In her first season as a corps member with Oklahoma City Ballet, Devin Larsen stood among the 17 dancers who made the audience gasp as the curtain came up on Balanchine's Serenade. But her path to getting there would make anyone gasp.
At age 3, Larsen was diagnosed with epilepsy. She averaged 20 complex partial seizures per day, which eventually turned into the more serious kind, generalized tonic seizures, where she would fall and completely lose consciousness. “Your brain just shuts down," she says.
Imagine having your first show with Misty Copeland inches away from you onstage.
Copeland and her prince, American Ballet Theatre corps member Calvin Royal III, swooped into Houston, Texas, in November to dance in Open World Dance Foundation’s new, full-length production of Cinderella. Choreographed by OWDF directors Ekaterina Shchelkanova and Anton Boytsov, the community project showcased 123 local children of various backgrounds at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Some had no previous dance experience.
While it was Copeland and Royal’s role debuts as Cinderella and the Prince, the goal of the production was educational: to show children all aspects of a ballet performance. OWDF, an international nonprofit organization that provides dance education and outreach for disadvantaged youth, opened the auditions to all, regardless of technical level. “It’s not just about the steps, but about music and sets,” says Shchelkanova, a former Mariinsky Ballet and ABT soloist who initially started OWDF as a program for Russian orphans. “It’s about how ballet actually works.” She gave lectures on dance as part of the experience, in addition to free Sunday ballet classes for the cast over the course of several weeks.
Copeland, who often uses her off-time to advocate for youth organizations like The Boys & Girls Clubs of America and MindLeaps, was invited by Shchelkanova to perform in Cinderella as plans for the Houston performance were coming together. She agreed to star in it. “This was a chance for a community, some experienced with dance and others not, to expand and explore their minds, bodies, creativity and possibly tap into something within themselves they didn’t know was possible,” says Copeland.
Royal was on board soon afterwards, noting that his first experience with dance was through a similar community project called The Chocolate Nutcracker. “It opened my eyes to possibilities of wanting to be a professional dancer,” he says. “Knowing what that did for me made me want to get involved.”
For three months, the pair squeezed coaching sessions with Shchelkanova and Boytsov in between ABT rehearsals before flying to Houston for performance week. “The highlight of the trip was realizing how symbolic it was for Misty and I to be there,” says Royal. “The cards, letters and support we received from the community and kids made it all worth it.”
Houston Ballet's Derek Dunn knows how to make an entrance. While just an apprentice in 2013, Dunn catapulted through the Wortham Theater Center airspace as Garuda, god of dreams, in Stanton Welch's La Bayadère. But it wasn't just his powerful pyrotechnics that created buzz throughout the audience. He possessed unusual refinement for such a young dancer, combining seamless finesse with extreme crispness. That level of technical prowess and overall polish even brought to mind the Carlos Acosta era at Houston Ballet.
With his Texas-sized bravura, Dunn, 21, has created a powerful presence and impressive fan base at Houston Ballet in a few short years. Compact and boyish, he's demonstrated remarkable versatility in both classical and contemporary roles. Yet the former comp kid has also had to learn patience and humility, and overcome insecurities about his height. Now a newly promoted demi-soloist, his career is building exciting momentum, with no sign of slowing down.
Dunn in "La Bayadère." Photo by Amitaa Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
Dancing came into Dunn's life the same way it does for many men, by watching an older sister. “I wanted to do everything Danielle was doing," says Dunn. Growing up in Glen Burnie, Maryland, he tried his first plié at Edna Lee Dance Studio, where he became a tap/jazz/competition kid. He also played every sport he could, but being a boy dancer was not without its complications—there were times when he was unfairly judged as weak. Dunn didn't let it get to him. “Dancing was never something I wanted to hide," he says. “I didn't feel the need to go out of my way to get everyone on my side." In addition to understanding friends, he had unrelenting support from his tight-knit family. “Even when I'm hard on myself and knock myself down, I know they're always there to lift me back up."
At Edna Lee's, he met ballet teacher Ashley Canterna Hardy, who played a serious role in shaping his career. Noting his facility and work ethic, she suggested he focus more on ballet. “The cleanliness of his dancing is insane," says Canterna Hardy. “He's not just technical—he has the ability to tell a story."
Dunn was willing to switch gears, and Canterna Hardy was struck by his determination. “He would not stop until a combination was polished," she says. He went on to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet's summer intensive, where he experienced his first men's class and a glimpse of a life on the professional track. “I discovered how much I loved ballet," he says. Then, a surprising win at Youth America Grand Prix at age 12 opened Dunn's eyes. “I realized that I am good at this."
Dunn in Act I of "Giselle." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
At 14, he received a scholarship to The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, where he spent the next three years. The schedule was a huge adjustment. “My daily workload had doubled, if not tripled," recalls Dunn, who was also living on his own for the first time. There, teacher Natalya Zeiger and school directors Bo and Stephanie Spassoff helped him develop partnering skills, cleaned up his bad habits and “taught me to turn like a ballet dancer."
He also continued to compete, winning the Senior Gold Medal at YAGP in 2012. It was there that Houston Ballet's artistic director, Stanton Welch, discovered him. “He kept delivering one great solo after another, and he's so unaffected," says Welch. “I was on the lookout for a shorter man, and Derek was the right fit." Dunn had planned to continue training at the John Cranko School in Germany when Welch offered him an apprenticeship. The decision, he says, was a no-brainer: “Why go to Europe when I had a job offer?"
But the transition to professional life came with a few speed bumps. At 17, he was the youngest member of the company. While his competition experience had helped him nail a job, it didn't prepare him for the professional world's unspoken etiquette. “I wasn't used to the hierarchy," he explains. “I had to be told not to be in the front of the room."
He also found the rate at which the dancers learned new material mind-boggling. “Everyone here picks up choreography so quickly," Dunn says. “I am getting better at it, but it takes me more time to get it in my body."
He bonded with former Houston Ballet dancer Jim Nowakowski, another competition veteran, right away. (The pair's virtuosic, perfectly synchronized pirouette videos on YouTube are a fun homage to their comp kid backgrounds.) Yet Nowakowski, who left the company in 2015 to be a contestant on FOX's “So You Think You Can Dance," stresses that Dunn's authenticity is what makes his dancing so powerful. “Yes, he can do every trick in the book," he says, “but that's always the cherry on top."
In spite of his rocky beginning, Dunn's apprentice year was not without opportunity. In addition to his standout role in La Bayadère, he danced in Welch's impossibly fast Clear (he later danced the lead, originally created for Angel Corella). The performance was his baptism into the Welch canon, a rite of passage for any Houston Ballet dancer.
Over the next few seasons, Dunn continued to build momentum. Welch created an eight-minute solo on him in Sons de L'âme, performed in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with piano virtuoso Lang Lang. “I felt there was nothing he could not do," says Welch. Indeed, Dunn has showed exceptional range, easily transitioning between classical ballets and the more contemporary works by William Forsythe, Mark Morris and Trey McIntyre.
Dunn and Melody Mennite in Wayne McGregor's "Dyad 1929." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
Dunn also proved himself as Balthasar, one of Romeo's rascally sidekicks in Welch's Romeo and Juliet. “I had to play around with the character's fighter side, because it didn't come naturally to me," says Dunn. “But that's the fun part of playing different roles. They force you out of your comfort zone and pull out a different side of yourself that you didn't know you had."
In the spring of 2015, however, his momentum came to screeching halt. First, he sustained an end-of-season ankle injury. Then, the following fall, he injured his other foot, leaving him offstage for a total of six months. “Mentally, I had to struggle every day that ballet was taken away from me," he says. “I was forced to develop a life outside of ballet. I was a normal kid once. I did some socializing with non-dancers, and I remain connected to these friends."
Last February, he came flying back in top form as the Bluebird in Ben Stevenson's The Sleeping Beauty. His Princess Florine, soloist Allison Miller, was happy to see him back. “Derek is confident and connected to whatever role he's performing and to whomever he's dancing with," she says.
Dunn received his long-anticipated promotion to demi-soloist last spring. While he has yet to dance a lead role in a story ballet, he feels the potential is there. (Someday, he hopes to dance Romeo.) And while he's 5' 7", he doesn't see his height as a barrier to princely roles, citing Daniil Simkin, Herman Cornejo and Mikhail Baryshnikov as his inspirations.
“Growing up, I always saw my height as a negative," says Dunn. “I thought if I were taller, I would get more job offers and do more roles. I've learned that, in the professional world, I can also see my height as an asset. Being a shorter dancer has given me opportunities to stand out in solo roles—it makes me different."
His confidence is contagious rather than cocky. “I am on the right track. I'm going to roll with that," he says with a boyish grin. “I want to do it all."
Nancy Wozny lives and writes about the arts from Houston.
They say injury can be a great teacher: When Texas Ballet Theater dancer Carolyn Judson was sidelined with a back injury in 2007, her interest in health piqued. “I wondered how I could heal myself, so I began to research and read,” she says. “I was amazed at what I found. I turned to food that reduced pain and inflammation.” She credits the dietary changes she made, in addition to getting introduced to Gyrotonic, with helping her recover more quickly.
As time went on, Judson decided to expand her education. She enrolled in an online health coach training program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, graduating in 2013. “I would come home from rehearsal and go right to class. The program also covered how to start up a business.” Judson has since built her own website, which features many of her popular recipes. See below for her healthy veggie tacos!
Serves 3 to 5.
3 zucchini squash, ends trimmed, cut lengthwise
3 carrots, peeled
1 sweet potato, peeled, cut lengthwise
1 onion, peeled, cut into quarters
1 15-ounce can black beans
crumbled feta cheese
juice from 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or coconut oil
salsa or hot sauce (optional)
- Grate the vegetables in a food processor, keeping each one separate after grating.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium pan and add the onion, carrots and sweet potato. Add a pinch or two of salt. Once they begin to soften, add the zucchini. Meanwhile, heat your canned black beans in a small sauce pan.
- Place the cooked vegetables on top of your tortillas. Top with beans, sliced avocado, crumbled feta cheese, chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Serve with salsa or hot sauce. Enjoy!
They say injury can be a great teacher: When Texas Ballet Theater dancer Carolyn Judson was sidelined with a back injury in 2007, her interest in health piqued. “I wondered how I could heal myself, so I began to research and read," she says. “I was amazed at what I found. I turned to food that reduced pain and inflammation." She credits the dietary changes she made, in addition to getting introduced to Gyrotonic, with helping her recover more quickly.
As time went on, Judson decided to expand her education. She enrolled in an online health coach training program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, graduating in 2013. “I would come home from rehearsal and go right to class. The program also covered how to start up a business." Judson has since built her own website, which features many of her popular recipes.
With his new production of Giselle, Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch continues his charge through history, updating the classical warhorses for modern audiences. He has already completed versions of Paquita, La Bayadère and, most recently, 2015’s Romeo and Juliet, which he restructured to closely follow the play.
Giselle, which premiered June 9, is deeply connected to Houston Ballet’s history. In 1967, the Houston Ballet Foundation, which was a school and pre-professional company, brought in Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn as guest artists for a production of Giselle. The enthusiasm that followed their performance helped launch Houston Ballet.
When Welch tackles the classics, he strives to create the narrative cohesion that is sometimes lacking in earlier versions. In Giselle, he plans to bring back sections of the music that have been cut from most productions, and tie the first and second acts together by giving the gorgeous but sinister clan of Wilis an earlier, eerie presence. “We’ll see the Wilis in the first act, through a window in one of the town homes, a foreshadowing of the second act,” says Welch. “It is a ghost story.” —Nancy Wozny
Houston Ballet soloist Nao Kusuzaki’s expansive port de bras spreads across the stage like a pair of wings, fitting for a story of a bird who transforms into a woman. Kusuzaki not only danced the lead role in Tsuru, a piece based on the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife, but also conceived and produced the entire project, which was a partnership between Asia Society Texas Center and Houston Ballet. Drawing a range of audiences, it was the go-to event of the dance theater season last June.
Now in her 11th season with the company, Kusuzaki is known for her lyricism, her gentle presence both onstage and off, and her entrepreneurial streak. She says, “In many ways, a ballet career prepares us to have skills useful in entrepreneurship: clear long-term goal setting and laser focus, the resiliency to keep going when the outlook is not as we expect, and self-reliance.” Leaving Japan at age 10 for the U.S. gave her a chance to train seriously in ballet, but also left her missing her home and tradition—which informs the work she chooses to produce now. “I want to do projects that allow for a deepening understanding of Japanese culture,” she says.
After training at The Washington School of Ballet and Boston Ballet School, Kusuzaki joined Boston Ballet in 2001, and first met Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch when he set his Madame Butterfly on the company. She joined HB in 2004, was promoted to soloist in 2008 and realized her dream of dancing the role of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly in 2012.
When the tsunami hit her native Japan in 2011, Kusuzaki organized a fundraiser, galvanizing her colleagues to perform and getting Welch behind it. The successful event not only raised funds and public awareness, but gave her an on-the-job experience. “I realized how much I enjoyed creating a place where artists and community gathered for a greater cause,” she says.
Tsuru had a more luxurious gestation, starting when Houston Grand Opera’s community initiative HGOco created an opera loosely based on Kusuzaki’s experience moving from Japan to the U.S. When program director Evan Wildstein left HGOco to direct programming at the Asia Society, Kusuzaki approached him with the idea of transforming The Crane Wife into a chamber ballet. “This folktale provided a platform to communicate cultural values of Japan through the language of dance,” she says.
From those early conversations, a chamber ballet was born, with Kusuzaki and Wildstein organizing a creative team that included HB dancers Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Shahar Dori and Zecheng Liang. Kusuzaki worked closely with the dancers, choreographer, stage director, scenic and lighting designers, and musicians. She kept the job-juggling to a minimum by scheduling the show after HB’s season was over so there was time to rehearse, tech and perform.
“Nao has a unique capacity to learn as much as she contributes, which, for a producer, is an invaluable skill,” says Wildstein, who recently moved on from the Asia Society.
Kusuzaki now sees her role as an artist in a larger arena. With a tour of Tsuru in the planning stages, her creative wheels keep turning. “My long-term goal is to create a platform where artists of different fields can gather, a place which inspires imagination,” she says.
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented,” says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best.”
There’s nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it’s easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work.”
Upping the Ante
Houston Ballet launched its inaugural exchange with the SFB School Trainee Program in 2014 for a whirlwind week of classes, rehearsals and outings, all of which culminated in two final performances. In addition to rehearsing their own repertoire, the dancers worked together on a joint piece, rehearsing separately with a video ahead of time so that they were both on equal footing once they came together. This November, HBII traveled to San Francisco for an equally jam-packed collaboration.
Richter experienced several “aha” moments during the 2014 exchange. “I watched how the SFB trainees incorporated corrections from our teachers that we have heard over and over,” she says. And taking class from SFB faculty opened her eyes to other ways of thinking about her technique.
“New teachers always breathe new life into corrections,” says Power, who noticed a definite bump in growth among the students. “Peer-to-peer competition is good because comparison always gives us a new benchmark to assess ourselves,” she says. “Maybe you need a little push, and seeing other students as good as you are puts you on that higher level.”
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company director Kate Lydon agrees. For more than a decade, the ABT Studio Company has joined forces with The Royal Ballet School for master classes and joint performances as a way to expand the dancers’ horizons. The schools take turns hosting each year, and the dancers have plenty of opportunities to sightsee. “Whenever we travel, it’s marvelous for the dancers to be exposed to such a high caliber of training,” says Lydon.
Some students thrive on the surprising similarities an exchange can offer. “It’s really inspiring to take class and talk with these students who are just as passionate as you are about what you do,” says former ABT Studio Company member Tyler Maloney, now an ABT apprentice. “Even though we all have this similar ultimate goal, it’s interesting to see how we all come from completely different upbringings.”
Building Cultural Awareness
At the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida, founders Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who both defected from Cuba in 1993, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School because they wanted to expose their students to the school director—and their former teacher—Dr. Ramona de Saa. In April 2014, Serrano and Hernandez brought a group of students to Cuba to participate in an international competition and a workshop at the school in Havana. Then in July, de Saa and a half-dozen dancers from the National Ballet School came to Sarasota. They repeated the exchange in 2015, and hope to make it an annual event.
“For the Cubans, it’s an opportunity to highlight their impressive legacy of dance training, which is, justly, a matter of great national pride,” says SCBS executive director Carol Hirschburg. “For SCBS, it’s a celebration of the Cuban method of dance training and an opportunity to promote it to students in the U.S.”
Because both schools are Cuban in lineage, there are few training differences, yet the classroom culture is slightly different. “Cuban students must adhere strictly to every rule or they are suspended immediately,” says Hirschburg. “They work so hard,” says SCBS student Lucy Hamilton. ”They inspired us to work even harder.”
For the American students, traveling to Havana opened their eyes to the Cuban dancers’ economic circumstances. Although the Cuban government provides the training, basic supplies (such as pointe shoes) are very expensive. “Even though they have so little, they have such a positive attitude,” says Hamilton. When the National Ballet School students came to Florida, SCBS arranged for local dancewear shops to donate much-needed supplies for them.
A week may not seem like enough time to make much of an impact on one’s training, but that isn’t really the whole point. Young dancers return inspired to be part of ballet’s global legacy. “It was arguably the best experience of my life,” says Hamilton. “We formed what I think will be lifelong friendships.”
“Collaborating brings the world closer together and gives students an experience that they will take into their future,” says Power. “Having teachers from around the world brings the past to the forefront and gives students a sense of the tradition of ballet training.”
Summer Scholarship Opportunity: Project Resilience
Project Resilience, a dance scholarship organization dedicated to helping students from underserved areas pursue professional ballet careers, is offering a $1,500 scholarship to “The Resilient Ballet Dancer of the Year,” to be used towards a summer intensive at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem or Houston Ballet. Project coordinator Everett Dyson says that the awardee will be a dancer from an underserved urban community who has an incredible story to tell, someone who has “stayed at it, kept going, because that’s their passion.” Dyson was inspired by the Project’s two high-profile backers, Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson, to help students achieve their dancing dreams.
Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1, 2016. For detailed application instructions and more information, go to theresilientdancer.wordpress.com. —Hannah Foster
“A teacher once told me to imagine pulling up my jeans on a humid day to help me lengthen the front of my hips when standing. That feeling helped place me in the right posture, as well as give my dancing a more lengthened look.”
—Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier