Audiences’ fascination with ballets based on Shakespeare’s plays shows no sign of diminishing. The beauty of his language and the complexity of his characters, whether comic or tragic, historic or fantastic, continue to challenge choreographers to match their artistry with his. Last October, American Ballet Theatre added another play to its growing list of Shakespeare ballets when it premiered a uniquely dark adaptation of The Tempest by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. The company will reprise the production during its Lincoln Center season this spring.
ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie hired Mark Lamos, director of Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, to be the company’s dramaturge and act as a consultant for Ratmansky. “Alexei had already filled a notebook with ideas before I arrived,” Lamos says. “Basic patterns had been set for every scene, but dancers were encouraged to improvise.”
Ratmansky also passed up the opportunity for ballet fireworks if a simple gesture would better suit Shakespeare’s purpose. In one scene, Prospero (Marcelo Gomes), exiled duke of Milan and now ruler of the island where he had been a castaway, confronts his treacherous brother Antonio (Sascha Radetsky). Does Prospero burst onstage in a grand jeté followed by a double tour to celebrate having his brother in his power? No, he slowly advances toward Antonio, stops a yard or two away and holds out his hand. Awestruck, his brother returns the crown he had stolen years ago. “Some 60 words of text had been distilled into a restrained gesture that reveals Prospero’s refusal to be vindictive,” says Lamos.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities for showstopping roles in Shakespeare ballets. Just look at Mercutio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Puck in Ashton’s The Dream or Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brash defiance is their specialty. In The Tempest, Ratmansky created a variation of the pas de deux to demonstrate the power Prospero has over Ariel, his resident sprite and servant. As embodied by Daniil Simkin, Ariel repeatedly hurtles across the stage to leap into his master’s arms with such gravity-defying ease he seems to have helium in his veins. Their encounters are anything but affectionate, however; Prospero, who alternates promising Ariel his freedom with assigning him another task, always holds him out at arm’s length in midair to remind him who’s boss.
In one scene, Shakespeare actually requires a pas de trois that has taxed the ingenuity of stage directors and versatility of actors for centuries. The resident monster Caliban and two drunken sailors must roll around under a stinking cloak, swigging whiskey all the while. No problem at ABT: Ratmansky’s ingenuity and the agility of Herman Cornejo as Caliban and Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young as the sailors turn this demanding grapple into an inspired entanglement that’s over all too soon.
The vastness of the great plays have given directors and choreographers ample room for many highly “personal” productions—some valid, some inspired, some outrageous. Ratmansky brings his Tempest to a haunting conclusion that concentrates on Caliban as the performance ends. Instead of remaining offstage after his exit as he does in the play, he is now onstage when the rest of the cast sails away. He becomes a tormented grotesque, skittering across the space in growing desperation as the fact of his isolation sinks in. The stage darkens as he shreds the pages of Prospero’s precious book of charms, which he lacks the ability to read. The bleakness of his solitude drives him mad, but it brings a new, bitter logic to Shakespeare.
Harris Green is a New York City dance writer.
The Tempest’s three principal men—Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin, all veterans of MacMillan’s Romeo—found Ratmansky’s Shakespeare adaptation made special demands.
As Prospero, Gomes has to embody authority every second he’s onstage. That task was no stretch for someone with his magnetic presence, but it may account for the effect in the only scene in which he demonstrates Prospero’s magic powers. “I have this great staff—not some puny magic wand—but what do I do with it?” he asks. “Alexei worked out a set of flourishes I perform not only before but behind me when I draw the charmed circle.” This ritual has the short-lived brilliance of a lightning bolt—it’s over in seconds.
Simkin, who is rarely still as Ariel, was sustained by the genuine outrage the play aroused in him at his character’s unrelieved servitude: “Prospero is always reminding Ariel he will release him as a servant, but treats him like a slave. He promises him freedom but always delays it.” Simkin’s every entrance reflected Ariel’s airborne essence and his yearning for freedom: “Alexei didn’t want symbolic movement, “ he says. “You needed to be expressive, to dance for the ‘big picture,’ to show what you feel, not pantomime it. ”
Cornejo’s Caliban offered a radical departure from his usual virtuoso parts. “I have only one jump,” he says. He also has his own approach to acting: “I like to rehearse without knowing too much about the part.” Ratmansky’s demand that he be “grounded” was enough to keep him close to the floor. With Cornejo’s exuberance suppressed, Caliban becomes a broken, piteous creature and The Tempest a work of dark, unsuspected depths rarely shown in the theater. —HG
Ballet companies all over are celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with new productions and revivals based on his plays (see Call Board for an interview with Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe about his new Twelfth Night and “Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale,” a behind-the-scenes peek at his new work for The Royal Ballet). Here’s a sampling:
Atlanta Ballet will stage Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, April 11–13; Joffrey Ballet will stage Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet, April 30–May 11; Scottish Ballet will present Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells in London, May 14–17; Stuttgart Ballet will present John Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet, select days June 12–July 29; Houston Ballet will stage John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 4–14.
At 5' 4", New York City Ballet corps member Lauren Lovette could be easily overlooked at the end of a long line of corps women. Once she begins to dance, however, she captures your attention. Her head is held high atop an eloquent neck. Her body is a textbook example of classical proportions with its 2:1 ratio of legs to torso. Her long arms possess an invariably musical sinuosity.
Last year Lovette, now 21, began earning critical acclaim for major roles. Reviewing her debut as Sugarplum in The Nutcracker, New York Observer critic Robert Gottlieb wrote that she was “strong, clear, musical, succeeding through dance power and ballerina-like self-assurance." Yet Lovette has had her share of disheartening setbacks along the way. It took determination and talent to lay the foundation for her success.
One of her first NYCB roles could not have been more negligible. Soon after she became an apprentice in 2009, she was cast in a fleeting cameo in choreographer Susan Stroman's Frankie and Johnny . . . and Rose. She popped up out of nowhere at the end to console Amar Ramasar after he had been simultaneously dumped by Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns.
Lovette's recent Sugarplum debut won her kudos from the critics. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Few of her colleagues in New York City Ballet could have been surprised when they learned that Ashly Isaacs was one of the four corps members ballet master in chief Peter Martins had cast in his latest work, Mes Oiseaux. Lauren Lovette, Claire Kretzschmar, Taylor Stanley and Isaacs were not only its entire cast, but they premiered it at the company’s 2012 Spring Gala. Also featured on the program were the world premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts, and the first look at the new costumes for Balanchine’s teeming masterpiece, Symphony in C. Quite an evening for your first time in the spotlight.
A 5' 6" brunette with a big, open jump, willowy arms and long legs, 21-year-old Isaacs has always been hard to overlook. Fellow dancers note her persistence in class and rehearsals. Lovette testifies to Isaacs’ dedication when Mes Oiseaux was taking shape: “Taylor, Claire and I would be catching our breath during a break; Ashly would be in the corner, still working on a jump or a tendu.”
Isaacs knows whom to credit for her dance overdrive. “You could say I had a ‘ballet father.’ He ran Michael’s Academy of Performing Arts near Fort Lauderdale, and I learned everything from acrobatics to ballet,” she says. “I loved anything involving movement.”
As unlikely as it was that a dance-obsessed child would feel affection for the clumsiest creatures that ever roamed the earth, Isaacs also had a passion for dinosaurs that continues to this day. As it happened, such paradoxes were typical. Magda Auñon, her Cuban-trained teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, where she enrolled full-time at her father’s urging, recalls a child so shy she had to be coaxed out of the corner when a photographer was in the studio, yet who came to glowing life onstage in the school’s Nutcracker. “When Ashly first came to me for a private lesson, she was 10 or 11,” recalls Auñon. “She already had a lovely arch to her feet, exceptional turnout and the flexibility to execute intricate steps. Even with such natural gifts and what I soon realized was an incredible work ethic, it was still necessary to stress style and self-expression. I told her, ‘Your goal must always be: Quality, not quantity.’ ”
The bond between Auñon and her pupil remains especially close. “Magda shaped me into the dancer I am today,” says Isaacs. “She never let me settle and always pushed me into refining my ability as a dancer. She put strength in my dancing, but more importantly she put strength in my character. I think of her every time I step on a stage.”
In 2006, at age 15, Isaacs was accepted to the School of American Ballet. Three years later, she earned a Mae L. Wien Award, SAB’s highest honor. An NYCB apprenticeship for the 2009–2010 season came next. She entered the company’s corps in 2010.
Any dread Isaacs may have felt at shouldering the responsibility for a world premiere on a gala evening faded while working again with Taylor Stanley. Now on the soloist track at NYCB, he had been Isaacs’ partner for a workshop for SAB. Stanley knew he would have his hands full partnering three women and also tossing off an occasional 180-degree grand jeté on his own. But, he says, “I never doubted that Ashly would be with me all the way.”
There was extra pressure to performing Mes Oiseaux at the gala. “We had no covers for this ballet,” says Isaacs. “It was all up to us four to deliver. I was tempted to give more by getting a bit flashy—then I thought of Magda. I concentrated on ‘Quality, not quantity.’ “
At a Glance
Schools: Michael’s Academy of Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, School of American Ballet
College course: Philosophy
Favorite ballet performed: Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries
Dream role: The novice from Jerome Robbins’ The Cage
Photos by Matthew Murphy
New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht had no difficulty lining up performers for his “Dance Against Cancer” benefit last spring. The event raised some $30,000 for the American Cancer Society, and there was an extra level of dedication that evening at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center: Nearly all of the participants, who donated their services, had someone close who had died from cancer or battled it. Benefit co-producer Erin Fogarty, a former member of Carolina Ballet and now director of programming for MMAC’s Manhattan Youth Ballet, recently lost her father to the disease. Ulbricht’s mother is being treated for uterine cancer. “I jumped at the idea of a benefit when Erin suggested it,” Ulbricht says. “I could finally repay my mom for all the love and support she’s given me.” Seven NYCB colleagues joined him, as well as members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Keigwin + Company and Carolina Ballet. “All of us wanted to do something,” he says, “and dance is what we do.”
Although she can move with the lightness of a dragonfly skimming a pond, a year ago American Ballet Theatre corps member Meaghan Hinkis scored a great success with ABT II by doing no dancing at all. Last spring, she performed the role of a mourning widow visiting the statue of her assassinated husband in Roger VanFleteren’s pas de deux Pavlovsk. From her entrance through her slow collapse and subsequent gestures of grief, Hinkis’ powerfully restrained command of mime permeated the theater with nobility and loss. Of course the statue (Alberto Velazquez) soon came to life, and the dancing began. By that point, however, we knew we were not watching just another pas for two attractive young people.
“I feel most comfortable when I’m onstage,” admits Hinkis, 19. A dancer since age 4, she grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, and focused on ballet by the time she was 11, when she started at The Hartt School. Two years later, she began going to New York’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the traditional springboard to ABT II, which she joined in 2007. She also studied with reknowned coach Fabrice Herrault on her own time.
Already an apprentice with the main company when she danced Pavlovsk, Hinkis’ expressive almond eyes and long limbs give her movement eloquence. Although she’s just 5’ 4”, she easily dominates the stage with space-defying speed.
Last October, when ABT accepted her into the corps, the company was gearing up to launch a new production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. By then, Hinkis was an old Nutcracker hand: “I seemed to be dancing it everywhere,” she says, noting that she performed Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for two seasons when she was younger and more recently danced the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Hague (thanks to ABT II contacts). Ratmansky not only recruited her for the Toy Soldier’s dance in the Act I party scene that he had turned into a pas de deux for the windup toys, he cast her in the December 23 premiere.
The honor came as no surprise to her teachers. “Meaghan is a joy to work with because she is hungry for a challenge,” recalls ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman. “She has no real limits. I used to make her mad by saying, ‘I don’t know if you can do this.’ She showed me she could.”
Her maturity was what initially impressed ABT ballet mistress Nancy Raffa. “She immediately adapted to working in the company,” she says. “Her commitment to her career is so serious that she has no time to be neurotic. Some young dancers always talk about what they are going to do. Meaghan always demonstrates she can do it.”
This commitment was amply illustrated at two Nutcracker rehearsals a few weeks before previews began, when Hinkis was alternating work in the corps for “Waltz of the Flowers” with the demanding pas de deux she had been awarded. Although the “Waltz” was still a work in progress at that stage, Hinkis stood out from the other 15 women who were being coached by ballet mistress Susan Jones. It was also obvious that she was already dancing the steps full out, with line and verve to spare and a special twist to the torso in leaps.
Then she was off down the hall to a rehearsal with Ratmansky for the rapid-fire pas de deux for her and Luis Ribagorda. “Alexei is a pleasure to work with,” she says. “He tells you what he wants, and you want to do it for him.” While other couples stood by to mark the choreography, Ratmansky patiently clarified the steps that went off like a string of firecrackers and tightened the jagged poses that abruptly ended each phrase.
Thanks to Hinkis, rehearsals with the other couples could now proceed smoothly through rough spots. When a woman’s footwork looked uncertain, Ratmansky would call upon Hinkis to demonstrate the correct steps, and she never failed to do so.
Did I mention her middle name is Grace?
At A Glance
Name: Meaghan Hinkis
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Training: The Hartt School in Hartford, CT, JKO, Fabrice Herrault
Dream Roles: Kitri, Aurora, Juliet
Idols: Gillian Murphy, Alina Cojocaru
Daylight saving time had been in effect only a few hours last November when New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin entered an NYCB rehearsal studio to recapture history. In Classroom 2 on the seventh floor, the clock had been turned back to 1968, when NYCB premiered Balanchine's La Source, a demanding pas de deux with four solos set to a Léo Delibes score and made on Violette Verdy and John Prinz. The George Balanchine Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the choreographer's ballets in a state as close to the original as possible, had arranged to tape Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in practice clothes performing La Source.
Verdy herself was there as an expert observer and advisor, while Helgi Tomasson, who often performed La Source at New York City Ballet before becoming artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, served as co-critic. Lined up along one mirrored wall of the classroom were an accompanist at a grand piano, a movie cameraman, sound technicians and an assistant responsible for keeping a boom mike hovering out of camera range to catch every word Verdy and Tomasson said to Hyltin and Garcia.
Choosing Hyltin for taping this demanding role would have surprised no one who saw her debut in La Source the last week of the 2010 spring season. She had only one opportunity to achieve its many piquant subtleties, such as the brace of gargouillades that blossom amid a flourish of footwork, and she performed each with the assurance and precision of a veteran. “NYCB ballet master Sally Leland invited me to observe the company rehearse the three casts," Verdy recalls. “Sterling was incredible, with endless arms and legs, and she was always open to criticism. Her dancing has a quality I call 'true from the inside.' "
For a dancer who looks so at ease in the air, 19-year-old April Giangeruso earns compliments that could be mistaken for complaints: “She’s got both feet on the ground,” or “She’s well-grounded.” Now an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre, Giangeruso has always had exceptional focus. The praise from admiring teachers and coaches is a tribute to her unswerving dedication to meeting ballet’s stern demands.
As a child, Giangeruso wasted no time getting to work. At age 5, after seeing her first performance of Swan Lake, she informed her parents that she wanted to be a dancer. “I loved taking class,” she says. “The studio was like a second home for me.” At 9, having exhausted the training opportunities offered in her hometown, Ellicott City, Maryland, she transferred to the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., studying under a full scholarship from 2001 to 2005. She then moved to New York City, acquiring more Russian training from Valentina Kozlova, and became, at 15, the youngest female finalist at the 2006 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.
Many young women her age would be eager to earn more medals, but not Giangeruso. “I wasn’t interested in entering competitions; working on a solo for one or two years did not appeal to me. That’s not what ballet is about.” Returning to Maryland to become an all-American teenager and join a class of graduating seniors was ruled out as well. (One reason: She had found the time to graduate from high school two years early.) Asked if she resented ballet’s depriving her of the rite—and some would say the rights—of girlhood, she says, “No. I love ballet. Dance class also got me out of having to take P.E.”
Attending American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives as a National Training Scholar was a more practical use of her energies after her Jackson triumph. She had no difficulty qualifying for admission to ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2007, but she didn’t stay there long. Within four months, she was taken into ABT II. She has been dancing professionally ever since, doing everything from fusion ensembles to excerpts from the classics. At 5’7”, she already possesses the long, unfolding line essential for the Act II Swan Lake pas de deux, as she demonstrated last April in ABT II’s New York City performances. Through an effortless musicality, she revealed Odette’s tremulous but trusting nature, an unusual accomplishment in someone so young.
ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman describes her as the easiest young dancer he’s ever worked with: “She can do almost any style, even contemporary, and anything she doesn’t get right away, she works on until she does. She’s already well on her way to performing the double role in Swan Lake. Giving up is not an option with her.”
For Giangeruso, attitude covers more than just a step you practice in class and perform onstage. Attitude is also what you bring to class and to performance. “I know dancers who approach class as a time to work only on steps they already do well,” she says. “Those are what you practice. What you work on is whatever you can’t do now, frustrating as it is to repeatedly look less than your best. And don’t be discouraged if the person next to you looks really great. Class is the time for competition. Enjoy it.”
“I love jumps,” she continues, “but they don’t come as easy as pirouettes and adagio. Jumping from a dead stop is really hard, so that’s what I concentrate on, no matter what I look like doing it. I don’t beat myself up if I’m not perfect. Practice makes less imperfect, someone said.”
If that sounds somewhat philosophical, well, philosophy is what Giangeruso happens to be studying at Long Island University when she has the time. Attending college is a logical step for a dancer to take. “With ballet you never know what the future holds,” she says. Both feet on the ground, as usual.
At A Glance
Name: April Giangeruso
Training: Kirov Academy of Ballet, Valentina Kozlova, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School
Favorite Ballet: Swan Lake
Dream Role: Odette/Odile
Alison Stroming’s teachers invariably describe her as “modest”—while recounting accomplishments that give her every reason to have an ego. Shrinking violets aren’t cast, as Stroming was last April, as one of the three shades in the “Kingdom of the Shades” excerpt from La Bayadère in JKO’s spring performance. The choreography demands such a command of line, phrasing, technique and musicality that the main company regularly assigns soloists to these roles. If her variation presented any difficulty, 16-year-old Stroming concealed it like a pro, dancing with a lyrical ease that seemed blissfully free of effort.
Born in Recife, Brazil, Stroming was adopted when she was eight months old by a family in New Jersey, and grew up with two brothers and two sisters who all took classes in jazz, tap, modern and ballet. “I started dance when I was 2,” she says. “I still study jazz with my brother Gil”—creator and choreographer of “Break the Floor” and “Jump Dance Conventions”—“because I like to have options. I enjoy photo shoots and runway modeling, too.”
Stroming flourishes under the hands-on approach the school stresses. Franco De Vita, JKO principal, explains, “We limit our enrollment to 69 so students receive individual attention.” The present faculty includes such former ABT ballerinas as Susan Jaffe, Martine van Hamel and Lupe Serrano. “We insist that all students focus on doing what the teacher wants and on arriving on time,” De Vita continues. “We have a strict dress code as well.”
Faculty member Raymond Lukens, who co-staged the Bayadère excerpt, has fond memories of working with Stroming: “I was choreographing an industrial for Payless Shoes”—the manufacturer has an endorsement agreement with ABT—“and Alison was observing the process to gain experience. At the last moment, I needed a replacement, and it turned out she knew the part perfectly, despite having never danced it in rehearsal. If she is your cover, you can relax.”
Stroming knows she still has a lot to work on. “Pirouettes present no problem,” she says. “But now I’m
concentrating on épaulement and relaxing my shoulders.” Relaxation of any kind is a luxury during the week. She attends the Professional Performing Arts School from 8:15 am to 1:15 pm, then subways downtown to JKO for two hours of technique beginning at 2:30 pm. Classes in pas de deux, modern, character or variations may follow, and a rehearsal is often included.
Has she time for a personal life? “My mom allows sleepovers,” she says. “I’ve been reading the Twilight series.” Asked if she has a boyfriend, she says, “I did,” with an unblinking eye contact that says, “The subject is closed.” A prima ballerina could not have done it better.
American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline? Kennedy Onassis School
Enrollment: 69 students. Students range from 9 to 18. A new children’s division was added this year for ages 5 to 12. Hopefuls can audition in person from September through May. Videos can be sent at any time to: American Ballet Theatre, Attention: Rebecca Schwartz, 890 Broadway, Floor 3, New York, NY 10003.
Principal: Franco De Vita
Faculty: Olga Dvorovenko, Susan Jaffe, Martine Van Hamel, Jessica Lang, Raymond Lukens, Clarice Marshall and Lupe Serrano.
Classes: technique, pointe, pas de deux, modern, character, variations, Pilates and a wellness lecture series which covers nutrition, stress management and resumé writing.
Alumni: ABT, Pennsylvania Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company and BalletMet Columbus, among others