Agon. The Goldberg Variations. In the Upper Room. We hear these titles today and think, “Classics.” But at what point does a ballet achieve that status?

For Peter Boal, when the ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, almost instantly. “I had a really strong reaction to that work,” says Boal of first seeing DSCH at New York City Ballet, shortly after its 2008 premiere. “It felt as fresh as some of the Robbins premieres that I’d seen, some of the Balanchine premieres I’d seen. It tapped into humor. It had strong classical technique and elements of experimentation. It used the ensemble incredibly well. I felt like I was seeing one of the greats unveiled.”

It wasn’t long before Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, brought the brisk, bright, architectural work to PNB, presenting it on a mixed bill titled Contemporary 4 in 2011. The Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald greeted the program with a simple request, echoing the rave reviews that DSCH had received in New York: “More Ratmansky, please.”

Every generation has its classics. Ratmansky is one of a handful of contemporary choreographers making ballets that, if their rapturous reception and increasingly global presence are any indication, might prove to be the classics of tomorrow. Right up there with DSCH—which, in addition to its Seattle run, has traveled overseas to the Mariinsky Ballet and La Scala—are Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Fourteen companies in six countries, have acquired Polyphonia since New York City Ballet first performed it in 2001. Chroma, which premiered in 2006 at The Royal Ballet, has entered the repertories of San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet and, most recently, Alvin Ailey. Whether we’ll call these “classics” decades from now remains to be seen. But at the very least, as Ib Andersen, the artistic director of Ballet Arizona, puts it, “They have legs.”

Which raises a simple question: Why? What accounts for how widely these ballets are performed, for their appeal to artistic directors in search of new repertory? Is it some objective “greatness”? Or more practical assets, like the ease and efficiency of producing them? Is it the excitement they bring to audiences, the artistic challenge they offer dancers?

In the case of Polyphonia, all of the above. At once strident and playful, the 10-section work, set to Ligeti piano pieces, shuttles eight dancers between demanding solos, duets and trios. The costumes are spare—a nod to Balanchine’s “leotard ballets”—and the set nonexistent, save for a muted backdrop, letting the eye focus in on the blade-like mechanics of the body. As Wheeldon says, “It’s low on production and high on dance, which makes it easy to stage yet a rich experience for both audience and dancer. Plus it offers eight dancers soloist roles.”

And not just any roles, but richly layered ones: “Each dance has its own little story,” Wheeldon adds, “so it demands dancers with a great sense of theater and imagination in order to transcend the technical demands of the choreography.” He observes that the ballet “seems to take pleasure in new interpretations. It allows the individuals to shine and their own personal character to come out.”

“It has good bones,” says Andersen, who brought Polyphonia to Ballet Arizona in 2009. “It’s structured in such a way that your mind keeps itself busy. It is not so predictable—there aren’t many choreographers who are not predictable after a while.”

That sense of invention also impressed Boal, who brought the work to PNB—the company’s first taste of Wheeldon—in 2007. “It’s interesting when you feel like you can see the world in just eight bodies,” Boal adds. “Polyphonia really runs a gamut of expression and unexpected form. You think there’s only so much you can do with two legs and two arms, but Chris came up with a whole lot more.” Like Wheeldon, he notes that the ballet “wears its multiple casts well,” suiting new dancers as much as its original interpreters. 

McGregor’s Chroma, with its barely-there beige costumes and austere set by the British architect John Pawson, may also seem “low on production”—but deceptively so, says Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, which gave Chroma its U.S. premiere in 2011. “You can call it minimalist,” Tomasson says of Pawson’s set, which frames the stage with three towering white walls, one open at the back to serve as an entryway for the 10 dancers. But despite the “linear and clean” aesthetic, he explains, “it’s very complicated to put up.”
As, too, is McGregor’s famously pliant choreography, which prods the body into creaturely realms, often thrusting dancers into sensuous confrontations. “He really challenges and stretches the dancers, bends them—you name it,” Tomasson says. “He has them going into positions that, again, we don’t normally see the body going into—like a rubber doll sometimes.”

“It’s not easy dancing, and it took them a little while,” he adds, referring to the dancers cast in the piece, “but they got it.” Joby Talbot’s clashing, brass-heavy score was difficult in a different sense: not something that Tomasson would “sit down and listen to on its own,” he says. Layered with McGregor’s preening, elastic movement, though, it clicked: “I felt the score fit very well what he was doing. They came together.”
For the moment, Chroma, Polyphonia and Concerto DSCH have a broad appeal—which also stems from what they offer even the most accomplished dancers: a steep challenge. But for Tomasson, the term “new classic” inspires some skepticism. “It’s fantastic. It’s very now,” he says of Chroma. “Will it be very now in 20 years?” Andersen takes a similar stance. What makes something a classic? “Time,” he replies. “Time, time, time.”

Siobhan Burke is a New York dance writer. She contributes frequently to
The New York Times and Dance Magazine.






















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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

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If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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