One Dancer's Journey From War-Torn Damascus to Dutch National Ballet
It's easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a place where we can safely pursue our dance training. For dancers in war zones or in places where dance is thought of as unlawful or inappropriate, a dance career can be nearly impossible. But for Ahmad Joudeh—a Syrian dancer who's had to overcome both of these circumstances—there's hope.
Ahmad Joudeh. PC Michel Schnater, Courtesy DNB.
Joudeh, born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, grew up in a refugee camp in Syria, a country that has been engulfed in civil war since 2011. And from an early age, he wanted to dance. Lacking familial support, he took classes in secret—and was beaten by his father when he got caught. But he persevered, giving free ballet lessons to children in his community and appearing on the Arab version of "So You Think You Can Dance."
Last year, journalist Roozbeh Kaboly discovered Joudeh, and created a segment entitled Dance or Die for Dutch news program Nieuswuur. The footage depicts Joudeh improvising among the rubble of his old Damascus neighborhood, which had been destroyed by bombings. It shows his local dance studio, where Joudeh had been training with a small group of persistent dancers of all ages. "Despite the war, we have very talented people," says one dancer. Another, who was wounded in the violence, says he is able to forget the war when he's dancing. From Joudeh's roof—which he uses as his rehearsal space—he can hear guns going off in the conflict zone just blocks away.
Luckily, Dance or Die was seen by the right person: Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, who set up a fund to bring Joudeh to the Netherlands.
Today, Joudeh lives in Amsterdam and is training in ballet and contemporary at the National Ballet Academy. He is preparing to perform in DNB's production of Coppelia this month—his debut on a Dutch stage. "My life now is the best life," he says.
This good news comes at a time when thousands of Syrians are trying to leave the country—especially in Aleppo, a rebel-held city that in recent weeks has faced particularly brutal attacks by the Syrian government as well as Russian forces.
Thankfully, according to Brandsen, his Dance for Peace fund is expected to raise more money than is needed to maintain Joudeh's training in Amsterdam, so he hopes to use it to bring other Syrian artists to the Netherlands. The more artists whose talents can be given the space and safety to thrive, the better.
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.