Christopher Hampson. Photo by Andy Ross, Courtesy Scottish Ballet.
Unassuming audience members were in for a shock when 12 male dancers from Scottish Ballet performed Angelin Preljocaj's MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival. The work explores virility and violence through a series of biblical allusions. Striking in its harshness and punishing physicality, it at times seemed almost cruel to inflict upon the dancers, who performed with a vicious beauty. But artistic director Christopher Hampson chose the contemporary piece for its thought-provoking, emotional impact. As the Scottish Ballet's repertoire keeps growing, Hampson continues to challenge the typical notions of ballet.
He established himself as a dancer and then as a choreographer for the English National Ballet, subsequently choreographing for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and The Royal Ballet. In 2012, the Manchester native became the artistic director of Scotland's national dance company, in Glasgow, and incorporated the position of chief executive director in 2015.
Sklute coaches corps artist Kazlyn Nielsen. Photo courtesy Ballet West.
After scouting for a ballet company to feature in the melodramatic reality show “Breaking Pointe," the producers made a U-turn back to Adam Sklute, the CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “They said, In our screen tests, your company is the most photogenic. They have really interesting stories and we'd love to have them on camera," recalls Sklute. The show, which focused on Ballet West's backstage drama and intramural romance, premiered in 2012, ran for two seasons and brought fame to dancers like Beckanne Sisk and Allison DeBona. “Some of our dancers could be supermodels. They are as tall and as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains that we look at," says Sklute. “I want a company of tall, beautiful dancers who produce a glamorous stage picture." Still, there's far more than glitz and good looks at this midsized company.
As the dancers processed through downtown Orlando—smiling, laughing, heads held high—Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill allowed himself to relax and take in the moment. It was 2013 and the company was headed toward its future.
Rising from the rubble of a construction site was the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The dancers were about to see their new performance space. “It was a game changer," Hill recalls. “I couldn't stop watching their faces."
The ballet had nowhere to go but up: A mold infestation, not uncommon in Florida's humid heat, had driven the troupe from its longtime rehearsal home. And every day seemed to bring new challenges, like instability in the company's business management and a cash flow that had slowed to a trickle.
Hill's mantra to his dancers stayed positive: “Let's hang on, everybody. We're going to get through this."
Wistrich teaching company class. Photo by Gary St. Martin, courtesy City Ballet of San Diego.
City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."
Irving in the studio with OBT's Candace Bouchard. Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover, Courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Kevin Irving is a man of eclectic tastes. It showed in Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2015–16 season, which opened with Napoli Act III, the company's first turn with Bournonville, followed by Balanchine's Nutcracker. Then came Romeo & Juliet, as envisioned by OBT founding artistic director James Canfield. The season closed with Beautiful Decay, an OBT premiere that Irving's partner, contemporary choreographer Nicolo Fonte, created featuring local contemporary dancers.
“A salient fact is that I'm very much a mongrel," says the 55-year-old OBT artistic director. As a Long Island teen, Irving aspired to be a jazz dancer, studying at The Ailey School and performing with Elisa Monte Dance before leaping seriously into ballet at 24. He joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and was promoted to soloist, then principal. He finished his performing days with Twyla Tharp, then moved on to European posts, including associate director at the Madrid-based Compañía Nacional de Danza, artistic director of Sweden's Göteborgs Operans Danskompani and guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet. His ever-changing circumstances taught him to adapt quickly, he says.
Orr coaching principal Julia Erickson during a rehearsal for La Bayadère. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.
“I was tricked into it," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn't a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he'd been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.
These days it's hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation's top regional ballet companies and training schools.
Carney rehearses "Waltz of the Flowers" with Kansas City Ballet's Tempe Ostergren. Photo by Jessica Kelly, Courtesy KCB.
“There's always boxes of color to help with that," says Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney when I ask him if the long hours in the studio are turning his hair gray. It's November, and he's creating the company's new $2 million Nutcracker production. “I love it," he says. “There's nothing like making something that will influence kids in their development as dancers."
For Carney, there was a lot to love about the situation he stepped into in 2013 as only the fourth artistic director in Kansas City Ballet's 59-year history. (Carney's predecessor, William Whitener, retired after 17 years to work as an independent choreographer, teacher and arts advocate.) The company had recently moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, had a new performance home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was free of debt. “It was pretty spectacular," says Carney.
Curran rehearsing company dancer Erin Langston. Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.
Last August, Louisville Ballet's artistic and executive director Robert Curran met with an anonymous donor in New York. He came home with a check for one million dollars. His lips are sealed, but the donation bodes well for the ballet's future under Curran, whose tenure only began in 2014.
In its nearly 65-year history, Louisville Ballet has experienced quite the evolution: It has transitioned from civic to professional company; is now housed in a spacious facility nestled between downtown and NuLu, the city's nascent but thriving arts district; and has the nationally respected Adam Hougland as its principal choreographer. As the new director, Curran has already laid out bold plans to strengthen the company, including an expanded relationship with the Louisville Orchestra and a broadened repertoire.
Tamara Rojo in Swan Lake. Photo by ASH, Courtesy ENB.
While the 20th century brought a number of high-profile dancing directors, from Rudolf Nureyev in Paris to Mikhail Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre, most today don't juggle the highly demanding tasks of simultaneously performing and managing a company. Tamara Rojo is one prominent exception: The Spanish ballerina left The Royal Ballet to become director of English National Ballet in 2012—and has been leading the company by example ever since.
A dogged multitasker, Rojo wasted no time revamping the company's image. Often seen as the poor cousin of The Royal Ballet, with limited funding and a mandate to tour widely, ENB struggled to make its presence felt under her predecessor, Wayne Eagling. Rojo has since turned ENB into a resourceful enterprise—from lauded premieres to a new partnership with Sadler's Wells and plans for a shiny new home—alive with the same energy and individuality she is known for onstage.
Anderson leads company class onstage. Photo by Ulrich Beuttenmueller, Courtesy Stuttgart Ballet.
Name the most prominent choreographers and directors in continental Europe, and the list reads like a who's who of Stuttgart Ballet alumni. John Neumeier, Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe all came up through the ranks of the German company. Four decades after the death of its founder, choreographer John Cranko, Stuttgart Ballet remains a trendsetter under artistic director Reid Anderson, himself a product of the Stuttgart company.
Anderson has mastered an impressive balancing act. Extremes live in peaceful coexistence under the company's repertory system: On alternate nights, dancers might go from the period costumes of Cranko's Onegin or The Taming of the Shrew to the sleek leotards associated with its contemporary in-house creations. As many as five or six premieres make their way to the stage each season. Creativity is also encouraged through the Noverre-Society, an organization created in 1958 that supports new works.