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Dominic Walsh (right) working with Whim W'him. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art Photography, Courtesy Whim W'him.

Summer is the perfect time for busy dancers to get some much-needed rest after a long season. But it's also a good opportunity to hone your technique. Summer training opportunities for professionals are scarce, although the ones that do exist are pretty great. Now, there is a welcome addition on the horizon that we're excited about.

Choreographer and former Houston Ballet principal Dominic Walsh recently announced that he has teamed up with the Colorado Conservatory of Dance to create the Compass Coaching Project, a two-week intensive for dancers over the age of 17. Held June 4–16 in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, the workshop is specially tailored for those in trainee, second company and apprentice positions. "In today's model of a dancer's profession, there is sometimes a long transition between student and professional," Walsh says in a statement. "I believe this is a crucial time for mentorship." Indeed, a dancer's early career is often marked by anxiety and uncertainty as they spend one or more years in low-paid or unpaid junior ranks.

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Dominic Walsh, photo by Gabriella Nissen

Running a dance company can be all-consuming, especially when you serve as both its artistic director and principal choreographer. Trey McIntyre, whose Trey McIntyre Project is giving its final performances this month, recently told The Washington Post that the additional fundraising and administrative aspects of his job became too overwhelming, and contributed to his reasons for disbanding the troupe. “I’m really burnt out,” he said.

 

Dominic Walsh—whose company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, has brought cutting-edge contemporary ballet to Houston audiences for 12 years—made a similar remark recently. In a statement released Friday, he announced he is taking a sabbatical, suspending the company’s 2014-2015 season.

 

“This decision will allow me to explore other opportunities and interests that I simply have not been free to spend time on with the many obligations I’ve committed to for these 12 years,” Walsh said in a statement. “I look forward to accepting opportunities to create and stage my works, teaching classes as a guest and coaching ballets.”

 

Walsh also notes that the sabbatical will give him more time to support his partner, Domenico Luciano, a former DWDT member now a principal dancer at Colorado Ballet. While he makes no mention of folding the company, his future plans for DWDT remain unclear.

Dancer: Sarah Van Patten
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten always commands the stage in roles that call for dramatic depth and musicality. But because she is not usually thought of as a strong technician, she was a long shot to be cast as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

Certainly, her interpretation was the least virtuosic among the six women who performed the role in Helgi Tomasson’s new
production—but hers was also the boldest and most touching. Van Patten’s phrasing as Odette was lush and aching. Her sexiness as Odile was searing. Portraying the emotions of her characters came naturally, Van Patten says. But she also powered through the fear-inspiring fouettés and worked hard to maintain strong footwork. “I wanted to have a solid base because when you have that, you can give yourself over to the role,” she says. Indeed, she achieved the technical strength she needed, but put it in total service to emotional artistry. —Rachel Howard



Dancer: Domenico Luciano
Company: Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre
Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

 
Domenico Luciano knows how to be a he-bird. As the only dancer outside of Matthew Bourne’s troupe performing Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake pas de deux, Luciano made a statement during his Houston performance last season. At 6’ 3” and a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, Luciano is a mighty presence. He evokes an animal energy with his seemingly endless lines. Bourne’s ballet straddles a fine edge between parody and myth, and Luciano luxuriates in that very territory: sensuous, but always masculine. “Bourne’s piece feels right for my physicality,” says Luciano. “Although I’m so comfortable in the role, there’s so much to discover in the character. It’s a bit murky in that I am a figment of the prince’s imagination. The relationship between the prince and the swan is really deliciously ambiguous.” —Nancy Wozny

 

Dancer: Natalia Osipova
Company: Bolshoi Ballet
Ballet: August Bournonville’s La Sylphide

 
In her sensational debut with American Ballet Theatre last June, Bolshoi Ballet principal Natalia Osipova demonstrated the power of a beloved old classroom step: grand jeté. With her impeccable technique and unfailing musicality, she would be the ideal heroine for any ballet, but it was the airy lightness of her grand jeté that made her the perfect choice for the doomed forest sprite in Bournonville’s La Sylphide. The three leaps she performed in rapid succession at the end of Act I seemed to require no preparation at all, coming out of nowhere to vanish before our eyes. While tossing off feats of strength, Osipova embodied a fatal fragility. A creature of the air, utterly weightless, she was too delicate to escape the tragic end awaiting her. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Alina Cojocaru
Company: The Royal Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Giselle

 
For almost a decade, Alina Cojocaru had been one of the brightest stars in a sparkling constellation of ballerinas at The Royal Ballet—until a prolapsed disc in her neck threatened to end her career in 2008. After 11 months away from the stage, she returned to the Royal Opera House last April to perform Giselle, her signature role.

Cojocaru always brings exquisite technique and emotional poignancy to this role. But being unable to dance for so long brought her even closer to her character. “The joy of dance made my Giselle and my Alina be one person more than ever,” she says. With just five days’ rehearsal, she allowed no concessions to her long layoff; her technique was as brilliant as ever and Giselle’s adolescent innocence blossomed into a coruscating love that defied the grave. The New York Times’ critic Roslyn Sulcas declared it to be “one of the great dance renditions of our time.” 

    
At the end of an emotional evening, the ecstatic audience covered the stage in flowers and, as the curtain fell, Cojocaru says she felt that “to lose and then fight for something I love was in my very soul. One battle in my life was won; now I’m ready for whatever else life will bring!” —Graham Watts

 

Dancer: Riolama Lorenzo
Company: Pennsylvania Ballet
Ballet: Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto

 

Sometimes a smaller company offers just the room for growth that an exceptionally gifted dancer needs to burnish her talent. Riolama Lorenzo danced Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries while in the corps of New York City Ballet several years ago. Now, after having moved to Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002, and ascending from corps to principal in three short years, she’s still dancing Martins’ work—sublimely. Her role in his Barber Violin Concerto last season had Lorenzo making a dazzling transition from the ideal
ballerina who seemed to land each jump on a pillow of air, to literally letting her hair down in gutsier action. Cuban-born Lorenzo is beloved by Philadelphia audiences for her daring and her clear attack. Standing 5’8”, with exquisitely arched feet and an astonishingly supple spine, her flexibility, precision and range along with a presence that exudes both directness and depth make Riolama Lorenzo shine. —Lisa Kraus

 

Dancer: Alex Wong
Company: Miami City Ballet
Ballet: Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room

Few would think of the cheerfully loosey-goosey choreography for the sneaker-clad “stompers” in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as technical. Yet when Miami City Ballet principal soloist Alex Wong blazed through the stompers’ bouncy leaps and backward jogs this spring, he epitomized virtuosic technique. Wong’s precise classical style and fine-tuned musicality lent the high-speed role—which most dancers are lucky just to survive—polish and panache. And in a work defined by explosive displays of energy, Wong crackled with a singular electricity: His jumps were the most buoyant, his joyful intensity unmatched.

Wong thinks that Tharp’s presence in the audience inspired his superhuman performance. “We were pushing as hard as we could for her, trying to fill the entire space,” he remembers. “Just thinking about it makes my body start to tingle.”  —Margaret Fuhrer

 

Dancer: Sterling Hyltin
Company: New York City Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia

Sterling Hyltin made several outstanding performances at New York City Ballet last winter, and two were as Swanilda in Coppélia. At her first performance, her sunny personality, unfailing musicality, assured technique and buoyant energy proved a perfect fit for the spunky heroine. Less successful was acting that relied on mugging (rolling her eyes, say, to express disdain for her boyfriend, Franz). By her second performance, however, Hyltin had replaced mannerisms with actions; now Swanilda snubbed Franz with a toss of her head or a shrug. It was if she had created a new performance, one that could now reach the audience at the very top of the house through movement alone. Such makeovers are as much a part of Hyltin’s dancing as taking class. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Kristi Boone
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son

 
Although she’s been a soloist since 2007, Kristi Boone has rarely been given the chance to carry a ballet. But during a foray into principal territory last June as the Siren, she looked every inch the part, from the sensuous, exaggerated curves of her legs and feet to her beautiful face, stoic and imposing. It was a dangerous, exciting debut. Her dancing was icy and deliberate—she pulled off the tricky Balanchine choreography with finesse. Boone had been itching to wield the Siren’s red cape since ABT’s last run of Prodigal in 2000, when she was still with ABT II. She relishes the role as a rare opportunity for a female dancer. “You’re usually the damsel in distress,” she says. “You never get to have that much power.” —Kina Poon

 

Dancer: Jonathan Porretta
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

 
Even when the music was soft in PNB’s production of the Petipa classic, you couldn’t hear Jonathan Porretta land his clean, soaring jumps. You could, however, in an auditorium that seats 2,900, actually hear the beating of his feet.

Over the past few years, working with contemporary choreographers, this magnetic virtuoso has grown into an artist. With his Swan Lake roles—the flashy, character-rich Jester and the gentler, lyrical pas de trois male—he proved himself a sensitive master of classical ballet as well. Porretta is all things to all people, working to fulfill choreographers’ visions, embodying composers’ music, connecting with fellow dancers, achieving personal satisfaction and conversing with the audience. And what a conversation it is! —Rosie Gaynor

 

Dancer: Joanna Wozniak
Company: The Joffrey Ballet
Ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring

 
Joanna Wozniak danced The Chosen One in Rite of Spring three times during the Joffrey’s spring season, and she was perfect from the start—vulnerable, aware, poignant, terrified and noticeably more powerful and ferocious than in her many traditionally lyrical roles. She had dreamed of dancing this role of a human sacrifice ever since joining the company in 2003. And once she learned the part, Wozniak began “thinking about what this young virgin girl was really like, going through all the complex emotions she must have felt knowing she was about to die, and realizing that her family, and all the people she had trusted, had turned against her in a way.” The Chosen One’s grueling solo lasts only a few minutes, but before the dancer bursts into motion she must stand absolutely still, frozen in fright. “There is a spotlight over you at that point, and everything else seems to disappear into darkness, though you can hear the Elders stomping. And it’s at that moment that you really become the character.” —Hedy Weiss

 

Dancer: Marie-Agnès Gillot
Company: Paris Opéra Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Apollo

 
As the first Paris Opéra Ballet dancer promoted to étoile after performing a nonclassical ballet, Marie-Agnès Gillot is the company’s contemporary darling. She always looks like she’s having an “on” night, so grounded that she can balance at her whim until she chooses to move on to the next step. But what makes her truly unique in modern movement is her ability to imbue even the most abstract works with meaning and personality. Many Balanchine purists were astonished at Gillot’s playful, seductive Terpsichore in  Apollo at the Nijinsky Gala in Hamburg last summer. The usually spare, cool neoclassicism became jazzy, with hips jutting from side to side. Her long legs articulated each step with clarity. And her entire body tested the limits of how much she could play with the music, coyly waiting to feel each movement from within before letting it gravitate out to the tips of her pointe shoes. —Jennifer Stahl

 

Dancer: Ebony Williams
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Ballet: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo

 
When Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams steps onstage, her presence is sometimes so fierce, it’s intimidating just to be in the audience. That presence was most evident this year in Cedar Lake’s mysterious, multilayered Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Williams moved with utter fearlessness, forcefully throwing her body into the movement at one moment, finding a soft, slinky angularity the next. “He choreographed my solo by giving me tasks that would create movement,” says Williams. “At first, I had to move like I had balls all over me, then like I was made of fire and at the end I became an animal.” Although Williams admits she was nervous about having to come up with her own contemporary movement, she appreciated that the process was a partnership: “He wanted to know how I moved and who I was—and let me show that onstage.” —Jennifer Stahl

 

Honorable Mentions

Kathryn Morgan in The Sleeping Beauty Wedding Pas de Deux, during New York City Ballet’s “Dancer’s Choice” evening: Simultaneously authoritative and delicate, regal and gentle, the young corps de ballet member breezed through this technically exacting pas de deux, the perfect showcase for her ineffable brand of understated charm.

Maria Riccetto in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle with Herman Cornejo: Usually paired with David Hallberg, Riccetto bloomed dancing with Cornejo, bringing a deep tenderness and vulnerability to the role. Technically flawless, she made Giselle utterly believable, and together she and Cornejo seemed a natural partnership.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 45-year-old Louise Nadeau in Forsythe’s Urlicht at her farewell performance in June: Strength, grace, technique, musicality and personality all combined at peak levels for what was one of her best performances.

Hamburg Ballet principal Hélène Bouchet in Verklungene Feste by John Neumeier: She moved with that ideal combination of strength and abandon that all dancers strive for yet rarely achieve. Over and over, she sent her body flying, then pulled back and found the control to guide her limbs into precise positions.

Robin Mathes in Mauro Bigonzetti’s rousing Cantata: Leaving fear in the dust, the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal soloist mixed gravitas with abandon, charging head-on into the pathos of the music.

Jazmon Voss and Cira Robinson of the U.K.’s Ballet Black in Antonia Franceschi’s intimate Pop8: After a scintillating duet in which Voss and Robinson were vivacious yet sinuous, Voss’ jazz-themed solo fused muscular virtuosity with delicate grace and sophistication.

It’s an exciting time to be a ballet dancer—if, that is, you are someone who likes to venture off the beaten path and explore the unknown. As contemporary ballet, long popular in Europe, takes a stronger hold in the U.S., the number of purely contemporary companies is on the rise.

In the 1990s, Complexions and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet were two of the main American contemporary troupes. But now, with the creation of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in 2003, the remaking of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 2006, Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses in 2007, and Trey McIntyre Project going full-time this year, it’s clear that innovation is on the upswing.

Like traveling with an explorer always in search of the next discovery, contemporary ballet gives dancers a chance to live and breathe at the boundaries of their art form, continuously working with a choreographer to make something new. It can advance the genre, revolutionize how audiences perceive ballet and challenge dancers to take their training as far as it can go. And in companies that only do contemporary fare, dancers have the opportunity to focus on a particular movement style and artistic sensibility, without having to shift to accommodate the specific physical demands of a classical and neoclassic repertoire. 

These are the reasons Trey McIntyre plans to keep his company exclusively contemporary, even after it makes its much-anticipated debut at Jacob’s Pillow in August as a full-time company, followed by a 30-city tour. 

“It’s hard for dancers to be creative in ballet companies,” says McIntyre, whose company has been touring during the summer since 2004. “If it’s a repertory company, it’s Giselle in the morning and a contemporary choreographer in the afternoon—in not a lot of time. I need dancers to sit with things longer and really inhabit them.” 

Working in a small company like TMP, where all or the majority of work comes from one choreographer, gives dancers the luxury to explore new movement, because the majority of their days are spent dancing in a way that is specific to that choreographer. Dominic Walsh, a former Houston Ballet principal who’s been running and dancing in his own contemporary company since 2003, says this kind of company fosters an environment of intimacy and ownership.

“I enjoy having a small group that understands my style of movement,” he says of his DWDT. “The dancers feel like they’re big stakeholders in the company. Their own voice, their way of moving, their language, their way of responding to their bodies are observed and appreciated, and that provides a springboard for real growth.” 

For dancers and choreographers, the opportunity to work closely over time can yield positive results beyond one particular work by helping dancers push beyond their own boundaries. “Working with dancers,” says McIntyre, “is about tearing away layers and getting past all those things people hold on to that stop them from being remarkable.”

For example, McIntyre once created a solo for 2006’s A Day in the Life for former Washington Ballet principal Michele Jimenez that purposely ignored her facility for large and luscious movement. Instead, he required her to be still. “She was silent and quiet and gestures had to be tiny,” says McIntyre. “It was incredibly fulfilling for both of us, and her dancing became more nuanced. So even in creating choreography and knowing where I’m going to go next, I consider the dancers as people and where their journeys need to go.”

Likewise, contemporary company members can be sources of revelation for their directors. Walsh, for instance, decided to create an entirely contemporary version of Sleeping Beauty, which premiered last October, simply because he was inspired by one of his dancers, Dawn Dipple. “I didn’t have the idea until I worked with her,” he says. “I thought, ‘She could bring a really interesting quality to a role like Aurora.’” 

Mauro Bigonzetti, director of Italy’s Aterballetto, says that dancers are always his principal source of inspiration. “The idea is not important for me, and the steps are the last thing,” he explains. “It’s the dancers. I need to feel the energy of the dancers.”

Since taking the helm at Aterballetto in 1997, where he also danced in the 1980s, Bigonzetti and his company have enjoyed a decade of international attention. But he’s also made a point of creating work on other companies—which included a third new work for New York City Ballet earlier this year—in order to continue developing as a dancemaker. 

“When you work with the same dancers all the time, it’s difficult to discover new possibilities with the body,” he says. “When you work with different dancers from different companies with different styles and experiences, you can learn.”

Because contemporary companies like Aterballetto essentially exist to develop new work, dancers become adept participants in the creation process. Unlike classical and neoclassical ballets, in which dancers draw from a long performance tradition to find their own interpretations, new ballets allow them to them to start from scratch to fulfill a choreographer’s vision. “If you’re a choreographer, your work only exists through the dancers,” explains Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in Monaco. “There is a rich period where I work in the studio with the dancer, and that is what excites me the most. It’s only about sharing and generosity.”

It’s an exhilarating and rewarding task—imagine what it must have been like for the original casts of George Balanchine’s Agon or William Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated.” Balanchine, Forsythe and their dancers redefined what could be considered ballet and changed how audiences perceived it.

“Art should give us the possibility to think differently,” says Maillot, who danced for the Hamburg Ballet before retiring in 1983 to choreograph for and direct the Ballet du Grand Theâtre in his native Tours, France. According to Maillot, it is the responsibility of contemporary ballet to surprise audiences and inspire them to pause and reflect.

For ballet as a whole, new work pushes the art form into uncharted territory—not just artistically, but also technically. When Balanchine was the contemporary choreographer of his day, the teacher Stanley Williams extended ballet’s classical vocabulary to prepare dancers for Balanchine’s work. Today, as choreographers like Bigonzetti, McIntyre, Maillot and Walsh explore new ways of using the body, dancers will also achieve ever-greater technical accomplishments. 

Artistically, this means that each day in the studio is accompanied by an electrifying sense that anything is possible. “There are a million more ways that haven’t even been thought of or discovered yet in which we can use dance,” says Walsh, “whether we have to speak, or scream or roll around on the floor, or get up and do 20 entrechats six.”

Kristin Lewis is an editor based in New York City.

To kick of its 10th anniversary season, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater is offering a free performance. On Friday, August 28 at 8 pm in Houston's Miller Outdoor Theater, the small but mighty contemporary ballet troupe will present a mixed rep of audience favorites. The bill includes Walsh's Medea, Clair de Lune, and multidisciplinary Time out of Line as well as Mats Ek's Pas de Dans. Go to dwdt.org for more info.

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