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The Tipping Point

Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

It seems that, in ballet careers, everything happens at once. For a few years, you notice a dancer and make a mental note: “She's got something." And then, before you know it, she's everywhere. And so it was last year for American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary, 22. In the blink of an eye she graduated from promising young dancer—I remember spotting her as she led the Shades in La Bayadère with unrelenting precision—to nascent star. She performed her first classical solo, in Raymonda Divertissements, in 2014. Then, in one year, she debuted the roles of Princess Florine and Diamond Fairy in Alexei Ratmansky's new The Sleeping Beauty, the youngest sister in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, the sleep-dancing young woman in Le Spectre de la Rose and a lead role in Marcelo Gomes' new AfterEffect. Last August, she was promoted to soloist.


Trenary as Princess Florine in Alexei Ratmansky's "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


Physically, it was a challenging year. “I felt like crap!" the relaxed, forthright Trenary answered recently at a café near ABT's studios when asked what it felt like to learn so many roles in quick succession. “But I love to dance, and I just ran with it." Trenary—a petite brunette with big, lively eyes and strong features that read particularly well onstage—emanates energy and directness. No matter what role she dances, she's dynamic and strong, a force to be reckoned with.

“She's a real person and it's fun to be in the studio with her," says James Whiteside, a principal in the company who is also a close friend. “We work our butts off, but it never has that neurotic edge," he adds, with a laugh. That ability to maintain a level head has served her well in recent months as she prepared for her biggest assignment to date: the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. For the first time, she has to carry the whole show, in a purely classical idiom.

It has taken an adjustment. “I need to be bigger, and to make every step extremely important," she said after a rehearsal in February, before her April 2 debut in Detroit. (Her New York City debut will take place June 29.) Particularly in this production, which emphasizes delicate musicality over showy virtuosity, she has had to find a new lyricism, a way to make the steps sing, like notes in an aria.

In rehearsal, Trenary and Whiteside worked through “The Vision" scene, in which Prince Désiré imagines Aurora calling him to her bedside to free her from Carabosse's spell. Even after a long day of rehearsals, Trenary looked fresh and alert, unfazed by all the information coming her way. The moment the pianist placed his fingers on the keys, her body and face changed—she became someone else. Breathing into her port de bras, she gazed into her partner's eyes with a look full of curiosity and longing. How could a prince resist?


As the Canary Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty.' Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.


The ballet master, Keith Roberts, gave her tips on how to make her performance register even more. The unifying principle was: let go. “You have to forget how you ran with other women, and run by yourself. You can be you now," he said at one point. With each take, she seemed to expand and soften. Instead of overthinking technical details, she trusted the music and the feeling of the steps to carry her, relying less on the mirror and more on internal sensations. She also asked a lot of questions, rather than wait for suggestions.

“She is an unusually self-possessed and focused artist who knows how to learn," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who offered her a spot as an apprentice in 2011, when she was 17 and still a student at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. (She skipped over the ABT Studio Company, the usual stepping stone for promising candidates.) She had come to the school from Georgia, where she grew up with a younger brother. Her father owned a used-car dealership; her mother worked in real estate and retail. Trenary got into dance early, at 3, and started taking class at the Lawrenceville School of Ballet. But her training was eclectic, and she wasn't a bunhead; she did ballet, jazz, tap, modern dance and hip hop, but also tried horseback riding and tae kwon do. In fact, before being spotted at ABT's summer intensive and invited to study at JKO (at 15), she had only been taking ballet three times a week.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

At the school, then artistic director Franco De Vita and faculty member Raymond Lukens immediately sensed her potential. “From the moment we saw her, there was something special about her. She was luminous," says Lukens, who cast her in one of his own works. Because of her varied training, she was placed with dancers two years younger than her. It took her a year to catch up to the other students in her age group. Her confidence flagged—“I started comparing myself to other people, which is super-unhealthy," she says—but she had the benefit of having her family around her. Her parents had quit their jobs, sold everything and moved up to New York. Even the family dog made the trip. “They didn't want me to come alone," she says, “and they looked at it as an adventure." (After she joined the company, they moved back south, to Florida.)

Perhaps that's why family and friendships are so important to her. In 2014, after a difficult year in which she slowly recovered from one injury (a fractured metatarsal) only to be beset by another (a bulge in her cervical spine), she married fellow ABT dancer Gray Davis. Through the eight months of recovery, he encouraged her and helped buoy her spirits. “I had a lot of couch time," she says, and a lot of time to think. She took some acting classes, even joined the cast of a play and considered going back to school. Meanwhile, her desire to dance grew even stronger.

Both Trenary and her husband are regular churchgoers; the habit, she says, is “a reminder to love each other a little more." That love and the sense of groundedness it inspires may help to explain why she seems so comfortable in her own skin. She thrives on work with contemporary choreographers (like Gregory Dolbashian, Ratmansky and her fellow ABT colleague Gemma Bond). She has appeared with Daniil Simkin's pickup group INTENSIO. She even made a dance video, “Wallflower," with Whiteside, who moonlights as a pop/dance artist under the alter ego JbDubs. Watching that video, you would never guess that Trenary's day job is as a classical dancer. She looks unapologetic, strong and, in a word, sexy.

This year, in addition to The Sleeping Beauty, she'll be tackling the role of the doll-like bird in Ratmansky's The Golden Cockerel. In the future, who knows? It seems there's very little she can't do if she sets her mind to it. As she puts it: “I feel as though, more and more, every detail counts."

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer in New York City.

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If you're in the NYC area and are in need of weekend plans, you might want to consider heading to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Jean-Stéphane Bron's documentary, The Paris Opéra. While the film was originally released in France this past spring, it just made its way to the US on October 18th, and it chronicles the 2015-2016 season at the Paris Opera.

Encompassing the entire institution (which was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV!), dancers will particularly enjoy an inside look at the Paris Opéra Ballet—both in rehearsals and onstage. Most notably, Bron captures the then POB director Benjamin Millepied as he decides to leave his position with the company barely a year after his appointment.

Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

Your Training
Thinkstock.

Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

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New York City Ballet in Marc Chagall's costume designs for Balanchine's "Firebird."

I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.

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Tiler Peck in "Who Cares?". Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and Emmy-winning actress Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men and Handmaid's Tale fame) may seem like unlikely friends, until you dig a little deeper into their backgrounds. Both attended Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica and spent summers at the School of American Ballet in their youths. Moss and Peck's career paths diverged when the former fell in love with acting and Peck went on to study at SAB full time, eventually becoming the star we know today. Now, the pairs' artistic pursuits are uniting in an exciting new project.

According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


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Your Best Body

Looking for creative and healthy ways to get your pumpkin fix this fall? First, back away from the pumpkin-spiced latte—the season's unofficial drink is often laced with sugary syrup and comes with a complimentary mid-rehearsal crash. Instead, try these simple snacks with puréed pumpkin. It's high in beta-carotene, which converts to immunity-boosting vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin K, iron and fiber. You can buy it canned or make the purée from a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin (they're commonly available at grocery stores or farm markets).

Fruit-and-Spice Toast

- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

- Top with sliced pear.

- Add a dash of cinnamon.

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Pointe Stars

When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
P.O. Alienz in Lavender Leotard; Paulina Waski modelling a Kreature Kulture t-shirt. Photos Courtesy Paulina Waski.

Walk into any ballet class and you're bound to see a row of dancers clad in leotards patterned with dainty flowers and lace. But nearly three years ago, American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski wore a very different kind of leotard to class—and her colleagues loved it. Now an average day at ABT includes any number of dancers in leotards featuring angry aliens, detached eyeballs and grinning monsters.

"My dad, John, is an artist, and he draws all these crazy creatures," Waski explains. "One year he did what he called his paper plate project; he drew a new creature onto a paper plate every single day for 365 days. I thought, 'he should put one on a leotard!' He screen printed one onto one of my old leotards himself, and when I wore it to class everyone was wowed." And so, Kreature Kulture was born.


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