Training

Become a Better Partner: Tips for Men

Philip Neal teaching at Next Generation Ballet

In ballet partnering, the male dancer has important responsibilities beyond technically supporting his ballerina. My partnerships with New York City Ballet principal dancers Kyra Nichols, Jenifer Ringer and Wendy Whelan gave me years of experience in adapting to their different needs to create more effective onstage collaborations. Here are some tips for male ballet dancers to consider As they advance in their training and career.

(For tips for female dancers, click here.)


Learn Her Sense of Musicality

Philip Neal and Kyra Nichols in Balanchine's Serenade, photo by Paul Kolnik

A great partner tunes into a ballerina's sense of music, tempo, timing. It's vital to adapt to her needs in the moment without losing yourself. "For me, a partner needed to be intuitive, to understand my musicality. It's a live art and things happen. You can't rehearse away spontaneity," says Kyra Nichols. I learned all of Kyra's choreography to anticipate how she may interpret any given step, especially with a change in conductor. We didn't practice any combinations before the curtain rose, but rather trusted in our unspoken, visceral bond.

Develop Emotional Sensitivity

Philip Neal with Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paul Kolnik

One must also develop an emotional awareness to what his partner is currently feeling. Ballet requires the dancer to tap into an authentic emotional place. Sensitively responding to one's partner respects the dynamics of the interpersonal relationship.

"There is an element of sacrifice that the best partners have where they will do what must be done to help the ballerina be successful in her step," says Jenifer Ringer. "No matter how much you rehearse, emotions in the moment could change how two individuals dancing together might execute any step."

Shepherd Each Other through Vulnerability

Philip Neal with Wendy Whelan. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Throughout the rehearsal process and performance, dancers are vulnerable, subject to criticism and injury. An exceptional partner always has his ballerina's back. She must trust you, not only with her physical safety, but also for emotional support. Often in larger companies, there can be an onus on dancers to prepare without extensive supervision. Dancers may have to rely on each other for another set of compassionate eyes.

"I've always worked best with a partner when I have felt an energetic chemistry—a creative chemistry," says Wendy Whelan. "It certainly always helped for me to have a musical partner, but more than anything else I had to be able to share myself with that person in order to work through challenges with honesty and have fun with them." My rehearsals with Wendy could be a riotously good time. We shared a similar sense of humor and our banter sometimes resembled an episode of "Will & Grace." But we always remained focused, helping each other through some challenging circumstances.

Know When to Get Out of the Way

Philip Neal and Kyra Nichols, photo by Kyle Froman

Even though it's called a partnership, sometimes you'll have to step back and give her breathing room. Partnering is also no place for grandstanding. I personally searched for a balance between self-display and deferential modesty. "For me, a partner needed to be there when I needed him and not intrusive when I didn't," says Nichols. I partnered Kyra by her fingertips, often maneuvering her wrists instead of her hands. I kept quite a distance between our bodies to magnify the illusion of her self-sufficiency. And I didn't touch her waist until after she started her own turns (but I credit Mr. Balanchine for that bit of ingenuity).

Find Mutual Camaraderie

Philip Neal and Wendy Whelan. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Building a great partnership is like any successful relationship. You grow in it together and you change together. Support each other in your solo work. Dancers should become technically and emotionally available to each other, deepening the sense of camaraderie. There's a partnership beyond the pas de deux.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

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.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

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.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

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."

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

Dancers & Companies
Never let it be said that The Cindies lack studio swag. Via Instagram @jamesbwhiteside

It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)

Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

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.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

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.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

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."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

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.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

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:

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