Ask the Paris Opéra Ballet, the New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet to share a stage, with each performing one act of Balanchine's Jewels, and you might expect a degree of friendly (or less-than-friendly) competition. But as POB gave its exquisitely polite rendition of "Emeralds" during the Lincoln Center Festival's three-company production this summer, one-upsmanship seemed far from everyone's mind.
Then the curtain rose on New York City Ballet, its dancers visibly shaking with excitement in their "Rubies" finery. And the David H. Koch Theater audience collectively leaned forward.
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Petite and fine-boned, American Ballet Theatre's Rachel Richardson can look younger than her 21 years, vulnerable in a way that makes you want to give her a hug. That is, until she begins to move. Elegant and precise, with beautifully articulated legs and feet, Richardson radi- ates authority onstage, commanding attention rather than asking for it. There's a lot of power in that delicate frame.
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy of ABT.
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.
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.”
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."