In The Mix

In previous generations, ballet dancers trained with the expectations that they would be dancing Sleeping Beauty for the rest of their lives. Thanks to the changing choreographic landscape of the 21st century, however, today’s dancers must often adjust to new approaches and ways of organizing movement in order to work with a professional company. Either as a strategy to attract a broader audience or from a genuine interest in evolving the art form, ballet companies are programming works by choreographers as diverse as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe and commissioning work from innovative contemporary choreographers such as Dwight Rhoden and Karole Armitage. A broader range of skills than those encompassed by traditional training is required to dance these works well.

Contemporary choreography asks the dancer to look outside the box, beyond perfect form, to see the qualities movement itself can possess. To thrive in this environment, dancers must be willing to take risks and to do things differently—not just physically but mentally as well.

Rhoden and Armitage are two choreographers who push dancers to explore new territory. Both have their own companies—Complexions, which Rhoden cofounded and codirects with Desmond Richardson, and Armitage Gone!, which Armitage formed last year when she returned to her home base in the U.S. after several years choreographing in Europe. Both use ballet as a base and demand solid classical training.

“Even if you’re doing a développé that’s turned in, the way you unfold, the way you create line, relies on classical method, timing,” says Armitage.

And while ballet dancers are expected to excel at pirouettes, extensions and jumps, those things are only 50 percent of what is necessary, says Rhoden. “You need that foundation, but you [also] need to be able to then let them go.”

Where traditional ballet emphasizes the limbs—especially the legs—while the torso remains relatively unchanging, contemporary choreographers ask for an expansive use of the whole body. This involves freeing the upper body, which can be a challenge for the classically trained.

“How you think about the movement totally changes what it looks like,” says Armitage. “The preparation is really having an open mind and trying out different things. You have to understand the process of making shapes instead of just copying. Imitating shapes, that’s really of a bygone era.”

To create his movement, Rhoden draws on a broad background in dance including dancing for his mentor, Alvin Ailey, in the Ailey company. Rhoden’s choreography often originates  in the center of the body and flows into the limbs, with an organic quality that can be likened to an amoeba. In his teaching, he identifies “missing links” in the evolution he envisions for ballet. For him, these links enable dancers to see the possibilities that can be drawn from ballet technique. For example, classroom steps are executed and then repeated off-center. Dancers learn when to pull away, when to release the tension and how to feel different energy levels.

Demonstrating a movement, Rhoden moves through fondu to front tendu and his upper body contracts as his arm reaches forward to greet the foot. “The total body performs the step,” he says, always referring back to the center line even while pulling away from it.

Redirecting energy is key to Rhoden’s work. And, although the concepts are logical, the result will be unfamiliar to the classically trained dancer accustomed to constantly lifting away from the floor. “Spiral down, find the floor,” “Bear the weight” and “The dynamics have to be clear” are all instructions that Rhoden calls out in rehearsal.

Armitage’s movement is a fusion built on her early Balanchine-based ballet training and her years with Merce Cunningham. Though she is leaning away from pointe shoes, she still considers herself a classicist, because her preoccupations are with structure, beauty and metaphor. She fuses the thoughtful approach of modern dance with the technique, rigor and refinement of ballet.

Armitage encourages dancers to aim for fluency in both ballet and modern and to explore awareness-building techniques like yoga, as well as other practices that offer an edge in finding the common denominator of the body’s universal language.

“What I do is [create] expression through form,” she says. “The concepts are very logical. You’re using all the training you’ve had and putting it toward a different picture.” Her dancers “trace movement rather than making shapes. You show where the movement originates,” she says. “Transitions are the new movements.”

Knowing how it’s arrived at is key to being “in the movement.” By doing something very rigorous and precise, the dancer’s personal expression can be achieved.

Another aspect of contemporary dance that may be disorienting for the classically trained dancer is the collaboration that many contemporary choreographers expect. Both Armitage and Rhoden involve their dancers in the process of developing new and expressive movement, calling on facets of their company members that are often forgotten in the push to excel at technique.

Rhoden begins with a concept. The dancers’ creativity in interpreting his direction is an essential part of the collaborative process. As a company director, he may have his pick of classically trained dancers, but he looks for imagination along with solid technique, selecting only those “who can be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s only then you can grow. You’re not learning a routine.”

In the quest for the beauty of fully realized movement, Rhoden has praise for a dancer that he worked with recently. “He can move freely. He’s willing to bare his soul,” says Rhoden. “And he’s not afraid to look ugly.” The dancer understood, as Rhoden says, “how to take something beautiful and cave in on it.”

For classical dancers, learning to work with contemporary or modern choreographers may be a matter of letting go of the notion of perfection so that they can embrace the expressivity of movement itself.

“Everything is a product of its historical moment,” says Armitage. “The way that Frank Gehry has exploded the volume of architecture so that it’s not just a square box—I’m trying to do the same kind of thing. Instead of the body just being vertical and horizontal, it can move into all kinds of planes and angles.”

Lori Ortiz is a freelance arts journalist based in New York City.

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks