In four short years, Patricia Barker has rebuilt Grand Rapids Ballet’s repertoire and reinvigorated the company.

 

Underneath Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker’s million-watt smile lies an unyielding determination to realize her artistic visions. So when friend Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, unexpectedly died before he could introduce her to fellow author Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express and Jumanji), Barker took it upon herself to visit Van Allsburg’s Massachusetts home to convince the Grand Rapids native to help design GRB’s newNutcracker production. When Van Allsburg was reluctant to venture down that well-traveled road, Barker convinced him otherwise. The resulting 2014 premiere proved a seminal moment in the company’s history.

It was with that same determination that the first-time artistic director vaulted GRB from a largely unknown regional company in Michigan to one in the national spotlight in less than four years. Born in Richland, Washington, Barker studied at the Boston Ballet School and at Pacific Northwest Ballet School before joining PNB in 1981. She became a principal in 1986, starring with the company until her retirement in 2007.

Prior to her taking the reins at GRB in 2010, Barker honed her business and leadership skills as designer/owner of dancewear line BKWear, as a spokesmodel and designer for Bloch Inc. and as an artistic advisor to Slovak National Theatre Ballet. Former PNB founding artistic director Francia Russell had sparked Barker’s desire to direct years earlier, so when GRB’s executive director came calling, she jumped at the opportunity.

Barker drew on all these experiences to turn around the in-debt, 16-member troupe she inherited from outgoing director Gordon Peirce Schmidt. The 38-year-old company came with a then-struggling school (however, alumni include New York City Ballet principal Maria Kowroski) and the Meijer-Royce Center for Dance that houses the studios, administrative offices and a 300-seat theater. But when Schmidt left, he took the 50 ballets he had created for the company with him.

Barker installed a new repertoire that includes classics, such as Swan Lake and Balanchine works, and modernized versions of story ballets, like Mario Radacovsky’sRomeo & Juliet and Olivier Wevers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A slew of new contemporary works by noted choreographers, including Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Brian Enos and Robyn Mineko Williams, rounds out the repertoire.

Today, Michigan’s only professional ballet company regularly sells out its home performances, and this year it is completing a $2.5 million capital campaign, having already received a $1 million endowment. The funds will be used to make the company debt-free, help pay for its new Nutcracker and provide a cash reserve for future projects.

Those successes have also meant a huge increase in dancers wanting to join the now 33-member unranked company. Barker does things a bit differently than most: There are no divisions of labor among GRB’s 5 trainees, 6 apprentices and 22 company members. “They all train together and compete for the same roles,” says Barker. The classifications are primarily for designating salaries. “I want all the dancers to feel they have a chance at a great role and to have work created on them, and I want choreographers to be inspired by the dancers in front of them,” says Barker.

Senior company member Laura McQueen Schultz, 32, says that ensemble approach keeps her on her toes. Though she has been with the company since 2003, Schultz says Barker’s arrival revitalized her interest in GRB and ballet. “Artistically, I am being challenged much more now, and the number of choreographers I have worked with since she arrived has skyrocketed,” she says.

One of only four dancers left from the prior regime, Schultz now describes the company as more international and the atmosphere more amiable and professional. She says Barker is approachable, yet firm when she needs to be, and a coach who instills confidence. “It’s like I got to dance in a new company without moving,” says Schultz.

In May, the company will premiere Radacovsky’s Beethoven. The contemporary story ballet, created in collaboration with the Czech National Ballet Brno, takes its inspiration from the women who inspired the iconic composer and his music.

Now with its rich new repertoire, Barker says the company is built for touring. GRB currently performs throughout Michigan and appeared at a St. Louis festival last summer, and Barker is in talks with presenters both nationally and abroad about future opportunities. “What continues to drive me is not only helping this organization to thrive and be noticed,” she says, “but for us to become Michigan’s number-one arts export.”

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If you're in the NYC area and are in need of weekend plans, you might want to consider heading to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Jean-Stéphane Bron's documentary, The Paris Opéra. While the film was originally released in France this past spring, it just made its way to the US on October 18th, and it chronicles the 2015-2016 season at the Paris Opera.

Encompassing the entire institution (which was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV!), dancers will particularly enjoy an inside look at the Paris Opéra Ballet—both in rehearsals and onstage. Most notably, Bron captures the then POB director Benjamin Millepied as he decides to leave his position with the company barely a year after his appointment.

Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

Your Training
Thinkstock.

Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

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New York City Ballet in Marc Chagall's costume designs for Balanchine's "Firebird."

I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.

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Tiler Peck in "Who Cares?". Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and Emmy-winning actress Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men and Handmaid's Tale fame) may seem like unlikely friends, until you dig a little deeper into their backgrounds. Both attended Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica and spent summers at the School of American Ballet in their youths. Moss and Peck's career paths diverged when the former fell in love with acting and Peck went on to study at SAB full time, eventually becoming the star we know today. Now, the pairs' artistic pursuits are uniting in an exciting new project.

According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


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Your Best Body

Looking for creative and healthy ways to get your pumpkin fix this fall? First, back away from the pumpkin-spiced latte—the season's unofficial drink is often laced with sugary syrup and comes with a complimentary mid-rehearsal crash. Instead, try these simple snacks with puréed pumpkin. It's high in beta-carotene, which converts to immunity-boosting vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin K, iron and fiber. You can buy it canned or make the purée from a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin (they're commonly available at grocery stores or farm markets).

Fruit-and-Spice Toast

- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

- Top with sliced pear.

- Add a dash of cinnamon.

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Pointe Stars

When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
P.O. Alienz in Lavender Leotard; Paulina Waski modelling a Kreature Kulture t-shirt. Photos Courtesy Paulina Waski.

Walk into any ballet class and you're bound to see a row of dancers clad in leotards patterned with dainty flowers and lace. But nearly three years ago, American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski wore a very different kind of leotard to class—and her colleagues loved it. Now an average day at ABT includes any number of dancers in leotards featuring angry aliens, detached eyeballs and grinning monsters.

"My dad, John, is an artist, and he draws all these crazy creatures," Waski explains. "One year he did what he called his paper plate project; he drew a new creature onto a paper plate every single day for 365 days. I thought, 'he should put one on a leotard!' He screen printed one onto one of my old leotards himself, and when I wore it to class everyone was wowed." And so, Kreature Kulture was born.


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