Coached by Gelsey
Gelsey Kirkland walks toward a group of teenage students in the middle of the studio. The dancers are practicing the tricky hops on pointe at the end of Swanilda's Act III variation from Coppélia. It's a stressful moment, and can easily read that way from the audience if a dancer tenses up. In her signature long-sleeve button-down shirt and tinted glasses, Kirkland offers a metaphor to better place their upper bodies over their standing leg. “You're practicing for your first child," she says with a smile, leaning over slightly to shake her finger at an imaginary toddler. The imagery doesn't just help the dancers better align their bodies; it gives them a physical focal point, out of the mirror and back into Swanilda's world.
For an hour and 10 minutes, Kirkland continues breaking down the same short section of the variation, with students divided into groups of four. Most corrections concern the eyes, rib cage, épaulement and port de bras. This kind of detailed coaching is a luxury most dancers never receive, yet it's par for the course at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet's summer Classical Repertory Workshop. The program offers advanced students a chance to study iconic roles under Kirkland. Her goal is clear. “It's important for dancers to understand how classroom technique, especially upper body technique, is related to the characters you create," she says. “You can't look a certain way in class and another way when you decide to create a character—it has to be joined."
Learning From a Legend
A principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre during the 1970s and '80s, Kirkland became famous as much for her struggles with perfectionism, eating disorders and drug addiction as for her portrayals of 19th-century classics. She chronicled her troubles and successful recovery in her autobiography, Dancing on My Grave. Yet the book also revealed an intensely analytical mind, one she channeled into teaching after she retired.
Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov, a former actor and dancer, founded GKA in 2010. The school has grown quickly, offering both full-day training and programs after school. Its curriculum is Vaganova-based, with a distinct emphasis on alignment, coordination and dramatic development, and also draws on Bournonville training. The pair added the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, a studio company, in 2013. Two years later, the school relocated to a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn, with four large studios and a 300-seat theater.
The industrial space easily accommodates GKA's four summer programs, three of which—the Classical Repertory Workshop, the Junior Dance Intensive and the Fast Track Program (a technique-based immersion course for less advanced students)—run simultaneously from June to early July. The Pre-Professional Intensive, held afterwards, is a more traditional summer program, while the Classical Repertory Workshop focuses distinctly on studying traditional repertoire. It offers advanced students the opportunity to dig into the classical cannon's most famous principal roles.
A Typical Day
Photo Courtesy GKA
The workshop accepts roughly 40 to 60 students (many of whom train at GKA year-round) split into several levels. Each day begins with core dynamics, a Pilates-based class that focuses on bringing the body into proper alignment. Technique, pointe and men's classes follow. Some students also take Chernov's remedial class, in which Chernov leads discussions and simple exercises on technique basics that dancers rarely have time to analyze otherwise. Each class has a specific focus, such as how to properly use the hips and turnout.
The second half of the day is devoted to repertory, with students learning different variations and group dances from the same ballet. The emphasis is strictly classical. “Because it's the most difficult," Kirkland explains, noting that students must understand classical fundamentals before moving on to freer neoclassical or contemporary styles. All students receive coaching from Kirkland, as well as several other GKA faculty members.
Finding Artistry in Technique
Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is no performance component. Instead, students give an informal showing for parents on Friday afternoons. “A performance creates pressure," says Chernov. “If you really want to dissolve into the work, it's better not to have an exam."
Former GKA student Megan Schwuchow appreciates that aspect of the program. “To me, artistry is more challenging," she says. “You feel like you're able to make mistakes and grow from them because you don't have to worry about performing."
Unlike the Pre-Professional Intensive, the Classical Repertory Workshop does not offer courses in acting or mime. Instead, Kirkland and Chernov stress the connection between classwork and character development. In other words, physically embodying an onstage persona begins with technique, rather than facial expressions and gestures. “Proper fifth position, the body mechanics of allongé—they've all been built into these variations," says Kirkland. “Your instrument has to be trained specifically or you can't do the second layer of acting."
Indeed, it's easy to see how her corrections in technique class translate to her coaching sessions. In both, she stresses which direction the head, body and eyes project during each step, and how to coordinate them. Her goal is to help students rely less on their image in the mirror and more on feeling their body from the inside. “If you're stuck in the mirror," says Kirkland, “that translates to the stage—it becomes just about you instead of your character."
While GKA teaches an interpretation of the Vaganova method, Russian training isn't necessary to get into the program. Neither is a picture-perfect body type. “Mainly, does the person have enough facility to do the exercises and are they interested in learning?" says Kirkland. “Students who are new will get a sense of character just by practicing what they're doing in class and how it relates to the variation. This simplicity is very difficult to achieve in a short amount of time—but at least they start to witness how it's all connected."
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
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.
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.
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:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."