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How to Nail the Mad Ballerina Role in Robbins’ Funniest Ballet
In last week’s all-Robbins program at New York City Ballet, we got a slice of his many terrific ballets, each one unique in its boldness. The triple bill at Lincoln Center included the beautifully crafted Glass Pieces; the intense—and intensely silent—Moves; and the hilarious romp The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody).
Sterling Hyltin in Jerome Robbins' The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik
It is this last one I want to talk about. Everything about The Concert is a delight, from the onstage pianist (played with delicious frumpiness by Elaine Chelton) to the guffaw-inducing “Mistake Waltz,” to the poignant umbrella scene.
The basic “plot” of this 1956 ballet is that various characters straggle in to listen to a concert pianist playing Chopin, and they are each in their own private world. Last week Sterling Hyltin played the starring role, the loopy lady with ballerina fantasies, to the hilt. Carried away by the beautiful music, she is the gateway to a string of brilliantly wacky episodes.
Hyltin in The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik
The role was made for Tanaquil LeClercq, the glamorous French dancer who was married to Balanchine in the 50s. But it has also been done—with comedic flair—in different decades by Allegra Kent, Stephanie Saland and Maria Kowroski.
I asked Saland what she remembers about dancing this role when Robbins was still alive. (She was with NYCB from 1972 to 1993, the last nine years as principal, and is now a master teacher in Seattle.)
Stephanie Saland in an undated photo © Daniel Sorine
“He called it the mad ballerina role,” she said. “The comedic aspects only work when we do not play to the joke, but believe her thoroughly. It was so much fun, although Jerry was phenomenally particular about timing, especially with comedic work.”
While coaching her in the scene where she gets chased by the cigar-chomping, two-timing husband, Robbins told her to watch Maya Plisetskaya on video. He wanted Saland to capture that silent-movie style of drama, with big eyes and exaggerated gestures.
Her favorite scene was when her character tries on different hats. “Jerry was very precise about where you look and when you slump with disappointment. And when they put the ridiculous fluffy blue hat on you, you just know it’s right for you.” Saland says she actually started making her own hats after dancing the role.
Hyltin, on the other hand, says in this charming clip from NYCB that the hat-changing scene was the most difficult for her.
The Concert is widely recognized as the funniest ballet ever made. It’s been in the repertories of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and more. Needless to say, it requires dancers who have a knack for comedy, and they are hard to come by. But when it clicks, everyone in the audience and onstage become deliriously happy.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.