Health & Body
David Sager via Unsplash

You spend countless hours in fifth position. But there's another position you might be just as familiar with: neck craned down, shoulders hunched and eyes on your phone. Researchers estimate that the average person spends two to four hours per day on smart devices, and this slumped posture can place up to 60 pounds of pressure on your spine.

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Trending
Jackie Nash with Jacob Bush in Allegro Brillante. Photo by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Ballet schools are back in session and dancers are preparing to be back in class with all of its exhilaration, magic, and, of course, struggle.

Today, four dancers reveal what they found challenging as ballet students and how they now look at their technique as professionals.

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Health & Body
Paris Opéra Ballet's Letizia Galloni. Photo by Benoîte Fanton, Courtesy POB.

A beautifully winged foot is the perfect complement to an arabesque line. But according to Marika Molnar, president and founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, learning how—and when—to wing requires subtle work and an understanding of the leg's alignment.

Often, she sees dancers winging before, not after, they point their ankle, foot and toes. Instead, the wing should be the final touch. "If you follow the line of the middle of your thigh through the middle of your kneecap down through the middle of your shin, that line should come out where your second toe is," says Molnar. Then you can slightly wing your foot while maintaining that alignment.

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Summer Intensive Survival
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

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A beautiful pirouette is one of ballet's most elusive elements. Sometimes you float through multiple rotations and sometimes you can hardly balance on one leg. Here are some of our best tips for nailing your turns, every time.

  1. Go back to basics. Make sure you've mastered the fundamentals of correct alignment before you go for multiple rotations.
  2. Know that there's more than one right way to do it. Struggling to adjust to Balanchine-style pirouettes? Focus on shifting the majority of your weight forward over your front foot and extend your arms to find a long position.
  3. Use positive thinking. Getting over the fear of turning and making yourself stay up on pointe to finish your pirouette is paramount to success.
  4. Up the ante. Do you fall apart during fouettés? Focus on your coordination and build stamina in your standing leg.
  5. Get scientific. Understanding the physics of how pirouettes work can help you conceptualize ways to adjust your technique. This TEDx talk breaks down the physics of a fouetté into easily understandable terms:

Happy turning!

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

Ballet Training
New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck prepares for a pirouette (still from the Water Dancer series, produced by Quicksilver)

Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I'm dancing a Balanchine ballet and I'm having trouble changing my technique. —Liza

I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!

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Ballet Training
Arantxa Ochoa corrects a student. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Growing up, Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller often heard teachers compare the feeling you have during pirouettes to a corkscrew. But then her teacher, Diane Partington in Ellenton, Florida, offered up a surprising new analogy. Partington suggested Miller imagine a bank tube—a simple cylinder that uses suction to transport a round canister from a customer's car to the teller. Picturing this straight, narrow tube drawing energy up and into itself struck a chord with Miller. “It worked instantly!" she says. “It clicked in my head and it gave my body the right feeling." Even now, if she needs to refocus her pirouettes, Miller thinks of that image. “If I'm having a bad day, it helps me find my center."

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Daily class may feel like the proverbial grind—like eating your vegetables before you get to the good stuff. But professionals know better: Without class, there is no good stuff. Below, six top dancers describe how they make daily class work for them.

Patricia and Jeanette Delgado, Miami City Ballet

As dancers, the Delgado sisters are like night and day. Jeanette is an athletic powerhouse; Patricia is delicate, romantic and lyrical.


But the two share a remarkably similar approach to daily class. Taught almost every day by Artistic Director Edward Villella, the “dancey” 10 am session is mandatory, they say, but that’s for the better. “It’s nice. It connects the company,” Jeanette explains. “You inspire each other.”


Each turns to Gyrokinesis and yoga to warm up, and has gradually learned to take class more thoughtfully and carefully to protect themselves from injury. They also both shed their leg warmers early on. “I make sure I take off all my junk,” Patricia says. “I know my feet are not as articulated as they could be when I can’t see them.”


Both say their goals in class are pegged to the season. “If it’s a light day,” Patricia says, “I try to push myself really hard, define my legs, do combinations more than once to get my heart rate going, get into shape, build stamina and strength.” Before a performance, they often work on role-specific technique issues. Jeanette focused on quick feet and light legs for a week in class before she performed Balanchine’s Square Dance. When there’s a matinee, Patricia likes to do each exercise in her character’s mind frame. “I take class as Juliet if we’re doing Romeo and Juliet,” she says.


Apparently unaffected by even a touch of sibling rivalry, each is quick to point out the other’s strong work ethic. But for all their likenesses, the two are not identical. Patricia likes to stand in the front, near Villella, where she can pick up the combinations and not be distracted. Jeanette’s favorite spot?  Next to the piano. “Our pianist, Francisco, is very attentive,” she says. “He keeps you focused on the music. There’s so much to think about, sometimes you forget what’s most important—dancing to the music.”

Katita Waldo, San Francisco Ballet

When she first came to SFB, Katita Waldo was notorious for avoiding class. “I hated it!” she recalls. “I was lazy.”


Since then, her approach has changed dramatically. “I started to enjoy the process of checking in with my body every day,” she says. Now Waldo feels like she can hardly dance without taking class. “It’s like medicine,” she explains. “You take your medicine and then you’re prepared for the rest of the day.”


A fan of “bigger, fuller” movement, Waldo enjoys taking men’s class. She also only wears her pointe shoes for the first three or four exercises at the barre. “If you never wear anything but pointe shoes,” she says, “you never get used to dancing any other way. But I feel like beginning on pointe warms up my feet faster.” When Waldo knows she’ll be performing a piece that requires a specific skill, she uses class time to focus on that technique. To prepare for her debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons earlier this year, for example, during barre and center she worked on articulating her feet and moving with control—“not my forte.”


When Waldo was younger, class was mostly about showing the teacher what she could do. Now, it’s more personal. With maturity—and injuries—came “hyper” self-awareness and a desire to better educate herself.  “Class is a constant exploration of how to use my muscles better and improve,” she says. “Constant.”

Irina Dvorovenko, American Ballet Theatre

ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko cannot overstate the importance of daily class. “Class is your alphabet,” she explains. “In ballet, we tell stories. Without the alphabet, you cannot tell a story.”


Dvorovenko tends to treat class like a mini-performance. When she was working on a new role in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante last May, she tweaked class combinations so that they echoed Balanchine’s choreography. “It’s like putting beads on a chain,” she says. “Each class makes a difference. You have a whole collection in the end.”


For feedback in class, she turns to husband and fellow ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky. Each critiques the other in Russian—which sometimes leads to animated in-class arguments. But in the end, Dvorovenko says, it’s for the best. “We need to keep an eye on each other,” she explains. “If somebody isn’t paying attention, you get dust on you.”

Ariana Lallone, Pacific Northwest Ballet
After 22 years at PNB, Ariana Lallone knows the importance of class, thanks to early teachers Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. And as long as she’s dancing, Lallone says, she needs guidance. “I still want to work on my pirouettes, fouettés, jumping or the way the feet are articulated—whatever the class is working on. I have to be able to grow and change,” she says.


Lallone, who arrives 45 minutes early to tape her toes and stretch, generally does the entire class on pointe, although she will sometimes do a few barre exercises in flat shoes to work through her feet. “When I came to PNB’s school a number of years ago, all of the classes were on pointe,” she says. “I adapted to that and have done it ever since.”

While her approach to class hasn’t changed since her student days, she’s learned what her body can take—when she can push through, and when she should rein herself in. “It’s important to know your limitations,” she says.

Xiao Nan Yu, The National Ballet of Canada
Unlike many dancers, Xiao Nan Yu never holds back in class to save energy—even if she’s rehearsing or performing later in the day. “I need to go full out,” she says. “I find the less I do in class, the less I do onstage.”


To wake up her core muscles, Yu begins her pre-class warm-up with the Pilates 100. She then works on turnout, loosens up her feet and, just before class, stretches her hamstrings, back and glutes. Occasionally she alters her routine if she’s working on something specific.


“There are things I work on in class all the time,” she says. “You know your weaknesses.” That’s not to say that she finds class dull. “Every day is a challenge. From the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes, you can always find a challenge for your body. That’s what makes class so interesting.”

Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University.





Aubrey Clayton had never thought much about the kinds of ballet that existed outside of her home studio in Alabama—until she took a few classes in Vaganova. Clayton knew right away she wanted to learn more about this technique, with its emphasis on épaulement and distinct movement. She had never studied any set method before, but one summer at Bossov Ballet Theatre in Maine, where the lessons were Vaganova, all day, every day, was all Clayton needed. She was hooked.

Yet for many serious preprofessional students, trying out a new technique at a summer intensive can be confusing. What you knew as third-position arms might now be called fifth. The placement of the head and shoulders suddenly feels unfamiliar. With slight variations on many steps, some dancers quickly become frustrated.

But other students discover a new style that fits like a glove. Suddenly it helps to work on an old issue in a new way—by changing how they spot turns, for instance. Abbie Rasmussen, 17, who came to Bossov from a Cecchetti-based program, found Vaganova’s precision of placement improved her center work. “Arms, legs, head—everything here has its place,” she says. The versatility you can gain by trying a new technique gives you an edge in the professional world where dancers need to shine in both Swan Lake and Serenade.

“My lines became cleaner,” says Clayton. “They began to look the way I’d been trying to make them look in the first place.” Suddenly, there was a correct position for every finger. Vaganova felt “natural.”

Was their earlier training wrong? Not at all. There are several schools of dance in the ballet world: Cecchetti, Vaganova, Royal Academy of Dance, Balanchine, French, Bournonville, Italian. All are ballet, but in different techniques, students may be asked to support a port de bras differently, pick up the speed of steps or change the placement of their turnout. The timing of familiar barre exercises might be awkward; strange new demands might be made on ports de bras.

Years ago, some teachers could be territorial, dismissing a student’s previous training as incorrect. One technique might be considered less “classical” than another. No more. Smart teachers know that good training—in any style—deserves respect. “There are a million ways to do things,” says Denise Bolstad, administrative director at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Summer classes at PNB allow students who are unfamiliar with the company’s technique, which has its roots in Balanchine, to adjust to the physical demands. Combinations are done to unusual counts to acquaint students with how PNB uses music in choreography. Speed is built into the entire class, beginning at barre with quick tendus and continuing through center. Bolstad says most students are eager to try the changes, such as preparing for pirouettes with a straight back leg.

Yet some students are hesitant. Being away from home can be overwhelming by itself, says Laurel Toto, head of the associates program (for dancers training part-time) at Canada’s National Ballet School. If everything is different in the classroom, students may, she says, “cling to what they know best”—particularly if they have strong loyalties to a home studio.

Toto watches out for students who appear flummoxed by the syllabus, which has grown out of the Cecchetti style. She holds mini-clinics or one-on-one meetings where she and the students discuss the new style and how it differs from what they learn at home. Discussions delve into specifics, such as why they are being asked to hold their pelvis or arms differently. Students get the chance to voice their concerns—and not in front of a whole class.

“It’s our job to chat up the idea of versatility, to say, ‘I realize you did it that way, but let’s try it this way,’ “ Toto says. “We talk about celebrating these differences. In any system, the goal is to turn out beautiful dancers.”

At Bossov, summer students receive an introduction in Vaganova, but are not expected to master all the details. Andrei Bossov, artistic director, and Natalya Getman, associate director, find that summer students are generally curious about the new method and can learn a lot from watching the teachers and senior students demonstrate.

Discuss with your home teacher whether you are ready for the challenges of a new technique, advises Deborah Bowes, head of Canada’s National Ballet School auditions. Dancers struggling with body changes, such as a growth spurt, or who are not secure in their own ballet syllabus might not be prepared to investigate a new style.

But if you are ready, stepping into Cecchetti or Bournonville can be an eye-opening journey. Maybe you’ll realize that preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg helps you nail that triple. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone might put you one step closer to a professional career.

Just remember that fifth position arms might not be fifth anymore. “Know you are going to meet new terminology, meet new coordination,” Bowes says. “When you put yourself in a new position and just go for it, you are doing what a professional dancer needs to do every day.”

 

If a new style seems unfathomable, don’t give up. Remember to:

 

  • Ask questions. Most teachers are passionate about the style they teach and are more than willing to talk to any struggling student.

 

  • Trust the faculty. Good teachers stress that learning a new style isn’t about “which one is best,” but about growing as a dancer. Andrei Bossov explains that, at auditions, he looks for strong dancers, not whether or not a student has knowledge of Vaganova.

 

  • Open your mind. Look at the new style as a positive challenge, rather than a betrayal of any previous learning. Toto advises students struggling with a new technique to ask themselves, “How can I adapt to these differences?” and “How will these differences enrich my fuller understanding of ballet?”

 

  • Be patient with your own progress. It might take an entire intensive before any headway is made in a new style. Some dancers decide that what they are studying at home fits them better, and that’s OK. “The only way to know is to try it,” Toto says. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

 

 

Karen White is a former newspaper editor and longtime dance instructor in Massachusetts.



When San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Miner found herself huffing and puffing through David Bintley’s The Dance House, she knew it was time to increase her cross-training. “The piece was nonstop,” says Miner. “Just running it was not enough. I needed to build my aerobic capacity.” In addition to Pilates—which she already did—Miner began using the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three times a week. She noticed a change almost immediately. “I could finish the ballet and not be completely exhausted,” says Miner. “I felt more in control, able to think about other things onstage, like the music and movement. Being tired is the last thing you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s running, yoga, spinning classes or weight lifting, non-dance exercise can help improve your technique. Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, believes cross-training is an essential part of any dancer’s regime. “I don’t just recommend it, I insist on it,” says Molnar, who has been working with NYCB dancers for the past 30 years. “Because dancers perform the same movements using the same muscles all the time, strength, flexibility and motor coordination exercises help to nourish the body.” NYCB apprentices are offered a full wellness program that includes an individualized workout. “Once they experience how great it is, they make time for it,” Molnar adds.

A physical therapist or trainer can help you find the regimen that will be most effective for your body. Generally, exercises should be done two to three times a week, working to the point of fatigue to build strength while making sure your form is correct at all times.

Problem: Low Extensions

According to Molnar, strength at the end range of your flexibility is crucial to developing higher extensions. “Pilates reformer exercises are great,” she says. “One of my favorites is the single leg circle; it helps to improve abdominal stabilization while strengthening the whole leg through the range of motion.”

Athletic trainer Mike Howard and Pilates teacher James Harren, who both work with Houston Ballet dancers, recommend strengthening and stretching the psoas muscle through slow, deep sit-ups with the abdominal muscles contracted both on the way up and down. “Everything is connected, so extensions are easier with a stronger core,” Harren says. “Because the psoas attaches to the inner part of the thigh bone, it rotates the leg and lifts it.” Add the obliques in by twisting slightly to the left and right. Do two sets of ten three times a week.

Don’t leave out the strength of the standing leg. Harren recommends placing one leg on a medium-sized physio ball while lying down, the other leg in the air turned out and in first position, then lifting and lowering the pelvis in this position.

Problem: Low Jumps

Stretching correctly is the first step to improving your jumps. “Hanging out with your leg on the barre while chatting with friends will weaken ligaments and negatively impact your jumps,” warns Molnar. “Ideally, stretches should only be held for two to three minutes.” Molnar also believes plyometric training (which builds muscle power through quick, explosive movements) is essential to improve the strength, elasticity and activation of the muscles you use to jump. Try jumping with a two-pound weight, or jump on and off a six-inch box. “Have someone put their hands on your waist and push down to provide resistance,” Molnar suggests.

Howard advises strengthening the feet to improve your jumping. Try picking up marbles or cotton balls with your toes to engage the muscles in your arch.


Problem: Weak Port De Bras

Harren has dancers practice port de bras while lying on a roller. “Balancing on the roller will steady the core and build greater sensory motor coordination,” he says.

To strengthen the shoulder joint, stand up and do small shoulder circles with a dumbbell. Have a trainer determine the appropriate amount of weight. Any exercise where you pull something in front of you backwards, like on a rowing machine, will strengthen the muscles of the shoulder blades, creating a strong back.

Problem: Lack Of Stamina

Elliptical training, swimming and biking all offer low-impact ways to increase your stamina. Be sure to set the elliptical on a smaller incline and use light resistance. If you prefer the treadmill, Molnar recommends walking (both forward and backward), not running. “Running puts extreme force on the joints, especially the knees.” says Molnar. She advises staying away from the StairMaster altogether because it’s stressful on the knees and good form is hard to maintain.

In any aerobic exercise, try to achieve 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can determine your MHR by subtracting your age from 211). You need at least 15 to 30 minutes three times a week to see a difference in your endurance. “Make sure you are breathing in the lower lungs and not just the upper chest,” Molnar says. You can continue working on your endurance even while dealing with some injuries. Ask a doctor about low-impact swimming or biking.

Nancy Wozny covers the arts and health from Houston, TX.

Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.


Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?


First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.


“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”


Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”


In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?


“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.


“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”


Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.


“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.


Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.


Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.


“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”


There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”


Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.


“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.


“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”

Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.

A woman’s arms flap furiously, like Odette on steroids, caught in a piercing shaft of light. Drained of emotion or poignancy, her pointe shoes probe the floor with primal force. While familiar melodies from Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty morph and merge in disturbing dissonance, a man spins another woman in a blur of movement, only to stop her in her tracks and whirl her in reverse.   


Welcome to Amjad and the enthralling, iconoclastic, controversial world of Canadian choreographer Édouard Lock and his globe-trotting company, La La La Human Steps. Once hailed for its daredevil, kamikaze contemporary movement—those notorious, gravity-defying “barrel rolls”—nowadays it’s a troupe of choice for ballet-trained dancers from around the world.


Lock, 55, born in Morocco and raised in Montréal (where La La La is based), was drawn to dance while studying film and theater in college. By the late1970s, he was a rising star in Montréal’s experimental, cross-disciplinary “nouvelle danse” scene. His combination of post-modern smarts, cool androgyny and punk grittiness made him wildly popular. Though a dance modernist, Lock says he never regarded ballet as an opposing camp. When he founded his company in 1980, several of its members were ballet-trained. Today they all are.


“I’ve always been attracted to ballet’s precision and line, even if only to break it up a bit,” says Lock. If he finds a weakness in ballet technique, it is its tendency to emphasize extremities over the core. “I see ballet dancers with wonderful ability in their extremities who can’t tie it into their center. That’s something to be gained from having an element of contemporary training.”
Company class is ballet, supplemented as necessary through strength-building exercises with a resident trainer/physiotherapist. Contemporary dance teachers are occasionally invited to work with the company when they’re on tour, but ballet remains the daily discipline.


Lock began integrating pointework into pieces for his own dancers—without regard to gender—after working nearly a decade on commissions from more traditional companies, like Dutch National Ballet, where he set his first ballet in 1987. “There’s nothing inherently gender-specific about the use of pointework,” Lock insists. “What’s happened, because of tradition, is that pointe training is assigned to women. But if a man can handle it well, why not? It’s a masculine approach to an interesting dance tool. It’s not intended as anything that could even be remotely shocking.”


La La La is not a repertory company. Lock works from project to project on a roughly three-year cycle in which a period of creation is followed by extensive international touring, mostly in Europe. This means his dancers tend to stick around through several cycles. When a vacancy emerges, what does it take to be a member of La La La? The company is never larger than 10 dancers—depending on the work, more or less even in gender balance—with an age range from early 20s to late 40s and an enviable 50 weeks of paid work a year.


“I look for a neutral, unembellished technique,” says Lock. “I look for an intellectually curious mind and also for a sense of responsibility. It is a company, for lack of a better word, of soloists. When they step on stage, it’s their stage. So they must have a sense of ownership. There’s no corps de ballet, no backup dancers.”


Lock is already formulating his next work, scheduled to premiere a year from now. Creatively, he has constantly evolved. Whether ballet remains as dominant in that process he is unwilling to predict. After all, in a long career he has remained a master of surprise.

Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.

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