(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)
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.”
Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.
Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
If you, like many of us here at Pointe, wish you could have seen Royal Ballet star Zenaida Yanowsky's retirement performance on June 7, you're in luck. The Royal will screen a recording of it in select movie theaters across the U.S. starting Sunday, June 25. (In many cities, it will be screened on Tuesday, July 11.) The program includes three works by the company's founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton: The Dream, Symphonic Variations and Marguerite and Armand—the latter of which stars Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. You can also catch other Royal favorites like Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Steven McRae, Akane Takada and Yasmin Naghdi. Make sure to bring tissues!
To find dates, times and theaters near you, click here.
Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning has a different kind of vision for her Chamber Dance Project. Though she relocated the project-based company from New York City to Washington, DC several years ago, her focus remains on creating collaborations between classically-trained ballet dancers and other contemporary artists to share in intimate venues with live music. This summer, the artistic director brings together dancers from Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington Ballets for a condensed period of time. The company's 2017 season show titled Ballet Brass & Song opens this weekend, and features works by Jennifer Archibald, Jorge Amarante, and a world premiere by Coburn Bruning herself. We caught up with her last week to hear more about her company's mission.
Some may consider New York's Symphony Space a smaller theater, but big things were happening inside June 6–10. Just under 200 young dancers from all over the world were testing their luck at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition in hopes of receiving scholarships, medals and company contracts. Their jury? An international panel of company and school directors, chaired by Andris Liepa, that included State Ballet of Georgia's Nina Ananiashvili, Boston Ballet School's Peter Stark, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson and Cincinnati Ballet' s Victoria Morgan.
Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.
What's the toughest part of being a dancer?
More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.
What ballet makes you most nervous?
Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.
Being in the corps can be pretty unforgiving. You dance in nearly every performance, it sometimes feels like you're only onstage to add to the scenery, and you're expected to fit in—while still vying for soloist roles. It's enough to make even the most determined dancer lose steam. Pointe spoke with three corps de ballet dancers about how they use a combination of self-discipline and creativity to keep themselves motivated.
Shine in Class
After a few years, morning class can feel like a chore—especially during heavy rehearsal periods when your body just wants to rest. But rather than viewing it as a drag, try reframing class as a chance to show your best, hardest-working self. For San Francisco Ballet corps member Rebecca Rhodes, class is a time to push harder, not slack off. "It's a great time to be noticed," she says, especially for dancers hoping to be cast in featured roles. "I make sure to do every combination two or three times, and I try not to pick and choose what's comfortable," she says.
This past winter, Isabelle Brouwers used her two-week break from English National Ballet to bring dance to the orphaned children at the Spurgeons Academy in Kibera, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Funded by the U.K.-based charity, Global Care, Spurgeons Academy provides an academic and extracurricular education to 400 children in Nairobi, as well as daily essentials like food and water.
After stumbling on a video of the children practicing ballet on Al Jazeera, Brouwers told us that she immediately knew she wanted to help. "It made me realize how fortunate I was to grow up with all the resources to make my dream of becoming a dancer a reality, and I was so passionate about trying to offer a similar opportunity to these children," she said. Brouwers' research led her to the Spurgeons Academy, where she learned the children's dance classes were organized by Anno's Africa.