"Opportunities always come when you least expect them," says Septime Webre. In 2016, he'd left The Washington Ballet, after 17 years as artistic director, to focus on his choreography career. Halfway around the world in East Asia, Hong Kong Ballet was hiring a new director for its following season, and Webre's agent convinced him to submit his resumé. "I ended up on a call with leadership and the energy between us was great," says Webre.
Hong Kong Ballet is celebrating its 40th anniversary in style. Today, the company released the new phase of its yearlong ad campaign, which includes the below film, a Wes Anderson-esque romp through the city fusing ballet with pop culture, filled with ferry boats, pom pom-wielding grannies and dim sum served in hot pink containers.
Picture The Wizard of Oz, and your head probably fills with yellow brick roads, flying monkeys, emerald cities and ruby slippers. Now imagine what it takes to translate that magic to the stage—and what it would look like in pointe shoes.
On Friday, Colorado Ballet will present the company premiere of Septime Webre's The Wizard of Oz, a ballet they produced jointly with Kansas City Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet (KCB presented the world premiere back in October, and RWB will have their turn this May). The three companies split the costs of creating the full-length story ballet, which includes an original score by Matthew Pierce; 120 colorful costumes (plus 112 hats!) designed by Liz Vandal; projection technology and flying effects; and puppetry (including a puppet Toto) by Nicholas Mahon, who recently worked on the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The result is a major new production none of the companies likely would have been able to pull off on their own.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Northern Ballet in David Nixon's The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Star-crossed lovers? Check. Wild party scenes? Check. The 1920s aesthetic is just bonus.
Dutch National Ballet in John Cranko's Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)
It's a novel in verse, but it still counts! Cranko's pas de deux work vividly paints the emotional turmoil of Pushkin's characters, such as this sequence in which Tatiana imagines being loved by the haughty Onegin.
The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
It's spooky, it's sensational, it's a deep meditation on the nature of humanity—oh, and it's alive.
Northern Ballet in David Nixon's The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)
All for one and one for all! (And we're all in for this epic fight choreography the dancers took to a famous Abbey in their hometown of Leeds, England.)
Charlotte Ballet in Sasha Janes' Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
The Brontë sisters had a knack for writing complex, tempestuous relationships—great fodder for pas de deux like this one.
The Washington Ballet in Septime Webre's Peter Pan (J. M. Barrie)
Sword-fighting, pirates, pixie dust and a ticking crocodile? This one simply flies off the page.
Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
Some would argue that Tolstoy's epic is the greatest literature ever written, but you can't argue with the fact that the titular heroine is a deliciously complex character to tackle.
The Royal Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
Why is a raven like a writing desk? We still might not know the answer to Carroll's riddle, but we do know that Wheeldon's blockbuster production is so full of incredible moments (like Steven McRae stealing the show as a tap-dancing Mad Hatter) that we had trouble narrowing it down.
Atlanta Ballet in Michael Pink's Dracula (Bram Stoker)
There's a reason it seemed at one point like every ballet company in America had a production of Dracula in its repertoire.
Northern Ballet in Jonathan Watkins' 1984 (George Orwell)
Just in case the dystopian nightmare conjured by Orwell wasn't vivid enough in your own imagination.
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," Dorothy famously announces in the beloved 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Kansas City, Missouri, rather, is where audiences will find Dorothy this fall. October 12–21, Kansas City Ballet presents the world premiere of choreographer Septime Webre's The Wizard of Oz at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. A joint production with Colorado Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Webre's million-dollar-plus production pulls storylines from the familiar film as well as from L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Special effects, including eye-popping projections, will help bring the story to life. "Monkeys will fly, munchkins will roam, and Dorothy, Toto and the gang will once again be following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City," says KCB artistic director Devon Carney.
My name is Claire Wu, and I'm a Dance major at Butler University. Earlier this month I went to Hong Kong to participate in the 2018 Genée International Ballet Competition, hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance. The Genée is for dancers who have received RAD training and passed their last vocational exam (Advanced Two) with the highest marks of a distinction. I received my RAD training at my home studio, Rachel's Ballet, in Fremont, California, where I was awarded the Solo Seal Award in 2016.
I had also attended the Genée in 2016 when it was held in Sydney, Australia, and I had such a great experience that I wanted to participate again. Unlike most competitions, the Genée has five days of classes and coaching before the semi-finals, which consist of a class onstage, a Dancer's Own solo and a classical variation. The contestants also learn a commissioned variation, which is performed by the finalists. Since the competition was far away, I applied for the Dame Darcy Bussell Genée Bursary, a scholarship to help cover the costs of the competition. I was one of the few competitors awarded one, and it was one of my ultimate deciding factors to go. Below is a journal of my time at the 2018 Genée.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
The Joyce Ballet Festival Is Back
New York City's Joyce Theater kicks off its five-company Ballet Festival June 26-July 7. Showcasing a variety of styles including neoclassical and contemporary dance, the festival prides itself on featuring smaller companies. Below, check out the three companies opening this week. (Feeling festive? Enter our giveaway to win tickets to the Ashley Bouder Project at the Joyce on July 5.)
Ballet dancers have become the go-to for ad campaigns lately—just last month we wrote about PUMA’s collaboration with New York City Ballet for the shoe company's “Swan Pack” collection. Now, dancers from The Washington Ballet are getting in on the trend. The company recently teamed up with creative agency Design Army to promote CityCenterDC, the city’s newest shopping district. In a wacky, retro–inspired video, the dancers (led by the dashing Daniel Roberge) shimmy, shake and pony step their way through the DC streets.
The two-minute video, choreographed by former TWB artistic director Septime Webre, is part Austin Powers, part West Side Story, with dancers leaping through the shopping complex in colorful street clothes and sneakers. According to the agency, the campaign’s tag line, “District of Joy,” aims to bring positive morale back to the nation's capital, an area bombarded with daily political upheaval. That may be a tall order for an ad campaign, but these dancers certainly look like they’re having fun.
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Ana Sophia Scheller is having one busy December: In between performances of New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, she'll jet set to Honolulu to dance Dew Drop and the Snow pas de deux in Ballet Hawaii's brand-new production. Choreographed by Septime Webre, this Nutcracker incorporates the history and culture of Hawaii, and features guest artists from NYCB and other companies. Pointe spoke with Scheller about her double dose of the holiday ballet.
Jennifer Kronenberg and her husband Carlos Guerra retired from Miami City Ballet this past spring, but they're still deeply involved in the dance world. Their brand-new troupe, Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami, has its inaugural performance this weekend. Between Havana & Heaven features a range of ballet by Septime Webre, Atlanta Ballet's Tara Lee, Miami-based Yanis Pikieris and Marius Petipa. Pointe spoke with Kronenberg about her fledgling company.
From Paris to Washington, D.C., there seems to be something in the air affecting ballet directors. On the heels of Benjamin Millepied's startling resignation announcement last week, The Washington Ballet has disclosed the impending departure of Septime Webre; the company's longtime artistic director will step down at the end of the season. "My current contract expires in June," Webre says, "it felt like a 'now or never' moment to take this bold step."
Webre's tenure has left a lasting impact on The Washington Ballet and the city's arts scene. Since taking the helm in 1999, he has increased TWB's budget nearly six fold, expanded the school (which now trains over 1400 students), increased the organization's community outreach, added many works of his own to TWB's repertoire and brought in a number of guest artists. The company has yet to find a replacement director.
Looking forward, Webre says, "I have been itching to get back to my core skill set: creating new work, coaching and mentoring young dancers and choreographers and advocating for the art of ballet." In addition to new creative endeavors, he plans to stage his ballets for other companies. Already, Webre's Alice (in Wonderland) has appeared in repertoires from Kansas City to Cincinnati.
Companies in Italy and Russia, too, are seeing big changes. Milan's La Scala Ballet announced that choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti will replace Makhar Vasiev, who heads to Moscow in March to lead the Bolshoi Ballet. Bigonzetti was the artistic director of the Italian contemporary ballet company Aterballetto from 1997 to 2008, and he has choreographed for companies like New York City Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet. Given his contemporary background, Bigonzetti's appointment at the large and traditionally classical La Scala has raised some eyebrows.
We'll be keeping our eyes on how the flurry of new directorships develops this year. For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.
A clip of Bigonzetti's Vespro for New York City Ballet: http://www.nycballet.com/ballets/v/vespro.aspx
For many professional ballet dancers, following the dream means a series of clear upward steps, from corps to soloist to principal. Until last year, you might have said that Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Alissa Dale was right on track.
A trainee with NBT in 2004, Dale got into the corps the next year and advanced to soloist in 2007. But in 2009, as NBT changed its artistic leadership, it also changed from a tiered company of principals, soloists and corps members to a 23-member ensemble of dancers, all equals—an unranked company.
Although staying with Nevada Ballet Theatre meant losing a title, Dale didn’t see herself as a casualty of the transition. “I’ve always been a fan of the ensemble system, so I was really excited,” she says. “It increases the competition, but it’s also an opportunity to work harder. You can’t take for granted where you stand in the company—you can be passed over if you sit back and don’t grab the reins. But that in turn increases your work ethic.”
Bucking the hierarchy laid out by the great European ballet institutions, more and more unranked companies are dotting the landscape of American ballet. The root of that model traces back to the “all-star, no star” Joffrey Ballet. “Robert Joffrey’s philosophy was that in a non-ranked company the strength lay in everyone, rather than resting on one or two featured artists,” says James Canfield, a Joffrey alumnus who took over the helm of NBT last year after serving as interim director for a year.
Famously egalitarian, Joffrey’s approach meant that his hard-working dancers might find themselves leading a ballet one night and dancing in the corps another. That sense of democracy is part of the rationale for unranked companies. “In a ranked company, everyone knows their place, so there’s an assuredness,” says Septime Webre, who has headed the unranked, 22-member Washington Ballet since 1999. “But in an unranked company, there’s a social mobility, shall we say?”
It’s an approach that has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, any dancer can earn a chance to shine in a leading role. But the lack of clear levels means that life becomes a daily competition with fellow dancers.
“There’s a sense of ‘on edge’ that you have to maintain,” says Travis Bradley, who is in his sixth season at Ballet Memphis. Bradley has also danced with the ranked Houston Ballet, but says he knew he wanted the opportunities available to small-company dancers. “Anytime a choreographer comes in, you can’t just rely on the advantage of status,” he says.
However, in many hierarchical companies, when a choreographer arrives to cast a new work, he or she is directed towards principals or soloists for leads. In an unranked company, every dancer has a shot. “When a stager or choreographer comes in, they’ll work with a huge group for a day, just to see how we move and who’s best for a role,” explains Nadia Iozzo, a dancer with the unranked Kansas City Ballet. “And the senior dancers in our company aren’t necessarily guaranteed those principal roles. But they’ve put in their years and they’ve reached a certain excellence in technique and artistry and that elevates their work.”
Which brings us to the question: Are all unranked companies really that egalitarian, or will certain dancers implicitly still have a better chance of being cast in leading roles than others?
“Inevitably, some will rise to the top,” says William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet and another Joffrey alum. “But when a choreographer picks dancers, there is generally an element of surprise, too.”
“You feel like no matter who got chosen for a role, it was always fair game for everyone,” says Dale, who found herself cast as Myrtha in Giselle one year and in Canfield’s ensemble-driven Jungle the next. “You can’t get complacent.”
Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who founded Ballet Memphis in 1986, says that her unranked company’s roster needs to be proportionally sized for its relatively small city—but also ready for the eclectic repertoire she’s building. “A ranked system is an inefficient model for our company’s strengths,” she says. “I need nimble, versatile people.”
“It’s a democratic model, and we live in a democracy,” says Pugh with some warmth. “I feel like we need to reflect our culture. There’s something very American about a more level playing field.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.