Romeo wasn't the only one falling in love during Edwaard Liang's production of Romeo and Juliet at BalletMet last April; those in the audience witnessing retiring company star Adrienne Benz's final performance as Juliet were equally captivated.
Benz and Ward. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.
The diminutive powerhouse capped her 14-year BalletMet career with a passionate portrayal of the young heroine, one that coursed with the innocence and exuberance of youth. Her combination of adroit acting and assured technique was helped along by her onstage chemistry with her partner David Ward. Together, they were utterly believable as Shakespeare's fabled star-crossed lovers.
Former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Patricia Barker has taken over as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet. Barker, 54, was named to her new role in June, becoming only the second woman director in RNZB's 64-year history and the second high-profile American to take the helm in recent years (the other being former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel).
Patricia Barker. Photo Courtesy RNZB.
Rising lazily from an armchair, shrugging her shoulders and limply snapping her arms side to side, Alana Griffith imbued the title role in Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) with the unmistakable boredom and longing of youth. Throughout the performance, her ability to bring personal depth to both the character and to Webre's challenging choreography revealed a special dancer coming into her own as an artist.
Alana Griffith in "ALICE (in wonderland)". Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.
Plucked from its second company to star as Olga in Tulsa Ballet's 2016 production of Onegin, Tomoka Kawazoe offered the kind of classic story-ballet sweetness that audiences love. Yet the 19-year-old Tokyo native is equally adept in contemporary works. She wowed audiences in Jennifer Archibald's OMENS, displaying a rapid-fire technical fierceness illuminated by her dazzling flexibility.
Photo by Andrew Fassbender, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet
When Gen Horiuchi became the executive and artistic director of Saint Louis Ballet, his mentor Peter Martins offered the same wisdom that George Balanchine had given him: Running a company isn't just about ballet—you have to do and oversee everything. That leadership philosophy is what Horiuchi, now 53, has adopted at Saint Louis Ballet.
The Tokyo native and former New York City Ballet principal took over the financially troubled company from longtime artistic directors Ludmila Dokoudovsky and Antoni Zalewski in 2000. Within two years Horiuchi stabilized the organization's finances and restructured and revitalized the Saint Louis Ballet School. In 2010, he moved the organization into a new 7,500-square-foot facility with four studios.
Now in his 18th season with SLB, Horiuchi has increased the company's annual operating budget from $200,000 in 2000 to $2 million currently, grown the number of dancers from 13 to 25, and added more productions (when he arrived they were only perform- ing Nutcracker). He's also increased ticket sales and bolstered the school's enrollment from 50 to 350 students.
Dorothy returns to the Emerald City in Tulsa Ballet's new full-length adventure, tentatively titled Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, running February 10–12, at Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The million-dollar co-production with BalletMet is the centerpiece of Tulsa Ballet's 60th-anniversary season.
The ballet is choreographed by BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang and is based, in part, on Glinda of Oz, the 14th and final book in L. Frank Baum's Oz series. Liang says the ballet won't follow the familiar tale of Dorothy, Toto and the gang from the popular movie. "Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini and I really wanted to have a dramatic storyline beyond flying monkeys and another witch," Liang says. He and librettist/composer Oliver Peter Graber took creative license to fashion the ballet's tale of romance between Dorothy and the Prince of Oz and create a fable in the Prince's relationship with his fighting parents King Sapphire and Queen Diamond.
“I was tricked into it,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn’t a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he’d been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.
These days it’s hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation’s top regional ballet companies and training schools.
In 1997, Orr replaced former New York City Ballet star Patricia Wilde as director of the company, which was founded in 1969 by Nicolas Petrov and Loti Falk. His accomplishments at the AGMA-participating troupe are noteworthy. After guiding PBT through financial troubles in the early 2000s, Orr oversaw the remodeling of its five-studio facility and acquired housing for out-of-town high school students in PBT School’s pre-professional division. Most recently, he spearheaded another expansion of the school, including two new studios and a wellness center.
Orr’s vision for the company goes back to when he applied to be artistic director. While Wilde had introduced more Balanchine works to PBT, Orr advocated for a more varied repertoire of full-length classics, famous ballets the company had never done and brand-new creations.
In recent years, he has pushed to expand all three facets of that approach. “My dancers are a very talented and strong group from the corps up to principals,” he says. That confidence in his artists has led to PBT’s first full-length productions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire; Pittsburgh premieres of influential works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jean-Christophe Maillot; and world premieres by Dwight Rhoden and Viktor Plotnikov. With that, the company’s budget has also grown from $7.3 million in 2010 to $9.8 million in 2016. This October, PBT will open its season with another ambitious production: Orr’s newly restaged Giselle.
Principal Christopher Budzynski is just one of the dancers attracted to PBT’s diverse repertoire. He describes Orr as a “very demanding but friendly and nurturing director. He encourages us not to be afraid of trying different things and doesn’t hold it against us if we fail.” Budzynski also likes the diversity at PBT. “The company is not cookie-cutter. There are different body types and personalities.”
Dancers tend to stick with the company for many years. Principal Julia Erickson, now in her 15th season, says, “we are everyone else’s cheerleaders. There is a respect for hierarchy, but a support system exists within the ranks.”
Dancers also benefit from the expert knowledge of Orr’s wife, company ballet mistress and former ABT star Marianna Tcherkassky. “It’s an education for them to have a ballerina of her stature around,” says Orr. Though he expects his dancers to work diligently and develop as artists, his specific expectations can differ for each person. “I am pretty patient,” he says. “If somebody gets into the company, I know that I have brought them in for the right reasons.”
Orr also encourages his dancers’ own creative interests. Several have choreographed for the school and company, most recently principal Yoshiaki Nakano. Erickson runs Barre, a line of energy bars and wellness products for dancers, with her husband, former PBT member Aaron Ingley.
A newer tradition that makes PBT stand out on a national level is its sensory-friendly performances geared toward children and adults on the autism spectrum. In 2013, PBT was the first American professional ballet company to produce an adapted Nutcracker, and they’ve since performed special evenings of Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast, with quieter audio, less startling effects and more relaxed house etiquette.
In addition to continuing these performances, Orr says he’d like to add a few dancers to the roster and keep growing the school. He’s also interested in having more live music and touring. All of this upward momentum can be summed up by the person who knows Orr best. His wife, Tcherkassky, says, “Terry points us in a direction and says, ‘Hey, you want to go there? This is how we can do it.’ ”
At a glance: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Number of dancers: 30
Length of contract: 38 weeks
Starting salary: $1,028 per week
Performances per year: 50
One of the best routes into the company is through the PBT School. The company also holds an open audition in March and accepts videos year-round. If Orr is interested, the next step may be joining the school’s graduate program or being invited to take company class and meet with him for one-on-one interviews.
“The look of the dancer is very important,” says Orr, “and that can be defined in all kinds of ways. I want dancers who are not only great technicians but also gifted actors. An equally important part of the audition process is having conversations with the dancer to get to know their heart and how they will fit in.”
“There’s always boxes of color to help with that,” says Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney when I ask him if the long hours in the studio are turning his hair gray. It’s November, and he’s creating the company’s new $2 million Nutcracker production. “I love it,” he says. “There’s nothing like making something that will influence kids in their development as dancers.”
For Carney, there was a lot to love about the situation he stepped into in 2013 as only the fourth artistic director in Kansas City Ballet’s 59-year history. (Carney’s predecessor, William Whitener, retired after 17 years to work as an independent choreographer, teacher and arts advocate.) The company had recently moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, had a new performance home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was free of debt. “It was pretty spectacular,” says Carney.
Now into year three of a plan to increase the number of dancers, raise the level of artistry and transform the company’s repertoire, Carney says the organization has already met most of those goals.
KCB, formerly known as the State Ballet of Missouri, was founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska. Company dancer Logan Pachciarz says the AGMA-participating troupe has grown exponentially since he arrived in 2000. “It had about half the number of dancers then, and we did mostly ensemble works.”
Carney, a former principal dancer and ballet master at Boston Ballet, says his decade-long term as associate artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet helped prepare him for his first directorship. Growing the organization was one of his priorities when he arrived. First, he created the six-member second company, KCB II. In 2015, he instituted a nine-dancer trainee program. The additional dancers, says Carney, are not only necessary to do full-length ballets and outreach, but have also relieved the 28 company dancers of some of the corps work, freeing them up for more soloist and principal roles.
“In my career, I had a chance to experience a lot of different styles,” says Carney. “I think it’s important that the dancers here have that kind of opportunity to grow. I believe in them, and when someone believed in me, it really changed my confidence level.”
With an annual operating budget of $8.5 million, Carney is cognizant of the ballets and choreographers he can bring in. Therefore, he needs performers who will excel in a variety of works. When hiring, Carney says, he looks for versatile dancers who will commit to the artistic intention of each piece. KCB now does a mix of full-length classics (something they did very little of before), neoclassical ballets like those of Balanchine, and contemporary works from a host of emerging and established choreographers, such as Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Jodie Gates and Val Caniparoli.
“He really challenges us to increase our technical level and ability,” says Pachciarz of Carney. “He’s a big fan of wide, sweeping movement and a lot of port de bras and épaulement.”
Ballet master and former Cincinnati Ballet principal Kristi Capps, who Carney hired in 2014, says he is “demanding, but in a caring way. For Devon, to see a dancer not put forth maximum effort is heartbreaking because he knows how short a dancer’s career is.”
Carney is also an accomplished choreographer, having created works for Boston Ballet, BalletMet, Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera. Pachciarz says he “is very methodical. He reads scores and thinks about how the movement fits into them.” In addition to KCB’s new Nutcracker, Carney mounted the company’s first-ever full-length Swan Lake in February and restaged his Giselle for them in 2015.
Artists who join KCB will step into a pretty spectacular situation, as Carney did. Their home, the new Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity—a converted power plant—houses the company, administrative offices, Kansas City Ballet School and a 180-seat theater. Each production (apart from Nutcracker) runs two weekends at the Kauffman Center, with most performed to live music by the Kansas City Symphony. Dancers can benefit from extra performance opportunities in ongoing collaborations with organizations like the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and they have the chance to choreograph as part of the company’s annual New Moves program.
Next up for KCB, May 6–15, is Adam Hougland’s Rite of Spring, along with works by Helen Pickett, Yuri Possokhov and a world premiere by Viktor Plotnikov. Beyond that, Carney’s plans for KCB include continued growth, in every direction. He aspires to add more dancers, have more collaborations and to tour—something they’ve done very little of. “I believe in this company,” says Carney. “There is so much left for us to do, and I am excited for what the future holds.”
The company holds open auditions January to March. Videos are accepted year-round as a preliminary audition, but Carney highly recommends dancers attend an open audition.
“Musicality is paramount to me, as is attentiveness to the material and being able to exactly reproduce it quickly,” says Carney. Women generally need to be between 5' 4" and 5' 7". Male dancers should be 5' 10" and up, with strong partnering skills. Carney says he also places great importance on a dancer’s demeanor, professional appearance, resumé and photo.
At a Glance
Kansas City Ballet
Number of dancers: 28
Length of contract: 35 weeks
Starting salary: $733 per week
Performances per year: 48+