Ballet Stars

The Best of the Best: Our Top 10 Performances of 2014

McRae in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Rhapsody." Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

Steven McRae

The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae danced with a power and speed most people would need figure skates to achieve at Covent Garden in February, but the amplitude of his chaînés, barrel turns and rivoltades was just the icing on the cake during his finely calibrated performance in Sir Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody. Dancing the lead role originally made for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the 28-year-old Aussie also excelled in the small gestures and precise positional details for which Ashton's work is known. McRae says the music, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is the key to balancing athleticism and artistry in the piece. “It's easy to get caught up in the technical demands of the choreography," he says. “However, when you really listen to the music, something magical starts to happen." The same can be said for the moment when this dynamic and versatile principal takes the stage. —Michael Northrop

Gomes and Vishneva in "Giselle." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Diana Vishneva & Marcelo Gomes

One of the biggest thrills of Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes' longtime partnership at American Ballet Theatre is its ability to transcend to greater heights each season. It was ever apparent in their performance of Giselle last June. While they've performed the roles together in years past, familiarity and experience have allowed them to bring deeper richness to their characters. Vishneva's Giselle was shy and vulnerable, coming out of her shell gradually in response to Albrecht's affections until she almost seemed to burst with joy. Meanwhile, Gomes—a cocksure but lovable Albrecht—grew more and more smitten with his conquest. Once his ruse was discovered, you sensed not only Giselle's disbelief but her painfully public humiliation, making her breakdown all the more understandable and heartbreaking. In Act II, Vishneva was otherworldly in her lightness, accentuated further through Gomes' reverential, seamless partnering. Together they drew the audience into their story and held them, spellbound. —Amy Brandt

Walsh in "Swan Lake." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Connor Walsh

When Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh first danced Siegfried in the premiere of Stanton Welch's fast-paced, dreamy version of Swan Lake in 2006, he was technically impressive, holding his own with the elegant Barbara Bears. But watching him reprise the role some eight years later, it became clear just how much he has grown. It's as if his edges have become sharper—not just technically but in all aspects of his artistry; he's developed a distinctly refined performance polish. There's ample heart behind his princely swagger now. Walsh's noble command of the stage, solid virtuosity and well-tempered bravado all add up to one convincing prince. His involvement in the ballet's original creation process, along with added years of experience, certainly helped deepen his interpretation. The HB principal is moving into his own, and his performance in Swan Lake provided the evidence. —Nancy Wozny

Lantratov and Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi.

Bolshoi Ballet

It was a gamble on all sides: a new, full-length Taming of the Shrew by a foreign choreographer at the Bolshoi Ballet, just over a year after the acid attack on Sergei Filin. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo's Jean-Christophe Maillot, who was creating his first ballet for an outside company in two decades, proved undaunted, and the result was a team effort that showed the Bolshoi's young generation in a new light. Each of the 10 soloist roles was choreographed with and for the first cast, from Vladislav Lantratov to Olga Smirnova, Vyacheslav Lopatin and Anna Tikhomirova, channeling their offstage personalities to show a new facet of their talent; their bold classical technique was in evidence throughout yet colored by the spontaneous, naturalistic approach Maillot favors. It was the Bolshoi as the world loves it, with a modern edge—and the Shrew herself, principal Ekaterina Krysanova, led the pack with a nuanced, career-defining performance, her power matched by a new abandon. —Laura Cappelle

Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Chloe Felesina

In the BalletX premiere Sunset, o639 Hours, Chloe Felesina danced front and center, with an abandon, fire and precision that made her riveting. The dreamlike adventure tale, choreographed for 10 dancers by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, was based on the true story of Captain Edwin Musick's ill-fated Honolulu-to-Auckland flight in 1938. As the famous pilot's wife, and in her other roles in the ballet, Felesina's depth of feeling was matched by a robust agility. She shone in scenes portraying the couple's romance, the island life of New Zealand and her solitary bereavement.

Even though her medium height and fine features make her look delicate, she's a powerhouse: at the front of the pack in floor-rolling unisons and sparkling in Neenan's inventive partnering. A full-time company member since 2012, Felesina relishes deciphering each choreographer's intent and seeking more ways to communicate strongly with her audience. In Sunset, o639 Hours, her approach worked: You couldn't take your eyes off her. —Lisa Kraus

Rocas with Rory Hohenstein in "Romeo & Juliet." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.

Christine Rocas

A couple of years back, Joffrey Ballet dancer Christine Rocas confessed: “I'm always scared to do modern things…I try to be spontaneous, but I know I look funny at first."

Rocas, 28, definitely didn't look “funny" in her opening night performance of Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet in Chicago this past April. And Pastor's take on the story was supremely contemporary—not at all like the Kenneth MacMillan or John Cranko versions for which Rocas' lyrical, weightlessly lovely style would have been a perfect fit. In fact, as Juliet, Rocas seized hold of Pastor's starkly modern, sweepingly cinematic reinvention, which used 20th-century Italian history as a backdrop. Masterful in her embrace of the ballet's mix of difficult classical and contemporary technique, she revealed a powerful, highly individualistic, surprisingly dramatic talent.

Her performance had genuine star quality, with pristinely beautiful dancing and fiercely honest acting in evidence from the moment, early on, when she simply walked around the perimeter of the stage, quietly fixing her gaze on Romeo. The palpable quickening in Rocas' face and body was a far cry from simple pubescent awakening. This was the dawning of a young woman with a mind of her own. —Hedy Weiss

Arja with Renan Cerdeiro in "Ballo della Regina." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Nathalia Arja

As the recently promoted Miami City Ballet soloist Nathalia Arja can attest, some roles lift dancers to the heights of artistic privilege. While still a corps member last season, Arja—a 21-year-old MCB-school alumna with Rio de Janeiro roots—earned the opportunity to dance the lead in George Balanchine's exquisitely demanding Ballo della Regina. There she was, on opening night no less, fast and fastidious in virtuoso moves: restless changes in direction, riveting hops on pointe, clockwork articulations that teased time itself. “I learned to do what I didn't know I could," says Arja. No small amount of calibration, of course, came from being coached by Merrill Ashley, the New York City Ballet wonder who originated the role. Still, Arja brought strengths she's been honing since dancing the role of Sugar Plum at MCB as a teenager—the verve and knack for detail that also served Alexei Ratmansky when he fashioned a solo on her in Symphonic Dances in 2012. A culmination for many, Ballo figures for Arja as the promise of an ever more thrilling career. —Guillermo Perez

Isaacs with Gonzalo Garcia in "Symphony in C." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Ashly Isaacs

In the third movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C, the leads repeatedly charge onto the stage in a series of grands jetés—irrepressibly buoyant, as if they're more at home in the air than on the ground. In a way, that's a fitting metaphor for New York City Ballet corps member Ashly Isaacs' 2014 season, which saw her star on the rise, achieving greater heights with each successive performance. Her debut as the ballerina in that movement of Symphony showed off not only her preternatural ballon, but also her easy command of the stage. In the wrong dancer's hands (and feet) the always-on-the-go choreography can feel bombastic, but Isaacs colored it sensitively, adding subtle shading to its softer moments. For some years this role has been danced brilliantly by Ashley Bouder; it was hard not to notice the similarities between the two. —Margaret Fuhrer

Hernandez with Gennadi Nedvigin in "Les Lutins." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Esteban Hernandez

Season galas showcase principal dancers at their best, but San Francisco Ballet's 2014 gala also introduced a rising star: Esteban Hernandez. Announced pre-curtain as a replacement for Joan Boada in Johan Kobborg's Les Lutins, the first-year corps member faced high expectations from a demanding audience, who rustled their programs looking for clues about this unfamiliar dancer. But in Lutins, an eight-minute battle of the sexes that requires insouciant charm, clear acting and blistering petit allégro—and falls flat if any one of those is missing—the Mexican-born Hernandez proved his mettle as a Royal Ballet–trained technician and a natural performer, with confidence well beyond his 19 years. Not only did he hold his own opposite Gennadi Nedvigin and soloist Dores André, in those thrilling eight minutes he won 3,500 hearts and became a name to remember. —Claudia Bauer

Thurlow and Sbrizzi rehearsing "Don Quixote." Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

Gabrielle Thurlow & Luca Sbrizzi

When lead casting was announced for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Don Quixote last season, there was a surprising pair included in the mix. While Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi have long been regarded as cornerstones among PBT's ranks, their star power was relatively untested: Thurlow was a longtime corps member and Sbrizzi, a soloist, had been away from the stage nearly nine months following a career-threatening back injury. But they more than delivered. Thurlow entered the first act as an energetic Kitri, all spry jumps and energetic pas de chevals, while Sbrizzi played an earnest Basilio, his admiration for Kitri present in every carefully finished movement. Later, during their brightly executed grand pas de deux, Thurlow brought playful sharpness, breezy turns and balances that said, “I could stay here all day." Sbrizzi's refined technique and bounding jumps lent his Basilio the elegance of a man in love. Following the performance, Thurlow was promoted to soloist and Sbrizzi cemented his place as a leading man after an uncertain season away from the stage. —Kathleen McGuire

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Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

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Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

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Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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Ballet Stars
Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli as Alice and Jack/the Knave of Hearts. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH.

As told to Laura Cappelle.

I knew before Christopher Wheeldon even started Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that he wanted me to create the title role. We made Alice together. We feel like she is our girl! She's charming, witty, tough, curious. She's got a very big heart. She's also spontaneous, which helps the show, because you don't have to be calculated the whole time. You can bounce off the characters you come across, because everyone plays them slightly differently.

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Ballet Careers
Dominic Walsh (right) working with Whim W'him. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art Photography, Courtesy Whim W'him.

Summer is the perfect time for busy dancers to get some much-needed rest after a long season. But it's also a good opportunity to hone your technique. Summer training opportunities for professionals are scarce, although the ones that do exist are pretty great. Now, there is a welcome addition on the horizon that we're excited about.

Choreographer and former Houston Ballet principal Dominic Walsh recently announced that he has teamed up with the Colorado Conservatory of Dance to create the Compass Coaching Project, a two-week intensive for dancers over the age of 17. Held June 4–16 in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, the workshop is specially tailored for those in trainee, second company and apprentice positions. "In today's model of a dancer's profession, there is sometimes a long transition between student and professional," Walsh says in a statement. "I believe this is a crucial time for mentorship." Indeed, a dancer's early career is often marked by anxiety and uncertainty as they spend one or more years in low-paid or unpaid junior ranks.

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