Between long rehearsal days, performances and hectic touring schedules, it can be hard for professional dancers to plan for their post-performance careers while they're still onstage. This fall, that changes for five American Ballet Theatre principals. Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside and Gillian Murphy have been chosen as the first dancers to participate in Crossover Into Business at Harvard Business School, a semester-long program designed for professional athletes.
Last year, Crossover Into Business program director and HBS professor Anita Elberse was developing a case study on ABT, and reached out to the company executive director Kara Medoff Barnett, an alumna of HBS. "Anita mentioned the Crossover Program as an experience that has been transformative for professional athletes," says Barnett. "We looked at each other and had the same idea: How about inviting the ABT dancers to sit next to the NBA players?"
“Ballet for 400!"
On Tuesday, November 17, for the second time, contestants on Jeopardy! will take a stab at ballet trivia with the help of dancers from American Ballet Theatre—another event to celebrate the company's 75th anniversary season. Look out for principals Gillian Murphy and Cory Stearns and corps member Blaine Hoven, who will read clues and give demonstrations of ABT's repertoire. The first episode (which aired last May) featured James Whiteside, Craig Salstein, and Pointe cover girls Hee Seo, Sarah Lane and Misty Copeland.
As a dancer, Marcelo Gomes has it all—a magnetic stage presence, impeccable musicality, technique for days and world-renowned partnering skills. But the American Ballet Theatre star has also been gaining ground as a choreographer lately, creating works for Complexions Contemporary Ballet, galas and festivals. (He also choreographed Misty Copeland's famous Under Amour ad.) Tonight marks a major milestone in his choreographic career: His first full ballet for ABT, AfterEffect, has its world premiere at the David H. Koch Theater in New York.
Gomes, who was just announced a 2015 Dance Magazine Award winner, has created short works for ABT galas in the past, including the first movement of AfterEffect in 2013. This expanded version, set to Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, includes a whopping 26 dancers and stars James Whiteside and Copeland (who has been something of a collaborator and muse for Gomes over the years). Fast-rising soloist Cassandra Trenary will perform the lead with Cory Stearns on Saturday afternoon. (You may have caught a glimpse of rehearsals during the World Ballet Day live-stream earlier this month.)
Gomes' new choreographic opportunity is a positive step for ABT, which has received criticism in the past for relying too heavily on guest stars and not developing its own dancers. With the recent promotion of Copeland and Stella Abrera, a talented roster of homegrown soloists and a 2016 Met season conspicuously light on guest artists, it looks like the company is making a serious effort to cultivate more from within.
Cory Stearns, American Ballet Theatre
Why partnering couldn’t start soon enough: I had a crush on this girl at my school. Did anything happen? [Laughs] No. I had no confidence, so I never told her. She probably knew.
Top mentors: My first partnering teacher, Dimitri Papadakos, was a former football player, never a dancer, and his advice was all about timing. Today, I go to Kevin McKenzie and Marcelo Gomes. There’s pride in good partnering at ABT. Do the women take advantage of that? Some do. [Laughs] They’re impatient with men who aren’t accomplished partners. But others are extremely easy to work with. I will say, when you work with someone who really makes you swallow your pride, it makes you a better partner.
When to talk onstage: Only if something is wrong. For me, if you’re really in the show, you are that character. It becomes dangerous if I’m out there switching back and forth between Cory and Basilio, or Cory and Siegfried.
When things go wrong, do you take the blame? Oh, totally. I come offstage and say, “Sorry, that won’t happen again,” even though I don’t feel like it was me. [Laughs]
Top choice for next partner: It’s hard to say. There are people who are so well-known and it feels like an honor to dance with them, but a lot of them have huge egos. Notable exception: Polina Semionova—when I finally got to dance with her, it was amazing.
Jonathan Porretta, Pacific Northwest Ballet
Partnering mantra: Keep her on her leg and don’t tick her off.
Partnering rule: Take the blame, no matter what. That’s what Jock Soto instilled in us, at the School of American Ballet: If something doesn’t work, it’s the boy’s fault. Now, I might not say that in the dressing room later on, but in public I’ll take full responsibility. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.
How to talk onstage: Through big smiles, of course. In Act II of Nutcracker, principal Kaori Nakamura and I have it down to a science. What do you talk about? Shopping, dinners, the dancing, how many more Nutcrackers we have to do.
Top choice for next partner: Here at PNB? Leta Biasucci. She’s a corps member, gorgeous, has amazing technique, she’s fun—everything a ballerina should be. Everything she does comes from her heart.
Andrew Veyette, New York City Ballet
Rotating partners: I did Allegro Brillante a couple of seasons ago with my wife Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns—all in the same week. They were three different ballets. I didn’t even pretend otherwise.
Trick of the trade: Sara Mearns goes for broke on everything. I started doing this thing in rehearsal where I beep at her progressively faster if we’re taking something too far. And if we have things under control, it’s just be a few slow beeps here and there. That’s our warning system. [Laughs]
The truth about partnering your spouse: Social niceties go out the window. Megan and I used to say, “You know I hate it when my partner does that, so why are you doing it?” We’d be short with each other sometimes, just because we felt like we could be. We had to get used to having a professional—as well as a personal—relationship. It took some practice, but we get along great now. We’re more polite.
Pet peeve: Megan would say that I hate it when the girl drives, when she starts leading. I’m not doing anything else, so if you’re doing all of the partnering and the dancing, then I’m just walking around. Let me do my job.
Vito Mazzeo, Dutch National Ballet
Best advice: My teacher Leonid Nikonov told me, “Don’t forget you’re a human being, not a barre. Try to match the ballerina, her épaulement, not just think about where your hands are.”
Trouble in the bedroom: Once in the bedroom pas de deux of Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, Yuan Yuan Tan woke up 16 counts early, when Juliet is supposed to be sleeping and Romeo is supposed to just watch her. I didn’t know what to do! So we started to kiss, for 16 counts, which doesn’t even make sense with the story. We were talking and almost laughing, with Yuan Yuan saying, “I’m sorry, Vito!”
Diva ballerinas: The divas are usually the coaches at the front of the room. [Laughs] My coach for many years was Carla Fracci and she is a diva, you know? But she taught me so much, especially about Giselle.
Top choice for next partner: Sylvie Guillem. I have so much love for her, and it’s not because technically she’s amazing. She has something inside her heart and brain that is always working and she knows how to manage herself. She’s unbelievable, that woman.
Fabrice Calmels, Joffrey Ballet
Best way to approach a new partner: Do some homework first, and get to know what kind of a ballerina she is, whether athletic, someone who can really jump and turn, or more lyrical, flexible. The lyrical ballerinas, you have to maneuver them more—they are more work.
Hero: My very good friend, Marcelo Gomes. His eyes aren’t always glued to the woman. It’s a great partner who can just feel the ballerina, where she is, at any time.
Pet peeve: When a ballerina is insecure onstage and a mistake happens and she doesn’t know how to just absorb it and move on, so you hear these sounds of frustration about the performance.
Top mentor: Attilio Labis at the Paris Opéra Ballet School. He focused on teaching you how to do things the opposite way. For example, people use their right hands a lot, so he made us work using only the left hand.
Partnering mantra: Take care of her. She is your responsibility from the moment you walk onto that stage.
In July, an exceptional American Ballet Theatre dancer made her New York debut as Juliet—a sparklingly innocent and yet impressively mature rendition of Kenneth MacMillan’s heroine that was both touching and daring. She danced with abandon, sailing into the arms of her partner and giving each pirouette the appropriate tinge of ecstasy or despair. But what was most surprising was that this ballerina, Hee Seo, is listed in the corps de ballet.
For several years, there has been a buzz about Seo. But ABT’s 2009 Metropolitan Opera spring season was without a doubt her breakthrough. She performed leading roles in Romeo and Juliet, La Sylphide, Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper and James Kudelka’s Désir. And she demonstrated that mark of a true ballerina: the ability to carry a ballet and imbue it with her distinct aura for an audience of nearly 5,000 people.
What is it that has propelled her into the coveted ABT limelight? The plasticity of her body is reminiscent of a young Natalia Makarova, with all movement emanating from a supple spine and technique that spellbinds with its combination of tensile strength, lightness and fluidity. But Seo is her own dancer and doesn’t need comparison. She has a dramatic quality that radiates from her soul.
“Beyond her ballet-friendly physique, she has a point of view and sensitivity that leads her towards roles like La Sylphide and Juliet,” says ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Seo began dancing at age 11, receiving her primary training on a scholarship at the Sun-hwa Arts Middle School. At 13, she earned a scholarship from the Universal Ballet Academy (now The Kirov Academy of Ballet) in Washington, DC, where she worked with the legendary Kirov ballerina Alla Sizova in a strict curriculum that adhered rigorously to the Vaganova syllabus.
In 2003, Seo won the Prix de Lausanne, which earned her a scholarship to the John Cranko Ballet Academy in Stuttgart. That same year she also won the Youth America Grand Prix, and John Meehan, then the director of the ABT Studio Company (now called ABT II), offered her a contract. She was allowed to defer one year so she could continue her training in Germany.
Once she arrived in New York, her experience with the Studio Company was initially disorienting. Russian-trained, Seo wasn’t used to the American approach to dancing and had trouble picking up styles quickly. She felt lost. One day Meehan called her into his office, and Seo broke down in tears. “From the bottom of my heart I wanted to get better, break down the barrier and step up,” she says. “But I didn’t know what to do.” With help from Meehan (“He was like a dad to me”), she began to change, to learn new ways of working.
In 2005, Seo joined ABT as an apprentice. By 2006, she was an upwardly mobile corps member, dancing soloist roles in Dark Elegies and Ballo della Regina. But in 2008, she was sidelined by sharp pains in her back (doctors never delivered a definitive diagnosis). “Before then, I never had time to go out front and watch. Seeing a lot of the shows made such a big difference,” says Seo. That time to observe and reflect had an impact on her approach, particularly, she says, watching Julie Kent. “She has a softness and a charisma that I love,” says Seo. “She looks so comfortable and confident in herself.”
To remain healthy after her injury, Seo realized she had to eat more. During the busy Met season, it’s hard for her to keep her weight up. “The way I am holding up now is by eating well---the right food.” (Seo’s mother came to New York during the Met season and cooked breakfast and packed lunches for her.)
In January, McKenzie casually mentioned to Seo in the hallway that she’d been cast as Juliet. She was ecstatic. She and partner Cory Stearns rehearsed rigorously for two months to make the ballet feel comfortable. The two are close friends from their days in the Studio Company, although his quirky American sense of humor offended her Korean sensibility enough to prompt her to stop talking to him for nearly a year. (He would joke about Korean food, but she says, “If you really understand and know him, you have to love him.”) They debuted in the ballet in Detroit on March 14, Seo’s 23rd birthday, with nearly the entire company watching.
“The role of Juliet is not so technical; it’s all about imagination,” says Seo. “So many great ballerinas have done this role, and here I am—a corps member. I have to make my own Juliet. It’s been challenging. Even though you feel it, it’s hard to express. Making sad faces isn’t going to read, you have to express it with your body. Kevin and Georgina Parkinson (an ABT ballet mistress) worked with me to find my own way. They would direct me, but not say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ ”
To research the role, Seo watched a number of movies based on Shakespeare’s play: the1936 George Cukor black-and-white film with Norma Shearer, the Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza with Olivia Hussey and the contemporary version with Leonardo DiCaprio. And ever since she was a child, she has been mesmerized by the video of the ballet starring Alessandra Ferri. “I watched it over and over,” says Seo. “I almost knew the steps already because I watched it so many times.”
At a studio rehearsal in June, in the bowels of the Metropolitan Opera House, former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel coached Seo for her debut in another principal role: the sylph in La Sylphide. Van Hamel advised her to contain the delicate Bournonville movement without losing its breadth. Five minutes later, Seo was rehearsing the peasant pas de deux from Giselle, attacking the allegro batterie. Afterwards, she sat on the floor, beat on her thighs and commanded her body to cooperate. It was that kind of season.
“Principals will ask if I’ve recovered from dancing that principal role last night,”?says Seo. “There’s no such thing as recovery for me. I’m on every night, doing every part of the ballet. It’s crazy, but I can’t complain because there are dancers who don’t have the opportunity to do it.”
Seo speculates that some of her ability to inhabit dramatic roles stems from her own experience. “Because I left home when I was so young, I never could be childish. I had to be an adult. I had to grow up.” Like Juliet and other heroines she longs to dance, such as Tatiana in Onegin and the protagonist in Manon, she faced challenging circumstances being away from her family at a young age.
In their New York debuts in Romeo and Juliet, Seo’s and Stearns’ long, modern lines underscored the dramatic sweep of the ballet. Seo moved with a wind-driven passion. With time, the nuances of her performance and the dynamics of Juliet’s dramatic arc will surely expand.
At the end of the performance, which also celebrated Frederic Franklin’s 95th birthday, Seo and Stearns took their bows to a cheering audience. Franklin, dressed in costume as Friar Lawrence, accepted a bouquet from Seo and kissed her sweetly.
It was as if he—and ABT—were officially consecrating her as a ballerina.
Joseph Carman writes about dance and is the author of Round About the Ballet.
Cory Stearns: The other side of the partnership
By Dan Capello
It is late afternoon on July 4. In a substage rehearsal studio, ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson watches Hee Seo stretch out. Parkinson is set to rehearse Romeo and Juliet with Seo and Cory Stearns, both of whom will make their New York debuts in the leads in five days. When Stearns breezes in, Seo—the picture of restrained, unflappable grace—straightens her back and gazes up. They exchange giddy, grinning glances and the sight evokes Shakespeare’s young lovers.
Flushed and exhausted, Stearns has come from dancing Orion in Sylvia, where he strained a muscle in his right leg. “I’m just a little heavy in the calves,” he assures Parkinson. And then he and Seo launch into the balcony pas de deux. By their Thursday night debut, they will have fixed the slight imperfections that surface in rehearsal. During a lift in the balcony scene, he will keep his beaming face fixed in a clean profile line; she will straighten her back and sit like a swan in the arms of her newfound love. Their fresh sentiment and vigor will lend a youthful verisimilitude to the ballet that even many principals can’t conjure.
Stearns has a classical appeal—a serene bearing, long musculature and wide, chiseled features. A danseur noble in the mold of the company’s male leads, his is a physical, almost macho approach. Born Paul Cornell Stearns in Southampton, NY, Cory grew up playing baseball, soccer and tennis. His mother had studied Graham technique and insisted that her children take up dance, too. As Stearns puts it, “She didn’t want us just to be jocks.”
The training started early. When he was 3, Stearns was enrolled in a creative-movement class. By the time he was 5, he had begun his classical training at Seiskaya Ballet in St. James, NY. At 13, he received a full scholarship to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre summer program. For the first time, he saw an array of ages and abilities, and the impression was lasting. “By the time my parents picked me up from Pittsburgh, I knew I would be a dancer.”
At 15, he participated in Youth America Grand Prix and earned a full scholarship to The Royal Ballet School. There David Peden, a former Royal Ballet soloist, helped the young dancer refine his technique and perspective. “Before David, I was all about pirouettes and jumps. David was all technique and cleanliness.”
At the end of his training, Stearns joined ABT’s second company, entered the main company two years later and was named soloist this year. Last fall, he learned he would dance Romeo. Soon Seo was cast as Stearns’ Juliet. “Hee and I have a natural chemistry. What I love about her is how she feels the role; she doesn’t overthink it. I’m trying to adapt right along with her, to be a 16-year-old Italian boy.”
For Stearns, Romeo has been one of the most difficult roles. “MacMillan is very emotional. Romeo is not as technically demanding as some parts, but you have to remain in character, in control, every second of the ballet.” To achieve that went beyond coaching. “Hee and I watched the Zeffirelli film together. I watched videos of former productions. When you do this role for the first time, you live it—you dream about it, hear the music when you’re in bed, act it out in the shower.”
On debut night, the youth and energy of Stearns’ and Seo’s star-crossed lovers was palpable. Despite reinjuring his calf mid-performance, Stearns pushed forward. “Sure, it’s disgustingly tiring,” he said lightly several days later. ”But this role is a process. It’s something you develop over the years.” And Stearns has many years of Romeos ahead.
--American Ballet Theatre dancer Cory Stearns was promoted to soloist at
the beginning of January, three years after becoming a member of ABT’s corps de ballet.
--Manuel Legris will direct the Vienna State Opera’s ballet beginning in 2010, upon retiring as an étoile with the Paris Opéra Ballet. In his new position, Legris will work to grow the troupe’s international reputation.
--James Canfield was chosen as Nevada Ballet Theatre’s next artistic director after serving as the interim artistic director since March 2008. Canfield will lead the company through its transition to a new home in the $475 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts.