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Paul Taylor Dance Company
Interviewed by Susan Yung
My favorite is the role I do in Esplanade. It’s like the epitome of joy. There’s nothing like the sensation of running through space to this gorgeous music by Bach. There are not many other dances that allow you to just do normal everyday sprints, cover so much ground, and fly through the air. What better? It’s so much fun. One of my favorite parts is in the end of the fourth section when I step on the man’s stomach—it’s a really tender moment. A close second would be the catches at the end because you’re so exhausted that you think you can’t continue. You have to dance with complete abandonment, forget about the technique, and just be very, very free. It’s a glorious feeling.
Principal, Martha Graham Dance Company
Interviewed by Emily Macel
The Graham repertory is full of great, complex roles for women. Circe is different. Martha choreographed it for other dancers rather than herself, and it’s a true ensemble piece.
I love the role of Ulysses because of the character journey he takes us on. When tempted by Circe, he almost completes the transformation into an animal right in front of the audience’s eyes. Thankfully he listens to his inner voice and escapes the fate of the rest of his men. I absolutely see myself in the role. Aren’t we all faced by soooooo many temptations that almost derail us from our path?
I get into character by losing myself completely in it. It’s almost like a trance, when you can’t predict what will happen.
As artists, we must not offer answers, but stir the pot with more questions. I would encourage a dancer to take prior interpretations only as a framework for building this character. Martha said that we are all actors who dance. I believe this role is a test of the dancer’s ability to act through his body.
Principal, San Francisco Ballet
Interviewed by Jennifer Stahl
I like any story ballet because I love becoming someone else. But I’m the most in my zone in Don Quixote. Basilio’s a playful, crazy guy who flirts with every girl in town. He loves his girlfriend—and he loves making her jealous. The steps are fun but the story is what’s great. I’m pretty playful in real life so it fits me well.
Growing up in Cuba, I always knew Don Q was my favorite ballet. The role is really challenging and enjoyable. The grand pas in the third act is the hardest part. It’s technically demanding, but you’re getting married so you have to portray that joy in your dancing.
The first time I danced Basilio I was 18 at Ballet Nacional de Cuba. I was really hyper—excited to do it but nervous too. I’ve learned how to calm down and pace myself. You learn more about yourself over the years so you figure out where to put in effort and where to just enjoy it.
Principal, Ballet West
Interviewed by Lynn Colburn Shapiro
Swan Lake has defined me as a dancer. The emotion of the Tchaikovsky score—passion, vulnerability, and then power and evil—has a lot to do with it. Where I connect with Odette is her purity and good-natured soul. She has a sad story but she’s trying to rise above it. I always thought the role of Odile was flashy, really hard technical dancing that brought the house down. But when you do it, it’s about the sideways glances and the little laughs—those Aha, I’ve gotcha now moments. The hardest part of Odile is being stronger in personality—sharper, more aggressive, as opposed to the soft and gentle Odette. Rehearsing, it wasn’t about, Well, we didn’t do six pirouettes; it was more about the feelings. I love every part of the ballet. I wouldn’t want to be typecast, but when I hear anyone say anything about Swan Lake, my heart skips a beat, because it’s me, my thing!
Principal, American Ballet Theatre
Interviewed by Hanna Rubin
Fancy Free is all about acting. I’m cast as the first sailor, and I’m not like him at all. He’s a tough guy who lifts weights and has a tattoo. When he leaves the boat, he wants to eat the whole city up. To get into that character, I start walking tough and bending my knees even before I put on my makeup. The three guys’ entrance when they’re so excited to be off the boat and walk around reminds me of when I first came to New York 10 years ago. There you are in the city of your dreams where everything is possible.
The role takes a lot of stamina. By the time I start my variation I’m dead—it’s the worst moment. We’ve just had the fight and the other guys are at the table, they can rest, but you have to put everything into it. That split is a nightmare—it’s not hard but it’s dangerous. You take off from the bar and you look up and out at the audience. You don’t actually know where the floor is, but you have to land there!
I admire every dancer who has done this role, but I never use anything someone else does. I think, “That’s so nice,” but I want to come up with mine. Fancy Free is one of those ballets that will never go out of fashion. There will always be sailors, always be New York City, and the mime is so subtle, so humorous, that it makes the ballet feel like real life.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Interviewed by Elaine Stuart
My favorite role is actually a small part—a five-minute solo—in Night Creature, choreographed by Alvin Ailey. There’s a girl soloist and a corps, and two guys who have a flirtatious, courting dance with the soloist. It’s jazz-based movement, with a little Horton and Graham technique. Most of all I love that the role is fun—and also low-stress. The Duke Ellington music is big and brassy and loud but sensual. My favorite part is when I first come out onstage, my first interaction with the girl. We do a flirty little dance and give each other googly eyes back and forth. Alicia Graf is my favorite person to dance it with. I’m supposed to be sexy in the role, but I don’t think of myself as sexy. One day our associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya showed me a video of Alvin Ailey doing the part. It was like he was embodying the music, as if his body was playing the instruments. Before, I was more reserved, but when I saw how natural and wild he was, I took that on.
Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
Interviewed by Jennifer Stahl
Alonzo doesn’t give us characters so I usually create my own to some extent. In Soothing the Enemy I really dove into my role. The character was filled with fear and there was a pas de deux with a man who I thought of as my enemy. Halfway through I let go of the fear and actually ended up comforting him. In everyday life I don’t know if I would be able to face a conflict with compassion, but my character did, so that was therapeutic in a way.
The moment where I let go of the fear was the hardest part. I had to really feel it inside and also make it big enough for the audience to see without looking corny. It was interesting for me to see how the movement related to the fear, and then later the fearlessness.
At the time I wouldn’t have said it was my favorite role, but looking back, it made me push myself in a way that I had never done before. It’s very wild and I had to let go of my ballet training. Finding the balance between technique and abandon will always be my challenge. And this piece made me face that head on.
Principal, New York City Ballet
Interviewed by Khara Hanlon
What I’m performing at that moment is always my favorite. But Balanchine’s Symphony in C signifies why I dance with NYCB. It was one of the first corps pieces I did. I danced it for over 20 years and it was always challenging. I’d seen Suzanne Farrell dance it. Mr. Balanchine would say, “Don’t try to be someone else. That’s death.” I was 16 and had two rehearsals. I remember being nervous and Mr. B said, “No, dear. You don’t have to worry.” I knew that if he wanted to put me out there I shouldn’t be nervous. Afterwards he told me to lean more off pointe in the finale.
Symphony in C is like a Balanchine class—dancing fast, the turns, and tendus. Mr. B used to say, “This is what keeps my dancers in shape.” In the finale, everything is pushed technically. You’re out there with other principals, soloists, and corps. It’s like being in a perfect world.
Eventually I found ways to take more chances. I could lift my arms to a high fifth and then slowly place my hand on my partner’s shoulder instead of grabbing him. In the finale I could push to add three turns.
Now I teach the last movement to students at SAB. Coaching it is about helping them move quicker and be more turned out. I can help, but it’s more about repetition. Mr. B said you don’t need a coach. It’s all in the steps.
Corps, Pennsylvania Ballet
Interviewed by Elaine Stuart
My favorite role is the one Matthew Neenan, PAB resident choreographer, created on me for Carmina Burana. Matthew’s style is more abstract than mine. But he put in my strong points and worked with me if something didn’t come naturally. I had a lot of room to play with the steps. Letting go was the hardest part. At the beginning I overanalyzed the movements to the point of missing the timing or forgetting steps. But each time I performed it I felt like I knew it more in my body. By the end of the run I didn’t have to think about the steps; they were second nature. I just let the music take me there. I hadn’t heard it much before the rehearsal process, but I fell in love with it. The orchestra and singers made it more intense. At the end I always felt like I could start over and do it all again.
Principal, Boston Ballet
Interviewed by Elaine Stuart
My favorite role is Tatiana in Cranko’s Onegin for the complexity of character. The choreography is genius—the pas de deux are to die for—but so are the music, the sets, and the explosion of emotion. There are inner conflicts about what the heart wants to do, and relationships between people: two sisters, a mother and a daughter, a daughter and her nanny, Tatiana and her husband, Tatiana and Onegin. Tatiana is a very reserved person, and I can relate to that. She has boiling feelings inside but contains them—until she dances with Onegin. He’s the only person to make her unravel. The most challenging part is not going overboard with the acting, and the transformation from one age to another. You have to live 10 years in two hours and portray that to the audience. I was only 23 when I first did the part. Every time I repeat it I add maturity and details. I’ve been through different experiences in life but I return to the same steps. It’s like reading the same book: They’re the same words but sometimes you think, Aha! Now I understand what it really meant.
Photo by John Deane, Courtesy MGDC