Dancers & Companies

Paradise in Positano

What do Christopher Wheeldon, Olga Smirnova, Steven McRae, PeiJu Chien-Pott and Xander Parish have in common? They were all honored with the Premio Positano Danza Léonide Massine on Saturday in Positano, Italy. As one of the judges, I was there to soak in the artistry of these and other dance artists, as well as the beauty of this town on the Amalfi Coast. For the first time, the Positano Prize formed a partnership with the Benois de la danse Prize, which went to the Royal Swedish Ballet’s Marika Kido.

Carla Fracci, Italy's beloved prima ballerina, was on hand, and so was Alberta Testa, founder of the Positano Prize. Here’s a quick rundown of the gala performance, which took place on an outdoors platform on the beach—after the rain:

• Opening the dance portion (after endless speeches) was the kinetically exciting Alvaro Dule of Wayne McGregor|Random Dance. In a solo made for the occasion by Matteo Levaggi, Dule leapt wth leonine strength, distended his ribs, and spiraled his fingers. The effect was sheer contemporary energy.

 

Alvaro Dule, all photos by Arkimedia Lab Communication - Vito Fusco

• The lifetime award went to Mats Ek and Ana Laguna (click here and scroll down to see our coverage of Mats Ek when he received the Dance Magazine Award last year) To the delight of everyone, Laguna, with her forthright lustiness, played the Nurse to Mariko Kida’s spritely Juliet in an excerpt from Ek’s Juliia & Romeo.

• Steven McRae of The Royal Ballet danced two fast and dense solos (Les Lutins by Johan Kobborg, and Czardas by himself). In Czardas, he whipped the ballet folk form into a tap-dancing frenzy, during which the mic tethered to his body flung outward as he spun around. He caught it in time to finish up with a roll and cool lounge pose.

• I can see why Laura Cappelle wrote that audiences are “awestruck” by Olga Smirnova in the June cover story. In both Balanchine’s Diamonds, with Bolshoi partner Semyon Chudin, and her Dying Swan, her dancing was supremely majestic.

 

 

Smirnova and Chudin in "Diamonds." 

• PeiJu Chien-Pott, the latest powerhouse of the Martha Graham Dance Company, performed two solos from Cave of the Heart, animating the oppositional Graham shapes with an inner emotional force.

• A moving moment came when the blind dancer Giuseppe Comuniello performed Vergilio Sieni’s Picasso con Sedia. Stretching across the seat of a chair and pressing his face between the slats, he was clearly feeling his way.

* In tribute to Wheeldon, Dutch National Ballet dancers Anna Tsigankova and Jozef Varga performed the intriguingly complex partnering of his recent Duet expertly (with only one flub due to the still-wet floor).

 

Tsigankova and Varga in Duet by Christopher Wheeldon

• Two Mariinsky dancers, Xander Parish (read his “Why I Dance” here) and Oksana Skorik, performed the White Swan pas de deux. He was every inch the prince, and she was a real creature with a lovely sense of abandon.

• Rudolf Nureyev, who received a Positano Prize in 1982, was represented by Carlo ie Lanno’s sensitive interpretation of a fourth-act solo for Siegfried in the icon's version of Swan Lake. Nureyev loved this region so much that he bought the island Li Galli, just 20 minutes off the coast, and made it his home for the last two decades of his life. Some of us were fortunate to actually visit this fantastic island on Saturday morning, courtesy of  the Positano Prize’s artistic director, Daniele Cipriani. Nureyev knew how to live in high style; every object inside the several buildings, now owned by a local hotelier, is exquisite. Massine, who had owned the island before Nureyev, had renovated an ancient lighthouse to create a dance studio. The island itself as well as everything in it and on it was so overwhelmingly beautiful that the word "paradise" was on everyone's lips.

Here’s the list of prizes awarded:

•    Lifetime Achievement: Mats Ek and Ana Laguna

•    Choreographer of the Year: Christopher Wheeldon

•    Benois/Positano Award: Mariko Kida (Royal Swedish Ballet)

•    Female Dancer of the Year, international scene: Olga Smirnova (Bolshoi, Moscow)

•    Male Dancer of the Year, international: Steven McRae (The Royal Ballet, London)

•    Female Emerging Dancer, international: Oksana Skorik (Mariinsky, St. Petersburg)

•    Male Emerging Dancer, international: Xander Parish (Mariinsky, St. Petersburg)

•    Female Dancer of the Year, contemporary, international: PeiJu Chien-Pott (Martha Graham Dance Company, New York)

•    Male Dancer of the Year, contemporary, international: Alvaro Dule (Wayne McGregor|Random Dance, London)

•    Classical Dancer of the Year, Italian scene: Carl di Lanno (formerly La Scala in Milan, today San Francisco Ballet)

•    Contemporary Dancer of the Year, Italian: Giuseppe Comuniello (Virgilio Sieni Dance)

•    Massine Prize Legacy: Elizabeth Souritz (noted dance historian and biographer of Léonide Massine, Moscow)

•    For excellent dance training "Luca Vespoli": Larissa Anisimova (President Foundation National Academy of Dance, Rome)

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"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.

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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."

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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."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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