Unassuming audience members were in for a shock when 12 male dancers from Scottish Ballet performed Angelin Preljocaj's MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival. The work explores virility and violence through a series of biblical allusions. Striking in its harshness and punishing physicality, it at times seemed almost cruel to inflict upon the dancers, who performed with a vicious beauty. But artistic director Christopher Hampson chose the contemporary piece for its thought-provoking, emotional impact. As the Scottish Ballet's repertoire keeps growing, Hampson continues to challenge the typical notions of ballet.
He established himself as a dancer and then as a choreographer for the English National Ballet, subsequently choreographing for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and The Royal Ballet. In 2012, the Manchester native became the artistic director of Scotland's national dance company, in Glasgow, and incorporated the position of chief executive director in 2015.
After scouting for a ballet company to feature in the melodramatic reality show “Breaking Pointe," the producers made a U-turn back to Adam Sklute, the CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “They said, In our screen tests, your company is the most photogenic. They have really interesting stories and we'd love to have them on camera," recalls Sklute. The show, which focused on Ballet West's backstage drama and intramural romance, premiered in 2012, ran for two seasons and brought fame to dancers like Beckanne Sisk and Allison DeBona. “Some of our dancers could be supermodels. They are as tall and as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains that we look at," says Sklute. “I want a company of tall, beautiful dancers who produce a glamorous stage picture." Still, there's far more than glitz and good looks at this midsized company.
When Sklute took the reins of Ballet West in 2007, he became the fifth director of the company founded by Willam F. Christensen in 1963. “I feel very connected to the backbone of the classics and the works of Balanchine," says Sklute, referring to the bulk of Ballet West's early repertoire. “But I also want to expand that into the future. My dancers are 21st-century dancers."
As the dancers processed through downtown Orlando—smiling, laughing, heads held high—Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill allowed himself to relax and take in the moment. It was 2013 and the company was headed toward its future.
Rising from the rubble of a construction site was the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The dancers were about to see their new performance space. “It was a game changer," Hill recalls. “I couldn't stop watching their faces."
The ballet had nowhere to go but up: A mold infestation, not uncommon in Florida's humid heat, had driven the troupe from its longtime rehearsal home. And every day seemed to bring new challenges, like instability in the company's business management and a cash flow that had slowed to a trickle.
Hill's mantra to his dancers stayed positive: “Let's hang on, everybody. We're going to get through this."
City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."
Kevin Irving is a man of eclectic tastes. It showed in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2015–16 season, which opened with Napoli Act III, the company’s first turn with Bournonville, followed by Balanchine’s Nutcracker. Then came Romeo & Juliet, as envisioned by OBT founding artistic director James Canfield. The season closed with Beautiful Decay, an OBT premiere that Irving’s partner, contemporary choreographer Nicolo Fonte, created featuring local contemporary dancers.
“A salient fact is that I’m very much a mongrel,” says the 55-year-old OBT artistic director. As a Long Island teen, Irving aspired to be a jazz dancer, studying at The Ailey School and performing with Elisa Monte Dance before leaping seriously into ballet at 24. He joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and was promoted to soloist, then principal. He finished his performing days with Twyla Tharp, then moved on to European posts, including associate director at the Madrid-based Compañía Nacional de Danza, artistic director of Sweden’s GöteborgsOperans Danskompani and guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet. His ever-changing circumstances taught him to adapt quickly, he says.
Irving had plenty to figure out when OBT named him artistic director in 2013. The situation he inherited, following Christopher Stowell’s resignation, included substantial amounts of debt. The day he arrived, he learned the box office manager had quit, the latest in a string of departures. “It was a shambles,” he says. “Nothing could prepare you for that, except that I had lived something very similar in Sweden: a long period of stress, a major exodus, a lot of dysfunction to overcome.”
Irving set about rebuilding trust and offering a vision for the company, married with a pragmatic sense of what he thought was possible. The idea was to give patrons and stakeholders a sense of why OBT mattered. It wasn’t always an easy sell.
“We have it tough here, because the culture of the Northwest is being out in nature,” Irving says. “Our whole thing is that you can think of going to a ballet performance as a way to have fun.” The trick in Portland, as elsewhere, is programming material that feeds the desire both for tradition and idiosyncrasy. Irving’s programming for the upcoming season twines classical (Serenade, a new Swan Lake) with contemporary (two company premieres from Nacho Duato, William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated).
Although OBT’s roster had been reduced from 26 dancers to 20 and contracts from 36 weeks to 30 before he arrived, both are creeping back up: This season, there will be 22 company members, 5 apprentices and a 34-week contract. In 2015, he inaugurated OBT2; 10 to 12 students are chosen for it at the end of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive and perform with the main company.
Peter Franc, a 29-year-old soloist, says Irving’s wide-ranging experience makes him an insightful director and coach. “His attention to detail keeps everyone honest and working hard.” Franc, who danced with Houston Ballet and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, likes that OBT falls somewhere between his previous employers in terms of size and style. Company artist Emily Parker, who came to OBT after graduating from Indiana University, agrees: “I wanted somewhere that had a mixed rep and that I would fit into—not a huge company.”
“Articulate” is the word Irving uses to describe what he looks for in new hires: “the ability to draw on your technique, to be precise,” he says. “That’s a fundamental tool, and I try to help dancers develop it. During ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’ I look at every girl, making sure they’re feeling like a flower. It has to be alive. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of mannerisms that don’t mean anything.”
Along with grooming dancers, Irving plans to nurture new dance-making talent through the first-ever Choreography XX competition. A panel recently chose three North American female choreographers to receive a commission to stage their work in 2017.
“There simply are not enough opportunities for new work—period—and even less for women. Ditto for American choreographers,” he says. “As enamored as I am with contemporary European choreography, I feel there is an imbalance. The American perspective in ballet is wonderful, so it’s a pleasure to try and bring more of it to greater attention.”
That goal dovetails nicely with Irving’s balletic worldview. “In the 21st century, dancers can do everything—and audiences want everything,” he says. “I have a real respect for classical ballet done well—I just don’t see it as an end point. I say the same thing about Balanchine. Every season we’re going to have a journey.”
at a glance
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Number of dancers: 27, including 5 apprentices
Length of contract: 34 weeks
Starting salary: Inquire with company
Performances per year: 42
OBT auditions are by invitation, Irving says: “We’re screening to make sure we get professional-caliber candidates.” The company holds auditions in San Francisco each January and in New York each March. “I want dancers who can dance—that’s something that can’t be taught,” he says. “I’m as much a sucker for a beautifully shaped foot or a great line, but I’m always drawn to people, even when they’re young, who can embody that poetry.”
“I was tricked into it,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn’t a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he’d been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.
These days it’s hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation’s top regional ballet companies and training schools.
In 1997, Orr replaced former New York City Ballet star Patricia Wilde as director of the company, which was founded in 1969 by Nicolas Petrov and Loti Falk. His accomplishments at the AGMA-participating troupe are noteworthy. After guiding PBT through financial troubles in the early 2000s, Orr oversaw the remodeling of its five-studio facility and acquired housing for out-of-town high school students in PBT School’s pre-professional division. Most recently, he spearheaded another expansion of the school, including two new studios and a wellness center.
Orr’s vision for the company goes back to when he applied to be artistic director. While Wilde had introduced more Balanchine works to PBT, Orr advocated for a more varied repertoire of full-length classics, famous ballets the company had never done and brand-new creations.
In recent years, he has pushed to expand all three facets of that approach. “My dancers are a very talented and strong group from the corps up to principals,” he says. That confidence in his artists has led to PBT’s first full-length productions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire; Pittsburgh premieres of influential works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jean-Christophe Maillot; and world premieres by Dwight Rhoden and Viktor Plotnikov. With that, the company’s budget has also grown from $7.3 million in 2010 to $9.8 million in 2016. This October, PBT will open its season with another ambitious production: Orr’s newly restaged Giselle.
Principal Christopher Budzynski is just one of the dancers attracted to PBT’s diverse repertoire. He describes Orr as a “very demanding but friendly and nurturing director. He encourages us not to be afraid of trying different things and doesn’t hold it against us if we fail.” Budzynski also likes the diversity at PBT. “The company is not cookie-cutter. There are different body types and personalities.”
Dancers tend to stick with the company for many years. Principal Julia Erickson, now in her 15th season, says, “we are everyone else’s cheerleaders. There is a respect for hierarchy, but a support system exists within the ranks.”
Dancers also benefit from the expert knowledge of Orr’s wife, company ballet mistress and former ABT star Marianna Tcherkassky. “It’s an education for them to have a ballerina of her stature around,” says Orr. Though he expects his dancers to work diligently and develop as artists, his specific expectations can differ for each person. “I am pretty patient,” he says. “If somebody gets into the company, I know that I have brought them in for the right reasons.”
Orr also encourages his dancers’ own creative interests. Several have choreographed for the school and company, most recently principal Yoshiaki Nakano. Erickson runs Barre, a line of energy bars and wellness products for dancers, with her husband, former PBT member Aaron Ingley.
A newer tradition that makes PBT stand out on a national level is its sensory-friendly performances geared toward children and adults on the autism spectrum. In 2013, PBT was the first American professional ballet company to produce an adapted Nutcracker, and they’ve since performed special evenings of Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast, with quieter audio, less startling effects and more relaxed house etiquette.
In addition to continuing these performances, Orr says he’d like to add a few dancers to the roster and keep growing the school. He’s also interested in having more live music and touring. All of this upward momentum can be summed up by the person who knows Orr best. His wife, Tcherkassky, says, “Terry points us in a direction and says, ‘Hey, you want to go there? This is how we can do it.’ ”
At a glance: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Number of dancers: 30
Length of contract: 38 weeks
Starting salary: $1,028 per week
Performances per year: 50
One of the best routes into the company is through the PBT School. The company also holds an open audition in March and accepts videos year-round. If Orr is interested, the next step may be joining the school’s graduate program or being invited to take company class and meet with him for one-on-one interviews.
“The look of the dancer is very important,” says Orr, “and that can be defined in all kinds of ways. I want dancers who are not only great technicians but also gifted actors. An equally important part of the audition process is having conversations with the dancer to get to know their heart and how they will fit in.”
“There’s always boxes of color to help with that,” says Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney when I ask him if the long hours in the studio are turning his hair gray. It’s November, and he’s creating the company’s new $2 million Nutcracker production. “I love it,” he says. “There’s nothing like making something that will influence kids in their development as dancers.”
For Carney, there was a lot to love about the situation he stepped into in 2013 as only the fourth artistic director in Kansas City Ballet’s 59-year history. (Carney’s predecessor, William Whitener, retired after 17 years to work as an independent choreographer, teacher and arts advocate.) The company had recently moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, had a new performance home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was free of debt. “It was pretty spectacular,” says Carney.
Now into year three of a plan to increase the number of dancers, raise the level of artistry and transform the company’s repertoire, Carney says the organization has already met most of those goals.
KCB, formerly known as the State Ballet of Missouri, was founded in 1957 by Tatiana Dokoudovska. Company dancer Logan Pachciarz says the AGMA-participating troupe has grown exponentially since he arrived in 2000. “It had about half the number of dancers then, and we did mostly ensemble works.”
Carney, a former principal dancer and ballet master at Boston Ballet, says his decade-long term as associate artistic director at Cincinnati Ballet helped prepare him for his first directorship. Growing the organization was one of his priorities when he arrived. First, he created the six-member second company, KCB II. In 2015, he instituted a nine-dancer trainee program. The additional dancers, says Carney, are not only necessary to do full-length ballets and outreach, but have also relieved the 28 company dancers of some of the corps work, freeing them up for more soloist and principal roles.
“In my career, I had a chance to experience a lot of different styles,” says Carney. “I think it’s important that the dancers here have that kind of opportunity to grow. I believe in them, and when someone believed in me, it really changed my confidence level.”
With an annual operating budget of $8.5 million, Carney is cognizant of the ballets and choreographers he can bring in. Therefore, he needs performers who will excel in a variety of works. When hiring, Carney says, he looks for versatile dancers who will commit to the artistic intention of each piece. KCB now does a mix of full-length classics (something they did very little of before), neoclassical ballets like those of Balanchine, and contemporary works from a host of emerging and established choreographers, such as Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Jodie Gates and Val Caniparoli.
“He really challenges us to increase our technical level and ability,” says Pachciarz of Carney. “He’s a big fan of wide, sweeping movement and a lot of port de bras and épaulement.”
Ballet master and former Cincinnati Ballet principal Kristi Capps, who Carney hired in 2014, says he is “demanding, but in a caring way. For Devon, to see a dancer not put forth maximum effort is heartbreaking because he knows how short a dancer’s career is.”
Carney is also an accomplished choreographer, having created works for Boston Ballet, BalletMet, Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera. Pachciarz says he “is very methodical. He reads scores and thinks about how the movement fits into them.” In addition to KCB’s new Nutcracker, Carney mounted the company’s first-ever full-length Swan Lake in February and restaged his Giselle for them in 2015.
Artists who join KCB will step into a pretty spectacular situation, as Carney did. Their home, the new Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity—a converted power plant—houses the company, administrative offices, Kansas City Ballet School and a 180-seat theater. Each production (apart from Nutcracker) runs two weekends at the Kauffman Center, with most performed to live music by the Kansas City Symphony. Dancers can benefit from extra performance opportunities in ongoing collaborations with organizations like the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and they have the chance to choreograph as part of the company’s annual New Moves program.
Next up for KCB, May 6–15, is Adam Hougland’s Rite of Spring, along with works by Helen Pickett, Yuri Possokhov and a world premiere by Viktor Plotnikov. Beyond that, Carney’s plans for KCB include continued growth, in every direction. He aspires to add more dancers, have more collaborations and to tour—something they’ve done very little of. “I believe in this company,” says Carney. “There is so much left for us to do, and I am excited for what the future holds.”
The company holds open auditions January to March. Videos are accepted year-round as a preliminary audition, but Carney highly recommends dancers attend an open audition.
“Musicality is paramount to me, as is attentiveness to the material and being able to exactly reproduce it quickly,” says Carney. Women generally need to be between 5' 4" and 5' 7". Male dancers should be 5' 10" and up, with strong partnering skills. Carney says he also places great importance on a dancer’s demeanor, professional appearance, resumé and photo.
At a Glance
Kansas City Ballet
Number of dancers: 28
Length of contract: 35 weeks
Starting salary: $733 per week
Performances per year: 48+
Last August, Louisville Ballet’s artistic and executive director Robert Curran met with an anonymous donor in New York. He came home with a check for one million dollars. His lips are sealed, but the donation bodes well for the ballet’s future under Curran, whose tenure only began in 2014.
In its nearly 65-year history, Louisville Ballet has experienced quite the evolution: It has transitioned from civic to professional company; is now housed in a spacious facility nestled between downtown and NuLu, the city’s nascent but thriving arts district; and has the nationally respected Adam Hougland as its principal choreographer. As the new director, Curran has already laid out bold plans to strengthen the company, including an expanded relationship with the Louisville Orchestra and a broadened repertoire.
Curran comes to Louisville after a career with The Australian Ballet, where he rose through the ranks to principal. After retiring from the stage, he worked as rehearsal director with Bangarra Dance Theatre (an indigenous Australian contemporary company) before applying to Louisville Ballet when previous artistic director Bruce Simpson announced his retirement. Though he was new to directing, Curran came with a management degree and minors in marketing, psychology and human resources in hand.
Last spring, Louisville Ballet presented its first program of work chosen by Curran, including the company premiere of Serge Lifar’s seldom performed Suite en Blanc; George Balanchine’s Square Dance, revived after falling out of the regular rep; and a new contemporary ballet, Lucas Jervies’ What Light Is to Our Eyes. The mix speaks to Curran’s wide-ranging vision. He has frequently said, “This is a ballet company,” but knows that troupes must reach forward and backward in the balletic tradition. He has described this as “a very careful balance between respect and irreverence.”
In person, Curran is a quiet but intense presence. However, company member Natalia Ashikhmina says that it’s in his nature to push. “As soon as you reach the goal that he gave you yesterday, he comes up with the next one,” she says. “I expect a certain level,” says Curran, adding that he doesn’t yell when a dancer disappoints him, but “I am confident in sharing that disappointment.”
Curran has exhibited a knack for simultaneously executing several points of his vision: focusing on the art form’s tradition, new work, sustainability and building connections within the Louisville arts scene. This season’s opener, Curran’s new staging of Coppélia, used traditional choreography in an innovative setting: Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood on the eve of World War I, with the set and backdrops designed by local artist Jacob Heustis.
Curran plans to expand the rep with more 19th- and 20th-century classics, as well as contemporary ballets. As with Coppélia, he’s keen on presenting unique versions of ballets, whether that means fresh designs, settings or other tweaks on classics. He promises Louisville audiences will see works by Balanchine—who had only an occasional presence before Curran’s appointment—every season. Case in point: A full Balanchine program is planned for the spring.
Curran is equally committed to his dancers. “I want a long-term chance to invest in each of the artists,” he says. “I don’t feel that 12 months is enough time to truly get to know what someone is capable of.” The ballet’s roster backs Curran up; it hasn’t changed since he signed on.
Ashikhmina adds that, in addition to being artistically supportive, the Louisville Ballet has a wonderful emotional environment. “What’s different about the company is this family is really friendly. People care about each other.” Ashikhmina’s husband, Philip Velinov, is also a member, and they have two children. The company also boasts a high number of dancers with college degrees or those who are currently working toward one.
Next up in March is (R)Evolution, a co-production with the Louisville Orchestra. Though the two organizations have consistently teamed up for Nutcracker, they now have the resources to work together throughout the season. The program, a triple bill by Hougland, including his Cold Virtues, a reinvented Petrouchka and a world premiere, hopefully signals more collaborations to come.
Whether the company is presenting classical or contemporary works, Curran is sure of one thing: “I am committed to the glamour of a night at the ballet,” he says, and it all starts with rigor in the studio.