Fairies crop up everywhere in classical ballet, from sylphs to dryads to, of course, the ranks of fairies who attend Aurora's christening in The Sleeping Beauty. These delicate and mystical creatures stretch the reaches of ballet technique, forcing dancers to embody an otherworldly ideal. In this 1999 clip from the Paris Opéra Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty, former étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot dances the luxurious Lilac Fairy variation. With her refined, gentle power, Gillot truly finds the sublime in her interpretation of this magical character.
Is there anything more heart-wrenching than a tale of doomed lovers? It's no wonder that so many enduring ballets don't end in happy embraces. John Neumeier's modern Sylvia plumbs the depths of the story for its most melancholy notes. Paris Opéra Ballet étoiles, who make up the ballet's original cast, are masterful storytellers in the emotionally charged ballet.
You are a choreographer as well as a dancer. What drew you to hip hop for Les Rares Différences, the piece you made for the 2007 Festival of Dance in Suresnes?
My subject was Auguste Rodin. I needed bodies like sculptures—ballet dancers are too lean. Hip hop dancers have an absolutely statuesque upper body. I learned a lot from hip hop, too, especially from the movement dissociations.
What are you currently working on?
I’m putting together the first dance flash mob in France, for a charity. We will have professional dancers performing in a train station.
Who inspires you?
All of my colleagues. I pay a lot of attention to them, and I always find something that I would like to replicate. I love taking a little something from everyone.
Of which accomplishment are you the most proud?
I loved my first Don Quixotes and Swan Lakes. It was a consecration—I was already an étoile, even though I didn’t have the title. The audience and the orchestra were stamping. My dressing room was so filled with flowers I couldn’t sit.
What do you do on your days off?
I sleep, and I go to the theater. I also paint—it’s a good way to let go of everything.
What’s your specialty in the kitchen?
Turkey escalopes with potatoes, mushrooms and cream. I am something of a gourmet, and I eat a lot!
What skill would you most like to have?
To control the weather, so that I can take care of people.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I am keen on embroidery. It allows me to stop thinking, to focus on something else. I just think too much.
What advice do you have for students hoping to become professional dancers?
Watch those around you. That’s how I made it—by listening and watching more than everybody else.
To whom do you attribute your success?
To myself. To my determination.
How would you like to be remembered?
I think people will remember me in any case, because everything about me is so extreme. I’ve already made dance history in France.
Dancer: Sarah Van Patten
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake
San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten always commands the stage in roles that call for dramatic depth and musicality. But because she is not usually thought of as a strong technician, she was a long shot to be cast as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.
Certainly, her interpretation was the least virtuosic among the six women who performed the role in Helgi Tomasson’s new
production—but hers was also the boldest and most touching. Van Patten’s phrasing as Odette was lush and aching. Her sexiness as Odile was searing. Portraying the emotions of her characters came naturally, Van Patten says. But she also powered through the fear-inspiring fouettés and worked hard to maintain strong footwork. “I wanted to have a solid base because when you have that, you can give yourself over to the role,” she says. Indeed, she achieved the technical strength she needed, but put it in total service to emotional artistry. —Rachel Howard
Dancer: Domenico Luciano
Company: Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre
Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Domenico Luciano knows how to be a he-bird. As the only dancer outside of Matthew Bourne’s troupe performing Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake pas de deux, Luciano made a statement during his Houston performance last season. At 6’ 3” and a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, Luciano is a mighty presence. He evokes an animal energy with his seemingly endless lines. Bourne’s ballet straddles a fine edge between parody and myth, and Luciano luxuriates in that very territory: sensuous, but always masculine. “Bourne’s piece feels right for my physicality,” says Luciano. “Although I’m so comfortable in the role, there’s so much to discover in the character. It’s a bit murky in that I am a figment of the prince’s imagination. The relationship between the prince and the swan is really deliciously ambiguous.” —Nancy Wozny
Dancer: Natalia Osipova
Company: Bolshoi Ballet
Ballet: August Bournonville’s La Sylphide
In her sensational debut with American Ballet Theatre last June, Bolshoi Ballet principal Natalia Osipova demonstrated the power of a beloved old classroom step: grand jeté. With her impeccable technique and unfailing musicality, she would be the ideal heroine for any ballet, but it was the airy lightness of her grand jeté that made her the perfect choice for the doomed forest sprite in Bournonville’s La Sylphide. The three leaps she performed in rapid succession at the end of Act I seemed to require no preparation at all, coming out of nowhere to vanish before our eyes. While tossing off feats of strength, Osipova embodied a fatal fragility. A creature of the air, utterly weightless, she was too delicate to escape the tragic end awaiting her. —Harris Green
Dancer: Alina Cojocaru
Company: The Royal Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Giselle
For almost a decade, Alina Cojocaru had been one of the brightest stars in a sparkling constellation of ballerinas at The Royal Ballet—until a prolapsed disc in her neck threatened to end her career in 2008. After 11 months away from the stage, she returned to the Royal Opera House last April to perform Giselle, her signature role.
Cojocaru always brings exquisite technique and emotional poignancy to this role. But being unable to dance for so long brought her even closer to her character. “The joy of dance made my Giselle and my Alina be one person more than ever,” she says. With just five days’ rehearsal, she allowed no concessions to her long layoff; her technique was as brilliant as ever and Giselle’s adolescent innocence blossomed into a coruscating love that defied the grave. The New York Times’ critic Roslyn Sulcas declared it to be “one of the great dance renditions of our time.”
At the end of an emotional evening, the ecstatic audience covered the stage in flowers and, as the curtain fell, Cojocaru says she felt that “to lose and then fight for something I love was in my very soul. One battle in my life was won; now I’m ready for whatever else life will bring!” —Graham Watts
Dancer: Riolama Lorenzo
Company: Pennsylvania Ballet
Ballet: Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto
Sometimes a smaller company offers just the room for growth that an exceptionally gifted dancer needs to burnish her talent. Riolama Lorenzo danced Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries while in the corps of New York City Ballet several years ago. Now, after having moved to Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002, and ascending from corps to principal in three short years, she’s still dancing Martins’ work—sublimely. Her role in his Barber Violin Concerto last season had Lorenzo making a dazzling transition from the ideal
ballerina who seemed to land each jump on a pillow of air, to literally letting her hair down in gutsier action. Cuban-born Lorenzo is beloved by Philadelphia audiences for her daring and her clear attack. Standing 5’8”, with exquisitely arched feet and an astonishingly supple spine, her flexibility, precision and range along with a presence that exudes both directness and depth make Riolama Lorenzo shine. —Lisa Kraus
Dancer: Alex Wong
Company: Miami City Ballet
Ballet: Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room
Few would think of the cheerfully loosey-goosey choreography for the sneaker-clad “stompers” in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as technical. Yet when Miami City Ballet principal soloist Alex Wong blazed through the stompers’ bouncy leaps and backward jogs this spring, he epitomized virtuosic technique. Wong’s precise classical style and fine-tuned musicality lent the high-speed role—which most dancers are lucky just to survive—polish and panache. And in a work defined by explosive displays of energy, Wong crackled with a singular electricity: His jumps were the most buoyant, his joyful intensity unmatched.
Wong thinks that Tharp’s presence in the audience inspired his superhuman performance. “We were pushing as hard as we could for her, trying to fill the entire space,” he remembers. “Just thinking about it makes my body start to tingle.” —Margaret Fuhrer
Dancer: Sterling Hyltin
Company: New York City Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia
Sterling Hyltin made several outstanding performances at New York City Ballet last winter, and two were as Swanilda in Coppélia. At her first performance, her sunny personality, unfailing musicality, assured technique and buoyant energy proved a perfect fit for the spunky heroine. Less successful was acting that relied on mugging (rolling her eyes, say, to express disdain for her boyfriend, Franz). By her second performance, however, Hyltin had replaced mannerisms with actions; now Swanilda snubbed Franz with a toss of her head or a shrug. It was if she had created a new performance, one that could now reach the audience at the very top of the house through movement alone. Such makeovers are as much a part of Hyltin’s dancing as taking class. —Harris Green
Dancer: Kristi Boone
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son
Although she’s been a soloist since 2007, Kristi Boone has rarely been given the chance to carry a ballet. But during a foray into principal territory last June as the Siren, she looked every inch the part, from the sensuous, exaggerated curves of her legs and feet to her beautiful face, stoic and imposing. It was a dangerous, exciting debut. Her dancing was icy and deliberate—she pulled off the tricky Balanchine choreography with finesse. Boone had been itching to wield the Siren’s red cape since ABT’s last run of Prodigal in 2000, when she was still with ABT II. She relishes the role as a rare opportunity for a female dancer. “You’re usually the damsel in distress,” she says. “You never get to have that much power.” —Kina Poon
Dancer: Jonathan Porretta
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake
Even when the music was soft in PNB’s production of the Petipa classic, you couldn’t hear Jonathan Porretta land his clean, soaring jumps. You could, however, in an auditorium that seats 2,900, actually hear the beating of his feet.
Over the past few years, working with contemporary choreographers, this magnetic virtuoso has grown into an artist. With his Swan Lake roles—the flashy, character-rich Jester and the gentler, lyrical pas de trois male—he proved himself a sensitive master of classical ballet as well. Porretta is all things to all people, working to fulfill choreographers’ visions, embodying composers’ music, connecting with fellow dancers, achieving personal satisfaction and conversing with the audience. And what a conversation it is! —Rosie Gaynor
Dancer: Joanna Wozniak
Company: The Joffrey Ballet
Ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring
Joanna Wozniak danced The Chosen One in Rite of Spring three times during the Joffrey’s spring season, and she was perfect from the start—vulnerable, aware, poignant, terrified and noticeably more powerful and ferocious than in her many traditionally lyrical roles. She had dreamed of dancing this role of a human sacrifice ever since joining the company in 2003. And once she learned the part, Wozniak began “thinking about what this young virgin girl was really like, going through all the complex emotions she must have felt knowing she was about to die, and realizing that her family, and all the people she had trusted, had turned against her in a way.” The Chosen One’s grueling solo lasts only a few minutes, but before the dancer bursts into motion she must stand absolutely still, frozen in fright. “There is a spotlight over you at that point, and everything else seems to disappear into darkness, though you can hear the Elders stomping. And it’s at that moment that you really become the character.” —Hedy Weiss
Dancer: Marie-Agnès Gillot
Company: Paris Opéra Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Apollo
As the first Paris Opéra Ballet dancer promoted to étoile after performing a nonclassical ballet, Marie-Agnès Gillot is the company’s contemporary darling. She always looks like she’s having an “on” night, so grounded that she can balance at her whim until she chooses to move on to the next step. But what makes her truly unique in modern movement is her ability to imbue even the most abstract works with meaning and personality. Many Balanchine purists were astonished at Gillot’s playful, seductive Terpsichore in Apollo at the Nijinsky Gala in Hamburg last summer. The usually spare, cool neoclassicism became jazzy, with hips jutting from side to side. Her long legs articulated each step with clarity. And her entire body tested the limits of how much she could play with the music, coyly waiting to feel each movement from within before letting it gravitate out to the tips of her pointe shoes. —Jennifer Stahl
Dancer: Ebony Williams
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Ballet: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo
When Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams steps onstage, her presence is sometimes so fierce, it’s intimidating just to be in the audience. That presence was most evident this year in Cedar Lake’s mysterious, multilayered Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Williams moved with utter fearlessness, forcefully throwing her body into the movement at one moment, finding a soft, slinky angularity the next. “He choreographed my solo by giving me tasks that would create movement,” says Williams. “At first, I had to move like I had balls all over me, then like I was made of fire and at the end I became an animal.” Although Williams admits she was nervous about having to come up with her own contemporary movement, she appreciated that the process was a partnership: “He wanted to know how I moved and who I was—and let me show that onstage.” —Jennifer Stahl
Kathryn Morgan in The Sleeping Beauty Wedding Pas de Deux, during New York City Ballet’s “Dancer’s Choice” evening: Simultaneously authoritative and delicate, regal and gentle, the young corps de ballet member breezed through this technically exacting pas de deux, the perfect showcase for her ineffable brand of understated charm.
Maria Riccetto in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle with Herman Cornejo: Usually paired with David Hallberg, Riccetto bloomed dancing with Cornejo, bringing a deep tenderness and vulnerability to the role. Technically flawless, she made Giselle utterly believable, and together she and Cornejo seemed a natural partnership.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 45-year-old Louise Nadeau in Forsythe’s Urlicht at her farewell performance in June: Strength, grace, technique, musicality and personality all combined at peak levels for what was one of her best performances.
Hamburg Ballet principal Hélène Bouchet in Verklungene Feste by John Neumeier: She moved with that ideal combination of strength and abandon that all dancers strive for yet rarely achieve. Over and over, she sent her body flying, then pulled back and found the control to guide her limbs into precise positions.
Robin Mathes in Mauro Bigonzetti’s rousing Cantata: Leaving fear in the dust, the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal soloist mixed gravitas with abandon, charging head-on into the pathos of the music.
Jazmon Voss and Cira Robinson of the U.K.’s Ballet Black in Antonia Franceschi’s intimate Pop8: After a scintillating duet in which Voss and Robinson were vivacious yet sinuous, Voss’ jazz-themed solo fused muscular virtuosity with delicate grace and sophistication.
After making a splash in Chicago and DC, Paris Opéra Ballet has set up camp in New York's Lincoln Center for the next two weekends. Tonight, étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot performs the lead in Maurice Béjart's Bolero. In Pointe's April/May 2010 issue, we asked Gillot what skill she would most like to have. Her response?
"To control the weather, so that I can take care of people."
Read the full interview here.