Magazine

Artistry's Delicate Balance

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in Act III of The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo from DM Archives.

The dance field is overflowing with virtuosity. You turn on the TV: Someone not only thinks she can dance, she back-flips, slides across the stage on knee pads, gets hoisted on a partner's raised hand. At the great ballet companies—American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet—you see frenetic leaps, whirring pirouettes, logic-defying lifts. Especially the lifts. Choreographers from Forsythe to McGregor combine dancers in new ways via pretzelings, pullings, tossings, catchings. Even Balanchine's once lightning-quick turns and flurries of footwork look like they're no big deal when performed by NYCB's current nonchalant daredevils.

But where's the artistry amid all the technique? Has it disappeared? Been transformed?

What is dance artistry, anyway?

In ballet, it has been an essential if elusive element from the start. When you don't see it, you forget what it is. Beautiful bodies doing everything full-out—you get excited. But if that's all they're doing, excitement freezes. You become embarrassed by your reactions. And then you stop feeling and you can't remember what was so great about ballet anyway.

Then the real thing hits. At an NYCB performance of Coppélia recently, Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette performed the roles of Swanilda and Frantz. At Act I's end, they come onstage in pearl-pink for the famous Ear of Wheat ceremony: Girl rattles wheat to see if boy loves her. But Swanilda's wheat doesn't rattle, and she's seen Frantz blowing kisses at a stranger.

Then Peck and Veyette start to dance, to Delibes' plaintive, folk-syncopated violin tune.…Suddenly we are inside Swanilda's soul, feeling Frantz's betrayal. It is an effortlessly beautiful, hushed moment. “Circle walked, so quiet and serious," say my notes. Then “Amplitude—T.'s glissades," then “T. backbend in A.'s arms." It isn't just the steps, but the way Peck and Veyette get inside them and inside the story and music, too. Peck's glissades match the rise and fall of the violin melody. Her feet are the violin bow and the floor is the violin.

This is dance artistry: When a dancer becomes the music, and watching in the audience, your heart catches fire. It's the most precious feeling in the world, like being in love. Sometimes we call it musicality, but it's more than that. It's the wedding of musicality and technique to make meaning. The audience feels the dancer is “saying" something vital and truthful, and the experience doesn't even depend on story or music. Patricia McBride made audiences go mad with joy at the climax of the story-less Scotch Symphony, just by walking forward on the beat—a walk that contained the whole Mendelssohn symphony. Baryshnikov once moved me to tears dancing a Merce Cunningham solo in silence.

But is artistry in ballet threatened? Is it less valued today by audiences, critics and the dance world itself? Is there confusion among dancers themselves about what artistry is? Take the super ballerina Natalia Osipova, who's finally landed at The Royal Ballet after zig-zagging away from the Bolshoi. This writer has seen Osipova use her urgent kinetic sense and her prodigious jump to refashion classic roles so that they seem embodiments of the Now. Her Juliets at ABT have been electric—the old artistry merged with new virtuosity. Other times Osipova seems merely to put her breathtaking technique on display for the sake of showmanship (Flames of Paris), without opening herself to the private vulnerabilities that artistry asks dancers to show.

Any great performer is entitled to lows and highs. But could Osipova and other ballet superstars be viewed as living battlegrounds, where artistry is fighting with anti-artistry trends that have popped up not only in dance, but in the culture at large? Trends like the lure of instant celebrity and the cult of competitions (not just ballet competitions like Prix de Lausanne, the USA IBC at Jackson and Youth America Grand Prix, but TV competitions about every possible profession). Even worse is a contemporary attitude that goes with the focus on fame and victory: aggressive nonchalance. A “Don't mess with me, I'm badder (and cuter) than you" aura that one sees in everyone from models to folks in the street.

And yet, shouldn't such up-to-the-minute aggression be part of what a dancer gets to show the audience? Dance is the art, after all, that can register the zeitgeist quicker than the other arts, because of how trained bodies instinctively express it.

If ballet is to stay alive, contemporary spirit should be there on the ballet stage—even in the classical roles. They may be classical, in fact, because they accommodate a new electricity alongside the old artistry. Peck and Veyette's Ear of Wheat pas de deux displayed a white-hot, shipshape virtuosity, even as it swam in its mid–19th century violin tune.

Dance artistry, however, isn't just about the dancers. There's somebody behind the scenes, somebody who's already made the steps and the patterns: the choreographer. Artistry happens onstage at the moment of performance, when dancers encounter what choreographers both dead and alive have constructed. So we can't talk about artistry—or even virtuosity—without talking about what the choreographer wanted.

A hundred and twenty years ago, Petipa made dance patterns that allowed for a majestic yet also quicksilver artistry in his dancers. Think Sleeping Beauty (1890), the pas de deux, last act, as Aurora and Désiré make grandiose shapes with sudden jazzy inflections. Seventy years later Balanchine speeded up his steps to allow dancers to show a breakneck American-inflected artistry. Think Serenade (1934), and the urgency of Tchaikovsky's lush strings embodied in the rushing around of girls in romantic tutus. Fifty years after that William Forsythe caught an edgy new defiance and put it into his choreography. Think: In the middle, somewhat elevated (1987) with solos and duos set to those wonderful synthesized crashes. His kind of artistry was harder to discern—closer maybe to real-life showing off. But the meaning of those aggressive steps onstage was still up to the dancers.

Today, artistry depends even more on dancers and choreographers collaborating. Contemporary choreographers have captured a speedier, more frenetic virtuosity even than Forsythe's. Rarer to find, in that frenetic speed, is the space for artistry—the chance for dancers to nail the steps yet also merge with them, and with a bigger something that is egoless. Justin Peck's recent NYCB ballet Capricious Maneuvers seems to be about the life of the onstage dance ensemble, and the goofy happiness it can generate. The dancers are almost aggressively buoyant, cheerful, up to date and attractive. But where are those glimpses into something more true and private? Did the choreographer even want any of that?

For this writer, ABT's resident choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, shows the most interest in refocusing artistry within contemporary, off-kilter, informal rushes of motion. Even an old-fashioned-looking “trifle" like his From Foreign Lands for San Francisco Ballet shows us ultra-modern young people engaging in high-voltage athletics, yet dancing as well about softer matters like beauty and tenderness. The choreographer dives even deeper in his recent Shostakovich Trilogy. On a dark and moody stage, his dancers offer glimpses of anguish, loss, betrayal, yearning and bitter regret, all cycling through a breathtaking flow of full-out virtuosity.

Dance artistry. Even speeded up, fractured, gasping for breath, it's as vital to the health of the art as ever.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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