In Yuri Possokhov's premiere of Anna Karenina at The Joffrey Ballet last February, Edson Barbosa opened the full-length with a thrilling solo. It's a sweeping, grandiose passage for the ill-fated station guard, who foreshadows Anna's tragic end. The role appealed to this Brazilian dancer's sensational stage presence and lusty technique. In fact, the three major roles he's danced for The Joffrey (the others being Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet and Hilarion in Giselle) have all had a flair for the dramatic. "I love dying onstage," he says.
The end of summer can only mean one thing in ballet world: Nutcracker audition season. It's the time of year when everyone at your studio is on edge with excitement, nerves and dreams. It's when you rewatch your DVD of last year's performance, practice choreography in your kitchen and make a list of roles you hope to get.
Nutcracker might be your only performance opportunity of the year, or the most significant one, so stakes are high. It's understandable if you feel anxious. We spoke with American Ballet Theatre principal Stella Abrera and Joffrey Ballet dancer Lucia Connolly, who have been in your ballet shoes, as well as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow for their advice on approaching this year's Nutcracker auditions.
Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.
Pacific Northwest Ballet travels to Paris for the first time this summer, and artistic director Peter Boal couldn't be happier.
"I think we have a tremendous reputation, but people outside the greater Seattle area haven't seen this company," Boal says.
That will change after PNB's two-week stay with the French festival Les Étés de la Danse, which hosts a different international company every summer. A PNB residency had been in the works for several years when Les Étés de la Danse decided to produce a larger celebration of choreographer Jerome Robbins this summer, inspired by his centennial. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Russia's Perm Opera Ballet Theatre will join PNB for that one-week tribute.
One of the titans among choreographers of the 20th century, Jerome Robbins will be celebrated by a number of ballet companies worldwide in 2018 for the centennial of his birth. He died in 1998 at age 79 after a prolific career. His rare talent enabled him to direct and choreograph Broadway hits (West Side Story, On the Town and Fiddler on the Roof, among many) and to create sublime ballets, such as Afternoon of a Faun for New York City Ballet; Fancy Free (his first ballet) for American Ballet Theatre; and NY Export: Opus Jazz for his short-lived troupe Ballets: U.S.A.
Jerome Robbins. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
Though it's not quite fall, the Joffrey Ballet is in full holiday mode, prepping for the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker. In fact, you can catch a live-streamed rehearsal with Wheeldon and the company tomorrow (Thursday, September 8, 11:30 am to 1:30 pm Central) on the company's YouTube channel. Pointe spoke with company dancer Amanda Assucena about this reimagined holiday classic set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair.
How does the setting change the story?
Marie, our dreamer, is our version of Clara. She's a girl from the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of immigrants, workers of the fair. She's not very wealthy, which is different from other Nutcrackers. The second act is based on the actual World's Fair, so she dreams the Nutcracker is taking her through it and the divertissements are different countries.
What have rehearsals been like?
I'm learning the roles of Marie, her mother and the grand pas, so I've been in the studio with Chris all the time, all day. He is definitely one of my favorite choreographers to work with. He's a big name, but he's such a normal person, so nice and humble. And he allows you to communicate what feels good or if a step feels awkward.
What's it like being involved in the creation of a new full-length ballet?
Being in the studio for six hours a day learning choreography and trying to keep that in your mind has been challenging—but such a great challenge. For me, one of the best parts about ballet is figuring out steps, remembering them, putting them together with the music and seeing it come together and work.
How is Wheeldon approaching the famous party scene?
It's now called the "shack scene" since Marie lives in a shack with her mother. Some of the other workers from the World's Fair come to the party, and everybody brings something--a tree, some food or drinks. It's more about them coming together and trying to make something beautiful out of nothing for that one day of Christmas celebrations.
Do you have any advice for dancers on how to avoid burnout when they’re working on Nutcracker from now until the holidays?
We’ve all been doing it since we were little kids, but I still love it. My advice would be to remember what the audience is going to see. It’s our responsibility for them to feel like they just woke up from the most beautiful dream ever.
And enjoy the music. As much as we hear it all the time, it’s so perfect for the ballet, perfect for the season. It’s also great that it’s so popular because it only means that we are part of a Christmas tradition. Enjoy the music, enjoy the relationships with your other dancers and enjoy the choreography.
You can watch the trailer for the live stream here:
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re taking a quick look at some of our favorite dancing couples. Stay tuned for an exclusive set of interviews on V-Day!
First, we featured Pacific Northwest Ballet power couple Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz. Next up: The Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez!
If their respective Instagram accounts are any indication, Gutierrez and Mendoza love style as much as they love ballet. They serve some serious fashion inspiration, along with lovely dance photos and videos—and adorable pictures of their dog.
Mendoza has danced numerous featured roles with The Joffrey (we spoke to her about her debut as Nikiya, in La Bayadère, in 2013) and Gutierrez also frequently dances leading roles.
Watch the two of them combine fashion and technique in this video from The Joffrey!
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The Joffrey Ballet recently announced the launch of the Gerald Arpino Foundation, which will lease the rights to ballets by Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey. Harriet Ross, director of the foundation, notes that for Arpino and Joffrey, “the company was the focus, not getting their creations out there.” But the death of both men has underscored the importance of preserving and sharing their dances. “It’s in their work that their legacy lies, and these ballets are incredible pieces of theater,” Ross says.
Thirty-five ballets (including Arpino’s Light Rain, pictured) will be available immediately, with others to follow. Among those tasked with setting the works are Joffrey Ballet Master Charthel Arthur and former Joffrey Associate Artistic Director Cameron Basden. “In all we have 61 ballets,” says Ross, “and it is our goal to eventually make every one available.”
For our Whole Dancer Issue, Pointe looked at how dancers nurture who they are both inside and outside the studio. We found that dancers in companies all over the country spend much of their time off supporting worthy causes in their communities. In addition to giving themselves to audiences night after night, giving their time to those less fortunate adds an extra dimension to their own lives. And as dancers, they have something especially inspiring to share with others: their art.
The Tough Get Going
Three years ago, Jenna McClintock, then dancing for Richmond Ballet, came across an ad for a juvenile detention center that was seeking volunteer art and music teachers.
“I remember calling them and thinking to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ” she says. “I didn’t even have a program devised. I just told them I was a dancer and would love to help if they had any room for a dance teacher. They said yes!”
When McClintock showed up at the Bon Air Juvenile Correction Center for her first session with some of its teenage girls, she says, “It was scary. They all just stared at me like, ‘Who the hell is this woman? Ballet?’”
But, having lived through some difficult times during her own adolescence, McClintock felt that she could relate to her students. “I too came from not the best place and was always getting into trouble,” she says. “I wanted to give them something to do besides staying in their rec room all day.”
She taught a series of workshops to varied groups of five to eight girls who had demonstrated sufficient good behavior to be allowed to take class. She found that once she got going, the tough vibe changed. “As soon as we started stretching or learning movement,” says McClintock, “all of a sudden they turned into little girls and the daggers in their eyes disappeared.”
McClintock, who now lives in California and dances for Oakland Ballet and Diablo Ballet, says the work she did at Bon Air deepened her view of what dance can do. “I’d always wonder, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But when I’d leave, my heart would just feel so expansive.” By sharing the difference dance made in her own life, she realized, “You don’t have to just be a dancer in a tutu looking like a piece of candy on stage; you can actually help lives. As grandiose as that sounds, that’s kind of what ballet did for me.”
Dance For Life
In addition to offstage service, many dancers find that giving their time onstage can make their artistry more meaningful. Every year in Chicago, an organization called Dance for Life presents a one-night concert of dance by Chicago-based companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Chicago Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet. Proceeds from the performance, which can amount to several hundred thousand dollars, benefit local charities such as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Participation is entirely voluntary.
Stacy Joy Keller, a 10-year veteran of The Joffrey Ballet, has taken part in Dance for Life for several years. “It’s something that I really love to do because I can give back with my artistry,” she says. “It’s a different emotion when you’re dancing for a cause.”
Part of what she enjoys about Dance for Life is working alongside Chicago dancers outside the Joffrey. “It’s always so inspirational because of the other companies that come; the energy is amazing. We all stand backstage and watch each other. Performing with these talented people is one of the most rewarding experiences a dancer can have.”
And it’s not just the dancers and the charities who benefit; the audience gets a kick out it as well. Says Keller, “They really enjoy everything that you do. As soon as you step on stage, they go crazy, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I haven’t really done anything yet!’ We’re all here for one reason and that’s pretty uplifting.”
Shut Up & Dance
Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Jonathan Stiles understands that vibrant connection between audience and performers when all contribute to a common cause. This year will be his second as producing director of Shut Up & Dance, an annual concert staged by the PB dancers to benefit MANNA, a Philadelphia-based organization that helps provide food for people with life-threatening illnesses. Shut Up & Dance, now in its 17th year, began as a show at a night club that made $1,200; last year’s performance at the Forrest Theatre brought in $130,000. The concert is choreographed, produced and performed entirely by PB dancers volunteering their time.
“For a lot of dancers in the company, it’s one of the highlights of their year because our audience is so appreciative and enthusiastic. There’s always an electric atmosphere at the theater,” says Stiles. He has been participating in the event in one way or another (as a dancer, choreographer, videographer and now production director) since he joined PB in1999.
“What has kept this event going all these years is the dancers’ sense of ownership,” he says. “This is the one time that dancers get to choose what we want to dance in, and what we want to choreograph.”
For Stiles, many rewards come with Shut Up & Dance. “Anyone who is fortunate enough to be a professional dancer goes through some frustrating times in their job. It’s great to see dancers at the end of the day volunteering their time, having fun and goofing around, as well as putting together these really great pieces.”
Does he think dancers are inherently generous, despite their relative poverty? “I think,” says Stiles, “if your goal in life was a lot of financial gain, you wouldn’t be a dancer in the first place. Ballet attracts people who have other goals and desires.”
But he points out that PB dancers do reap real benefits from participating in Shut Up & Dance. Those who choreograph get their work seen. And those who perform get that jolt of audience appreciation. “At the end, the performers come out on stage and the lights go up in the house and everyone usually stands up and cheers for several minutes. It’s not just altruistic. We get that immediate gratification from the audience reaction.”
In giving back, all of these dancers found a sense of themselves beyond their ballet company lives. Says Keller, “I feel like in performance you give a little part of yourself to the audience, and in real life, dancers would do that for just about anyone. I think it is a common personality trait in dancers.”
Perhaps it’s this foundation on which the dancers’ commitment to service—whether on stage or off—is built. After all, “Anytime you put on a show, especially when it’s on dancers’ free time, there are stressful moments when people feel like they’ve taken on too much,” says Stiles. “But when the curtain goes down, most everybody feels it was worthwhile, and they’d do it again.”
McClintock agrees. “I was actually given a hard time for volunteering by some of my friends,” she says. “They’d say, ‘You don’t have time for this, you’re not getting paid any money.’ But that’s the whole point; I’m not doing this as a job. I want to be there, and that makes it a completely different story.”
Lea Marshall writes about dance and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in Virginia.
For anyone interested in dancing with The Joffrey, the important thing to understand is that we are a non-ranked company—every dancer must be willing to do everything. Of course there are always leading dancers, but we couldn’t do something like The Rite of Spring unless everyone was invested in being part of the corps, as well as possibly dancing a principal role.
There are 42 dancers in The Joffrey now and not a huge amount of turnover. We are in dire economic times, so the key for me is to have dancers who are intensely committed to the company, who are contributing fully and who are being cast. I hope to stage Lar Lubovitch’s Othello in the fall of 2009, and Ashton’s Cinderella in 2010, so that requires at least 38 dancers. We operate on a year-by-year, 38-week contract, so I look at the budget, see what I need and figure out who does not need to be replaced. I am currently looking for a couple of strong male dancers and a few strong women, too.
I want fully trained dancers who know how to use the strength they have. I am far more particular than Gerald Arpino about women having really strong pointe work, with the ability to roll through their feet. For men, double tours, attitude turns and four or five pirouettes are givens. I also want real men who can run with power and weight, who can really do things. And the demands of most contemporary ballets make strong partnering skills absolutely essential.
Like Jerry, I am not looking for perfect cookie-cutter bodies, though obviously good physique and technique are important. But each individual is worth so much more than just his or her physical looks.
I don’t have a vision of the ideal dancer; mostly, it’s that you see someone dance and they just capture you. While I love dancers with individuality, they also must be able to dance in a group. I like genuine, honest movement—no affectations. An instant turn-off for me is a dancer with no understanding of the upper body or the use of the back, head and arms. And I don’t like people who want to dance in your face.
I always focus on enchaînements—those movement phrases that show me how the dancer connects the steps, finds the rhythm and musicality of a sequence and uses the port de bras. If a young dancer is “present,” and picks up combinations quickly, he or she just might be strong enough.
Robert Joffrey used to give extremely strict and rigid classes, but on stage, he expected so much athleticism and freedom. When I was with San Francisco Ballet, our auditions always included one Paul Taylor combination to see how a dancer could run, roll on the floor and keep moving. That is crucial.
For The Joffrey, even if there is no open spot, we generally hold two formal auditions each year—one in Chicago and one in New York. And I don’t mind if an interested dancer wants to take company class, unless we’re in a very busy rehearsal period. For the handful remaining at the end of an audition, I always talk with them. And if they say they need job security, I advise them to consider a European company.