"Who here is terrified of choreographing?"
It was a question posed by Pacific Northwest Ballet School teacher Eva Stone five weeks ago, sitting on the floor among her class of female summer intensive students. "Almost all of them raised their hand, but I said, 'Don't worry, I got you,'" says Stone. "'I'm going to give you tools and skills and you're going to build on them.' It's amazing how their perspective changed in five weeks."
Stone's choreography class, introduced into the summer program last year, served as a pilot for a new initiative at PNB School beginning this September. New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance is a year-round class dedicated to educating and encouraging 14 to 16-year-old female students in the art of dancemaking. Made possible through funding from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the 38-week course was created to help address the lack of women choreographers working in major classical ballet companies.
PNB School is one of several academies offering choreographic opportunities to its students. Houston Ballet Academy and the Chautauqua Institution, for example, hold workshops during their summer intensives, while Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East recently joined forces to create a choreographic exchange program. And School of American Ballet offers numerous choreographic projects for its dancers, including one for women. What makes PNB's initiative unique is its year-long scope and structured focus on composition.
Pacific Northwest Ballet travels to Paris for the first time this summer, and artistic director Peter Boal couldn't be happier.
"I think we have a tremendous reputation, but people outside the greater Seattle area haven't seen this company," Boal says.
That will change after PNB's two-week stay with the French festival Les Étés de la Danse, which hosts a different international company every summer. A PNB residency had been in the works for several years when Les Étés de la Danse decided to produce a larger celebration of choreographer Jerome Robbins this summer, inspired by his centennial. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Russia's Perm Opera Ballet Theatre will join PNB for that one-week tribute.
From celebrations of Jerome Robbins' centennial to exciting premieres to old classics, this week is jam packed with ballet. We rounded up highlights from eight companies to give you a sense of what's happening onstage this week.
The Washington Ballet
On March 14, The Washington Ballet will present a triptych of new works. Gemma Bond's premiere ties-in to Women's History Month, and she discusses the connection in this video. Also on the bill are creations by celebrated dancers Clifton Brown and Marcelo Gomes. For video teasers of their works, click here.
When Erin Arbuckle takes ballet class wearing her New York City Marathon shirt, teachers often ask her, "You didn't actually run that, did you?" She did, twice, and she's running again this year on November 5.
Arbuckle, 28, a graduate of School of American Ballet and a freelance dancer who has performed with Ballet Next and Emery LeCrone Dance among others, is a rare ballerina who not only runs but has taken on the challenge of a marathon.
"If I can run 26 miles, I can handle a two-minute variation," she says.
Ballet dancers are taught to save their bodies for dance and avoid injury from other activities. While low-impact cross-training like swimming is encouraged, running is generally considered too high impact.
"I was told it would give me huge calves and thighs and damage my knees," Arbuckle says.
Her two foot surgeries were from dance injuries though, not running, and her body is holding up well despite what she was told to expect.
Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, generally advises dancers to run only as a warm up. "Running for 5 to 10 minutes before ballet class to move the large muscles of the body is useful," she said. "Beyond that, you start to have risks."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's Jewels, and companies around the world are paying homage. While last summer's Lincoln Center Festival collaboration with New York City Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet was all glamour and excitement, Pacific Northwest Ballet is taking a reverential look back in advance of its opening performances next week.
In 2014, PNB artistic director Peter Boal invited four stars of Balanchine's original 1967 cast—Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise—to coach the company in their signature roles. And, thank heavens, they captured it all on film. This 20-minute promotional documentary offers priceless footage of them in rehearsals, interviews and lecture demonstrations, offering fascinating insights into Balanchine's creative process and original intentions.
This year, Pacific Northwest Ballet says good-bye to its time-honored Nutcracker. Choreographed by founding artistic director Kent Stowell—with sets and costumes designed by the beloved picture book author Maurice Sendak—the unique production has been performed for 31 years and has reached audiences far beyond the Northwest, thanks to a 1986 motion-picture featuring PNB star Patricia Barker.
Interviews by Christopher Blank, Rosie Gaynor and Nancy Wozny
A firestorm of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers' bodies for criticism has raised the question of whether body type still matters in today's ballet world. Does ballet's identity rest on presenting a certain image of the ballerina? Pointe asked leading dancers and artistic directors what impact issues like height and weight have on their casting.
MYTH: The guys in ballet are all gay.
“Let’s just say guys in ballet are guys. And some are gay, and they’re great; some aren’t, and they’re great. They’re all just humans, like the rest of us.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet
“San Francisco is known for its gay community, but there are still straight people who live in San Francisco! So I look at it that way: It’s just like life, or the world. Some people are gay, and some people are straight.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
MYTH: You have to wear tights all the time.
“Most of us don’t wear tights all the time. Maybe in schools, but we wear shorts and sweatpants in a company environment. In class and rehearsals, you have to maintain a modicum of professionalism and have things that are not going to interfere with the choreography or be a distraction. But no, we don’t all have to wear tights.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet
“The costuming can really change quite often in ballet. You get to wear pants and shorts. A lot of character costumes [have] historical pant legging–type things, depending on the period. But you look at football players, and they are wearing pretty tight clothing. Yeah, they have pads on, but that is serious spandex they are wearing too. You look at runners, or sprinters, they are all wearing tight unitards. Wrestlers are another prime example of another sport with very tight clothing. At some point you come to realize that the tighter the clothing, the greater the range of motion.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet
MYTH: It’s a lot easier to be a male ballet dancer.
“The technique for men, post-Nureyev, post-Baryshnikov, has really come to equal that of women. In the past, men were the lifters, the ‘toters around of women,’ and that’s not the case anymore. Men have featured roles. Stanton Welch here in Houston is a big proponent of men being men, being very strong and being able to dance on their own.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet
“In the larger world, it’s harder because people accept women being ballerinas a lot more than they accept men being dancers. So you are constantly struggling against those men-in-tights [stereotypes]. Trying to make people understand the art, the physicality and the masculine side of it is difficult. And growing up in a small town, people were like, “You do what?” They didn’t understand, and I was constantly trying to show them what being a dancer is. They accept it when it is a young girl, but when it is a teenage boy going off to do ballet, you get a funny look.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet
MYTH: There are no male stars in ballet anymore.
“As far as technique and charisma onstage go, there are men out there now who match and exceed those people that you think of as the stars of the ‘70s, when ballet had a large following. [Today’s men] have the artistry matched with the technique that makes you want to watch a person. It’s a very virile type of charisma and energy that makes you want to watch a man onstage, which Carlos Acosta definitely has. Johan Kobborg is another wonderful artist who comes to mind. The world of ballet and men is well and strong.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet
“An unlikely star like Joaquin De Luz is a star to me. Audiences aren’t familiar with him yet, but every time he goes out there, he’s just so exciting. Somebody like Daniel Ulbricht, who is a soloist with New York City Ballet. These are phenomenal dancers. And I think that somebody like Angel Corella and Jose Manuel Carreño. These are stars. I think that human beings in general are just more accessible than they were in previous eras, and it probably killed stardom, but it makes for better individuals.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet
MYTH: Being a male ballet dancer is all about doing tricks.
“That’s not true! Well, for me, the kind of dancer that I am and the kind of dancing that I do, it doesn’t require that at all. I do more contemporary work, so it’s really not about tricks, like jumping and turning, at all. I don’t want to sound cliché, but it’s about honesty and integrity and trying to show that onstage. Even in classical ballet, there are things that require tricks like Le Corsaire or Don Q and then there are more romantic ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake that are totally about portrayal and the dance. It’s about a role.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
“The virtuosic male technique demands that you be able to do a certain amount of what are called ‘tricks.’ But the actual amount of time that you get to use those tricks in repertoire, on a day-in, day-out basis is very little. If you’re doing Basil in Don Q, then you’re putting some of those tricks to use, for sure, and it’s necessary that you be able to do them. But that’s one ballet out of maybe 25 in a season. And the rest of the time you’re not. So that’s just a small portion of the vocabulary that’s required. It’s most important to be as well-rounded as possible and that includes acting ability and modern dance ability, contemporary dance ability and the artistic intelligence to put it all together.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet
Interviews by Jocelyn Anderson; Peter Boal interview by Kristin Lewis
What is it that makes certain performers magnetic?
This past weekend I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet perform at the Joyce here in New York City. I was taken aback by the bevy of beautiful bodies onstage. Almost every female dancer had exquisitely long limbs, ideal ballet proportions, feet to die for and even model-worthy facial features. They were Ballerina Barbie come to life—if Ballerina Barbie had been designed by George Balanchine.
And then there was soloist Rachel Foster. She was a few inches shorter than the other dancers in both of the pieces I saw her in (Twyla Tharp's Opus 111 and Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements). And while she's thin, instead of a delicate, lithe silhouette, she sports an athletic, muscle-y build. She does not have what most pre-professional ballet students think of as "the perfect ballet body."
But she was breathtaking. Every time she moved, it felt like she was literally speaking to the audience. You could almost hear a raspy voice as she powered through Tharp's jaunty choreography. Even when her arms sometimes landed in awkward positions, they looked completely real. They were in that less-than-elegant place because her body was doing something more important than hitting positions: it was really dancing. And it was fantastic.
She's got chutzpah, and it vibrates out into the audience. Every time Rachel left the stage I couldn't wait until she came back on, and when she did, I barely saw anyone else up there because I was so entranced by her movement.
Although sky-high developpés and triple pirouettes are nice, when you get onstage, the audience never notices 180-degree turnout. In fact, if you're really moving, audiences can never even tell if you have 180-degree turnout or not. What they do notice, however, is spirit. And even beautiful bodies can't distract them from the girl with the spark.
As if Wendy Whelan’s imminent retirement wasn’t a hard enough pill to swallow, news that Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carla Körbes will retire in June 2015 makes this an even sadder year for ballet.
Körbes started her career at New York City Ballet, before being hired as a soloist at PNB in 2005. In 2006 she was promoted to principal. Körbes has been lauded for her dancing in Balanchine ballets, and has originated roles in ballets by Peter Martins, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp among others.
She has had a long-standing professional relationship with PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who first danced with her in her home country of Brazil when Körbes was just 14 years old. He insisted that she try to study at the School of American Ballet, and the rest is history.
The New York Times reported that Körbes has had a difficult recovery from a knee injury she sustained in 2013. She told The Times that she doesn’t want to feel like she’s just “getting through” the season any more. Even though she sought out the varied repertoire of PNB, she felt that she was pushing her body too hard, and that she was ready to move on.
“I trust Carla with this difficult decision,” said Boal in PNB’s press release. “After all, she’s always had impeccable timing.”