Five years ago, Alex Wong had the kind of career most ballet dancers only dream of: Under the wing of Miami City Ballet founding artistic director Edward Villella, the 23-year-old had already been promoted to principal soloist, was acclaimed for his powerful sky-high jetés and effortless pirouettes, and had recently been named one of Dance Magazine's “25 to Watch." But instead of signing another yearlong contract with MCB, he decided to audition for “So You Think You Can Dance."
“I had done most of the repertory I wanted to do at MCB, so it seemed like the opportune moment to take a leap of faith," says Wong. During a stint on an earlier “SYTYCD" season, his MCB contract had prevented him from moving onto the live shows. Now, there was nothing in his way of becoming “America's Favorite Dancer"—and no place to go if things fell apart.
At first, it seemed like the gamble would pay off. His explosive virtuosity blew the judges away, and he advanced to the Top 10. Then, while landing a split jump in second during a Bollywood rehearsal, Wong snapped his right Achilles tendon. He was out for the rest of the show and the tour that followed. But what could have been a major setback was only a blip on his way to a triple-threat career. With his can-do resilience, Wong now juggles a never-ending string of dance jobs that range from classical to commercial to Broadway. He's strategically marketed himself to create a kind of freedom that lets him slip between genres, going after any gig that excites him.
Behind the scenes: Playing with Ted on set. Photo courtesy Wong
Wong didn't initially intend to go the ballet route when he started dancing. Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, he trained in jazz, tap and musical theater, and dreamed of dancing on Broadway or television. “As I got older, those dreams kind of fizzled away, since it didn't feel realistic for an Asian to be cast in commercial jobs," says Wong, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong. “I never saw anyone who looked like me doing the things I hoped to accomplish."
Wong added ballet classes at the Goh Ballet Academy to get a leg up at competitions, and ended up falling in love with the style's artistry and quest for technical perfection. He also noticed that there were more Asian dancers in ballet companies. “I made the conscious decision at about 15 to focus on ballet, join a company and hopefully have a stable career," he says.
In 2004, Wong became the first Canadian to win Prix de Lausanne, which led to a yearlong contract with American Ballet Theatre's studio company. He danced with the main company during its Met season, but the timing didn't work out to join long-term, as ABT had recently hired several shorter male dancers. Instead, Wong found a home at MCB, where he quickly turned heads. Only a few months after joining, he stepped up to replace an injured dancer in the lead of Raymonda Variations. He was soon promoted to soloist, then principal soloist, dancing lead roles in Balanchine classics like “Rubies," Symphony in Three Movements and Tarantella.
His experience on “SYTYCD," where both a hip-hop and a contemporary routine he danced in won Emmy awards, opened the doors to a career in commercial dance. “He broke the classical mold and showed just what can be done," says “SYTYCD" co-executive producer Jeff Thacker. For his part, Wong doesn't believe he could have made the transition without the show: “I had a great ballet career, but nobody had seen me do anything else."
Watching from behind the camera. Photo courtesy Wong
During his year off to heal his Achilles, Wong signed with Bloc talent agency and booked several print and commercial jobs. As soon as he could dance again, he was performing in the ensemble of NBC's “Smash," on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and with LMFAO on “The Voice." “Originally my plan was to return to a ballet company after 'SYTYCD,' but after being offered these other projects, I saw how many forms of dance I could do," he says. “I didn't want to do just one thing anymore."
Exactly one year and three days after his injury, Wong was auditioning for Step Up Revolution when, during a freestyle, he went for a few of those split leaps in second, and snapped his Achilles tendon again, this time on his left leg. Wong knew immediately what had happened. “But I still wanted to book the movie," he says. “I finished my freestyle on one leg, and then drove to the hospital."
Within weeks of the surgery, he was teaching class on crutches. To expand his marketable skill set, he developed his singing voice, even making it to the semifinals on “American Idol" and releasing a single to iTunes. It came in handy: Once healed, he made his Broadway debut as Sniper in Newsies. “That was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had," he says. “I'm not even mad that I snapped my Achilles, because otherwise I might not have been in Newsies. Although, I do stay away from consecutive jumps in second now."
Now 28, Wong has since been back to “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, starred in the Microsoft “Surface" commercial, danced in Pharrell Williams' “Happy" music video, at the Oscars, in Peter Pan Live! and on episodes of “Glee," “Dancing with the Stars," “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and “Comedy Bang! Bang!" among many other projects.
Recently, Wong spent four months playing Kim on “Flesh and Bone," a ballet-centered TV series that premieres this November on STARZ. The show was choreographed by Wong's longtime idol, Ethan Stiefel. “Alex has an explosive technique, a fearless attitude and an engaging performance persona," says Stiefel. “He's really entering his prime."
Backstage at the Oscars before the “Everything Is Awesome" Lego Movie dance. Photo from @theacademy Instagram
To Wong, the project felt like coming full circle. “I got to go back to my ballet roots, which I was starting to miss," Wong says. “It felt like having the structure and consistency of a company again."
Yet the energy of the commercial world has him hooked for the foreseeable future. “I like adventure too much," he says. “Being in the classical world was like eating a truffle burger—it's always good, high quality. But in the commercial world, some days I get a bacon burger, others an avocado burger, and suddenly—surprise!—a curry burger."
Wong's lifestyle now, split between Los Angeles and New York City, is drastically different from the consistency he left behind. “My ballet schedule was like clockwork, but now, there's no planning ahead," he says. Without a daily company class, he has had to switch up his training routine, fitting in classes when he can (still usually ballet), and also adding weight lifting to bulk up for a more muscular, commercial look.
A big perk of all the juggling is the pay that comes along with it. Wong estimates that his current income, which includes residuals for TV and film work, is five times what he was making as a ballet dancer. “Plus, I have the film or TV episode to watch over and over again," he says.
This summer, Wong's back on “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, and he's the man behind the moves in Ted 2, doing motion-capture work for the title character in an over 100-person dance scene. “The coolest part was that I got to work closely behind the scenes in terms of camera direction," Wong says. “Since Ted isn't real, only I knew where he was during the dance sequence, so I'd work with the camera operator to tell him where to go. The final shot will have come through my hands."
Wong says that if anything, he feels his ethnicity has become a plus when booking jobs. “I think it's given me a chance to stand out, since most directors now want at least a few ethnic people in each cast," he says. The risk-taking mentality he's developed means there's no longer any room in his career for holding back: “I'm trying to keep as many doors open as I can."
Rachel Zar is a writer based in Chicago.
Above: Photo by Nathan Sayers
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.
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.
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."
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: