When Debra Austin became the first black woman to dance at New York City Ballet, hired by George Balanchine in 1971, there was very little publicity surrounding her appointment. Then, after dancing Zurich Ballet for two years, she was offered a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet—becoming the first black principal woman to be hired by a major American ballet company outside of Dance Theatre Harlem.
In 1996, a classified ad in Dance Magazine read: "Carolina Ballet…seeks an Artistic Director to lead the next phase of its development as a professional company." Robert Weiss, who had been a New York City Ballet principal dancer and spent seven years as Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director, was intrigued. "It was the chance to start something from scratch, build it from the ground up, like George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein did," he recalls. "Could I make something successful for the community and for myself in an artistic way I really believed in?"
More than 20 years later, it's abundantly clear he could. Weiss' Carolina Ballet has had 122 world premieres (second in the country only to NYCB). That includes over 60 of his own creations, 16 by principal guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett and 20 by co-artistic director Zalman Raffael. The 38-member company presents over 80 performances a year—a staggering number for a midsized company—in North Carolina's Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
How do you make a leotard line stand out when there are so many options? Erica Sabatini, a former soloist with Carolina Ballet, makes it look easy with her pairing of architectural designs and bright colors. Before officially launching Côté Cour in 2015, Sabatini's interest in fashion was sparked during her Balanchine-based training at the Miami City Ballet School.
Phelan in MIA Multi Turquoise. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Whenever Debra Austin jumped, she soared—and not only onstage. Invited by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet at age 16, she was the first African-American woman to enter the company. She later joined Zurich Ballet, returning to the U.S. to accept a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982—a groundbreaking milestone for a black dancer outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time. In this clip from a 1987 production of Giselle, her beautifully pliant feet and effortless ballon shine through the fuzzy video quality. In her Act I variation, the classical, understated purity of her port de bras belie the sheer technical strength of her attitude pirouettes and hops on pointe. Then watch, at 4:00, how she appears to fly through the air as a spectral wili, only to rise ever so delicately for a series of fluttering ronds de jambe en l'air.
Valentine's Day makes February the perfect month for ballet companies to perform Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous tale of star-crossed lovers. A few companies presented their versions earlier this month and many are on their way in the next few weeks. We rounded up eight companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Washington Ballet, Les Ballet des Monte Carlo, Orlando Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Carolina Ballet and Ballet BC to find out how they're using this classic ballet to celebrate the holiday of love.
New York City Ballet
A 12-performance run of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet comes in the middle of New York City Ballet's winter season, spanning from February 13-23 at the Koch Theater in New York City. This year's production marks the debuts of corps dancers Harrison Coll and Peter Walker as Romeo, and former Pointe cover star Indiana Woodward will be making her debut as Juliet. Below, hear Tiler Peck, who will dance Juliet alongside Zachary Catazarro, point out the tricky technical moments in this role and explain what makes it so special to her.
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Unless you've been living under a rock, chances are that you experienced the eclipse-mania that took over the country yesterday. Thousands flocked to the 70-mile-wide path of totality (the path of the moon's shadow), which stretched from Oregon to South Carolina. And dancers were no exception. Ballet stars across the country flooded Instagram with their sense of awe over this once-in-a-decade event.
Ballet Sun Valley, the two-day festival starting today curated by Isabella Boylston, were lucky enough to be on the path of totality (in fact, Gemma Bond's new ballet for the festival was inspired by the eclipse). We love seeing dancers from different companies hanging out, and Tiler Peck posted this New York City Ballet/American Ballet Theatre crossover moment.
Being in the corps can be pretty unforgiving. You dance in nearly every performance, it sometimes feels like you're only onstage to add to the scenery, and you're expected to fit in—while still vying for soloist roles. It's enough to make even the most determined dancer lose steam. Pointe spoke with three corps de ballet dancers about how they use a combination of self-discipline and creativity to keep themselves motivated.
Shine in Class
After a few years, morning class can feel like a chore—especially during heavy rehearsal periods when your body just wants to rest. But rather than viewing it as a drag, try reframing class as a chance to show your best, hardest-working self. For San Francisco Ballet corps member Rebecca Rhodes, class is a time to push harder, not slack off. "It's a great time to be noticed," she says, especially for dancers hoping to be cast in featured roles. "I make sure to do every combination two or three times, and I try not to pick and choose what's comfortable," she says.
To commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare's death, Carolina Ballet has performed three ballets this season dedicated to the Bard, crowned by the April 14 premiere of artistic director Robert Weiss' Macbeth. The ballet has costumes by David Heuvel and scenery designs by Jeff A.R. Jones, while J. Mark Scearce composed the commissioned score.
ABT Celebrates Ratmansky
American Ballet Theatre’s Ratmansky Festival is the centerpiece of the company’s spring season at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House. Since festivals and celebrations usually come later in a choreographer’s career, it provides an unusual opportunity to see how ABT has adapted to and absorbed Alexei Ratmansky’s approach since he became artist in residence seven years ago. “The last seven years of Alexei’s creative process with us was an exploration of the company’s depth,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “I think it’s always good to take another look at what is, in fact, still new to us.”
The festival kicks off with two mixed bills: the three-part Shostakovich Trilogy, and a program featuring a world premiere to Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium)” as well as Seven Sonatas and Firebird. Later will come the American premiere of The Golden Cockerel, a two-act ballet that Ratmansky made for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2012. ABT will also bring back Ratmansky’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which the company unveiled last year.
McKenzie notes that Golden Cockerel shows a different facet of Ratmansky’s work. “It taps the humorous side of Alexei’s vision while adhering to his interest in historic works,” he says. Originally staged by Michel Fokine to a score by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the ballet takes its inspiration from a folktale by Pushkin. In it, the tsar of a distant land is given a magical golden cockerel that warns him when his kingdom is in danger.
“I can’t wait to embody my character and experiment with it,” says soloist Skylar Brandt, who dances the title role on opening night, and has watched videos and read the story to prepare for the role. Brandt looks forward to working again with Ratmansky in the studio. “I have observed that dancers who trust Alexei excel in his movement,” she says. “When he says, ‘Good,’ it’s a big compliment.” —Hanna Rubin
An American First
Sarasota Ballet artistic director Iain Webb approached Tony Dyson—owner of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations—about obtaining choreographic rights without knowing the historic 1968 ballet had only ever been performed by The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Fortunately, the request occurred during the May 2014 Sir Frederick Ashton Festival in Sarasota, at which Dyson watched Webb’s dancers perform 14 Ashton works. “I think it gave him the trust to give the ballet to us,” Webb says. “He knew we’d respect it.” Webb was, in fact, a protégé of Ashton’s, and Sarasota Ballet is noted as the preeminent American expositor of the choreographer’s work.
Thus the April 8 premiere of Enigma, staged by British dance notator Patricia Tierney, will be the first time an American company performs the work, set to a score by Edward Elgar. —Carrie Seidman
Liam Scarlett Faces Frankenstein
Royal Ballet artist in residence Liam Scarlett is noted for the psychological themes of his one-act ballets, like 2014’s The Age of Anxiety. On May 4, he’ll push those themes further with the premiere of Frankenstein—his first full-length work for The Royal Ballet’s main stage. Frankenstein marks a first-time collaboration between Scarlett and composer Lowell Liebermann, and is co-produced with San Francisco Ballet, which will give the U.S. premiere in 2017. Pointe spoke with the choreographer about his process and why he thinks Mary Shelley’s novel is “perfection in literature.”
Why were you drawn to Frankenstein?
I first read Frankenstein as a child. Now, it’s less a tale of gothic horror and more a story of love: innocent love, the lack of love for oneself, betrayed and jealous love, and the desperate need to be loved by another. Every great story ballet has love at its center.
How do you work in the studio?
I don’t like to impose preconceived ideas on the talent in front of me. I prefer to mold the dancers and listen to what they have to say. I’m very fortunate to have both The Royal Ballet and SFB on board.
Can you talk about the characters?
Victor (Frankenstein) and Elizabeth (Victor’s betrothed) provide a pivotal central couple. The Creature adds a third role into the love triangle, as he struggles to gain acceptance from Victor and eventually takes revenge on him. The story has sympathy for all three characters—incredible actors are key for this ballet.
Will the ballet hew closely to the format of the book?
Shelley wrote in a three-person narrative form and created a pyramid structure that sets up tension and suspense perfectly. There’s been some editing to make it suitable for performance, but I’ve tried to stay true to the relationships between characters. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
Carolina Ballet Tackles Macbeth
To commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Carolina Ballet will perform three ballets dedicated to the Bard, crowned by the April 14 premiere of artistic director Robert Weiss’ Macbeth. The ballet will have costumes by David Heuvel and scenery designs by Jeff A.R. Jones, while J. Mark Scearce will compose the commissioned score.
Despite Macbeth’s rarity in the classical canon, Weiss believes the story lends itself well to dance. “It’s about the psychological interdependence between a husband and wife,” he says, “which makes for great pas de deux and the heart of the ballet. And, of course, the witches are a great excuse for dancing.” —NLG
Atlanta Ballet’s Uncharted Territory
Atlanta Ballet has a diverse repertoire, but the company’s May 20 premiere by choreographer Andrea Miller—founder of Brooklyn-based Gallim Dance—marks a signifcant departure. Miller is a graduate of The Juilliard School and a former member of Batsheva’s Young Ensemble, which works in Gaga, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s unpredictable movement language.
Miller’s choreography is rife with physicality so extreme it looks reckless. It’s hard to imagine her work transitioning into a ballet studio. Artistic director John McFall contacted Miller about creating a new work after seeing Gallim perform in Atlanta.
Miller has never choreographed on a classical ballet company and acknowledges her different approach. “I see dancers as individuals. We work together by talking and using imagery,” she says. She’s excited about dancers with such a different, and specific, background performing her work. “Figuring out how to communicate my values is the beauty of the process.” —NLG