Dancer: Shira Lanyi
Company: Richmond Ballet
Performance: Malcolm Burn’s Romeo & Juliet
Shira Lanyi captured her audience’s heart as Juliet last February. She breathed the young heroine’s innocent ardor into every moment. Whether dancing or still, she revealed Juliet’s many facets: Holding hands with Romeo (Kirk Henning) before their first pas de deux, she displayed an awkward shyness. Standing close to her lover, her body quivered with emotion. For Lanyi, dancing Juliet was a dream—it’s her favorite ballet, her favorite Shakespeare play. In terms of the technique, she says, “I am strong, but I’m not a prodigy—it was nice to have a challenge like Romeo & Juliet. If ballet were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.” —Lea Marshall
Dancer: Marianela Nuñez
Company: The Royal Ballet
Performance: Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto
Marianela Nuñez has always been cast in the sunniest roles of The Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Promoted to principal in 2002 at barely 20, she’s a natural in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée or as Coppélia’s carefree Swanilda. Her instinctive musicality and extraordinary control, however, have long hinted that there was more. Last March, Nuñez finally came into her own dancing the second movement pas de deux of Kenneth MacMillan’s plotless Concerto, in a performance filmed for DVD release. Her trademark smile gave way to a reflective gaze. Her creamy, full-bodied phrasing blossomed in the central adagio; the simplicity of the choreography allowed Nuñez to seemingly expand in the arms of her partner Rupert Pennefather, every movement radiating from deep in her back, her limbs serenely articulating Shostakovitch’s soulful score. By the end, the eager young dancer was forgotten, and a consummate ballerina was born. —Laura Cappelle
Dancer: Lucien Postlewaite
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Performance: Ulysses Dove’s Serious Pleasures
Year after perfect year, PNB principal Lucien Postlewaite has captivated audiences, delivering soaring leaps, long lines, grace, charm and musicality. This year, as the Narrator in Serious Pleasures, he revealed another talent: the ability to externalize extreme psychological complexity. “I wanted to show the tension of the Narrator’s male/female duality,” says Postlewaite. “How he is torn between those two aspects, fighting it and being it—the androgynous being.” The result was riveting. Of course, this magnetic dancer met the role’s technical challenges, bolting out of darkness, pirouetting into blinding light, corkscrewing up from knees to knuckles and back to knees, holding off-balance balances, controlling extensions and slow falls. His openness and vulnerability, however, lent layers to this overtly sexual piece and revealed its poignant humanity. Specific and subtle, through movement rather than by acting, Postlewaite created a dream world onstage. —Rosie Gaynor
Dancer: Ivan Vasiliev
Company: Bolshoi Ballet
Performance: Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus
As the impassioned slave leader in Spartacus last February at the Kennedy Center, Ivan Vasiliev exploded through a series of split leaps, his back arched in passionate tenacity. Although Vasiliev’s shorter, stockier body and bulky legs might not be considered “princely” to some purists, that same physique (along with loads of talent) helps to propel the Bolshoi star through seemingly impossible bravura feats. But his performance was more than a flashy pyrotechnic show. In addition to endless jumps, turns and strenuous partnering, the role demanded incredible command, drama and earthiness. He tackled each element with relish. Long touted as the Bolshoi’s Next Big Thing, Vasiliev was at his best in Spartacus, making clear the vast extent of his potential. He proved he is not only a prodigious whiz kid from the competition circuit, but he’s also capable of substantial artistic depth—all by the age of 21. —Amy Brandt
Dancer: Sara Mearns
Company: New York City Ballet
Performance: Peter Martins’ The Sleeping Beauty
Sara Mearns is New York City Ballet’s resident powerhouse: She attacks ballets with a thrilling, near-reckless abandon. For most of her career, her onstage authority has stemmed from that willingness, sadly rare among ballerinas, to take risks. Yet one of her most striking performances this year was as the delicate, lyrical Lilac Fairy. Though Mearns was as fearless as ever—she stepped into several extended balances in arabesque with what seemed like no preparation at all—she managed to tame her inner wild animal, showing new refinement in her port de bras and a precise but unstudied clarity in her lower body. You began to notice the luscious pliability of her demi-pointe, the delicate placement of her fingers. She willed, rather than demanded, that we watch her. —Margaret Fuhrer
Dancer: Cesar Corrales
Performance: Billy Elliot
Out of the four lads cast in the role of Billy, Cesar Corrales was the one given the honor—and immense responsibility—of performing on opening night of the national touring production last winter in Chicago. In a role director Stephen Daldry confesses “puts so much weight on such little shoulders,” the soulful 13-year-old (now 14) displayed exceptionally fine ballet technique as well as a grand command of the show’s formidable acting and singing requirements. “I was really nervous,” he confesses, “but I calmed myself down by getting into Billy mode, thinking about how my mom had died and my dad was about to go on strike.” Partnering with former Joffrey dancer Samuel Pergande, who played his adult incarnation in the dream ballet, Corrales flew high, landed every pirouette and tap danced and back-flipped his way to a long standing ovation. —Hedy Weiss
Dancer: Dusty Button
Company: Birmingham Royal Ballet
Performance: Misha Gabriel and Teddy Forance’s Bulletproof
Last summer at the Capezio ACE Awards, Dusty Button, currently a member of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, tore up the stage in Bulletproof, choreographed by two future giants of commercial dance, Misha Gabriel and Teddy Forance. Onstage, Button—the lone classicist in a cast of 20 contemporary/hip-hop dancers—was electric. In a glow-in-the-dark red unitard and ballet slippers, she sliced her long limbs through the black-lit space with fierce dynamic and volume. Her precise ballet technique created the perfect canvas for Bulletproof’s edgy movements. “Teddy doesn’t work with ballet dancers, usually, and I haven’t done contemporary in forever, so to be able to collaborate was a really amazing process,” Button says. “And the feedback I got from the other hip-hop and contemporary dancers was great! They were so respectful of what I do.” —Kate Lydon
Dancers: Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Performance: Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream
In the forest at night, boundaries disappear. This is the world of The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s one-act version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For love to triumph and day to break, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, must put aside their quarrels and dance together. In ABT’s production last May, their pas de deux never seemed more teasingly seductive. David Hallberg’s coolly imperious Oberon, his every step filled with authority, reclaimed his queen tenderly with each lift. Gillian Murphy’s playful, radiant Titania swooped into his arms with joy. “The choreography is like a shiver going through them,” says Murphy. “They are just electrified being next to each other.” The two principals turned to the play to see how Ashton had put the poetry into the steps. “Oberon and Titania are a part of nature, of something bigger,” says Murphy. “They are reveling in each other and in the magic and mystery of the woods.” No wonder, then, that their performance brimmed with barely contained excitement. Each step seemed an intimate promise, a glimpse into an enchanted realm of desire where the best dreams never end. —Hanna Rubin
Dancer: Xiao Nan Yu
Company: National Ballet of Canada
Performance: John Cranko’s Onegin
Ballerinas often look back over a career to pinpoint those special performances when everything clicked. National Ballet of Canada principal Xiao Nan Yu will remember June 19 as such an occasion. Yu received a tumultuous ovation reprising the role of Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin on opening night of NBC’s new, much anticipated Santo Loquasto–designed production. In 2000, Tatiana was Yu’s first full-length role, a dazzling debut that established her as a dance-actress of enormous potential. A decade later that promise was fully realized. Yu, 32, partnered by Jirí Jelinek, melded acting and dancing into a blazing expressive unity, every step and gesture contributing to a richly nuanced portrait. Yu says marriage and motherhood now give her greater insight into Tatiana’s predicament, torn between duty and passion. Recalling the climactic scene in which she rejects Onegin’s entreaties, Yu says it was “an unforgettably emotional moment.” —Michael Crabb
Dancer: Yumelia Garcia
Company: The Joffrey Ballet
Performance: Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella
In her sublime performance in the title role of Ashton’s Cinderella, Yumelia Garcia deftly transformed herself from neglected, motherless girl to dreamy princess. She also evoked vivid memories of Margot Fonteyn, for whom the role was created. Petite and ideally proportioned, Garcia resembles Fonteyn physically (though she possesses far more dazzling technique). She also breathed like Fonteyn, with a sort of calm, understated ease and effortless charm. This was no accident. Garcia was coached in the role by Wendy Somes, widow of Michael Somes, Fonteyn’s frequent partner at The Royal Ballet. Garcia admits she struggled to put her own identity on such a meticulously prescribed role. “The choreography is quite simple, but very English and proper and specific, with prohibitions against changing even the slightest arm movement,” Garcia says, noting that the role requires great purity and honesty. “I made breathing part of what I devised so that I could be calm and in the moment, like life.” —Hedy Weiss
Luz San Miguel, Milwaukee Ballet principal, in Michael Pink’s Peter Pan: San Miguel found Tinkerbell’s dramatic edge and danced the role with panache. The choreography popped whenever she was onstage.
Maki Onuki, Washington Ballet member, in Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero: The company’s tiny spitfire seemed to stretch her legs beyond the natural limits of the human body, hitting each position with a fierce, yet seductive intensity.
Christopher Vo in Lar Lubovitch’s Dogs of War: Vo brought a supple grace to the brutish, mechanical physicality of the choreography, tempering its violence with tenderness. He was a soldier with a soul.
Karina Gonzalez at Ballet Across America, in Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero: Graceful and feminine in her final performance with Tulsa Ballet, Gonzales added dramatic depth and natural dignity to Duato’s abstract piece.
Rachel Foster, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist, in Twyla Tharp’s Opus 111: Foster moved so earnestly and with such complete commitment that it looked like her body was speaking. She was raw, fearless and riveting.
Daniel Ulbricht, New York City Ballet principal, in Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna: A Grand Divertissment: Ulbricht got a chance to show off his virtuosity with six uniformly high center-split jetés, each 180-degree straddle sharply etched. A grand diversion, indeed!