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Heather Milne, Courtesy RWB

When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.

She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."

But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.

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Patricia Delgado in Pam Tanowitz's "Solo for Patricia 2017." Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail Dance Festival.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Vail Dance Fest Enters Its Second Week

With half a month devoted to creating new art in the midst of stunning nature, Vail Dance Festival seems a dancer's paradise. Last week marked American Ballet Theatre's festival debut. The second week of performances, starting July 30, brings even more amazing ballet, with dancers and choreographers presenting a slew of new collaborations and premieres. Get the scoop on each program below.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Takes the Vail Stage

July 30-31, Alonzo King LINES Ballet presents two different programs. The first performance, is a free, family-friendly event held in the Avon Performance Pavilion. The second, held at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, presents two works by King: Sand, a piece from 2016 set to jazz music, and Biophony, an exploration of the Earth's diverse ecosystems.

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All of these moms put a lot of thought and effort into getting their children the perfect holiday gift. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

With Mother's Day fast approaching, we started thinking about some of the mom characters in ballet who don't get enough credit. Below are five of our favorites.


Swan Lake

Siegfried's mother might have put a lot of pressure on him to get married, but she did go to great lengths to provide him with plenty of options. She brought in princesses from all over the world, and he still had to go and choose a swan?

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen's "Swan Lake." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy BB.

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Kochetkova and Karapetyan in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Tragedy, romance and world class dancing, all from the comfort of your local movie theater? Sounds like your weekend plans are complete. On May 12, 13, and 15, San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet will be playing in select movie theaters around the country as part of Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance. Choreographed by SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson, this version stars Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in the title roles, making it particularly special: Karapetyan retired from SFB in 2017, and Kochetkova gave her final performance with the company just last week. Click here to find a showing near you.

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Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga and Nelson Madrigal in John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

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.

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Ballet Stars
From left: Peter Walker, Harrison Coll. Photos by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

A company's corps de ballet is rarely the pool from which title roles are plucked. Yet New York City Ballet seems to buck convention, especially for its full-length production of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet. When it debuted back in 2007, the ballet featured a cast of untested corps members and apprentices as the eponymous stars. (A School of American Ballet student was originally tapped to dance Juliet, but she wasn't able to perform due to injury.) At the time Martins, who recently retired as NYCB's ballet master in chief, attributed his casting choices to the characters' ages in Shakespeare's play; Juliet and Romeo are 14 and 19, respectively. Also, he remarked, "Never underestimate youth."

This week, two young Romeos are stepping up from the company's corps. Harrison Coll made his debut on February 13, opening night, alongside principal Sterling Hyltin (the original Juliet in the production's opening night performance back in 2007). Peter Walker follows on Friday, February 16.

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Ballet Stars
Violette Verdy and Jacques d'Amboise

"The Bell Telephone Hour" TV program broadcasted performances of world-class music, opera and ballet to millions of Americans throughout the 1960s. Many of the dance world's biggest stars frequently appeared on the program. In a 1961 Shakespeare special, New York City Ballet principals Violette Verdy and Jacques d'Amboise danced the title characters in Romeo and Juliet by choreographer Donald Saddler.

Although this version lacks some of the emotional intensity of other renditions, watching these legendary dancers perform together is a treat. Their duet is accompanied by Shakespeare's "Sonnet No. 18," bringing to mind contemporary choreographic endeavors involving spoken word in place of music. Verdy dances with an openness and grace that contrasts d'Amboise's more stoic, commanding presence. At 3:00, he sweeps Verdy off her feet and above his head in one fantastic fell swoop. Their duet is followed by an acrobatic fight scene and a stunt-filled sword fight in which both Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. When Romeo disappears after the fight, Verdy shows us Juliet's despair in a dramatic pantomime ending. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ballet Stars
Benz with David Ward in Edwaard Liang's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

Romeo wasn't the only one falling in love during Edwaard Liang's production of Romeo and Juliet at BalletMet last April; those in the audience witnessing retiring company star Adrienne Benz's final performance as Juliet were equally captivated.

Benz and Ward. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

The diminutive powerhouse capped her 14-year BalletMet career with a passionate portrayal of the young heroine, one that coursed with the innocence and exuberance of youth. Her combination of adroit acting and assured technique was helped along by her onstage chemistry with her partner David Ward. Together, they were utterly believable as Shakespeare's fabled star-crossed lovers.

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Ballet Stars
Karina González in "Romeo and Juliet" choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

As told to Julie Diana

Juliet is one of my favorite roles—you go through every emotion in just three acts. I had done different versions of the ballet before, but it was an amazing opportunity when my director Stanton Welch created the role for me. I watched a lot of videos to prepare and struggled at the beginning because I was trying to copy what other ballerinas had done. It took me a while to find my own way. But now, every step comes from deep inside.

I love that Juliet starts as an innocent little girl, playing with the nurse like she's her best friend. When she goes to the ball, she sees this person that moves her world around. I'm married now, and know what it means to give everything to someone and make decisions that will change your life. And because of the love you have for that person, it is worth it.


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Ballet Careers
Final stage rehearsals before opening night.

Photographed for Pointe by Taylor-Ferné Morris

What does it take to bring a major production on tour? In July, Houston Ballet mounted a 12-show run of artistic director Stanton Welch's Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, Australia. The tour was the company's Australian debut, and a homecoming for Welch, who is from there. The ballet premiered in Houston the previous year, and while it was well received, it was untested by time and tradition. “We had only performed it 9 or 10 times before," says Welch.

Touring a full-length production halfway around the world is a bit of a “beast," says Welch, involving serious logistical planning. Flights were booked the previous September, while set pieces, costumes and theater cases were shipped—by boat—two months before the opening. (The elaborate sets, designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, include 10 onstage towers.) Ballet master Steven Woodgate traveled to Melbourne several weeks in advance to rehearse the cast of children from The Australian Ballet School. In addition to 64 dancers, Houston Ballet brought all of its own staff and crew—a total of 91 people!

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Dancing Romeo and Juliet is surely a life-changing experience for any performer. But dancing it with your offstage partner? That's next-level romance (and intensity).

Along with several pairs of their colleagues, leading Joffrey Ballet dancers Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez will perform the title roles in Krzysztof Pastor’s version of Romeo and Juliet, which opens on Thursday. The two seem to transition seamlessly from their ultra-hip offstage life to a supportive working relationship in the studio. You wouldn't expect the two to be partnered together—he's tall and she's petite—but when Gutierrez wraps his arm around her waist (at 1:06 in the video below) to pull her along the bench they're sitting on, you can tell from the way they look at each other that their real-life romance makes this a perfect pairing.

Watch Mendoza and Gutierrez, along with the rest of the leads, in the video below!

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

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From June 24–July 10, Houston Ballet is embarking on its biggest tour yet to Melbourne, Australia, hometown of artistic director Stanton Welch. Pointe asked demi-soloist Jacquelyn Long to keep a diary of her experiences.

July 8, 2016

With my sisters Tyler Donateli and Soo Cho

We are nearing the end of our tour and I think everyone is trying to rally as we approach show number 10. We've had a long week with performances every day, including some double show days.

I got to debut the part of Miranda this week! It was a lot of fun. She is quite a sassy character! It's difficult though—there is intense acting, fouettés and lots of jumping. It was rewarding to emote onstage and get lost in a character. Something fun about that role is she has to wear a red wig! I took a little time lapsed video to show you guys what wig prep in the ballet world looks like.

 

 

 

We took class in the Australian Ballet studios yesterday, which was very nice. We've been using the rehearsal room at the theater, which is pretty small in comparison to their studios and what we are used to back in Houston. We had another guest teacher this week as well, Australian Ballet artistic associate and principal coach Fiona Tonkin. I think everyone enjoyed her class. There was also a class onstage with an audience, which our ballet master Steven Woodgate taught. He had a microphone so that the people could hear him correct and teach. He used to dance with the Aussie Ballet and was always a part of these demonstrations when he was with the company. I think it was neat for him to do it again.

Soloist Allison Miller and dancers of the company at the Australian Ballet studios

 

XO,

Jacquelyn

 

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

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From June 24–July 10, Houston Ballet is embarking on its biggest tour yet to Melbourne, Australia, hometown of artistic director Stanton Welch. Pointe asked demi-soloist Jacquelyn Long to keep a diary of her experiences.

June 30, 2016


Getting notes backstage after dress rehearsal. They were practicing scene changes on the stage, so we squished.

Opening night was a success! We had a dress rehearsal in the early afternoon with a different cast, and I think everyone was a bit tired. A few of us even napped in our dressing rooms to get a boost. There’s also a cafeteria in the theater, which is so nice. I wish we had one in Houston! Most of the dancers got their food and coffee there during the break.

The audience was packed for opening night. There were definitely some nerves in the air, but I think the cast felt very ready to get the shows rolling. The leads all danced beautifully. The show itself went very well from what I saw, and the audience was very responsive. There were even gasps during the fight scenes. We had an actual sword-fighting teacher work with us when it was originally choreographed, so it definitely gets scary. I'm scared on stage sometimes, and I know the choreography!

Before opening night as Katerina. Yes, I brought Cheez-Its to Australia!

After the show there was a reception with The Australian Ballet. It was very nice to mingle with the Aussie dancers. They were all so sweet and eager to help us with recommendations of restaurants and shops. Actually, everyone in Melbourne has been nothing but nice, from coffee baristas to shop owners. It makes traveling to a foreign country so much more fun.

I'm excited for another show tonight!

 

Xo,

Jacquelyn

(Photos by Jacquelyn Long.)

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

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From June 24–July 10, Houston Ballet is embarking on its biggest tour yet to Melbourne, Australia, hometown of artistic director Stanton Welch. Pointe asked demi-soloist Jacquelyn Long to keep a diary of her experiences.

June 29, 2016

The State Theatre at Arts Center of Victoria. Photo by Chunwai Chan, Courtesy Long.

We had our first day of rehearsals yesterday in the Arts Center of Victoria rehearsal room. We did a run through of Romeo and Juliet and rehearsed the Australian Ballet School children into the production. They have a beggar’s dance and are also town children in the show. The run went well, and I think everyone is excited to go onstage!

In the dance world there are some things that come with the job—and casting changes is one of them. Due to injuries or passport problems, we had some fittings during rehearsals yesterday. I have to be a ball guest now and one of Juliet's friends, so I had a few costumes to try on. I also will be dancing Katerina (a tavern sister), a role I originated when the ballet was created. And, I get to premiere Miranda, who is the main tavern sister—Mercutio's girl.

Dancers Megumi Takeda and Aoi Fujiwara exploring Melbourne. Photo by Long.

After rehearsal, I think everyone was feeling the jet lag. If you have never experienced jet lag, it feels like it’s 1:00 am when it’s only 7:30 in the evening! Some of my friends and I walked the city to get food and drinks. We lasted until 10:15 before we were home in bed. I must say though, I feel better today after forcing myself to stay awake.

This morning, we got to take class from Australian Ballet staff member Eve Lawson, a fellow American.  It was fun to have a guest teacher while on tour. The floors here are a bit slippery, but I think the boys, especially, are enjoying turning on them. If you have a chance, check out the videos on Instagram of that! Following the hashtag #hbtakesaustralia

We have a technical rehearsal first today and then a dress rehearsal later tonight. I hope all goes smoothly! I'm looking forward to letting you guys know what the stage is like.

 

Xo,

Jacquelyn

Bridget Kuhns working on her lines before rehearsal. Photo by Chunwai Chan, Courtesy Long.

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Ferri and Wayne Eagling (1984). Photo by Leslie Spatt via The Guardian.

June 23 is finally here, and we couldn’t be more excited! Tonight, internationally acclaimed ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 53, returns to American Ballet Theatre to reprise the role of Juliet alongside Herman Cornejo in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. For some, tonight’s performance is one more opportunity to see the former ABT and Royal Ballet star dance the role she’s most famous for. For others, it is a chance to see her legendary Juliet live for the first time.

Until then, let’s enjoy this 1984 clip of Ferri, then a newly promoted Royal Ballet principal, in the bedroom pas de deux. With youthful ardor, she breathes life into the Shakespearian heroine. Ferri and her partner, former principal Wayne Eagling, abound in bashful and impassioned embraces, their movements across the stage both dramatic and fleeting. My favorite moment starts at 0:16, as the couples’ gentle cambrés give way to fiery, abandoned lifts.

We thought we had seen the last of Ferri when she retired in 2007. Yet she made an unexpected comeback in 2013, and has since starred in Martha Clarke’s Chéri, John Neumeier's Duse at Hamburg Ballet, and The Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. We’re anxiously waiting to see how Ferri’s matured perspective influences her latest performance, and we can’t wait to see what else the future has in store for her. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ferri and Roberto Bolle at her farewell ABT performance. (Not farewell for long!) Photo by Nan Melville via NYTimes.

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

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The Royal Ballet's Sarah Lamb as Juliet. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.

On September 22 in select cinemas nationwide, The Royal Ballet will live-stream its production of Sir Kenneth MacMillian's Romeo and Juliet. The screening celebrates the ballet's 50th anniversary, which debuted at The Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the title roles. The live stream will feature Royal principals Sarah Lamb and Steven McRrae. (We caught a sneak peak of Lamb and others in rehearsal during a web live stream last week.)

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Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy HB.

In celebration of Shakespeare's 450th anniversary, Houston Ballet is premiering Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Stanton Welch. The company's 2014–15 season is devoted to the Bard, and includes John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream and John Cranko's The Taming of the Shrew. February, the love month, will feature Welch's reimagining of Shakespeare's most famous romance, to be performed February 26–March 8. It's been nearly three decades since the company presented a new production of the ballet.

Traditional versions of Romeo and Juliet take many liberties with the story. Not so in Welch's rendition. "I tried to return to the play, so you will see scenes that haven't been represented before," says Welch. "Today's audiences are quite capable of absorbing the whole story." In Welch's version, Mercutio's character, which is often vague in the ballet, will be clarified to show that he is neither Montague nor Capulet, but rather part of the Escalus family.

"Romeo and Juliet is a triple threat," says Welch. "Terrific acting, dancing and music."

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.

"Never underestimate youth,” says Peter Martins, who in his 37 years with New York City Ballet has seen more than a few young dancers achieve early stardom. Martins’s innovative new production of Romeo and Juliet, which premieres on May 1 at the New York State Theater, is a departure both for him as a creative artist and for its casting.

NYCB’s ballet master in chief has looked outside the company’s long roster of dancers for a Juliet glowing with the blush of youth: Instead of a NYCB principal, the role will be danced by a 16-year-old student in the company’s school. 

Impetuous and passionate, the Juliet of Shakespeare’s play is still a young girl. “My child is yet a stranger in the world; She hath not seen the change of 14 years,” says Lord Capulet. Yet when the play is translated to ballet, often the role is the prerogative of a leading dancer who is twice Juliet’s age. “With all respect to the Romeo and Juliets that I have watched in my lifetime,” says Martins, “they all have something to say, but it always bothered me that I saw a grand, great ballerina being praised for being able to portray a 14-year-old. I say, ‘Why not the real thing?’”

Martins found “the real thing” at School of American Ballet, the venerable training facility associated with NYCB. Callie Bachman, an SAB student since 2003, is rehearsing the role of Juliet along with three classmates. Being tapped for such a major role is thrilling and a little terrifying. “In the beginning, rehearsals were nerve-wracking because I had never worked one-on-one with Peter before,” says Bachman. “It was intimidating at first. But he has been great to work with.”

The creative process has involved more give-and-take than young dancers are often accustomed to, with Martins proposing steps and the dancers trying to execute his vision. “We’ve been experimenting a lot and doing new steps that haven’t really been done before,” says Bachman. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s really fun no matter what.” Working with younger dancers has been different for Martins, too. “They are all exceedingly polite and courteous,” says Martins. “And there is a reverence that I am not quite used to. It’s very apropos for the role.”

Bachman’s Romeo is Robby Fairchild, 19, currently in his first year as a corps dancer with NYCB. “The Romeos are a little bit older and there is a practical reason for that,” says Martins. “Romeo has to partner a girl. It is still a ballet. It is difficult to find 16-year-old boys who could handle that. They need to be a little stronger, a little more mature.”

Both dancers stress the importance of conveying the emotional journey of their characters and the depth and desperation of the love between them. Bachman and Fairchild are preparing for their roles by reading the play, listening to the music, watching the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (which features teenaged actors) and studying notes—including an in-depth analysis of the characters and an overview of the story—that Martins has given them. Fairchild’s older sister Megan, a principal with NYCB, gave him his copy of the play and a DVD of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s could be an intimidating interpretation to follow, but Fairchild says he doesn’t plan on comparing himself to anyone else. “The choreography is completely different,” he says. “And I’m focusing on the role itself. I feel a little more comfortable with it being a story ballet, because it’s not me. It’s Romeo. You can hide behind the character a little bit and be him instead of yourself. It’s less scary.”

Martins acknowledges that there are risks involved in resting an ambitious new production on the shoulders of untested dancers. “You can imagine my whole idea of having a 16-year-old student portraying Juliet is nervous-making,” he says. “Because although I know that the people I chose are perfectly capable technically as dancers to do it, I also knew that I wanted this pure innocence to emerge. What I didn’t know, and still to a degree do not know, is whether they will be able to carry the whole show. I would say that I still have faith that I will get what I had hoped for.”

Fairchild, for one, is excited. “I look forward to every single rehearsal,” he says. “If it’s not on the schedule, I get kind of bummed. It’s just so much fun, creating a whole new ballet.”

The casting is not the only innovation in Martins’s production. To create a unique look for the sets and costumes, Martins turned again to Danish painter Per Kirkeby, who also designed the NYCB production of Swan Lake. “He is what you might want to call an abstract painter, although he is able to be very Romantic,” says Martins. “And this is a neo-Romantic rendition of Romeo and Juliet.” Inspired by the multifunctional set piece painter Georges Rouault designed for Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Martins asked Kirkeby to create a set piece that could be transformed before the audience’s eyes. The result is one all-encompassing unit that changes from a building in a Veronese street scene into a bedroom, ballroom, balcony, garden, chapel and ultimately a tomb. “What I didn’t want was black curtains coming down as there was a scenery change in the back. When you hear all the noise, it kills the magic,” says Martins.

The scene changes will take less than a minute, enabling Martins to streamline the Prokofiev score. With the elimination of one of the customary two intermissions, Martins’s Romeo and Juliet has an estimated running time of two hours and 20 minutes, far shorter than the three hours most productions last. “I have tried to be very respectful of Prokofiev’s musical intentions and the integrity of the score,” says Martins. “I have not eliminated any music. I carefully studied the score and came to realize that music written for scenery changes was basically music that you either had already heard or would hear later on.”

The new production is part of the company’s ongoing tribute to Lincoln Kirstein, who cofounded SAB and NYCB with Balanchine. “Lincoln always talked about continuation,” says Martins. “You are a young dancer, you become a principal dancer, you hand over your knowledge to the next generation and life goes on. It’s a cycle. I think this Romeo and Juliet is very much about that.” That thought may have led Martins to cast Jock Soto and Darci Kistler, both teachers at SAB, as Lord and Lady Capulet. “When I asked them if the two of them would consider becoming Lord and Lady Capulet, at first they were somewhat taken aback,” says Martins. “Jock is retired, but Darci is still dancing. But now that we have choreographed a whole section, they are engaged and want to do it very much. And I think that is very much in Lincoln’s spirit.”

The ballet represents a progression for Martins. In his productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, he was careful to pay tribute to the traditions of Balanchine, Petipa and Ivanov. With Romeo and Juliet, he has felt free to do his own thing. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “I love the concept, the music is sublime—perhaps the best thing he ever wrote—and I love my dancers. I am thrilled to be walking into a studio every day. It’s really an up moment for me.”

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.”

 

Edwaard Liang is one of the ballet world’s choreographers du jour. His work appears in the repertoires of The Joffrey Ballet, Kirov Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, among other top companies. But until now, the former New York City Ballet dancer has only created short abstract contemporary pieces. He’ll test his classical full-length mettle next month with a brand new Romeo and Juliet for Tulsa Ballet. We checked in with him to see how rehearsals are going.

 

How is creating a full-length uniquely challenging?

My ballets always have stories, but most of the time it’s just in my mind—I don’t really tell the audience, they can find their own way. In this realm, everyone knows the story, but I still have to tell it, and do so in a seamless way without skipping anything. The magic is that Prokofiev’s score tells everything. All I have to do is follow his genius.

 

What went through your head when Tulsa Ballet director Marcello Angelini first approached you about this project?

It’s a big risk for a director to ask a contemporary choreographer to do a pure, classical Romeo and Juliet. In the beginning, I think he had more belief in me than I had in myself. But once I got in the studio I just relied on really characterizing the dancers, making sure I told story and listened to the music. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s fun and fantastic.

 

How did it feel to work with the classical vocabulary?

It made me grow. These are the steps I trained in and grew up with. It was fun to create the variations, the group dances, the village dances—they’re so different from what I’m used to.

 

What about the sword fight scenes?

I choreographed those together with master sword fighter Steve White. I trained with him in New York for six months off and on beforehand to learn the basics so that I could understand it with my body. In Tulsa, I gave the trafficking, he built in the fight choreography, then I tweaked that and came up with steps.

 

In your opinion, what makes Romeo and Juliet so suited to ballet?

You’re not having to fall in love with a swan queen who’s half bird, half human, you’re not a weird peasant who turns into a ghost. It’s clearly about humanity—human emotions and relationships. It’s a universal love story.

 

Tulsa Ballet performs Liang’s Romeo and Juliet February 10–12 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. For more info and tickets, visit tulsaballet.org.

 

It takes the work of a ballet dancer to embody the words of Shakespeare. With the help of Sergei Prokofiev’s masterful score, the Royal Ballet's Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling approach this task with heartbreaking beauty.  They perform the iconic balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in this recording of the company’s 1984 production—and their movement speaks. 

 

Watch how the musical verse of Shakespeare’s words comes to life through Ferri and Eagling's bodies. The stage seems to float beneath their movements. They constantly rush from stage left to stage right, settling for only a moment in picturesque beauty. As they proceed from shy tenderness to overflowing passion, Ferri and Eagling transform into Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, making the audience’s heart sting with the knowledge of their fate. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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