The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.
We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.
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."
Nicole Wolcott in her UWM MFA thesis Paper Pieces. Photo by Whitney Brown, Courtesy University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.
For many dancers, concerns about the next stage in their career frequently loom overhead. Enrolling in a master’s program serves as a crucial stepping-stone, especially if one wants to teach in a university or K–12 setting, choreograph or explore somatic practices. In the past, that usually meant uprooting and relocating—not always a good option for working professionals. Luckily, several universities have developed low-residency MFAs to accommodate just this type of student. “Once you’re no longer at the barre, so to speak, you don’t hear about that next gig, those new opportunities,” says Luc Vanier, graduate program director at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. “These programs benefit professionals who don’t want to lose their connection to the field.” With short, intense semesters held over summer months (when dancers, choreographers and teachers generally have freer schedules) and other courses that can be completed remotely in the fall and spring, low-residency programs give working artists more flexibility to pursue their academic and creative goals. —Amy Brandt
Located: Roanoke, VA
No. of students in program: 43
Degree offered: MFA in dance. Three-summer track: designed for emerging artists, teachers and dance professionals. Two-summer track: designed for mid-career dance professionals and teachers, with 12 credits granted for professional experience (minimum 10 years).
Audition required: Admission is based on applicant’s portfolio, which is reviewed by a panel of faculty.
Coursework includes: Mentored and individualized studio practice, dance history, theory and criticism, contemporary body practices, contemporary art practices, performance workshop, visiting artist series
How it works: Students meet for eight weeks during the summer: five weeks in residence at Hollins University, followed by three weeks in Frankfurt, Germany, studying at The Forsythe Company studio and the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts. Academic and creative coursework are completed off-site during the fall and spring terms.
ST. MARY'S COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA
Located: Moraga, CA
No. of students in program: 13
Degree offered: MFA in Dance: Creative Practice
Audition required: Yes, by invitation only, after application review.
Coursework includes: Choreography, technique, production practicum, dance history, critical dance pedagogy, design methodologies, lighting design, somatics, research methods
How it works: Students meet for four-week residencies over two years: three in June and two in January. In the fall and spring they take technique classes locally, as well as independent somatics-based courses and online/weekend classes (depending on their needs and proximity to campus). Students take choreography courses in the spring, receiving feedback via video, Skype or FaceTime.
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN—MILWAUKEE
Located: Milwaukee, WI
No. of students in program: 25–30
Degree offered: MFA in dance
Audition required: Applicants apply to the graduate school and submit a written statement, a choreography reel and letters of recommendation to the dance department. Candidates are selected by a committee.
Coursework includes: Dance technique (ballet, modern and African), Alexander technique, composition, improvisation, choreography, Laban Movement Analysis, dance literature, yoga
How it works: Students meet for seven weeks during the summer: a one-week intensive workshop taught by guest faculty, followed by a six-week semester. In the fall and spring, students have formal online classes and self-proposed independent studies, and they can develop a pre-thesis project, completing the thesis during the second fall and spring semesters. (Five semesters total.)
University of Wyoming students performing at Vedauwoo rec area. Photo by J. Harper, Courtesy University of Wyoming.
Lately, aerial dance has become a major genre—take a look at productions of Cirque du Soleil or on Broadway, and you’ll see dancers high overhead, engulfed in swaths of fabric or bounding gracefully off the walls. And dedicated aerial dance companies are popping up all over the country. As techniques evolve, more universities are incorporating it into their dance programs. “Aerial demands breadth of training in a variety of apparatuses,” says Nada Diachenko, dance professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. “It takes a lot of body conditioning, and safety issues are huge.” Here are three programs with extensive aerial dance offerings. —Amy Brandt
UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
Location: Durham, NH
Dance audition required: Yes
Prior aerial experience required: No
Degrees offered: BA in theater with an option in dance; dance minor
Program description: Ballet, pointe, tap, jazz and aerial arts make up the core curriculum, as well as courses in pedagogy, composition, dance history and choreography. Aerial classes are in two-hour time blocks in which students rotate between four stations: Trapeze and silks are offered every class; lyra, single-point trapeze, net, triple trap, Spanish web and other apparatuses are interspersed throughout the semester. Safety, rigging techniques and injury prevention are also addressed each class. Advanced students assist beginning and intermediate classes; once a week, advanced aerial students meet for an extra lab.
Facility: One studio with 20-foot steel-beam ceilings that allow for rigging
Performance opportunities: Spring dance concert provides opportunities for aerial performance, Aerial Showcase at the end of each semester, outdoor performances
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO, BOULDER
Location: Boulder, CO
Dance audition required: Yes, for both CU-Boulder’s graduate dance program and the Frequent Flyers program. Base strength requirements and health insurance also required for aerial training.
Prior aerial experience required: One year of focused training in an aerial apparatus; teacher-training candidates should be at an advanced level in an aerial apparatus, with prior teaching experience in either dance or aerial dance.
Degree offered: MFA in dance; secondary concentration in aerial dance with two track options (performance or teaching) through a partnership with Frequent Flyers, a professional aerial company and school.
Program description: Aerial track students complete 10 credit hours through FF towards total MFA requirements of 60 hours. All students take aerial fitness, aerial dance technique, ground-based movement, improvisation/choreography, open gym, stretching and workshops. Candidates work with fabric, trapeze, hoop, invented apparatus and stilts. Performance track includes student company and private lessons. Teaching-track candidates graduate with an MFA and FF teaching certification. CU graduate dance coursework includes technique, choreography, pedagogy, graduate seminar, final project, among others.
Facility: Aerial classes take place at Frequent Flyers’ studio, plus one on campus.
Performance opportunities: Student and/or faculty concerts, Aerial Dance Festival, informal showings
UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING
Location: Laramie, WY
Dance audition required: No audition required for the BA, which all freshmen declare. Students audition for the BFA program at the end of their freshman or sophomore year.
Prior aerial experience required: No
Degrees offered: BA in dance, BFA in dance performance, BFA in dance science, dance minor
Program description: Vertical dance courses (which involve rope and harness) are offered as electives to the overall dance curriculum, which includes ballet, modern and jazz. Vertical I is open to all dance majors and introduces safety measures, basic equipment and vertical dance vocabulary. Dancers work individually and in pairs, developing sequences and transitions for a final performance. Vertical II expands upon rigging techniques and focuses on individual choreography. Both courses begin each class with conditioning specific to vertical dance.
Facility: Classes are held in a black-box theater with an easily accessible grid, as well as in larger theaters. Rehearsals are held outdoors in late summer in preparation for performances at a local recreational area.
Performance opportunities: Two main-stage productions a year, collaborative faculty concerts, biannual performance at Vedauwoo outdoor recreation area, American College Dance Festival Association Northwest Conference
For the past 11 summers, emerging choreographers and dancers from across the country have gathered in southern California for the National Choreographer’s Initiative. And the benefits are two-fold: Dancers on their summer break receive engaging, process-oriented work, while the four selected dancemakers receive creative freedom, valuable studio time and highly-trained artists to work with.
Starting Monday, this year’s chosen choreographers—Gabrielle Lamb, Barry Kerollis, Garrett Smith and Philip Neal—have three weeks at the University of California, Irvine dance studios to create a new work. The dancers (eight men and eight women) are an eclectic mix, hailing from Sacramento Ballet, Ballet Austin, Los Angeles Ballet, Ballet Met, Richmond Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre, Nashville Ballet, Company “C” Contemporary Ballet and Festival Ballet Theatre. The project culminates in a performance at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on July 26th.
As an added benefit, Lamb, Kerollis, Smith and Neal will retain the right to promote and license their works to other companies. This is very good news, indeed—since 2004, NCI has produced 44 new works, 23 of which have entered company repertoires throughout the U.S.
Three college programs for aspiring triple threats.
Singing. Dancing. Acting. For college-bound students hoping to become the next triple threat, it’s often hard to find a dance program that nurtures all three—and few musical theater programs offer enough challenging courses for seriously trained dancers. Choosing the right school takes some digging and creative planning. For instance, dance majors can sometimes take advantage of a musical theater minor. Or, they can look for a musical theater major with a dance emphasis, such as Roosevelt University’s newly launched program. Below are three strong schools for aspiring triple threats to consider. —Amy Brandt
OKLAHOMA CITY UNIVERSITY
Located: Oklahoma City, OK
No. of dance majors: 193
Degrees offered: BPA (bachelor of performing arts) in dance performance, BS in dance pedagogy, BS in dance management
Audition required: Yes (ballet, jazz, tap); voice presentations optional
Dance classes required: Tap, jazz, ballet, theater dance
Voice and acting classes required: Music fundamentals, class voice, private voice, acting
Performance opportunities: American Spirit Dance Company (2 main-stage shows, plus local performances and touring), 4 musicals (2 full-length), 4 operas, student choreography show
Opportunities for outside study: Students are encouraged to perform in summer stock theater/theme parks, including Music Theatre of Wichita, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and Busch Gardens. Summer internship organizations include Broadway Dance Center and Jacob’s Pillow.
Alumni: Broadway, Las Vegas, national tours, cruise ship productions, Radio City Rockettes, television, film, music videos
Above: OCU’s American Spirit Dance Company. Photo by John Bedford, Courtesy Oklahoma City University.
Located: Chicago, IL
No. of dance majors: 18 (22 incoming freshmen expected for 2014–15)
Degrees offered: BFA in musical theater—dance emphasis
Audition required: Yes (ballet, jazz, song, monologue)
Dance classes required: Ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip hop, partnering, navigating song and dance, anatomy and kinesiology, dance pedagogy
Voice and acting classes required: Ensemble singing, piano, music theory, private voice, acting for the musical stage
Performance opportunities: 3 main-stage musicals, 3 main-stage plays, 4 freshman showcases, 4 musical theater showcases, 3 acting showcases
Opportunities for outside study: RU has internship programs with Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Lookingglass Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Juniors and seniors may audition for outside productions.
Alumni: Broadway, off-Broadway, Chicago theater, national tours, film, television
Above: Roosevelt students in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Photo by Zeke Dolezaleck, Courtesy Roosevelt University.
POINT PARK UNIVERSITY
Located: Pittsburgh, PA
No. of dance majors: 240
Degrees offered: BFA in dance, BA in dance, BA in dance pedagogy, minor in musical theater. Many musical theater dancers pursue a BFA (jazz concentration) and a musical theater minor.
Audition required: Yes (ballet, modern, jazz); audition for musical theater minor occurs sophomore year.
Dance classes required: Ballet, modern, jazz, anatomy, kinesiology, dance history, music fundamentals. Ballet concentrations take pointe/men’s class, pas de deux. Jazz and modern concentrations take contemporary partnering.
Voice and acting classes required: For musical theater minor: voice, private voice lessons, acting, musical theater techniques, piano/theory fundamentals, sight-singing fundamentals
Performance opportunities: 6 main-stage productions a year (including one full-length) plus The Nutcracker. Dancers can also audition for the theater department’s full-length musicals.
Opportunities for outside study: Dancers may pursue outside opportunities, but because of Point Park’s rigorous class and rehearsal schedule, they must be selective. Students may also study abroad for one semester.
Alumni: Broadway, national tours, Cirque du Soleil, ballet and contemporary companies, film, television
Above: Point Park University students in Oklahoma!. Photo by Jeff Swenson, Courtesy Point Park University.
For the past two weeks, over 90 dancers from around the world have taken over the city of Jackson, Mississippi, for the USA International Ballet Competition. Since Tuesday, the remaining 31 finalists have been strutting their stuff to packed audiences at Thalia Mara Hall. While there’s been plenty of thrilling pyrotechnics in the classical department, many of the contemporary pieces have felt like an afterthought. That is, until Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu, 26, stunned the crowd in an electrifying, self-choreographed solo. Expertly blending traditional African dance and hip hop, his dynamic, rippling performance was a welcome shot in the arm.
Originally from South Africa, Ndlovu started out as a ballroom dancer, eventually switching to ballet at age 15. After spotting him in a South African ballet competition, artistic director Septime Webre offered him a full scholarship to the Washington Ballet School in 2008. Two years later, Ndlovu competed in the 2010 USA IBC, only to be cut after the first round. I sat down with him yesterday at the dancer’s dormitory to talk about how it’s going the second time around.
Was it hard to leave South Africa?
No, not really. When you get an invitation to come to America, you go. It was always a dream of mine. Opportunities are limited in South Africa if you’re as ambitious as I am.
Tell me about the first time you competed at USA IBC in 2010.
It was a nightmare. I came here young and full of energy, wanting to do everything, but not really understanding what it was really that I was coming here to do. We all come here to go for that gold or silver medal, but without understanding how much you can grow here as an artist, how much it helps you to understand other artists and how other people react to disappointment and how others react to excitement. I worked hard, but not enough—not enough on the important things, which I realized after I got knocked out after the first round. And so ever since then, I’ve been doing competitions to just better myself, to nurture my talent and to get the world to see it.
Now that you’re back, how have you applied what you learned the first time?
When I got knocked out the last time, I thought, the next time I come here, I’ll be in the final. That goal has been imprinted in my mind since then. How I got to where I am now is by working on my artistry—to be able to switch from a prince to a happy peasant to a slave in Corsaire or a hunter from Diane and Acteon. I had to work really hard on that, refining all those professional aspects, what I wanted from myself.
Do you feel like you’re representing yourself, South Africa or Washington Ballet?
Representing myself is a good thing, but for me, it’s much bigger than that. You always represent where you come from, no matter how much you’ve been disappointed or not appreciated for where you’re from. You still represent it—you just should have that integrity as a professional.
Your contemporary solo, Wondering Thoughts, really brought down the house on Tuesday night. I noticed it was your own choreography—did that add another level of stress to the competition?
Yes, because I had to edit my solo five times—I was still editing backstage! It’s really hard to choreograph on yourself. You need other eyes to tell you what looks good and what doesn’t. My coach Charla Genn Croitoroo worked really hard with me before I got here. She wasn’t able to come to Jackson, so once I got here we started Skyping during my rehearsals. It was hard, but it helped a lot.
Wondering Thoughts is about two lives, two backgrounds: my life in South Africa, and my life here. I used a lot of traditional movements from home with classical music, to show the two contrasts. The thought is to understand that at the end, they both complement each other. And it’s not separate: Coming from raw, earthy tribal movements and mixing it with hip hop and breakdancing and classical—that’s me confronting the new world, asking myself, “How do I fit in?” And then at the end I realize there’s no fitting in. It’s the same.
What do you hope to come away with from IBC-Jackson?
A gold, silver or bronze medal would be great. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m still happy to be in the final, because that’s the goal I set for myself and I achieved it. If I get an award then that would just put the cherry on top.
This week, the Royal Ballet has been performing at the glittering Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. But two senior dancers, who the company has declined to name, are absent. Earlier this month, the dancers—one man and one woman—pulled out of the Royal’s tour to Moscow in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation, including a law that prohibits distributing information about homosexuality to minors.
“Out of the 96-strong dancers in The Royal Ballet, just two dancers have chosen not to go for political reasons,” the company released in a statement. It went on to say that several other dancers were staying home for other reasons, making the protestors identities harder to pinpoint. “On any overseas tour, there are inevitably some dancers who are not required in the repertory being taken on tour, or who have family or other commitments that do not allow them to go overseas for the duration of the tour.” According to a BBC news report, Moscow’s homegrown talent Natalia Osipova, along with Carlos Acosta, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, are among those performing.
The protests make a strong statement, especially since this year marks the UK-Russia Year of Culture, which, according to organization’s website, “aims to foster cultural exchange, increase the flow of ideas and develop stronger relationships between people, institutions and governments.”