American Ballet Theatre just wrapped up its 2015 spring season, but that doesn’t mean newly promoted principal Misty Copeland is slowing down any. Yesterday, The New York Times announced that from August 25–September 5, Copeland will be dancing—and singing—as Ivy Smith in the Broadway musical On the Town. (New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild currently portrays the role.) According to Broadwayworld.com, Copeland will perform during the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evening shows and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees (but not the Saturday and Sunday evening performances). Luckily, her run on the Great White Way coincides with ABT’s summer layoff, so she should be back on the ballet stage in time for the company’s fall season. How on earth does she do it all? I’m not sure, but ballet hasn’t gotten this much popular attention in a long time. Keep it coming, Misty!
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
Audition for any school or company, and they'll likely ask for a photo in arabesque. The position not only reveals a great deal about a dancer's ability, but it is also a fundamental building block for more advanced movements, like penché or arabesque turn. Beyond technique, it can be the epitome of grace and elegance onstage, creating unforgettable images—just try to imagine Swan Lake or Balanchine's Serenade without an arabesque.
Yet many dancers are unsatisfied with their arabesque lines, and students frequently ask how to improve their extensions. (Social media posts of dancers with extreme flexibility don't help!) In an attempt to lift the back leg higher, dancers may sacrifice placement and unknowingly distort their position in the process. How can you improve the height of your back leg while maintaining proper placement and turnout? We talked to a few experts to better understand the science behind this step.
What Muscles Do I Use?<p>In order to achieve a 90-degree extension, the muscles in the hips and spine must lengthen and stretch. "The hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) and back extensors (muscles that hold your back into an arch) are the primary muscles to hold the back leg into arabesque, but it is also important to remember the deep hip-turnout muscles to control rotation of your hip," says Julie Daugherty, MPT/CMPT and physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre.</p><p>When in arabesque, the standing ankle and knee should remain still as the working leg lifts—the hip joint initiates the range of motion. "The stability and strength of the standing leg is essential to give a strong base of support," says Daugherty, while properly aligning the standing knee and foot is crucial for maintaining hip placement. </p><p>Why are some dancers able to lift the back leg effortlessly, while others struggle? Daugherty points to a variety of factors, including anatomical limitations in the spine or hip ("both bony and ligamentous," she explains), tight anterior hip ligaments or groin muscles, and muscle imbalances or weaknesses. It's not enough just to stretch—improving your arabesque height requires attention to both strength and flexibility. (For a targeted conditioning routine, <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/arabesque-exercises-2647453594.html" target="_blank">click here</a>.)</p>
The standing ankle and knee should remain still as the working leg lifts—the hip joint initiates the range of motion.
Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet
What Makes a Good Arabesque?<p>"I prefer to see a beautiful and tasteful line to a distorted one," says San Francisco Ballet School instructor Anne-Sophie Rodriguez. "It all begins and ends with the supporting leg and hip. When the turnout is held, which results in the standing hip being squared off, we can build up to a high arabesque that is elegant as well as healthy and helpful for our technique."</p><p>When dancers apply to the<a href="https://www.adcibc.com/" target="_blank"> ADC|IBC</a>, they must submit an arabesque photo for a panel of judges to review. Audrianna Broad, ADC|IBC's founder and president, says the photos are used as "a supplement to help determine suitability for programs, largely because the position is very telling of the dancer's current level and training background." She adds: "First arabesque is introduced relatively early on to students, and yet it is one of the most difficult positions to execute properly." </p><p>As for what Rodriguez looks for, she says, "the awareness needs to be on keeping the pelvis/hip complex lifted so the pelvis doesn't tilt more than necessary for each dancer's specific anatomy." She continues, "Squaring the ribs to the front and anchoring the supporting shoulder down and back are the next steps I would suggest working on." </p><p>Then there is the energy Rodriguez says should be radiating through the body: "Down into the floor, forward through the eyes and fingers of the front hand, back through the foot and back, and back/side through the side arm."</p>
San Francisco Ballet principal Sasha de Sola, as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, takes an arabesque looking out towards the audience.
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
Common Mistakes<p>Many dancers place too great a value on the height of the leg and end up distorting their line by allowing the hip to lift and open. "Students and professionals alike are forgetting that any position begins with the placement of the standing leg," notes Rodriguez.</p><p>When viewing competitor photos, Broad has similar feedback: "The vertical alignment of the standing hip is the first place my eye gravitates. If tilting occurs, I proceed to see how other regions of the body are affected." Tilting your pelvis forward limits turnout—which can result in pronation (rolling in) on the standing ankle—and causes the shoulders and torso to twist out of alignment.</p><p>Another common mistake occurs when the back leg opens out diagonally; dancers should practice first finding their placement in tendu derrière and then lift the leg (without allowing it to drift sideways). </p><p>In the search for extension, dancers also tend to "whack" the leg up without maintaining control. "It's important not to force the movement beyond where you can support your low back," says Daugherty. "Crunching into the low back in order to raise the back leg higher is the biggest problem I see." Doing so can eventually lead to serious injuries, like a stress fracture in the spine (spondylolysis), or back strains, pulled muscles and disc herniations.</p><p>The control, balance and focus needed to master arabesque are the same tools needed to succeed in all of ballet. By working with awareness and intention, dancers can work towards a higher leg while maintaining the alignment and purity of movement. <span></span></p>
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.