Hollywood may have the Oscars, but ballet has the Prix de Benois de la Danse. Held every spring at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, the prestigious international awards ceremony recognizes dancers, choreographers, composers and designers for their extraordinary work on and off the stage. This year's laureates, chosen by a jury, were announced during an awards ceremony last night, followed by a star-studded gala featuring many of the nominated artists.
Last week, Ashley Bouder joined an all-star cast of performers at the 5th annual Lake Tahoe Dance Festival. Co-directors Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher curated a dramatic evening that included a world premiere by Marco Pelle, iconic masterworks by Lester Horton and Paul Taylor, contemporary favorites by Baecher and Robert Moses, and the California premiere of Red Spotted Purple—a solo for Bouder choreographed by her New York City Ballet colleague, Lauren Lovette.
Named after a butterfly, Red Spotted Purple was made for The Ashley Bouder Project's most recent season at the Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival. Lovette's playful and free-spirited solo seemed ripe for an outdoor performance, especially against Tahoe City's gorgeous landscape of pine trees and its blue lake. Featuring both a commissioned score by Stephanie Ann Boyd and a gorgeous dress designed by Michelle Smith of MILLY, the solo dance was in line with Bouder's mission to promote more diversity in ballet's creative process. I caught the performance in Tahoe City and chatted with the two women via email about the experience of making this dance.
How did this commission come about?
Ashley Bouder: I was brainstorming female choreographers that I'd want to create a solo for me. I thought, who better than a colleague that grew up watching me dance? There isn't a female choreographer out there that knows my dancing better, or my personality on and off stage. I think Lauren is brilliant, and after having seen her two pieces for NYCB, I felt that she could make something special with a clear point of view and message. I wanted the solo to open the [Joyce] program and I just knew she could make a statement piece to fit.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
ABT Wraps Up Its Met Season with Whipped Cream
American Ballet Theatre's eight-week summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House, will wrap up this Saturday. From July 2-7, the company will perform Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. This candy-coated surrealist ballet features wacky, intricate sets and costumes from Mark Ryden and tells the story of a boy in a Viennese pastry shop who overindulges and falls into a state of wild intoxication that takes him on a journey reminiscent of Act II of The Nutcracker. For a behind-the-scenes look, check out these backstage photos from the 2017 premiere. During the run, Arron Scott will make his debut as The Boy, and Gabe Stone Shayer will make his New York debut in the same role. Thomas Forster and Calvin Royal III will perform as Prince Coffee for the first time in New York.
We're in the thick of Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-final season, and the famous competition is now being made available to fans everywhere at the click of a mouse. Here are two ways to keep up with YAGP from wherever you are:
Regional Semi-Finals Live Broadcast
Rooting for a friend competing or just want to keep tabs on the ballet world? A live broadcast of the competition is now available here. This weekend (January 12-14) are the Tampa, Florida and Denver, Colorado semi-finals; packages to watch online start at $13.99. You can choose 2, 4, 6 or 12 total viewing hours, and log in and out of the site at your convenience. YAGP is also broadcasting their "Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow" gala in Tampa this Saturday at 8 pm EST. The performance will feature National Ballet of Canada's Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina, Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and Chase O'Connell, New York City Ballet's Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht and international guest artists Adiarys Almeida and Taras Domitro.
Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.
While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.
For dancers, every day is like Halloween. You don't have to wait until October to try on new personas and elaborate costumes. But that certainly didn't stop the ballet world from going full out yesterday. We rounded up some of our favorites across Instagram to help draw the *spooky* holiday spirit out for one more day.
Matthew Bourne's New Adventure's production of The Red Shoes is nearing its final performances at New York City Center this weekend. American Ballet Theatre's Marcelo Gomes is guest-starring in the production as Julian Craster, the composer boyfriend to protagonist Victoria Page. But for Halloween, Marcelo donned the infamous red shoes himself to dress as the leading ingenue.
Dance Theater of Harlem's Ingrid Silva (and Pointe's June/July cover star) dressed as a unicorn alongside her dog, Frida Kahlo.
If you peek inside Ashley Bouder's dance bag, you'll see a whole lot of purple. "It's my favorite color," says the New York City Ballet principal, pointing to her Chacott garbage pants and a special pair of chunky, homemade legwarmers. "I made these after I had my baby, Violet." She also keeps accessories in a purple, elephant-patterned Serengetee pouch. "They have fabrics from all over the world, and part of the profits go to charity," she says. "I like buying something for a good cause."
When Ashley Bouder steps on stage at New York City Ballet, you can feel the audience’s excitement.
As she whips through a rapid sequence of turns, people literally sit forward in their seats. Often Bouder will hold a balance for a moment where the allegro tempo seemingly doesn’t permit even a fraction of a pause, and then she’ll break into a delighted grin, as if surprised by her own phrasing. No one would guess that she dances five, sometimes six, physically exhausting roles each week.
NYCB’s ballerinas have epitomized the style, look and technical range of classical dancers in the U.S. since Balanchine first launched his school and his company. During his lifetime, Balanchine’s dancers always had distinctive personalities, and the company’s current roster continues that tradition. But today’s NYCB principals need stamina and versatility beyond what was required of their predecessors. Gone are the days when ballerinas performed only two or three times a week in a repertoire that was overwhelmingly the work of two choreographers, Balanchine and Robbins. Nowadays it’s not unusual for a NYCB principal to perform nearly every night in a range of work not only by Balanchine, Robbins and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, but also by numerous guest choreographers. The company’s 2009 spring season will present 40 ballets, and a total of 56 performances.
“Being a principal dancer today is a very demanding job,” says Rosemary Dunleavy, who has been a ballet mistress for NYCB since 1971. “It’s harder physically because the company works more than we did in the past. And the dancers must perform all these different styles.”
Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin all rocketed to principal status early in their careers. All three have already danced full-length dramatic ballets, as well as the company’s bread-and-butter neoclassical repertoire. They handle the physical and psychological stresses with aplomb, and their technical prowess and artistic range never seem strained. Yet each of these dancers has developed a distinctive approach to maintaining her energy and each continues to mature as an artist. Here are some of the ways they meet their jobs’ ever-growing demands.
“Ashley has a no-fear factor to her dancing,” says NYCB’s Assistant to the Ballet Master in Chief Sean Lavery. That may be how it looks onstage, but offstage Bouder admits to feeling some anxiety.
“When I got promoted to principal, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my god, now I can’t afford to have an off performance!’ People expect excellence.” To handle that pressure, Bouder says that she takes one day at a time. “If things don’t go well, it’s not the end of the world, just not what I wanted to happen.”
Bouder, 25, finds inspiration in watching other dancers. “I spend a lot of time watching old tapes of ballerinas and thinking about what I want to do in each moment.” She makes an effort to see dancers and companies outside of NYCB. “I keep my eyes open.” Her interest has led her to seek opportunities to perform classics with outside companies, including learning Giselle from legendary ballerina Carla Fracci and performing it at La Scala.
When the company is working, Bouder focuses on eating protein during the day and carbohydrates at night, which she says gives her plenty of stored energy to get through the following day. If she feels like she needs to boost her stamina, she works out on the elliptical machine at the gym. She stays conditioned during NYCB’s off weeks by working with the company’s director of physical therapy, Marika Molnar.
Darla Hoover, Bouder’s teacher when she was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, says that Bouder “always had a beautiful artistic soul and steely determination. She was someone you could push to her max and she wasn’t allergic to that.” Even today, Bouder doesn’t wait for corrections; she actively hunts down feedback. And not just from her director and ballet masters but from other dancers as well. She mentions fellow principal Jared Angle as someone whose opinion she trusts: “We’re always asking each other, ‘Did you see anything I should fix?’”
A night off might seem like a rare chance to think about something besides ballet, but Sara Mearns, 22, often spends her downtime watching other dancers perform the roles that are in her repertoire. “I try to find my way of dancing through watching the ballerinas. I don’t want to be exactly like them—I don’t copy them. But I think that’s the best way to get inspiration: Watch someone who has the qualities to which you aspire.”
Mearns’ movement flows with romantic energy, but in rehearsal she sometimes reins that in. “Technically, I don’t like to over-rehearse before I do something. If you over-rehearse, you’re going to get bored with it. The main goal is what it’s going to look like onstage.”
Like Bouder, Mearns gets a lot from videos of ballerinas from previous eras, especially Natalia Makarova. She also finds visualization useful for preparing for a big new role. She tries to “envision what it’s going to feel like, which helps me get into the role.”
Mearns sometimes goes to the gym to build extra strength and stamina, and makes sure she drinks enough water to stay hydrated. During a full-length role like Swan Lake, she may drink a few sips of Coke at intermission to keep her energy up for the next act.
She admits that she felt extra pressure once she was promoted to principal. “You feel like you have to go out there and deliver. But if you dance like you did before you were promoted, well, they know what you’re going to be like onstage because that’s why they promoted you. I don’t think about the expectations. I want to keep the fun.”
Sterling Hyltin, 23, looks like a Celtic princess with her wavy blonde hair and coltish long lines. As Juliet in Peter Martins’ new production of the ballet, she seemed to throw herself into the music as much as into Romeo’s arms, instinctively knowing the richness in the Prokofiev score. For Hyltin, every role, dramatic or otherwise, is born when she works alone in the studio. “That’s where I can find what works, when I can experiment.” Lavery says, “Sterling likes to really dissect the part. You can see from day to day she’s really thought about it.”
Hyltin also uses time in the studio by herself to keep in shape during breaks: “If there’s a period when I’m not dancing a lot, I’ll take a piece of repertoire that had me in great shape and just run it to keep me going physically and artistically.”
When her schedule is especially grueling, she relies on mental rehearsal. “Sometimes you have to save your body,” Hyltin says, “so I take time to prep mentally.”
She does Pilates three times a week. “I swear by it. It gives me extra core strength and helps me pull up out of my shoes.” She also watches her diet carefully. “I try to eat red meat three times a week. It gives me a lot of energy. I try to eat well-balanced meals, and I avoid sugar. I also avoid too much caffeine before a performance. If I have anything it will be a decaf coffee.”
As for how she deals with the pressure of being an NYCB principal, Hyltin says, “During a break sometimes, I step outside to get a breath of fresh air. It’s important to have a life!”
All three dancers have a passion for continuing to improve from one season to the next. Their hard work, careful rehearsing and healthy routines exist to support that greater goal. As Bouder says, “The things you look to improve get smaller and smaller, but they still matter and they’re still there.”
Former dancer Leda Meredith is an active choreographer and a professor at Adelphi University.
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After a long performance season or a grueling tour, most professional dancers look forward to slowing down and relaxing, but a few anticipate refreshing or inspiring opportunities.
A Role to Grow In
When 24-year-old New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder was offered the chance to perform the title role in Giselle under the tutelage of one of the all-time great Giselles, Carla Fracci, she didn’t hesitate to give up her time off.
Bouder prepared for the role by studying videos of the ballet, but deliberately did not teach herself the famous mad scene, preferring to learn it from Fracci herself. “She is legendary,” says Bouder. “You can still see her being Giselle when she’s telling you what she wants.” Fracci was a generous coach, encouraging Bouder to find her own interpretation and even changing some of the choreography to show off Bouder’s NYCB speed.
Bouder relished the chance to work with her and to perform at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. Despite having danced The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake with NYCB, she welcomed the challenge of a full-length dramatic ballet.
“It’s still hard to adjust to a full-length because we don’t do them often at NYCB. We’re used to 20-minute ballets,” she says, adding that she found creating “the depth of character to be something new and exhausting. It’s a completely different approach to being an artist and thinking about dancing.”
In The Studio Again
Ballet San Jose’s Preston W. Dugger III also traded his summer break for the chance to expand his professional horizons. The former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer had just finished BSJ’s five-week tour of China when the opportunity came to teach at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts on Long Island, NY.
Dugger, 28, has no formal training as a dance instructor, but he’s been teaching since he was 16, first for a community outreach program where he began his dance training, and more recently for BSJ’s school. The Usdan schedule was more strenuous than any teaching he’d done in the past, though, requiring him to give several classes a day, five days a week, to children of many different ages.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also performed while he was there. “It sounded crazy for me to do all that right after the China tour, but I had a great time,” says Dugger. “I was teaching, taking class and performing.” He hopes to have his own school someday. “It’s so fun to see a child grasp what they’re going for and blossom,” he says. “That’s really cool.”
Calling The Shots
Twenty-year-old Nicholas Coppula, a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps de ballet member, may have spent his summer offstage but he was still in the theater—working backstage. He got to try his hand at being both stage manager and lighting designer for PBT’s school performances and for The Dancers’ Trust Fund, a Pittsburgh organization that helps dancers transition to other careers.
Just as happy behind the scenes as onstage, Coppula learned stage management and lighting by watching others and volunteering at several theaters in the Pittsburgh area. He has worked at union theaters, including the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, even though he is not a member of the union yet. He is on the overhire list for the local IATSE (the union of professional stagehands and technicians), which means that when extra help is needed he gets called in to work.
Coppula says that last summer his biggest challenge as stage manager was “organizing everything so that when I was in the theater no time got wasted.” He spent many hours preparing before walking into the theater, going over the details of lighting cues and crew instructions so that he was efficient on the job. “It can involve long hours sometimes, so you need to be committed to the work,” he advises dancers who are interested in learning backstage technical work. “Hopefully this means that you enjoy it. Finding smaller
theaters in your city can be a good way to gain some experience. They are almost always looking for volunteers.”
Thinking ahead, Coppula already has his plans made. “When I retire from dancing professionally I will continue working in the theater world, possibly as a stage manager, but definitely on the technical side,” he says.
For Anne Mueller, a 33-year-old principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, both arts management and choreography have kept her recent summers busy. She spent her downtime last summer choreographing and producing a new ballet for the Sweet Pea Festival of the Arts in Bozeman, MT, bringing together five OBT dancers, including herself. “This was a perfect chance to work with great dancers and make the piece I wanted to make,” says Mueller. “It was a delightful experience.”
Mueller has done similar work in the past. A founding member of the Trey McIntyre Project, she danced with the company and was managing director for TMP during the summers of 2004 and 2006. Last summer, too, while at the Sweet Pea Festival, she continued her connection with McIntyre by acting as director of outreach for his company, a job that included choosing instructors to teach workshops, negotiating their salaries and organizing the workshop schedules.
A classic role, or the chance to teach, choreograph, direct or stage-manage are all terrific reasons for a dancer to keep working during a company break. But doesn’t a dancer need time off to recover from the stress and hard work of the regular season?
“Only you can be the judge of when you need a break, and you should absolutely listen to yourself if that’s what you feel,” says Mueller. “For me, if I come across something that interests me and may further my career goals, plus be good for me artistically and intellectually, I know I’ll figure out how to cope with the additional pressure the project requires.”
And for Ashley Bouder, it wasn’t just the opportunity to work with a legendary ballerina that made her work through her time off: She always prefers to keep dancing.
“I’ve found that it’s better for my body to just stay in shape,” says Bouder. “Besides, I love dancing so much that I love all of the opportunities and try to take advantage of every single one.”
Choreographer and former dancer Leda Meredith is the author of Botany, Ballet and Dinner from Scratch which has just been published.
New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder couldn’t be happier with her pointe shoes. Like many NYCB dancers, she wears Freed of London shoes customized by a particular maker. A few years ago, both the makers she preferred retired at the same time, and Bouder suddenly had no shoes tailored to her specifications. After trying out many makers, she found “J,” who has been crafting her shoes ever since.
“J” is the mark of Michael Cripps, a Freed maker since 1979. “Being one of our older, more established makers, he takes care to make sure that every dancer’s specs are adhered to,” says Gary Higgins, manager of Freed’s factory in Leicester, England. He adds that Cripps makes 152 pairs of pointe shoes per week.
Freed makers are involved in the stages of construction that determine the shape and strength of the block, or toe box (see glossary on page 62). The maker builds the block by hand in layers that include Freed’s secret glue, forms the pleats and sculpts the block and platform. Although some differences are subtle, each maker has an individual style. A dancer chooses a maker based on this style, making her own requests for custom specifications. (Other pointe shoe companies also provide similar services to professional dancers.)
Bouder’s shoes have wing blocks with a hard box. She requires a low vamp for her short toes and a wide, flat platform “because I like to balance and turn,” she says. She wears a 3/4 double-strength shank to support her strong, high arches. (Although dancers may request lengths in 1/8-inch increments, Bouder likes the standard 3/4 shank.)
Bouder’s pointe shoes have a striking appearance because of the unusual cut of the satin. The sides are cut very low to highlight her arch. In fact, she says it was challenging to convince Freed to cut them as low as she wanted, just one inch. In contrast, the satin at the heel is unusually high, so that her shoes dip at the sides then swoop upward at the back. High heel fabric “makes me feel like the shoe is on my foot—otherwise I feel like it’s falling off,” she says.
Before wearing new shoes, Bouder steps on the box and works it with her hands, and bends the shank back and forth. She also reinforces the tips with glue inside the box. “I have a very specific place where I put in little bits of glue,” she says. “It makes all the difference in the world for me—it’s the difference between being able to turn and not being able to turn.”
The amount of glue varies for particular performances. “If I know I’ll be turning a lot on the same foot, such as doing 32 fouettés, I’ll put extra glue in that shoe,” she says. “Or for Rose Adagio I’ll put extra glue in the right shoe because I’ve got eight balances on that foot. If I’m doing something soft and pretty, I still add glue, but I don’t put extra glue and I make sure I bang them so that there’s no noise.”
Inside the shoe, she wears a gel pad with a piece of lamb’s wool between the little and fourth toes, to avoid corns. She sews her ribbons and elastics at the peak of her arch, using ribbon with elastic to help avoid tendonitis.
Because they are handmade, Bouder’s shoes aren’t all identical. Some pairs arrive looking as if they won’t work well at all. “I pick out the good pairs and wear those first, but I end up wearing all of them anyway,” she says. “You can fix anything on a shoe. If there’s a lump on top you just take a hammer, flatten it and glue it. You only have to wear them once.”
The one deal-breaker is an imperfect shank length. Too long, and the shank cuts into her foot. She doesn’t try to shorten a shank because of the original tapered cut. If the shank is too short, she goes over too far. “It happens rarely, but if [the shank length is wrong] I just take them off and don’t use them,” she says.
She breaks in a new pair during class then puts them away for that evening’s performance. For rehearsal, she wears the shoes from the night before. Though she’s not sure how many pairs she wears in a season, Bouder typically uses one pair per performance, but if she’s dancing a full-length ballet such as Swan Lake, she’ll use at least two pairs in one night.
It’s been two years since Bouder has had to request major changes to her shoes, so it’s clear that she and Cripps have found a good fit. As Higgins says, “Ms. Bouder has had a few spec changes over the years but seems happy now with everything we do to her shoes.” Bouder adds, “I hope ‘J’ is making shoes for a long time.”
Ashley Bouder’s pointe shoes by Michael Cripps (maker “J”) of Freed of London
•Size 5XX with a “heel pin” to make the size closer to 5 1/4
•Wide, flat platform,
at right angle with
front of box
“combined” 3/4 shank
•Vamp at 3 3/4''
•Side fabric at 1''
•Back fabric at 2 3/4''
Jennifer Brewer is a dancer, teacher and freelance writer based in Saco, ME.
Extra photos of Ashley Bouder at home in her New York apartment. Videos of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in performance. An exclusive look behind the scenes with cover ballerina Misa Kuranaga. Pointe's August/September iPad edition is loaded with goodies!
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