These days, it's not uncommon to see men dancing on pointe. Sure, the Trocks have been doing it forever, but now even men in traditional companies are seeing the benefits of training in pointe shoes.
And yet, we've never seen anything like this video of Houston Ballet's Hayden Stark, Derek Dunn and Daniel Durrett performing the "Shades" variations from La Bayadere on pointe. It's not a parody video or a spoof. These boys' pointework is the real deal, and we're all for it.
Houston Ballet is at it again. After producing a short parody of "The Office" to promote its Cinderella run in March, the company has made the brilliant decision to do it all over again, this time with La Bayadère. Which means, yes, snakes(!).
Is it too much to hope that this becomes a recurring series? We think not.
By the end of the summer, two major international ballet companies will have new artistic directors. And they'll both be American.
Today, The Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that current Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker will take over the company later this month. The former Pacific Northwest Ballet star will succeed Francesco Ventriglia, who announced his resignation in November. We've yet to hear who will be taking over for Barker at Grand Rapids, but for the 2017-2018 season, Barker will be doing double artistic director duty from across the world.
When Houston Ballet demi-soloist Harper Watters first posted a short video of himself in bubblegum pink heels, he went to sleep with 4,000 Instagram followers. He awoke to more than double that, and 500-plus comments. Now at nearly 65,000 followers, Watters knows he (and his partner in crime, fellow Houston Ballet dancer Rhys Kosakowski) struck a fun chord with a new audience.
To promote its revival of Stanton Welch's Cinderella, Houston Ballet recently posted a short video on social media. It wasn't the regular teaser of expertly edited performance footage, but instead a parody on the hit show "The Office." While ballet and comedy may seem to be unlikely partners, this works. Trust us; we laughed more than a few times. Check out the video below and watch Cinderella (who plays the equivalent of "The Office's" Pam) navigate her day with an impossible group of employees.
Houston Ballet dancers raise funds for their community through a self-produced performance project.
Oliver Halkowich (back) rehearses corps member Shahar Dori. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy REACH.
One day during spring break of this year, Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh coached corps member Shu Kinouchi on the intricate steps of his newest work. Soloist Allison Miller rushed in with a sleek handmade zippered unitard. Lighting designer Lisa Pinkham popped in to take notes, as did C.C. Conner, the former managing director of Houston Ballet. This wasn’t for a Houston Ballet event but for REACH, a collective of entrepreneurial dancers who give back to their community by producing a show during their layoff time.
REACH came into being when the company’s annual choreographic workshop disappeared due to a jam-packed touring schedule two years ago. HB artistic director Stanton Welch encouraged principal Melody Mennite to take on a choreography project to replace it. “He really wants to nurture in-house choreographers,” she explains. Mennite, the force behind REACH, wrangled principal Walsh and soloist Oliver Halkowich to join the project as co-directors.
REACH has a dual purpose: to put on a show where every participant learns about an aspect of production they are interested in—be it marketing, fundraising, choreography or costume design—and to raise money for one of Houston Ballet’s outreach programs. “When we had our first conversations about REACH in October of 2014, it was about the chance to choreograph. The idea of raising funds developed later and was inspired by Nederlands Dans Theater’s Switch,” says Mennite.
Early on, the REACH team went to executive director Jim Nelson and Welch to see how the dancers could use Houston Ballet as a resource. The company provided rehearsal space and its Dance Lab black-box theater free of charge. Pinkham and photographer Amitava Sarkar also donated their services to the project.
Instead of trying to put on a show during their busiest time, REACH went to work during a vacation. Although the project was two years in the planning, all the works were created, rehearsed and performed within a two-week time frame. Everyone had at least two jobs. “Next time, I’ll just handle costumes,” admits Miller, who danced in two of the works in addition to being the costume designer. Walsh, wearing a headset, chimed in, “I have so much respect for the people backstage now.” Mennite adds, “Because we were rehearsing nonstop, we did not get out of shape during our time off, either.”
As they considered what to do with the proceeds, they realized there were outreach programs under their own roof that could use extra funding. “With a ballet dancer’s schedule it’s really hard to volunteer anywhere,” says Mennite. “We fell in love with X³: Explore, Extend, Excel!,” a Houston Ballet program that brings movement and music classes to elementary schools for free.
“We are usually at the receiving end of philanthropy,” says Walsh. “This gave us a chance to learn about raising funds.” REACH raised $11,200 in net proceeds for X³. Discussions are already underway for next year’s REACH, which will take place during the company’s summer break.
“After it was over, it felt surreal. The audience, the choreography and the community support was amazing,” says Mennite. “We had accomplished something so important: We created a structure where dancers could do what they love and make a difference in their own field.”
Melody Mennite's first published review hurt like a punch in the gut.
While dancing Clara's solo in The Nutcracker, Mennite, then a teen, decided to sustain a balance for a few seconds. “I got greedy and held it too long and then fell flat on my face," says Mennite, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet since 2008. The critic who reviewed the show gleefully called her out on her face-planting. “I was mortified," she says. “But, even though it was there in the newspaper, I've always been able to laugh at myself. My very first review set me up really well to let stuff roll off my back."
Mennite performing in Paquita choreographed by Stanton Welch.Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Nobody enjoys getting a bad review. Whether in print or online, it can feel like public humiliation. The purpose of reviews is to help readers understand the value and quality of a performance, to analyze it and provide some historical context. Some critics take the responsibility quite seriously, while others indulge all their feelings, no matter how petty. In the world of cyberspace, anyone can become a critic, so it's no longer only the traditional print journalists creating the noise. And while the performers themselves aren't the target audience of reviews, reading about yourself can become as addictive as it can be deflating.
After a performance, some dancers simply choose to avoid their reviews altogether. Veronika Part, a principal with American Ballet Theatre since 2009, has been the subject of polarized reactions from critics who have either thrilled to her dancing or shrugged lukewarmly. In response, she chooses not to read reviews of any kind. “I learned early on in my career that if I didn't want to listen to the bad reviews, I should also ignore the good ones," she says.
Photo by Gene Shiavone.
Other performers simply remain cautious. “You have to go in and say, 'Am I sure I want to read this? Can I handle it?' " says McGee Maddox, a National Ballet of Canada principal. “If you expect something bad to happen, you don't have to read it." More than a decade in the ballet business has armored him for any acidic comments. “When I was younger I probably would have stewed about reviews, but now I'm aware of what the source is, what their agenda is," he says, referring to critics who try to create a splash in print or satisfy their need to opine. “Critics and bloggers are part of a world that doesn't affect how I enjoy my job or how I approach my work."
Maddox performing in Swan Lake.Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Not all dancers take their criticism so silently, especially when a comment feels out of bounds. There have been significant instances of dancers aiming back at critics, such as when Jenifer Ringer, then a New York City Ballet principal, nobly defended herself on NBC's “Today" show against Alastair Macaulay's piercing critique of her weight. Another came after the 1994 premiere of Bill T. Jones' Still/Here, when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce—without having seen the work—complained about “dancers I'm forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women or disfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art." Jones, taking offense as a dancer, choreographer and person, returned the favor by claiming Croce was among those who “have a frightened and limited definition of normal."
Absorb and Move On
With the right approach, reviews can be used constructively. Jenna Riegel, who currently dances with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, recently took the blunt impact of a 2015 review of the premiere of Jones' Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, based on the experiences of Jones' mother-in-law, Dora, as a French Jewish nurse during World War II. In his June review, New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Yet the excellent dancers must also speak, and their amateurish line readings continually undermine the show." Although many women share the vocalization of Dora's words, Riegel says, “I think I took it to heart a little more because I carry a good load of that text." Riegel reacted to the review in two ways. First, she tried to see what could be positively gleaned from it. “What of that can I take in?" she asked herself. “Could the nuances be shifted?" But she also wanted to respect Jones' intention that the dancers' personas shine through, rather than to offer a literal reading of one woman's voice. She ultimately decided that her approach could be “a little more fluid," but her own voice needed to be heard—a director's motivation that the reviewer might not be aware of.
Photo by Paul B. Goode.
Even vague critiques can lead to breakthroughs. When Mennite was granted first cast of the title role of La Sylphide, she and her partner worked exhaustively with a Bournonville expert to hone the tone, precision, style and drama of the ballet. Most of the reviews skewed positively, but one stung. “The writer critiqued me as not being a mature enough dancer to grasp the nuances of the role," she says. “And then the review said that my partner and I just needed some time." Although she felt let down, those comments helped her to grow because she was curious about what was blocked in her performance. “I would probably agree with it now," she says, particularly in the exploration of character development.
Still, the opinions that matter most come from the coaches, choreographers and the artistic director. “My job is to listen to those opinions—the people who are actually involved with the production," says Maddox, who says he has never changed his approach based on a review.
After working exhaustively, Mennite was critiqued as not being mature enough for La SylphidePhoto by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Reviewing The Critics
When do critics go too far? Mennite draws the line at attacking a dancer's physique. “I feel very disappointed at their lack of respect," she says. “You can criticize the art form but when you start attacking who someone is, I don't like that."
In the past, Mennite has wished she could tell some critics to broaden their education in the art form so that they “know what they're talking about." But recently, she has realized that audiences aren't always educated about dance, and reviewers are also delivering entertainment. “Now I would say that it would be nice if they could focus on the task at hand, try to write honestly and not to give in to any kind of sensationalism."
Part offers a decidedly different retort: “I would like to see a critic dance Swan Lake," she says. “When I retire I will happily lend them my tutu and pointe shoes."
A Bite from the Big Apple
New York City critics are infamous for their searing reviews, the most stringent of any U.S. city. Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite has learned from experience: “I have almost no expectations at all about receiving any positivity in those reviews," she says. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company member Jenna Riegel admires the dancers and choreographers who weather the harsh critical media in New York. “I just applaud people for making their art," she says. “They're pretty resilient. And to not be swayed or changed because of a review—that's even more impressive to me." No negative New Yorker, however, can compare with a dancer's inner judge. Says National Ballet of Canada's McGee Maddox, “No critic is as hard on me as I am on myself."
What are the secrets of a long career? All dancers hope to perform for many years, digging deeper into their artistry with each new season. But often, their stage time gets cut short by injury, age-related loss of strength and flexibility, or simply burnout. We asked five longtime dancers what’s kept them going strong for so long.
Webb (in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial) does 10 to 30 minutes of cardio daily. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
Houston Ballet, Principal
Years Onstage: 19
Early Lesson: After a back injury at age 20, the word “core” became part of Webb’s every-day vocabulary. “I have a handful of go-to exercises to prevent my muscles from getting used to any one.”
Conditioning: Webb takes one Pilates and Gyrotonic class each during busy weeks, and more often during down times. She also does cardio every day before class: 20 to 30 minutes of intervals on the elliptical on easy rehearsal days, 10 to 15 steady minutes on the bike otherwise. “I like to start class a bit tired. That’s how I build my stamina.”
Rest Strategy: Webb believes time off should be just that.
Advice: “Budget your effort: If you have six hours of rehearsal, you can’t sustain giving 100 percent for that long. I see younger dancers make this mistake all the time. Be smart, and be your best advocate.”
Garth Fagan Dance
Years Onstage: 37
Pennewell takes two classes a day. Photo by Greg Barrett, courtesy Garth Fagan Dance.
Conditioning: Pennewell builds extra strength by taking two Garth Fagan technique classes a day, one at 11 am, the other at 6 pm.
Nutrition: He stays away from processed foods and sugar, sticking to leafy greens, complex carbs and some meat. “I try to stay as trim as possible. Even five pounds makes a difference in how my knees feel.”
What Keeps Him Going: “Working over and over to make an uncomfortable movement look fluent or count against a constant time signature, you learn to release your focus on being correct and just live in the moment. You’re free to fly.”
Advice: “Learn how to push without fighting, so there’s less exertion.”
Montreal-based independent dancer/choreographer
Lecavalier is a tornado of energy in her 60-minute So Blue. Photo by André Cornellier.
Years Onstage: 38
Counterpoint Classes: Early in her career at La La La Human Steps, Lecavalier learned that her training should be different from what she was performing so the two could feed each other and keep her body balanced. “I took ballet when we were dancing things very far from that.”
Conditioning: Her training regimen has included everything from running to biking to boxing. Today, she takes a daily hatha yoga class (“the unfashionable kind, with no false spiritual talking”) and works with a personal trainer once a week on everything from cardio to light weights. “It’s always different, like a childhood game. It makes me work at things that I am not so good at.”
Nutrition: When she became pregnant with her twin daughters, she became more conscious of what she was eating. “I started to eat a good breakfast—Budwig Muesli—and still do. I also eat less chips and fries.”
Career Strategy: Becoming a solo artist has been key to her longevity. “Because there were so many eyes on me, being a loner protected me.”
What Keeps Her Going: Lecavalier feels she has more to discover about herself as a mover and more to mine in her highly idiosyncratic style. “My body is changing. My understanding is deeper. The mystery is still there.”
Trusnovec, here in Brandenburgs, feels stronger today than at the start of his career. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Years Onstage: 19
Conditioning: Trusnovec does Pilates mat exercises daily, and takes reformer/tower/chair sessions privately and with other PTDC dancers. Pilates has helped train his body to move intelligently and fend off small injuries. And his once-a-week 50-minute class at SLT (Strengthen, Lengthen, Tone) offers a challenging, fun cardio workout.
Nutrition Philosophy: “If something makes me feel good, then it’s a good thing.”
On Aging: Trusnovec feels stronger than he did when he was young. “I work smarter in my dancing—I can have more economy. And I am so much more attuned to my body and Paul’s work.”
What Keeps Him Going: “Wanting to learn more. I can’t stop yet because I haven’t figured it all out yet.”
Advice: Keep a life outside of dance. “I am inspired by all kinds of art, such as plays and musicals, especially the imaginative, thought-provoking ones. Recently, I was moved by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I’m lucky to live in New York, where I’m constantly surrounded by everyday art on the streets.”
Twin Cities–based independent dancer/choreographer
Photo by Danny Chan, courtesy Rousse.
Years Onstage: 31
Conditioning: After a serious ankle sprain when she was 33, Rousse found that Pilates helped to stabilize her pelvis. She does a reformer and mat class once a week and also works in mat exercises between barre and center. “I like to sneak it in like David Howard did.” She is now trying to get more cardio into her daily routine.
Class Philosophy: “If there is time to do a combination again, I will.”
Nutrition: As her metabolism has slowed, she’s had to pay more attention to her diet. “Dairy and wheat are now off the menu. I have developed something of an allergy/high sensitivity to these two foods.”
Balance: Rousse keeps a healthy perspective on dance by having a family and a full intellectual life. “I love to travel overseas to new cultures and I’m involved in my community (currently, advocating for more mass transit in Minneapolis). I also love reading novels and biographies and doing crossword puzzles.”
Career Strategy: Now that the co-founder of James Sewell Ballet is pursuing a life as a freelancer, she has entered the entrepreneurial arena. “I’ve been lucky all these years to have so much control over my artistic life.”
Advice: “Dance demands a full curiosity to keep it fresh. Without it, I don’t think I would have stayed interested in dance, and, more importantly, I don’t think that anyone would be interested in me.”