One of the highlights of New York City's Fall for Dance Festival this year was an appearance by the Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo, a company of men who dance on pointe with as much panache and style as any prima ballerina. Their performance of Paquita was funny, of course—they specialize in comic renditions of classical ballets— but also bracingly well executed. The star of the evening, Carlos Hopuy, aka Alla Snizova, was simply astonishing. His pointework sparkled, his hops on pointe were clean and strong, and he looked like he could have balanced in attitude forever. There was something deeply exciting about the way he combined delicacy and control with the explosive power and steel of a man's physique.
Hopuy, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and trained at the country's famed National Ballet School, has been with the company since 2012. Like all the Trocks, he has both a female and a male alter-ego: when he's not portraying Alla Snizova, he's Innokenti Smoktumuchsky, a dopey cavalier. He is also one of the dancers featured in the upcoming documentary Rebels on Pointe, which will have its theatrical release November 15 (click here for theaters and dates near you). I recently caught up with Hopuy, who, when he's not on tour, lives in Orlando with his husband Paolo Cervellera, a former Trock. We spoke by phone, in Spanish.
Did you always want to dance?
I always liked ballet. My mother, Norma Hopuy, was a principal with the Ballet de Camagüey. I used to hang around the rehearsals. She started giving me lessons at home. Then, when I was nine, I auditioned for the National Ballet School. I had the choice between that and gymnastics and I chose ballet.
When did you start going on pointe?
When I was 11. I would ask my classmates for their old pointe shoes and would try them on at home. When my mother realized that I liked to go on pointe, she started training me and bought me my own pair.
On November 7, David Hallberg's highly anticipated memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, will be available in bookstores. (It's currently available for pre-order from Simon & Schuster and various other retailers.) Published by Touchstone Books, the autobiography details Hallberg's arduous recovery from a series of career-threatening injuries, and his triumphant return to the stage. Marina Harss spoke with the American Ballet Theatre principal about how his experience has changed him, his future with the Bolshoi and his desire to someday direct a company.
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
The initial seed was planted by New York Times dance critic Roslyn Sulcas. This was way before the Bolshoi. She just said you're traveling a lot now. You know, maybe just start to jot some things down about your experiences. So I took her advice, and then Simon & Schuster called and expressed interest in a book, and I dove in headfirst.
The focus of the book must have changed a lot after the injury.
Absolutely, and to be honest, the book had no backbone before the injury. It was "dance memoir 101." Not to say I didn't have a story to tell. But the meat of the book and for me, the heart, and soul, and the gut, is the nightmare that I went through with the injury.
As I was reading the book it felt almost as if you were a survivor of some kind of trauma.
It was emotionally traumatic. It was physically traumatic. It was mentally traumatic. Everything unraveled, and everything went wrong.
When the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre as artist in residence eight years ago, the company hadn't had a house choreographer since the days of Antony Tudor. The gamble seems to have paid off handsomely. In that time Ratmansky has either made or restaged 12 ballets for the company. In 2011, the company extended his contract to 2023. Such commitments are practically unheard of at a time when top dancers and choreographers hop from company to company, continent to continent. The scale and ambition of the works Ratmansky is making for ABT is a rarity too, in a world of tight budgets, scant rehearsal time and pared-down esthetics.
Set design for new "Harlequinade." Courtesy ABT.
"I remember looking out and feeling the light," says Alston Macgill of her debut in the third movement of Symphony in C during New York City Ballet's 2016 tour to Paris. "I felt this enormous joy going through me." She was just an apprentice at the time, and the production was being taped for PBS's "Great Performances." From the moment Macgill flew onstage—light, energetic, buoyant—she seemed to barely touch the ground. Despite her speed and elevation, there was nothing forced about her performance; her energy was calm and free, the coordination seemingly natural.
The Savannah, Georgia, native was already turning heads as a stu- dent at the School of American Ballet, where she enrolled after training at The STUDIO Savannah and The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. She became an NYCB apprentice in 2015, and was soon selected by the French choreographer Nicolas Blanc for his ballet Mothership. A few months later came her big break in Symphony in C, which she found out about a week before the performance.
"The whole thing was—I like jewels," the choreographer George Balanchine told an interviewer in the spring of 1967, when asked about his newest creation for New York City Ballet, a triptych called—what else?—Jewels. He had his photograph taken while gazing appreciatively at Van Cleef & Arpels designs, or surrounded by ballerinas wearing bejeweled headpieces and gem-toned costumes by Karinska. Balanchine had an instinct for promotion; the ballet was a huge success and is still regularly performed by NYCB and other companies around the world. At the Lincoln Center Festival this summer (July 20–23), 50 years after the first performance, three companies—the Paris Opéra Ballet, NYCB and the Bolshoi Ballet—will join together to perform it in a single night. The French will dance "Emeralds." On different nights, the Russians and the Americans will alternate in "Rubies" and "Diamonds."
This seems appropriate, as each of Jewels' sections alludes to a different style of ballet: French, American, Russian. Ballet was born in France. More importantly, France is where Romantic ballet, with its feather-light technique and delicate, wafting arms, was refined. (Think La Sylphide and Giselle.) The next chapter of its development took place in Russia, where ballet acquired its grandeur, thanks to the imagination of Marius Petipa and the splendor of the Imperial Theatres. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, this world disappeared. Balanchine, along with many others, left the country, bringing his ideas about ballet to Europe and later to America, or, more precisely, to New York City.
In a surprise announcement last February, former American Ballet Theatre principal Paloma Herrera was named director of the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón, Argentina's most prominent ballet company. After her farewell in New York City in May 2015, Herrera had returned to her native city, Buenos Aires, and was enjoying her new life there: "teaching, coaching, traveling." Just as she was putting the final touches on her memoir, Mi Intensa Vida, she was contacted by the general director of the Teatro Colón, which was about to undergo an administrative shake-up. Both the artistic director of the theater (Darío Lopérfido) and the head of the ballet (Maximiliano Guerra) were about to be replaced. Would she be interested in the latter job?
George Balanchine's Gounod Symphony isn't often performed. This 25-minute ballet, set to the French composer's lively first symphony, has largely faded from popular repertoire. (It was last performed at New York City Ballet in 1993, and by the School of American Ballet in 2007.) But this fall, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is bringing Gounod back. It will receive its company premiere October 21–23 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The ballet was first performed in January 1958 at New York City Center, its cast of 32 led by Maria Tallchief and Jacques d'Amboise. But the dancer most closely associated with the lead ballerina role was the French-born Violette Verdy. There is something very French about Gounod, a kind of brilliance and formality associated with the Paris Opéra. Its choreography overflows with patterns: crossing and parallel lines, and weaving. Verdy compared it to the gardens of Versailles, and, in fact, the sets designed by Horace Armistead were originally intended and used for NYCB's production of Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, however, is developing a new look. Though she won't reveal any details, Farrell says the concept "will allow us to see the choreography better."
At some point during her long career with American Ballet Theatre, Stella Abrera started to think it would never happen; paradoxically, this gave her a kind of peace. But on the evening of May 23, 2015, there she was, onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, finally performing one of her dream roles: Giselle. It was a moment that had been long deferred. In 2008, as she was preparing for this same part, she was sidelined by an injury. And it turned out to be a serious one, a herniated disk and trouble with her sciatic nerve, which caused pain and debilitating calf weakness and kept her out of commission for almost two years. When she came back, she felt unsure of her body and her future, unable to do the things she had done before almost without thinking.
Yet seven years later, she got her second chance, filling in for another injured dancer. And a remarkable thing happened: The moment Abrera stepped onstage, responding happily to Albrecht's four taps on her cottage door, it was as if she had been dancing the role her whole life. Her Giselle was sweet without being sappy, trusting without having the word “victim" written across her forehead. The jumps were confident, the turns clean, the arabesques limpid. The transformation from woman to wraith was gradual, the love between her Wili and Albrecht still touchingly human. “Stella allows herself to go as far as she can in a particular direction, without ever going over the line," Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, explains. “She has the taste to make the judgment call and the ability to know where the line is."
Abrera was still a soloist, a position she had held for 14 years. But not for much longer. On June 30, 2015, the same day as Misty Copeland, she became a principal dancer. The promotion came as a complete surprise. She says: “At my age"—she was 37—“and with the amount of time I had been out I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought, My career is going to be over soon, I'd better just go for broke whenever I go out onstage." It's a funny thing about dancers—it's often when they stop trying to please others that they do their best dancing.
To become a principal at 37 is an anomaly—proof not only of Abrera's talent, but of her willingness to stay the course in the long, frustrating road from injury to full recovery. At the time, her promotion was somewhat overshadowed by Copeland's; outside of the company, there had been scant speculation about Abrera's chances, and little publicity afterwards. Nevertheless, “It was enough for me," Abrera says, quietly, of that time, “because the amount of emotion I felt was beyond."
Like Copeland's, Abrera's achievement was also a milestone: She became ABT's first Filipino-American principal. It is a distinction that is only now beginning to sink in. “People started to ask, 'How does it feel to be the first?' and to me it was like asking, 'How does it feel to have long hair or to be a woman?' " But then she started to hear from young Filipino-American dancers, who said they looked up to her. Almost without realizing it, she has become a symbol of achievement and success.
Abrera's path to ABT was somewhat circuitous. Because of her father's job as a civil engineer, the family moved frequently. She started ballet in Pasadena, then moved to a school in San Diego, West Coast Ballet Theatre. Some of her formative years were spent in Sydney, Australia, studying at the Halliday Dance Centre, a program that uses the Royal Academy of Dance curriculum. It was during her final RAD exams, held in New York, that she met Ross Stretton, then ABT's assistant director, who suggested she audition for the company. At 17, she left home to become a professional dancer. It was not easy: “I could sense the dread in my mom's face. It was hard for me. But there was no way I wasn't going to do it."
Things were proceeding smoothly. She was offered a soloist position in 2001, and was soon dancing plum roles like Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Emilia in José Limón's Moor's Pavane and Gamzatti in La Bayadère. Then, injury struck. In 2008, when she was preparing to dance Giselle, she hurt herself during a rehearsal for a new work; by the end of that rehearsal, she had a persistent calf ache. After 14 months of cortisone treatments, physical therapy, swimming and rest, she came back and tried to approach dancing the way she had before. (“I'd always gone for things, that's how I liked to roll.") But a little over a year later, she reinjured herself.
When Abrera returned after five months, she found herself hampered by fear: fear of pain, of hurting herself again, of having to give up altogether. As she puts it, “I had a lot to lose." Watching her face this ordeal, soloist Craig Salstein, who regularly teaches company class, could see she was afraid she might have to stop dancing. He approached her about devising a gradual, steady program of customized ballet classes to get her dancing again. “I told her I was going to jump into the dark hole with her and together we were going to look for the light switch." Abrera trusted him. (By all accounts, Salstein is a kind of dancer-whisperer and has gone on to work with other dancers suffering from injuries.)
They worked together for four months, during his breaks and lunch hours, doing barre in a room without a mirror so that she could feel things internally, working on the bare essentials: posture, turnout, balance, elongating the spine, straightening the legs. “We started with pliés," he says, “and I would ask her, 'Can you go on? Can we move on to third position? How about fifth?' " Little by little she got her technique back, and, more importantly, her confidence. Abrera's attitude toward Salstein's assistance is simple: “He got me back onstage."
Steadily but slowly, over the course of years, Abrera regained her strength and became accustomed to a new, safe range of motion. Recently, she's gained even more confidence. Things just seemed to work better: “I kept discovering that I could trust my body—it continues to surprise me."
A Principal At Last
Since her Giselle debut, she has taken on one role after another: Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella and Lise in his La Fille mal gardée; Lead Maiden in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird, the Queen of Shemakhan in his Golden Cockerel and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty; and a lead role in Benjamin Millepied's Daphnis and Chloe.
She's particularly strong in roles leavened with humor, like Lise in Fille. Onstage she can be uninhibited and fun, with a real comedic verve, which can come as a surprise given her almost regal beauty. “She's such a goofball in real life," says ABT principal Gillian Murphy, a close friend since both competed at the Prix de Lausanne as teenagers. (Their husbands, Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, are also close, and the four often travel together.) Her ability to be goofy onstage seems to be connected to an innate modesty combined, paradoxically, with confidence: “She's not defined by her beauty," Murphy says.
It's a special mix: modesty, mixed with self-knowledge, refinement and bravery. “She's a deeply honest person," remarks Radetsky, who retired from ABT in 2014, “and I think that shines through in her dancing." Perhaps it explains why she had the air of a principal dancer long before the day she became one. “In most of our heads she was a principal," says soloist Alexandre Hammoudi, who has been paired with her regularly in ballets like Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.
Despite the heightened pressure, Abrera has found herself loving dance as much as ever. “Nothing has changed for me on the inside," she explains. “I'm savoring the present; I think it comes with time and experience. It's the joy of art. I feel privileged to be part of that."
Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer in New York City.