Inside Christine Shevchenko's Journey to Becoming Kitri—And an ABT Principal
Every soloist hopes and prays for the moment when their director offers that first big lead role. For American Ballet Theatre's Christine Shevchenko, it happened last November when artistic director Kevin McKenzie informed her that the following spring she'd dance the role of Kitri at the Metropolitan Opera House.
After three years as a soloist, she felt ready. Shevchenko was particularly glad that her first lead with ABT would be in Don Quixote. She'd won competitions with the third-act variation as a kid back at The Rock School for Dance Education. A few years ago, she danced the full ballet in Ukraine, the country where she was born, with the Donetsk Ballet. Plus, it's a fun ballet, she told me a few weeks before the debut. The whole cast is rooting for you, she says, clapping along, snapping their fingers.
I got to watch Shevchenko put the finishing touches on her interpretation in ABT's studios, and checked in with her occasionally before, the day of and after her debut.
Shevchenko began to rehearse in December. Since she knew the basic choreography already, she could focus on capturing the flamboyant, Spanish-flavored style and developing her interpretation. She was guided by ballet mistress and great former Soviet ballerina Irina Kolpakova, who focused more on presentation and technique, while McKenzie kept an eye on the big picture and worked on finessing the pas de deux.
Shevchenko had to decide what she wanted her Kitri to be like. "Obviously, she's very fiery," she says, but there are many nuances that can be layered onto the role. Some dancers, like the late Russian star Maya Plisetskaya, have played her as a blazing, larger-than-life character. Shevchenko, a dancer with a more soft-edged, sunnier disposition, opted for a different model: Ekaterina Maximova, a petite, sparkling Bolshoi dancer born 14 years after Plisetskaya. "Her Kitri was a little bit more refined, but with that same fight and energy," says Shevchenko.
The first act presented the most challenges, mostly because the style—broad, explosive, almost masculine—felt the least familiar. Shevchenko worked with Kolpakova on achieving a radiance and line that would help her take up more space onstage without looking forced or tense. Kolpakova pushed her to dance bigger, to use her shoulders more, to be more open and expressive.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko also worked with acting coach Byam Stevens to get a fuller sense of what makes Kitri tick. "What we were working toward was more about a certain soulfulness," says Stevens. There's the obvious, extroverted side of the role, which, Stevens says, can be a trap. But why is she that way? "I think that because she grew up without a mother, she always needs everyone's attention," says Shevchenko. By the third act, once Kitri is convinced that her sweetheart Basilio is trustworthy, she can relax and rely on her poise.
At a rehearsal with McKenzie about a month before the performance, Shevchenko seemed laid-back, open to trying different approaches. The one area she was still working on was her stamina. "I find the first act to be really exhausting," she told me, "because there's just so much jumping." To prepare, she was pushing the Gyrotonic and strengthening exercises, eating lots of anti-inflammatory foods like avocado and salmon, and making sure to get a lot of sleep.
The night before her debut, I texted her to see how she was feeling. "Very prepared and well rehearsed," she answered, "and I'm looking forward to just enjoying myself." She seemed remarkably calm. "She's incredibly confident," Stevens had told me earlier. "If she has a nerve, I don't know where that is."
On the morning of her matinee, Shevchenko was a little bit nervous—her first entrance, she says, was a blur. Still, she entered from stage left with a big, sailing jump and a bright, unforced smile. Her Kitri was playful and sunny. She didn't smack the stage with her fan; instead she sort of tapped it lightly on the beat. Her jumps were light and buoyant; her working leg flew up so high it looked like she might bop herself on the nose. (She didn't.)
She says she relaxed after her first variation. And her partner Alban Lendorf was a great source of support throughout the show. "I remember smiling at him and him smiling back." At each intermission, Kolpakova came back to offer support, along with a few suggestions, mostly about using her head more and dancing bigger. (This had been her constant refrain from the beginning of the process.)
Shevchenko's mother, stepfather and grandmother were in the audience, as well as her boyfriend, who, she says, was more nervous than she was. Backstage—and onstage—her friends cheered her on.
At one point in the third act she lost her balance in a promenade for just a fraction of a second, and then, at the start of her variation, she dropped her fan. Like a pro, she reached down, picked it up and kept right on going, without the slightest sign of distress. In fact, in the coda she peppered her fouettés with double turns, while showily opening and closing her fan. She was clearly enjoying herself.
The main takeaway from that first run was realizing how tiring it was to dance the whole ballet, from beginning to end. "I was surprised by how hard it was to get through it," she says, "just the exhaustion of it. After the first act you're so tired and you still have two more to go."
But there was something else: the sound of the applause at the end of her variations. "It felt crazy," she says, "that it was for me. I get goosebumps just thinking about it."
The night after Shevchenko's debut, she got a call from McKenzie. Principal Gillian Murphy was injured—could she step in? So it turned out she got to dance Kitri not once, but two days in a row. She felt lucky she had a chance to apply Kolpakova's suggestions the very next night. "The whole week felt surreal," Shevchenko says. Even so, she slept well. "I think my body needed it."
Photo via Instagram
Shortly after, she got more surprise news: Due to injuries, she would be debuting as Medora in Le Corsaire the following week. After cramming the choreography over the weekend, with the help of McKenzie, Kolpakova and Anna-Marie Holmes (the official stager of the ballet), she performed the ballet without a hitch. Another milestone, this one unexpected. Toward the end of the season she also had her scheduled debut in Balanchine's Mozartiana, alongside David Hallberg.
And then, in the company's final week at the Met, a prize that had seemed far-off in the future at the start of the season was hers: She was promoted to principal dancer.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.