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Houston Ballet's Jared Matthews and Sara Webb in"The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Despite the devastation and pain that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left in their wake this fall, it's been encouraging to see dancers step up in aid of their communities: When the future of Houston Ballet's Nutcracker seemed uncertain, venues around the city pulled together to allow the company to produce the show on a "hometown tour." And when Florida ballet companies had to evacuate, Atlanta Ballet and Charlotte Ballet welcomed them with open arms. In addition, New York City-based studio Broadway Dance Center offered community classes in September with proceeds donated to the American Red Cross.

The next in this series of good deeds is Hearts for Houston, a benefit performance bringing dancers from seven major companies together at New York City's Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater to raise money for the United Way of Greater Houston's Harvey Relief Fund. Scheduled for Sunday, October 22, the evening will feature members of the Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater, The Washington Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Hearts for Houston is imagined and produced by Houston Ballet principal dancers Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews (both formerly of ABT) and funded by patrons Phoebe and Bobby Tudor and sponsor Neiman Marcus.


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Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

It may be the middle of summer, but San Francisco Ballet is already rehearsing for its spring season. There's a lot to prepare for—the company's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, which runs April 20–May 6, 2018, will feature 12 new ballets by 12 choreographers. And it's an impressive group of dancemakers: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. That's a lot of choreography to pack in!


Stanton Welch in rehearsal with San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Luckily, we don't have to wait until spring to get a sneak peek of some of these new works. SFB is kicking off Unbound: LIVE, a series of live-stream events that will take us inside rehearsals. The first one is Wednesday, July 26, at 5:30 pm Pacific Standard Time (8:30 EST). It will highlight rehearsals with Arthur Pita, Edwaard Liang and Stanton Welch. You can expect to see the dancers perform excerpts of their works in progress, as well as interviews with each choreographer.


Artur Pita in rehearsal. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Visit SFB's website or its Facebook page tomorrow night to watch. And if you miss it, no worries—it'll be accessible on the company's site and YouTube channel for 60 days. The other live-stream events have yet to be announced, but we'll be sure to keep you posted!

Pointe Stars
A still from "Medicine Man"

Is there anything Tiler Peck can't do?

Promoted to principal at New York City Ballet by 20. Leads in everything from Balanchine's jazzy Who Cares? to classics like Sleeping Beauty to entirely new creations. A starring role in the musical Little Dancer. Check, check, check. (And that's just the beginning of the list.)

Now, her latest accomplishment is music video dancer. And we're not talking about a tiny back-up role. In Charlotte OC's new video for "Medicine Man," Peck is the sole performer of a lush contemporary ballet solo on pointe.

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Crystal Pite working with members of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

In February, I attended the Prix de Lausanne, where I moderated a series of panel discussions that were open to the competing students, their teachers and parents, and the public. One topic I was particularly excited about concerned women in leadership roles, and how the ballet world can better nurture leadership qualities in female dancers. My panelists included Korean National Ballet artistic director Sue Jin Kang, English National Ballet associate director Loipa Araújo and Gigi Hyatt, the deputy director of the Hamburg Ballet School.

There was just one problem—while there were plenty of audience members, none of the female students actually showed up. As I watched a few of them browse the pop-up ballet shop on their way out of the theater, I couldn't help but think “Don't you know this talk is for you?"

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any ballet company worth its sugar plums must have a production of Nutcracker as part of its holiday season repertoire. And for nearly three decades, through its final performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre in December 2015, the Joffrey Ballet was well served by its uniquely Victorian-American setting of the classic. It was choreographed by founding artistic director Robert Joffrey shortly before his death, and featured major contributions from Gerald Arpino.

From left: Ashley Wheater, Anastacia Holden, Christopher Wheeldon and Joan Sebastián Zamora rehearse The Nutcracker (photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)

Now the Joffrey is about to get a brand-new $4 million version of the ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. He has assembled a stellar team of collaborators, including set and costume designer Julian Crouch, author and illustrator Brian Selznick, puppeteer Basil Twist, lighting designer Natasha Katz and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy. And while the production will retain the Tchaikovsky score, and many of the ballet’s classic elements, the story will be reimagined with a distinctly Chicago backdrop.

Set during the construction of the city’s fabled 1893 World’s Fair, the family at the ballet’s center will not be the usual group of upper-class sophisticates. Rather, the story will revolve around the female sculptor who worked on the Exposition’s iconic statue of Columbia, and her daughter, whose friends are the children of laborers working on the fair. The character of Drosselmeyer, the magician, will be based on the great urban planner Daniel Burnham, and the ethnic variations will be inspired by the array of international pavilions that were a notable element, including those from Egypt, Germany and Venice.

“This version will be full of surprises and more cohesive storytelling,” says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater. “Thousands of Chicago kids come to see our production each year, and I think they don’t quite relate to the story as it has been told. This will be a Nutcrackerabout making magic out of everyday things.” —Hedy Weiss

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Assucena and Alberto Velazquez rehearse Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

Though it's not quite fall, the Joffrey Ballet is in full holiday mode, prepping for the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker. In fact, you can catch a live-streamed rehearsal with Wheeldon and the company tomorrow (Thursday, September 8, 11:30 am to 1:30 pm Central) on the company's YouTube channel. Pointe spoke with company dancer Amanda Assucena about this reimagined holiday classic set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair.

 

How does the setting change the story?

Marie, our dreamer, is our version of Clara. She's a girl from the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of immigrants, workers of the fair. She's not very wealthy, which is different from other Nutcrackers. The second act is based on the actual World's Fair, so she dreams the Nutcracker is taking her through it and the divertissements are different countries.

 

What have rehearsals been like?

I'm learning the roles of Marie, her mother and the grand pas, so I've been in the studio with Chris all the time, all day. He is definitely one of my favorite choreographers to work with. He's a big name, but he's such a normal person, so nice and humble. And he allows you to communicate what feels good or if a step feels awkward.

 

What's it like being involved in the creation of a new full-length ballet?

Being in the studio for six hours a day learning choreography and trying to keep that in your mind has been challenging—but such a great challenge. For me, one of the best parts about ballet is figuring out steps, remembering them, putting them together with the music and seeing it come together and work.

 

How is Wheeldon approaching the famous party scene?

It's now called the "shack scene" since Marie lives in a shack with her mother. Some of the other workers from the World's Fair come to the party, and everybody brings something--a tree, some food or drinks. It's more about them coming together and trying to make something beautiful out of nothing for that one day of Christmas celebrations.

 

Do you have any advice for dancers on how to avoid burnout when they’re working on Nutcracker from now until the holidays?

We’ve all been doing it since we were little kids, but I still love it. My advice would be to remember what the audience is going to see. It’s our responsibility for them to feel like they just woke up from the most beautiful dream ever.

And enjoy the music. As much as we hear it all the time, it’s so perfect for the ballet, perfect for the season. It’s also great that it’s so popular because it only means that we are part of a Christmas tradition. Enjoy the music, enjoy the relationships with your other dancers and enjoy the choreography.

 

You can watch the trailer for the live stream here:

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

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This week, there's a whirlwind of dance in the Windy City. The annual Chicago Dancing Festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, opened last night at the Auditorium Theater with glittering performances by the Joffrey Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Pennsylvania Ballet and Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet. The festival continues through Saturday, with performances held at multiple theaters and parks across the city. While all shows are free, tickets for indoor performances went on “sale” in late July—and sold out fast.

 

Lillian Di Piazza and James Ihde in Concerto Barocco. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, via PA Ballet.

Francesca Hayward as Juliet. Photo by Alice Pennefather, Courtesy ROH.

But don't worry, Chicagoland ballet lovers: No tickets are required for the festival’s outdoor Dancing Under the Stars program, held at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on August 27. The evening includes the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing. Newly minted Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward and soloist Marcelino Sambé will be there, too, dancing the pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet (a role Hayward talked about in our February/March cover story). The show also includes Chicago Dancers United, a collective of local dance companies which work in tandem with Dance for Life, to raise funds for critical health issues like HIV and AIDS. They'll be performing in a new work by Chicago-based choreographer Randy Duncan. The festival closes with Rennie Harris' Students of the Asphalt Jungle, performed by his hip hop company, Rennie Harris Pure Movement.

 

Stake out a spot early—the performance starts at 7:30 pm, but fixed seating at the Pavilion is first come, first serve. There is also lawn seating available. For more information, click here.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

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