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What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

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Ballet Stars

Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov are two dancers whose physicality and artistic prowess truly pushed ballet to a new level. Their careers have spanned decades and continents, making them icons of the ballet world. In the late 1980s both dancers were working at American Ballet Theatre, Ferri as a principal dancer and Baryshnikov as artistic director and performer, when they co-starred in the 1987 film Dancers, a drama centered around a ballet company that included a staged production of Giselle. This clip from the film shows Ferri and Baryshnikov as Giselle and Albrecht in the last moments of the ballet, highlighting their dramatic chops with up-close camera angles.

Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov - Last dance of Giselle and Albrecht www.youtube.com

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2018 YoungArts winner Margarita Armas. Photo by Gesi Shilling, Courtesy YoungArts

If you are a dancer in high school, listen up! The National YoungArts Foundation has announced that now, through October 12, it is accepting applications to become a 2019 YoungArts winner. Every year the foundation identifies talented teenage artists across multiple disciplines, providing monetary awards up to $10,000, mentorship opportunities (with renowned professionals like Mikhail Baryshnikov), and a chance to participate in regional workshops in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. To qualify, dancers need to be between the ages of 15–18 or in high school grades 10–12, as well as a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

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New York City Ballet's Joseph Gordon and Tiler Peck in "Fancy Free." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

One of the titans among choreographers of the 20th century, Jerome Robbins will be celebrated by a number of ballet companies worldwide in 2018 for the centennial of his birth. He died in 1998 at age 79 after a prolific career. His rare talent enabled him to direct and choreograph Broadway hits (West Side Story, On the Town and Fiddler on the Roof, among many) and to create sublime ballets, such as Afternoon of a Faun for New York City Ballet; Fancy Free (his first ballet) for American Ballet Theatre; and NY Export: Opus Jazz for his short-lived troupe Ballets: U.S.A.


Jerome Robbins. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

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Everything Nutcracker

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Nutcracker are simply iconic—two of the world's most celebrated dancers in the world's best-loved ballet. Starring as Clara and the Prince in American Ballet Theater's 1977 made-for-television film, these two superb talents bring both technical and dramatic brilliance to the ballet's culminating scene.

In this version, which Baryshnikov himself choreographed, Clara and the Prince dance the grand pas de deux. He also mixes up the order so that the variations and coda precede the adagio. The clip begins with the tail end of Kirkland's variation, followed by a flawlessly danced coda. Baryshnikov, looking debonair in all white, flies in his jumps, rebounding off the floor like a spring, and Kirkland's impressive diagonal at 0:43 boasts triple fouetté turns.

The mood changes when Drosselmeyer, played by Alexander Minz, arrives in the first chords of the adagio to usher Clara away from her dreamland. In a pas de trois, Clara is torn between her beloved godfather and her prince, reluctant to choose between childhood and the promise of her dreams. In her gauzy nightgown, the delicate Kirkland is ethereal and waif-like as she is promenaded and passed in the air between her partners. She and Baryshnikov make a tender couple and in the end, as she chaînes into his arms, it is clear that she longs to stay with her prince. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ballet Stars
Baryshnikov in Letter to a Man. Photo by Lucie Jansch, Courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Adding another milestone to his already untouchable career, Mikhail Baryshnikov will take on the role of iconic ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in director Robert Wilson's one-man show, Letter to a Man. The work had its premiere in Italy in 2015 and had its U.S. debut as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival on October 15. The show completes its New York run on October 30.

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Baryshnikov in Letter to a Man. Photo by Lucie Jansch, Courtesy Cal Performances UC-Berkeley.

Mikhail Baryshnikov may have left the classical ballet stage long ago, but his artistic curiosity remains endless—and at 68, he remains endlessly captivating. Whether he’s mentoring emerging choreographers at his Baryshnikov Arts Center, performing Samuel Beckett short plays or dancing alongside Lil Buck in a Rag & Bone fashion campaign, the former American Ballet Theatre star is constantly exploring new avenues of self-expression.

 

Now, he’s portraying famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in Letter to a Man, a solo theatrical work directed by Robert Wilson. The production is based on Nijinsky’s haunting 1919 diaries, written over a six-and-a-half week period as he struggled with the onset of schizophrenia. A groundbreaking, controversial dancer and choreographer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Nijinsky would spend the next 30 years under psychiatric care. Letter to a Man explores his descent into madness. Although it seems more avant-garde theater than dance, there is a considerable amount of movement throughout (choreographer Lucinda Childs collaborated on the project). With or without pirouettes, Baryshnikov’s stagecraft is as galvanizing as ever, as evidenced in this preview clip:

Baryshnikov is touring with the production in Europe this summer, performing in Lyon, France, this week before heading to the Monaco Dance Forum June 30–Jul 3. American audiences will have to wait until the fall—Letter to a Man has its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music October 15–30 before heading to Berkeley, California, and Los Angeles in November.

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

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Violette Verdy in front of the SPAC sign in 1966. Photo by Martha Swope, Courtesy Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

New York City Ballet's home away from home, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, will reach the half-century landmark on July 8. In 1966, NYCB opened SPAC with a performance of Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the company has returned every summer since. "When I stand onstage at SPAC, I can't help but think of how many people have stood in the exact same spot," says principal dancer Sterling Hyltin. "It adds to the magic that is SPAC."

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Photo by Nobby Clark/Arena PAL via The Royal Opera House on Flickr.

Sir Frederick Ashton created his 1980 ballet Rhapsody in honor of Elizabeth The Queen Mother (mother of Elizabeth II) for her 80th birthday. I’d say this serene, elegant pas de deux is fit for a queen—and for the strengths of its lead dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier, on whom the roles were created. In her shimmering blush-pink dress, Collier wafts across the stage, feet fluttering to the piano’s peaceful notes. With his effortless partnering and her full, graceful port de bras, it seems as if there’s no transition from floor to air. My favorite moment is when Collier ducks under each of Baryshnikov’s arms and he reacts with a barely-there embrace, eyes gazing outwards. They strike a perfect balance between dancing for themselves, for each other and for us.

Baryshnikov actually requested the commission for Rhapsody. Judging by the thriving success of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the creation and performance space he founded in New York City 25 years later, he’ll continue to be a pioneer in the arts for years to come. Lesley Collier became a widely respected coach and teacher after her retirement from the stage. Below, watch her lead Royal Ballet principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae in rehearsals for the sublime ballet she starred in. Happy #FlashBackFriday!

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Susan Jaffe was barely 19 years old when she leapt into the spotlight at American Ballet Theatre. 1982—the year that her Swan Lake debut had critics raving—also revealed her contemporary chops in works like Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s Great Galloping Gottschalk. In this clip from a 1985 recording, Jaffe dances a pas de deux from the piece with Robert La Fosse, who had a successful career as a principal dancer at both ABT and New York City Ballet.

 

Jaffe and La Fosse, now both teachers (Dean of Dance at University North Carolina School of the Arts and Barnard Dance Department lecturer, respectively), were two of the homegrown stars that Mikhail Baryshnikov sought to nurture as director of ABT. Great Galloping Gottschalk is danced entirely to the music of 19th century New Orleans-born composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The name of this pas, “The Dying Poet,” belies its carefree spirit. Jaffe and La Fosse bound gaily through Taylor-Corbett’s constantly moving choreography. In one playful moment of many, Jaffe stands behind La Fosse and, with a wave of her hand, manipulates him into a backwards somersault and a (beautifully!) sustained arabesque. Simple pearl-blue costumes and Gottschalk’s twinkling score complete the light-hearted feeling of the pas, which ends with La Fosse carrying Jaffe offstage in a twirling lift, like a windmill in a spring breeze. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

Julie Kent appears at the costume fitting for the dress she wears on the cover after a rehearsal for Jorma Elo’s new work for American Ballet Theatre. Her feet are killing her, so she slouches while she gets measured, but she’s pretty easygoing about the whole thing, including being plied with questions. When conversation turns to her 2-year-old son, William Spencer, though, she perks up and insists on running downstairs to her locker to get photos of him.

 

“I’m a proud mom,” she says, as she shows off images of William in a blow-up pool, somewhere at Chautauqua (where she taught during the summer) and in Massachusetts, where she has a house with husband Victor Barbee, ABT’s associate artistic director.

 

At 37, Kent, the hugely popular principal at ABT, is having a big year, professionally and personally. In July, ABT celebrated her 20th anniversary with the company with a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, followed by flowers, confetti, appearances by current and past partners, and, of course, audience adoration. In September, she celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary.

 

Kent may be the epitome of the classical dancer; blessed with an amazing facility, she has the technique and elegance that others crave. Yet, she’s faced ups and downs in her career with the sometimes troubled ABT, and conquered the occasional nerve, earning an enthusiastic fan base. (Her roles in the ballet movies Dancers and Center Stage helped.) Now it’s her status as a mom that’s leading some to talk about a newfound maturity onstage.

 

“Since William has come along, her work has deepened,” says ballet’s famed senior statesman Frederic Franklin, former dancer with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, who first saw Kent at age 14, when he judged the Washington chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters, which she won. “I have seen her do many roles. [Now] she tackles them with authority. She’s grown up in her art.”

 

This is an understandable progression, because, as Kent says, “Ballet is no longer the most important thing in my life. I don’t love it any less. But, in a sense, not having that pressure on myself and that super sort of neurotic focus on my work has freed me in a way that allows me to be better.”

 

Looking back, though, she has advanced carefully through her career, paying attention to her development every step of the way. The youngest of three children—and two half siblings—Kent would accompany her mother, a former semiprofessional dancer from New Zealand, to adult ballet classes. And when Kent was 7, she started taking lessons herself. “It was just a normal activity for my family,” says Kent, whose sister also danced, before giving it up in high school.

 

Kent, however, continued and trained at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet and School of American Ballet. When she was 16, she auditioned for ABT.

 

Baryshnikov, who was director at the time, offered her an apprentice position for the company’s Nutcracker performances—on tour and at the Metropolitan Opera House. By March, she had a corps de ballet contract.

 

“When Baryshnikov offered me the contract, I cried,” Kent says. “I didn’t think I was ready at all. I had barely taken a jazz class at that time.”

 

And though she describes herself at the time as “the one in back hoping the person I was understudying would never hurt herself,” she also says that she was never given anything she couldn’t handle. From her first roles as the nurse and the knitting lady in Sleeping Beauty, Kent slowly took on more solos, then Little Red Riding Hood, then the fairies.

 

When she was still in the corps, she danced her first principal role, Caroline in Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. Then she did Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, with the other principal women of the company, after which she was promoted to soloist.

 

“It was a hard transition, when I first became soloist, because I didn’t have any rep,” Kent says, referring to her personal catalog of ballets. To make matters worse, Baryshnikov had just left, and the company entered a period of major financial difficulty.

 

The following year, however, Kent was given Giselle and Juliet, which she says made a big difference. Shortly after that, in 1992, Kevin McKenzie became artistic director, and in 1993, Kent won the Erik Bruhn Prize, danced Swan Lake and was promoted to principal—meaning more of the spotlight, and in time, stardom. ABT’s money problems persisted a while longer.

 

“We had to work for two years in a row for 26 weeks, and it was really rough,” Kent says. “To try and build on [a rep] when you only have one Swan Lake a year and 12 weeks off in the summer, trying to take huge leaps artistically and physically was a huge challenge.”

 

Even before they married, Barbee was a bright light for her during the tough times, with his encouragement and support. “He always made me feel like the audience should be happy because I was dancing that night,” Kent says. “He’s given me so much as an artist, not only by example, but with his words. He has the capacity to always say exactly the right thing to inspire you or unlock something.”

 

Early on, especially, they discussed all of her roles. He encouraged her not to act by demonstrating, but by delving into the motivations of the characters. They focused most on Manon.

 

“I think there is always something not quite right about a performance if you are faking it,” says Barbee, who was a principal at ABT before becoming associate AD. “For Julie, because she’s got the ability and the instinct for it, I just had to remind her to ask the right questions. Why does Manon do this? Where does she want to go? If it’s Julie acting like Manon, it’s not real.” Slowly, he says, she stopped needing to ask so many questions and started to feel more comfortable with the ballet.

 

“Manon was difficult for me,” Kent says, “because she makes these decisions that are hard to understand. Victor really helped me discover how to make her a person that I could fall in love with. I had to learn some skills about how to bring to life a character that isn’t so close to my own personality.”

 

By all accounts, the hard work paid off. Franklin recalls a performance of just the pas de deux from Manon that Kent performed with Robert Hill. “Other things were on the program, and it didn’t mean a thing,” he says. “That was it for me. It was time to go home after that. It must have been the fulfillment of what she was trying to do with the interpretation part [of her work].”

 

Though she has accomplished a lot in her 20 years onstage, Kent remains challenged by her work. She still gets nervous before ballets with 32 fouettés, and contemporary ballets, such as Elo’s, force her to step outside of her comfort zone. “I think my tendency is to seek fluid movement,”
she says.

 

In addition to fluid, Kent is often described as composed, serene and poised. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. She recalls back when she was in the corps de ballet, dancing the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, in which she was always front and center. “You can’t hardly see anyone else onstage, so you feel like the only one out there,” she says. “Part of me was so serene and looking like nothing could bother me, and literally every time I lifted my foot off the floor, I had this vision of myself running off the stage!”

 

Those experiences have made her the perfect mentor for younger dancers coming up through the ranks at ABT. She would even like to write a book about how to handle the ballet experience.

 

“Because she’s been with ABT for a while, she passes on her wisdom,” says principal Marcelo Gomes, who frequently partners Kent. “For me, it was how to take my dancing to the next level—maybe a certain habit I need to cut. That made such a big difference on my dancing. I would look into her eyes and remember, ‘Oh, yeah, she told me not to do that!’”

 

Kent shows no sign of slowing down. In September, she guested in Swan Lake with Ballet de Monterrey in Mexico (now headed by former partner Hill). In January and March of 2007, she will appear with Malakhov and Friends in Berlin.

 

These days, trips to the poultry farm in Massachusetts with William rate up there with guesting spots abroad. In fact, it was William and Victor’s appearance onstage at her 20th anniversary celebration that she says she will remember most from that night.

 

“If I had to sum up how I feel about my career at ABT,” Kent says, “I have always felt that I had the support of everybody. I never felt like I had to overcome some huge obstacle. The dancers, my friends and partners have all given me something incredible. But, in a way, those 20 years have just led me to them. That’s what I want to celebrate most in my life.”

In many fields, excellence can be measured. Tiger Woods is known as a great golfer because of his record of tournament wins. Warren Buffett is considered a great stock picker, because he’s made billions. A great ballet, however, isn’t quantifiable. A performing art like ballet is developed through the blood, sweat and tears of the rehearsal process. Dance critics have the responsibility to sift through the work, bemoan the uninspired, note the good and celebrate the great. As the world of critics and that of dancers intersect only on opposite sides of the footlights, the critical process can seem oblique and capricious to performers. Given that no two performances, much less ballets, are alike, how do critics determine what’s good?


Everyone’s A Critic

 

While there are no prerequisites to becoming a critic, beyond an interest in dance and the ability to communicate well, critics play a powerful role in the evolution of the art form. Their reviews are the first draft of dance history. (Over time opinions can change: Balanchine got negative reviews in the early years of New York City Ballet.)

 

Prior to the popularity of the internet, there were only a handful of full-time dance critics in the country, and their opinions were influential for dancers, choreographers and audiences. The internet has replaced the era of one expert voice exalting or condemning in newsprint with a cacophony of voices expressing approval or disapproval. And yet some reviews still carry more weight than others. “One would like to think that some experience and thinking about the arts or one particular art form, some context in which to place one’s judgments, means something,” says The New York Times dance critic John Rockwell. “Not everything, but something.”

 

It goes without saying that any one person’s evaluation of a dance is inherently subjective. “Having an opinion is not the same as making a sound assessment,” says Robert Greskovic, who covers dance for The Wall Street Journal in NYC. “Longevity in looking at ballet does not necessarily make the assessment of such long-timers reliable or worthy of discussion. Sensitive and canny viewers can be more perceptive and valuable observers than myopic, sometimes bitter, devotees who have been watching ballet for many years.”

 

Even seasoned reviewers can fall prey to the power of nostalgia. “The real problem is that a lot of dance critics—and I try to avoid this really carefully—are caught up in the memories of the dancers who were predominant when they were the same age as the dancers,” says Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal. “It’s never as good again, as the dancers keep getting younger and younger and you keep getting older and older. You’re tied up with memories of your own youth as much as anything else.”

 

Yet, even with these limitations, critics—along with the public—determine which works are considered masterpieces. “The consensus of posterity means something,” says Rockwell. “At this point, we can say, without too much fear of qualification, that [Balanchine’s] The Four Temperaments is a masterpiece. We say that because ever since it was premiered, people have loved it.”

 

What Constitutes A Masterpiece?

 

In evaluating a ballet, critics look at all the elements: dancing, choreography, music, lighting and costuming. “So-called masterpieces tend to be all-of-a-piece,” says Greskovic. “[It is possible to] admire and highly regard one element of a ballet production, but if the interrelated elements aren’t all in
harmony, [a reviewer] can single out one element or another as exemplary.”

 

Even with all elements in place, there still needs to be that ephemeral something that takes a work to the next level for it to be truly remarkable. “Take Serenade—the music is beautiful and the costumes are gorgeous and the choreography is musical and well-organized,” says Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman. “You can’t point to anything there that doesn’t work, and yet that’s not a formula.”

 

The key is knowing that there is no blueprint for creating a great ballet. “If it were reducible to a formula, we would have a lot more great ballets on our stages,” says Segal. But there also are no rules. Choreographers needn’t be limited by traditional definitions of who and what makes ballet. “Anything works if it works,” says Rockwell. “A great modern dancer—Twyla Tharp, for example—can make great ballets. And classically trained dancers can make really boring academic ballets. So let a thousand flowers bloom in terms of what is ‘permitted.’”

Separating The Dancer From The Dance

 

Onstage, ballet is an artistic union of the choreographer’s intent and the dancers’ performance. Because choreography has the potential to outlast the original performers (and vice versa), critics consider dancers and the dance separately and as a whole. Greatness of one or the other doesn’t predicate a lasting success: Skillful dancing can save a single performance but not a work for posterity, and choreography can enhance performers’ artistry without putting them in the history books. “A certain dancer’s quality or expertise can refocus, for better or worse, some element of the choreography,” says Greskovic. “An inspired dance is one that shows off its dancers fully and carefully.”

 

Great ballets can withstand cast changes. Rockwell cites a recent work that survived the test. “Everybody spontaneously independently loved the pas de deux of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. And even when [Sebastian] Marcovici came in to replace [Jock] Soto, people thought it was great.” And Kaufman notes that she’d see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform, no matter the choreography. “When Baryshnikov was going around with White Oak, probably 80 percent of what he performed was entirely forgettable but for the fact that he was the one doing it,” says Kaufman. “He’s somebody I would still see even if he was doing a country line dance.”

 

Moving Dance

 

When Baryshnikov defected in 1974, his awesome technique and charisma captured audience’s attention and changed the face of ballet. The ability of a dancer or a choreographer to advance the art form is what Segal considers greatness. “Baryshnikov had that quality of convincing us that whatever he did, other people needed to learn how to do, because suddenly it was the cutting edge,” says Segal.

 

Throughout history, the ballets that have been considered masterpieces have propelled the art form forward. “Whether we’re talking about the Rose Adagio [in Sleeping Beauty], the 32 fouettés [in Swan Lake], what Baryshnikov did in [Twyla Tharp’s] Push Comes to Shove or [Nijinsky in] Le Spectre de la Rose, each of those ballets went into the history books because they released something in the leading dancer that we hadn’t seen before and realized would forever be part of ballet from then on,” says Segal. “It could also be an ensemble like Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering or Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading.

 

“How do you create a great ballet?” Segal continues. “Essentially you show us something that we haven’t seen before, and you show it to us in a way that we recognize it’s part of what we’ve been waiting for. That you’re fulfilling a need for something is the next step of the art form. The weird thing about some of this stuff is that it seems instantly familiar even at its most innovative. And we recognize it as maybe something that didn’t exist before but has now become indispensable.”


Factoring Fun

 

In Kaufman’s opinion, great ballet should have an intellectual as well as visceral impact. “Mark Morris’s V leaves you thinking about it and analyzing for some time afterward,” she says. “Every time you see it, you can further that analysis and build on it, like reading a great novel.” But while it’s certainly true that great art inspires the mind, must ballet be transformative and intellectually stimulating to be great? Is it enough for it to be, well, fun? Film critics can compartmentalize—admitting that Blazing Saddles doesn’t aspire to be Citizen Kane yet is great in its own right. Can the same be true in dance?

 

It’s on this point that audiences and critics often diverge. The Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards, set to the music of Prince, was critically panned but played to sold-out houses and standing ovations when it premiered in 1993. John Rockwell finds a similar case in the work of San Francisco choreographer Michael Smuin. “I don’t think his ballets are very good,” he says, “but they give a lot of people pleasure. There’s a certain showbiz pizzazz to his stuff that some people like.”

 

Yet entertainment is part of the theatrical experience, and Rockwell admits that an element of fun in and of itself isn’t cause to dismiss a performance, citing Ashton’s Tales of Beatrix Potter as a crowd favorite that also pleased critics and earned a lasting place in ballet repertory. Balanchine was quoted as saying: “Ballet is important and significant—yes. But first of all, it is a pleasure.”

 

For most critics as well as dancers, much of the pleasure is in the process. Just as a dancer practices a movement over and over, a critic writes and rewrites, trying to express clearly opinion and assessment. And just like dancers, critics run the risk of being misunderstood. “Dancing is not easy,” says Greskovic, “and neither is shaping written commentary about dances and dancing.”

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