A former dancer with Milwaukee Ballet Company, Candice Thompson received her MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a co-founder of DIYdancer, and currently based in Atlanta, GA.
Go into almost any dance studio, and you'll find students anxiously trying to stretch their feet. They'll force their body's weight over their toes, or ask a friend to sit on their arches. But stretching your feet might not actually be the most effective strategy to improve your line.
"Stretching is a strategy to go after a tight muscle," explains Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet. "But a better-looking foot is not just a range-of-motion issue. What most dancers are after when they want 'better feet' is more about strength and support of the bony structure."
While David Hallberg was recovering from Achilles tendinopathy, one of the treatments that the Australian Ballet rehab team gave him was a stair running exercise. "This is an exercise David needs to continue to do forever, every day," says AB's principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes.
The basic idea is to run up and down flights of stairs to the beat of a metronome in order to monitor and challenge the intensity and volume of loading on the Achilles tendon. The exercise simultaneously strengthens the tendon and provides a cardiovascular workout.
Back in 2002, dancer and choreographer Jonah Bokaer founded an art space in Brooklyn called Chez Bushwick. As Manhattan and Brooklyn were quickly becoming unaffordable, and many studio spaces were closing, Bokaer seized upon "creative placemaking"—the idea that the arts can play an integral role in community-building—before it became a buzzword. "We have been sustaining and maintaining one of the most affordable dance studios in New York State since the very beginning of my career," he says.
Fifteen years later, the challenges for choreographers in expensive urban centers continue unabated, and Bokaer has found his original mission magnified. While Chez Bushwick remains a haven for the next generation, there is also a growing number of young dancemakers who have been inspired to create their own residencies, communities and, ultimately, opportunities.
David Hallberg almost quit dancing two years ago. The international ballet star, whose talent and drive had made him the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, was struggling after a 2014 ankle surgery to repair a frayed deltoid ligament. A resulting mass of scar tissue ultimately required a second surgery. Impingements and Achilles tendinopathy hounded him, making it nearly impossible to plié, as he pushed to get back into the studio.
Meanwhile, he was fielding promising offers to direct companies and curate festivals. Unsure of himself, the American Ballet Theatre principal sought advice from ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie: Was it time to retire and move on to a leadership role, or was it worth giving his recovery another shot?
During her senior year of college, Erika Leeds flew to Philadelphia for an open call. She was one of more than 100 people who paid $25 to audition, with the hopes of landing a job. "Once we got there, we were told that there were currently no open spots in the company," says Leeds. She stayed for the promise of getting seen but walked away disappointed. "This whole thing was crazy: I paid to fly up here and audition, and they weren't hiring and barely saw us dance."
In other industries, paying a future employer for an interview would be considered unethical. Yet in dance, it is common practice. Many companies offer the explanation that it is expensive to hold open calls and in exchange for that fee, they are providing a class. Now, cash-strapped dancers and even some company leaders find themselves questioning this norm.
Having just returned to New York City after a couple weeks of guesting in Southeast Asia, American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin is in rehearsal for the lead role in Alexei Ratmansky's latest creation, Whipped Cream. In between this brief rehearsal period and ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season, Simkin will be using any days off to travel for other guest performances. That is, when he's not in production meetings or rehearsing in Chicago or New York for his own project premiering at the Guggenheim in the fall, or preparing his debut as Albrecht in Giselle for an ABT tour.
"If I have an hour break between rehearsals, I try to get my work done for the day," says Simkin. "There are emails, meetings, fundraising, a lot of administration stuff with the Guggenheim project, delegating, checking in—'Will Dior do the costumes?'—and then I might get a guesting invitation and then I have to check my schedule, book flights and hotels."
Daniil Simkin's Intensio project. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Fog envelops you as swans and sylphs flash right past your shoulder. This is Peter Leung's Night Fall, a new virtual reality 360 dance film featuring Dutch National Ballet. It puts you inside the "white acts" the film portrays as though you were a member of the corps.
Over the past year, ballet companies and premier artists have been creating new work and adapting existing ballets for the virtual reality world via 360-degree video technology. From English National Ballet's Giselle VR, a two-minute adaptation of Akram Khan's new production, to The Royal Ballet's snow scene from The Nutcracker, classical ballet is forging new partnerships with technology and entertainment companies to cross over into this new platform.
360-degree video technology offers unprecedented access and astounding visuals. Using an omnidirectional camera or several cameras, every angle is captured and the resulting footage stitched together. During playback online, the viewer has the option of exploring the entire panorama.
Worried your feet aren't good enough for a professional ballet career?
Good news: Most people, let alone dancers, have enough range of motion to go on pointe, says Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet.
"It is almost always a strength problem," she says. "Floppy or flat feet may be the result of weak intrinsic foot muscles."