Ballet Careers

Watch American Contemporary Ballet Reconstruct Ballet's Earliest Roots

American Contemporary Ballet's Theresa Farrell and Colby Parsons

Ballet's earliest history can be traced as far back as the royal courts of Renaissance Italy (roughly 200 years before France's King Louis the XIV established the first ballet academy in 1661). Surprisingly, many of these court dances were written down and still survive. Lincoln Jones, the artistic director of American Contemporary Ballet in Los Angeles, reconstructed several examples for the company's Naked Souls of Kings and Queens program in April to show just how much ballet has evolved. The majority of the pieces were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza, a well-known 15th-century dancing master; Jones also reconstructed a slow, stately dance (called a bassa danza) choreographed by the famous Renaissance statesman and arts patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. (His great-granddaughter, Catherine de' Medici, introduced these dance traditions to the French court when she married King Henri II.)


The first and third dances were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza. The second dance, called a bassa danza, was choreographed by Lorenzo de' Medici.



Visually, these pieces may look like highly-stylized walking patterns. "But the patterns are very specific in their rhythm," says Jones, "and there's a specific rise and fall to them that's very balletic." The dancers aren't turning out much or moving side to side; the stage at the time was vertically oriented towards the seated king and queen, and the performers would move forward or backward, or in circular patterns.

Steps were based on a small vocabulary consisting of bows, side steps, small jumps and traveling steps. "But they transform for different musical meters," says Jones, noting that some dances, like the saltarello, are bouncy and quick, while others are low and gliding. Dance manuals of the time focused heavily on perfecting style, so that the subtlest nuance would be clear to those watching. "What they were doing was close to ballet of our time not in athleticism, but in how much refinement, body carriage and grace was required," says Jones

A courtier's performance on the dance floor was critical. "There was a belief during the Renaissance that the movements of the body reflected to movements of the soul," says Jones. "If your movements were ugly or inharmonious, it meant that your soul was out of sync with the universe." Fashion, too, was important; to reflect this, Jones worked with Tiger Curran (whose credits include assistant costume designer for The CW's "Reign,") to help costume his dancers in contemporary high-end designer fashions. "I wanted our audience to see it as they did at the time—it's hard to get past Renaissance clothing," he says.

Watching these early dances, it's fascinating to think about about ballet's journey, and how far it has come.

Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

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News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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