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Of course it’s nice when a British critic lauds American-born ballerinas, as Alastair Macaulay did in yesterday’s New York Times. And I appreciate his praise of top-notch ballerinas like Kathleen Breen Combes and Sarah Van Patten, whom we don’t see enough of in New York. I also appreciate his putting assumptions about ballet greatness into question.
But to me, his sense of ballerina grandeur is a bit outdated. He says that people think of ballerinas as having an “old world” quality. This is true for Swan Lake, Giselle, and Sleeping Beauty. But while the classics are still treasured, the ballet world has exploded beyond the classics—and beyond Ashton, Balanchine, and Robbins. The New World ballerinas have less quaintness and more of an edge. Less delicacy and more boldness. Sometimes less long lines and more complexity.
Therefore, I propose additional dancers who qualify as contemporary “goddesses,” judging mostly from their performances of living choreographers.
First, just staying with American-born ballerinas, there’s an outsized grandeur to the way Dana Caspersen dances Forsythe—though it may at first look like super quirk to some eyes. Meredith Webster dances Alonzo King with astounding plasticity. There’s an astringent, yet tender glamour to the way Wendy Whelan (who didn’t make Macaulay’s short list) dances Wheeldon.
Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in Wheeldon's After the Rain. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
From American Ballet Theatre, there’s Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland, and Sarah Lane, who are, in every inch of their bodies, ballerinas even though their soloist rank doesn’t proclaim it. They dance featured roles in the classics plus leads in works by Ratmansky, Millepied, or Marcelo Gomes.
Misty Copeland as Gulnare in Le Corsaire. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.
Bridgett Zehr, now with English National Ballet, performed McGregor’s Chroma (when she was with National Ballet of Canada) with a creature-like quality worthy of Odette but with a spikier kind of vulnerability. Sarah Lamb of The Royal Ballet is also extraordinary in Chroma.
Bridgett Zehr with Aleksandar Antonijevic in McGregor's Chroma. Photo by Cylia von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBoC.
Ballet has always been international and many of the New World ballerinas come from other countries. The Joffrey’s Victoria Jaiani, lovely in Ashton’s Cinderella and fierce in Forsythe, is from the Republic of Georgia; the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dazzling Carla Körbes is from Brazil. San Francisco Ballet's Maria Kochetkova, who is Russian, has perfect épaulement as Aurora and yet attacks McGregor’s Borderlands with surprising ferocity. The Chinese Yuan Yuan Tan is pristine in classic roles but projects an alluring mystery in works by Possokhov and Neumeier.
Hamburg Ballet’s Hélène Bouchet, who is a master of all things Neumeier, is French. National Ballet of Canada's Heather Ogden sparkles with innocence in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Wheeldon.
From the Mariinsky, Ekaterina Kondaurova is so New World that she’s better in Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated than as Odette/Odile. The Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova is totally at home in a ballet that Edwaard Liang made for Wendy Whelan.
Kondaurova in Ratmansky's Anna Karenina. Photo by Natasha Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky.
I don’t think that Wheeldon and Ratmansky “make roles that reject aspects of ballerinadom." I think they, along with Forsythe and McGregor and others, are redefining ballerinadom to be not quite so….courtly. And not so sexist. For instance, Wheeldon does occasionally have his women actively partner the men.
As Macaulay points out, some people did not give ballerina status to the great Balanchine dancers when he was alive: Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell. Today, that seems ridiculous. I think it's time to recognize that we have with us dancers who are great partly because of their work with living choreographers. They are not only goddesses, but muses too.