Dancers On Tour: Pittsburgh Ballet in the Dead Sea

Our final day in Israel was magical. The first stop was Mt. Olive for an amazing overlook of the Old City of Jerusalem. Everything was layered, both in the sense of time, with each century erecting their monuments upon the previous, and in the sense of religion, with the most holy of sites for so many all converging on each other in this small area.

We drove down towards the Roman walls that surround the Old City. Walking up the steep hill towards the Lions Gate entrance, us dancers joined the pilgrims of all types: arabs in there long white robes, women in head scarves, jewish men in black suits, some with scarves covering their heads, some with yarmulkes. This area had passed through control by so many hands, from Persian to Roman to Arab to Jewish. It seemed like with each step you could be passing over the foundations of a forum, a monastery, a church and a pagan temple all at once.

The Old City was one giant bazaar with hundreds of shopkeepers hawking colorful scarves, jewelry, leather sandals, persian rugs, religious statues, fruit juices, candy. You couldn't help but stumble upon marker after marker of famous religious sites and shrines. I've never experienced such a feeling of "living history." I was amazed as I laid my hands on the sun-warmed stones of wailing wall: From afar, it looks made of rough, porous sandstone-like rock, but beneath my fingers it was smooth, I suppose from the many millions of hands that have been there before mine.  

After, we headed to the Dead Sea, spotting herds of goats and even a few camels along the way. My ears popped as we started our descent towards the Sea, the lowest place on earth. We all were taken by surprise as we stepped off the prickly sand of the beach into the slick, oozing mud beneath the surface of the murky, hot water. It was incredibly difficult to walk without slipping, and every few feet you would plunge into a muddy sink hole up to your knee. Then we realized it was easier to float your way around. It took absolutely no effort to just lay back! It was the most bizarre feeling, almost as if this wasn't water at all but some other element entirely. We smoothed the mud all over our bodies to soak in the healing minerals. I tried to take in the significance of being as close to the center of the earth as I ever would be, right then. An incredible end to an incredible journey.


Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

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News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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