Top Artists Confess Their Guiltiest Pleasures
Dance studios and world-renowned theaters are sometimes characterized as “ivory towers,” where serious artists do serious work, far away from the hoi polloi. Even within the field, certain dance figures and pieces can suddenly fall out of fashion. Nevertheless, we found 11 professionals willing to defend their guilty pleasures and pop-cultural obsessions—on the record.
The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy The Book of Mormon.
“Turn It Off,” from The Book of Mormon, is one of the more brilliant tap numbers I’ve ever seen—so fun, so well constructed, so filled with irony and wit, and there’s a costume change built in!
If you’ve studied concert dance, there’s often the belief that to work in popular entertainment is to negate that education. Earlier in my career, I might’ve taken being called “accessible” as a criticism, but now I find it’s flattering to think that I might be able to help people become dance fans. I recently went to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World, and there was a 20-minute revue based on the Bette Midler movie Hocus Pocus. It was cheesy, certainly, but honestly? It was really well done! The dancing was spectacular.
I also have a real weakness for watching Justin Bieber dance. He’s such a natural. It looks effortless. —Larry Keigwin, choreographer
Richard Simmons inspires me.
—Kelly Anderson, artistic director, Kelly Anderson Dance Theatre
Photo by Adam Taylor, Courtesy ABC.
I’m a “Dancing with the Stars” superfan. I even follow my favorites on Instagram.
—Jessica Deahr, artistic director, Chicago Dance Crash
I love a good syllabus meeting. All 20-plus faculty members sit in a circle, on chairs, and it only takes two minutes for the shoes to come off, and I’m demonstrating the “perfect” sur-le-cou-de-pied, three times with my foot, and several more times with my hands. We’re all big on port de bras, épaulement and pas de cheval. And do not get me started on proper placement of the thumb. What I love is that we are all “right,” which can prompt some pointed discussions—which continue for weeks.
—Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and director, Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Spice Girls. Photo by Eric Mutrie.
It’s hard to have “guilty pleasures” when I’m very proud of mine: the boy bands and girl groups of the late ’90s and early 2000s. *NSYNC and the Spice Girls were major sources of dance inspiration. I taped their performances, and taught myself their choreography. Their impact on me as a dancer, even today, is undeniable, and I’ve found myself less and less embarrassed by my teenage fascination with pop icons. When dance is prevalent in pop culture, that’s worth celebrating, so I say: “Thank you, *NSYNC, and thank you, Spice Girls.”
—James Whiteside, principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Houston performing "Saving All My Love for You." Photo courtesy HBO.
Years ago, I told my students at Northwestern University that it was foolish, or passé, or not “serious art,” if they choreographed to music with lyrics. Then I became so entranced with pop from the ’80s and ’90s, those incredibly catchy songs, that I used it for my own work, which of course made me a hypocrite. I consider my piece Sharks Before Drowning, which included music by Whitney Houston, a kind of breakthrough for me, because I let myself love what I loved.
I’ve also fantasized about being a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
—Molly Shanahan, artistic director, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say I think Ludwig Minkus is a highly effective dance composer. Is his music great? No. Is it profound? Not at all. But a lot of choreographers will tell you that “great” music is not always the best music to choreograph to. Minkus is great second-rate music. It’s catchy, often washed with local color—I especially love the fandango from Don Quixote—and it practically begs to be danced to.
—Marina Harss, dance critic
I’ve cried watching videos of flash mobs. Music starts, one person starts doing something, all alone, and the other people are thinking, What is that weirdo doing? Then another person joins, and then a third, and a fourth, and everyone gradually becomes aware of what’s happening. It’s often a combination of older and younger people, people of color, business types and people in sweatshirts, and look: They’re all dancing together! It expands into an almost utopian moment, a fleeting glimpse at something shared and serendipitous which, inevitably, ends just as soon as it began.
London's "Dance the Dream" flash mob. Photo by Jenna Lee, courtesy Dance the Dream.
Flash mobs were of course quickly co-opted, and used to spread the most commercial choreographic dreck. But even the worst flash mobs carry within them some connection to that idealism. When I’m in a horrible place like Penn Station, I often find myself wishing—hoping—Please, let a flash mob start happening right now.
—Sydney Skybetter, choreographer and arts management consultant
My kids first tried to get me to watch “Dance Moms“ three years ago. Of course I refused at first. Then I lost a bet, agreed to watch an episode and, right away, I was hooked. Abby Lee Miller says things to parents and students that dance teachers can only dream of saying.
—Winifred Haun, artistic director, Winifred Haun & Dancers
An Unexpected Obsession
Big Dance Theater’s Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson explain their fascination with baseball.
Parson and Lazar. Photo by Eric Roman, courtesy Big Dance Theater.
For me, baseball is a long-form tone poem. The structure itself is poetic: The game is built around threes—three bases, three strikes, three outs. The “music” of the game plays in slow motion, with quick, dynamic accents.
I love how the batter who hits a home run will casually jog around the bases, a direct contradiction to the muscular power he has just displayed. The catcher’s gestural language, told in the proscenium of his crotch, is a coded, specific and complex system of signs that only the pitcher knows, which has a shelf-life of just one game.
But the painful part, the tragedy that is sewn into baseball, is how deeply human it is. Even the most graceful outfielders will stumble and drop the ball. Virtuosic hitters in their prime statistically fail more than they succeed, literally swinging at empty air. The greatest pitchers will suddenly and inexplicably crumble, and get deposed from their thrones, in full view of us all. They walk away, shrunken and self-hating, or reluctant and raging. This is high tragedy. They stand in for us, for our own strivings, successes and failures.
As I observe all of this, my body sympathetically knots and unknots, and happily, guiltily exhales. Because it’s only a game.
—Annie-B Parson, choreographer and co-director, Big Dance Theater
It’s all about the batting stances for me. I could reenact the stances of any of the players I really love, starting from about 1971. Batters are all trying to do the same thing, more or less: hit a very small object, moving at high speed, with a narrow stick. And yet each of them approaches it in a unique way, right? Each batter has his own strange, bizarre way of preparation. They’re widely varied, like tropical birds.
Both pitchers and batters are, to me, the pinnacle of an alert readiness that’s right at the threshold of motion. That transition from alert stillness, into motion, back into stillness, back into motion—it’s a substantial amount of contained energy that’s just looking for a vessel, for a moment of opportunity.
Kate Valk, of the Wooster Group, and I made a little dance project once and, during the process, I enacted a few of these batters’ stances, which ended up making it into the piece, called Relaxing Classical Bach Exercise. As soon as you assume someone’s body posture, you can start becoming them, from the outside in. Simply emulating one’s physicality can bring all sorts of insight. I like the idea of “reverse engineering” movement in that way.
—Paul Lazar, co-director, Big Dance Theater
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.