Ballet Stars

The Charmer: NYCB's Lauren Lovette

Lauren Lovette photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

At 5' 4", New York City Ballet corps member Lauren Lovette could be easily overlooked at the end of a long line of corps women. Once she begins to dance, however, she captures your attention. Her head is held high atop an eloquent neck. Her body is a textbook example of classical proportions with its 2:1 ratio of legs to torso. Her long arms possess an invariably musical sinuosity.

Last year Lovette, now 21, began earning critical acclaim for major roles. Reviewing her debut as Sugarplum in The Nutcracker, New York Observer critic Robert Gottlieb wrote that she was “strong, clear, musical, succeeding through dance power and ballerina-like self-assurance." Yet Lovette has had her share of disheartening setbacks along the way. It took determination and talent to lay the foundation for her success.

One of her first NYCB roles could not have been more negligible. Soon after she became an apprentice in 2009, she was cast in a fleeting cameo in choreographer Susan Stroman's Frankie and Johnny . . . and Rose. She popped up out of nowhere at the end to console Amar Ramasar after he had been simultaneously dumped by Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns.

Lovette's recent Sugarplum debut won her kudos from the critics. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

"I came out from under a bench to make some facial expressions and a quick exit with Amar," Lovette says. "That may not sound like much, but the real challenge was waiting to dance while squeezed into a cramped position for minutes on end. I had just enough room to ease my muscles by pointing and flexing my feet." Yet what had been a throwaway moment paved the way for her first big break. When the ballet returned, Lovette, now a corps member, saw her name go up on a call sheet. Stroman had decided to create a solo for her.

"Lauren had been a delight to work with," says Stroman. "As a choreographer, you are inspired by such a dancer. She seems weightless in her jumps; her energy is boundless, her stage presence unrivaled. She has the natural charisma and strong technique of a star in the making."

Lovette's training began relatively late. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, California, she started lessons at 10, after watching a cousin take class. "Jumping around had looked like great fun," she says, "but I soon learned that starting ballet at that age involved challenges that often left me in tears." Though her parents told her she could quit, Lovette never considered it. "I loved the music, being in the classroom, trying to perfect something."

Lovette with boyfriend and fellow NYCB dancer Daniel Ulbricht. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Her family's move to Raleigh, North Carolina, two years later, just as Lovette had begun to feel technically secure, could have been a major setback. Fortunately, she found a strong teacher, Rosanna Nesta Gahagan, at the nearby Cary Ballet Conservatory. Another inspiration was a student there who had gone to the School of American Ballet for the summer. "I had never seen a dancer who was so beautiful," says Lovette. She decided to audition for SAB's intensive as well, but wasn't accepted. Refusing to be discouraged, Lovette went to Carolina Ballet's summer program instead, and got her first taste of Balanchine. "Not getting into SAB the first time just reinforced my desire to try again," she says. "I made it my target." The next year she was accepted to SAB's summer program on a scholarship. After another summer there, she stayed year-round.

Teachers quickly spotted her promise. "Onstage your eye goes right to Lauren because she has what I'd call an inner sense of movement," says NYCB ballet master Jean-Pierre Frohlich. "And she never stops working." Despite a sprained ankle, she pulled herself together to dance the Waltz Girl and Dark Angel in Serenade for the 2009 workshop. When she did not immediately receive an apprenticeship offer from NYCB, she wasted no time mourning, but spent seven weeks studying with former Balanchine ballerina Patricia McBride at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York.

Lovette with Anthony Huxley in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

That fall, she finally got the call from the company and started rehearsing The Nutcracker as an apprentice. Accepted into the corps in 2010, she began dancing roles like Maria in West Side Story Suite, and Alexandra Ansanelli's role in Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia (see this issue's "How It's Done"). Coached by Frohlich, Lovette and fellow corps member Taylor Stanley gave the shifting demands of the bluesy pas de deux in Jerome Robbins' Interplay a slo-mo eloquence. "Lauren has this sprightly glow," Stanley says, "but there's genuine independence under that. She doesn't let other people get to her, and she is always trying to improve."

Last year her career took off. She was cast in Wheeldon's new Les Carillons. Performing the pas de deux of Balanchine's "Rubies" at the fall gala, she whetted everyone's appetite for the complete work. Ballet master in chief Peter Martins selected her as one of the four corps members who formed the entire cast of his Mes Oiseaux. Then she won the Clive Barnes Foundation Award as the year's outstanding young dancer (an honor that came with $5,000), and she began 2013 by being selected as NYCB's Janice Levin honoree, a virtual guarantee of promotion to soloist. [Lovette was in fact promoted to soloist in February, after this issue went to press.]

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Nothing was more sensational than Lovette's debut as Sugarplum. When she bourréed out of the wings and spun around in response to an electrifying cymbal crash, she embodied joy at its purest. Her solo concluded in a glittering series of coupé and chaîné turns and a tendu arabesque, impeccably matched to every heavenly note of the celesta. The pas de deux with soloist Chase Finlay was a series of increasingly ardent approaches interspersed with shoulder lifts as Balanchine had intended.

Lovette still faces challenges aggravated by her late start and perfectionism. "I've never been a natural jumper or turner; I've had to keep on refining my pirouettes," she says. Pilates lessons have helped her overcome a loose back and strengthen her core. And then there's NYCB principal Daniel Ulbricht, with whom she's in a serious relationship, and whom she often turns to for advice on her weak spots. "It helps to have someone close to me who's good at the things I'm not," she says. They debuted as an NYCB team in the Bluebird pas de deux in Sleeping Beauty this past winter, and tour together as dancers. She's also assisted him when he's taught at Chautauqua. "I help with partnering classes," she says. "Who better to learn from than Daniel?"

Each season brings new dream roles. She confesses that she likes ones that involve acting and hopes to dance Odette some day, and Juliet. Adagio is her favorite tempo, especially in a minor key. "Dance is expressing yourself without words. I wish I could express myself in music. I'm not a great singer. I couldn't learn piano. But I can dance."

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Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

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Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

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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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