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
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

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The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

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Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Training
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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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