Yes, she's small, but the word "mighty" doesn't even begin to get to the root of Linda Celeste Sims' startling magnetism. She joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1996 and now, at 41, it's as if her luminous dancing has entered another realm.
"I don't feel tired," she says. "I don't feel like I hate it. I don't feel like it's redundant. I can express different things. I can see what's happening in a more mature way, and I'm intrigued by this moment."
It's not that she isn't aware of her aging body. "I'm not as quick and as fast as I used to be," Sims says. "It's a challenge, but how can I express movement in a new way?"
For years, Diana Vishneva seemed to be an exotic creature who landed in New York City: If we held our collective breath long enough, perhaps she wouldn't fly away. But last June, this Russian ballerina did just that after delivering her farewell performance of Onegin with American Ballet Theatre, where she had been a principal since 2005. Her wild passion, her musicality and her ability to hold nothing back made her classical dancing all the more thrilling.
Vishneva got her start at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. Seven years later she won the Prix de Lausanne, and in 1995, she joined the Mariinsky Ballet, with whom she gave her first major performances in New York City. In 2001, she began her guest artist career, performing with La Scala Ballet, the Paris Opéra Ballet, Staatsballett Berlin and others over the years.
Isabella LaFreniere dances like a beam of light. A member of New York City Ballet's corps since 2014, LaFreniere, 5' 8", is a technical powerhouse who exudes a sweet radiance: It's no surprise to learn that while she hasn't danced many principal roles yet, she is being primed for them in the studio. One is Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. As ballet master Jonathan Stafford puts it, "That's a ballerina role big time."
Chalvar Monteiro saw his first Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance at 12 and was smitten. Today, at 28, he's a lithe, elegantly understated member of the company. But he's experienced some happy detours along the way—namely as a dancer with MacArthur-winning choreographer Kyle Abraham, as well as Sidra Bell and Larry Keigwin. After a stint with Ailey II, he joined the main company in 2015. He has shown both sophistication and versatility: fearless in the "Sinner Man" section of Revelations and searing in Untitled America, Abraham's emotional exploration of how the prison system affects families.
Richardson, here in Sylvia, says, “Accepting who I am as a dancer helped me be comfortable, even in company class.” PC Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT
The luminous Rachel Richardson has it all: long legs, articulate feet and a sparkling smile that makes her prodigious technique seem all the more natural. She was a standout in American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, where she danced—with particular generosity and expansiveness—a memorable Medora in Le Corsaire, but during ABT’s Metropolitan Opera season last spring, she held the stage as both the Fairy Miettes qui tombent, or Breadcrumb, and the Gold Fairy in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Though she’s only been a member of the corps de ballet since 2015, one thing is clear: Richardson is in remarkable possession of ballerina aplomb.
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Hometown: Eugene, Oregon
Training: Oregon Ballet Academy, Eugene Ballet Academy and The Rock School for Dance Education
Accolades: Youth America Grand Prix silver medal, senior division
How the ballet bug bit her: When she started dancing at age 8, Richardson was deep into soccer and avoided all things girly. “My older sister danced,” she says. “Her teacher saw my feet and thought that I should try a class. I didn’t want to do it originally because I sort of thought it was nothing, like really easy. After my first class I totally loved it. I was always up for a challenge.”
Insider tip: “I went to The Rock for one year and then my parents asked me to come back to Eugene for my sister’s senior year.” That coincided with an illuminating year of training at Eugene Ballet Academy. “It’s tempting to think, If I can’t take from this one teacher or at this one school, then my life is ruined!” Richardson says. “But it’s important to see the bigger picture and that there’s a lot to gain from different people.”
On dancing in the corps: Richardson says it comes down to being gracious. “I’m learning about the unselfish aspect of dancing, which I’m realizing more and more is what being an artist is really about. If you’re too much in your head, it takes away from your ability to give.”
Breakthrough moment: “The Sleeping Beauty. Ratmansky has so much he wants. It’s the best way to work toward anything because you have a sense of how far you want to try to go, even if you can’t get there in that rehearsal—or in the next five. He works you hard, but I like coming out of a rehearsal super-sweaty.”
What Kate Lydon says: “I like the precision of her technique,” says Lydon, who directs ABT’s Studio Company. “Not many people have that ability. But I also like the honesty of her characterizations, plus her vulnerability and her steel will. She’s tiny, but she’s mighty.”
It never ends: Attaining perfection is impossible, but Richardson relishes the challenge. “I definitely always am working on improving my jump. Footwork. Strength in my feet. Dancing with my whole body as opposed to just dancing with limbs. But that’s why I started dancing and why I still love it. Literally every single thing can always be better.”
Longtime Dance Theatre of Harlem star Ashley Murphy reboots her career at The Washington Ballet.
Murphy rehearsing Septime Webre’s State of Wonder. Photos by Danuta Otfinowski.
As a reigning ballerina of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ashley Murphy put in her time. A dancer of razor-sharp technique and plush musicality, she first joined the company before its 2004 disbanding—when Arthur Mitchell was in charge—and continued during its rebirth under Virginia Johnson. Murphy served as a bridge between the old and the new.
But the new, she discovered, could be a grind: Beyond financial constraints, she found herself dancing on less-than-ideal stages—an awkward rake here, an unsprung floor there—during tours that moved quickly from one city to the next. Even so, Murphy wasn’t searching for another job. It found her.
Now a member of The Washington Ballet, Murphy, 31, is expanding her horizons. When artistic director Septime Webre was looking for a new dancer, her name was recommended. He had seen her dance with DTH, and was a fan. “She’s got a certain fierceness in her barre work and a softness in her upper body,” he says. “I just love that combination of steely legwork and strong turns and technique and a really determined approach. She also has a beautiful look.”
When Murphy couldn’t attend the audition, Webre watched her take class at Steps on Broadway. She had brought along her boyfriend, Samuel Wilson, also a member of DTH, for moral support. Webre offered each a contract. “We didn’t want to leave DTH on a bad note,” Murphy says. “It was like our family. But it was just time, for me in particular, to try something new.”
As the most experienced member of DTH, she’d reached a plateau. “I wasn’t really growing anymore—they didn’t need to pay attention to me as much because they knew I would work on things on my own. I felt like I’d become everybody’s mom. That’s not the role I really want to have yet. I’m not that old.” She laughs. “I need to be in a setting where I’m more equal with other people.”
Being in a union company doesn’t hurt. But Murphy insists that her decision had less to do with money than new opportunities. “I want to do a full-length ballet one day and that’s not going to happen in the near future at DTH,” she explains. “I just felt like we were still transitioning. I want to be somewhere where I can just dance and not worry about all the other stuff.”
Last year, DTH decreased its dancers from 18 to 14, a move that coincided with the dismissal or departure of seven dancers, including Murphy and Wilson. As a touring company, Johnson notes, a smaller roster “can mean the difference between getting an engagement and not.”
Johnson calls it a temporary reduction, but realizes that it wasn’t an ideal situation for Murphy, who she said deserved a chance to spread her wings. “This has been a really good year for DTH, but it’s also a really challenging year,” says Johnson. “At Ashley’s time in her development as an artist, yes she does need to do different things. It was, of course, heartbreaking, but I think it’s what she should do. I also knew that it was an opportunity for people here at DTH to not only have Ashley in front of them.”
Still, Murphy was one of DTH’s greatest assets. Offstage, the Louisiana-born dancer is something of a southern belle. As Johnson fondly recalls, “She was always 2,000 percent coordinated—hair, outfit, earrings. It’s so gorgeous! She probably wakes up like that.”
As unruffled as she appears, Murphy, who started with The Washington Ballet in August, says that her new job was rough at the beginning. “The caliber of dancer here is so high, I felt like I was a little bit behind,” she admits. “You’re trying to impress a new boss and look good in front of other dancers and feeling like you’re being judged constantly because they’re wondering why you got hired. And I think it all just comes from insecurity. It’s gotten so much better.”
With boyfriend Samuel Wilson (in gray tank) and Daniel Roberge.
For one, she and Wilson, who love living in Washington, DC—their apartment is a 10-minute bike ride from work—have found a strong circle of friends. Performing is what drives Murphy, and for her, life began to improve after the company presented its first program of the season. “A lot of people here perform in the studio, during rehearsal,” she says. “They go 100 percent—smile and makeup and everything—and coming from DTH, I wasn’t really used to that.” She laughs. “I think when we got onstage, they were like, Wow, I’ve never seen you do that before.” As she adjusts her technique to conform to Webre’s taste, she is constantly working on her arms, which are a little too Balanchine, and her extension. “He loves a high leg,” she adds with a laugh.
Her confidence, she now realizes, has long been an issue. While at DTH, she constantly found reasons not to audition for other companies. “There was something I felt I was lacking to even be considered in another company,” she says. “When I got the offer from Septime, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ When you stay somewhere for so long you feel like, This is where I belong.”
But Webre is sure Murphy belongs at The Washington Ballet, where his aim, for years, has been to develop a more diverse company. In December, she danced the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and this month, she’ll perform as a demi-soloist in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, as well as in a role in Webre’s Carmina Burana. But while Murphy’s African-American status is an obvious asset, Webre—who is actually leaving his post with the company when his contract is up this June—is first and foremost enamored by her onstage persona, which contrasts with her normally quiet demeanor.
Diversity is a complicated word for Murphy. At DTH, she says, it was eye-opening to be in a relationship with Wilson, the only white male in the company where he didn’t have a chance of being cast in works documenting the African-American experience. “It’s almost the opposite of what we go through in companies that are primarily white,” she says. “I think when people are trying to do this diversity thing now, we have to figure out a way to include everyone. It’s not trying to make a black company or a white company. Didn’t we fight about this years ago? That’s segregation.”
At the same time, integration in the ballet world can’t just be limited to dancers. “There need to be more African-American teachers and accompanists and artistic directors and ballet masters in companies that aren’t DTH,” Murphy adds. “When those things start to happen, you will have more dancers. Everything will fall into place.”
Johan Kobborg has transformed the National Ballet of Romania.
Kobborg rehearses with Alina Cojocaru at American Ballet Theatre’s studios for a gala in New York City. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
Johan Kobborg was in Bucharest staging La Sylphide for the National Ballet of Romania in 2013 when, out of the blue, he received a job offer: to become its artistic director. He wasn’t looking. “After I left The Royal Ballet, I was thinking, for the first time in my life, to not be part of a big institution,” he recalls during a recent visit to New York. “Now I use the words: ‘live my life.’ ” That meant anything—dancing, staging, choreographing. He adds, “I wasn’t afraid of suddenly being without anything.”
But those four weeks in Romania had gone so well that he happily accepted. Kobborg, 43 and engaged to Alina Cojocaru—the luminous Romanian ballerina who left The Royal for English National Ballet and is a guest artist with Kobborg’s company—is two years into a four-year contract. So far, he’s transformed the company, not only improving working conditions but adding new repertoire by choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, Sir Frederick Ashton, Jirí Kylián and Yuri Possokhov. In April, the troupe performs Manon; in June, it unveils William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Kobborg knew it wouldn’t be easy: “But,” he says with a smile, “I’ve enjoyed every single moment.”
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
So what hasn’t been easy?
I was, in many ways, entering a place that was stuck in the past. There were not many outside influences or different ways of looking at things. They were used to the same class every day, by the same teacher. The productions were really looking like they were from the ’40s and ’50s. I didn’t feel there had been any kind of, Let’s try making something better.
What did you do?
I entered with a management group that did not believe that just because things used to be done like this, that this was how we should do it. So there was a different energy and approach: How do we sell ballets? How do we get people involved? How do we raise money? The people in charge don’t want it the old way.
Also, I don’t have to work with a board of directors. I don’t have to ask anybody else’s opinion. I’ve entered this room where I don’t need to polish what’s already made. I almost consider it a blank canvas. It’s an extreme freedom. The only limits I have are financial.
What are the challenges of limited resources?
A gala to raise awareness of the company this winter included both Romanian dancers and stars from around the world, such as Daniel Ulbricht, at left. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
It is a huge issue. Just a few months after I took over, the building went into refurbishment. It’s still being refurbished. Things take time. [Laughs] For the first almost-half year, the entire company would be changing in one room with a piece of cloth separating girls and boys. There were no studios; there was one room that had no sprung floor. And really, honestly, you don’t make much money in Romania from being a dancer. People would be shocked. Shocked. I can’t offer dancers much; what I can offer them is good rep. I still think like a dancer, and I know what worked in my career: It was to get opportunities. This is not a place where you have to sit and hold a spear for years and years. I don’t believe in waiting until you’re certain someone’s ready. Then it’s too late.
Did you have sprung floors installed?
Yes. When I was staging La Sylphide, I was taking class daily, and I couldn’t dance on those floors. It wasn’t just not strong, there were big holes. Now we have Harlequin floors in all the studios. We have a masseuse now. What we don’t have is a physio department. Alina has donated what I would call the beginning of a gym. Some weights. At first, we didn’t even have an ice machine. We had nothing. But then again, sometimes if you have everything, then you don’t appreciate it.
Did you think about how you didn’t want to treat dancers?
Yeah. [Smiles] And this is where it’s tricky. Sometimes it’s not possible to make things happen the way you would really like them to no matter how hard you try. I think I knew more about how I would not want to do things. The ballet department consists of me and two people; it doesn’t matter if it’s handing out pointe shoes, locking doors at night or making weekly schedules. So communication is very important. My door’s always open. I’ve seen too many people who have been stuck in a place and slowly the passion in them dies. Day by day by day. I’m really trying to make that not happen the best I can. I’m not your usual director, I can tell you that.
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
I don’t look like a typical director. I don’t necessarily speak with people as one. I believe respect is not some attitude you put on and then get. It comes from honesty, openness. I don’t like to play games. I don’t hold a grudge. It’s very important for me to hear what people think. Then, I’ll go, “Am I doing something wrong?” And this is happening in a place where there was no communication. It was run on fear and intimidation. So I’ve lost a few people who can’t function without power. When I’m in charge, I can’t have people being intimidated.
What are your future plans for the company?
I’m in talks with people coming and creating on us. We have to have classics and newer pieces and not go into one extreme. What I would really like is that, when or if one day I am no longer in Romania, the place doesn’t go back to what it was. I’m not saying my way is the right way. But I hope that I will manage to leave a structure behind. I also hope that whoever comes after me would realize that you should not let people say, “It is not possible because this is Romania.” It might not be the easy way, but anything is possible. What’s important is that you can make a difference. I’m certain that if I’m asked to stay longer in Romania, I would. I love the city.
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
It’s a little bit like Cuba. You walk around and go, Wow, with a bit of paint—and sometimes more than paint, unfortunately—this city could be one of the most beautiful cities. The architecture is stunning.
Where do you live?
I’m renting a flat in central Bucharest. I’ve got a cockerel outside my window. I’m bang in the middle of quite a big city, and there’s a cockerel outside my window. It is fantastic.
Gia Kourlas writes on dance for The New York Times and other publications.
At Miami City Ballet, the new principal has found her sweet spot.
Photo by Nathan Sayers, styling by Andrew Shore Kaminski
What does it take to make Simone Messmer happy? It’s not just another new job; it’s the right new job.
Messmer, the latest principal with Miami City Ballet, seems to have found it. As she told her new boss, artistic director Lourdes Lopez, the other day, “I’ve never been in a company with such mentally healthy people in my life.”
Of course, that’s not the only reason the company is such a brilliant fit for this transcendent, but not exactly mild-mannered ballerina. Messmer, a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre and, briefly, with San Francisco Ballet—she only lasted a season—has found herself where she’s always wanted to be: in an environment full of rigor, in which studio exploration is as valued as a performance.
“Every single person in the company is in ballet class every day,” she says. “I’ll do a pas de deux, and they stay in the room just to watch. Everyone is on board. I’m working for someone who actually really believes in what I’m doing, so I’m going to run with that.”
Messmer, who wrote to Lopez in May, was offered a principal contract with Miami City Ballet shortly after. Though the budget was already wrapped up, Lopez obtained special permission from her board to add another dancer to the roster.
But while it all happened quickly—she started on June 1—getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Messmer. In San Francisco, she quickly realized that “it was not an environment that I was working well in. I wasn’t dancing well. But other people have really flourished there. It depends on something I’m not sure I have.”
Lopez is coaching Messmer in Balanchine's Swan Lake this season. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy Miami City Ballet.
She did get little pearls of wisdom from certain people, including Sofiane Sylve and Yuri Possokhov (dancing his Firebird was a highlight, as was tackling a new role in Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy). “But in general I was floating on the ether because I wasn’t a focus of the staff, therefore my rehearsals were almost nonexistent,” she says. “I think it was a combination of the wrong place for me and also the first time in a brand-new environment. I was at Ballet Theatre for over a decade. It was the only thing I knew.”
In leaving ABT, a company in which she felt she had little room to grow, her aim was obvious: more meaty dancing roles. When that didn’t seem to be happening in San Francisco, Messmer told artistic director Helgi Tomasson that the company wasn’t the right fit. According to Messmer, she asked him if he wanted her to remain for the Paris tour, and he told her that he was planning on having her dance Choleric in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. For Messmer, that would mean missing out on auditions, but the role was worth it.
Yet she never got to dance it. “I was never called to a rehearsal,” she says. After the Paris season, she left. “Very quickly.”
Shortly after, she returned to New York City, where she got in touch with her ballet teacher Wilhelm Burmann and resumed Gyrotonic training. “They got me back to a place where I was comfortable being seen again,” she says. “It was more of a mental thing.”
But it took time. In between San Francisco and Miami, Messmer experienced several difficult months when, in order to save money, she and her boyfriend, Mike Diaz—he’s the master carpenter at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—lived with his sister in New Jersey. “All of a sudden, I was unemployed,” she says. “Stagnant is not a place for an artist. I don’t think I’ve ever had a struggle like that. It’s a toll on your relationship, it’s a toll on your ego, it’s a toll on everything.”
Even though she was depressed, she didn’t fall back into old patterns. Ten years ago, Messmer took a leave of absence at ABT after going down what she calls “a self-destructive path.” She declines to talk specifics, but will say that she couldn’t live with herself if she’d done that again. “It would have made it worse, and it couldn’t have gotten worse, because I maybe would have quit.”
Burmann, who admires Messmer’s rare qualities—she is both a romantic dancer and one suited to contemporary works—and has worked with her since her ABT days, has had the opportunity to study her, then and now. “She is calmer,” he says. “She is more focused, and that makes a big difference.”
But it is hardly surprising that Lopez says she needed to first believe that Messmer was interested in Miami City Ballet for the right reasons. “I was very open with her. I said, ‘You’ve left Ballet Theatre and you’ve left San Francisco, and those are major companies that any young dancer would give an eye and a tooth to join. So what’s going on here? Because something’s going on.’ ”
Messmer recalls that she was nervous. “In all honesty, I don’t want to place blame—I was unhappy in San Francisco, but it’s not my place to speak about the company that I know so little about,” she says. “It was difficult to answer questions like ‘Why didn’t it work?’ It’s not a simple answer.”
Even though Lopez was already a fan of Messmer’s dancing, she watched her in Burmann’s class and spoke to friends who had worked with her. “They all said that she’s really talented, she’s a workaholic, she’s very focused and present, she delivers onstage, but she has a very strong personality and asks a lot of questions and wants to know the answers,” Lopez says. “There was a part of me that made me wonder: If we were talking about a male dancer, would you have the same reaction?”
Lopez explained to Messmer that her sense of her was that she needed to find a place where someone would take her into a room and say, “Let’s make you a better dancer.” She told her that could happen in Miami. “I said, ‘We leave our egos at the door and it’s really all about working—but I can’t do that on my own. You’re going to have to meet me halfway. What I’m talking about is no BS, no attitude, no diva, no overthinking a situation, no under-thinking it.’ ”
A Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsal with Kleber Rebello. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy MCB.
To Lopez’s delight, there has been none of that. Messmer likes to work. She’s professional and serious. “She’s been wonderful,” Lopez continues. “And it hasn’t been easy for her because the technique is different, it’s faster. The Balanchine style is very different and she has not fought it. Quite the opposite.”
Now Messmer is learning a slew of thrilling parts, including Odette, in Balanchine’s Swan Lake, in which Lopez is coaching her, along with Janie Taylor’s luminous role in Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit and Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, Serenade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both Titania and the divertissement pas de deux). While it hasn’t been easy to master the speed and intricacy of the Balanchine approach, Messmer, who has been able to work with Suki Schorer and Susan Pilarre—Lopez brought both School of American Ballet teachers to Miami to work with the company in separate visits—says that she may be more of a Balanchine dancer than she realized.
“Playing with the music the way I naturally do is geared well for this,” she explains. “There’s a big difference in the dynamic of every step. A tendu is a tendu, but in Balanchine the out–in is not even. You can do out–hold; in and out; or you hold the in. It’s that playing that makes you such a dynamic dancer.”
Now Messmer, who moved to Miami with Diaz, lives three blocks from the beach. It helps to have a carpenter-boyfriend; he is planning on building a sprung floor in their extra bedroom. She’s also grateful to her mother for sending her to Spanish-immersion school from kindergarten through eighth grade. And the Delgado sisters—Jeanette and Patricia, two of Miami City Ballet’s most treasured principals—are, in her words, “like a ray of sunshine. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” she adds. “I mean really.”
Messmer doesn’t think she’s ever danced as well as now—or been as confident. “I have a ton of things to work on, but I know clearly what I want to say,” she says. “It’s humbling to be in that position. And I’m super-grateful to Lourdes for taking this risk. There’s no words that can actually say thank you enough, so I just have to be that person in the company. I have to say my thank-yous through my dancing.”
Gia Kourlas writes about dance for The New York Times and other publications.