“It was perfect," Nina says of her debut as Odette/Odile. It's the last scene of the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan and these are the last words this character, the ballerina played by Natalie Portman, will ever speak. Her relationship with perfection—physical, technical, artistic—has haunted her throughout the movie and finally, changing from Odile's black tutu to Odette's white one, she pulls a shard of broken mirror from a wound beneath her ribs. Could there be a better symbol for the dark side of a dancer's pursuit of perfection? The studio mirror, so innocent and embracing in those first delightful years of dance class, has become a maddening dagger of constant criticism.
The soprano Maria Callas, revered by generations of opera-lovers, was famously imperfect in her technique and was cherished all the more for it. The pianist Vladimir Horowitz played with such phenomenal elegance and fire that no one cared about the flubs. Most painters, even those with superb draftsmanship, move beyond or beneath correct technique to brushwork of extravagance and strangeness. And a poet like Emily Dickinson, who turned grammar on its ear—who's to say she didn't achieve her own technical perfection, a new grammar created for the bubble of perception in which she lived and wrote?
It's the day after Christmas and Miami City Ballet's dancers are taking class onstage in West Palm Beach, where, in a few hours, they will begin the last run of their Nutcracker season. Soloist Nathalia Arja throws herself into a final combination, leaping and turning with abandon in a display of strength and speed that defies the expectations set by her delicate and diminutive body. As she nears the end of the stage, she realizes she's done the wrong step. But instead of slinking off in embarrassment, she throws an arched arm up in a dramatic pose, lifts her chin and flashes a triumphant smile, as if it's what she'd intended to do all along.
That athleticism, energy and confidence have marked Arja's dancing since she came to the U.S. from her native Brazil to study at the Miami City Ballet School at age 15. But it is the honing of those natural gifts under MCB's artistic director Lourdes Lopez that has fostered a more mature poise and polish, earning her the most prominent roles of her still-blossoming career.
Arja with Renan Cardeiro in "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.
On a rainy October morning, Boston Ballet's Dusty Button sails through a pas de cinq rehearsal for Swan Lake. The variation is long and thankless, full of uncomfortable jump sequences and tricky transitions from pirouettes, yet Button, newly minted as a principal dancer, glides through it sunnily in a trial pair of Bloch pointe shoes. Unusually, she is not winded and is able to joke with assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser as he gives her notes.
“I think I just did a four-step soutenu," she laughs good-naturedly, hands on her hips. “Well, you are always overachieving, Dusty," teases Kaiser, giving voice to what could be the understatement of Button's last few years with the company.
Two catchphrases screen-printed onto the coverups of Button's dancewear line, Ribbon&Rosin, say it all: “Work until your idols become your rivals" and “Remember why you started." At 25, she appears to be following her own advice. After dancing at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Button was hired into Boston's corps in 2012, where she was promoted to soloist and then principal within two years. But her path to the top has been anything but traditional, and shows a keen entrepreneurial instinct that leverages growing up as a competition kid. In addition to designing her clothing line, she is a budding choreographer who teaches at dance conventions on the weekends. Her Instagram feed, at last count boasting 46,400 followers, and her brand-new website, worldofdusty.com, make it clear that she has a vision for branding herself that is more like a young Hollywood starlet than a ballet dancer. From the competition circuit to The Royal Ballet School, Button has grown from a precocious, talented student into a strategic artist and businesswoman.
Dusty Button and Bradley Schlagheck. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Whether attacking a new role with gusto or finally finishing that book, dancers are a goal-oriented lot. The New Year is a natural time to reflect on one’s life and put forth goals for the season ahead. Pointe spoke with six dancers about their big dreams for 2015—and their plans extend beyond the studio and stage.
Principal, Miami City Ballet
My goal is to complete my 20th season with MCB in one piece, feeling proud and fulfilled. It’s a big deal for me. I want to look back and appreciate everything I’ve done, to take it all in and incorporate everything I’ve learned. I have to finally finish the book that I’m writing with my husband, MCB principal Carlos Guerra. It’s our second book together, and this one is on pas de deux. I also plan to reserve more time to relax with my husband. Since the birth of our now 2-year-old daughter, Eva, it seems that our lives are spent either dancing or with the baby. What happened to that couple? I want to make more time for the two of us.
First soloist, Houston Ballet
I left American Ballet Theatre and joined Houston Ballet this season so that I could dance a different repertoire. I want to challenge myself to move to that next level—all of the wonderful ballets that they perform here are new to me, so it’s been a huge change. I also want to learn to drive in Houston. I am giving myself two years, though. And, I am terrified. Luckily, people say it’s harder to be a ballet dancer than learn to drive. I got engaged to Jared Matthews (HB first soloist) during one of my final performances at ABT, and while I’m not rushed, I think I had better start planning my wedding.
Soloist, The Royal Ballet
I’d like to continue exploring the idea of “Who would Eric be as a particular character in a ballet?” It’s a very vulnerable place to be in. You’re not playing a character, you’re putting an aspect of your true self on display and that’s special. My overarching goal, though, is to enjoy my dancing. So often, I’m striving so much for perfection that I forget to enjoy the moment. Since I’m often partnering, I’ve developed dance-based muscles and strength. I need to strengthen the upper body muscles that I don’t use as much in dance to create balance. I’ve recently started a Pilates-based training program, which is improving my core strength and fine-tuning my upper body. As a model with a dance background, I’ve had a chance to direct a few fashion-related projects. I loved the experience, and it’s something that I’d love to explore more in the future. Oh, and I’d like to get a dog.
Principal, Pacific Northwest Ballet
After having my daughter in July, my plan (and my goals) are changing. I had all sorts of ideas of what it would be like as a new mom, but she doesn’t quite follow my plan. So I’m going to try to have more flexible goals. I want to let the experience of being a mother deepen my dancing. I’m really looking forward to the Forsythe program later this season. I want to channel that super-mom feeling—I don’t need sleep! When it comes to Swan Lake, I hope to bring more tenderness to the role of Odette by tapping in to my more sensitive side. My biggest hope for the New Year is to have a good work/life balance, where I have quality time with my baby. These are two similarly fleeting moments in my life: Ballet is a short career where roles only come around so often; and before I know it, my baby will be in college. My goal is to be fully present in my work and home life.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
I have a goal to follow the news more closely to learn more about what’s going on in the world, because it’s so easy to get carried away in our ballet world.
I’m determined to improve learning from videos, since we use them a lot in rehearsal. It’s already getting better, but I’m still not comfortable with it.
I want to work on my port de bras, so it’s still controlled when moving fast. I intend to pay more attention to linking movement, by giving more attention to the in-between steps and by exploring the connection from one movement to another. I also plan to cook a Senegalese meal for my boyfriend. And then there’s that acting and salsa class, too...
The Joffrey Ballet
I hope to learn to be a better partner by being more tuned-in to the emotional core of a piece. I want to focus more on the moment, and not get caught up in the extra things that take away from that experience. I’ll be 33 at the end of this season, so it’s time to start thinking about what’s next for me. I want to be more aware of what interests me, whether it’s ballet mastering, maintaining the repertoire or choreography. I also want to see more theater. I’ve never seen the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago—I’m absolutely determined to get there this year.Last year’s New Year’s resolution was to quit smoking and I did it. So this year, I am really going to enjoy my one-year anniversary. That’s a goal!
My first year at New York City Ballet, I was brought onboard three days before the "Nutcracker" season opened to replace injured dancers in the “Snow" scene, “Hot Chocolate" and the “Waltz of the Flowers." Even though I suddenly had 48 performances ahead, I had grown up dancing George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," so I thought I could happily revel in my first moments as an NYCB apprentice without worry.
My first onstage rehearsal for the “Snow" scene, in costume, with the snow falling, brought me back down to earth. The stages I had grown up on paled in comparison to the David H. Koch Theater, and I lacked the extra stamina required for covering large stages. By the end, I felt like a sloppy, ugly dancer. How would I be able to perform “Snow" and “Flowers" eight shows a week if one rehearsal completely exhausted me?
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Pointe.
When 17-year-old Rock School student Sarah Lapointe was auditioning for summer intensives, she faced a dilemma. By mid-January, she'd been accepted to a great school. But she needed to give her answer in seven days and still had four more auditions on her agenda. “I thought, What should I do?" says Lapointe. “Do I turn down this offer, or risk being wait-listed or not receiving another acceptance somewhere else?"
It's a common conundrum. For Lapointe, the answer was to contact the first school to ask for a deadline extension, which it granted. “This allowed me to focus on my remaining auditions and make a solid decision," she says.
When it comes to getting into your dream program, we know that schools look for stellar technique, artistry and dancers who will fit in well. But there's more to the equation—those things you can't control, like acceptance deadlines, class sizes and limited housing. If you've ever wondered how the admissions process works, the answers may surprise you.
At the Audition
When former Bolshoi stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev called off their engagement in 2013, fans wondered whether their spectacular onstage partnership was over as well. On their breaks from St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where both are now principals, she guested with The Royal Ballet while he toured with Kings of the Dance and told the press that maybe, someday, they would dance together again.
In July 2014, they reunited in Solo for Two, a self-curated evening of contemporary choreography created for them by Ohad Naharin, Arthur Pita and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The premiere at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts marked their return to performing together and a new stage in their artistic lives, defined by creative freedom and self-determination (performances in London and Moscow followed). “In classical dance, you follow the rules,” Osipova explains. “In contemporary dance, you have no rules. I love that feeling of freedom.”
Solo for Two expands their horizons and satiates the curiosity of these restless artists. “We want to dance while we can,” Vasiliev says, “because 10 years later, you can’t.” Osipova herself requested the choreographers. Learning their works entailed rehearsals in London, Milan, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, as well as two weeks in Israel studying Gaga, Naharin’s movement style. All the while, their agent, who is also Solo for Two’s producer, translated artistic direction from Hebrew, French and English into the dancers’ native Russian.
In the studio, their chemistry is as mesmerizing as ever. They give themselves over completely to the movement, and she trusts him implicitly to catch her when she leaps without looking. He makes her laugh; she softens his muscularity with her breathtaking lightness and grace. As Vasiliev puts it, “We smile at each other and move.” And lucky for “Vasipova” fans, they promise that this is only the beginning of their renewed stage partnership.
All photos by Joe Toreno
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Corey Bourbonniere got a late start in ballet, so he knew he needed to commit himself completely to the art to catch up. But at 16, when a neglected hamstring injury progressed into a hip injury just in time for summer intensive auditions, it felt as though the dream might pass him by.
It seems completely unfair. An injury sustained in January can prevent your acceptance into a program that doesn't start until June. Often it feels like the stakes couldn't be higher: There are only a few summers in your life as a ballet student and missing one can seem catastrophic for your future. But an injury during audition season doesn't mean you'll necessarily spend the summer sitting around. You may need to adjust your expectations, but there are ways to navigate the audition process to ensure that you still get the most out of your training this summer.
If you are injured when a can't-miss audition comes to town, it may still be worthwhile to take the class, but you have to speak up. Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School, says that if she has a student who is nursing an injury, like shin splints, but can take partial class, she would still encourage them to do the audition. “But only once they have spoken to the adjudicators and they've cleared it with them," she adds. Bourbonniere did just that when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's intensive audition came late in the cycle. He still felt a little unstable on his standing leg and his turnout was weak, but he told the teacher at the audition and was told to give it a try anyway. In this instance Tracey would make a note on the student's registration form and be able to frame her evaluation of that student with the knowledge of their limitations.
The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae danced with a power and speed most people would need figure skates to achieve at Covent Garden in February, but the amplitude of his chaînés, barrel turns and rivoltades was just the icing on the cake during his finely calibrated performance in Sir Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody. Dancing the lead role originally made for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the 28-year-old Aussie also excelled in the small gestures and precise positional details for which Ashton's work is known. McRae says the music, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is the key to balancing athleticism and artistry in the piece. “It's easy to get caught up in the technical demands of the choreography," he says. “However, when you really listen to the music, something magical starts to happen." The same can be said for the moment when this dynamic and versatile principal takes the stage. —Michael Northrop
Gomes and Vishneva in "Giselle." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
Diana Vishneva & Marcelo Gomes
One of the biggest thrills of Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes' longtime partnership at American Ballet Theatre is its ability to transcend to greater heights each season. It was ever apparent in their performance of Giselle last June. While they've performed the roles together in years past, familiarity and experience have allowed them to bring deeper richness to their characters. Vishneva's Giselle was shy and vulnerable, coming out of her shell gradually in response to Albrecht's affections until she almost seemed to burst with joy. Meanwhile, Gomes—a cocksure but lovable Albrecht—grew more and more smitten with his conquest. Once his ruse was discovered, you sensed not only Giselle's disbelief but her painfully public humiliation, making her breakdown all the more understandable and heartbreaking. In Act II, Vishneva was otherworldly in her lightness, accentuated further through Gomes' reverential, seamless partnering. Together they drew the audience into their story and held them, spellbound. —Amy Brandt
Walsh in "Swan Lake." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
When Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh first danced Siegfried in the premiere of Stanton Welch's fast-paced, dreamy version of Swan Lake in 2006, he was technically impressive, holding his own with the elegant Barbara Bears. But watching him reprise the role some eight years later, it became clear just how much he has grown. It's as if his edges have become sharper—not just technically but in all aspects of his artistry; he's developed a distinctly refined performance polish. There's ample heart behind his princely swagger now. Walsh's noble command of the stage, solid virtuosity and well-tempered bravado all add up to one convincing prince. His involvement in the ballet's original creation process, along with added years of experience, certainly helped deepen his interpretation. The HB principal is moving into his own, and his performance in Swan Lake provided the evidence. —Nancy Wozny
Lantratov and Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi.
It was a gamble on all sides: a new, full-length Taming of the Shrew by a foreign choreographer at the Bolshoi Ballet, just over a year after the acid attack on Sergei Filin. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo's Jean-Christophe Maillot, who was creating his first ballet for an outside company in two decades, proved undaunted, and the result was a team effort that showed the Bolshoi's young generation in a new light. Each of the 10 soloist roles was choreographed with and for the first cast, from Vladislav Lantratov to Olga Smirnova, Vyacheslav Lopatin and Anna Tikhomirova, channeling their offstage personalities to show a new facet of their talent; their bold classical technique was in evidence throughout yet colored by the spontaneous, naturalistic approach Maillot favors. It was the Bolshoi as the world loves it, with a modern edge—and the Shrew herself, principal Ekaterina Krysanova, led the pack with a nuanced, career-defining performance, her power matched by a new abandon. —Laura Cappelle
Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.
In the BalletX premiere Sunset, o639 Hours, Chloe Felesina danced front and center, with an abandon, fire and precision that made her riveting. The dreamlike adventure tale, choreographed for 10 dancers by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, was based on the true story of Captain Edwin Musick's ill-fated Honolulu-to-Auckland flight in 1938. As the famous pilot's wife, and in her other roles in the ballet, Felesina's depth of feeling was matched by a robust agility. She shone in scenes portraying the couple's romance, the island life of New Zealand and her solitary bereavement.
Even though her medium height and fine features make her look delicate, she's a powerhouse: at the front of the pack in floor-rolling unisons and sparkling in Neenan's inventive partnering. A full-time company member since 2012, Felesina relishes deciphering each choreographer's intent and seeking more ways to communicate strongly with her audience. In Sunset, o639 Hours, her approach worked: You couldn't take your eyes off her. —Lisa Kraus
Rocas with Rory Hohenstein in "Romeo & Juliet." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.
A couple of years back, Joffrey Ballet dancer Christine Rocas confessed: “I'm always scared to do modern things…I try to be spontaneous, but I know I look funny at first."
Rocas, 28, definitely didn't look “funny" in her opening night performance of Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet in Chicago this past April. And Pastor's take on the story was supremely contemporary—not at all like the Kenneth MacMillan or John Cranko versions for which Rocas' lyrical, weightlessly lovely style would have been a perfect fit. In fact, as Juliet, Rocas seized hold of Pastor's starkly modern, sweepingly cinematic reinvention, which used 20th-century Italian history as a backdrop. Masterful in her embrace of the ballet's mix of difficult classical and contemporary technique, she revealed a powerful, highly individualistic, surprisingly dramatic talent.
Her performance had genuine star quality, with pristinely beautiful dancing and fiercely honest acting in evidence from the moment, early on, when she simply walked around the perimeter of the stage, quietly fixing her gaze on Romeo. The palpable quickening in Rocas' face and body was a far cry from simple pubescent awakening. This was the dawning of a young woman with a mind of her own. —Hedy Weiss
Arja with Renan Cerdeiro in "Ballo della Regina." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.
As the recently promoted Miami City Ballet soloist Nathalia Arja can attest, some roles lift dancers to the heights of artistic privilege. While still a corps member last season, Arja—a 21-year-old MCB-school alumna with Rio de Janeiro roots—earned the opportunity to dance the lead in George Balanchine's exquisitely demanding Ballo della Regina. There she was, on opening night no less, fast and fastidious in virtuoso moves: restless changes in direction, riveting hops on pointe, clockwork articulations that teased time itself. “I learned to do what I didn't know I could," says Arja. No small amount of calibration, of course, came from being coached by Merrill Ashley, the New York City Ballet wonder who originated the role. Still, Arja brought strengths she's been honing since dancing the role of Sugar Plum at MCB as a teenager—the verve and knack for detail that also served Alexei Ratmansky when he fashioned a solo on her in Symphonic Dances in 2012. A culmination for many, Ballo figures for Arja as the promise of an ever more thrilling career. —Guillermo Perez
Isaacs with Gonzalo Garcia in "Symphony in C." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
In the third movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C, the leads repeatedly charge onto the stage in a series of grands jetés—irrepressibly buoyant, as if they're more at home in the air than on the ground. In a way, that's a fitting metaphor for New York City Ballet corps member Ashly Isaacs' 2014 season, which saw her star on the rise, achieving greater heights with each successive performance. Her debut as the ballerina in that movement of Symphony showed off not only her preternatural ballon, but also her easy command of the stage. In the wrong dancer's hands (and feet) the always-on-the-go choreography can feel bombastic, but Isaacs colored it sensitively, adding subtle shading to its softer moments. For some years this role has been danced brilliantly by Ashley Bouder; it was hard not to notice the similarities between the two. —Margaret Fuhrer
Hernandez with Gennadi Nedvigin in "Les Lutins." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Season galas showcase principal dancers at their best, but San Francisco Ballet's 2014 gala also introduced a rising star: Esteban Hernandez. Announced pre-curtain as a replacement for Joan Boada in Johan Kobborg's Les Lutins, the first-year corps member faced high expectations from a demanding audience, who rustled their programs looking for clues about this unfamiliar dancer. But in Lutins, an eight-minute battle of the sexes that requires insouciant charm, clear acting and blistering petit allégro—and falls flat if any one of those is missing—the Mexican-born Hernandez proved his mettle as a Royal Ballet–trained technician and a natural performer, with confidence well beyond his 19 years. Not only did he hold his own opposite Gennadi Nedvigin and soloist Dores André, in those thrilling eight minutes he won 3,500 hearts and became a name to remember. —Claudia Bauer
Thurlow and Sbrizzi rehearsing "Don Quixote." Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.
Gabrielle Thurlow & Luca Sbrizzi
When lead casting was announced for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Don Quixote last season, there was a surprising pair included in the mix. While Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi have long been regarded as cornerstones among PBT's ranks, their star power was relatively untested: Thurlow was a longtime corps member and Sbrizzi, a soloist, had been away from the stage nearly nine months following a career-threatening back injury. But they more than delivered. Thurlow entered the first act as an energetic Kitri, all spry jumps and energetic pas de chevals, while Sbrizzi played an earnest Basilio, his admiration for Kitri present in every carefully finished movement. Later, during their brightly executed grand pas de deux, Thurlow brought playful sharpness, breezy turns and balances that said, “I could stay here all day." Sbrizzi's refined technique and bounding jumps lent his Basilio the elegance of a man in love. Following the performance, Thurlow was promoted to soloist and Sbrizzi cemented his place as a leading man after an uncertain season away from the stage. —Kathleen McGuire
Dance was always my refuge. School was hell for me—it was like a page out of Lord of the Flies. Survival of the fittest was the guiding principle of my middle school. While generally the “fittest” kids were the prettiest and the most popular, at my public school that meant specifically punk skater kids. They acted tough and had this pervasive air of rebellion around them which stood in direct contrast to me. I followed rules, I listened and took direction from teachers, I was disciplined—I mean, I was a dancer! So the cool group teased me relentlessly, called me every name in the book, including “effeminate,” and though it never got physical—it was only words—they did hurt me. I didn’t have the sense to think, “Oh, yeah? One day you’ll see,” because I was a kid and just wanted to be accepted.
In my desperate attempt to fit in, I made fun of the other loser kids. I used to take tap lessons at the local community college. On the eve of Halloween, this kid in my tap class told me about his costume. He was going to be a ballet dancer. I laughed and teased him so hard about it that he ended up being too upset to trick or treat the next night. His mom called my mom, and though I apologized as directed and gave him half of my candy, the damage had been done. He probably would not want to put that costume on ever again. This was long before my serious ballet school days, but still, it is hard not to see the irony. When I look back, there is the thought that kids will be kids, but the truth is, I thought participating in this kind of hierarchy of persecution would gain me acceptance. Dance was a necessity for me, so I was prepared to take the cycle of abuse it brought on.
I had been miserable in my local public schools, so when the Arizona School for the Arts charter school first opened, I jumped at the chance to be a freshman in the inaugural class. It was a ballet-focused program and a big transition from the jazz-based studio I had initially trained at. I swapped out sweatpants for tights and found myself part of an artistic community that included other disciplines, such as music and painting. Around the same time, I made the transition to The School of Ballet Arizona, directed then by Kee Juan Han, for my after-school dance classes. I was compelled by this new world of serious work where there was no talking allowed. We had to stand in line and were expected to work towards perfection. There was not a lot of positive reinforcement, so I had no idea if I was good. But the work saved me.
Which was so important, because even though I had found a new group of artsy friends at ASA, being a dancer meant I would never find inspiration in complacency. In the larger pop-culture world around me, trying hard was not cool. In my smaller ballet world, it was impossible to try hard enough. So I eventually made my peace with being “uncool” and found myself hungry for new challenges. Though I had found an environment that accepted me and gave me the freedom to be myself, I would continue to be the outsider again and again.
This philosophy kept me afloat when I moved to the Paris Opéra Ballet School my senior year of high school. I traded in the teenage freedom of driving around Phoenix and spending my Saturday nights at raves with my friends for an even more rigid system where I didn’t speak the language. At POB, they absolutely rejected me socially. I was American, I didn’t speak French, I was brought into the graduating class and my talent was seen as a threat. And the fact that I was trying so hard to make friends turned everyone off. For six months I was basically silent. Instead of talking, I observed. I noticed body language. I read books and reactions. I was forced to focus on myself and develop my individuality.
Likewise, when I first went to the Bolshoi, I was in a parallel universe to that year at POB. Though welcomed this time, I was still out of my comfort zone with language and lifestyle. I was lonely, but I knew I would grow because my uncomfortable year at POB had been such a growth spurt. I have learned to be uncomfortable with being comfortable. I tend to work myself to the ground in an effort to keep challenges always in front of me.
Ballet idolizes principal dancers—when I was at ASA, I had a photo of Ethan Stiefel on my binder. I wish that at that young, impressionable age I had been able to get to know the person I was striving to be. Maybe there would have been words of mentorship that would have made me feel less alone in my struggle. Now that I’ve made it, I could easily just keep doing my thing and let it be. I obviously figured it out; the next generation will, as well. Or I could step up to the plate and mentor. I realized that I felt compelled towards mentorship because I’ve been there—working my butt off six days a week to become a professional, unsure of what kind of life is ahead, never knowing if you’ll be good enough.
I approached Franco De Vita of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and told him I wanted to give a scholarship to a boy in his program, in an effort for the student to have someone he might relate to more, who could let him know he’s on the right track. There have been two recipients thus far—Alex Kramer, now of Ballet San Jose, and Julian Donahue. I look for kids who are working to get control over an unruly body. I watch them in class and give context to their specific corrections. I try to be available for whatever they want to talk about, though obviously my performing schedule makes it hard. This year, I plan to be around more, especially as I heal from an injury, and I want to try to develop a more personal relationship. I’ll be in hallways, watching classes and rehearsals, available for lunch. I don’t want to force it, but I want my mentee to know he can always reach out to me. In addition, I have also started a tuition scholarship for boys at The School of Ballet Arizona. I want more kids to be able to have the chance to find refuge in the work like I did.
Ballet can be so quantity-based these days. With my outreach work, I want to reinforce that the number of turns you do is the least important thing. Quality and foundation are what count. The greatest dancers are not tricksters, they are artists devoted to the work. Lucky for me, and for these boys, art is born out of sublimating our struggles, our lack of acceptance. I want to send the message that we can be alone, together.
—David Hallberg, as told to Candice Thompson
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This is Pointe's December 2014/January 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
A rush of energy rippled across the Toronto theater, followed by an ovation that went on for what seemed like an eternity. It was June 12, 2013, and Svetlana Lunkina had just debuted as a guest artist with the National Ballet of Canada, dancing the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, alongside principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk. It was Lunkina's first performance in months and you could almost sense her elation at finally being back onstage. As Kitri, she exhibited that magical combination of daring attack and exquisite control with sky-high extensions and picture-perfect balances. Even Stanczyk couldn't contain his excitement in the lobby afterwards, saying Lunkina brought out the best in him. “I'd do every single ballet with her if I could," he says.
That night, the question at the top of many people's minds was not if, but when artistic director Karen Kain would offer her a contract. The answer came two months later, when—following 15 years with the Bolshoi—Lunkina accepted a yearlong principal guest contract with NBOC. “Svetlana is an experienced and well-known ballerina, but we didn't know her personally here," says Kain. “We really had to find out whether it was a fit."
The trial year proved successful for both—this season, Lunkina signed on as a full-fledged company member. After a glittering rise and then a sudden, highly publicized departure from the Bolshoi, the 35-year-old Lunkina is renewing her career at NBOC. And although the Canadian company is smaller (72 dancers compared to the Bolshoi's 231) and offers a more contemporary repertoire, she's embracing the opportunity to work with new choreographers and learn new roles. “I'm an artist and I want to develop myself," says Lunkina. “I'm really grateful for this opportunity to grow. It's like a new life, with new emotions."
Lunkina in James Kudelka's "Swan Lake." Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBOC.
In a rehearsal before their Lincoln Center performance of Coppélia last May, Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin ran through some of the partnering in a studio several levels below the Metropolitan Opera stage where they would perform. In Frederic Franklin’s charming production for American Ballet Theatre, Swanilda, danced by Lane, and Franz, by Simkin, must balance raucous comedy with sublime classicism. Although considered the perfect soubrette role, Swanilda presents serious technical challenges. The dancer must possess a chameleon-like ability to transform from a spunky village beauty to a robotic doll to a loving bride. And Franz is much more than a frat boy jokester; he becomes a devoted husband in the pristine wedding pas de deux at the end of the ballet.
"I love that Swanilda is sassy," says Lane. "My interpretation is that she’s really fun, has a lot of friends and at the same time has a very strong will—she knows what she wants. I can relate to her because I can be very opinionated. You’ve been mischievous the whole ballet and then, in the wedding pas, the love between you and Franz blossoms. Every relationship is like that—you have bad times, but you turn them into something beautiful. Love for each other wins in the end.”
Informal connections between BFA programs and professional troupes have been around for decades. But in the last dozen years, some companies and universities began formalizing their relationships, creating joint BFA/trainee programs that provide enrollees both significant pre-professional experience and a four-year degree. In a time of shrinking job opportunities and rising tuition costs, that makes sense.
Maggie Wright Tesch, the University of Utah’s liaison with Ballet West in Salt Lake City (where she formerly danced), explains that combined BFA/pre-professional programs give dancers more settings to train in as well as “a college education, a plan B, because a career can end with one injury.”
Among the advantages, Tesch continues, is that students have two sets of coaches, as well as twice the stage time as a regular trainee. University summer intensives provide experience and credits toward a four-year degree. While the workload is intense, such programs tend to be small and are often flexible.
Still, they’re not for the faint of heart. Prospective students often audition for the company’s trainee program as well as the university’s dance department. They must be admitted to the school’s academic program and fulfill its basic education graduation requirements. Additionally, with few job openings each year, their chances of being hired by the affiliated company after graduation are small. That can be a source of disappointment—but also spur the dancer’s strength and creativity.
Essentially, joint BFA/trainee programs hedge participants’ bets, increasing their time in the studio and on the stage, exposing them to a wide array of choices inside and outside of dance and providing a college degree. While the demands are great, so is the potential payoff. Pointe spoke with three professional dancers who graduated from joint programs. Not all of them received company contracts, but all were pleased with the quality and flexibility of their educational experience.
Kimberly Ballard: Ballet West and University of Utah
(Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West)
Ballet West corps artist Kimberly Ballard, 26, was not focused on getting into BW when she was applying to colleges. But after she enrolled at the University of Utah, she became a sort of guinea pig for its joint program with the company. After getting her BFA, she continued into U of U’s MFA program—at the same time, she became a BW trainee.
Ballard epitomizes the hard work and planning so helpful to joint-program students, who undertake long days filled with department and trainee classes and rehearsals, as well as academic courses. Because she’d passed several high school AP exams, Ballard placed out of some requirements. She also took academic classes at a community college in the summer, gaining additional college credits in her “downtime,” thereby saving on tuition. By pursuing her MFA, she set herself up for a teaching career.
Though her traineeship with BW undoubtedly shaped Ballard’s performance quality and technique, the university program provided variety. “I did exchange programs in the Basque region of France and with the State Ballet School of Berlin,” she says. As a member of the university’s highest-level repertory company, Utah Ballet, she performed not only in a piece that involved “unitards and bungee cords” but, 20 minutes later, as Aurora. Meanwhile, she danced corps roles in BW’s productions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Chaconne.
“For me,” Ballard says, “the joint program worked out very well.” She joined BW II after graduation. Now, in addition to being a company member, she’s putting her degree to use as an adjunct assistant professor at the university.
Michael Montgomery: Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Dominican University of California
(Photo by RJ Muna, Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet)
Michael Montgomery, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, had always wanted to dance with the San Francisco–based company. “I saw their world-famous calendars,” he says, “before I knew of LINES or the Dominican University/LINES Ballet BFA program.” Even in still photos, “the artists showed nothing less than excellence.”
Montgomery’s initial step, however, was to enroll in The Ailey School’s certificate program at age 17. “That was the first time I understood the meaning of technique,” he says. But he felt he was being trained to blend in—"An important art to learn,” he says. “It just did not make me feel alive.”
Montgomery reached out to Dominican/LINES BFA director Marina Hotchkiss. “I explained to her that I do not want to live in a box of dance, but rather in a world of endless possibility,” he says. King, he adds, is “opposed to cookie-cutter dancers.” Though LINES Ballet has a non-degree trainee program, Montgomery never considered it. “Schooling and college were always very important to me,” he says.
He became a Dominican/LINES BFA student in 2008. And though his days were long, they were also rewarding. “I had dance classes in many vernaculars from 9 am to 2:30 pm,” he says, “and academic classes until 10 pm some days.” He particularly enjoyed his religion and philosophy classes, and says that, like the LINES faculty, his Dominican professors “believe there is no plateau of knowledge.” King, who taught a number of Montgomery’s classes, offered him a company contract his junior year, allowing him to finish his BFA on the side. The experience, Montgomery says, was “beyond worth it.”
Kyoko Ruch: Richmond Ballet and Virginia Commonwealth University
(Photo by Ruth Judson, Courtesy Gin Dance Company)
Kyoko Ruch—a self-described naïve bunhead in high school—only wanted to focus on dancing when Richmond Ballet offered her a traineeship in 2004. But when her family learned of the company’s joint program with Virginia Commonwealth University, they talked her into doing both. Two years later, she became an RB apprentice and dropped the VCU program because her work schedule left no time for coursework.
When Ruch auditioned for the main company, however, she was turned down. “I was disappointed,” says Ruch, “but I wasn’t lost, because I had VCU’s program to go back to.”
In fact, not getting into a ballet company (she auditioned for more than one) proved a blessing. In her final two years at VCU, she was able to take some modern and choreography courses. “Most ballet companies now do a lot of contemporary work—and I didn’t really have any idea how to move that way,” she says. “With the modern training, we danced more conceptually, which actually aided my ballet technique.”
Choreography and improvisation classes meant even more to her. “As a ballet dancer, I just wanted to do what I was told,” she says. “Choreography sparked my creativity.” She received her BFA in 2010 and is currently teaching and performing with two DC-area contemporary troupes, Company Danzante and Gin Dance Company. Last year she was chosen as Company Danzante’s first choreographer in residence. Though she originally expected to put off college, she’s glad it didn’t work out that way. “I transformed into another creature.”
Every four years, dancers from around the globe descend on Jackson, Mississippi, for the USA International Ballet Competition. The only IBC hosted in the U.S. (the others are held in Varna, Bulgaria; Helsinki, Finland; and Moscow), it has served as a major turning point in the early careers of artists such as Nina Ananiashvili, José Manuel Carreño, Johan Kobborg and Sarah Lamb. This June, 99 dancers from 20 countries got their chance to not only compete for medals, but be seen by company and school directors from around the world.
For 15-year-old Gisele Bethea, a student at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, the competition proved to be a critical step in her transition from student to professional. No newcomer to international competitions (she won both the second prize in Moscow and the Grand Prix at Youth America Grand Prix in 2013), she nevertheless felt added pressure to perform. While in the past she competed as a soloist, she entered the USA IBC in the pas de deux category with fellow competitor Michal Wozniak. They often practiced six to seven hours a day with coaches Slawomir and Irena Wozniak (Michal's parents) in the months leading up to it. “It takes a lot of control to have grace between two people," says Bethea, who performed the Act III wedding pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty. “It's my next step to becoming a ballerina in training."
Her hard work paid off: Not only did she win the gold medal in the junior division, she received a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre and an open invitation to join the ABT Studio Company. “I'm so grateful for all of these opportunities," says Bethea, who plans to defer for a year to finish high school first.
In an exclusive inside look, Pointe followed Bethea through the USA IBC's final round, from her last private rehearsal session to her gold-winning performance. All photos by Jim Lafferty for Pointe.
Gisele Bethea warms up before an afternoon competitor's class
This is Pointe's October/November 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
In a company known for its tall women, Pacific Northwest Ballet's Leta Biasucci doesn't fit the mold. At 5' 3", she seems petite next to several of the company's willowy principals. But her height is far from all that stands out.
Last spring she charmed audiences in Giselle's peasant pas de deux, flying through impeccable batterie with grace and precision. The role seemed made for her, but so does nearly every one that she's danced, a tribute to the broad spectrum of her talent. She's stepped in last minute as Swanilda in Coppélia. She's conquered Clara in PNB's Nutcracker. She's been featured in work by Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp. And last winter, shortly after her 24th birthday, she made her debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. “It's odd to see someone fit so naturally in a full-length ballerina role," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “That's the hardest thing to do, and she got there first." Biasucci has been a star in PNB's corps de ballet for only three years. This fall marks her promotion to soloist, and she is well on her way to expanding the definition of a PNB ballerina.
Even her background is different. Unlike most PNB corps dancers, Biasucci did not come through the company's professional division or the School of American Ballet, where Boal keeps close ties. A Pennsylvania native, Biasucci began dancing as a 5-year-old in a ballet-tap combo class. After three years, her teacher suggested she might like the more rigorous training at Marcia Dale Weary's Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, noted for turning out technically strong, versatile performers. Her years there laid the foundation for her entire career. At 16, she became a trainee at San Francisco Ballet School. At 18, she landed her first professional job with Oregon Ballet Theatre under Christopher Stowell. OBT's small size, she says, gave her “a good place to grow, feel nurtured and have opportunities to be presented," but she was hesitant to let her roots grow deep. “I had dreams of dancing in a larger company," she says.
Amanda Assucena, Joffrey Ballet
Not many first-year company members get the chance to perform a principal role, let alone two—but last season, the Joffrey Ballet’s Amanda Assucena did just that. In addition to dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company’s production of The Nutcracker, Assucena, then 19, was cast as the lead in Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet. “Dancing Juliet was something that I never expected my first year as a professional,” she says.
Trained in her native Brazil, Assucena moved to the U.S. and spent four years at The Harid Conservatory before joining the trainee program at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. After just one year, she received a company contract. With out-of-this-world extensions, spot-on technique and a delicate softness to her movement, it’s easy to see why she’s getting noticed. But it’s her ability to embody characters honestly that sets her apart. With Joffrey’s wide-ranging rep, Assucena hopes to absorb as much as she can from her fellow company members.
Now that Juliet and Sugar Plum are under her belt, what does she hope for next? “One of my dream roles is Giselle,” she says. “After the Rain, Infra and Chroma are obsessions of mine, too.” —Margaret Hermanson
Nicole Padilla, Sarasota Ballet
Before joining Sarasota Ballet, Nicole Padilla had barely heard of Frederick Ashton. But under directors Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri—who have introduced a dozen of the British choreographer’s works to the repertoire—Padilla has become not only an Ashton aficionado, but an accomplished interpreter of his work. During the company’s recent Sir Frederick Ashton Festival, she triumphed in the peppy Elaine Fifield role in Birthday Offering, flawlessly executed the fouettés of the Blue Girl in Les Patineurs and showed off her range in both the polka solo and the “Scotch Rhapsody” in Façade.
The 26-year-old Texas native spent two years at the University of Oklahoma and another at the Joffrey Ballet School before joining Dayton Ballet. She came to Sarasota Ballet in 2011, but sat out most of her second season with a back injury. After recovering, she quickly made headway, dancing in the company’s performances of Les Patineurs at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival last June (and drawing praise from several critics). “I’m more the athletic, jumping, turning type,” she admits. Her dream role? “Kitri from Don Q,” she says. “I’m just not a swan.”
Padilla, who married in June, also teaches at the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, and is pursuing an elementary education degree at the University of South Florida. “How do I do it all?” she asks. “I have no idea.” —Carrie Seidman
Kathryn Hosier, National Ballet of Canada
Kathryn Hosier’s long legs, trousered in black, shimmer under a hyper-articulated torso as she executes the fast, angular, punctuated arm movements of Marco Goecke’s reimagined version of Le Spectre de la Rose. This is the same dancer who in pure classical mode can portray a Sleeping Beauty fairy or Swan Lake Spanish princess.
“What I love about the National Ballet is the sheer range of repertoire,” says 23-year-old Hosier, thrilled that Goecke plucked her from the corps to dance the female lead in the North American premiere of Spectre in May. “It was a huge technical challenge, but also a big career break.”
Born and initially trained in Champaign, Illinois, Hosier spent three finishing years at Canada’s National Ballet School. Hired into the company as an apprentice in 2009, she was taken into the corps within six months. While competition for roles is always intense, last year Hosier was center stage in No. 24, an ultra-physical duet choreographed by company member Guillaume Côté.
Hosier has no illusions about the waiting game that’s often a corps member’s lot. Still, landing an opening night lead has whetted her appetite. “Once you get a taste, you want more and more and more.” —Michael Crabb
Julia Rowe, San Francisco Ballet
There’s a breezy sweetness to Julia Rowe’s peasant pas de cinq variation in San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle. Nothing in the intricate steps looks calculated and yet, there’s a world of thoughtfulness behind the ease.
“So much of that variation for me is about finding nuances in the music and the phrasing,” she says. “But there’s also discovering more in what you can bring besides just steps. In order for Giselle’s descent into madness to be heartbreaking, there has to be an overwhelming sense of joy beforehand.”
A native of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Rowe trained for 11 years at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In 2005, she attended SFB’s summer program because it was the home of one of her idols, Tina LeBlanc, and by 2007 had enrolled in the school year-round. Afterwards she joined Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she was nominated for a Princess Grace Award in 2010. Five years later, however, she came back to SFB, attracted by the diverse repertoire and the artists with whom she’d get to work.
Since then she’s charmed audiences with her fluid musicality and graceful épaulement, moving easily between the classicism of Giselle, the precision of Mark Morris’ Maelstrom and the dazzle of Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird.
“It’s intimidating, exciting and incredibly artistically fulfilling for me to be in this kind of environment,” she says. “There’s always something new and challenging.” —Mary Ellen Hunt
Emily Bowen, Houston Ballet
Watching Houston Ballet’s petite Emily Bowen barrel downstage in a whirl of pirouettes, it’s no wonder that artistic director Stanton Welch selected her as the “flute” for his recent The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. She excels at Welch’s flair for flash, but never loses her razor-sharp punctuation. “Stanton tends to cast me in roles that test my ability to move lightning fast and be technically precise—all while covering large amounts of space,” says Bowen.
Bowen trained under Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance and at Houston Ballet Academy, where she competed in the Prix de Lausanne before joining the company in 2006.
A skilled chameleon, she can transition between a vintage, china-doll ballerina excelling in old-school delicacy one minute and a pocket-sized ball of fire in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude the next. Her extensive rep includes lead roles such as Lise in La Fille mal gardée and the pas de deux in “Rubies.”
Next season, Bowen looks forward to reprising Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration. “I was a part of the world premiere last season, and the response was so overwhelming,” she says. “It holds a very special place in my heart.” —Nancy Wozny
Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, New York City Ballet
It’s not often that a corps member nabs your attention when there are principals onstage at New York City Ballet. But Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara has been stealing the spotlight since she joined the company as an apprentice in 2011. Last season, she maneuvered effortlessly through George Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations, crisply elegant despite her long limbs. Even standing in a row of dancers framing the stage, a simple gesture of her arm can be arresting—as if the music plays from her port de bras.
Raised in Maryland, 20-year-old Dutton-O’Hara trained at the Frederick School of Classical Ballet. A summer intensive at the School of American Ballet in 2007 led to her staying on year-round. “NYCB had always been my dream,” she says.
Since joining the company, Dutton-O’Hara has been pursuing an undergraduate degree at nearby Fordham University, taking classes in the morning before company class. (She wants to major in either math or economics.) “I knew if I took a break from my education, I wouldn’t go back,” she says.
Dutton-O’Hara’s main focus, though, remains dancing, hoping to someday perform the leads in Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements. She’s already begun to show the subtlety of phrasing that sets dancers apart in NYCB’s repertoire. Her secret? “Remember to dance for you. I think that’s most rewarding for the audience, as well.” —Shannon Woods
Irlan Silva, Boston Ballet
Watching Irlan Silva dance, you see a prince: jumps soaring with regal abandon, innate noble carriage, gorgeous feet and extensions. But what you won’t see is the poverty-stricken favela where the 24-year-old grew up in Rio de Janeiro, or the years of scholarships, training and ballet competitions that fueled his rise. “I’m always thinking about what I passed through to get here,” he says. “I have to keep pushing myself to be one of the best.”
At 10, Silva started out learning to tap. But his natural flexibility and coordination led to a jazz scholarship at the Centro de Dança Rio. When his teacher encouraged him to try classical ballet, he admitted he’d never seen it before. “We didn’t have access to theaters or culture,” he says, so she took him to see a performance. “I was so impressed. I thought, ‘Yes! I want to do that!’ ”
Hard training and competitions followed. At 17, he won Best Contemporary Dancer at Youth America Grand Prix. That same year, his performance at Prix de Lausanne led him to a contract with American Ballet Theatre II. There, his inspiring story was documented in the 2009 film Only When I Dance.
Silva joined Boston Ballet in 2011, attracted to its combination of classical and contemporary work. “I feel more free doing contemporary,” he says, although his goal is to excel at both. So far, he is excelling across the board; this spring, Silva danced his first principal role in Harald Lander’s Etudes.
When it comes to the future, Silva knows what he wants. “My dream is to be a principal dancer with Boston Ballet,” he says. If this past season is any measure, he is well on his way. —Ashley Rivers
At a certain point, you need to take your training to the next level. But with so many options available, how do you know what type of pre-professional program is right for you? For instance, would you rather receive detailed, one-on-one instruction from a private coach or work at the school affiliated with your favorite ballet company? Ramping up your training often requires moving far away from family, or tough financial sacrifices from your parents. Plus, there’s that little thing called high school to worry about.
Keep in mind that each option comes with pluses and minuses. For instance, a boarding school may provide supervised housing but lack company exposure. Meanwhile, a company program may offer exciting performance opportunities, but no academic or housing component. To give you an insider’s perspective, Pointe took a look at three students enrolled in three different, but fairly typical, training programs. We then broke down their dance schedule, academic life, costs and living situation into chart form to let you see what each approach entails.
Sixteen-year-old Alonso Olvera-Gonzalez wanted an all-in-one environment. He moved away from his family in Los Angeles to train at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. “The dorms and academics are all built into the dance program,” he says. “My mom felt more comfortable with that, too.”
Others want more of a company affiliation—and a chance to perform alongside their heroes. “PNB has always been my dream company,” says 19-year-old Grace Haskins, a Professional Division student at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “It’s so fulfilling and humbling to be on the same stage as the people I’ve grown up admiring.”
Fifteen-year-old Aran Bell, who is joining American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company this fall, turned down scholarships to traditional programs to study privately with New York City–based teacher Fabrice Herrault. “In a group class, it’s hard for the teacher to focus on everybody,” says Bell, who’s worked with Herrault on and off since he was 7. “One-on-one, you can pinpoint all of your problems. You never grow into a bad habit because he’s always on you.”
Take a look at the chart to see how these three dancers’ training programs actually work.
Alonso Olvera-Gonzalez: The Harid Conservatory
Julie Doering and Alonso Olvera-Gonzalez in Harid’s production of The Nutcracker, Act II. (Photo by Alex Srb, courtesy The Harid Conservatory)
Housing: Harid provides a coed residence on campus (with separate male and female wings) that are supervised by five full-time RAs, as well as part-time help. RAs are also responsible for providing transportation (students are not allowed to drive). “There’s two of us to a room, and each room has its own bathroom,” says Olvera-Gonzalez. The residence also includes three large leisure rooms and a dining hall, and each leisure room has a TV and Blu-ray player. Dancers in Olvera-Gonzalez’s age group must be in their wing of the residence by 9:30 on school nights, and in their rooms by 10:30.
Academics: Harid is a recognized high school by the state of Florida. From 8 am to 12 pm, students go to the on-campus learning center, where they take four academic courses per semester through a virtual school program. (Their fine-arts requirements are gained through dance-related courses such as dance history, music, etc.) In addition to his online teachers, two academic mentors at the learning center supervise Olvera-Gonzalez’s work and help him with questions.
Tuition and Fees: Tuition for the dance program is free. Fees for other expenses such as the academic program, room and board, transportation and dance supplies add up to roughly $14,500. The school offers need-based financial assistance.
Dance Schedule: After lunch, Olvera-Gonzalez has an hour-and-forty-minute technique class. He then takes either men’s class (while the women take pointe and variations) or partnering, followed by two to three hours of rehearsal. “Tuesdays and Thursdays we have another class after rehearsal,” he says, “which changes each year: either music, nutrition and kinesiology, or dance history.” On Saturday mornings he takes a non-ballet class, such as modern or character.
Performance: Harid has two major productions per year: a program with Act II of The Nutcracker in December, and a classical and contemporary performance in May. Sometimes there are additional performance opportunities in the community.
Aran Bell: Private student of Fabrice Herrault
Aran Bell in rehearsal (Photo by Belinda Carhartt)
Housing: Bell lives at home, and commutes an hour each way into New York City for lessons.
Academics: “I’ve been home-schooled since second grade,” says Bell, now a sophomore in high school. All of his coursework is through an online home-schooling service. “If I need help, I ask—you can Skype your teacher if you have a question.” Since he dances during the day, he devotes his evenings to schoolwork.
Tuition and Fees: Private coaching is typically more expensive. Herrault, who works one-on-one with several students, uses a sliding scale. “I will give students a special rate, for instance, if they study with me every day,” he says. Most of his students are younger and move on to high-level pre-professional programs after one or two years. “Aran is a special case.”
Dance Schedule: Bell commutes into the city to take Herrault’s open class at Steps on Broadway six mornings a week. They then head to Herrault’s studio, where he takes Herrault’s smaller group class (about 12 students) from 2 to 4 pm. Afterwards, they work privately on variations or class combinations. “We work on partnering, variations or technique, depending on the day.”
Performance: Since Bell is not associated with a school, he seeks out his own performance opportunities. That includes competitions like Youth America Grand Prix, where Bell won the top prize in the junior division in 2011. He’s also received invitations to perform in galas throughout the world alongside professional dancers. “Competitions can be very good stage experience,” he says, although he competes less now to focus more on his training. Last year, he danced with Intermezzo Dance Company, directed by ABT soloist Craig Salstein.
Grace Haskins: Pacific Northwest Ballet School, Professional Division
Grace Haskins (in backbend) in a PNB School performance of Balanchine's Serenade. (Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy PNB School)
Housing: Haskins, a Seattle native, lives at home. PNB does not provide year-round housing for PD students. Denise Bolstad, the school’s administrative director, notes that most share apartments in a residential area within walking distance of the studio. Rent for a Seattle one-bedroom apartment averages $1,400 a month.
Academics: Most PD students, who range from age 16 to 19, have already graduated from high school. For those who haven’t, PNB requires them to finish through an online program or make other arrangements. As a junior, Haskins enrolled in Running Start, a two-year program through Seattle Colleges that allowed her to fulfill both high school and college requirements. “Sometimes you can do online classes, but this year I went to night school,” she says. After rehearsal on Monday nights, she often had a four-hour lab class until 10 pm; other evenings were devoted to other classes, homework and studying. She graduated in June with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in science.
Tuition and Fees: Haskins is on full scholarship at PNB (tuition is $8,100 per year), while her Running Start courses averaged $107 per quarter. The majority of PDs are on scholarship, and some receive a stipend to help with living expenses. Bolstad notes that most rely on parental support, as their schedule leaves little time for outside employment.
Dance Schedule: Haskins begins each day with technique class at 9:30. The rest of the day varies, depending on whether she’s rehearsing with the company. If she’s cast in a PNB production, she has rehearsals from 12 to 7 pm. If not, she has pointe, variations or partnering class from 11 to 12:30, followed by a second technique class later in the afternoon. She also takes technique and modern classes on Saturday.
Performance: PD students regularly perform with the company. Haskins performed in PNB’s productions of Nutcracker, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Company members also choreograph on PD students for the annual Next Step program.
Growing up together, first as students at the School of American Ballet and then as young dancers on the rise at New York City Ballet, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild dated off and on. With their lives on the same track for nearly a decade, it’s no wonder they felt a special bond. Their relationship became serious several years ago. “I feel so lucky to have Tiler in the same industry,” says Fairchild. “We understand the struggles and the achievements that come along with this career, and it’s so meaningful to share those moments with someone who truly gets it.” The couple, who live in a one-bedroom apartment five blocks from the theater, married in June at the end of NYCB’s spring season. A few weeks before, Pointe followed them through a typical day. All photography by Kyle Froman.
This is Pointe's August/September 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
A few months ago, Tiler Peck turned 25. It's an age when most ballet dancers are earning their first breakout roles, gradually discovering who they are onstage.
Not Peck. She followed an uncommonly accelerated path to the spotlight, joining New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 at age 15 and becoming a principal in 2009. An enormously versatile dancer with prodigious technical gifts, she already has an enviable ballet resumé. She knows exactly who she is on NYCB's stage.
Yet Peck has an appetite for challenges that has led her outside the ballet world. Her growing list of musical theater credits isn't a surprise to longtime fans: Peck started out in jazz and commercial work, earning a role in director/choreographer Susan Stroman's production of The Music Man on Broadway when she was just 11. She and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Robert Fairchild, had a well-received turn in the New York Philharmonic's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel last year, which was later broadcast on PBS.
In October, Peck will take on her biggest theatrical challenge to date: She's set to dance (and sing and act) the title role in the new musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center. The project reunites her with Stroman, who custom-tailored Little Dancer—the story of the student who inspired Edgar Degas' iconic sculpture—to Peck. “I was envisioning Tiler even as we were writing it," Stroman says. “From the earliest stages, it was always her in my mind."
Photography by Kyle Froman
Pennsylvania Ballet holds only one audition each year. Every spring, hundreds of dancers crowd into a studio at New York’s School of American Ballet to be considered by artistic director Roy Kaiser and his team. Many come from training programs outside the city. This past March, more than 250 dancers auditioned for the company.
Kaiser looks for qualities that reflect the company’s Balanchine focus. “Above all, I want dancers who are interesting musically,” he says. “I watch how they phrase a combination.” The audition follows a standard class format. “Everyone does barre and at least one combination in the center before we start winnowing,” says Kaiser. He cautions that technique alone will not be enough to get dancers to the final round. “Dancers need to be aware of how they present themselves from the moment they show up,” he says. “There’s a brief time to get our attention. The way a dancer does pliés and tendus, her focus on the combinations, all counts. Dancers in a company have to assimilate material quickly. It’s part of the reality of being a professional.”
Ballet students learn quickly to follow directions and wait for reward or recognition from the front of the room. But navigating a professional career is very different from being a successful and talented student. Each dancer’s path is unique, and often nonlinear: A few dancers get promoted quickly while others remain in the corps. Some must make horizontal moves to new companies before they land a breakthrough job or role. And to keep their career momentum, many find it necessary to put themselves forward and ask for what they want.
Clara Blanco, now a soloist with San Francisco Ballet, had been dancing in the SFB corps for five years when she decided to move to Birmingham Royal Ballet. She soon realized it was not the right fit. Wishing desperately to return to SFB for the following season, Blanco knew the best thing was to meet with artistic director Helgi Tomasson and ask for her job back. “I am the kind of person who doesn’t hide things. I felt very vulnerable talking to Helgi,” she says. After thinking about it for a month, Tomasson gave Blanco a second chance.
Asking for an opportunity—whether it’s a job, a role, a promotion or a raise—rarely comes easily. It helps to practice. It’s also critical to canvas mentors or ballet masters to see if what you want lines up with your ability and commitment. So what’s the best way to break your silence and start a meaningful conversation about your career?
Do Your Homework
The first person you should be questioning is yourself. In preparation for a meeting with the director or other artistic staff, take some time to honestly evaluate your work. Are you sending the right messages? Do you show up late to rehearsal? In run-throughs, do you always give 110 percent, or are you marking? Are you already taking advantage of available opportunities?
Some companies make a point of giving dancers a chance to expand their repertoire. At Nevada Ballet Theatre, artistic director James Canfield has a policy of making all rehearsals open to the entire company. “If dancers are called, then they need to be there, but if a dancer is not called, he or she is still welcome to come and learn as long as they are respectful. If you learn the part and you are prepared, it creates an opportunity.”
Once you have analyzed your own job performance, find a sounding board. Julie Marie Niekrasz, a dancer with Ballet Memphis, looks to more experienced dancers when in need of an honest opinion. Building relationships with your ballet masters, rehearsal directors, choreographers or senior dancers can help you get realistic feedback about where you are in your career.
When you ask can make as much of a difference as what you ask. All AGMA companies, and many nonunion companies, have annual meetings between dancers and artistic staff. This can be the ideal time to request opportunities. The artistic staff expects you to state your goals, and providing you are courteous and professional, no one should feel blindsided. Dr. Nadine J. Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers, recommends practicing the conversation ahead of time and not being afraid to bring notes. “Rehearsing will give you confidence and ensure no one’s time is wasted.”
Niekrasz used her scheduled evaluation time to let the artistic staff know she felt ready to dance the role of Juliet. Blanco used her annual meetings to mention her dream of climbing the ranks. Niekrasz did end up getting to dance Juliet, and after several years of performing soloist and principal roles, Blanco became a soloist.
Sometimes a particular opportunity presents itself at some other point in the season. The Joffrey Ballet’s April Daly saw her chance during a layoff week. “Early on in my career, I was doing most corps work, and I wanted to do more partnering. I had a week off when only the lead dancers were called to rehearse the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Square Dance. I asked to come in and learn it, and the artistic staff said yes.”
Blanco also has had success making requests outside of the annual meeting. “I realized at one point that there was nothing to lose. If I wanted to learn something, I would ask to be in the rehearsal. With Raymonda, I asked to learn some of the variations—at one point or another, I ended up performing all of them.”
You’ll Never Know Unless…
The only way to get an answer is to ask. Even a “no” can help you reevaluate and realign your goals. “I have had a couple cases of a dancer asking for a role at a wrong time in their career,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal. ”In that case, I offer them an alternative role to reach for, one that’s more realistic.”
Asking nearly always yields some gains. If nothing else, you send an important signal to management that you are ready for more. Asking also gives you some insight into where you stand, and what you need to do to move ahead. As Blanco points out, “When you are a professional, it’s more about finding the right place for you, the place where your dancing is appreciated. Art is hard to value and you have to place value on yourself.” Having the confidence to ask for what you want is the first step in doing that.
Photography by Joe Toreno.
When I was 19 years old and in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre, a domino effect of casting changes left me with three days to learn and prepare my first dramatic leading role: Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. There was not enough time to feel overwhelmed, let alone to delve into the nuances of her character. Although diving right in and winging it on willpower is exhilarating, I have learned in the 15 years since that one of my favorite aspects of dancing is the research and emotional decision-making that go into developing a dramatic interpretation. I recently prepared for the role of Giselle in Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg's new production for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Although having advance notice gave me the time to feel nervous about tackling such an iconic role, it also allowed me the opportunity to develop my own interpretation through a mixture of research and instinct, which was further refined by coaching, rehearsal and performance.
Murphy in RNZB company class at The Music Center.
Virginia Johnson as Giselle at The Royal, with Zoltán Solymosi
Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn in a later performance of The Nutcracker
Maria Tallchief dances the Sugar Plum Fairy in the premiere of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Though Tallchief, who was half Osage Indian, had great success earlier on in parts that played on her “exotic” look—particularly the title role in The Firebird (1949)—dancing Sugar Plum cemented her status as a leading classical ballerina.
Raven Wilkinson in costume for Les Sylphides
Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, experiences difficulties during the company’s tour of the Deep South. The owner of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, refuses to let her stay in the hotel with the other dancers; in Montgomery, Alabama, two members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupt the company’s performance. The Ballet Russe later pulled Wilkinson out of performances in the South, partly to ensure her safety. In 1966 she began a less fraught career at Dutch National Ballet.
Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell rehearsing Agon
George Balanchine pairs Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in Agon’s erotically charged pas de deux. In a world still a decade away from the civil rights movement, this was casting as political act, and it shocked some members of the ballet community. Twelve years later, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem, a haven for classical dancers of color.
Fernando Bujones at Varna (photo by Randy Swartz)
Nineteen-year-old Fernando Bujones becomes the first American man to win a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition—Varna. Then a soloist and soon afterward a principal at American Ballet Theatre, Bujones, whose parents were Cuban, was a role model for Hispanic-American classical dancers—a group that remains small, especially in terms of women.
LINES Ballet dancers Tracy-Kai Maier and Christopher Boatwright in 1992
Alonzo King founds LINES Ballet, a diverse group of dancers performing works drawing from an array of cultural traditions. LINES was one of the first companies to see racial diversity not as an end in itself but as part of a larger mission. In later years other new companies—Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—would take up this model.
Virginia Johnson as Giselle at The Royal, with Zoltán Solymosi
Dance Theatre of Harlem star Virginia Johnson dances the title role in Giselle with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Johnson had previously performed in DTH’s production of Creole Giselle to great acclaim. But this performance—an African-American ballerina dancing the lead in a “white” ballet with a predominantly white company—had special significance.
Lauren Anderson as Cleopatra
Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson creates the title role in director Ben Stevenson’s Cleopatra. Anderson was the company’s first black principal and for years the world’s only African-American prima ballerina. Stevenson, a mentor since Anderson’s days as a student at Houston Ballet Academy, built Cleopatra specifically for her, mentioning in interviews that the original Cleopatra may have been black. The role would become one of Anderson’s signatures.
Photos from top: courtesy Dance Magazine Archives; Courtesy Raven Wilkinson; Marty Sohl; courtesy Dance Magazine Archives; Martha Swope © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Drew Donovan; Leslie E. Spatt.
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.
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Alicia Graf Mack tells the remarkable stories of three stars who have beaten ballet's odds, finding successful careers in the field they love.
Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.
As a young girl in Shreveport, Louisiana, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ashley Murphy never dreamed of a career in ballet. “I didn't grow up hearing that being a professional dancer was a real job," she says. Ballet was just an extracurricular activity that she enjoyed, along with gymnastics and piano lessons.
Not until she attended summer programs at New York's Joffrey Ballet School, The Ailey School and DTH did Murphy begin to realize her own potential. Though she earned admission to Dillard University in Louisiana, she ultimately followed her heart and accepted a spot with DTH's junior company. Within a year, director Arthur Mitchell, noticing her air of quiet mystery, promoted her to the professional company.
All photos by Matthew Murphy
One look at Polina Semionova, the Moscow-born American Ballet Theatre principal, tells you destiny chose her to be a ballerina. Her supermodel looks—with that beautifully elongated torso and even longer legs—have made her a natural dancer, as well as a featured model of UNIQLO’s AIRism clothing line.
Pointe went backstage with Semionova during American Ballet Theatre’s spring season last year as she prepared to dance Odette/Odile in Swan Lake with David Hallberg. “It’s a combination of everything—beauty, emotion, partnership, contrast, technique, power and mystery,” she says. Though she has performed the role many times, it remains not only a signature, but a personal favorite. “The ballet is a piece of art that will never die,” she says. “Every time I dance it, I feel very honored.”
Much has changed since Pointe launched 15 years ago—the emergence of social and digital media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; continuing economic uncertainty, which has forced some ballet companies to downsize; the proliferation of competitions, like Youth America Grand Prix, and the extreme technique they showcase; the globalization of dance, making borders more permeable for dancers like David Hallberg and other international stars to move from one company to another; and the genesis of a new generation of dancers, choreographers and directors in the 21st century. Pointe asked five ballet movers-and-shakers for their opinions on what ballet needs to flourish in the next 15 years. (Interviews by Joseph Carman and Laura Cappelle.)
Artistic director, Miami City Ballet
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.
I also think Latin America is a sleeping giant with tremendous potential. There are so many investments moving there. I feel I need to get MCB down there—the roster of our dancers is like West Side Story, half Hispanic and half American. —JC
Choreographer and New York City Ballet soloist
For some reason there has been a departure in choreography from focusing on the music itself. To me, what’s interesting in ballet is watching an interpretation of the music by the choreographer. I think that’s the purest form of choreography—George Balanchine was ahead of his time. We’ve had choreographers come to NYCB who’ve treated the music like an added factor or wallpaper. And there have been some very good pieces created that way, but then there’s not enough balance between music and movement.
Also, collaborations with different artistic mediums are very important. There’s a great section of Miami called Wynwood Arts District. Many street artists have painted this huge mural on a blank warehouse. That inspired me to get in touch with one of the artists and prompted collaboration on a ballet for MCB. There’s a history of dance being this meeting point of many artistic mediums, and I want to carry on that tradition in a very current, relevant way. —JC
Resident choreographer, Atlanta Ballet
Ballet sometimes has the reputation of being exclusionary. We need to keep moving forward in how our ballet companies look, in their makeup. We need to make ballet more inclusionary in other ways, too, like using other traditions of dance. But we have to investigate, not merely appropriate. With today’s speed, we take a master class, and we think we have an idea of a particular technique.
Choreography composition classes in big ballet conservatories are key. They get dancers curious and involved, and make them better artists. Perhaps as part of a conservatory’s requirements, making a short piece could be mandatory? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? So many ballet kids come into my improvisation class and say, “I was at an audition, and they asked me to improv and I didn’t know what to do.” It’s showing up more in the ballet world, and these kids need to know it. —JC
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet
It’s definitely great that more women are in directorial and choreographic positions in ballet. It’s not to say men don’t do a good job, but women are taking executive positions all over, not just in ballet. I’m actively seeking to work with more women choreographers because they have a different take. Women are very strong, and I’m a very strong dancer.
I don’t agree with the extreme technique that the competitions develop these days. I think it turns dancers into robots, which is not pretty to watch. I am definitely a believer in artistry over tricks. The artistry will last longer, and you can develop it over decades. Tricks will come and go; one day you won’t be able to do them. After a while they’re kind of boring. With artistry, something new always happens. It’s creating a story and using your imagination onstage. There is no imagination in tricks whatsoever. —JC
Director, LA Dance Project; director designate, Paris Opéra Ballet
One of the issues facing ballet is the relative lack of choreographers. There are some great ones, but I’d like to see more people who have the talent and the craft to create works that are complex, interesting and of our time. Part of the issue is that choreography isn’t taught; unlike music, there are no training programs. Choreography has rules, and you need a knowledge of architecture, space, music. It’s like studying mathematics. There’s also a lot to learn from the works of the past. I want to start an academy at the Paris Opéra Ballet where people will have a year to try it out and practice.
Ballet would also gain from more diversity. The idea that ballet is a white art is absurd and shocking, and it’s gone on for too long. Nothing would make me happier than having a company that reflects society, to have dancers onstage that people can relate to. —LC
Audiences’ fascination with ballets based on Shakespeare’s plays shows no sign of diminishing. The beauty of his language and the complexity of his characters, whether comic or tragic, historic or fantastic, continue to challenge choreographers to match their artistry with his. Last October, American Ballet Theatre added another play to its growing list of Shakespeare ballets when it premiered a uniquely dark adaptation of The Tempest by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. The company will reprise the production during its Lincoln Center season this spring.
ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie hired Mark Lamos, director of Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, to be the company’s dramaturge and act as a consultant for Ratmansky. “Alexei had already filled a notebook with ideas before I arrived,” Lamos says. “Basic patterns had been set for every scene, but dancers were encouraged to improvise.”
Ratmansky also passed up the opportunity for ballet fireworks if a simple gesture would better suit Shakespeare’s purpose. In one scene, Prospero (Marcelo Gomes), exiled duke of Milan and now ruler of the island where he had been a castaway, confronts his treacherous brother Antonio (Sascha Radetsky). Does Prospero burst onstage in a grand jeté followed by a double tour to celebrate having his brother in his power? No, he slowly advances toward Antonio, stops a yard or two away and holds out his hand. Awestruck, his brother returns the crown he had stolen years ago. “Some 60 words of text had been distilled into a restrained gesture that reveals Prospero’s refusal to be vindictive,” says Lamos.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities for showstopping roles in Shakespeare ballets. Just look at Mercutio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Puck in Ashton’s The Dream or Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brash defiance is their specialty. In The Tempest, Ratmansky created a variation of the pas de deux to demonstrate the power Prospero has over Ariel, his resident sprite and servant. As embodied by Daniil Simkin, Ariel repeatedly hurtles across the stage to leap into his master’s arms with such gravity-defying ease he seems to have helium in his veins. Their encounters are anything but affectionate, however; Prospero, who alternates promising Ariel his freedom with assigning him another task, always holds him out at arm’s length in midair to remind him who’s boss.
In one scene, Shakespeare actually requires a pas de trois that has taxed the ingenuity of stage directors and versatility of actors for centuries. The resident monster Caliban and two drunken sailors must roll around under a stinking cloak, swigging whiskey all the while. No problem at ABT: Ratmansky’s ingenuity and the agility of Herman Cornejo as Caliban and Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young as the sailors turn this demanding grapple into an inspired entanglement that’s over all too soon.
The vastness of the great plays have given directors and choreographers ample room for many highly “personal” productions—some valid, some inspired, some outrageous. Ratmansky brings his Tempest to a haunting conclusion that concentrates on Caliban as the performance ends. Instead of remaining offstage after his exit as he does in the play, he is now onstage when the rest of the cast sails away. He becomes a tormented grotesque, skittering across the space in growing desperation as the fact of his isolation sinks in. The stage darkens as he shreds the pages of Prospero’s precious book of charms, which he lacks the ability to read. The bleakness of his solitude drives him mad, but it brings a new, bitter logic to Shakespeare.
Harris Green is a New York City dance writer.
The Tempest’s three principal men—Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin, all veterans of MacMillan’s Romeo—found Ratmansky’s Shakespeare adaptation made special demands.
As Prospero, Gomes has to embody authority every second he’s onstage. That task was no stretch for someone with his magnetic presence, but it may account for the effect in the only scene in which he demonstrates Prospero’s magic powers. “I have this great staff—not some puny magic wand—but what do I do with it?” he asks. “Alexei worked out a set of flourishes I perform not only before but behind me when I draw the charmed circle.” This ritual has the short-lived brilliance of a lightning bolt—it’s over in seconds.
Simkin, who is rarely still as Ariel, was sustained by the genuine outrage the play aroused in him at his character’s unrelieved servitude: “Prospero is always reminding Ariel he will release him as a servant, but treats him like a slave. He promises him freedom but always delays it.” Simkin’s every entrance reflected Ariel’s airborne essence and his yearning for freedom: “Alexei didn’t want symbolic movement, “ he says. “You needed to be expressive, to dance for the ‘big picture,’ to show what you feel, not pantomime it. ”
Cornejo’s Caliban offered a radical departure from his usual virtuoso parts. “I have only one jump,” he says. He also has his own approach to acting: “I like to rehearse without knowing too much about the part.” Ratmansky’s demand that he be “grounded” was enough to keep him close to the floor. With Cornejo’s exuberance suppressed, Caliban becomes a broken, piteous creature and The Tempest a work of dark, unsuspected depths rarely shown in the theater. —HG
Ballet companies all over are celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with new productions and revivals based on his plays (see Call Board for an interview with Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe about his new Twelfth Night and “Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale,” a behind-the-scenes peek at his new work for The Royal Ballet). Here’s a sampling:
Atlanta Ballet will stage Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, April 11–13; Joffrey Ballet will stage Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet, April 30–May 11; Scottish Ballet will present Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells in London, May 14–17; Stuttgart Ballet will present John Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet, select days June 12–July 29; Houston Ballet will stage John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 4–14.