Nutcracker's Delectable Divertissements
Step aside, Clara and Sugar Plum Fairy. Though little girls everywhere dream of dancing those roles, hundreds of dancers are having a blast and jacking up crowds in The Nutcracker's second-act delights: the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Mirlitons (French) divertissements. Sometimes danced by principals, these nuggets of nationalistic dancing-with as many variations as there are candles on the Stahlbaums' Christmas tree-more often give spotlight time to soloists or corps dancers. Five dancers from five companies share their experiences in making these spicy roles their own.
Many productions maintain the traditional Land of the Sweets theme, designating Spanish as chocolate, Arabian as coffee, Chinese as tea, Russian as candy canes, and Mirlitons as flute-shaped confections. Others get more creative. Choreographers seem to take the most license with the snippet of music that Tchaikovsky dubbed "Mirlitons." Boston Ballet makes it a pastoral scene, complete with shepherdesses and lambs; at San Francisco Ballet, three French dance-hall girls swirl ribbons while flashing lots of leg; a trio in 18th-century garb dances to the flutes at Houston Ballet. And at Pacific Northwest Ballet, a Harlequin-like male character and two female sidekicks jump straight from commedia dell'arte.
PNB corps de ballet member Lesley Rausch, who has danced the role (called "Commedia" instead of "Mirlitons") in former artistic director Kent Stowell's Nutcracker for five years, loves its theatricality. "There's a lot of interaction between the three [dancers]; the guy dances with one, then the other, and it creates tension," she says. "It's puffy, with a lot of petite allegro and pointe work, and very musical.
"Doing Nut you get so bored and tired," continues Rausch, "but every time I do Commedia it's fun and upbeat and there's good energy between the dancers. It's more theatrical, so you can make something out of it."
At Houston Ballet, first soloist Ian Casady performed the Chinese Dance for six years, starting with his first season with the company in 1998. As luck would have it, he was always paired with his boyhood friend, former HB soloist Lucas Priolo, in the dance for two men, one with a sword and one with a staff. "I did it with Lucas every time, so it got to the point where it ran like a machine. It's character [dancing] with acrobatic stuff thrown in. I was the sword guy," says Casady. The dancers don't need special training to work with the weapons since they're not used for fencing, but good teamwork is essential for the cartwheels and butterfly kicks they perform over each other's weapon. Still, hazard pay might be in order; despite the sword's blunt edge, Casady managed to draw blood in rehearsal. "I cut my head on the sword one time-I just barely tapped my head with it, and I didn't feel anything. But when I looked in the mirror there was blood running down my face-that freaked me out!"
Although Casady, who now dances the Prince, has also done Mirlitons, Arabian, and Spanish, he says that Chinese is his favorite. "It's tricky, and the music's fun, and it's kind of a silly dance. The audiences are always really into it. I loved doing it."
At San Francisco Ballet, the role of lead Russian is practically synonymous with principal dancer Guennadi Nedviguine-who is, serendipitously, Russian. He's danced the role since he joined the company in 1997, nearly always on opening night, earning whoops and cheers with his high-flying split jumps. How many he squeezes in depends on his mood. "Sometimes I do one big, then one small, one big, then one small, then four. Sometimes I do them with a grand plie, and then I do less," he says. (He trades in his Cossack-style duds for princely attire when he dances the grand pas de deux.)
Although artistic director Helgi Tomasson launched an elegant new production in 2004, he retained Anatole Vilzak's 1986 choreography for the Russian trepak. "I think it was a good move," says Nedviguine. "The character has been written very bravura." With its folk-dance-based steps and dazzling jumps, it has always been a crowd-pleaser. But now the three men make a surprise entrance, bursting out of Faberge-like eggs. "You have this little hole to look through for the conductor's cue, but you don't have much space to start jumping and break the paper," Nedviguine says. "You're pretty tense when you're in there, like a tiger waiting to jump. It works well with the choreography-you explode onto the stage."
Cheering crowds weren't the reason why New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan coveted the role of Arabian. She's danced it only twice, but the memory of her performance is indelible-it's on film, in the 1993 movie version of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. And the role is equally well preserved in the heart of this dancer. "I wanted to do it my whole life, so it was a dream come true. My mother had gotten me tickets for Christmas when I was 6 or 7, and that was the only thing I remembered," says Whelan. "I liked it because it had such a different tempo-smoky and sexy, with snaky music."
So when NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins offered her the role, Whelan was thrilled. "I like the earthiness of it, that it's almost a modern dance," she says. "The style is more what I'm comfortable with-flexed feet and hands, head down, and darker. I could always relate to that. It's very physical and earthy and exotic.
"I was learning it with ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy," continues Whelan, "and I remember doing one of the steps with flexed feet differently, and she really liked it. As a young principal dancer, it was important to me that she said the way I did it was valid."
As if dancing Arabian weren't enough of a fantasy come to life, Whelan's memory of the role is inextricably tied to romance: It was while wearing that costume that she met the man who would become her husband, photographer David Michalek. "I remember when the door opened and we saw each other," she says. "I put my little dress on and I tried to seduce him." With obvious success-they've been together for 13 years.
Unlike Whelan, Kate Crews, a demi-soloist with Ballet West, has made something of a career out of her customary Nutcracker role. After dancing Spanish for four years at Kansas City Ballet, Crews was cast in it again in her first year with Ballet West, as the trio's lead in Willam Christensen's Nutcracker. Seven years later she's still at it. "My favorite part is the entrance," she says. "The two side girls come on and then the lead comes on with this huge jete, and it gets the audience's attention. It's quick but powerful. You get to play with the audience, give it a little extra flair."
Crews, who also dances the longer, adagio Arabian, says, "Spanish is exciting. It's short; you make your statement and it's done. And now that it's such a part of my body and experience, I couldn't imagine doing Nutcracker without it."
Cheryl Ossola is a San Francisco-based writer and editor and a contributing editor for Dance Magazine.
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."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
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: