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8 Movie Stars Who Were Dancers First
It seems like more Hollywood actresses are taking on the physical challenges of action movies. For both Zoe Saldana, starring in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Charlize Theron, the bombshell in The Fate of the Furious, previous dance training has been a plus.
Saldana has said that she felt her ballet background helped her get her breakout role in Avatar. "I thank god for something like ballet, which gave that space for me to be by myself and find peace," she said recently in an interview with The New York Times. "Ballet was my meditation, my therapy, my escape, my answer."
Zoe Saldana as Eva in Center Stage (2000)
For Theron, her high school years were spent training at the Joffrey School in New York until a knee injury made her rethink her career. In her more athletic movie roles, that training kicked in. "As a former ballerina, Charlize brings all that physicality, and a special awareness and discipline and sense of valuation of her character through gestures," said George Miller, director of Mad Max: Fury Road.
That got me to thinking of other movie stars who trained intensively, some of them hoping to dance professionally. They each have a special elegance, an aura that marks them as dancers first. Here's a partial list:
• Neve Campbell, who studied at the National Ballet School of Canada from age 9 to 15, starred in the fictional movie The Company (2004) about the Joffrey Ballet. About her training, she told SF Gate, "It was my life and my introduction to the arts." But with her, too, injury forced her to turn to acting.
• Claire Danes took lessons with master teacher Ellen Robbins in New York from the age of 6 to 14. Robbins' approach is to focus on creativity, which helped build a foundation for Danes' work in Hollywood. In Showtime's Homeland, she plays a bi-polar expert at solving intrigue.
• Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, studied at the School of American Ballet. She is the New York City Ballet board member who came up with the brilliant idea of making NYCB's annual fall gala a hub of collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers.
And of course, there are those stars of Hollywood's Golden Age that we can't get enough of: Audrey Hepburn, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron.
• Audrey Hepburn trained with Marie Rambert in London in the late 40s and performed the lead in Gigi on Broadway in 1951. In this 1952 film, Secret People, her youthful, unpolished talent is on full display. And then in 1953, she hit it big in Funny Face as Fred Astaire's gamin model and love interest—the same year she did Roman Holiday, a huge non-dancing hit. Her ballet ability ensured the effervescence of her dance numbers in Funny Face as well as her regal bearing in Roman Holiday.
• Cyd Charisse started lessons at the age of 6 and danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In one of her early films, The Harvey Girls (1946), she played a dreamy ingenue who breaks into a lyrical solo steeped in romantic feeling. Later she played a vixen whose allure for Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951) and Fred Astaire in Band Wagon (1953) is legend.
Leslie Caron, MGM
• Leslie Caron danced since childhood in France. Gene Kelly spotted her with Roland Petit's company, Ballet des Champs Elysées, cast her in An American in Paris (1951), and the rest is history.
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.
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:
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."
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.