The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.
We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials, but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.
So what happened? Here's what we know so far:
Iain Webb describes himself as “a total bunhead.” To prove it, he takes out his iPhone and brings up a photo of Michel Fokine’s death mask, explaining that it’s part of his personal ballet library in his home. Also in that collection? A photograph of Webb himself hanging a 12-foot Sarasota Ballet banner. “It would have cost $100 to pay someone else to put it up,” he explains, with a chuckle. “I needed that hundred dollars to buy my dancers one and a half pair of pointe shoes.”
Since becoming Sarasota Ballet’s artistic director in 2007, Webb has stretched the resources—and artistry—of the company in some jaw-dropping ways. Out of a modest $4.1 million yearly budget, Sarasota Ballet has presented 53 company premieres and 33 world premieres in just seven seasons. Ticket sales have quadrupled. And the troupe has gained international recognition for its interpretations of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets. Yet Webb candidly admits that since he arrived, “We’ve literally almost closed three times.”
Webb, 55, feels at home in the underdog role. As a dancer at The Royal Ballet, he suffered from such bad stage fright that he ended his soloist career early to do character roles instead. (“That way I could hide,” he says.) After retiring from the stage in 1996, he became a rehearsal director for Matthew Bourne, then assistant director for K-Ballet Company in Japan, while also putting together galas and festivals where he presented former Royal Ballet colleagues, like Johan Kobborg. “I liked staying behind the scenes, organizing everything,” he says, “but I was getting old, and it felt like directing was the next level up.” So when Sarasota Ballet was looking for a new leader at the end of 2006, he took the gamble and applied.
The troupe, founded in 1990, had never garnered a lot of attention under its former artistic directors, contemporary choreographer Eddy Toussaint and then Royal Ballet alum Robert de Warren. By the time Webb arrived, it was also riddled with financial problems.
“I remember thinking, ‘This might not last more than a year, so I’d better put together a season that’s going to make me smile,’ ” Webb says. “And also something that’s going to put this company in the history books.” To do that, he convinced Bourne to let Sarasota be the first ballet company to perform his Infernal Galop, and he brought in Hans van Manen to stage Grosse Fuge. He also presented a double bill of Ashton’s Les Patineurs and The Two Pigeons during his second year with the company.
The repertoire over the past seven seasons has been carefully calibrated for the Sarasota audience, which is largely filled with “snowbirds” from the Northeast who have high classical standards set by major companies like American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet. Rather than compete, Webb found that by embracing his inner bunhead he could create his own niche: historical one-acts. “I looked at all the companies that were at our same level or the next level up, and they were all doing very similar rep,” Webb says. “If we were going to survive, we had to do something different.”
In particular, Webb gravitated to Ashton’s one-acts, and Sarasota Ballet now has more works by “Sir Fred” than any other American company. “His ballets are so musical, and I love how he always gets the female dancer to look like a woman,” Webb says. “People don’t do these works much anymore, but they need to be seen or else they will be lost.” Both Webb and his wife, former Royal Ballet dancer Margaret Barbieri (who is now Sarasota’s assistant director), were coached by Ashton during their performing careers and bring firsthand knowledge to the work. Some British critics have written that the company’s grasp of Ashton’s style surpasses even The Royal Ballet’s. This May, Sarasota’s four-day Ashton festival will showcase 11 of the choreographer’s ballets, along with films and lecture/discussions. Ticket orders from as far away as Europe were placed months in advance.
Webb has leveraged his high-profile connections throughout his tenure. One of his first steps as director was flying to London to have tea with Lady Deborah MacMillan to ask if he could get a couple of Kenneth’s ballets. Christopher Wheeldon once offered up a piece after Barbieri mentioned Sarasota Ballet’s struggles to the choreographer’s parents one night. And when Sarasota Ballet’s star dancer retired just before a production of Giselle in 2009, Webb got out his address book and was able to announce to the press just four hours later that Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg would be performing instead.
How has he financed this? In the beginning, many of those connections offered their services for limited fees. Webb also used much of his own money at first to cover expenses like physical therapy and costumes. Since then, a handful of donors who believe in his vision have paid off the company’s debts and funded items like last season’s pay raise for the dancers.
The company still lacks the finances for more seasoned dancers’ paychecks, and Webb admits that many of his company members are very green. But he’s found a hungry group (almost all are now his hires) who work to meet the high standards he sets in order to attract big-name choreographers to Sarasota. Webb’s also working on building talent from the ground up: In 2012, Sarasota Ballet launched the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, a full-time pre-professional training program designed to be a feeder for the company.
Webb is realistic about his company’s place in the larger dance world: “If I weren’t the director, I would probably think, ‘Well, I don’t know if they should quite try to do that rep.’ ” But he will never put a work onstage that he isn’t proud of. And he refuses to let the company’s modest reputation stop him from trying to create something that will make him smile. It’s in part thanks to that ambition that, earlier this year, he was awarded a 10-year extension of his contract. “We’re never going to be one of the big companies,” he admits, “but we’re going to have something that’s unique.”
At a glance
Number of dancers: 43
Length of contract: 36 weeks
Starting salary: $350 per week
Performances per year: 7 productions, an average of 32 shows
“I look at dancers’ personalities, because you’ve got to live with these people. I can’t have cliques or dancers who watch other dancers’ solos and think, ‘That should be me.’ ”
At six feet tall, the Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer—and recent Princess Grace Award winner—lives up to her company’s name. Because her long legs build muscle easily, she takes a relaxed approach to cross-training, only doing what she needs to strengthen weaknesses and prevent injuries—and she always lets her body get a little softer during the off-season.
Go-to cross-training routines: Daily Pilates, plus yoga and Gyrotonic a few times a month. “I’ve recently gotten into TRX suspension training, which uses two cords you can attach to anything and then hang from. For example, I love doing a plank with my feet suspended in the cords, and pulling in my knees to do curls. It kills your core and arms.”
Rehearsal refocusing trick: Handstands against the wall. “I stay for a minute. When the blood goes to your head, there’s this renewal of circulation and energy. I feel more present afterward. Everybody in the company does it.”
Biggest struggle: Tours. “I somehow gain five pounds every time. I try to stay active by renting a bike, or using the hotel’s pool, or doubling up on my core work. But when it’s freezing cold somewhere, all you want to do is hibernate and eat cheese.”
Pre-show prep: “Sometimes I go to the steam room to stretch or give myself a massage while my muscles turn into Jell-O. But it makes me sleepy, so I need to have time for a nap afterward.”
Meal plan: “I start off with a huge breakfast: oatmeal with almonds, bananas, blueberries and honey. After class I always have an orange (I’m from Florida). Then, we only have short breaks, so I snack on yogurt, veggies, nuts and fruit, or split up a big sandwich throughout the day.”
Finding balance: “I make a point never to live with dancers, and to get out of the studio. I go tango and salsa dancing at night. I like tinkering around with drum sets. And I’ve recently gotten into spray painting, doing street art.”
You’ll never catch this San Francisco Ballet star looking ordinary. Kochetkova fills her wardrobe with bold one-of-a-kind finds and pieces that make her laugh. But what’s most impressive is how she puts everything together into fantastical outfits that are truly her own. “I’m always mixing different prints that most people would say are unmixable,” she says. “I don’t think about it—it just happens. My style is just a part of whoever I happen to be on a certain day.”
American Apparel top: “American Apparel clothes are loose and light, and don’t make me look like a Barbie ballerina.”
Phobos Bodywear skirt: “I bought this when I was in Amsterdam learning Cinderella. I like how it’s cut high in the front so you can see your legs, and the flow of the material makes it nice to move in.”
Feathers Dancewear legwarmers: “These are made by a dancer I used to work with at English National Ballet. Clothes made by dancers are more grown up, and quite different from what you usually see in ballet shops.”
Julien David button-down: “This print has ducks and dinosaurs, though I like to pretend they’re dragons. I like dragons.”
Tatiana Parfionova coat: “This designer uses a lot of Russian folklore, and when she put out a collection with swans, I had to have something!”
Pants by contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama: “Whenever I see artists collaborating with fashion brands, I try to get a piece. What they create is often quite unusual.”
When she was a student prodigy scooping up medals at top competitions, Whitney Jensen didn’t have to do much to keep her body in shape. Now, the 21-year-old hits the gym most days—sometimes even after six hours of rehearsal—to build stamina and keep her metabolism in balance.
Typical routine: 45 minutes on the elliptical or treadmill (walking with intervals between 5 and 5.4 miles per hour), then 25 minutes of Pilates. “Having a gym in my apartment building makes it very convenient.”
Warm-up trick: “I never do strengthening exercises before class. They make my body feel too tight before dancing.”
Problem spot: Shoulders. “My joints are really loose, and can get painful during contemporary work. I have to keep my rotator cuffs strong by working them with a Thera-Band.”
Stamina secret: “To make sure I have enough energy to get through a ballet, I’ll rehearse by running it twice in a row. Then performing it just the once feels like nothing.”
Favorite stretch: Over-splits using a stack of mats.
For her inner thighs: “Lying on the floor on my side, I put one foot on top of a bench and the other underneath it, then raise my lower leg up to meet the top one 10 times. It kills your inner thighs.”
Recovery Rx: “Every night, I talk to someone from my family—it helps remind me I have a life outside of ballet.”
Photography by Casey Herd
The gypsy goddess of contemporary ballet has found a home: Nederlands Dans Theater. But although the avant-garde company in The Hague seems like a natural fit for Drew Jacoby’s fierce style, she was rejected when she initially tried out for former artistic director Jim Vincent. “I’ve always been too tall for everything,” says Jacoby, who’s 5' 11". “Opportunities never fall into my lap. I’ve always had to push and search and try and fail until something works.” Those very qualities were what led current artistic director Paul Lightfoot to ask her to join. “Drew’s ambitious, and I love that,” says Lightfoot. “She works so hard that sometimes we even have to tell her, ‘Drew, enough!’ ”
Now that she’s joined the company, in stereotypical Dutch fashion, her day starts with a 10-minute bike ride to the studio. It’s a quieter lifestyle than what Jacoby was used to in New York. (She sees her husband, who’s still living there, every few weeks.) Her schedule mostly revolves around rehearsing, performing and keeping her body in shape—sometimes with twice-daily visits to the company’s physical therapist, a new luxury.
NDT has turned out to be exactly what she wanted. “Freelancing was kind of a lonely career,” she admits. Dancing for the many top choreographers who come to NDT has stretched her. She’s learned to speak and even sing onstage. She’s been forced to make her steps more specific, and to move with a softer quality. “I was used to having the freedom to dance however I felt like—which was always with full attack,” Jacoby says. “To be able to challenge myself in new styles, it’s exactly what I was craving. I knew in my gut this was something I had to try.”
When it comes to fashion, this Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer is fearless. She will unabashedly wear a leotard—and just a leotard—out clubbing with friends, or put on a pair of five-inch Giuseppe Zanotti heels to go to work. “The great thing about living in New York is that there’s so many different people with different influences, you can be yourself,” she says. “I can go out in a bow-tie or suspenders or a full-body catsuit.” Williams’ biggest fashion influence is her mom, who always dolled her up in pumps and dresses as a kid. “She likes me to have style, to look like a girl. And to make sure I’m not coming out of the house looking crazy.”
Crop top: ?“This used to be a unitard that I wore once while dancing with Beyoncé. I just cut off the legs.?”
Earrings: “I always wear earrings, even when I’m dancing. They’re a little decoration for the face, especially when I don’t want to wear makeup.”
Pants from a boutique in Puerto Rico: “I need some color on my body when I dance. Too much black kills me.”
Blazer from Zara: “My pop of color.”
Top: “It’s got an open back, which is my signature look.”
Leather shorts: “I work hard for my body. Why not show a little skin?”
Heels: “I have 50 pairs of heels at home, and more in storage. I can do anything in heels: go out after rehearsal, run to catch a bus—no problem.”
Got Nutcracker auditions coming up? You might want to avoid texting right before you take your place at the barre.
Fascinating new research from Harvard Business School found that people who spent a few minutes typing on a small, handheld gadget were only half as assertive in follow-up tests as those who had typed on a desktop computer. They were also far more meek on an additional test that measured power and self-confidence.
Why is this relevant to dancers? The study authors say the hunched, compact body posture we take when typing on our smartphones negatively affects our confidence. Meanwhile, sitting in a more open position can actually decrease your body's stress hormones and increase your pain tolerance—both especially helpful perks for dancers.
If you can't avoid responding to your mom's "Merde!" text, simply take a wide second position split and keep your shoulders back and chin up while you write her back. It just might get you one step closer to landing Sugar Plum.