Company Life: Going to the Dark Side

Where would ballet be without villains? Aurora would never sleep, and Odette would never become a swan. Getting cast as one of ballet’s memorable miscreants can help dancers develop new facets of their artistry and explore their dramatic side. Three professionals talk about how they approach their baddest roles.

Creating a Commanding Carabosse

Blessed with long legs, strong technique and grace, Maria Kowroski has all the qualities of a perfect Lilac Fairy, a role she has performed with consummate skill since becoming a principal dancer with New York City Ballet in 1999. So it surprised ballet master in chief Peter Martins when Kowroski asked to play Carabosse in his version of Sleeping Beauty, a role that’s the absolute opposite.

“It’s taken me a few seasons to feel comfortable in it,” she admits. To channel Carabosse’s ferocity, Kowroski calls on methods from her acting classes, like centering herself so she can draw on an inner source of anger. “When you’re really mad, it comes from a deep place. You have to try to feel that connection,” she says. She finds it helps to talk to herself throughout the performance. “I look at the king and queen, and think, ‘This is all your fault!’ ”

Kowroski says a dancer must fully inhabit the production’s outlandlish Carabosse costume, from the beaded robe and claw-like fingernails to the peaked cap. “It’s important to not hold back,” she says. “You really have to believe what you’re doing, not just go in halfway.”

Making Myrtha Menacing

She’s mean, she’s mad and she’s ready to make men dance to death. But Myrtha, the queen of the ghostly Wilis in Giselle, is also calm and collected, says National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden, who has mastered the role’s combination of rage and restraint. “She’s a queen, and you need to have a certain regal quality,” she says. From Myrtha’s first bourrées onto the stage, “You are in command of the whole act. This is your land.”

A powerful technical dancer, Ogden loves Myrtha’s athletic jumps and challenging adagio. Yet to convey Myrtha’s eerie authority, “I focus on having a really quiet interior, even though the dancing has to be huge.”

Expressive mime completes the portrayal. “Myrtha doesn’t rush for anything,” Ogden says, so she tries to hold each gesture as long as possible to show that quality to the audience. “I walk almost late. When you hold a movement, it gives weight to the mime.”

One key moment comes when she plucks rosemary sprigs, a symbol of remembrance, from Giselle’s grave to summon her. Because Myrtha holds one in each hand, it isn’t possible for Ogden to use only her stronger side when it’s time to toss them away. “When I throw the left one,” Ogden admits, “it kind of goes ‘Boop!’”

Though she usually dances prima ballerina roles, she relishes the opportunity to play opposite to her personality—and opposite her husband, fellow principal Guillaume Côté, who dances Albrecht. “People always laugh because I have to be so mean to him!”

Ruling the Stage as Von Rothbart
Joshua Grant doesn’t want to play good guys. “People say I have this bubbly personality, but I enjoy doing angry roles to get some aggression out,” he says. Last season the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member found a satisfying outlet when he was cast as Von Rothbart in PNB’s Swan Lake.

Grant was well prepared by his tenure as a principal with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Famed for their send-ups of classical ballet, the Trocks taught Grant to let go of his inhibitions, which he finds essential to creating a believable evil magician. After all, villains are bold and unapologetic: “All I have to do is walk around and the audience knows that I own everything onstage,” he says.

At 6' 4", clad in a costume that features 16-foot wings, Grant effortlessly commands the audience’s attention. But, he cautions, “It’s really easy to get lost in the costume. You almost have to act ten thousand times better to compensate.” Villains defer to no one, so Grant menaces the crowd as well as the cast. He does not ever bow to the audience, even at the curtain. He knows he’s nailed the role when they boo—a response only a villain could love.

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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