Dancer Spotlight: Dancing for Mr. B

Reported by Lauren Kay

 

Natalia Alonso doesn’t have Maria Tallchief’s black hair or chiseled features. But given Alonso’s dramatic flair, honed at Ballet Hispanico and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, playing—and dancing—the Balanchine ballerina seems well within her reach. No surprise, then, that Alonso was cast as Tallchief in Nikolai and the Others, a new play at Lincoln Center Theater that revolves around Balanchine’s efforts to choreograph Orpheus. “The ballet’s one of Balanchine’s more theatrical works,” Alonso says. “It allows the dancer to explore mood and emotion, and with my background, I love that.”

For Alonso, delving into Tallchief’s character has been the latest step in an adventurous career that has always pushed the ballet boundaries. With her striking looks, expressive line and passionate attack, Alonso has brought her outsized talent to varied repertoire, finding herself as much at home in contemporary work as the ballet idiom. A driving force has been her desire to explore new terrain, which has kept her growing as an artist.

Her original plan was more traditional. Growing up in New York and Long Island, Alonso trained classically, went to Boston Ballet School summer intensives and hoped one day to join a big company. But a knee injury at 17 waylaid her ballet dreams, and she shifted gears to attend Wesleyan University. Eventually, though, she realized she couldn’t see herself doing anything other than dance, and began training intensely when she returned to New York after graduation. She set her sights on Ballet Hispanico, and after four auditions, the company finally hired her. She quickly emerged as one of the lead dancers.

After seven years, in a bold move, she left to join Complexions. The edgy repertoire was a shift, but she met the troupe’s athletic, technically intense demands with grace and ferocity. Though she enjoyed the challenges, after nearly five years, she started to feel restless. “The company does a lot of touring and I was tired of living out of a suitcase,” she says frankly. She also felt hungry for something new. “When I left, it wasn’t because I thought it was time to end my career,” she says. “When the play came up, it was perfect. It fulfilled this classical ballerina I have inside me, while pushing me in a new direction, too.”

In the play, Alonso dances an Orpheus variation and pas de deux. She was coached by Rosemary Dunleavy, a ballet mistress at New York City Ballet who assisted in the audition process with ballet master in chief Peter Martins. “Orpheus uses elements of contemporary and jazz in the movement—it’s not highly technical Balanchine,” Alonso says. “I’m challenged by Balanchine’s expansiveness, which is intrinsically focused on being in pointe shoes, versus them being a secondary thought.” But the acting has proved the bigger stretch. “As a dancer you look at what the choreographer gives you and you copy it. But as an actor, you have to see the context of the scene and then create something yourself. It’s definitely scary.”

Capturing Tallchief’s poise and dignity without mimicking her has been a major focus. Alonso read the ballerina’s autobiography and watched endless clips, but also trusted her own instinct for guidance. “Maria was very disciplined,” says Alonso. “That quality existed with my Russian teachers growing up and I’m bringing that to the part. I’m finding that even without company class, I’m at the theater at 9 am, warming myself up and getting into pointe shoes.”

Alonso hopes to continue her “mishmosh” of ventures, finding fulfillment in being a chameleon. She feels grateful she didn’t follow the standard ballerina path she saw for herself as a teen. “It’s important to always push yourself,” she says. “Even if life throws an injury at you or takes you on a tangent, keep following through. As a young dancer you have a single vision of who you are. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s not over. Don’t limit yourself.”

At a Glance 

Natalia Alonso

Age: 34

Favorite role: “Every new ballet I do is my new favorite.”

Training: Kaleria Fedicheva, Irina Lebedeva, Boston Ballet School summer intensives

Ballet idol: Natalia Makarova. “The first time I saw her do Swan Lake, I swore I was watching a swan dance.” 

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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.

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Courtesy CPYB

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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.

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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."

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