Expectations can be a heavy burden to bear for a young dancer on the fast track to stardom. Few have justified the hype like the Bolshoi Ballet's 21-year-old Olga Smirnova. The Vaganova-trained first soloist had an international coming out party to remember in London this summer. Her performances in La Bayadère and Swan Lake were the talk of critics and audiences alike, and stepping out on the Covent Garden stage in Balanchine's "Diamonds," Smirnova announced herself as a ballerina of rare natural talent. Tall and expansive, she exudes the old-fashioned, slightly reticent glamour of a balletic Greta Garbo. She made the role her own, combining an aura of regal mystery with instinctive musicality and épaulement. Partnered by the seemingly awed Semyon Chudin, she danced the pas de deux and the faster third and fourth movements with a purity beyond her years. Russian ballet has found itself a new queen. —Laura Cappelle
Karina González has always been a powerhouse in contemporary work. But in Houston Ballet's La Bayadère last season, she proved her mettle in ballet blanc. Her performance brought home why we go to these vintage ballets over and over: to see what a particular dancer can do with a classic role. As Nikiya, González exemplified all that is light and fragile, with a port de bras that was at once fluid and precise. The delicacy of her dancing served as a counterpoint to La Bayadère's excesses. It pulled this old warhorse out of the past, making the ballet's storytelling feel fresh once again. Artistic director Stanton Welch must have thought so too, because he promoted her to principal on opening night. —Nancy Wozny
It took a while for New York to get to know James Whiteside. The American Ballet Theatre principal, who joined the company as a soloist in September 2012, spent much of last season giving polished but cautiously polite performances.
Then he was cast as Don Quixote matador Espada during ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season.
Maybe Whiteside was finally able to shrug off his Met stage nerves. Maybe he had just settled into his ABT groove. Whatever the reason, Espada marked the first time Whiteside registered on the New York ballet world's Richter scale. Though choreographically slight, the part has the potential to be deliciously hammy, and Whiteside made the most of every hair-tossing, cape-twirling moment, finishing each assemblé with an imperious thrust of his chin. Forget polite: Gleefully, unabashedly flamboyant, Whiteside transformed what is sometimes a ho-hum secondary role into a work of high camp. (Fans of his pop-music alter ego, JbDubs, might not have been surprised.) —Margaret Fuhrer
Jon Bond first made waves at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 2007 with a muscular, undulating street-based style. His roots in competition dance and work in music videos gave his movements a pop-culture sheen. Yet after six years working with Cedar Lake's rotating roster of world-class choreographers, Bond has matured beautifully. An underlying grace now weaves itself into his physical ferocity. When he took the stage at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer in the opening beats of Crystal Pite's Grace Engine, his clipped shuffle felt watchful, weighted—above all, controlled. At times, his solos seemed modest and tense; elsewhere, his reactions were explosive. Yet his movement was specific throughout: He's become lighter on his feet, and utterly mesmerizing. —Rachel F. Elson
The Cast of Soirée Musicale
New York City Ballet is known for giving even its greenest talents big opportunities—and for a young NYCB dancer, getting a featured role in a gala performance is equivalent to being anointed a future star. This year, the company's spring gala marked the arrival of the whole cast of Christopher Wheeldon's Soirée Musicale. Nearly all of the work's 10 featured dancers were either new to the company (Indiana Woodward, Peter Walker, Harrison Ball) or newly promoted (Lauren Lovette, Chase Finlay, Taylor Stanley, Brittany Pollack); all of them were very young. But they gave the kinds of full, well-considered performances usually associated with seasoned veterans. Leading the remarkable ensemble were Lovette and Finlay, who closed the ballet with a new pas de deux, tailored to them by Wheeldon. It was a grown-up duet—glamorous, poignant, achingly romantic—and we watched the two of them become adults onstage. —Margaret Fuhrer
Audiences have long adored Jermel Johnson for his power and precision in Pennsylvania Ballet's more virtuosic repertoire. But who knew that just below the surface was a sophisticated elegance waiting to come out in more subtle roles? As Phlegmatic in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments Johnson magnetized not with his terrific jumps, but with the silken unfurling of his limbs, the fleetness of his développés and the refined architectures of his full form. He commanded the stage with a quality that hovered between neutral and ravishingly sensual. Mr. B would have approved. Johnson's swift rise at Pennsylvania Ballet from apprentice (2004) to principal (2012) has been thrilling to witness, and this new maturity has deepened his already compelling artistry. —Lisa Kraus
Bolshoi Ballet principal Evgenia Obraztsova has been a muse for French choreographer Pierre Lacotte since she created his reconstruction of Ondine at the Mariinsky Ballet in 2006. Their creative relationship reached a new milestone with his version of La Sylphide, which Obraztsova, a born Sylph, first performed with Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet in 2011. Last summer, she was invited to repeat it in the mecca of French ballet: the Paris Opéra. The result was an exquisite, career-defining performance by a rare artist. Obraztsova's command of the intricate French style was effortless; she breezed through Lacotte's ornate footwork and balances with gossamer grace, and imbued this quintessentially French ballet with a distinctly Russian perfume. She was a Romantic dream with a twist: Unlike Bournonville's Sylphide, this creature of the woods is more femme fatale than ingénue, and like James, the Paris audience was bewitched at first sight. —Laura Cappelle
Sarah Cecilia Griffin
Sarah Cecilia Griffin is that rarest of creatures: a true balletic chameleon. She has both impressive classical technique and also the ability to completely let it go. In choreographer Amy Seiwert's SKETCH 3: Expectations showcase this July, Griffin performed pieces by Val Caniparoli, Marc Brew and Seiwert—seamlessly falling to the floor, crawling and climbing, and rising into the arms of ever-changing partners. Yet when the choreography drew from the classical canon, the 27-year-old revealed impeccably honed attitudes, grands jetés and pirouettes. On pointe or in jazz shoes, she brought emotional intensity that was true to the work, as well as a special something that drew your eye over and over, without her trying to get your attention. Her transitions from one extreme to the other appeared effortless, and the effect was simply thrilling. —Claudia Bauer
In the wrong hands, Sir Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs can easily devolve into an old-fashioned cliché. There are the matching bonnets, the postcard-pretty set, the dancers pretending to ice skate, the choreographed “falls." But when Sarasota Ballet performed this 1930s one-act at Ballet Across America, there wasn't a speck of dust on it. Under the direction of “Sir Fred" devotee Iain Webb, the dancers of this small Florida troupe have become exquisite interpreters of Ashton's works. In Les Patineurs, they giddily lit up the stage, bringing distinct personalities to each scene without ever becoming saccharine. All of the choreography's gliding, spinning and grinning felt completely natural—and as exciting as if it had been choreographed yesterday. —Jennifer Stahl
Glamour and humor are an invincible combination. When American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko glided out of the wings as the diva ballerina Vera Baronova in the Encores! revival of On Your Toes, balletomanes in the audience did a double take. The swan queen extraordinaire had transformed into a slinky vamp with a libido to equal her ego. On Your Toes marked Balanchine's first full Broadway show back in the 1930s; in its famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" climax, the hoofer and the ballerina-turned-stripper literally dance for their lives. Dvorovenko didn't merely triumph in Balanchine's homage to burlesque; she brought a wicked sense of fun to her fishnets. And she handled the show's risqué dialogue with a deadpan delivery that theater veterans would envy. A Broadway star had been born. —Hanna Rubin