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Shanghai Dance Theatre's "Soaring Wings" Has an Environmental Message

Photo Courtesy Shanghai Dance Theatre

Birds, with their expressive wings and glorious flight patterns, have always made good fodder for beautiful ballets: Swan Lake, Firebird, Sleeping Beauty's Bluebird pas de deux and variation, for example. This month, Shanghai Dance Theatre is presenting the U.S. premiere of Soaring Wings: Journey of the Crested Ibis at New York's Koch Theater (January 5–7) and Boston's Boch Center Shubert Theatre (January 11–12). Blending traditional Chinese, ballet and contemporary dance styles, the two-act production is not a love story; instead, it focuses on the fate of the endangered crested ibis, a symbol of happiness and blessings in China.



Once populous throughout Asia and Russia, the elegant birds became nearly extinct during the 20th century due to human industrialization and urbanization. By the 1980s, only a handful were left, although conservation efforts have helped to slowly bring the species back. "It's not a simple, linear storyline," says Soaring Wings director/choreographer Tong Ruirui. Instead, the ballet aims to show the bird at different stages of its existence, as well as the interdependence between humankind and nature.


Shanghai Dance Theatre principal dancers Zhu Jiejing and Wang Jiajun. Photo Courtesy Shanghai Dance Theatre.

Although the 52-member Shanghai Dance Theatre specializes in classical Chinese dance, Ruirui included elements of ballet and contemporary into the choreography. "Since the dancers are portraying birds, it was very hard to only use Chinese folk dance, especially for the feet," she says. "So what we did is incorporate Western dance for the feet and legs. However the top part of the body, including how they breathe and how they gesture, uses Chinese dance elements." The result is breathtaking—see for yourself in the preview above.

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Aviva Gelfer-Mundl competing at the 2018 Prix de Lausanne. Photo by Gregory Bartadon, Courtesy Prix de Lausanne.

At the beginning of the month, 74 young dancers from around the world gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland to compete in the 46th Prix de Lausanne. At the end of a packed week, eight candidates were named prizewinners, including 16-year-old California-native Aviva Gelfer-Mundl. One of seven Americans to enter the competition, Gelfer-Mundl—who trains at V&T; Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, CA—was the only one to leave as a prizewinner. Pointe caught up with this nascent star to hear about her former career as a rhythmic gymnast, her time at the Prix and her plans to study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia next year.

Before ballet, you were a rhythmic gymnast. Why did you make the switch to ballet?

I started rhythmic gymnastics when I was around six or seven and I competed for several years. I was actually state champion and winner of the Junior Olympics in level 5. However at age 10 I got a really bad hamstring injury, and that caused me to reconsider if I really wanted to continue the sport. I wanted something easier on the body, so I started ballet and immediately fell in love with it.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Angelina Vorontsova in the company's revival of "Cinderella." Photo by Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

Ella Persson remembers the rehearsals for her debut as Giselle. "I was in my first year with the company, and I started preparing with Mikhail Messerer during late evenings," the Mikhailovsky Ballet's Swedish-born coryphée says. "I was definitely not ready, but he gave me a chance to push myself and made me so much stronger, mentally and physically."

Under Messerer, the Mikhailovsky Ballet has carved a niche on the Russian and international stage by investing in coaching and dancers' growth. Unlike the older Mariinsky, St. Petersburg's second ballet company was only founded after World War I. But with a classically focused repertoire and productions that rotate onstage every month, it offers plenty of opportunities for talent to thrive.


Ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer. Photo Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

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San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's "Serenade." Photo via SFB on Instagram.

Following a week filled with Valentine's Day-inspired romantic ballets including Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Giselle, this week brings a varied mix of repertory from San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (currently on tour in Chicago), as well as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake and Eugene Ballet's collaboration with local band Pink Martini.


San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet's program entitled Bright Fast Cool Blue is up at the War Memorial Opera House through February 24 and features works by George Balanchine and Benjamin Millepied, as well as the SFB premiere of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. The photos that the company has been posting of Balanchine's Serenade are absolutely gorgeous. From February 17-25 the company is also presenting Distinctly SF Ballet. This trio of works by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Val Caniparoli and Myles Thatcher were all created for SFB. You can check out the program's trailer below.

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Peter Martins. Photo by Adam Shankbone, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times reports that a two-month long internal investigation into sexual harassment and physical abuse allegations against Peter Martins, New York City Ballet's former ballet master in chief, has found that the accusations could not be corroborated. In December, an anonymous letter sent to NYCB and its affiliated School of American Ballet accused Martins of sexual harassment, although the claims were non-specific. Afterwards, several former dancers and one current company member came forward to the press accusing him of physical assault and verbal abuse. Martins, who directed the company for 35 years and has denied the accusations, retired on New Year's Day after taking a leave of absence. An interim team led by ballet master Jonathan Stafford has been overseeing the company in the meantime.

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Viral Videos
Anna Isaeva as Karina in "Bolshoi." Photo Courtesy TriCoast.

If you are in need of a feel-good ballet movie night, check this out: Bolshoi, a 2017 Russian coming-of-age drama starring real dancers and filmed on location at the Bolshoi Theater, is now available on multiple VOD platforms. The film follows Yulia Olshanskaya, a scrappy working class kid, as she navigates life at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and eventually, the company. Like most dance movies á la Center Stage, it's full of the usual ballet clichés. But, like Center Stage, it's also fun, beautifully shot and full of gorgeous dancing (including a mean fouétte turn contest). Polish National Ballet coryphée Margarita Simonova stars as as Yulia, while Anna Isaeva, a former Kremlin Ballet dancer, plays Karina, Yulia's wealthy best friend and biggest competition. Ekaterinberg Ballet principal Andrei Sorokin and former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Nicholas Le Riche also star.

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Ballet Training
Berdo with Charlotte Ballet apprentice Elisabeth Baehman. Photo Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

Many dancers struggle with brisé, says Laszlo Berdo, associate director of the Charlotte Ballet Academy. "But once you've mastered it, it's not that difficult." Here's how he helps his students beat the brisé blues.

Hold your turnout: Laszlo Berdo says a common mistake is stepping forward on a turned-in leg in anticipation of the brisé. "You lose the support of that standing leg. Then you have no power to jump," he says. "That plié is your saving grace and control."

Create a line: Berdo notices that some dancers dégagé à la seconde instead of effacé. "It's really difficult to chase that leg into second when you're trying to move forward." He teaches brisé with an open shoulder blade. "The back arm's extension is a reference to the front leg's dégagé. Keep that energy stretching out."

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