Huge Talent: Maggie Small
Maggie Small in Karinska costume for Balanchine’s Liebesleder Waltzer.
Photo by Matthew Karas.
Maggie Small’s pointe shoe swings inches from the ceiling of a corner studio at Richmond Ballet, as partner Fernando Sabino presses her through a lift, her body arched across his hand. After a slow spin down, the pas de deux continues through shifting romantic moods—lyrical and earnest, charming and flirtatious—punctuated by more gravity-defying lifts. Small and Sabino are rehearsing ballet master Malcolm Burn’s Pas Glazunov under the gaze of artistic associate Igor Antonov. At the end of the run, Antonov mentions to Small that a pirouette seemed late; she says quickly, “Yes, I felt it.”
Small, 26, generates crackling energy from within her small frame. Her vivacity makes you want to run up and hug her onstage sometimes. In sprightly roles such as the mischievous Swanhilda, she brims with comic energy. She dances an elegant and gracious Sugar Plum Fairy, skimming joyfully through her grand jetés. But audiences love best her rippling, smoldering snake in the Arabian Dance. And in a contemporary work such as Ma Cong’s Luminitza, she spirals and arcs through luscious partnering sequences.
“Her range, both technically and emotionally, is very impressive,” says Stoner Winslett, artistic director of Richmond Ballet. “There’s a deep honesty about her performance.” Richmond Ballet is particularly proud of Small’s accomplishment, since she is a homegrown talent. She started dancing at age 3 in a local studio, and by age 5 her mother enrolled her at the School of Richmond Ballet. She came up through the school, served her time as a trainee, then an apprentice, and joined the company six years ago. “You were immediately drawn to her…a little sparkle going on there,” remembers Burn.
As a young teenager Small rode horses, played piano, and roller-skated. “But ballet was always my favorite,” she says. “There was no question that eventually it would take over, once I was allowed to take more classes.”
Small feels a tremendous respect for her teachers at RB. She took as many classes as she could, and even though she’d audition for summer intensives, she ended up staying in Richmond for the chance to work with Burn, who doesn’t teach in the school during the year. Over the course of her career, she has participated in every aspect of RB, even the Minds in Motion program, which brings dance to children in area schools. When the program came to Richmond Montessori School, where Small was in upper elementary class, she says, “I remember thinking it was so cool to see my ‘regular’ friends doing dance moves.”
At right: As Clara in Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker, 1997.
Small’s mother is African-American; her father is white. Race, however, did not play much of a role in her experience inside or outside the ballet. Small doesn’t remember ever being the only student of color in her ballet classes. But, she says, “I also don’t remember looking for it. I really wasn’t very aware; I grew up in a bubble.”
In the midst of her apprenticeship, Small tried college for one year at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “After my first apprentice year it was really hard to decide what to do,” she says, “because it was important to my mom that I went to school, and I didn’t want to. I was happy dancing all day long, and it was really difficult because the company offered me a position and I didn’t know what to do. You know…you want to make your family happy. So I said, OK, I’ll go to school.”
Small was not particularly happy at Tisch. She was not interested in choreographing, for example, which was a big part of the program. After the first year, she called Winslett and asked to return to finish her apprenticeship. Winslett was able to make it happen, and Small has not looked back since.
Growing up at RB has yielded some magical experiences for her, including the chance to work with Antonov, a dancer she had idolized as a child. During her apprenticeship, she remembers, “I was giggly excited to be in the studio with him.” Later, “It was really cool to dance with Igor. For his retirement performance [last fall] I got to dance Who Cares? with him. And it was sort of like a pinch-yourself moment, even now when I’ve been in the company with him for so long.”
Back in the studio, Small and Sabino take a few minutes to work on another lift from Pas Glazunov, with help from Antonov. Small is concerned about her balance at the top of the lift; Sabino is not sure if he can slow down and still manage to press her to full extension.
Small’s partnership with Sabino has developed almost inadvertently. Says Winslett about her 14-member, unranked troupe, “In a small company like this we usually move people around, and we never purposely try to develop partnerships. But they’ve been put together a lot, and work together beautifully.”
Sabino enjoys their complementary styles. “We are completely different,” he says. “But when we are together we become one. I like a lot of improvisation, and she likes to be told what to do. It’s a good marriage. I go with her, and she goes with me.” They call each other “work husband” and “work wife,” though their relationship remains platonic. Small has been dating RB dancer Thomas Garrett for several years. They are rarely partnered, however. “Tommy and I don’t dance together very much,” says Small, who is 5' 5". “He’s real tall, and there are a lot of tall girls here. I’m little.”
Maggie enjoys a rare rehearsal with fellow RB dancer (and offstage partner) Thomas Garrett. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy RB.
After going through Pas Glazunov, Small and Sabino run After Eden for Burn. They are rehearsing for the company’s London debut in June. They throw themselves into the emotional work full-out, breathless and sweaty by the end. Burn compliments them and gives a few notes. Later, he says of Small, “She’s always been wonderfully open to try anything—and laugh while she’s doing it. She’s gutsy and courageous. You can take her and throw her into the air, and she’ll go ‘Wheee!’ as she comes flying down.”
Eve, in After Eden, is Small’s favorite role. “I really love that the steps come from the character and the character comes from the steps,” she says. “It can be different every time—there’s room to make it my own without feeling like I’m not being true to the choreography.”
When studying a new role, Small calls herself “a homework girl.” For Coppélia, in which she performed Swanhilda last February, she studied other dancers’ interpretations on DVD and she read up on the history of dolls. “I had a lot of fun researching automatons,” she says. “It was really creepy. But it’s difficult to decide how you’re going to be a girl, or a doll, or a girl being a doll.”
Burn appreciates the dancer’s intelligence and versatility. “Maggie continues to surprise me. I don’t think there’s any limit to what she will be able to accomplish.”
Small loves the challenge of RB’s repertoire. If she were in a bigger company, she says, “I wouldn’t get to do what I do here. There are days when I cannot possibly give any more. I would love to sit down for an hour. But whenever we actually get that break, I think, ‘Oh, I’m so bored. I should probably go run something downstairs.’ It’s just the way I enjoy dancing—dancing a lot.”
During the summer she explores other opportunities, such as the National Choreographers Initiative, in which she participated for three years as a dancer, and this summer she performed with Jessica Lang’s new company at Jacob’s Pillow.
But she is always glad to return to RB. “I dance with people I like, for people I like, in my hometown. My family is here. I work with my boyfriend every day, and he’s happy. It’s a real good gig.”
Small in costume for Cong's Luminitza. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and interim chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Maggie’s tips on building strength:
Skinny Legs Early on in her apprenticeship with RB, Small realized, “I had really skinny little legs, and I wasn’t superstrong.” So she began strength-building exercises using a Thera-Band.
Practicing the Hard Parts “I like adagio, and I don’t really like petit allegro. But I push hard at all of it, because there’s no variation where you’re going to do just adagio.”
Doubling Up “I always do the exercises at least twice, so that I can build up my strength. If you push yourself in rehearsal and class, then when it gets to show days, it’s not as hard.”
Daily Pilates Since starting Pilates three years ago, she says, “It’s made me even more aware of my core and made me re-think the way I work.”
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT