What a Transgender Ballerina Could Bring to Odette, And Other Thoughts on Ballet Today
What should we dance about today and how should we go about it? Those questions were on the mind of Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling this summer as he spent six weeks exploring new ways of telling stories through ballet as a fellow at NYU's Center for Ballet and Arts.
Over his 20 years as principal choreographer at NB, Vasterling has created a handful of narrative works, ranging from children's stories to Romeo and Juliet and Lizzie Borden (about the Fall River, Massachusetts woman tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother).
Paul Vasterling with Nashville Ballet dancers. Photo by Anthony Matula
But, he admits, "I rarely have uninterrupted creative time and freedom to let my mind go down all the rabbit holes it should." The fellowship gave him time out to reflect on the genre and find fresh inspiration while watching hour upon hour of ballet, and sharing ideas with a floor full of other artists and researchers.
He shared four takeaways from his time there:
Ballet is too narrow-minded.
"We need to bring in new ideas and encourage ballet choreographers and directors to step out of the usual," says Vasterling. "This profession can be very insular. We tend not to look to the sides."
He feels strongly that the art form will thrive when its makers and doers are exposed to broader ideas—which is why the Center for Ballet and the Arts is so important right now. "This place gives us the opportunity to challenge our norms and our ways of thinking about what a ballet is."
Ballet can be more like poetry than prose.
Years spent making ballets will develop a choreographer's skills and fluency, but it can also lead to not-so-creative habits. The fellowship gave Vasterling time to find a way out of his own creative ruts. "I met many poets during this fellowship and realized I could approach narrative ballet in a different way. It doesn't have to be so literal and so linear," he says.
Realizing it was more helpful to liken ballet storytelling to narrative poetry, with its clear forms and rules, was a breakthrough. "In ballet, we also work with a lot of rules," he says. "Rules are embodied in the technique."
We need to expand the definition of "ballet."
"I want our audiences to understand the vast scope of what a ballet can be," says Vasterling. Pushing that distinction means thinking outside the norm, whether in terms of subject matter, movement vocabulary, use of text and singers, or in performance structure and duration. This raises interesting questions around where exactly we draw the line between ballet and modern dance or musical theatre. But as Vasterling points out, "ballets are made on ballet companies with trained ballet dancers who embody the technique and line inherent in ballet dancing."
It's time to update ballet's approach to gender.
"What's going to happen when we have our first transgender ballerina?" asks Vasterling. Today, there are clear gender lines in ballet. However, ballet is role-playing and in the theater we rely on performers to bring new things to light through their unique qualities and experience. What will a transgender ballerina bring to light in a role like Odette, wonders Vasterling?
Nashville Ballet in Swan Lake, 2014. Photo via nashvillearts.com
"So many things made me go 'Oh wow!' during this process," he says. "Now I am challenging myself to make a new ballet in these terms. I'm nervous about it. It gives me that agitated feeling you get which means you're really going to do it."
Vasterling has headed back to Nashville with a practical outcome from his fellowship: a new libretto written in collaboration with poet Caroline Randall Williams based on her book Lucy Negro, Redux (described as being "part savvy lit crit, part Blues chart, part hip revenge-femme-lyric, part imagined interracial romance saga disguised as poems"). In the book, Randall Williams toys with the notion that the dark lady of Shakespeare's sonnets is a black woman. For the libretto, she and Vasterling weaved together the lives of real and imaginary characters: a present day narrator/poet, Shakespeare, his mysterious dark lady and a younger lover. The ballet will premiere in Nashville in February 2019.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: