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Deaf Dancer Bailey Anne Vincent and Michele Wiles Are Combining Sign Language and Ballet
"I'm going to end up in Timbuktu," jokes Bailey Anne Vincent about navigating New York City's bus system. The Washington-DC–based dancer, choreographer and director (of her multi-genre, body-positive Company360) instead opted for an Uber to meet her collaborator, BalletNext artistic director Michele Wiles, and me at a diner in midtown Manhattan.
In lamenting the buses' challenges, Vincent's complaint isn't with their routes. Though you might never know it from conversing with her or watching her dance, she's mostly deaf. She began losing her hearing in her teens due to a medical condition called atypical cystic fibrosis—a complicated diagnosis that impacts a number of her organs. But this hasn't stopped Vincent from dancing. She trained at Rockbridge Ballet in Virginia before college and later danced with a small company in the DC-metro area. Now 31, Vincent has hardly slowed down.
BalletNext's work-in-progress will combine American Sign Language with ballet. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, Courtesy Overdrive PR.
Her newest project, with Wiles as co-choreographer, incorporates ballet and American Sign Language (ASL). The two dancing directors presented a work-in-progress showing this week before its premiere in March at New York Live Arts. She and Wiles hope to bring inclusivity and awareness to the dance community regarding hearing-impaired needs, without sacrificing technical or artistic standards.
The two met through a "cold email" Vincent sent to Wiles in the fall. "I sound like a creepy stalker, but I was sort of a big dance nerd and a fan of BalletNext," Vincent says. She floated the idea of creating a ballet incorporating ASL, but didn't expect much of a reply. Wiles, however, was intrigued. The former ABT principal dancer doesn't shy away from a challenge. Exhibit A: She left the premier company at the height of her career in 2011 to start her own troupe. Experimentation is one of Wiles' primary tenets: "That's why we're here with BalletNext," she says. "Because we want to take risks."
The idea to integrate ballet and ASL felt organic. "It's an advantage for BalletNext, for the choreography we're doing. It's inspiring me to make something in a new, unique way," says Wiles. The yet-unnamed piece has five dancers, including Wiles, Vincent and members of BalletNext.
From left: Bailey Anne Vincent, Violetta Komyshan, Michele Wiles, Alice Regnouf and Egle Andriekaite. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, Courtesy Overdrive PR.
The process began with Vincent teaching a few ASL signs. For example, placing the index fingers next to each other and then moving them apart denotes a feeling of disconnectedness. A single finger held at the chest conveys the feeling of being alone. Adding ballet vocabulary, Vincent and Wiles paired "disconnect" with a piqué and "loneliness" with a soutenu. From there, they combined more signs and steps, elaborating on, repeating or chopping up certain phrases.
An internal metronome allows Vincent to dance in time without hearing the music, while in daily life, she gets by through lip-reading. When she's choreographing, communicating details is easier with an interpreter. For this trip to New York City, Vincent's friend and fellow dancer Emily Moran was able to help. She even interpreted Wiles' and Vincent's introductory comments for the audience at the showing.
Vincent equates the piece's signing with poetry rather than prose. It deals with more abstract concepts—like being disconnected from others—rather than spelled-out storylines. Similarly, dance and ASL aren't always literal. A single hand sign might represent an idiom rather than an exact translation of a word. Barring pantomime scenes, the language of ballet evokes feelings, not specific words.
Dancers have something to gain from practicing a non-verbal language. "Anyone these days can kick their leg up to their face," says Vincent, but without épaulement and artistry, ballet can appear robotic. "In ASL, your face is your inflection." She notes that posture and expression can turn a sign phrase—or a balletic step—from a soft question into an angry declaration.
In addition to incorporating ASL, Vincent and Wiles are challenging the idea that pointework and landing jumps should be soft and graceful. "We're thinking of doing it a capella where the music completely cuts out, as if we were all not hearing," says Wiles, "and the only way we can hear is by making these really loud pointe shoe sounds." Even without hearing her shoe boxes hitting the floor, Vincent chimes in, "To be loud is liberating."
Wiles and Vincent hope the emotional impact of their piece will resonate across audiences of varying abilities. Vincent believes it will be touching for deaf audience members: "It elevates this language that means so much to the deaf community." For their hearing counterparts, Wiles says, "It's going to open their eyes."
Though piece is still in its early stages, Vincent feels that dancing and choreographing with a high-profile collaborator like Wiles is already building more awareness. Even little things like having a signer interpret curtain announcements is a good place to start. "Deaf culture can be very positive," says Vincent. "Instead of having this thing taken away, we gain this beautiful visual language that's so much like dance."
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.