The life of an emerging choreographer can be stressful. You’re trying to make a name for yourself, to establish your own distinct voice, to earn and then juggle multiple commissions. But some dancemakers struggle with more than choreographer’s block: They also dance with major companies. And many are corps de ballet dancers, workhorses who perform in nearly every show.

For most, one job will eventually eclipse the other. Usually, the pull of choreography proves stronger than that of performing—especially if a promotion up the company ranks isn’t in the cards—and the artist retires from dancing to focus on creating work. But for a few years in these ambitious dancer-choreographers’ lives, the worry is less about work/life balance than work/work balance.

What motivates a dancer in his or her prime to choreograph? Often it doesn’t feel like a choice. “Making work is something that’s been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember,” says New York City Ballet corps member Justin Peck, who has been choreographing for four years and is working on his first piece for NYCB. “I tried to be practical; initially I thought I should focus on dancing now, when I could, and choreograph later. But I felt compelled to choreograph. I have a lot of visions that I’m hungry to realize.”

Artistic directors, who might reasonably be leery of choreographic projects that could distract dancers from their performing responsibilities, are impressed by that kind of drive. Outgoing Royal Ballet director Monica Mason had no hesitations about taking a chance on corps member Liam Scarlett. She asked the then­–24-year-old to choreograph a main-stage ballet for The Royal Ballet after seeing a few of the pieces he had made for the company’s “Draft Works” workshop. “There was something about Liam’s thoughts, the way he chose his cast and worked with them—he was so confident that there was no anxiety about giving him the opportunity,” Mason says. “Psychologically he was ready.”

When a young dancer steps to the front of the room as choreographer, the studio dynamic undergoes an interesting shift. “It’s like the first day of school, that first rehearsal,” says Emery LeCrone, who dances with The Metropolitan Opera ballet company and has made works on members of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. “I have to think about projecting confidence, rather than getting hung up on the fact that the dancers I’m working with have had longer careers than I have.”

The role reversal is especially pronounced when dancers make ballets on their own companies. “It can be a little weird initially,” Peck says of choreographing on his colleagues. NYCB principal Janie Taylor worked closely with Peck on a video for the designer Chloé for The Block magazine last year. In one sense, she says, the project was easier than working with an unfamiliar choreographer, since she and Peck are friends. “But as a dancer of any level, you understand your place in the room,” she adds. “We always want to earn the respect of the person who’s in charge! I know not to take advantage of a friendship.” Taylor also appreciates artists like Peck because they can do everything they’re asking her to do. “I work better when a choreographer can show me exactly what he or she wants,” she says.

A dancer-choreographer has certain advantages when he’s making work on his own company, too. Being able to tailor the movement to the dancers is one. “I’ve been watching some of the NYCB dancers onstage and in class for 10 years now, so I know how to harness their strengths,” Peck says. Understanding the requirements of the company’s venue is another. Mason is impressed by the way Scarlett is able to make use of the cavernous Covent Garden stage. “It’s the theater he’s grown up in,” she says. “He has an insider’s grasp on its proportions and scope.”

As dancers, artists like LeCrone, Peck and Scarlett have front-row seats to other choreographers’ rehearsals. “Whenever I’m working with a choreographer at NYCB, in the back of my mind I’m taking notes,” Peck says. “You can’t learn how to make a ballet, but you can learn how to run a rehearsal.” And when he’s the one leading the rehearsal, he feels in tune with his dancers’ needs. “Sometimes choreographers come in and it seems like they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a dancer, how hard it is,” Peck says. “But I’m still going through it. So I try to be sensitive to how my dancers are feeling, who is hurting, who’s had a long day.”

Challenges aside, dancer-choreographers are lucky, LeCrone says, to have it both ways. “While I still can, I need to dance and to choreograph, because they’re both fulfilling,” she says. “You have your right and left brain turned on at all times.”

Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

There was total silence by the end of English National Ballet's first go at Pina Bausch's raw Rite of Spring, and much of the performance's success came down to a tiny dancer: Francesca Velicu. Handpicked to be The Chosen One, the Romanian corps member threw herself into the role with an innocence that made the ritual newly terrifying. "It brought me the most intense and emotional moments that I'll ever experience onstage," she says.

At just 19, Velicu is already walking in the footsteps of ballet's reigning Romanian star, her ENB colleague Alina Cojocaru. Born in Bucharest, Velicu earned top finishes at Youth America Grand Prix and completed her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 2015, she joined the Romanian National Ballet under Johan Kobborg, who fast-tracked her: In one season, she danced Kitri, Theme and Variations and numerous soloist roles, honing her effervescent technique with breezy confidence.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Alana Griffith in "La Sylphide." Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet/

Rising lazily from an armchair, shrugging her shoulders and limply snapping her arms side to side, Alana Griffith imbued the title role in Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) with the unmistakable boredom and longing of youth. Throughout the performance, her ability to bring personal depth to both the character and to Webre's challenging choreography revealed a special dancer coming into her own as an artist.

Alana Griffith in "ALICE (in wonderland)". Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Screenshot from CNN Style video

While ballet may feel female-dominated in that there are plenty of onstage opportunities for women, key behind-the-scenes roles like choreographer and artistic director are still largely held by men—a point that is increasingly being raised and questioned in the dance world thanks to female choreographers like Crystal Pite and Charlotte Edmonds. Also helping to break that mold is rising female choreographer Kristen McNally, who not only choreographed a recent duet for CNN Style, but also paired two women to bring it to life.

In the short film, which features McNally's choreo and is directed by Andrew Margetson, Royal Ballet first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell and principal Yasmine Naghdi changed the expectations on gender roles in ballet—and the end result is awesome. Nearly identical in appearance, the dancers' movements and lines also mirror each other throughout the piece, even when dancing in canon. Even more impressively, McNally told CNN Style, "The dancers and I did two rehearsals and then we shot the film."

Check out the full duet for yourself, below.

Photo by Lambtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you superglue your vamp? I am new to pointe and don't know where to apply it. —Amanda

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars

The tambourine variation from La Esmeralda is a competition favorite, but the full pas de deux isn't seen as often. That's a shame, because it contains some of the most technically challenging classical choreography to be found. In this video, Yuan Yuan Tan and Felipe Diaz take on this balletic feat with amazing power and ease.

Tan, who was awarded a permanent contract with San Francisco Ballet after performing this role as a guest artist in 1995, is a youthful but commanding presence. Her extensions crawl right up to her ear, and she rises from deep lunges en pointe to arabesque without ever seeming to get tired. After an endless series of promenades (4:00), Tan again lunges low to the floor and then teasingly runs away from Diaz, inviting him to follow her. In her variation, she oozes gypsy spunk, enticing the audience with dramatic details. She takes the variation at a quick pace, blending each movement smoothly into the next.

Diaz, who was a soloist with SFB and is now a ballet master for the company, shines in his own right. The adagio reveals his partnering prowess. From 2:15—2:35, Diaz supports Tan almost continuously in a string of carries and lifts–and his variation is chock full of bravura. All the way through the coda, the technical fireworks in this pas de deux never stop coming. We can't get enough! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Tanaquil Le Clercq at the 1967 book signing. Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been known for her long-limbed dancing and versatile grace, but it turns out that her renown didn't end there. In 1967 the former New York City Ballet star published The Ballet Cook Book, a mix of ballet history, food stories and the pièce de résistance: recipes collected from over 90 famous NYCB dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine (her then husband), Jacques d'Amboise, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.

Why bring this up now? This year marks the 50th anniversary of her book's publication, and in celebration, food scholar Meryl Rosofsky is curating a program exploring the context of the book. Held on November 5 and 6 at the Guggenheim Museum, the program will include live performance excerpts with roles originated by Ballet Cook Book contributors including Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Bugaku, Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony as well as a panel conversation with d'Amboise and Kent (both of whom were at the original book signing) as well as current NYCB principals Jared Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, both talented cooks.That certainly seems like plenty of excitement to us, but attendees can also stop into the Guggneheim's Wright Restaurant to taste select dishes from The Ballet Cook Book including Le Clercq's Chicken Vermouth, Balanchine's Slow Beet Borschok, Hayden's Potato Latkes and Kent's Walnut Apple Cake.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio to Street

Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.

Keep reading... Show less





Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!