A breath of fresh choreographic air is coming to Salt Lake City. Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute has invited companies from across the country to join Ballet West for the first annual National Choreographic Festival, May 19–20 and 26–27. Over the course of two weekends and two different programs, premieres and recently acquired repertory will be performed in the new, state-of-the-art Eccles Theater.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Six common mistakes he may not be telling you about
Seth Orza and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Partnering training is one of the most nuanced parts of dance education. And yet, so much of it is entirely focused on male students. Beyond the basic principles—like holding your core and avoiding slippery leotards—young women often have little direction other than performing steps they already know with the help of a male dancer. But they have just as much to learn about becoming a good partner. Communication is key—but there are also some mistakes that your counterpart may not think to mention.
Mistake: Forgetting to breathe
Especially when you’re just starting out, dancing so close to someone can feel weird. Students and professional dancers alike can get nervous when working with a new partner for the first time. But holding unnecessary tension in your body—and forgetting to breathe—interrupts your natural rhythms and prevents you from feeling “in sync” with the dancer beside you. “When you breathe into the step, and in between steps, you can look at the guy and know that he will be there,” says Claudio Muñoz, ballet master of Houston Ballet II.
Mistake: Not trusting your partner, or yourself
Second-guessing throws off your rhythm and energy. “It’s the most difficult part of learning how to partner as a student,” says Seth Orza, principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “It takes practice.” Trust that if you’re in partnering class, it’s because your teacher knows you’re ready.
“The more experienced dancer has to be the mature guide and say, ‘I will be there, don’t worry,’ ” says Muñoz. “It’s about communication.” Don’t let fear hold you back. “It’s not going to be perfect every time,” says Orza. “And it’s different with everybody. Some people you mesh better with than others.”
Mistake: Trying to help too much
You want to make your partner’s life easy. But you also have to let him carry his own weight. This is the most common mistake Orza sees, and it often manifests as putting too much energy into a step, which actually makes your partner’s job more difficult. “In Sleeping Beauty, when you do the en dedans pirouette into a fish dive, if the girl overdoes the turn and tries to help too much, it can swing out of control,” he says. “It has to be an equal partnership. If one person’s doing too much, it throws off the movement.”
Mistake: Forgetting the music and mood
Claudio Muñoz with Houston Ballet Academy students. Photo by Bruce Bennett, Courtesy Houston Ballet
When it comes to performing your side of the pas, musicality should be your number one priority. “When you dance with the same person for a long time, you have a shared internal rhythm—that’s why everything comes so easily,” says Muñoz. Until you’ve developed that intimate connection with a partner, “the music is the link between the two dancers.”
To add depth to this shared rhythm, talk with your partner about the mood and story that you’re expressing. “It’s imperative—they have to approach the choreography with the same mood,” says Muñoz. “It makes you feel, makes you connect with the other person.”
Confidence is important to partnering, but for dancers with a year or two of experience under their belts, it can be tempting to think you’ve learned it all. “Listen to each other, and stay humble,” says Muñoz. If you ever find yourself assuming that problems are your partner’s fault, it’s time to pause and reevaluate. If in doubt, a teacher can step in to help navigate a tricky step.
Mistake: Becoming a cookie-cutter partner
“Some dancers are stubborn and want to do the steps the way they feel they are supposed to do them, no matter who they are dancing with,” says Muñoz. “That is wrong. You have the same ingredients, but you have to be willing to change and accommodate.” Things won’t feel exactly the same from one partner to the next, and that’s okay. Always listen for ways that you can make your partner’s job easier.
FOR MORE TIPS: Check out Experiencing the Art of Pas de Deux by former Miami City Ballet dancers Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra, out this month.
Anspach McEliece (in peach) in Ronald Hynd's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
I remember the exact day my dreams were dashed.
I'd been dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet for over four years. Having trained at the school, I'd been around long enough to know how things worked—or at least I thought I did. As a child, I'd sat in the red velvet seats of the opera house and watched this company of extraordinary dancers perform beautiful ballets. I saved every program and collected well-worn pointe shoes in the hope that one day I might see my name in those programs, I might have my own shoes to sign away to some little girl. I dreamed of being Clara or Cinderella. I dreamed of being a ballerina.
Fast-forward a few years, and the dream was coming true: I received my apprentice contract to dance with PNB, and the door seemed wide open with every opportunity laid out before me. Principal dancer, here I come! Because, let's be honest, what dancer says, “When I grow up, I want to be in the corps de ballet"?
But as senior corps parts kept going to newer or younger dancers, that optimistic open door seemed like a mirage. At first, I'd rationalize away my feelings, making up any excuse, any story to keep the door open. Yet with every passing rep, disappointment hit.
Finally, my confusion and frustration reached a boiling point. So I did something crazy: I sought the truth.
In ballet we're used to wearing next to nothing onstage, but I never felt more naked than on that November day when I went into my director's office and laid it all out. Humbly, vulnerably, honestly, I asked him why I kept being overlooked.
His response? He didn't see me as anything more than a corps dancer.
Those words were heartbreaking, but they were also freeing. Telling the truth is not always easy, nor is hearing it, but it is always good. I now knew where I stood. And a fighter at heart, I told him that while I appreciated his honesty, I respectfully reserved the right to prove him wrong. And boy did I try!
With an attitude of determination, I continued to push myself, and was constantly in his office asking to learn parts, asking to dance more. And while at first this approach seemed to pay off with new opportunities, the change was fleeting. His mind was already made up.
I wish I had a fairy-tale ending to this story: The underdog dances, proves her worth and her dream of principal dancer comes true. Instead, this June, after performing for 12 years professionally, I took my final bow on the PNB stage. There was no petal drop, no gala or fanfare. There rarely is for a career corps dancer.
And while at times I do wrestle with those whispers of inadequacy, I mostly reflect on my career with pride and overwhelming gratitude. It's easy to focus on what we don't have. But that mentality will poison every aspect of this gift we've been given: to be a dancer, to dance.
I don't deserve this life I've lived. Sure, I've worked hard—I've sweat, and bled and cried—but so have countless others. And we all have dreams and aspirations.
Eventually I found peace and satisfaction with what I'd been given, relishing the role I had as a mentor within the corps and company. The bond that exists between a bevy of swans or a flurry of snowflakes is unlike any other. We hold each other up—sometimes literally. And the amount of time I had onstage, even if it was just as a villager or a Wili, was still an opportunity to perform. Sometimes every night. As a principal or soloist you get maybe a few shows, but in the corps I got to be in every show. Being onstage is what I worked so hard for. It's the sprinkles on the sundae. And I got a lot of sprinkles.
The reality is that not everyone can become a principal—or a professional dancer for that matter. Accepting this does not mean that I settled or gave up. On the contrary, it took courage! I continued to push my limitations and honed my craft with every opportunity I was given until the very end of my career. Above all, I consciously chose to cherish every plié. Every sauté. Every second in the studio or onstage. Because it is all a gift.
My dreams weren't actually dashed on that November day. The little girl who sat on those red velvet seats spent a career performing with the only company she ever wanted to dance for. Her dream came true.
With her professional dancing days over, Jessika Anspach McEliece is pursuing her passions: traveling, interior design and writing.
A King Re-Gendered
Setterfield in Lear. Photo by Patrick Moore, courtesy NYLA.
Play King Lear? Valda Setterfield has done so many other things that when she turned 79, she felt ripe for the challenge. At the request of Irish maverick choreographer John Scott, she played (and danced) the plagued king in Ireland two years ago, and now, at 81, she reprises the role in Lear at New York Live Arts. Setterfield, who has performed duets with Merce Cunningham, David Gordon and Mikhail Baryshnikov, will draw on her early training in theater and mime. “She really becomes Lear,” says Scott. “Her performance is utterly believable, with an almost primal honesty.” Naturally, Lear’s three daughters will be played by male dancers. Feb. 17–20. newyorklivearts.org.
Heroes in the Heartland
MADCO’s Lindsay Hawkins and Brandon Fink. Photo by Steve Truesdell, courtesy Dance St Louis.
ST. LOUIS For Black History Month, the enterprising Dance St. Louis has paired three major choreographers with local groups to honor the city’s legendary black heroes. Bebe Miller has choreographed a tribute to Miles Davis for MADCO, the company in residence at University of Missouri–St. Louis. San Francisco’s Robert Moses has created a work for local repertory group The Big Muddy Dance Company, inspired by Rev. Cleophus Robinson, a well-known gospel singer and preacher. Cleveland’s Dianne McIntyre has made a large group work based on the poems of Maya Angelou. Her cast features three former Ailey stars, now living in St. Louis: Antonio Douthit-Boyd and Kirven Douthit-Boyd (who are married) and Alicia Graf Mack. Feb. 26–27, Touhill Performing Arts Center. dancestlouis.org.
Love Is in the Air
Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe of OBT. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT.
U.S. AND ABROAD The ultimate tale of love that knows no boundaries, Romeo and Juliet is a timeless (albeit tragic) Valentine’s ballet. And there’s a version out there for everyone this month: The reigning classics by John Cranko, at Ballet West (Feb. 12–20, Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City), and Kenneth MacMillan, at Birmingham Royal Ballet (Feb. 24–27, Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK); the charming regional remakes, including Malcolm Burn’s at Richmond Ballet (Feb. 12–14, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond, VA) and James Canfield’s for Oregon Ballet Theatre (Feb. 27–March 5, Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR); and the contemporary departures of Jean-Christophe Maillot at Pacific Northwest Ballet (Feb. 5–14, McCaw Hall, Seattle), and Edwaard Liang at Tulsa Ballet (Feb. 12–14, Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, OK). balletwest.org, brb.org.uk, richmondballet.com, obt.org, pnb.org and tulsaballet.org.
Tell Me a Story
New and notable narratives taking the stage this month
Justin Peck. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing
New York City Ballet
Peck is taking on his first-ever narrative ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale about a young man who dreams up a crazy clock to win a contest. His cast will include more than 50 dancers, including students from the School of American Ballet. Feb. 2, 6, 9–11, David H. Koch Theater, NYC. nycballet.com.
Robert Hill’s The Firebird
Artistic director Robert Hill is tackling the famous story ballet that marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s collaboration with the Ballets Russes. Feb. 5–7, Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Orlando, FL. orlandoballet.org.
Choré. Photo by Alice Blangero, courtesy LBDMC.
Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Choré
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
A ballet with Broadway’s flair for sets and costumes, this work is making its U.S. premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA. Feb. 12–13. scfta.org.
Pink at Milwaukee Ballet. Photo by Rachel Malehorn, courtesy MB.
Michael Pink’s Dorian Gray
The company’s artistic director adapts Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which shocked critics and readers when it was published in 1891 because of its hedonistic themes. Feb. 12–21, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee. milwaukeeballet.org.
New Christopher Wheeldon Ballet
The Royal Ballet
John Singer Sargent’s sexually suggestive painting Madame X shocked the world when it was unveiled in 1884—so much that he chose to repaint the falling strap on the dress of the woman in the portrait. Now, The Royal’s artist in residence is turning it into a ballet. Feb. 12–19, March 10–11, Royal Opera House Main Stage, London. roh.org.uk.
Seven years later, Noelani Pantastico returns to PNB.
Pantastico in Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.
When Noelani Pantastico saw Pacific Northwest Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow in 2014, during her summer break from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the former PNB principal realized that she had more career options than she thought. After seven years in Europe, the Hawaii native was ready for a change. But she didn’t see herself retiring yet. Instead, at 35, she decided to make a move few dancers think possible: In November, she returned to her former company as a principal.
Pantastico had no specific plan to go back when she left Seattle in 2008, but she was careful to stay on good terms with the company she “grew up” in. She joined PNB at 16, and rose through the ranks to become a principal. She might have spent her entire career there if it hadn’t been for Monte-Carlo director Jean-Christophe Maillot, who cast her as Juliet when his Roméo et Juliette entered the PNB repertoire.
She was so enthralled by the rehearsals with Maillot that she decided to move to Europe, with the “idea that I’d stay for a few years,” she says. In the end, it took her seven seasons to fully understand what Maillot wanted. “I learned a different ballet language.”
When Pantastico realized that she’d learned all she could in Monaco, she wondered if she should end her career. Seeing PNB at Jacob’s Pillow allowed her to have an informal conversation with director Peter Boal. “I wanted to experience the PNB repertoire again before I retired, but after so long I wasn’t sure it was an option,” she says. “He always kept the door open, and told me to let him know.”
Still, she took awhile to decide. The key, she says, is to distinguish between the comfort that familiarity with a place and repertoire brings, and the desire to push yourself further within them. “I wondered: Am I going backwards? But I’m doing this for a different reason.”
She envisions her return as a “third chapter.” “I want to apply what Maillot has given me. I think it will elevate my dancing,” Pantastico says. Now that Maillot’s style is ingrained in her body, she is eager to tackle works by Balanchine and contemporary choreographers with a fresh approach.
PNB offers Pantastico a chance to settle down after seven years abroad. “I missed Seattle so much,” she says. “Living in Europe is amazing, but there’s not much city life in Monaco.” Unlike Monte-Carlo, PNB isn’t a touring company, which was also a consideration. Starting a family has been on her mind. “In Monaco; it was too hard with so much traveling. I don’t know if I want kids, but I’ll have the option.”
Pantastico also hopes to have time to work on side projects. “I would love to work with museums on dance installations,” she says. While she is worried about the pressure of being a PNB principal again rather than part of the more fluid hierarchy in Monte-Carlo, returning to her former company is a way to reinvent herself. “I think I’ll be more genuine onstage,” she says. “Now it’s just about giving all I can at the end of my career.”
PNB's Maria Chapman in Balanchine's Apollo. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Julie Kent. Carla Körbes. Paloma Herrera. Xiomara Reyes. Over the past year, each of these phenomenal ballerinas took their final bows. Yesterday, Pacific Northwest Ballet broke the news that another dancer of the same generation has retired: principal Maria Chapman. The sudden announcement wasn't made until after her last performance, which was just this weekend in a triple bill, but Chapman's reason for leaving the stage is, of course, well thought out. “With mixed emotions, I announce my retirement from PNB so that I can enjoy more time with my daughter,” she said in a press release from PNB. The mother of 16-month-old Eleanor enjoyed a 20-year career in Seattle and danced a broad repertoire, including the leads in many works by Balanchine, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp.
I still remember flipping through Dance Magazine and seeing Chapman in the Bloch dancewear ads as a young student at my southern Indiana school. Over 2,000 miles away from Seattle, her star still shone brightly to my classmates and me. Though it's bittersweet to see Chapman retire after two decades onstage, I'm excited to see which stars will rise next, particularly soloist Elizabeth Murphy, who is the company's Sugar Plum poster-girl for this year's Nutcracker.
In honor of Maria's farewell and in celebration of her next chapter, check out this clip of her rehearsing Wheeldon's poignant After the Rain pas de deux with PNB principal Karel Cruz.
Frantziskonis’ current goal? To look relaxed onstage. Here, in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.
At about 5' 3", the petite Jahna Frantziskonis is a force onstage: all speed and lightness as Cupid in Don Quixote, technical and steely in Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and emotionally vulnerable in Nacho Duato’s intense Rassemblement. But the featured Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer is on the move. This July, she joins San Francisco Ballet’s corps to be closer to family and expand her growing repertoire.
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Hometown: Tucson, Arizona
Training: Ballet Arts Tucson, Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division
Breakout moment: Frantziskonis originated a featured role in 2013 in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station. The challenging choreography, which requires the dancer to slide across the floor in splits and, in the next moment, do a classical quadruple pirouette, was her first major role at PNB. “The whole experience was electrifying,” says Frantziskonis. “Before working with Tharp, I had held back at times, but she encouraged me to be more confident. I got to spend one-on-one time with her, and she built a lot of the material on me.”
Career highlight: This winter, Frantziskonis danced in PNB’s live stream of “Forsythe on Stage,” which reached 62 countries. She appeared in not one but two pas de deux in New Suite.
Pull of family and company: Frantziskonis’ brother is currently a student at SFB School. “He’s my best friend and before my last visit, I sent my materials in to San Francisco Ballet to take company class. I so enjoyed those classes. It was an unexpected but delightful surprise when I was offered a contract shortly after.”
What artistic staff are saying: For PNB artistic director Peter Boal, “Jahna shows a natural talent and fearlessness in her dancing.” SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson agrees: “Jahna is a lovely dancer with a lot of potential.” Christopher Stowell, an assistant to the artistic director and ballet master at SFB, praises her for her “beautiful, light jump and innate musicality.”
On joining SFB: “This career allows you to gain knowledge each step of the way,” she says. “SFB does a lot of touring and there are alternating reps for each season program. A dancer can be a Shade and in the same week dance Forsythe. It is a bit thrilling to be moving to a new place.”