In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.
Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.
Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.
In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
As told to Laura Cappelle.
I knew before Christopher Wheeldon even started Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that he wanted me to create the title role. We made Alice together. We feel like she is our girl! She's charming, witty, tough, curious. She's got a very big heart. She's also spontaneous, which helps the show, because you don't have to be calculated the whole time. You can bounce off the characters you come across, because everyone plays them slightly differently.
From celebrations of Jerome Robbins' centennial to exciting premieres to old classics, this week is jam packed with ballet. We rounded up highlights from eight companies to give you a sense of what's happening onstage this week.
The Washington Ballet
On March 14, The Washington Ballet will present a triptych of new works. Gemma Bond's premiere ties-in to Women's History Month, and she discusses the connection in this video. Also on the bill are creations by celebrated dancers Clifton Brown and Marcelo Gomes. For video teasers of their works, click here.
When you think of Egypt, you might not immediately associate it with ballet. But during the late 1950s and 1960s, the country worked hard to establish its own world-class ballet company. With the help of the Soviet Union, Egypt's then minister of culture Dr. Tharwat Okasha established Cairo's Higher Institute of Ballet in 1958, bringing in teachers from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy to train the country's first generation of ballet stars. In 1963, five female students from the Institute's inaugural class were invited to finish their training with the Bolshoi in Moscow.
One of them, Magda Saleh, would become Egypt's first prima ballerina, and go on to perform with the Bolshoi and Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballets as a guest artist during her career. "Young girls in Egypt live a very sheltered life, and even to be studying ballet was exceptional," Saleh said in a phone interview last week. Their time studying abroad in Cold War-era Moscow was "character forming," she says. "Life was tough then for the majority of Russians, but it became very helpful for us during our careers, where we had to overcome many obstacles." In 1966, shortly after the women returned, the Cairo Ballet Company produced its first ballet, Boris Asafiev's Fountain of Bakhchisarai, in which Saleh starred. The performance was enormously successful, and for the next several years the new company enjoyed an exciting golden era.
Throughout the year, ballet companies are celebrating what would be Jerome Robbins's 100th birthday. One of America's most prolific and versatile dancemakers, Robbins is often remembered for his choreography for Broadway musicals like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. However, his ballets, from Fancy Free to Afternoon of a Faun, are equally iconic. One of his best-loved pieces, among dancers and audiences alike, is Dances at a Gathering, a lyrical ballet inspired by Chopin's piano compositions. The hour-long piece features 10 dancers, all dressed in different colors, who move in and out of solos, duets and group dances; it's a staple in company repertories around the world.
Ever since Makhar Vaziev took the reigns of the Bolshoi Ballet in 2016, he's been pushing a new crop of promising young talent. Last summer, he chose Alena Kovaleva, then just 18, to dance the lead in "Diamonds" in New York City. This weekend North American audiences have an opportunity to catch another rising company dancer, corps de ballet member Margarita Shrainer, in movie theaters. On Sunday, March 4, Shrainer will star as the strong-willed Jeanne in Alexei Ratmansky's 2008 revival of The Flames of Paris, part of this season's Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series. Fathom Events and By Experience (BYE) will partner to broadcast the film, captured live from a Moscow performance earlier in the day, to more than 500 movie theaters in the U.S. and Canada.
The Flames of Paris, which is set in the French Revolution, is a high-octane ballet full of dazzling bravura. While Shrainer is no stranger to principal roles, dancing for millions of viewers will add another element of pressure to her performance on Sunday. We spoke to her over email to see how she handles it all.