Houston knows a thing or two about storms. But when the hurricane that is Melissa Hough blazed through Jirí Kylián’s hyper-dynamic Forgotten Land at the opening of Houston Ballet’s 2010 season, it was as if a flash of lightning had struck the Wortham Center stage. Hough’s fierce, full-throttle attack punctuated Kylián’s movement with speed and precision. It was Houston audiences’ first glimpse of her talents. Yet in her typical frank, matter-of-fact manner, Hough took her debut in stride: “With Kylián,” she says, “you just need to keep up.”

 

Hough’s dancing reflects her personality: dynamic and surprising. Drawn to challenges, the 25-year-old is not the type of dancer who’s easily intimidated. Her fearless intensity can be traced back to her time in the competition world. Last summer, Hough proved she has the confidence to steer her career by making tough—if surprising—choices when she left her principal position at Boston Ballet to become Houston Ballet’s top soloist to watch. 

 

A Baltimore, Maryland, native, Hough began dancing at age 3 in combo ballet-tap-jazz classes. Her parents are both retired Army musicians, each having served over 25 years in the U.S. Army Field Band. Her sister tried dancing but ultimately gravitated toward gymnastics and then competitive cheerleading. Hough, however, found her stride on the competition circuit with Dance Explosion, a studio in Glen Burnie, MD, where she trained from ages 7 to 17. But as much as she loved jazz and hip-hop, Hough always wanted to be a ballet dancer. At 13, she also enrolled at the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC. “It was difficult, but I managed to cobble a schedule together. I did most of my ballet at Kirov and the rest at Dance Explosion,” she says. “Luckily the studios weren’t that far away.”

 

Straddling both worlds gave Hough an edge, but also held her back. “I was the only person at Kirov who could do more than two pirouettes, and I felt more advanced when it came to attacking things,” she says. “But the school didn’t value that. I needed to work more on movement quality.” In the Kirov’s annual concert, Hough stood out performing one of her competition jazz solos. “It was great to be noticed in that way, but I wasn’t taken seriously and the teachers often discouraged me from pursuing a ballet career.”

Nonetheless, Hough was hired as an apprentice at BalletMet Columbus, where she danced for a year before heading to Boston Ballet II. Boston Ballet was in transition at the time, and Hough had the advantage of a new director’s eyes. “Mikko Nissinen had just become artistic director, so it was an exciting time,” recalls Hough. “There were a lot of people to look up to and learn from.” Her career progressed quickly: She joined the corps at 19, became a soloist at 22 and a principal at 24. Yet though she was regularly dancing Jirí Kylián, Lucinda Childs and William Forsythe, she was being passed over for classical parts. In 2005, she saw a chance to prove her classical skills by entering the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. She performed Aurora’s challenging Act I variation from Sleeping Beauty, winning the bronze medal. It wasn’t long before she was performing Aurora in Boston. “Dancing Aurora,” says Hough, “was the first time I truly believed I was a ballerina.”

 

Even though she began getting more classical roles, Hough still felt frustrated that she couldn’t change the company’s perception of her. Her last year at Boston Ballet was fraught with difficulties, from a failed romance to her first serious injury—labral tears in both hips. She also underwent exploratory stomach surgery for an undiagnosed ailment. “Now the pain is gone,” she says. “My stomach was trying to tell me something.” Even as she declares the decision was the right one, it’s painful to talk about. “It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend, which I did as well. You are sad, angry, regretful. You remember the good times, but come to understand that something was not working,” says Hough. “I felt jaded, unable to function and angry much of the time. It was a difficult choice. But I wasn’t dancing my best. I needed to accept that and move on.”

 

Hough had met Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch when he was an associate artistic director at BalletMet and she’d danced in his production of Don Quixote. “She left an impression,” remembers Welch. They reconnected when both Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet performed at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival in 2008. Intrigued by the prospect of dancing for Welch—and in the same company as her new boyfriend, demi-soloist James Gotesky—Hough sent Welch a DVD. “I was most surprised at her Sleeping Beauty, which was lovely,” says Welch. A conversation ensued, leading to a job offer.

 

Welch hasn’t been disappointed. “Melissa is brave, and fully trusts the choreographic process,” he says. “There’s no resistance or fear. She’s smart, detailed in her thinking, stylistically flexible.”

 

Immediately after the opening weekend, Hough took center stage in Balanchine’s Jewels, dancing “Diamonds” and “Rubies” with blazing gusto. She had earned rave reviews in Boston for Jewels, and was happy to have at least one familiar piece on her plate. “If it weren’t for Jewels, those first few months would have really been hard,” she says. “Balanchine was my saving grace.”

Hough has no regrets about taking a lower rank, and finds she actually performs more often now. “Casting is not so much based on rank here,” she explains. She went from a relatively light rehearsal schedule to one where she’s in everything. “It was a bit of a shock—every dancer here knows 800 parts,” she says. Already, she has learned Welch’s Tu Tu, The Core, Velocity and his full length Marie, as well as three roles—including Aurora—in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty.

 

This May, she returns to familiar territory in Jorma Elo’s new work for Houston Ballet. An original cast member in his signature Brake the Eyes at Boston Ballet, Elo’s highly idiosyncratic choreography—a subtle squiggle of the wrist, a figure eight drawn with the left hip, a birdlike twitch of the head—comes naturally to Hough. “My training in hip-hop and many styles of jazz helps,” says Hough (who still pops into jazz, lyrical and hip-hop classes when a convention like New York City Dance Alliance is in town). “There are so many options with his choreography. I can push the music, channeling the frenetic energy. There’s so much freedom, almost too much.”

 

Even though the repertoire is familiar, transferring to Houston Ballet has given Hough a chance to reinvent herself. “There’s a different attitude toward me in this company,” she says. “This is amazing, not working with a bias. I am breaking my own boundaries. Because to them, I am a ballerina.”

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.








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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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