On Monday evening, four 20th century New York City Ballet stars joined Wendy Whelan in conversation for an event titled Balanchine's Ballerinas hosted by National Dance Institute, the dance education organization that former NYCB dancer Jacques d'Amboise founded in 1976. D'Amboise introduced the four ballerinas taking the stage as dancers who "graced Balanchine and were graced by him." Hearing the ensuing conversation between Wendy Whelan and Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley proved just that; the sense of inspiration that George Balanchine gleaned from his muses, and the deep appreciation he had for each individual's unique traits.
For the past year, companies worldwide have been celebrating Jerome Robbins' centennial; he was born on October 11, 1918. Starting September 26, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center opens an exhibition celebrating Robbins which will run through March 30, 2019. The Library's Dance Division is named after Robbins; his collection is housed there, and during his life he was a tremendous supporter and frequent user of the performing arts holdings. Needless to say, they're pulling out all of the stops for this retrospective: a jam-packed gallery exhibit and a series of free, public programs.
The exhibition, curated by historian Julia Foulkes, is titled "Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York," and focuses on Robbins' relationship with his city (or as the NYPL is wording it, his "metropolitan muse"). From Fancy Free to West Side Story, NYC acted as the inspiration for many of Robbins' most-loved ballets and shows. The exhibition traces Robbins' life and work alongside the history of the city. "New York served as a laboratory for Robbins, where he observed people, buildings, traffic—how movement in space could carry meaning and beauty," said Foulkes in a statement.
This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.
But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.
A telegram from Lincoln Kirstein to Arthur Mitchell inviting him to join New York City Ballet; an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Suzanne Farrell and Mitchell in Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue; a sparkly red and purple Firebird costume and headpiece from Dance Theatre of Harlem's 1982 production—these are just some of the treasures on display at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery as part of an exhibit titled Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer. Open to the public through March 11, this collection offers a glimpse into Mitchell's boundary-breaking life and career.
Mitchell was raised in Harlem, and joined NYCB in 1955 at the age of 21. He quickly rose to the rank of principal, and is known for originating lead roles in works such as Agon and A Midsummer Night's Dream. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, Mitchell co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with his former teacher, Karel Shook. Under his over 40-year directorship, DTH became the first African American classical ballet company to achieve international acclaim. In 2015 Mitchell donated his archive to Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, starting a chain of events including a performance last October designed to share his vast contributions to diversity in dance with the public.
Arthur Mitchell in class, 1960s. Photo by Milton Oleaga. Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer, penned the eerie and dark tale "Nutcracker and Mouse King" in 1816. About 30 years later, the French writer Alexandre Dumas took the Nutcracker story into his own hands, lightening things up and softening the character descriptions. Dumas even cheered up the name of the protagonist. "Marie Stahlbaum" (meaning "steel tree," representing the repressive family Marie found herself in, which led her imagination to run wild) became "Clara Silberhaus" (translated to "silver house," a magnificent home filled with shiny magic.)
Snowflakes of the original cast, "The Nutcracker" at the Mariinsky Theatre, 1892. Photo by Walter E. Owen, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
From Page to Stage
In 1892 St. Petersburg, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky pulled the story off the page and onto the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. But Petipa fell ill while choreographing The Nutcracker and handed his duties over to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. Critics at the 1892 premiere were not pleased. Balletomanes felt the work to be uneven, and lamented the lack of a main ballerina in the first act. Many thought that the story was too light compared to historically based stories.
Out of Russia
Despite its initial reception, the ballet survived, partially due to the success of Tchaikovsky's score. Performances were scarce, though, as the Russian Revolution scattered its original dancers. The Nutcracker's first major exposure outside of Russia took place in London in 1934. Former Mariinsky ballet master Nikolas Sergeyev was tasked with staging Petipa's story ballets on the Vic-Wells Ballet (today The Royal Ballet) from the original notation. The notes were incomplete and difficult to read, yet Sergeyev persisted, and The Nutcracker made it to the stage.
Dancers from ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in "The Nutcracker" pas de deux. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's Jewels, and companies around the world are paying homage. While last summer's Lincoln Center Festival collaboration with New York City Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet was all glamour and excitement, Pacific Northwest Ballet is taking a reverential look back in advance of its opening performances next week.
In 2014, PNB artistic director Peter Boal invited four stars of Balanchine's original 1967 cast—Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise—to coach the company in their signature roles. And, thank heavens, they captured it all on film. This 20-minute promotional documentary offers priceless footage of them in rehearsals, interviews and lecture demonstrations, offering fascinating insights into Balanchine's creative process and original intentions.
Who says dancers don't eat?
In 1979, the corps of American Ballet Theatre went on strike in a fight to increase their wages (starting corps members made a measly $235 a week). "We're underpaid and overworked" said soloist Rebecca Wright in a People magazine article from the time. Though the nearly two-month long labor dispute ultimately gave dancers a 40 percent wage increase and better benefits, the months without work left dancers tightening their belts even further to make ends meet. Their solution? A benefit performance and auction organized by Gelsey Kirkland starring Natalia Makarova and former NYCB dancer Edward Villella, stars who spoke out on behalf of the corps. The benefit brought in $10,000. One of the items auctioned off was Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters, a cookbook compiled by the dancers of their favorite recipes, complete with a hand-drawn cover.
We got our hands on one of these original copies, and were surprised to see what an eclectic mix of delicacies the book contained, from hometown favorites to ballet-themed baked goods.
This year, the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, is celebrating its 85th season. Over the years, some of the world's greatest dancers of the 20th and 21st century have performed here. But without the help of two of Britain's biggest ballet stars during World War II, the festival might not have survived at all.
Founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, the "Pillow," as it's come to be known, had been home to his company of Men Dancers since the early 1930s. By 1940, due in part to the outbreak of World War II, his company had disbanded, leaving Shawn deeply in debt and eager to realize his assets.
In 1941, British ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin leased the property, with the help of benefactor Reginald Wright. There they established The International Dance Festival, a school and summer residency for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Many of the participating dancers, including Markova, had just left the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo for Ballet Theatre, and the residency was a way of keeping them together. The dancers were not paid, so many survived on $10 a week in unemployment benefits, contributing $1.00 a day towards food and lodging.
Ballet's earliest history can be traced as far back as the royal courts of Renaissance Italy (roughly 200 years before France's King Louis the XIV established the first ballet academy in 1661). Surprisingly, many of these court dances were written down and still survive. Lincoln Jones, the artistic director of American Contemporary Ballet in Los Angeles, reconstructed several examples for the company's Naked Souls of Kings and Queens program in April to show just how much ballet has evolved. The majority of the pieces were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza, a well-known 15th-century dancing master; Jones also reconstructed a slow, stately dance (called a bassa danza) choreographed by the famous Renaissance statesman and arts patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. (His great-granddaughter, Catherine de' Medici, introduced these dance traditions to the French court when she married King Henri II.)
The first and third dances were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza. The second dance, called a bassa danza, was choreographed by Lorenzo de' Medici.
If you were a subscriber to a respectable repertory theater company, you would never tolerate a diet of lustful Saracen princes, troops of tots running around in blackface, upstart Roman slaves versed in Karl Marx, dark-skinned serving girls with bejeweled navels and superwomen who destroy any man passing their way.
Ballet lovers, however, are more tolerant, too much for my taste. For a few minutes of vivid, occasionally masterful choreography, the devotees of Terpsichore are willing to put up with nonsensical, dated or offensive librettos, and they lose their qualms (if they entered the theater with any) in a flood of tours jetés and grandes pirouettes à la seconde.
Face the fact: Many of the ballets that audiences cherish today have simply aged out. The reasons are both political and social, and the dances that have not adapted to espousing contemporary values somehow look like stale period pieces.
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Imagine learning a 150-year-old ballet with nothing more than the choreographer’s yellowed, handwritten notes and an unfamiliar score to go on. Now, imagine that choreographer is none other than August Bournonville. For the last month, that’s exactly what the dancers at Royal Swedish Ballet have been up to as they prepare for the October 21 premiere of Ponte Molle, lovingly reconstructed by a team of Danish Bournonville experts.
There likely isn’t a person alive today who’s seen the complete Ponte Molle. Choreographed in 1866 for the Royal Danish Ballet (where Bournonville was director), it was last performed in its entirety in 1911. The score, by four different composers, has been stored in the basement of a library since. The two-act ballet centers on a Danish painter named Alfred, who, along with two other artists, rents a room from a widow in Rome. When the landlady’s daughters are unable to marry their impoverished suitors, Alfred devises a plan to help them out. “It’s kind of a vaudeville ballet,” says Bournonville producer Frank Andersen, who along with Dinna Bjørn, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, helped piece the ballet back together. “The first act is mostly mime. The second act is a huge celebration, with lots and lots of dancing.”
Reconstructing the ballet from scratch has been a painstaking process. Yet the team has one major advantage: Bournonville’s own handwritten notations. Bjørn inherited them, along with those of several other ballets, from her father Niels Bjørn Larsen, a former director of the Royal Danish Ballet. But while the legs and the floor patterns were recorded, the port de bras was not. “That’s where the four of us, who have been dancing Bournonville for 40 years, can add our expertise,” Andersen says. “We know that if a step is like this, the head and arms will probably be like that.” The dancers, too, have been allowed to offer their input in rehearsals. “It’s been an exciting ping-pong process—they see it coming alive.”
In an effort to prevent Ponte Molle from looking like a museum piece, the Danish team has updated it to allow today’s technical standards to shine through. For instance, pointework as we understand it today did not exist in 1866 Denmark. “It was just quickly up-down, up-down,” says Andersen. Most of the women's choreography, therefore, was on demi-pointe. “But we will of course dance this on pointe today.” Spotting technique, too, hadn’t been developed; as a result, Bournonville’s dancers typically sailed around for one or two pirouettes. Obviously, this would not fly with a modern audience's expectations, so the choreography has been adjusted to allow for multiple rotations. “But everything will be done exactly in the Bournonville style,” says Andersen.
The reconstructed ballet will not be an exact replica, but there’s no questioning the importance of keeping Bournonville’s rarely seen works alive. Kudos to the Royal Swedish Ballet for commissioning this reconstruction, and for preventing Ponte Molle from slipping through the cracks. I, for one, hope we get to see this dusted-off gem the next time they tour to the U.S. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.
It's a truth often repeated about ballet that it is an art with a strong oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Aspiring dancers learn the same steps that their teachers learned before them and perfect the same skills: turnout, pointework, épaulement, balance and, above all nowadays, flexibility. Sometimes, in the quest to achieve ever-greater heights of technical skill, other aspects of the art recede into the background. Nuances of interpretation and style can seem less important, even though they are the very things that ultimately make a dancer interesting to watch. That's the paradox: In the age of ubiquitous sky-high extensions, the richness of a performance counts even more.
In part to push back against this single-minded focus on technique, some teachers and company directors are making a conscious effort to right the balance between technical flair and a fuller, more sensitive understanding of the art. This takes many forms: dance history classes, careful coaching or simply conversations about alternative interpretations of a role. There is a hunger for these discussions. "We're living in the age of extreme technique," says Alexandra Tomalonis, a distinguished dance writer who teaches ballet history at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. "But many of the students who come to my classes know little about the history of the art form."
When choosing a pre-professional program, many dancers focus on the number of hours they'll spend training in the studio. But technique is only one ingredient in the recipe for making a professional dancer. To produce well-rounded artists, many ballet schools are expanding their curriculums to include classes in dance history, science, stagecraft and career counseling. “The focus so much now is on technique, but I think it's important for us to go back and develop ourselves as artists and people," says Colorado Ballet Academy director Valerie Madonia. The broader knowledge these supplemental classes bring makes dancers more marketable as professionals, and helps distinguish a good dancer from a great artist.
How long has the “ballet is dead" movement been plaguing us? How long have we swatted away such a preposterous conceit, much as we might swat a pesky mosquito? This obituary has been inflicting annoyance at least since the late 1950s. But the assertion has always come as a surprise to the thousands of dancers who have raised technical standards to unimagined heights a generation ago. The statement has always astonished ballet company directors around America who have watched their audiences grow over the decades. No corpse has ever seemed giddier.
Even Jennifer Homans, who famously declared ballet a doomed art in her 2010 book Apollo's Angels, is reconsidering her position. Her announcement this fall that she has founded The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University suggests that she is prepared to question ballet's viability and to restore life to the art form.