It's fashion week in New York City, and the Joffrey Ballet School is getting its moment in the style spotlight. Louis Vuitton has sponsored "Reconstruction 3.0," a collaboration between Parsons The New School for Design, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and New York's Joffrey Ballet School. Five teams of students from each program have created original choreography and music inspired by the French fashion house's heritage of travel, as well as costumes constructed from previous Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear garments. This Thursday, a panel of experts from all three artforms will watch the performances live at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, just down the street from the runways set up at Lincoln Center. The prize for best in show? A trip to visit Louis Vuitton's atelier in Paris and the historic Vuitton family home in Asnières, France.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career
This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.
Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.
"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.
Training Grounds<p>Melendez was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, where she danced from age 4 at a small recreational studio. "I did everything from ballet to contemporary, jazz to acro," says Melendez. At 8, she switched to All American Dance Factory and Classical Ballet School, studying and competing in the standard comp-kid fare of jazz, acro, contemporary and hip hop. Yet Melendez found herself drawn to ballet's clear structure. "My first ballet competition was Youth America Grand Prix in 2011," she remembers. "I did it on flat because that was my first year on pointe." Before long, she became a regular in the top five at ADC|IBC, World Ballet Competition, YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance.</p><p>Melendez says there wasn't any one lightbulb moment that made her realize ballet was her dream. But that doesn't mean the ballet world wasn't taking notice of <em>her</em>. In 2015, the Ballet West Academy had already offered 15-year-old Tatiana admission to their year-round program when she was spotted at ADC|IBC by Houston Ballet II's ballet master Claudio Muñoz, who was judging. "My eyes went right to Tatiana, because her jumps and turns had phenomenal energy," Muñoz recalls. That "raw, incredible talent" netted Melendez a full scholarship to the Professional Program at Houston Ballet Academy. After taking time to consider Houston Ballet's rep (contemporary-leaning), her connection with Muñoz (strong and encouraging), and friends' testimonials about the year-round program (glowing), Melendez moved into student housing.</p>
Going Pro, With Cons<p>After graduation, Melendez headed to Fort Worth, where she'd landed a trainee contract with Texas Ballet Theater. It was a tough transition. "I went from training all day every day, to one morning class followed by standing on the side during hours of rehearsal," she says. Melendez's gifts were far from ignored, though. As a trainee, she danced in the corps of productions like <em>Swan Lake</em> and <em>Beauty and the Beast</em>, was one of six lead women in Ben Stevenson's world premiere <em>Martinu Pieces</em>, and led multiple performances of <em>The Nutcracker</em> as Clara.</p><p>At the end of the season, however, Melendez's worst nightmare came true. Her contract was not renewed because, at 5' 1", she was considered too short for the company. "My height had always been an insecurity," Melendez says. "Once, at a ballet competition, someone told me as I came offstage that I would never make it because I'm 'not built for dance.' " </p>
From left: Candy Tong, Melendez and Eriko Sugimura in Dwight Rhoden's Love Rocks
Justin Chao, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary ballet
Taking Flight<p>Thus began what Melendez calls the hardest, happiest two days of her life. More than 400 dancers showed up to the Complexions' open call in April 2018, but after technique classes and "the fastest I've had to learn choreography, ever," Melendez made it all the way through the final cut. By the end of the two nonstop days, she felt sure that Rhoden's daring, athletic contemporary movement was her true calling—but still assumed she wouldn't get the job.</p><p>She needn't have worried. As Desmond Richardson, Complexions' co-founder and co-artistic director says, "Tatiana clearly made her presence known from the moment she walked through the door. I remember Dwight and I saying, 'Wow, she's really something.' Her professionalism, her innate sense of musicality and the sheer force of her were quite nostalgic to me." Rhoden adds, "What made Tatiana stand out was her fearlessness. She applied corrections, dynamics and ideas immediately in the audition. She knows how to cross the t's and dot the i's."</p>
Simon Plant and Melendez performing Dwight Rhoden's WOKE
Stephen Pisano, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov share the unique experience of having danced at both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet during their careers. The two overlapped at ABT in the mid-'70s, where they developed one of the best-known partnerships in ballet. They were both celebrated for their dynamism onstage; however, in this 1976 clip of the pas de deux from Coppélia, Kirkland and Baryshnikov prove they are also masters of control.
This summer, when parts of the world were slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, all live performing arts events having been canceled or postponed, choreographer Bryan Arias found himself in Moscow creating a brand-new work for the Bolshoi Ballet.
Arias, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, and danced with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Kidd Pivot, had been invited by Bolshoi artistic director Makhar Vaziev to be part of an impromptu program of contemporary choreography titled Four Characters in Search of a Plot. Three other international choreographers—Martin Chaix (France), Dimo Milev (Bulgaria) and Simone Valastro (Italy)—had also been asked to participate. This program, unusual by all standards for Russia's esteemed classical ballet company, opened the Bolshoi's 245th ballet season on September 10. Eager to resume live events, the theater introduced a number of safety regulations for audience members, including limited and spaced-out seating, temperature checks upon entry and audio messages reminding patrons to wear masks and maintain social distance.
Below, Arias talks about his trip to Russia and his experience of creating his new piece, The Ninth Wave, on the Bolshoi Ballet dancers.
Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave
Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet
The Phone Call From Moscow<p>"Because of the pandemic, all my plans got shifted into the future and there was no certainty about anything. I was in quarantine in Basel, Switzerland, feeling a bit lost and trying to stay inspired and motivated. And out of nowhere I got a phone call from Makhar Vaziev, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, with an offer to come to Moscow and to choreograph whatever I would like. I agreed on the spot—I was ready to do anything at that moment. We decided right then that I would do a 60-minute piece, with a cast of 40 dancers, and I would use live music. This would be a ballet with the largest number of dancers I had ever worked with."</p>
Traveling to Russia During the Pandemic<p>"Everything about the trip seemed suspended and improvised. I was scheduled to travel on July 19 but on July 16 I still didn't have my Russian visa. When I finally got the visa, one day prior to my departure, I was told at the embassy that there was no guarantee that I would be able to enter into the country. Next day, I packed my bag and took a train to Paris; from there I went to a small airport servicing only private jets. There I met the three other choreographers. It was my first time traveling to Moscow and up until the end of the trip it all felt unreal."</p>
Arias in front of a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.
Courtesy Bryan Arias
Inspiration for "The Ninth Wave"<p>"In my preparation for <em>The Ninth Wave</em>, I wanted to dive into all things Russian, so I surrounded myself with Russian art and music, and I began reading a lot about Russian history and culture. When I first saw the works of maritime painter <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Aivazovsky" target="_blank">Ivan Aivazovsky</a>, I just felt inspired by his art. He lived a secluded life in a small town on the Black Sea. The imagery of the sea is so rich with possibilities, and my imagination just took off. I also found a connection between the art of Aivazovsky and the music of Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When I imagined their music performed live—it just felt right."</p>
Selecting the Cast<p>"I had five days before the Bolshoi officially began working after the lockdown. Mr. Vaziev selected a group of 50 corps de ballet dancers who, in his view, would be a good fit for this project. From there, all four choreographers started watching the company's classes. There were six to eight classes per day. Usually I would select a small group of dancers to work separately in a studio, just to feel how they carry themselves and to better understand their body language, their personality and chemistry. With the principal dancers (opening night starred Ekaterina Krysanova, Vladislav Lantratov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Artemy Belyakov and Jacopo Tissi), I was trying to figure out what I could do to showcase them in a new light. I wanted the audience to see these dancers, whom they know and love, through a different lens."</p>
Bolshoi Ballet leading soloist Jacopo Tissi in The Ninth Wave
Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet
Staying Safe During Rehearsals<p>"Sometimes it felt as if COVID-19 didn't even exist there. In reality, everyone was responsible; everyone had tremendous respect and care for each other. If the dancers didn't feel well, they wouldn't come to work; they would immediately go to a doctor's office to get tested. It all seemed very efficient and it worked."</p>
Ballet With a Hip-Hop Twist<p>"I had a great connection with the dancers. Even though we had to use an interpreter in the studio, the dancers would understand me almost immediately. I have a hip-hop and salsa background, and I can create challenging movements with that abstract, hip-hop quality. But here I tapped in to my classical ballet knowledge, more than I have ever done before. I was obsessed with classical ballet when I was growing up, so the whole process of creating <em>The Ninth Wave</em> felt very satisfying—it's a classical ballet where I used the elements of hip hop to accentuate certain shapes and movements."</p>
Long-Distance Collaborating<p>"I had to work with my collaborators online since some of them weren't able to come to Moscow due to the travel restrictions. It added a layer of difficulty to my work. My lighting designer created lighting for <em>The Ninth Wave</em> with a digital app. The design was sent to the Bolshoi and they were able to re-create it; and the costume designer did the same. Luckily, my projection designer was able to come; she created and manipulated a set of images of Aivazovsky's paintings, which were projected on a backdrop."</p>
Opening Night<p>"When the curtain went up it all felt surreal. Even though all three performances were sold out, the theater was only partially occupied because of the safety regulations. The Bolshoi dancers are used to full houses, but they told me after the performance that it seemed as if the theater was completely packed because of the energy the audience gave them. They felt the audience's love and support."</p>
Arias backstage with the cast of The Ninth Wave after the premiere
Courtesy Bryan Arias