At first glance, Ballet Hispanico second-company member Stefanie Roper looks as though she has been dancing since she could walk. Her perfectly arched feet and petite, athletic frame accentuate a particular fluidity of movement that only the most seasoned dancer tends to be able to harness. But Roper didn't follow the conventional ballerina's path, where training from age 5 is the norm.
The Utah native first encountered dance as a freshman at Utah Valley University in Orem. Roper's pride in her Colombian and Venezuelan heritage led her to audition for a cultural-folklore dance company. Within a couple of months, she was choreographing, producing and directing most performances.
Crystal Pite considers herself to be on the contemporary end of the dance spectrum, but she’s playing in the major league of ballet companies this season. In September, the Canadian choreographer debuted The Seasons’ Canon, a large-scale work for 54 dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet; in March, she will follow up with her first work for The Royal Ballet.
For POB, The Seasons’ Canon turned out to be a powerful collective experience at a time of transition. The French institution was left in turmoil by former director Benjamin Millepied’s resignation announcement last February, but Pite channeled their strengths into a rare creation using a third of the company’s impressive roster. In just four weeks—“a sprint” according to the choreographer—she took the dancers on a creative ride. “They’re open, willing, generous, patient and delightfully hungry,” she says.
Pite, an alum of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, reconnected with her ballet roots for the occasion. “As a dancer, it was always a real battle for me to fit into ballet,” she says. “But I love working with classical dancers, because I get access to all that articulation, their sense of line and shape. The kind of architecture they have in their bodies is so ecstatic and beautiful.”
And you could have heard a pin drop at times in the POB’s studios, with the dancers also eager to stretch themselves in Pite’s grounded style, built in part using improvisation. Paired with works by Forsythe and Justin Peck, The Seasons’ Canon brought a bold new female voice to the fore in European ballet. Pite will go big again in London, with another group work set to Górecki’s harrowing Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
All photos by Julien Benhamou
Courtney Henry knew she wanted to dance for Alonzo King LINES Ballet while she was still a student in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. “I saw LINES perform at The Joyce Theater, and I was blown away, particularly by the women," she remembers. “They were commanding and strong, even scary in how powerful they were. I was like, 'I want to dance like that.' "
She did a 2009 summer program with LINES in San Francisco, then auditioned in 2011. In Henry, King saw an ideal artist for his contemporary ballet company. A lithe six feet tall, the 27-year-old dancer brings the intense physicality and sky-high extensions that King's abstract choreography requires, but also the musicality and technical mastery that make his ballets so mesmerizing.
“Courtney's palette is filled with myriad textures, surprise innovation and rhythmic manipulation," says King, who choreographs to music ranging from Middle Eastern tabla to free jazz to Tchaikovsky. “She is hard to define outside of the word 'brilliant.' " Yet, he says, in her fifth season “she has not even hit the turning point of her career in dance. She is traveling at mercuric speed, ascending toward what will be an astonishing career."
For now, Henry is laser-focused on the demanding LINES schedule, with fall and spring home seasons bookending an average of 20 weeks of national and international touring every year. Her daily routine is designed to keep her relaxed, focused and physically ready. “Because I travel so much, it gets really hard on my system," she says. “I've had to be more aware of my body and my health." Whether she's journaling or rolling out or sipping custom wellness teas, she tunes in to what she needs to feel healthy and creative.
On a picture-perfect Bay Area day, Pointe followed Henry to the LINES Dance Center, where the company rehearsed for its recent fall season in San Francisco and four months of touring from Moscow to Atlanta to La Rochelle, France.
(All photos by Kathryn Rummel)
Vancouver, British Columbia's 2010 Olympic Winter Games were golden for more than just big-name athletes.
Like so many Vancouverites at that time, Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher and her husband, former rehearsal director Sylvain Senez, struggled to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of living. The couple wondered if they could rent out two empty bedrooms to Olympic visitors to help make ends meet. “We posted our place on Craigslist, just to see what would happen," Fletcher explains.
Cross-training keeps Andrea Yorita prepared for the demanding variety in BalletX's repertoire.
Choreographic chameleon: At BalletX, Andrea Yorita performs a wide range of contemporary ballet by dancemakers like Matthew Neenan, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Trey McIntyre. “It's very hard on our feet," she says. “Even within a show, we'll go from socks to bare feet to flat shoes to pointe shoes."
A solid foundation: To keep their pointework crisp, the dancers typically take class on pointe five days a week. Yorita also does Thera-Band work for her ankles each morning, plus doming exercises. “I try to keep all of those little muscles on the bottom of my feet strong, so I can be grounded when I'm dancing in socks."
The Bay Area dance scene continues to grow, and San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko has added his voice to the mix. His new company, SFDanceworks, was founded in 2014 and presents its debut season this week at the ODC Theater in San Francisco.
The U.S. has a surprising lack of contemporary dance companies that perform a broad repertoire—Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and L.A.'s BODYTRAFFIC and LA Dance Project are three, and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was another. Sofranko's troupe looks to become one of those few, with a mixed rep of new work, emerging choreographers and established names.
Most contemporary companies exist to fulfill the choreographic vision of the founder. Though many ballet companies now perform work that blurs the line between contemporary and ballet, like Mats Ek's Appartement or Jiří Kylián's Petit Mort, the dearth of smaller, flexible troupes comprised of versatile dancers is majorly lacking in the U.S. dance scene. And, it limits opportunities for ballet dancers who have a penchant for contemporary work.
As of yet, SFDanceworks appears to be a project-based group, but Sofranko has taken time to find his artistic and financial footing, and the company may someday become a full-time option. The premiere season features choreography by HSDC resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and HSDC company member Penny Saunders. Former SFB dancers Dana Genshaft, Garrett Anderson and Kendall Teague have joined the roster, as well as The Joffrey Ballet's Amber Neumann and Smuin Ballet’s Ben Needham-Wood. Genshaft, who also choreographs, has a work on the program and the company will perform a duet from Lar Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two, along with a premiere by Sofranko.
SFDanceworks joins the re-emerging Oakland Ballet, and many other Bay Area companies, to help build a vital performing community for dancers. The season runs June 23–25 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco.
As the Compañía Nacional de Danza moved nimbly between Alejandro Cerrudo's sleek style and Mats Ek's earthiness in Paris last winter, it was hard to believe that just five years ago, Spain's national dance company was primarily a single-choreographer troupe under longtime director Nacho Duato. Since José Martínez, the only Spanish male étoile in the history of the Paris Opéra Ballet, took over in 2011, CND has reintegrated ballet and caught up fast, without losing its contemporary edge.
It's not the first U-turn in CND's history. Created in 1979, the company initially filled a gap as Spain's only state ballet under directors such as Víctor Ullate and Maya Plisetskaya. With Duato's arrival in 1990, however, it became mostly devoted to the choreographer's contemporary repertoire, leading to complaints about the lack of opportunities for ballet dancers and choreographers in Spain.
Martínez was keenly aware of the problem, and has thrown CND's doors wide open. In just four seasons, the company has added nearly 40 short works to its repertoire, including ballets by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe and Ek, and is once again a home for Spanish talent, starting with choreographers like Cerrudo.
Like many of his contemporaries, Martínez himself pursued a career abroad. One of the most celebrated étoiles of his generation at the Paris Opéra, he had no ambitions to direct until 2009. That's when the Spanish ministry of culture, hoping for a return to ballet, asked him for his thoughts on the future of CND. He submitted a report, and was asked if he'd be interested in applying for the directorship on that basis. “I had to leave Spain at 14 because there were no companies for me to dance in, and I wanted to contribute to Spanish dance," Martínez says. In December 2010, he got the job.
The transition was far from easy, however. Duato had already been asked to leave and had decided to withdraw his works, though CND was still allowed by law to perform them for one year after his departure. When Martínez landed in Madrid in the summer of 2011, the day after his lavish Paris Opéra farewell, the company was virtually repertoire-less, with no performances or tours scheduled for the next season.
Martínez had a plan, but in his first company meeting, Duato's former dancers gave him the cold shoulder. “They had been through a really difficult period, and they decided to team up against the new director. They were midway through a two-year contract, so I couldn't fire anyone. I was announcing a season, and they didn't believe me," he remembers.
Instead of radical change, Martínez set about winning over the company in a patient, relaxed fashion. He kept Duato's artistic staff on, and merged the existing senior and junior companies to put everyone on an equal footing and improve salaries in the process. The first season was tailored to the dancers' contemporary abilities, with just a few roles on pointe, cast on a voluntary basis.
The company has since become a harmonious melting pot. Roughly half of Duato's dancers have left, the majority on their own accord as Martínez renewed most contracts. To bridge the gap between the company's contemporary base and the new repertoire, a classical group and a contemporary one now coexist unofficially, with dancers floating between the two or joining forces for full-length productions. Twenty of the 43 dancers are Spanish; pointework still isn't mandatory, and triple bills often cater to both types of dancers with a mix of ballet productions and modern offerings.
Kayoko Everhart, a longtime Duato dancer who is now a principal, put her pointe shoes back on when Martínez arrived and surprised herself: “Physically it was hard, but I enjoy having that option. It means we have dancers who are great at both styles, and the younger, more classical dancers keep us alert."
And she praises Martínez's open-door policy. The Spanish director says choreographing taught him much about directing (Les Enfants du Paradis, his evening-length work for the Paris Opéra Ballet, had a cast of 70), as did his years as a dancer in Paris. “It was such a big company that everyone was replaceable, and there was little dialogue. I try to explain my decisions to the dancers. It can be difficult to hear why you haven't been cast, but it builds trust."
Martínez has applied the same approach to rebuilding the repertoire from the ground up. In addition to modern classics, he has gone back to the core missions of a national ballet company. This has meant taking a step back as a choreographer to promote Spanish colleagues such as Cerrudo or Goyo Montero. He is also looking to nurture up-and-coming talent. Full-length ballets are the next step: CND will reclaim the most Spanish of all ballet classics next season, Don Quixote, in a new production by Martínez.
CND also had to weather the severe economic crisis in Spain, a country with no tradition of private sponsorship. The company absorbed three years straight of government cuts to its funding when Martínez arrived, but its proactive outreach efforts, from partnerships with schools to rehearsals open to the public, have been rewarded with an 11 percent increase in 2015. “We needed to show that dance isn't elitist, that we have a social function," says Martínez. “It's always been difficult for dance in this country, but even more so today."
Martínez's main challenge for the future is the lack of a permanent venue. CND shares sun-filled studios in Madrid with the Ballet Nacional de España (a flamenco company), but for performances, the company has to juggle between three different theaters in the city, in addition to venues around the country, with programs set typically only a few months in advance. Martínez sums it up with a smile: “You have to love improvising in Spain."
Compañía Nacional de Danza
Number of dancers: 43
Length of contract: Year-round, renewable every season
Starting salary: Inquire with company
Performances per year: 70
CND is obligated by Spanish law to hold an open audition for any available positions every summer. Martínez likes to have interested dancers come and take class in Madrid beforehand, however. “I'm more interested in a dancer's personality and commitment than in a specific body type, and that way I can get to know them. I can't give out contracts, but they know if it's worth coming to the audition."