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.
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.