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's Cinderella runs through March 12 at the Wortham Theater Center.
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.”
McGee Maddox, here in Onegin, has never changed his approach based on a review. Photo by Christopher Wahl, Courtesy NBoC.
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.”
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.
Part as Odette. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
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.
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.”
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.”
After bad reviews, Riegel (in light blue top at left) asks, “What of that can I take in?” Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy BTJ/AZDC.
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.
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 Sylphide. Photo 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.”
González found her first ballet class by accident, when she was sent to the wrong address. Photo by Leonel Nerio, courtesy HB.
I have always believed that things happen because it is written somewhere. Call it God, or destiny, but I think dance found me. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and was 7 years old when my mother was asking people in the street for directions to folk-dancing classes for my sister. Somehow, they sent us to the wrong address, and we wound up auditioning for a ballet school instead.
Since that day, I have loved every minute of ballet. As a child I would will the hours to race by so I could run to school and start my warm-up, stretching and ballet classes. I remember my mom threatening to not let me go to ballet if I didn’t finish my homework or clean my room. It was the worst thing she could do!
I still keep every single correction I’ve been given with me today. I have been blessed to have amazing people around, such as my mentor at the National Ballet of Caracas, associate artistic director Zane Wilson, who imbued me with the confidence, discipline and understanding it took to become a professional dancer. One piece of advice Zane gave me was that every step has a meaning. He told me he didn’t care about the technique or how high you can lift your legs—it was about making the audience feel everything I felt onstage.
When Marcello Angelini, artistic director of Tulsa Ballet, offered me a contract to join his company as a member of the corps de ballet, I accepted. To leave home was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, but I found a place that taught me what it takes to be a real ballerina.
I strongly believe that dancers never stop learning. There is a constant struggle between finding perfection, getting better, getting stronger every day or staying comfortable and confident in your current position. So, after five years, I decided to try something new. I joined Houston Ballet in 2010 and found it an amazing place to keep growing as a dancer. So many talented choreographers come to Houston Ballet and the excitement of working with masters like John Neumeier and William Forsythe never fades!
I try to wake up every morning with the intention of wanting to get better. There is not a specific answer to explain why I dance. I only know that dance is a part of me. Without dance I feel like something is missing. I love my class, the routine to condition my body for a day of rehearsals, that feeling of anticipation before a show, the butterflies in my stomach when the curtain goes up, that rewarding feeling at the end of a performance. What I love the most is the feeling of waiting to do it all over again the next day and thinking that it will be better than the day before.
Leriche in Kyle Abraham’s Counterpoint. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
Both delicate and strong, Emilie Leriche can move with the softness of a cool puff of air or strike a pose worthy of the mythic huntress Diana. She crystallizes moments in time with the magic of a born performer. And she’s whip-smart—as clear and mindful in her dancing as she is in conversation. At 22 years old and in her second season with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, she’s already originated major roles in four works, including Robyn Mineko Williams’ Grey Horses and Fluence. Last summer, she gave the opening solo in the premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Counterpoint the serenity and focus of a much more experienced dancer. —Laura Molzahn
Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Constant reinvention is one of Andrew Bartee’s hallmarks. The 2007 Princess Grace awardee danced first for Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he was known as somewhat of a rarity, thriving in contemporary work. That gift has taken him to Ballet BC, where he became a company member this fall. The new recruit will have a chance to impress Vancouver audiences with his precise moves and Gumby extensions, as he is featured in virtually every piece Ballet BC is presenting this year. His limitless curiosity also pushes him as a choreographer for Seattle-based Whim W’Him, Kate Wallich’s The YC and PNB. With exactness of technique and a delightful sense of humor, Bartee is a refreshing artist in the sometimes heavy world of contemporary dance. —Gigi Berardi
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Usually fans fall in love with a dancer’s onstage persona first—and then later, perhaps after a little investigative work online, his offstage personality. But most of us were initially charmed by New York City Ballet’s Silas Farley after encountering him in the AOL On web series “city.ballet.” Season 1 documented Farley’s transition from apprentice to full corps member, and his easy, eloquent musings on the pressures of that momentous career juncture made it apparent that the 20-year-old has a remarkably insightful—and delightful—mind. “Everything up until now has been prologue,” he told the camera crew the evening before his first day as a corps dancer. “Tomorrow we open to page one, chapter one!”
But Farley is delightful onstage, too. At 6' 4", he has a naturally regal presence, which he has already used to his advantage in two soloist roles: Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Those character-driven parts benefited as much from his inquisitive, imaginative mind as they did from the elegant openness of his carriage. —Margaret Fuhrer
Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Keigwin + Company.
It’s tempting to classify Keigwin + Company dancer Jaclyn Walsh as a powerhouse, but that would be selling her short. Though it’s true she’s compact and athletic, a natural jumper and turner (Walsh swears she was a male dancer in another life), she’s just as seamless in the creamier, sultrier stuff of choreographer Larry Keigwin’s pop-culture–rich rep. Whether she’s prowling in the primal Natural Selection, striding confidently in the pulsing, site-specific Sidewalk or gliding through glitzy curtains in Girls, Walsh brings unmatched clarity and seemingly boundless attack to it all—and suddenly you find yourself having a hard time watching anyone else. —Rachel Rizzuto
Photo by William Cameron, Courtesy Cameron.
Minneapolis dancer Alyssa Mann bridges many eras and forms. In Carl Flink’s company Black Label Movement, she takes us back to the grounded virtues and classicism of Doris Humphrey and José Limón and forward to the raw physicality and emotional voltage of contemporary dance today. But there’s a whole other side to this dancer. With hyper-crisp clarity, Mann rocks the rhythms, heat and fluid dynamics of Afro-Cuban soul in Osnel Delgado’s new work for Zenon Dance Company. She embodies a rare combination of technical refinement, fierce athleticism and postmodern cool. —Linda Shapiro
Wallich in her work Super Eagle. Photo Courtesy Kate Wallich.
Where other choreographers might hesitate, wondering if they’re about to alienate their audience, Kate Wallich unapologetically pushes forward. Watching this 25-year-old’s work can be challenging—it takes time to reach its emotional peak. The payoff, however, is seeing Wallich’s sly self-awareness; she has a knack for building tension.
For all its dark glamour, Wallich’s work is not without a measure of underdog angst. In One Plus, a woman pauses to remove her sweatshirt and toss it offstage. Later, a dancer is lifted overhead by four others, only to be dropped to the floor. Members of her Seattle-based company The YC both embrace and abandon technique, resulting in a rawness reminiscent of Batsheva. Wallich is not afraid to ask her dancers to shed the excess. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
Dolven (right) with De Keersmaeker in Fase. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Lincoln Center.
Dancing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s relentlessly repetitive Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich takes a mathematical mind, a clear understanding of movement and an unwavering, but not over-pronounced, stage presence. To dance the masterpiece alongside the iconic choreographer herself takes sheer guts. Last season, when Tale Dolven joined in the hour-long duet with De Keersmaeker—which Rosas has toured for the last three years—her movements were sharp, yet mysteriously cloudy. The energy between the two women gelled like old pals proudly revisiting a work they made together long ago.
That, of course, is impossible. De Keersmaeker created Fase in 1982, when Dolven was just an infant. Old vs. young, choreographer vs. dancer, it didn’t matter. Dolven translated De Keersmaeker’s movement with cool ease. —Kristin Schwab
Fentroy (center) in Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy DTH.
To get its renewed vision on solid footing, Dance Theatre of Harlem needs ballerinas like Chyrstyn Fentroy. Her chameleon-like adaptability and technical prowess is a perfect match for the company’s diverse repertoire. Last season, Fentroy understood the emotional heart of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, which is reverent, spare and unfussy, with an echo of funk. It is also chock-full of intricate pointework that Fentroy danced with restrained finesse. She showed off her acting chops in Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis’ past-carry-forward, and her charismatic stage presence came through in Robert Garland’s Return: She was all sass and dazzle, owning James Brown’s tunes with her sly style. —Nancy Wozny
Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.
When Shiori Kase stepped onstage at the USA International Ballet Competition last June, there wasn’t any doubt that she would win gold. Though she is a technically crisp dancer, it was her attention to style, character and detail that set her apart—her performances were beautifully complete and worlds away from the flash so common at ballet competitions. As Sugar Plum, she was as delicate as icing and as Medora from Le Corsaire she exuded natural confidence, combined with sublime technical security.
The Royal Ballet–trained Kase, 23, joined the English National Ballet in 2009 and has enjoyed a steady rise since, winning ENB’s Emerging Dancer Award, which recognizes up-and-coming talent within the company. Her success at USA IBC put more wind in her sails: She was quickly promoted to first soloist in July and danced Swanilda—her first principal role outside of The Nutcracker—soon afterwards. —Amy Brandt
Photo by William Cameron, Courtesy Zenon Dance Company.
Choreographer Osnel Delgado may have named his fledgling Cuban modern dance company Malpaso—”misstep” in Spanish. But one of the most striking things about this 29-year-old is how confident he seems in his independent path. Though steeped in the island’s distinctive style of modern dance, a blend of Graham and Afro-Cuban techniques, Delgado has incorporated influences from international choreographers like Mats Ek and Itzik Galili.
Afro-Cuban dance’s vitality, fluidity and musicality are innate to Delgado. But he channels them through contemporary energy and form. In his 24 Hours and a Dog, the dancers romp through an imaginary urban landscape, vaulting off Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban jazz score with exuberant movement. U.S. audiences will get a glimpse when Malpaso appears at The Joyce this spring before heading to Jacob’s Pillow. —Jordan Levin
Photo by Tania Lopez, Courtesy Peugh.
Joshua L. Peugh
If Wes Anderson were a choreographer, his dances might look like those of Dallas-based Joshua L. Peugh. Whimsical with a touch of melancholy, Peugh’s work occupies a colorful middle space that’s equal parts kooky and tender. His music choices are all over the map, from Hall & Oates to klezmer music to moody French film scores from the 1960s. In addition to directing his Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, he’s setting work all over, most recently for BalletX and BODYTRAFFIC.
Partnering is one of his brightest choreographic assets—incredibly awkward yet disarmingly charming, and full of surprise. In Marshmallow, the stuffing of square sugar pillows into a dancer’s mouth becomes the beginning of a relationship. With a fling of a limb or curl of a spine, the dancers seem to pose questions to each other, letting us eagerly wait for the answer. Peugh gets that people are complicated, that they might laugh and cry in the same sentence; sometimes it’s even hard to tell if his couples are breaking up or making up. —Nancy Wozny
Visceral Dance Chicago in Sidra Bell’s landings, chasms. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Visceral Dance Chicago.
Visceral Dance Chicago
If a new contemporary company in Chicago makes its debut on the same stage that Hubbard Street Dance Chicago calls home, it better be exceptional. Visceral Dance showed us it had the goods in its season at the Harris Theater in April. Artistic director Nick Pupillo presented a highly polished group of supremely confident and dramatically impressive dancers. Their technique heightened the impact of the troupe’s sophisticated, poetic and rhythmically ferocious contemporary choreography. Pupillo contributed two pieces alongside dances by Robyn Mineko Williams, Monica Cervantes and Sidra Bell. For the 2014–15 season, the company has snagged the rights to a duet from Ohad Naharin’s Mabul. —Hedy Weiss
Turazashvili in Coppélia. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
The “vili” is a giveaway: Bolshoi Ballet corps member Ana Turazashvili hails from Georgia. But that’s not the only reason to compare her to Nina Ananiashvili. Similarly coltish, with expressive, tapering limbs, Turazashvili also shares the great ballerina’s radiating warmth onstage. She moves with a beyond-the-fingertips expansiveness that penetrates the far corners of the theater, every gesture generously oversized. It’s not over-the-top Bolshoi bluster, though: There is subtlety and sensitivity in her dancing, too. Though Turazashvili earned noisy ovations for her fresh, energetic performance of one of Don Quixote’s Grand Pas variations during the company’s visit to New York City last summer, her Spanish courtier wasn’t all spitfire and spit curls. She also took care to show the character’s aristocratic side, through genteelly refined port de bras and perfectly placed pirouettes. —Margaret Fuhrer
Campbell in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.
Ballet latecomer Skylar Campbell was almost 15 when he started dancing. But he plunged in to make up for lost time. Now 23, Campbell is a second soloist with National Ballet of Canada and has already danced a range of leading roles. He brings touching innocence to Alain in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, avian lightness to Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and unsettling emotional fragility to the title role in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Incandescent onstage, Campbell’s laid-back demeanor disguises a burning desire to succeed—and a work ethic that’s enabled him to accomplish it. —Michael Crabb
Photo by Sébastien Mathé, Courtesy POB.
At 21 years old, François Alu has rocketed up the ranks of the Paris Opéra Ballet to become its youngest premier danseur, one step shy of étoile. His explosive technique, both clean and airy, and endearing charm in Don Quixote or as Bluebird have earned him the status of audience darling. Fans have nicknamed him Alu-cinant, a pun on hallucinant, which means “incredible” in French.
There is more to Alu than pyrotechnics, however. Standing 5' 11", with a compact body type by Parisian standards, he has been keen to avoid stereotypes and expand his artistic range, dancing Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris and new choreography with 3e étage, a contemporary touring group of POB soloists. New director Benjamin Millepied was quick to notice his raw potential. Last spring, he created a dazzlingly difficult role for him in Daphnis and Chloe. Millepied may have found his first star. —Laura Cappelle
Williams in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
With a musical ear, quick study skills and a smart sense of style, Stephanie Williams is a choreographer’s dancer. Since joining American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet in 2012, she has sailed smoothly through every opportunity given to her. Most recently, Liam Scarlett cast her in his world premiere alongside some of the company’s top principals. In soloist roles such as Zulma in Giselle or the Fairy of Charity in The Sleeping Beauty, she combines refreshingly classical femininity with streamlined drive and technique. Blessed with a natural lyricism, Williams gave a deliciously creamy reading of Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes during the company’s spring season last year. Her hunger for movement transcends each element of ABT’s varied repertoire. —Joseph Carman
Paulos in Adam Barruch’s Alchemies. Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy Ailey.
Of the many terrific dancers in Ailey II, only a small fraction graduate to the senior ranks of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was no surprise when Danica Paulos was among the chosen few last spring. During Ailey II’s New York City season, Paulos caught the eye with her rare blend of attack and willowy elegance. In Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s Cuore Sott’olio, she instilled big, bold, fast phrases with a fine, silken quality, matching athleticism and extroversion—the kind that Ailey prizes—with a fluent ease less common among the troupe’s dancers.
All of that, grounded in limpid technique and aided by effortless extensions, should serve her well as a full-fledged company member, especially as the Ailey repertoire grows increasingly diverse under Robert Battle. It’s easy to picture her in something as electric as Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 or as delicate as Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux, both in Ailey’s current season. —Siobhan Burke
Photo by Richard Calmes, Courtesy Indya Childs.
If you’re seeking an artist who embodies Atlanta’s growing dance scene, look to Indya Childs. The supple and kinetic 23-year-old is the product of a culturally diverse city with longstanding dance traditions and a recent wave of contemporary influences. She seeks growth through varied repertoire, adapting to the physical and emotional demands of each choreographer’s style. As a member of Ballethnic Dance Company, Childs sails across the stage with pure, neoclassical lines, then slices through space, capoeira-style, with sheer joy and athletic prowess. In T. Lang Dance’s Post Up, a compelling work on grief and family separation, she begins alone onstage, her spine gently rippling, sensing the breath, rhythm and texture of a jazz singer’s voice. Impulses rise rhythmically through her chest as she hinges to the floor—vulnerable, with deep strength. Whether the work is abstract or narrative, subtle or explosive, every move pulses with a sense of purpose that’s unquestionably her own. —Cynthia Bond Perry
Praetorius in Lady of the Camellias. Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.
She may have quicksilver petit allégro and charming Bournonville presence, but Ida Praetorius is not your typical dainty Royal Danish Ballet dancer. There’s a feral quality in her you’d never expect to come out of a doll-like package. In contemporary rep, like Alessandro Sousa Pereria’s Traditional, she can grow so wild that her pristine blond hair whips into a tangled mess across her face. Even as an apprentice, her fearless immersion into Flemming Flindt’s macabre The Lesson was so total it was almost uncomfortable to watch.
These abilities have won her a string of awards, most notably the Erik Bruhn Prize for best female dancer in 2012. Few were surprised when Praetorius was named soloist this season. Just 21, she’s already taken on lead roles in La Bayadère and Romeo and Juliet, and this fall danced Marguerite in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. With her star rising beyond Copenhagen, at festivals from Houston to Hamburg, she might arguably be one of artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe’s greatest legacies of his tenure so far. —Jennifer Stahl
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Ryan P. Casey
First, you notice his height. At 6' 8", Boston tapper Ryan P. Casey towers over his partners. But as soon as his feet start moving, you forget about his frame and focus on his shocking talent. Tap lovers ogle at his freakishly clean footwork, with shaded in-the-pocket rhythms reminiscent of Fred Astaire.
Casey is a gifted choreographer, too. His work reaches beyond traditional notions of what tap should be. In Me & My Shadow, he dances a clever duet with a larger-than-life film projection of himself. Occasionally, he recites poetry as he taps. And his character-driven narratives prove that tap can be funny—something he says he learned while dancing for Michelle Dorrance. “With tap, people have very specific images in their heads,” he says. “They see Fred Astaire or Savion Glover. Anything you can do to subvert those impressions, that’s a success.” —Ashley Rivers
In rehearsal with Hubbard Street. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
Robyn Mineko Williams
There is a sophistication about Robyn Mineko Williams’ works that many choreographers never quite attain. Her inventive movement phrases, compositional clarity and heartfelt emotion are informed by captivating simplicity—she lets the quiet spaces between movements color the work. It’s especially evident in her cinematic One Take for Grand Rapids Ballet. In one section, beautifully fragile images backed by the haunting melody of Debussy’s Clair de Lune reveal a mature choreographic mind that sees grace on a par with physicality.
Since her first major work in 2010, Williams has choreographed for Visceral Dance Chicago, The Nexus Project and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, where she was a dancer for 12 seasons. Most recently, she was involved in the company’s comedic dance theater collaboration with improv troupe The Second City. With her stock on the rise, Williams will create a new work in May with a group of freelance dancers at Baryshnikov Arts Center through her 2014 Princess Grace Works in Progress Residency Award. —Steve Sucato
Singer in Joanna Kotze’s it happened it had happened it is happening it will happen. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Kotze.
After a notable tenure with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Stuart Singer has suddenly become one of the hottest freelance properties around. His technical and expressive skills have continued to grow him into one of the most versatile and distinctive dancers in today’s form-expanding, progressive downtown dance scene. This past season alone, his shape-shifting expressivity lent forceful grace to Einstein on the Beach, as well as works by postmodern boundary pushers Joanna Kotze and Beth Gill, and his role in John Jasperse’s Within between earned him a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance. Singer renders surprisingly delicate physical detail and commands space with grounded fleetness—all with linear clarity worthy of a Cunningham or Balanchine star. —Gus Solomons jr
With Alysha Umphress in a scene from On the Town. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy On the Town.
Jay Armstrong Johnson
As On the Town’s Jay Armstrong Johnson slides down his ship’s offloading ramp, it’s impossible not to be swept up in his exhilarating stage presence. Johnson’s Chip is hilariously endearing and boyishly sincere: His kicks lift a bit higher than his mates’, his turns wind tighter, his arms fly wider. Whether performing slapstick-styled rolls and headstands in “Come Up to My Place” or twitching hip swivels during “I Can Cook Too,” the Texas native wrangles his immense skill with nuance and specificity. Johnson’s previous Broadway stints include Hair, Catch Me If You Can and Hands on a Hardbody. But On the Town is the first role that fully uses all of his chops, from comedian to star dancer. —Lauren Kay
Agami leads a rehearsal with Ate9. Photo Courtesy Ate9.
Israeli-born Danielle Agami is one of the hottest cultural commodities in L.A.’s thriving dance scene. A former member of Batsheva Dance Company, the 30-year-old has garnered raves for her Ate9 Dance Company. Her Gaga-inspired choreography is punctuated by breathtaking physicality, sly humor and a hip theatricality, her own dancing mesmerizing. She mixes deft unison with full-throttle lunges and off-center balances. Audiences relate to her quirky moves and music, a mash-up of original scores with fare such as Radiohead and Nina Simone. She’s worked with local troupes, including L.A. Dance Project, and has already garnered international exposure for her own two-year-old company. Ate9 traveled to Moscow in November for Diana Vishneva’s Context Festival, and the company tours to New York, Texas and Oregon this winter.
In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Houston Ballet’s Madeline Skelly seemed to catapult out of nowhere during her standout first year in the corps. Her riveting performance of William Forsythe’s relentless In the middle, somewhat elevated last season left the audience in a “who’s that girl” gasp. All legs, but not remotely gangly, she also held her own partnering with principal Connor Walsh. Skelly uses her length well, balancing tension and release in a dynamic equation. Judging from her recent performances, she has the technique and stage polish to become one of the company’s stars. —Nancy Wozny
Could an intensive's repertoire offerings be the key to your summer growth?
Students of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.
Ballet students live for “aha” moments, those little revelations that change the way you dance. And surprisingly often, those moments come outside of technique class, when you’re pushing yourself in a new direction with a challenging piece of repertoire.
That’s just what happened to Madison Young, 16-year-old Houston Ballet Academy student who performed “Kingdom of the Shades” from La Bayadère at HB’s summer intensive last year. “It opened my eyes,” she says. She’d performed her share of solo variations in the past, but this experience as a member of a corps was new. “There were so many learning curves.” Not only did “Kingdom of the Shades” teach her spatial awareness, timing and precision in a different way, but performing a long and demanding classical excerpt also boosted her stamina.
Of course, technical training is at the center of the summer intensive experience, but repertoire plays a key role in your preparation for professional life. Studying Balanchine, for example, can help you develop musicality, speed and attack. Variations from Raymonda, Paquita or Sleeping Beauty build your classicism. Contemporary works can teach you to move in new ways, challenging the boundaries of your technique. Especially when you’re getting ready to audition for companies, looking at a summer program’s rep can help you choose an intensive that will round out your training and discover the kind of works you’d like to dance professionally. “I think by 17, dancers should start honing in on whether they want a company that has more of a contemporary slant, or that’s doing all traditional work, or a mix,” says Shelly Power, director of Houston Ballet Academy. And for intermediate and advanced dancers, investigating a program’s summer rep can help you do just that.
Coming into Focus
In recent years, summer programs have begun to bring their repertoire to the fore. “The final performances are developing into bigger and bigger events,” says Darleen Callaghan, school director at Miami City Ballet School, “so it has definitely become a greater focus in the program. I think it is important that students begin investigating what repertoire particular programs offer.”
Most of the time, however, you won’t find a detailed rep list on the website or in the program’s information packet. So how can you find out? “If the school is affiliated with a company, look at the company’s repertoire,” says Arantxa Ochoa, school director at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Power agrees: “You might look at the past five years, to see what kind of balance there is from the classics to the contemporary works—and new works.”
You can also look to the school’s website or YouTube channel for videos of works from previous years, as well as faculty bios. And, of course, you can always contact the program administrators to ask. “It’s absolutely appropriate for a student to call and ask that question,” says Callaghan. At some schools, administrators may have a summer repertoire list even before they audition students, while at others, they might not know until closer to the start of the program. But even without a specific list, most programs will have a rough idea of styles they’ll cover each year. It’s important not to jump to assumptions based on one summer’s repertoire. Instead, look at the company’s reputation and the summer program’s rep over the last several years. You may also want to look at who has created work for the company’s studio or second company, as those choreographers’ works are often taught to summer students.
Miami City Ballet School summer intensive students in Balanchine's "Diamonds." Photo by Estefania Garcia, courtesy Miami City Ballet.
Planning for Success
When researching, be sure to ask how many pieces you’ll learn, and what style is likely for your level. In many programs, famous neoclassical and contemporary works will often be reserved for the higher levels, simply to ensure that dancers can perform them safely. For example, Miami City Ballet’s summer intensive sets a Balanchine piece, such as the finale from “Diamonds,” on its top levels each year, whereas the youngest levels focus more on classics, like Paquita or a Bournonville work, or a faculty member might set a new work on them. Franco De Vita, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, stresses how fruitful learning classical rep can be for students. “Classical repertoire is important because you learn how to dance with less affectation,” he says. “The dancer who is clean in style can do every kind of dancing, can switch to modern, to contemporary, to neoclassical, with no problem.”
Madison Young (at left), with Houston Ballet Academy intensive dancers in Act III of Stanton Welch's La Bayadere. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
Then there’s the meat and potatoes of repertoire—the work that you may not be featured in, but which will prepare you for professional life. Houston Ballet’s summer intensive, for example, makes a point of including corps work, like “Kingdom of the Shades” or Serenade, for all students. “We want to be sure to give them that entry-level experience of being in a company,” Power says. “It’s kind of a rite of passage. If you’re coming from a smaller school, maybe you are at the top of your school, and you’re doing tours all by yourself. But working in a corps is totally different. You’re getting the essence of what it’s like to be working with dancers at your level—spatial concerns, stage skills, sensing the people around you. It’s one of the best ways in ballet to learn teamwork.”
If a program offers a mix of styles and you want to focus on contemporary choreography, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of the Chautauqua Institution’s dance program, recommends asking a school, “How far do you go into contemporary?” At Chautauqua, for example, last summer students learned a piece by Dwight Rhoden and faculty member Sasha Janes choreographed on the students. Pay attention to whether there’s a contemporary element in the audition. If there is, chances are contemporary rep will be a significant part of the program.
And if you don’t have experience with that kind of work, don’t be intimidated. Teachers and directors know that you probably haven’t had access to Jirí Kylián’s or Justin Peck’s works at your home school. “You just have to jump in and try it,” says Bonnefoux. “Go to a friendly, supportive place. You’ll be embarrassed for one or two days, but after that you won’t be. That’s how you progress—you don’t play it safe anymore, you’re not afraid to try something. And at the end of the summer, you’re a different dancer.”
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.