Photos by Joe Toreno


 

When I was 19 years old and in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre, a domino effect of casting changes left me with three days to learn and prepare my first dramatic leading role: Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. There was not enough time to feel overwhelmed, let alone to delve into the nuances of her character. Although diving right in and winging it on willpower is exhilarating, I have learned in the 15 years since that one of my favorite aspects of dancing is the research and emotional decision-making that go into developing a dramatic interpretation. I recently prepared for the role of Giselle in Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s new production for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Although having advance notice gave me the time to feel nervous about tackling such an iconic role, it also allowed me the opportunity to develop my own interpretation through a mixture of research and instinct, which was further refined by coaching, rehearsal and performance.


Dance biographer Richard Austin once wrote: “A ballerina who may tomorrow dance Giselle for the first time, preserves (though she may not be aware of it) fragments of many lost Giselles…they live on in her, dance again, secret and unknown, in her dancing. She has her inheritance.” My journey began at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I found descriptions or archival films of many famous Giselles—from Carlotta Grisi’s stunning premiere in 1841 to the stark contrasts between Galina Ulanova and Olga Spessivtzeva’s interpretations (uninhibited joy versus eccentricity) and the impact of ballerinas such as Alicia Markova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova in the role. Aside from contemplating the ballet’s historical significance, its sources of Romantic inspiration and its universal resonance over time, I had a key personal realization during this research phase. Many of the great Giselles were strong and lean but not wispy in the modern sense, and they imbued her character with delicacy through artistry and a weightless movement quality rather than through a particularly fragile body-type. Therefore, I needed to work on moving with more ethereality, but my natural strength and slightly curvy shape would not exclude me from suiting the role. With this myth undone, my excitement gained momentum.


After learning about the Giselles of the past and having admired many of today’s greatest interpreters, I had distilled my own theories regarding characterization. First of all, the fundamental key to embodying Giselle is to radiate purity and sensitivity. In the first act, she glows with an inner joy and with her love for dance and for Albrecht. She is so honest, and her feelings for Albrecht so wholehearted, that she cannot reconcile his betrayal with her soulful belief in the goodness of the world. She experiences her emotions, whether happiness or uncertainty, with such a quiet intensity that her sudden death from heartbreak is truly plausible, and even death pales in the face of her eternal compassion. Her ghostly spirit is simply an elevated extension of her former earthly self. As Makarova writes in her insightful autobiography, “in the second act, [Giselle’s] soul, freed of all that is worldly, superficial, and ordinary, is filled with regal quietude and wisdom.” Her inner joy is now a quiet sadness, but more than ever she exudes love.


With this lofty objective in mind, I began to work one holiday week on the steps and range of expressive details with my ABT coach, Susan Jaffe. My initial sessions rehearsing with Susan informed and corroborated my intellectual research and emotional reflections, and I began the transition from philosophy to choreography. As any dancer is well aware, there are a plethora of things we work on day in and day out to refine the classical technique. With Giselle specifically, the Romantic style deeply affects the technical aspects of the second act because the whole body must project a feeling of floating. This requires, among many other stylistic details: an elongated neck, a willowy use of the arms, a real lift and a slight hovering incline of the upper body. Several moments in the second act are daunting and treacherous, but finding that intense control and gravity-defying lightness of quality is the means to express the essence of Giselle’s soaring spirit and her sustained, eternal love. Character is paramount; it is not enough to create shapes and movements that evoke otherworldly Romantic lithographs. Giselle’s physicality in every moment serves to express her mystical wisdom and her yearning to protect Albrecht.


Leading up to my RNZB premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, I had further invaluable guidance from Amanda McKerrow, who came to coach the production’s Giselles, and she helped me continue to integrate my hypothetical interpretation with actual movement and expression. As I faced the challenges of the choreography in my solos and with my strong and thoughtful partner in New Zealand, Qi Huan, many of my reflections on the nuances of the character seemed unnecessary. But as Mikhail Baryshnikov has said, “I know that many of these ideas do not translate literally to an audience, do not always come across, but they help me believe in the role as I feel it should be.” I found this notion particularly useful while tackling Giselle’s mad scene, which must be powerfully realistic, rather than artificially fevered, in order to do justice to her heartache. The only way I could initially approach this scene was to figure out the inner monologue and intention that motivates Giselle’s pacing amidst her reveries, regression and grief. For instance, the circle she draws with her sword is believed by the superstitious villagers to represent a circle of death. When Hilarion steps in to try and save her, he is deliberately crossing the threshold of death, and she recoils in disbelief and horror.


Susan Jaffe, Amanda McKerrow, Johan Kobborg and my fiancé, Ethan Stiefel, were all incredibly generous in sharing their insights but also consistently supportive of my following my own intuition. In the words of another Giselle, Violette Verdy, “content cannot be imitated; it must be understood…the dancer must always come back to herself and the process of self-discovery; only in this way is it possible to build a role.”


As I moved from the studio to the stage for the first time, I felt prepared enough to trust my instinct and react freely to the music. My first performance of Giselle in Wellington was one of the highlights of my career, and I have been fortunate to have many more shows, including two live, filmed performances for the New Zealand Film Commission’s movie of Giselle, as well as shows in Beijing and Los Angeles. Aside from continuing to work on many technical nuances and playing with various dramatic choices, as the shows went on I felt a greater sense of the bittersweet pathos at the end of the first act and for sustained moments in the second act. Each performance felt quite different from the last, and it made me realize that the journey in such a role is never truly over. The spirit of Giselle is luminous and haunting, and I am humbled and exhilarated to be amongst those who have brought her back to life.

popular
New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

popular
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in December. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!