Steven McMahon will take the helm of Ballet Memphis on July 1. Trey Clark, Courtesy Ballet Memphis.
Ballet Memphis announced some major news yesterday: Steven McMahon, a former company dancer, will become its next artistic director on July 1, 2019. Current artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded the company in 1986, will remain as Ballet Memphis' CEO.
Julie Kent working with students at ABT. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
It's International Women's Day! To celebrate, we combed our archives for career advice and wisdom from some of the women currently directing ballet companies. Let their words empower and inspire you, today and always.
"You don't become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It's a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you're able to look back to see where you came from."
Lourdes Lopez teaching at the MCB School, photo by Daniel Azoulay
"You have to embrace new technology. It's a no-brainer, but you have to figure out how to use it. People think of ballet as fragile. I completely disagree. I think it's actually very powerful in terms of a transformational art form. Look how long it's survived with all the issues and agendas—political, scientific, social and economic. I'm a believer that you can live-stream dance into a bar or restaurant or stadium or a parking lot. It's not going to diminish the art form.
“The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it's not actually possible to attain...Polish your strengths so they're the center of attention, and know what can and can't be done to change your weaknesses."
"It's not just about being too big. I don't want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don't want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don't think that's very American."
“I look for commitment and openness. You can keep learning through your entire career, and there are always new ways of looking at things...The spirit of a dancer and their versatility is more important to me than whether they have perfect legs and feet."
Ballet Memphis dancers in Steven McMahon's Being Here With Other People. Photo by Brandon Dill.
Ballet has a lily-white reputation.
The great “ballet blanc" works glorify white swans, white shades, white wilis and white sylphs. Still, in 2014, balletgoers might expect some progress in racial diversity onstage, especially in the U.S., where populations of color are growing. But comb the rosters of most American companies and you'll find a striking sameness. While a few have established inclusive policies in training and hiring, they are the minority. There is a notable exception—Asian and Asian-American dancers have made real inroads. However, dancers of other ethnic backgrounds continue to face challenges, especially women.
Many factors contribute to ballet's lack of diversity: economic inequality—ballet training is notoriously expensive; a lack of role models for aspiring dancers to emulate; a failure on the part of schools and companies to provide support for young dancers of color on the uphill road to professional success. And another factor looms large in the discussion: Many believe a thread of racism still runs through the ballet world. “There are people who define ballet in a very specific and historic sense and think it should look like the Mariinsky in 1950," says American Ballet Theatre executive director Rachel Moore, who last year launched the company's Project Plié, an initiative to support the training of ballet students from underrepresented communities.
Dominic Walsh demonstrates in a DWDT rehearsal. Photo by Gabriella Nissen.
This story originally appeared in the February/March 2013 issue of Pointe.
Many years ago, a director of a company I was auditioning for approached me as I was taking off my pointe shoes and struck up a conversation. I felt nervous and shy, so I let him ask all the questions and nodded my head dutifully. I asked nothing about the company, nor did I try to express why I wanted to dance there. After an awkward pause, he politely shook my hand and walked away. At that moment, I realized I'd let the job slip through my fingers.
At the time, I assumed directors were looking for obvious things like flawless technique and a certain body type. But other factors come into play that can make or break you at an audition—especially if a director is on the fence about whom to choose.
For many professional ballet dancers, following the dream means a series of clear upward steps, from corps to soloist to principal. Until last year, you might have said that Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Alissa Dale was right on track.
A trainee with NBT in 2004, Dale got into the corps the next year and advanced to soloist in 2007. But in 2009, as NBT changed its artistic leadership, it also changed from a tiered company of principals, soloists and corps members to a 23-member ensemble of dancers, all equals—an unranked company.
Although staying with Nevada Ballet Theatre meant losing a title, Dale didn’t see herself as a casualty of the transition. “I’ve always been a fan of the ensemble system, so I was really excited,” she says. “It increases the competition, but it’s also an opportunity to work harder. You can’t take for granted where you stand in the company—you can be passed over if you sit back and don’t grab the reins. But that in turn increases your work ethic.”
Bucking the hierarchy laid out by the great European ballet institutions, more and more unranked companies are dotting the landscape of American ballet. The root of that model traces back to the “all-star, no star” Joffrey Ballet. “Robert Joffrey’s philosophy was that in a non-ranked company the strength lay in everyone, rather than resting on one or two featured artists,” says James Canfield, a Joffrey alumnus who took over the helm of NBT last year after serving as interim director for a year.
Famously egalitarian, Joffrey’s approach meant that his hard-working dancers might find themselves leading a ballet one night and dancing in the corps another. That sense of democracy is part of the rationale for unranked companies. “In a ranked company, everyone knows their place, so there’s an assuredness,” says Septime Webre, who has headed the unranked, 22-member Washington Ballet since 1999. “But in an unranked company, there’s a social mobility, shall we say?”
It’s an approach that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, any dancer can earn a chance to shine in a leading role. But the lack of clear levels means that life becomes a daily competition with fellow dancers.
“There’s a sense of ‘on edge’ that you have to maintain,” says Travis Bradley, who is in his sixth season at Ballet Memphis. Bradley has also danced with the ranked Houston Ballet, but says he knew he wanted the opportunities available to small-company dancers. “Anytime a choreographer comes in, you can’t just rely on the advantage of status,” he says.
However, in many hierarchical companies, when a choreographer arrives to cast a new work, he or she is directed towards principals or soloists for leads. In an unranked company, every dancer has a shot. “When a stager or choreographer comes in, they’ll work with a huge group for a day, just to see how we move and who’s best for a role,” explains Nadia Iozzo, a dancer with the unranked Kansas City Ballet. “And the senior dancers in our company aren’t necessarily guaranteed those principal roles. But they’ve put in their years and they’ve reached a certain excellence in technique and artistry and that elevates their work.”
Which brings us to the question: Are all unranked companies really that egalitarian, or will certain dancers implicitly still have a better chance of being cast in leading roles than others?
“Inevitably, some will rise to the top,” says William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet and another Joffrey alum. “But when a choreographer picks dancers, there is generally an element of surprise, too.”
“You feel like no matter who got chosen for a role, it was always fair game for everyone,” says Dale, who found herself cast as Myrtha in Giselle one year and in Canfield’s ensemble-driven Jungle the next. “You can’t get complacent.”
Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded Ballet Memphis in 1986, says that her unranked company’s roster needs to be proportionally sized for its relatively small city—but also ready for the eclectic repertoire she’s building. “A ranked system is an inefficient model for our company’s strengths,” she says. “I need nimble, versatile people.”
“It’s a democratic model, and we live in a democracy,” says Pugh with some warmth. “I feel like we need to reflect our culture. There’s something very American about a more level playing field.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.