Dancer Spotlight
Photo by Gregory Bartadon via Instagram

Julian MacKay was born to be a pioneer. Growing up amid bison and hot springs in Montana, he developed a sense of adventure that came in handy when, at age 11, he entered the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

"It was this guinea-pig experiment," the Bozeman native remembers. "No American had ever gone so young." In 2015 he became the first American to graduate from the school with a full Russian diploma, having completed the lower and upper ballet division—at the top of his class—and passed all his academics in Russian, which he had learned to speak fluently within his first year.

Then in May 2016, MacKay became the youngest-ever soloist at the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. He soon debuted as the slave in Le Corsaire, the Bronze Idol in La Bayadère and James in La Sylphide, roles that showcased his clean technique and lofty jumps.

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Most vacations don’t turn into the job of a lifetime. But that’s exactly what happened when Jahna Frantziskonis took company class at San Francisco Ballet in the spring of 2015.

“I had never been to San Francisco or seen the company besides on video,” explains Frantziskonis, 23. She had come to the city to visit her younger brother, Elias, an SFB School student at the time. “He said, ‘Just come, take a class, see what happens.’ ” Less than a week after she got back to Seattle, where she was a second-year corps dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, she had received an invitation to join the SFB corps.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

“It was very unexpected,” she says, seeming to still marvel at the outcome nearly two years later. But artistic director Helgi Tomasson confirms that hiring her was no fluke. He immediately noticed three qualities every SFB dancer needs: stage presence, musicality and versatility. “I could see her fitting very well into the repertory we have, in the classical, neoclassic and contemporary,” he says of her accidental audition.

Frantziskonis proved him right. Her first season was filled with debuts, from the first cast of Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, to Prayer in Balanchine’s Coppélia, to her season-ending success as Olga in John Cranko’s Onegin. Throughout, she enchanted audiences with effortless turns and sprightly jumps, sensitive musicality and soubrette charm—not to mention enormous, expressive eyes that rival Audrey Hepburn’s.

While the roles were new to her, the spotlight was not. At PNB, she had already performed the principal pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Rubies,” the pas de trois in “Emeralds” and Cupid in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote, and created roles in Justin Peck’s Debonair and Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station.

“It’s so natural for Jahna,” says PNB artistic director Peter Boal of her technique. “There are some people you like to take credit for having coached, but you realize that anyone could have done it—they were going to get there on their own.”

A Tucson, Arizona, native, Frantziskonis has been single-minded about ballet since her first toddler class at the YMCA. At age 5 she enrolled at Ballet Arts Tucson and trained with owner and former Cleveland Ballet principal Mary Beth Cabana, then finished high school in three years in order to train in PNB School’s Professional Division at 16.

“I always felt, from the very beginning, that she was very, very special,” recalls Cabana, who also trained PNB soloist Margaret Mullin and Houston Ballet demi-soloist Aaron Daniel Sharratt. “She showed a particular intelligence for ballet, and she was very open to expressing herself within her dancing. You could see that every fiber in her being really loved what she was doing.”

Frantziskonis credits Cabana with developing her solid technical base and her enthusiasm for risk-taking. “I’m not a very scared dancer, and I think that’s why. She just gave you the freedom to try.”

She also took a variety of classes, including tap, Fosse-style jazz and contemporary dance. A decade of piano lessons, first in classical and then in improvisational jazz, put musicality literally at her fingertips. “I can recognize structure in difficult pieces,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll hear different notes, and I’ll base my musicality off of that.”

In spite of her skill and talent, the 5' 2 3/4" Frantziskonis had a sizable obstacle to overcome. “Around the time I started dancing on pointe,” she remembers, “teachers and peers started telling me that my height would hold me back from a professional career.” Discouraged but determined, she put in extra time with Cabana to refine her feet, strengthen her turnout and create the longest possible lines. “I really encouraged her to think about herself as if she was an Amazon, to dance really big and bold,” Cabana says. “And to understand that she had so many other qualities to be a wonderful artist.”

Boal noticed those qualities when Frantziskonis performed in the Professional Division recital. “How she held the stage, her presence—it made me do a double take,” he recalls. He took her under his wing, and the two became close as he cast and coached her in increasingly significant roles. “I really looked on Jahna from the very start as a future principal dancer with the company,” he says, so her departure was a shock.

By nature adventurous and curious, and hungry for new artistic opportunities, Frantziskonis was eager to take her chances on SFB. But she also felt a deep attachment to the director who had shaped her as a dancer. “I knew that Peter would change my mind if I told him that I had a job offer, because I love him,” she says. “But I decided this was an opportunity that I don’t know will ever come again.” So she signed her SFB contract before telling him of the offer.

“He took it well,” she recalls, “and then ended up calling me back into his office to tell me that he was really upset.” Boal was disappointed to lose such a promising dancer, but he also knows it’s the nature of the business. “Directors have to recognize that dancers call some of the shots, and that they have a voice and choices,” he says. “I love it when I’m included. But you want the best for somebody, and I’m happy for her success. It was the right decision.”

Nothing, however, had prepared the admittedly starstruck Frantziskonis for dancing alongside idols like Maria Kochetkova, Yuan Yuan Tan, Frances Chung and Lorena Feijoo. “When I did Olga, Yuan Yuan was Tatiana,” she says. “I was preparing backstage and I had this moment of, Whoa, where are you right now?”

She’s learned to talk herself through those stressful moments, and adjusted to life in a larger company (PNB has 47 dancers, while SFB has 73). But learning the sheer volume of choreography can still feel overwhelming. SFB performs about 30 Nutcracker shows annually, followed by a five-month, eight-program season; 2017 brings three full-lengths and five mixed bills, including four world premieres.

“It’s known as the ‘SFB thing,’ ” she says of the company’s notoriously fast rehearsal process. She’s found that there’s no easy way to get all that rep in her body and mind: “You seriously just do it.”

Principal dancer Lorena Feijoo, who tends to keep an eye on Frantziskonis when teaching company class, has faith that she will meet the challenges, and master them. “Jahna has something you can’t teach,” observes Feijoo. “She is an artist.” Thinking back to last season’s principal role in Liam Scarlett’s dark, aggressive Fearful Symmetries, she says that “when Jahna walked onstage, she was on fire. It was like an explosion. For a corps member of that age to do that, it shows you that she’s a little ahead of the game.”

The next time Frantziskonis finds time for a vacation, she’d love to visit Elias in the Netherlands, where he is a trainee at Dutch National Ballet. But don’t expect another job change.

“I get to do what I love every day,” she says of life at SFB. “That’s my biggest goal: What’s making me happy, pursue it. Right now, ballet is really giving me that.” 

Claudia Bauer is a dance writer and critic in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dores André, Jennifer Stahl, Maria Kochetkova and Frances Chung in Forsythe's Pas/Parts 2016 (photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)

The West Coast Falls for Forsythe

After 40 years in Europe, choreographer William Forsythe recently put down stateside roots as a professor at the University of Southern California's new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. USC is welcoming him with Fall for Forsythe, a monthlong festival that culminates October 21–23, when Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet perform influential works at The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

“I can't wait to see the way each company dances his work," says SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson, alluding to the unique blend of rigorous classicism and convention-flouting individuality Forsythe cultivates. SFB will perform Pas/Parts 2016, created on Paris Opéra Ballet in 1999 and extensively reworked on SFB's dancers.

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Courtney Henry knew she wanted to dance for Alonzo King LINES Ballet while she was still a student in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. “I saw LINES perform at The Joyce Theater, and I was blown away, particularly by the women," she remembers. “They were commanding and strong, even scary in how powerful they were. I was like, 'I want to dance like that.' "

She did a 2009 summer program with LINES in San Francisco, then auditioned in 2011. In Henry, King saw an ideal artist for his contemporary ballet company. A lithe six feet tall, the 27-year-old dancer brings the intense physicality and sky-high extensions that King's abstract choreography requires, but also the musicality and technical mastery that make his ballets so mesmerizing.

“Courtney's palette is filled with myriad textures, surprise innovation and rhythmic manipulation," says King, who choreographs to music ranging from Middle Eastern tabla to free jazz to Tchaikovsky. “She is hard to define outside of the word 'brilliant.' " Yet, he says, in her fifth season “she has not even hit the turning point of her career in dance. She is traveling at mercuric speed, ascending toward what will be an astonishing career."

For now, Henry is laser-focused on the demanding LINES schedule, with fall and spring home seasons bookending an average of 20 weeks of national and international touring every year. Her daily routine is designed to keep her relaxed, focused and physically ready. “Because I travel so much, it gets really hard on my system," she says. “I've had to be more aware of my body and my health." Whether she's journaling or rolling out or sipping custom wellness teas, she tunes in to what she needs to feel healthy and creative.

On a picture-perfect Bay Area day, Pointe followed Henry to the LINES Dance Center, where the company rehearsed for its recent fall season in San Francisco and four months of touring from Moscow to Atlanta to La Rochelle, France.

(All photos by Kathryn Rummel)

News

After 40 years in Europe, choreographer William Forsythe recently put down stateside roots as a professor at the University of Southern California’s new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. USC is welcoming him with Fall for Forsythe, a monthlong festival that culminates October 21–23, when Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet perform influential works at The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

“I can’t wait to see the way each company dances his work,” says SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson, alluding to the unique blend of rigorous classicism and convention-flouting individuality Forsythe cultivates. SFB will perform Pas/Parts 2016, created on Paris Opéra Ballet in 1999 and extensively reworked on SFB’s dancers.

Dores André, Jennifer Stahl, Maria Kochetkova, and Frances Chung in Pas/Parts 2016
(Photo by Erik Tomasson)

“What is primary in Bill’s work is your knowledge of proper classical ballet,” says SFB principal Sofiane Sylve, who met Forsythe as a 17-year-old at Dutch National Ballet. Equally essential is a willingness to try anything: “He goes, ‘Now I’d like to see it off-balance, backwards and reversed.’ All of a sudden, you’re learning a new language.”

PNB will dance The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude; artistic director Peter Boal expects the experience to have lasting impact. “Vertiginous is pure classical technique,” he says. Drawing a parallel to the speed and attack required for dancing Balanchine, Boal adds, “They’re going to do a better Theme and Variations now. It’s that sort of wild daring.”

Kathryn Bennetts, 15-year ballet mistress with Forsythe’s previous company Ballet Frankfurt, will stage the Houston women in Artifact Suite (Noah Gelber will stage the men). She distills Forsythe’s vision, and his artistic impact, down to a love for dance and dancers. “He walks into a studio and just wants to see what’s possible,” she says. “That’s what all dancers want: to be encouraged to go beyond what they think they can do.”

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

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“My dream was to dance in Cuba,” says Lorena Feijóo. “I didn’t want to leave my country.” It’s a lament the San Francisco Ballet principal shares with countless other members of the Cuban ballet diaspora: dancers who left their families, culture and country behind to escape economic hardship and seek artistic freedom abroad. The diaspora extends from Miami to Seattle to Oslo, where Cuban dancers’ superb classical training and refined artistry are sought after.

The problem is not a lack of appreciation at home—“The Cuban audience is absolutely insane about ballet,” Feijóo says—but subsistence wages and artistic conservatism at the National Ballet of Cuba, and rigid restrictions on guesting overseas. In Cuba, dancers earn an estimated $30 to $50 per month. However, a balletic revolution may be on the horizon.

In December 2014, after 54 years of cultural and economic blockades, President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro reestablished diplomatic relations between our two nations—the first step towards reviving free travel, trade and cultural exchange. Founded by prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso in 1948, NBC has toured the world for three generations yet has resisted American and European influences. How might an unrestricted influx of international choreographers and dancers influence Cuban technique and repertoire? And what might we learn from Cuba?

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A World Apart

Separated by just over 90 miles of ocean, the United States and Cuba have been worlds apart since the early 1960s, when then-President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations in an attempt to suppress Fidel Castro’s newly established communist government. While restrictions on immigration and travel have become more flexible with each passing decade, many émigré dancers still have to defect—and leave everything behind.

“Families are broken in pieces,” says Cincinnati Ballet corps member Ana Gallardo, who immigrated legally to the U.S. with her family in 2009, after her third year of training at the Cuban National Ballet School. “I know NBC dancers who have decided in the moment, on tour, to defect. Their parents don’t find out until they’re in the U.S.”

“It is a very traumatic way of leaving your country,” says Lester Tomé, assistant professor of dance history and Latin American Studies at Smith College and a former dance critic in Havana. “What we can look forward to with these new regulations is that maybe Cuban dancers will be able to come to the U.S. with a work visa, directly from Havana, on a plane.”

Cuban émigrés can apply for a green card after residing in the U.S. for a year and a day. Although that permanent legal residency allows them to travel back and forth to Cuba at will, separation from family may last much longer due to financial hardship.

Permission Denied

Most NBC dancers who flee Cuba also forfeit the opportunity to perform in their homeland again. Alicia Alonso, still artistic director at age 94, “makes it very clear that if you leave without her permission, you will never dance at the García Lorca Auditorium as long as she is alive,” Gallardo says.

Feijóo asked for permission to guest abroad while remaining a member of NBC. “Alicia’s exact phrase was, ‘Lorena, either you’re in or you’re out. You choose.’ Just like that. I said, ‘I’m out.’ ” The Ministry of Culture granted Feijóo a visa to leave without defecting, but she has not danced on her home stage since 1990.

While Alonso has cultivated a classical repertoire that is second to none, she has not brought in neoclassical or experimental styles, and barely any contemporary. No one we spoke to could explain why, beyond speculating that it is simply Alonso’s preference, and the government’s. “After five years, you have already done Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, Coppélia, probably 10 times each,” Gallardo says.

Still, “People say Cuba isn’t changing, but it is,” says former Silicon Valley Ballet artistic director José Manuel Carreño. As he points out, the NBC recently commissioned work from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. With Alonso’s permission, Carreño joined English National Ballet in 1990. He later danced with The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and Alonso continues to mentor him in his current role.

The Foundation of Greatness

There’s one thing that everyone agrees on: However artistically varied the company eventually becomes, the National School will remain the same—and it should. Co-founded in 1950 by Alonso and the late Fernando Alonso, her ex-husband, it is one of the world’s largest classical ballet schools.

“The school is excruciatingly good,” says Feijóo. “As a 9-year-old, you have a full day of work, starting at seven in the morning. By 11 years old, you’re performing professionally.” The eight-year education includes Spanish, French, piano and art in addition to rigorous ballet and character technique.

Feijóo believes that American ballet training would benefit from importing Cuban coaching techniques. “The best pantomime and mise-en-scène rehearsals in my life have been with Alicia,” she recalls. “You are a friend of Giselle, but which friend? The one that cares, or the one that doesn’t?”

Gallardo reports that, thanks to generous government subsidies, the school facilities are top-flight: 22 spacious studios with marley floors and audio systems, and two wood-floor studios for the limited contemporary classes offered. The main failing, she says, is in the pointe shoes, which are donated by a Chinese company and in limited supply. While touring, NBC dancers use their per diem to buy additional shoes, in brands they prefer.

The Revolution Is Coming

Ironically, the most significant catalyst for modernizing Cuban dance may be one of its own: legendary dancer Carlos Acosta. With Alonso’s blessing, Acosta began performing internationally in 1989 and later became a principal with The Royal Ballet. Recently retired from the company, he is founding his own contemporary troupe in Havana. Details are scant, but Tomé expects an emphasis on new works by Cuban and international choreographers.

“Acosta’s company has the potential to revitalize not only the NBC, but Cuban ballet as a whole,” says Tomé. “It will be competition for the NBC, for dancers and audiences.” Alonso apparently welcomes it—auditions for the 12-dancer company were held at the National School.

Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet and a first-generation Cuban American, thinks greater exposure to contemporary dancemakers could refresh the NBC style. “They’ll learn where technique and partnering have gone,” she says. “American and European dancers have a fluidity in pointework that really comes from Balanchine.”

Hope on the Horizon

Lopez hopes that openness in the arts will lead to greater change. “It will start minimally, with ‘Tell me how you train your dancers,’ ” she says, “and then move on to deeper issues like civil rights and freedom of speech.”

As for Feijóo, she wants future generations to feel proud far beyond ballet. “We are by nature a happy country,” she says. “I hope we’re able to embrace this change, and that the people find their freedom but don’t let go of what makes us Cuban.”

Claudia Bauer is a writer and critic in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo Galleries

What do changing U.S.–Cuba relations mean for Cuban ballet? Take a look inside the studios and theater of the world-renowned National Ballet of Cuba.

All photos by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.

First soloist Ivis Díaz Acosta stretches during a Giselle rehearsal. (Photo by Quinn Wharton)

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Murphy and Stiefel. Ogden and Côté. Osipova and Polunin. Ballet inspires as many thrilling partnerships offstage as on. Company romances are so common, in fact, you might say they’re a perk of the job. “You’re with each other all day—it happens a lot,” says San Francisco Ballet soloist Lauren Strongin, who is married to SFB principal Joseph Walsh. Chemistry flourishes in the hothouse of a rehearsal studio, and choreographed embraces have a way of breaking the ice—who could resist? In celebration of Valentine’s Day, four company couples share the ups and downs of love at the office, and some of their sweetest moments, with Pointe.

O'Connell and Sisk performing William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated (photo by Luke Isley, courtesy Ballet West)

Ballet West principal Beckanne Sisk and soloist Chase O'Connell

Ballet romances typically develop under the watchful eyes of other company members, but Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell’s also played out on TV. Filmed two months into their relationship, the 2013 season of “Breaking Pointe,” a reality show about life at Ballet West, exposed their tribulations to the world: Would he get into the main company from Ballet West II? Could they last if he didn’t? “It was really awkward,” recalls Sisk, now 23. “Awful,” says O’Connell, 22. “The show was pushing us to talk about this situation that we didn’t want to discuss yet.”

But three years after meeting in company class, they’ve mastered the art of living and dancing together. “I try to treat him like I would treat my other partners and not say, ‘I can’t stand it when you do that,’ ” Sisk says with a laugh. Negotiating in the studio has actually helped their communication in all areas. “When we were rehearsing In the middle, somewhat elevated, it was awesome to learn how to tell each other what we wanted,” she says.

Performing William Forsythe’s iconic ballet was a different story. Sisk missed her entrance for the pas de deux, and their timing never recovered. “We were fighting onstage the whole time,” she says. How do they recommend cooling off after a dance disaster? “Don’t talk about it,” O’Connell says. Sisk concurs: “Ignore each other for a little bit!”

Easygoing and affectionate, they’d rather complement each other than dwell on mistakes. “He gives me feedback not everyone would, corrections that others miss,” says Sisk. O’Connell takes it a step further: “We understand each other completely.”

Breeden and Marshall (photo courtesy MCB)

Miami City Ballet corps dancers Michael Sean Breeden and Neil Marshall

When you find the perfect partner, you just know—even if the rest of the company isn’t so sure. “We moved in together a month after we started dating,” recalls Neil Marshall, 32, of his relationship with Michael Sean Breeden, 28. “Everyone told us that was the worst thing we could do. Obviously, that hasn’t been true!”

The couple of eight years spends “every waking moment” together, from daily class through performances of favorite works like Balanchine’s Square Dance and Allegro Brillante. Though they both trained under Peter Boal at the School of American Ballet—Breeden started the month after Marshall graduated—Marshall’s danseur noble quality and Breeden’s fleet, sprightly style mean they rarely compete against each other for roles.

Breeden admits that living and dancing together makes it easy to take each other for granted. But otherwise, pre-performance warm-up seems to be their only point of conflict. “Michael is almost ritualistic with what he needs to do,” Marshall says of Breeden, who confesses to doing “seven barres a day” and occasionally teasing his more laid-back partner. In contrast, Marshall says, “On a show day, I know what to do. So I spend a lot more time on my makeup.”

They’re certainly in complete agreement about their next steps: getting married after MCB’s April tour to New York City, and sharing the stage as much as possible. As Breeden says, “When we’re not in something together, I miss him onstage.”

Walsh and Strongin in James Kudelka's Passion (photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)

San Francisco Ballet soloist Lauren Strongin and principal Joseph Walsh

Joseph Walsh and Lauren Strongin know that absence makes the heart grow fonder. After four years as a couple at Houston Ballet, they spent the 2014–15 season apart while he started a new job at SFB and she stayed behind. Used to rehearsing and rehashing every day, they were tested by repertoire, colleagues and lifestyles that were no longer in sync. “He was having experiences that I didn’t really understand,” says Strongin, 32. “It was hard to be as involved day-to-day.”

After all, dancing together had kindled their relationship. “Romantic things like Madame Butterfly pushed things along,” she says. “The occasional forced kiss in rehearsal helped!” adds Walsh, 26.

Ultimately, the separation solidified their commitment. Walsh proposed on a New Year’s vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula (he’d secretly packed an engagement ring), and they married in a Mayan ceremony two days later. And when Strongin finished her Houston season, a soloist position at SFB was waiting for her. The couple is philosophical about having different ranks. “Now and again one is doing better and the other is feeling down,” Strongin admits. “But having someone who understands your situation gets you out of that.”

In their first shared SFB season, they’re excited to dance in world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck. They’re also delighted to live in the same city. “We’re back to our old ways,” Walsh says. “It makes me feel more whole.”

Coomer proposed to Oliveira before a performance of Romeo and Juliet (photo courtesy Texas Ballet Theater)

Texas Ballet Theater principal Leticia Oliveira and Carl Coomer

“We’re both very passionate about what we do, so we want it to be the best,” says Carl Coomer of dancing with his wife of four years, Leticia Oliveira. The two have performed together in everything from Sleeping Beauty to Dracula.

That shared drive for perfection enhances their artistry but can also create tension, even after 12 years as a couple. “You forgo the pleasantries sometimes,” Coomer confesses. They agree that refocusing on the work, rather than blaming your significant other, is the key to preserving trust. “We give each other feedback in a constructive way, without putting up a defense.”

The 34-year-old native of Liverpool, England, and his Brazilian wife, 38, met at Houston Ballet and moved together to Texas Ballet Theater in 2007. Coomer proposed before a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and the stage manager announced their engagement just before the curtain rose. “Everyone in the audience was there with us,” Oliveira remembers. “It was really special.”

These days, they have a built-in distraction from studio stress: their 3-year-old son, Tiago. “Before him,” Oliveira says, “it was a lot easier to take stuff home. Now when I’m not at work, it’s his time.” Will they encourage him to dance? “Everyone says he has beautiful feet,” she reports proudly. But Coomer jokes that they have other ideas for their firstborn: to be a professional soccer player in England or Brazil.

Between Tiago’s soccer drills, they’ll continue to pursue their passion for ballet. “It’s really special to share something you love with somebody you love,” Coomer says. “Not many people get to do that.”

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