Swan Queen of a darker hue? How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it? I think until we start seeing it regularly, we’ll never believe it. But I’m sure that won’t take another 60 years to happen.

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