Debut

There is something at once elfin and steely about Robyn Mineko Williams. Petite and perfectly proportioned, with a delicately chiseled face that suggests both serenity and hidden mischief, she moves with such fleetness and clarity onstage that she often seems indistinguishable from the light.


Earlier this year when fellow dancer Cheryl Mann suffered a knee injury, choreographer Lucas Crandall, who also serves as artistic associate for Hubbard Street, invited Williams to learn Gimme. He had created the demanding duet for Mann and Tobin Del Cuore (see cover story, August 2005), and they had performed it at the 2004 world premiere at Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium and in its Chicago debut early in 2005.

 

A quirky, acrobatic, almost cartoonish portrayal of a push-pull romantic relationship—in which the woman wears a short red dress and clunky Doc Martens boots—Gimme’s theatrical gimmick involves a length of rope that often tethers the woman to her partner. At some moments it appears that she is on a leash, at others that she is a marionette. Set to jig-like contemporary folk music by the Norwegian group Bla Bergens Borduner, the pas de deux can move from dark to light with just a flick of the wrist or a little comic chase.

 

Crandall says he cast Williams, who has been a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for six years, and is a very girlish-looking 29, “partly because she had similar qualities to Cheryl—not quite tomboyish, but capable of being both a little tough and soft.”

 

“But she also is just a really beautiful dancer and it was time for her to step up,” says Crandall. Robyn is a bit smaller than Cheryl, so she does some things a little faster. That’s the nice thing about duets; every pair makes the piece look just slightly different.”

 

Williams, who began studying at age 5 and spent four years with the River North Dance Chicago company before joining Hubbard Street, watched when Crandall first created Gimme during a Hubbard Street workshop, but never thought she’d get to dance it.

 

“I’m really surprised and excited about doing it,” says Williams, who began learning the role this past summer.“It’s just so much fun to put on those big boots and feel huge. Lucas says he thinks about the duet as being for Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner, and I love that sense of being a punky cartoon character. Dancing this piece you really feel the yo-yo effect of a couple in a relationship and always fighting about something stupid. But it’s done with a playful frustration more than an ‘I hate you’ kind of quality.”

 

As for trying to dance in the footsteps of the original performers, Williams seems unfazed. “Lucas is very specific, but he also gives dancers quite a bit of freedom, so from the start I felt as if I could walk into the studio and not worry about any pre-conceived ideas,” she says. “This piece feels very comfortable. In fact, I’ve never once thought about the way it was done before, and that’s quite unlike me, because I’ve always been a big observer of my peers, and only recently started feeling a sense of overall confidence as a dancer. I think what is most important in this piece is the chemistry with my partner.”

 

In that regard, Williams’ experience with Gimme has been a double learning process. She was initially scheduled to make her debut in the work at this summer’s Aspen Dance Festival, but her partner, Patrick Simoniello (who has since returned to the Joffrey Ballet), had an injury. Hubbard Street dancer Yarden Ronen has now taken over the role. He and Williams got to alternate with Mann and Del Cuore when Gimme was performed during the troupe’s season last fall at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. They will also perform it during upcoming tours and engagements.

 

“The back and forth in Gimme is tricky, and so is finding the right tension in that string,” says Williams. “But the most difficult part is the opening of the piece, which is performed to silence. Once the music starts it’s a big relief.” —Hedy Weiss

Dancers & Companies
Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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