Raise your hand if you're excited for competition season! Youth America Grand Prix Regional Semi-Finals are well underway, leading up to the much-awaited New York Finals April 12-19. Even better, they're live-streamed, meaning you now have the perfect excuse to spend your weekend at home, watching ballet (while sewing your pointe shoes and stretching, of course).
This weekend features semi-finals in Seattle, Washington and Tampa, Florida. To see the full schedules and set up streaming, click here. Streaming starts at $13.99. Packages of 2, 4, 6 or 12 total viewing hours are available, and viewers can log in and out as often as they like.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
The Joyce Ballet Festival Is Back
New York City's Joyce Theater kicks off its five-company Ballet Festival June 26-July 7. Showcasing a variety of styles including neoclassical and contemporary dance, the festival prides itself on featuring smaller companies. Below, check out the three companies opening this week. (Feeling festive? Enter our giveaway to win tickets to the Ashley Bouder Project at the Joyce on July 5.)
Though according to our calendars today is the first day of spring, it feels like anything but. That's why we've been extra jealous watching American Ballet Theatre dancers' Instagram posts from their tour to Singapore. From swimming in rooftop pools to hiking with monkeys to jet-lag influenced shenanigans (oh, and dancing Swan Lake), their photos are making us believe that warm weather really is on its way. We rounded up some of our favorite shots from the first half of ABT's Asian tour; they'll spend this week in Hong Kong dancing Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Keep the photos coming, ABT!
Rather than cling onto the railing in fear (like we would have), Isabella Boylston stepped gracefully into the highest pool in the world with a low arabesque.
Valentine's Day makes February the perfect month for ballet companies to perform Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous tale of star-crossed lovers. A few companies presented their versions earlier this month and many are on their way in the next few weeks. We rounded up eight companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Washington Ballet, Les Ballet des Monte Carlo, Orlando Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Carolina Ballet and Ballet BC to find out how they're using this classic ballet to celebrate the holiday of love.
New York City Ballet
A 12-performance run of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet comes in the middle of New York City Ballet's winter season, spanning from February 13-23 at the Koch Theater in New York City. This year's production marks the debuts of corps dancers Harrison Coll and Peter Walker as Romeo, and former Pointe cover star Indiana Woodward will be making her debut as Juliet. Below, hear Tiler Peck, who will dance Juliet alongside Zachary Catazarro, point out the tricky technical moments in this role and explain what makes it so special to her.
“Ballet for 400!"
On Tuesday, November 17, for the second time, contestants on Jeopardy! will take a stab at ballet trivia with the help of dancers from American Ballet Theatre—another event to celebrate the company's 75th anniversary season. Look out for principals Gillian Murphy and Cory Stearns and corps member Blaine Hoven, who will read clues and give demonstrations of ABT's repertoire. The first episode (which aired last May) featured James Whiteside, Craig Salstein, and Pointe cover girls Hee Seo, Sarah Lane and Misty Copeland.
Ascending the ranks to "ballerina" status at American Ballet Theatre comprises the stuff of dreams for many dancers. Since its inception in 2003, ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School has been steadily molding students who graduate into the company. But within the last two decades, only several women have successfully journeyed from the ABT Studio Company to star. Three ballerinas emblematic of that distinction take a particular pride in being homegrown: Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston and soloist Sarah Lane.
Along the way, they have reaped sublime rewards, peppered with self-doubt, will power, patience, corps de ballet fatigue and a firm focus on their goals. While ABT regularly imports international guest stars for its spring Met season—a source of frustration for some dancers—Seo, Boylston and Lane have carved out a place for themselves in the company and in the hearts of their audience.
Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence, has championed their talents; all three will dance Aurora in his acclaimed new production of The Sleeping Beauty in June. And with the retirement this season of three ballerinas crucial to ABT's identity—Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes—these younger dancers now take center stage, becoming role models for the next generation.
In July, an exceptional American Ballet Theatre dancer made her New York debut as Juliet—a sparklingly innocent and yet impressively mature rendition of Kenneth MacMillan’s heroine that was both touching and daring. She danced with abandon, sailing into the arms of her partner and giving each pirouette the appropriate tinge of ecstasy or despair. But what was most surprising was that this ballerina, Hee Seo, is listed in the corps de ballet.
For several years, there has been a buzz about Seo. But ABT’s 2009 Metropolitan Opera spring season was without a doubt her breakthrough. She performed leading roles in Romeo and Juliet, La Sylphide, Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper and James Kudelka’s Désir. And she demonstrated that mark of a true ballerina: the ability to carry a ballet and imbue it with her distinct aura for an audience of nearly 5,000 people.
What is it that has propelled her into the coveted ABT limelight? The plasticity of her body is reminiscent of a young Natalia Makarova, with all movement emanating from a supple spine and technique that spellbinds with its combination of tensile strength, lightness and fluidity. But Seo is her own dancer and doesn’t need comparison. She has a dramatic quality that radiates from her soul.
“Beyond her ballet-friendly physique, she has a point of view and sensitivity that leads her towards roles like La Sylphide and Juliet,” says ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Seo began dancing at age 11, receiving her primary training on a scholarship at the Sun-hwa Arts Middle School. At 13, she earned a scholarship from the Universal Ballet Academy (now The Kirov Academy of Ballet) in Washington, DC, where she worked with the legendary Kirov ballerina Alla Sizova in a strict curriculum that adhered rigorously to the Vaganova syllabus.
In 2003, Seo won the Prix de Lausanne, which earned her a scholarship to the John Cranko Ballet Academy in Stuttgart. That same year she also won the Youth America Grand Prix, and John Meehan, then the director of the ABT Studio Company (now called ABT II), offered her a contract. She was allowed to defer one year so she could continue her training in Germany.
Once she arrived in New York, her experience with the Studio Company was initially disorienting. Russian-trained, Seo wasn’t used to the American approach to dancing and had trouble picking up styles quickly. She felt lost. One day Meehan called her into his office, and Seo broke down in tears. “From the bottom of my heart I wanted to get better, break down the barrier and step up,” she says. “But I didn’t know what to do.” With help from Meehan (“He was like a dad to me”), she began to change, to learn new ways of working.
In 2005, Seo joined ABT as an apprentice. By 2006, she was an upwardly mobile corps member, dancing soloist roles in Dark Elegies and Ballo della Regina. But in 2008, she was sidelined by sharp pains in her back (doctors never delivered a definitive diagnosis). “Before then, I never had time to go out front and watch. Seeing a lot of the shows made such a big difference,” says Seo. That time to observe and reflect had an impact on her approach, particularly, she says, watching Julie Kent. “She has a softness and a charisma that I love,” says Seo. “She looks so comfortable and confident in herself.”
To remain healthy after her injury, Seo realized she had to eat more. During the busy Met season, it’s hard for her to keep her weight up. “The way I am holding up now is by eating well---the right food.” (Seo’s mother came to New York during the Met season and cooked breakfast and packed lunches for her.)
In January, McKenzie casually mentioned to Seo in the hallway that she’d been cast as Juliet. She was ecstatic. She and partner Cory Stearns rehearsed rigorously for two months to make the ballet feel comfortable. The two are close friends from their days in the Studio Company, although his quirky American sense of humor offended her Korean sensibility enough to prompt her to stop talking to him for nearly a year. (He would joke about Korean food, but she says, “If you really understand and know him, you have to love him.”) They debuted in the ballet in Detroit on March 14, Seo’s 23rd birthday, with nearly the entire company watching.
“The role of Juliet is not so technical; it’s all about imagination,” says Seo. “So many great ballerinas have done this role, and here I am—a corps member. I have to make my own Juliet. It’s been challenging. Even though you feel it, it’s hard to express. Making sad faces isn’t going to read, you have to express it with your body. Kevin and Georgina Parkinson (an ABT ballet mistress) worked with me to find my own way. They would direct me, but not say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ ”
To research the role, Seo watched a number of movies based on Shakespeare’s play: the1936 George Cukor black-and-white film with Norma Shearer, the Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza with Olivia Hussey and the contemporary version with Leonardo DiCaprio. And ever since she was a child, she has been mesmerized by the video of the ballet starring Alessandra Ferri. “I watched it over and over,” says Seo. “I almost knew the steps already because I watched it so many times.”
At a studio rehearsal in June, in the bowels of the Metropolitan Opera House, former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel coached Seo for her debut in another principal role: the sylph in La Sylphide. Van Hamel advised her to contain the delicate Bournonville movement without losing its breadth. Five minutes later, Seo was rehearsing the peasant pas de deux from Giselle, attacking the allegro batterie. Afterwards, she sat on the floor, beat on her thighs and commanded her body to cooperate. It was that kind of season.
“Principals will ask if I’ve recovered from dancing that principal role last night,”?says Seo. “There’s no such thing as recovery for me. I’m on every night, doing every part of the ballet. It’s crazy, but I can’t complain because there are dancers who don’t have the opportunity to do it.”
Seo speculates that some of her ability to inhabit dramatic roles stems from her own experience. “Because I left home when I was so young, I never could be childish. I had to be an adult. I had to grow up.” Like Juliet and other heroines she longs to dance, such as Tatiana in Onegin and the protagonist in Manon, she faced challenging circumstances being away from her family at a young age.
In their New York debuts in Romeo and Juliet, Seo’s and Stearns’ long, modern lines underscored the dramatic sweep of the ballet. Seo moved with a wind-driven passion. With time, the nuances of her performance and the dynamics of Juliet’s dramatic arc will surely expand.
At the end of the performance, which also celebrated Frederic Franklin’s 95th birthday, Seo and Stearns took their bows to a cheering audience. Franklin, dressed in costume as Friar Lawrence, accepted a bouquet from Seo and kissed her sweetly.
It was as if he—and ABT—were officially consecrating her as a ballerina.
Joseph Carman writes about dance and is the author of Round About the Ballet.
Cory Stearns: The other side of the partnership
By Dan Capello
It is late afternoon on July 4. In a substage rehearsal studio, ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson watches Hee Seo stretch out. Parkinson is set to rehearse Romeo and Juliet with Seo and Cory Stearns, both of whom will make their New York debuts in the leads in five days. When Stearns breezes in, Seo—the picture of restrained, unflappable grace—straightens her back and gazes up. They exchange giddy, grinning glances and the sight evokes Shakespeare’s young lovers.
Flushed and exhausted, Stearns has come from dancing Orion in Sylvia, where he strained a muscle in his right leg. “I’m just a little heavy in the calves,” he assures Parkinson. And then he and Seo launch into the balcony pas de deux. By their Thursday night debut, they will have fixed the slight imperfections that surface in rehearsal. During a lift in the balcony scene, he will keep his beaming face fixed in a clean profile line; she will straighten her back and sit like a swan in the arms of her newfound love. Their fresh sentiment and vigor will lend a youthful verisimilitude to the ballet that even many principals can’t conjure.
Stearns has a classical appeal—a serene bearing, long musculature and wide, chiseled features. A danseur noble in the mold of the company’s male leads, his is a physical, almost macho approach. Born Paul Cornell Stearns in Southampton, NY, Cory grew up playing baseball, soccer and tennis. His mother had studied Graham technique and insisted that her children take up dance, too. As Stearns puts it, “She didn’t want us just to be jocks.”
The training started early. When he was 3, Stearns was enrolled in a creative-movement class. By the time he was 5, he had begun his classical training at Seiskaya Ballet in St. James, NY. At 13, he received a full scholarship to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre summer program. For the first time, he saw an array of ages and abilities, and the impression was lasting. “By the time my parents picked me up from Pittsburgh, I knew I would be a dancer.”
At 15, he participated in Youth America Grand Prix and earned a full scholarship to The Royal Ballet School. There David Peden, a former Royal Ballet soloist, helped the young dancer refine his technique and perspective. “Before David, I was all about pirouettes and jumps. David was all technique and cleanliness.”
At the end of his training, Stearns joined ABT’s second company, entered the main company two years later and was named soloist this year. Last fall, he learned he would dance Romeo. Soon Seo was cast as Stearns’ Juliet. “Hee and I have a natural chemistry. What I love about her is how she feels the role; she doesn’t overthink it. I’m trying to adapt right along with her, to be a 16-year-old Italian boy.”
For Stearns, Romeo has been one of the most difficult roles. “MacMillan is very emotional. Romeo is not as technically demanding as some parts, but you have to remain in character, in control, every second of the ballet.” To achieve that went beyond coaching. “Hee and I watched the Zeffirelli film together. I watched videos of former productions. When you do this role for the first time, you live it—you dream about it, hear the music when you’re in bed, act it out in the shower.”
On debut night, the youth and energy of Stearns’ and Seo’s star-crossed lovers was palpable. Despite reinjuring his calf mid-performance, Stearns pushed forward. “Sure, it’s disgustingly tiring,” he said lightly several days later. ”But this role is a process. It’s something you develop over the years.” And Stearns has many years of Romeos ahead.
Getting to attend the annual Dance Magazine Awards is one of my favorite perks of this job. The caliber of artists you get to rub shoulders with each year is kind of amazing, if a bit overwhelming. The first time I went, as a Dance Magazine intern, I remember seeing Alessandra Ferri float up the aisle to accept her award with the exact same effortless fluidity she moves with onstage. (Full confession: I might have literally drooled in my seat.) A few years later, I brought my mom along with me, who to this day still brags about being able to go up to Christopher Wheeldon to tell him how much she loves his ballet Carousel (A Dance).
This year, the biggest treat for me was watching American Ballet Theatre principals Hee Seo and Cory Stearns perform Antony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading in honor of Julie Kent. Seo has been one of my favorite ABT dancers for years—when she's on, her lines are simply breathtaking. Getting to see her dance just a few feet away from me was a rare treat. A clip of their performance just went up on dancemedia.com. I reccomend everyone take a break from Nutcracker madness and watch it here. It's only a minute long, but it's chock-full of gorgeousness.
Last night, I attended the final round of Youth America Grand Prix's New York City finals. Every year, I'm overwhelmed by the level of talent at the competition, and this year was no exception. There's nothing more exciting than spotting the stars of tomorrow, today.
Many of today's stars are YAGP alums, too. The organization recently created a "YAGP archive" channel on YouTube, featuring the competition videos of dancers who went on to become top professionals. Here are two of my personal favorites: American Ballet Theatre principal Hee Seo at 15, and ABT soloist Isabella Boylston at 14. They're both dancing the same Sleeping Beauty variation—and they're both clearly destined for big things. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!