Dancers & Companies
LADP rehearsing Millepied's On The Other Side, photo by Joe Toreno

It's fitting that choreographer Benjamin Millepied named a recent work On the Other Side. After a difficult two-year tenure as artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, he is happily settled in Los Angeles and reemerging with big plans for L.A. Dance Project, the contemporary company he founded there in 2012.

Today, his ambitious vision is redefining what an independent dance company can do: grow into an online dance platform and a lifestyle brand, host a building and performance space, and build an international presence.

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Health & Body
Katelyn Prominski. Photo by Rachel Bell Carpenter

When Katelyn Prominski came down with swine flu in 2009, she never quite recovered. Six months later, she remembers, "I started feeling super-exhausted, super-hungry, always thirsty. Just really, really run down."

Then a corps member with Pennsylvania Ballet, Prominski didn't know that the virus had triggered Type 1 diabetes. The disease is normally diagnosed in childhood, so it didn't occur to Prominski or her doctors that she could have developed it at age 25.

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Health & Body
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Craving candy? Doubling down on dessert?

In sensible amounts, sweets can be tasty treats and can even provide a quick energy boost. According to well-designed research, athletes like dancers tend to metabolize sugar efficiently, so they can safely consume reasonable amounts as part of a healthy diet.

But if you fuel up on too many sweets, you risk being "overfed and undernourished," says certified dietitian nutritionist Heidi Skolnik. That's because sugar provides quickly digested calories (16 per teaspoon) and no other nutrients.

If your cravings feel out of control, here's how to tame them without feeling deprived.

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Training

At Hubbard Street's new intensive in Los Angeles, dancers dig into the choreographic process.

“Give it more intensity," says Robyn Mineko Williams, the choreographer in residence at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's inaugural pre-professional summer intensive at the University of Southern California. The dancer tries her solo again, moving across the floor in wider second-position pliés, bending her torso more deeply, jutting her elbows more sharply.

The studio bursts into applause. “I think the other students could feel this dancer changing right before their eyes," Williams says afterward. That kind of aha moment is exactly what the program is designed to cultivate. An odyssey into the contemporary dance-making process, it challenges dancers to immerse themselves in collaboration with a world-class choreographer and offers a taste of life in a top-tier company.

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Inside DM

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Come back stronger by using your body’s natural healing response.

It’s the end of a tiring rehearsal, but you try that challenging jump one last time, and land sideways on your foot. Within minutes you begin to notice the signs of a sprain: swelling, pain and heat, and eventually bruising.

As a group, these symptoms are called inflammation. It hurts—and it looks awful—but is it dangerous? “Inflammation is part of the healing process,” says Dr. Joey Fernandez, a sports medicine specialist with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Inflammation is natural and unavoidable, and you can work with it to get back on your feet more quickly.

What’s Happening?

When you have an acute soft-tissue injury like an ankle sprain, Fernandez explains, inflammation sends in immune cells and chemicals, such as neutrophils, cytokines and macrophages, to clear out damaged tissue. “It’s like renovation,” he says. “You put up scaffolding, and the workers have to remove the damage before they can rebuild.”

Get the Swelling Down

Swelling is a result of fluid leaking out of the blood vessels into the surrounding tissue during the inflammation process. This delivers the repair cells to the site, but it can also slow recovery. “Let’s say you have a partially torn ligament,” explains Dr. Selina Shah, who treats dancers at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital’s Center for Sports Medicine in Walnut Creek, California. “The fibers are going to have a hard time coming back together if the fluid from swelling is in the way.”

Immediately after the injury, you can help clear out the excess fluid by wrapping the site in an ACE bandage or brace to apply gentle compression and by elevating the injured area (above the heart, if possible). Ice can also be applied (using a towel to protect your skin from frost burn) for 15 minutes about three times a day. You can continue these treatments for as long as the swelling is visible and you notice a benefit.

Active Rest

Fernandez estimates that the debris-removing macrophages need about 36 hours to eat up damaged cells. Dancers should avoid weight-bearing activity on the injured body part during that time, he says, “or you can be dancing on tissues that haven’t started to build new cells.” However, he prescribes gentle movement immediately after injury. For a sprained ankle, for example, lie on your back, raise your injured ankle toward the ceiling, and carefully rotate your ankle, wiggle your toes and flex your foot. These “open-chain” exercises, where the limb is free to move without resistance, promote healing without further damaging the tissue. “I tell dancers, Think of your ankle sprain as having lungs,” explains Fernandez. “It needs oxygen to heal, and the physical motion squeezes the tissues to encourage drainage.”

Anti-Inflammatories

“NSAIDs get a bad rap,” Fernandez says of the over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, which have been blamed for everything from liver damage to ulcers. He is comfortable recommending short-term use to reduce pain. “Nothing is going to happen unless you have a predisposing condition,” says Shah. Addressing another common misconception, she adds that “they’re absolutely not addicting.”

However, both doctors warn against using anti-inflammatories to push through class or rehearsals before an injury has healed sufficiently. “Teachers and directors expect dancers to heal on a timeline,” Fernandez says, “but you might actually take two steps back.”

Swelling Controversy

“There are a lot of misconceptions about inflammation in the dance world,” Shah warns. Many existing studies are poorly designed and unreliable, she says, “but people read them on the internet and think they’re true.”

In particular, she says that many dancers underestimate the power of the inflammatory response. “They’ll say, ‘If you use ice or NSAIDs, you’re going to stop the inflammation.’ They don’t stop the process—your body is a lot smarter than that and has many pathways to healing.”

Ultimately, every body is unique and responds to inflammation—and treatment—in its own way. “There is a sweet spot for each person,” Fernandez observes. “What we want to do is get the benefits while minimizing the side effects.” 

Career

Don’t let Steffi Cheong’s petite build fool you—onstage, she can unleash fierce physicality as readily as the most delicate gesture. Now in her third season with San Francisco’s ODC/Dance, Cheong is coming into her own in the intellectually rigorous, intensely technical works created by artistic directors Brenda Way, KT Nelson and Kimi Okada.

Cheong has been turning heads since she joined ODC in 2013. Photo by Andrew Weeks, Courtesy ODC.

Company: ODC/Dance

Age: 27

Hometown: Murray Hill, New Jersey

Training: Ballet and modern at New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble; BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase

Becoming a collaborator: Cheong relishes ODC’s collaborative method, with the dancers generating movement for the directors to refine into new work. It’s a 180-degree change from the choreographer-directed rehearsals she was used to at her previous company, DanceWorks Chicago. The challenge has enriched her artistry: “I have to dig deeper,” she says.

Moving in the moment: During a Springboard Danse Montréal workshop in college, Cheong fell in love with improvising. “That’s where I really learned to let go and find myself,” she says. “Discovering different ways that your body can move, and listening to different kinds of music, creates a new tempo in your head.” She still takes classes when she has time.

What Brenda Way is saying: “Steffi is not just another dancer in a group—you feel her presence. In her first season, people said ‘Who’s the new girl?’ ”

Property master: ODC’s intricate multimedia works can include moving sets, wheeled vehicles, confetti and projections. Cheong says that rather than distracting her onstage, these props enhance her experience. “Dancers are so attentive to their surroundings during live performance,” she says. “If there’s another element thrown in, it just opens another facet of attentiveness.”

Inner strength: Way praises Cheong’s technical elegance as well as her emotional resilience, a prerequisite for ODC’s demanding creation process. She says, “The number of ideas we try and throw away—you have to be strong.” 

Inside DM

New nutrition buzzwords seem to crop up every week. How can you decide what’s helpful, what’s bogus and what might be harmful? Three dietitians help separate fact from fiction.

Go for It

PROBIOTICS: The microbes in our intestines affect immunity, brain function and possibly even anxiety and depression. Emily Cook Harrison, dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet, suggests a daily probiotic supplement to replenish your gut’s microbiome, which can be depleted by a poor diet or antibiotics; choose capsules or liquids that contain at least six different live strains. Also fill your diet with fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, raw sauerkraut and miso soup.

NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED: Antibiotics in livestock feed have been cited as a major contributor to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” Peggy Otto Swistak, consulting nutritionist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, recommends eating meats and poultry with no antibiotics added.

ORGANIC: Organic and conventional produce are generally considered equally nutritious. But for produce with edible skin, like strawberries and bell peppers, buying organic will help you avoid synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

SUPERFOODS: Berries, leafy greens, hemp hearts, chia and other plant foods deliver loads of nutrients with each calorie, including hard-to-get micronutrients.

Question It

GLUTEN-FREE: “Dancers mistakenly think that going gluten-free is healthier,” says Harrison. In fact, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates that just 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease and cannot safely consume gluten (a protein found in wheat and other grains), and only 6 percent more have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. “For everyone else, it’s not a big deal,” Harrison says. Needlessly going gluten-free means losing out on good sources of the carbohydrates and B vitamins that fuel long dance days.

DAIRY-FREE: Rumors abound that adults aren’t designed to digest dairy. “That isn’t true unless you’re lactose intolerant,” says Kristen Gravani, director of sports nutrition at Stanford University. Going nondairy can increase dancers’ risk of stress fractures. “You want as much calcium and vitamin D as you can get, and the body absorbs them better from natural sources than supplements.”

NON-GMO: There is still some debate about the health ramifications of eating genetically modified crops. Harrison’s bigger concern is glyphosate, a weed-killing chemical farmers use because GMO plants are bred to resist it. “The World Health Organization has labeled glyphosate ‘probably carcinogenic,’ ” she says. “When we eat GMO foods, we expose ourselves to it.”

LOCALLY GROWN: Locally grown produce tends to be very fresh, so it is healthier than produce that’s traveled farther. But both are nutritious—as are frozen options, says Swistak.

Avoid It

JUICE CLEANSES: “Cleanses are harmful at best,” Gravani warns. “You’re not getting enough calories, and it’s going to mess with your metabolism.” Typically, weight loss is mostly water weight that will come back within a few days.

BONE BROTH: Credited for everything from healing cartilage to restoring immunity, bone broth is little more than soup stock: animal bones simmered with vegetables. “There is zero science showing that bone broth is helpful,” Harrison says. That doesn’t mean it’s harmless: “Bone broth is known to be high in lead and arsenic.”

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Career

As a student at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, American Ballet Theatre soloist Christine Shevchenko’s first experience with character dance was learning the Paquita harp variation. “It was challenging,” she admits, “because I hadn’t taken character class yet.” For extra training, Shevchenko enrolled in character at a local university—and went on to earn first place in the Junior Division at the 2003 Youth America Grand Prix and a gold medal at the 2005 Moscow International Ballet Competition, dancing Paquita variations both times.

Christine Shevchenko says her character training helps her bring stylistic detail to classical and contemporary roles. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Often based on European and Middle Eastern folk dances, the character repertoire showcases national dances in refined, stylized choreography. Though it’s an often-overlooked aspect of dance training, character helps dancers gain a deeper understanding of story ballets, while boosting strength and musicality. But the form isn’t just for extreme classicists. Character dance also develops the coordination required to become a versatile dancer.

Bring Context To the Classics

From the mazurkas of Coppélia to the flamenco of Don Quixote, Marius Petipa used character dances to give his ballets a sense of place and personality. “All the steps have historical meaning,” says Leonid Shagalov, the teacher of San Francisco Ballet School’s character dance program. “If dancers know this meaning, they can bring an emotional side to the dance.”

Natalya Lushina-Zeiger, who teaches Vaganova technique and variations at The Rock School, agrees. She points to the third-act solos from Swan Lake, when Siegfried’s potential brides perform dances of Poland, Italy, Spain, Russia and Hungary. “A lot of people think they’re all the same, but they’re completely different,” she says. “Is the arm out to the side or up? Is your hand behind your head?”

Character dances are rich in details like these, some of which trace back to regional costume. In the Polish mazurka, for example, the hand is placed on the upper back of the head because the original performers held their hats in place during the vigorous dancing. “The style is what the variation is really about,” Lushina-Zeiger says, and understanding the nuances is the key to shining. When scoring competitions like YAGP, she and her fellow judges take authenticity into account. “We try not to be too strict, but we always mark the wrong style and say it needs to be addressed.”

 

Master Musicality

Composers like Minkus and Tchaikovsky based music for variations on folk refrains, retaining their sometimes-unusual time signatures. Italian tarantellas, as in Bournonville’s Napoli, can have 18/8 and 6/8 rhythms; Polish mazurkas, like those in Raymonda, can be danced in a triple time with accents on the second or third beat. “Learning flamenco rhythms was really hard,” Shevchenko says of Don Quixote. “There are so many little syncopations.” Kitri alone dances to an array of rhythms: Her fan variation is a basic 2/4, but her Act II entrance is a staccato 3/8, while Dulcinea’s coda is in 6/8.

Lushina-Zeiger says these benefits reach beyond ballet. “Once you coordinate it, once you can hear it, your body is free,” she says. “It makes dancing much easier.” Shevchenko also credits character study with preparing her mind and body for more modern repertoire. “You learn all these tricky sequences that people rarely do,” she says. “It helps you pick up contemporary pieces quickly.”

 

Turbo-charge Your Technique

Because character dances often feature hopping and running steps, flat shoes or boots, and a lighthearted presentation, they can seem more relaxed—and easier—than classical choreography. In reality, they entail complex upper-lower body opposition, épaulement and heel-toe footwork. “A lot of character dance is much sharper and faster than classical,” Lushina-Zeiger observes. It’s essentially a form of cross-training that can enhance classical and contemporary technique alike.

“In Moldavian Moldovenyaska and jok, students develop coordination that helps them jump higher,” says Shagalov. His dancers “study Hungarian czardas for épaulement, which helps with turns. For the Russian trepak in Nutcracker, they learn how to get force out of pliés.”

Shevchenko has applied what she learned to such roles in Swan Lake, Raymonda, Coppélia and Polyhymnia in Balanchine’s Apollo. “It’s really good for your brain,” she says. “And it makes you use your body in a completely different way.” 

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