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.
The no-nonsense choreographer opens up about her career, her dancers and why money gets in the way of female choreographers’ success.
Reed Tankersley and Ramona Kelley. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Twyla Tharp. Photo by Marc van Borstel.
Twyla Tharp may be celebrating her 50th anniversary this year, but she’s looking forward, not back. The groundbreaking choreographer who made her debut in 1965 with Tank Dive is responsible for the first crossover ballet—Deuce Coupe, which included both ballet and modern dance and was set to the Beach Boys—as well as classic works like In the Upper Room and Push Comes to Shove and films like Hair, White Nights and Amadeus. Her work on Broadway, most notably Movin’ Out, has extended not only her reach but the reach of dance. This fall, she kicks off a 10-week tour with two premieres—typically gutsy—and a powerhouse crew. Along with regulars John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble and Ron Todorowski, the current group includes Nick Coppula and Eva Trapp, formerly of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; Daniel Baker, formerly of Miami City Ballet; and Amy Ruggiero and Ramona Kelley, who were part of Come Fly Away. Reed Tankersley, who performed Baker’s Dozen as a Juilliard student, is, as Tharp puts it, “the baby.” Rounding the stage out will be two Amazonian queens: Savannah Lowery, on leave from New York City Ballet, and Kaitlyn Gilliland, a former NYCB dancer. As the impressive record shows, Tharp pulls the best out of her dancers and here, they run the gamut. “I’ve never held a bias against a dancer because they were short, tall, black or white,” Tharp says. “It’s only got to do with how they dance.”
Has the kind of dancer you’re drawn to changed over the years?
Gorgeous. Eclectically and brilliantly trained. Very intelligent. Extreme sense of humor. A willingness to work, but also an ability to work. They’re not quite the same thing. By now, I don’t have to put up with people who are trouble. You have to want to work with other people, and you have to appreciate what it is to be in an ensemble and to value the give and take of a great team. I need to see it from the audience and I need to feel it on the stage when I’m working with people. Otherwise, the singularity, the egocentric, the vanity—I don’t need it.
What do you mean by eclectic training?
Everything. We have an open position, we have a parallel position, we can be grounded, we can be high. You need to have it all. You also have to have a willingness to allow for movement to be funky or to be elegant, and that’s a state of mind. You require different kinds of grace. Another thing that’s important to understand is that as you mature, you can’t expect the legs to do it all. You have to be able to hold your own so that the legs and the feet are not being asked to do totally, absolutely everything.
Amy Ruggiero (center) and Daniel Baker (right) rehearsing The One Hundreds. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Kaitlyn Gilliland. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Is that part of why dancers should do weight training?
Absolutely. Everybody, both the men and the women. If the guys don’t, they’re going to have a weak lower back; they’re going to splay their back. If the girls don’t, they’re going to have a collapsed sternum, and they’re going to have old ballerina chicken neck early. Echhh. If you do weights, you learn to ground your back, you’re pushing, you’re pulling and this is open and elevated. Hello.
When your dancers have a star moment, what don’t you want to see?
Ego. Not interested and neither are they. Once in a while, it’ll come out because we’re all human. What that does is reduces their own presence. It gives them a minimized force field. When the ego is at play, it looks to draw a very small circle right around itself and everything else should keep out. A big performer doesn’t have to put up the barricades.
Over the years, a couple of your dancers have appeared on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance.” How do you feel about those programs?
The thing is this: I’m all for every one of these people having every experience that makes sense for them to have, because, ultimately, if they profit from it, I profit from it. They bring it back and then we have something to reference and guess what? Like with an actor, it is better to be working than not working. I am not arrogant or insecure about this. I’m all in favor of seeing people work in as many different realms as possible, because I have.
Tankersley, Ruggiero and Eva Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.
What’s been your greatest risk as a choreographer?
Oh please. I have no idea. Anything that’s exciting is a gamble. Anything that’s a challenge is a gamble. This tour is a scientific experiment in terms of doing something that is extremely demanding and doing it well. That’s not exactly a gamble, because I don’t gamble with other people’s lives. When I’m challenging myself it’s one thing; when you’re responsible for other people, it’s something else. I think that making the decision that the 50th would not be a revisitation of the master works and somehow pull out rep that represented a career that we all knew, that’s minimally crazy.
Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.
What are your thoughts about being a female choreographer, especially in the ballet world?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that I never set out to be a very good female choreographer. I set out to be a very good choreographer, end of story. I never accept any awards that are the “Best Female” anything. In ballet, one of the big reasons that the men prevail is partially because of the overbearing attitude in ballet companies, which is heavily chauvinistic in terms of women and their place. We all know this. However, it is also because most women are not big jumpers and they can’t partner. And a lot of what’s involved in new choreography involves partnering, and they don’t know how to design from the other side. I taught myself how to do that. I can do both sides of partnering. I know how the grips work, I know how the leverage has to function. So part of it is not “Let’s just sit in the corner and cry ‘poor me’ ”—let’s figure out why and let’s go and get those chops. In the modern-dance world, it’s a different deal. The earlier practitioners, at least in this country, were women. Now that seems to have flipped, and it’s like, Hmmm? What happened here? Money.
There was no money in modern dance. It didn’t exist. Everybody was in there simply to do it. More and more grants started to happen and then it’s a field where it becomes competitive about earning an income. Whenever earning an income becomes an issue, men have an edge. Unless women have a driving need to support themselves, and, heaven help us, any children. Then they will compete, as I have done. Otherwise, they will stand back and expect—emotionally perhaps a bit and practically perhaps a bit—for some support, because they are, after all, women. Bullshit. I’m being straight. It’s the responsibility of the women. You can’t sit back and say we’ve been exploited and taken advantage of. It’s like, Get out there and fix it. If you want something, you have to do it yourself.
Is there an area of dance you prefer to choreograph in?
No! Give me anything. Anything, anytime.
Gia Kourlas writes about dance for The New York Times.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
While studying at the Royal Ballet School, Matthew Dibble dreamed of working with the world’s great choreographers. But by the time he joined The Royal, the company was in transition. “Ashton was gone. Kenneth was dead,” he says. “I wanted to dance under working choreographers. It never interested me to do the Giselles.”
After five years in the corps, Dibble and five of his colleagues left to start their own troupe, K Ballet, in Japan. But life abroad was trying, and after three years, he moved home.
Soon after, he got a call from Twyla Tharp, whom he’d worked with on Mr. Worldly Wise and Push Comes to Shove at The Royal. She invited him to audition for one of her projects, then later asked him to join her company in New York. Though Dibble connected with Tharp’s collaborative style—“Something clicked when we met,” he says—he was hesitant to pick up his life again. Her response, he recalls, was something along the lines of: “Are you joking? You’re being stupid. Get over here and dance.”
So he did. And since that engagement in 2001, Dibble has been a staple among Tharp’s leading dancers, on the Movin’ Out tour, in Come Fly Away and now as a member of the latest iteration of her company. What’s most attracted him to her work, beyond the athleticism and larger-than-life personalities she demands of her dancers, is her intuitive sense of the chemistry that makes for a great show. An exacting but sensitive leader, she brings together an energetically balanced but stylistically diverse group of talents. “She’s direct, there’s no messing about,” says Dibble. “And she doesn’t ask anything of her dancers she wouldn’t do herself.”
Could Dibble have ever predicted his path, from ballet to Broadway and beyond? “Ballet helped me do what I’ve been able to do,” he says. “But I never got into dance to be safe. With Twyla, the studio is an open working space.” —Kristin Schwab
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Her first encounter with Twyla Tharp is something Rika Okamoto remembers well. It was 1993, and Tharp was selecting dancers for a work she was choreographing on the Martha Graham Company. Okamoto had just joined the previous year and wasn’t even supposed to be in the audition, which was reserved for senior dancers. (Longtime Graham dancer and master teacher Yuriko Kikuchi “pushed me into the studio and shut the door,” says Okamoto.) “When I lived in Japan, I went to see White Nights in the theater twice,” she says, referring to the 1985 movie Tharp choreographed starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. “I was the youngest person in the company. I was sure I wasn’t going to be in the piece.” Okamoto ended up being cast as Persephone in Tharp’s Demeter and Persephone.
Okamoto danced with Graham until 1999. Burnt out, she left the company, and considered leaving dance entirely after dabbling in acting and starting a family. Then Tharp’s people called about a workshop for a little budding idea called Movin’ Out. Okamoto went on to perform during the entirety of the show’s Broadway run (2002–2005). “I might not have known it then, but I realize now that I wanted to be a muse, be original,” she says of the transition. “When I started working with Twyla, I felt I could be who I was. I didn’t have to copy anyone.”
Since then, Okamoto has been a constant Tharp collaborator. She originated the role of Slim in Come Fly Away, helps Tharp develop movement for outside commissions and works as her assistant, archivist and education leader. “Performing or not performing, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “Twyla challenges you to the maximum. Sometimes the challenge is beyond you. I still go home and cry sometimes, and I’m 46!”
This tour, says Okamoto, may or may not mark her last go at dancing. But that doesn’t mean she necessarily considers herself a veteran of all things Tharp. “Everybody else in the company is a ballet dancer but me, which I used to be so insecure about. But you discover yourself through challenge, whatever that is. Twyla always asks me at the end of the day, ‘Rika, what did you learn?’ That makes me want to go back for more. Once you taste that sense of ‘I can do this,’ you get addicted.” —KS
Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
Earthily sleek in that effortless Italian way, Alessandra Ferri sits on the roof deck of her Upper West Side penthouse wearing Ray-Bans and a long black dress as she rattles off a list of upcoming performances: more touring of Chéri, the Martha Clarke dance-theater vehicle based on the Colette novella; Trio Concert Dance, a full evening spotlighting Ferri, Herman Cornejo—her dance partner in Chéri—and the pianist Bruce Levingston; Wayne McGregor’s anticipated work for The Royal Ballet, based on Virginia Woolf; John Neumeier’s new Eleanora Duse for Hamburg Ballet.
Midway through, she bursts into laughter. “It’s like I never stopped,” she says, amused yet incredulous. “I guess my dancing energy wasn’t over. There were still things that I needed to do—for me.”
Ferri, 51, retired from American Ballet Theatre in 2007 with the expectation that she would hang up her pointe shoes for good. She became director of dance programming for Italy’s Spoleto Festival, and quit ballet class. But her body rebelled; physically, she found herself in pain. So, after about two years, she went back to the studio. “After a year of taking class, I was in pretty good shape,” she says. “Once I was in shape, my brain started working. I started to have ideas of things I wanted to do.”
Her reawakening as a dancer can hardly be described as a comeback: This is a brand-new career.
“If you’re open-minded, things keep changing, and you keep having different opportunities,” she explains. “If you’re willing to mutate with your personal evolution, who knows where it goes?”
Ferri’s astonishing gifts were first made apparent as a dancer for The Royal Ballet, in ballets like Mayerling and Romeo and Juliet: the beautifully arched feet, the supple back and extended lines of the legs and arms, and the breathtaking ability to be anybody at any time. Dancing melts into her acting and acting into her dancing until both are at their purest essence, stripped raw.
Above: With Herman Cornejo in a scene from Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Today, her luminous dancing is infused with a newfound freedom. But she knows that nothing is a given. “I put a lot of work into my machine, into my body,” she says. “Of course, the years go by. You have to have the passion for the work itself, for the challenge of the everyday.”
She also has, in her teacher, Wilhelm Burmann, the tools with which to continue. “Ninety percent of the reason why I’m still in shape the way I am is Willy,” Ferri says. “He believes in hard work—getting your body going. Your body is a machine basically, and you’ve got to keep that tuned. And for me, this approach really works. It’s thanks to him my body can still function the way it does.”
Chéri was an especially intense experience; the cast performed 50 shows in six weeks. “It was crazy,” she says. “You don’t have anxiety about performances anymore because you have so many that it frees you totally. You go onstage with the same presence and truth that you would have sitting in your living room.”
Yet the production was an incentive to return to the stage—the idea of playing an older woman involved with a younger man was both age appropriate and emotionally rich fodder. And while it initiated a brilliant new partnership between Ferri and Cornejo, it has also sparked more opportunities for dancing. After watching a performance of the dance-drama, McGregor invited Ferri for coffee, where he pitched his idea for a project about Virginia Woolf. “He said, ‘I can’t think of anybody else but you,’ ” Ferri recounts. “I said, ‘It’s great you’re thinking of me, but do you know’ ”—she pauses mid-giggle—“ ‘what I do? I know your work, and I love it, and obviously I still have a very good in-shape body, but you are very extreme.’ ”
McGregor’s sleek choreography is a shift from much of Ferri’s character-driven repertoire. But when McGregor explained that he wanted her in the ballet to stretch himself as an artist, she signed on. “For me, it’s completely new terrain,” Ferri says. “I have no idea what to think about, what to expect. I’m completely abandoning myself into an adventure.”
For the ballet, Ferri will spend a good chunk of time in London, which complicates her already complicated schedule—especially given that she has two daughters, ages 13 and 17, with the photographer Fabrizio Ferri, her former partner. The breakup and the subsequent separation and evolution of her family has made an important shift in the way Ferri lives now. Her approach to motherhood has changed.
“Love and overprotection and dependency are not necessarily the same thing,” Ferri says. “You can be a real good guide for your kids and be vigilant that they don’t get into trouble, but also have a relationship that is so authentic that you can also say, ‘Look, I need to live my life, and I need to do things I love doing, because that’s who I am,’ and they learn to respect that.”
Above: Ferri with mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in Luca Veggetti’s The Raven, for the Gotham Chamber Opera. Photo by Richard Termine, Courtesy The Raven.
And dance is something, she’s discovered, that she can’t trade in. “I love dance, and that’s what keeps me alive,” Ferri says. “I’d be killing myself to give that up completely for somebody else, even if it’s my kids—unless they need it. Of course. But since everybody’s good and happy...” She laughs. “They love it when I work,” she confides. “In fact, when I’m there too much, they’re like, ‘Don’t you have to take class today?’ ”
Trio Concert Dance, to be performed in Italy’s Teatro Regio di Parma in April, will feature three or four choreographers, including Russell Maliphant, with whom Ferri attended The Royal Ballet School, as well as Fang-Yi Sheu, the former Graham star. “It’s an evening of who we are now,” says Ferri. “For Herman and me, it’s new ground. We can have the pleasure of dancing without having to be Chéri and Lea.”
For Cornejo, performing with Ferri has expanded his capabilities as a dance actor and opened the possibilities for a career outside of ABT, where he is a principal. Among other projects, they will perform a new pas de deux by Demis Volpi this month at Indianapolis City Ballet, and dance Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort in Florence next year.
“She’s taking my hand and taking me along with her in many performances,” Cornejo says. “Jeune Homme et la Mort is a masterpiece and something I never thought I would be able to do, and not only am I going to do it, I’m going to perform it with such an iconic person. She’s the one—like how a fairy godmother could be.” He laughs. “There are so many dancers in this world with beautiful technique, but to be like her, it has to come from the inside. Her soul, her love for what she wants to do, is so pure that it comes out in her dancing.”
Ferri explains that there is little difference between the dancer and the woman; as she evolves, so does her dancing. “It’s like my inner world becomes real when I dance,” she explains. “I share it with people. I am glad that I have this opportunity to dance later on in life. In the world of dance today—and the world in general—everything has to be so fast, so immediate, so young and then you’re gone. You really haven’t tasted the pleasure of each different phase of your life and of dancing. It can be something that is more refined, more subtle.”
She laughs off the suggestion that, as a ballerina, she’s breaking the mold. “I don’t think I was ever in the mold,” she says. “I always did things the way I wanted to do them.” And there are no signs of stopping. “I had enough of my career,” Ferri says. “Now that I’ve started again, I don’t think of it as my career, but my luck. I’m so lucky that I have this. It’s a gift.”
Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.