Just before a Sleeping Beauty matinee this February, Peter Martins announced the promotion of eight dancers at New York City Ballet. For devoted Dance Magazine readers, one name jumped out: Unity Phelan, who appeared on the cover of our January "25 to Watch" issue.
For regular NYCB-goers, her promotion to soloist came as no surprise. She has exuded confidence and assurance in the past year's performances. And she has brought esprit and refinement to all her roles.
Phelan explains that, in the summer of 2015, while dancing at the Vail International Dance Festival and with a group of NYCB dancers in East Hampton, she had an epiphany.
"When I joined the company as a corps member in 2013, I wanted to emulate the turns of this dancer or the bourrées of that dancer," she says. "That summer  I was persuaded by the ballet masters I worked with not to compare myself to anyone else. Or to compete with anyone else. Or even to compete with myself! Instead, I was encouraged to spread my own wings. So I discarded the mold and colored outside the lines. I said to myself 'Okay, let's see Unity.'"
Was that a bit scary?
"It was terrifying! But it was also liberating—and fun. And the timing was perfect. I feel it definitely contributed to my getting the promotion. It also made me realize that trying to find yourself in ballet is a lifelong goal."
See Phelan's upcoming performances as a soloist—including her debut in the role Wendy Whelan originated in Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia—during NYCB's spring season starting April 18.
The emerging choreographer is making waves.
Schreier rehearsing with Ballet Academy East. Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Schreier
Claudia Schreier has burst onto the ballet scene seemingly out of nowhere. She graduated from Harvard University with a passion for making ballets and, since winning the Breaking Glass Project in 2014, the freelance choreographer has been enjoying an accelerated and atypical career trajectory. She is the latest recipient of the Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, which she will start in the spring. In the meantime, audiences can sample her latest visually layered, neoclassical work on August 8 in the Vail International Dance Festival’s NOW: Premieres evening, among big names such as Matthew Neenan, Lil Buck and Jodi Melnick.
Congratulations on receiving a commission from Vail! How did that happen?
I met Damian Woetzel in 2006 at Harvard, when he was at the Kennedy School and his wife, Heather Watts, was my dance professor. Heather came to a dress rehearsal of some of my early choreography and told Damian about it. I’ve been close with them since. Last year, I helped out with the program book for the festival. So when he told me he wanted me to do something in Vail this summer I thought, Okay, I can take over the program book. My jaw dropped when he said he was thinking of a duet or something larger.
What are you creating for the premiere?
Right now I am rehearsing with four dancers, three of whom Damian has invited as guest artists (Joseph Gordon, Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro of New York City Ballet) and Da’ Von Doane (Dance Theatre of Harlem), whom I’ve worked with before. The quartet will be eight minutes, with two movements danced to two different piano concertos from Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke.
What does it feel like to be featured on such a celebrated evening?
Everything feels new and exciting for me and I don’t want to lose that feeling. After winning Breaking Glass, suddenly my work, which originally was just a passion project I couldn’t let go of, turned into something bigger than I could have ever envisioned. There is a certain pressure as a ballet choreographer because there is such a push towards new movement, and always the question of “How are you going to transform the face of dance?” But I don’t think I should try to answer that right now. I just want to make my kind of ballet.
How will you use your NYU fellowship next spring?
I will have the rare opportunity of a lab where the only expectation is an informal studio showing, so I left the proposal open-ended. But I do feel strongly in having an end goal, and I plan to commission new music from living composers, including Dutch composer Douwe Eisenga.
How are these new opportunities changing your life?
Since 2009, I’ve worked full-time at Alvin Ailey in the marketing department, and I will be leaving at the end of this year to take on the fellowship. It has required a lot of time management. I wake up very early and choreograph before going in to the office. As soon as I leave, I’m running to rehearsal. I’ve used all my vacation days to do commissions and present work. When I got this fellowship the decision was made for me—it states I am not allowed to work anywhere else—otherwise I would have probably tried.
How will you pay your bills?
I will have a $35,000 stipend, and will be using some of it to pay the dancers and musicians. After that, I have a small amount saved, but I’m just taking a giant leap. I have these panic moments, because it has been a long time since I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but it is immediately followed by the euphoria of getting to do what I want to do.
Get Your Summer Festival Fix
What's new and alluring at the country's biggest events.
American Dance Festival
ADF's month-and-a-half-long celebration is packing in 61 performances by 26 companies and choreographers. Of special interest are the premieres, including John Jasperse's newest piece, which boasts such stellar performers as Maggie Cloud and Stuart Singer, and the Footprints evening, which features new works by Beth Gill, Dafi Altabeb, and Lee Sher and Saar Harari. June 16–July 30. americandancefestival.org.
Improvisers Angie Hauser and Chris Aiken. Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Bates
Bates Dance Festival
Though a mix of established small troupes will visit Bates (Dorrance Dance, Doug Varone and Dancers and Kate Weare Company), its most adventurous programming happens in the DanceNOW and Different Voices evenings, which include Houston's Hope Stone Dance, improvisers Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, performance artist Sara Juli, and others. July 9–Aug. 6. batesdancefestival.org.
Reggie Gray and Peter Sellars' unlikely collaboration, FLEXN. Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
Jacob's Pillow always gives dancegoers a dependable mix of classical, contemporary, modern and world dance. This summer features some fun collaborations: a premiere by tap dancing trio Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, a post–Restless Creature program for Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks, and FLEXN, the much-talked-about project between flex-dancing pioneer Reggie Gray and theater director Peter Sellars. June 18–Aug. 28. jacobspillow.org.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail
Vail International Dance Festival
This year's lineup—the 10th under Damian Woetzel—boasts its usual list of cool kids, from Tiler Peck to Lil Buck. But Woetzel has chosen an unexpected mix for the annual NOW: Premieres program: Jodie Gates, Lil Buck, Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, Matthew Neenan, Claudia Schreier and Shantala Shivalingappa. Isabella Boylston is the artist in residence, and BalletX the company in residence. July 30–Aug. 13. vaildance.org.
POB in Approximate Sonata. Sébastien Mathé, Courtesy POB
Forsythe Says Good-bye to France
When word got out that Benjamin Millepied was leaving the Paris Opéra Ballet, we also learned that William Forsythe, who had been appointed associate choreographer under Millepied, was leaving his post, too. This doesn't mean he'll never return, but his presence will certainly be limited. His final premiere as an official staffer is a collaboration with the soulful singer-songwriter James Blake. Restagings of Approximate Sonata and Of Any If And round out the all-Forsythe program. July 4–16 at the Palais Garnier. operadeparis.fr/en.
Jason Kittleberger, James O'Hara and Natalia Osipova in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's new work, Qutb. Alastair Muir, Courtesy Sadler's Wells
Osipova and Polunin Team Up
International ballerina Natalia Osipova has recently been exploring of-the-moment contemporary work, and her current project pairs her with another big gig-hopping name, Sergei Polunin. At Sadler's Wells, June 29–July 3, the two will premiere duets by Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita. Also on the program is a new trio for Osipova and freelance dancers Jason Kittleberger and James O'Hara, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. sadlerswells.com.
Karole Armitage's last project for Opera Saratoga, Dido and Aeneas. Gary David Gold, Courtesy Opera Saratoga
Armitage Takes the Opera
Saratoga Springs, NY
After directing and choreographing the warmly received opera Dido and Aeneas at Opera Saratoga last summer, Karole Armitage returns this year to lead The Witches of Venice, composed by Philip Glass. The libretto, by Beni Montresor, is about a boy grown from a magical plant who is looking for a companion—and encounters many adventures on the way. Members of Armitage Gone! Dance will join Opera Saratoga's professional singers as well as members of its Young Artist Program and the Capital District Youth Chorale onstage. July 2, 11 and 17, Opera Saratoga. operasaratoga.org.
Last summer, Bill Irwin and Tiler Peck debuted Time It Was/116 at Vail before bringing it to Fall for Dance. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Though we haven't even reached summer, now's the time when dance companies and fans alike are setting their sights towards fall. Today, New York City Center announced its 2016–17 lineup. Aside from the popular two-week Fall for Dance Festival (yes, all tickets are still just $15), City Center will host another fest, a Big Apple iteration of the Vail International Dance Festival.
Could this be a trend of late? It's not the first time this year a summer festival has announced special programming in NYC. Just this March, the American Dance Festival unveiled that it will close its regular season with performances at The Joyce Theater, August 1–3. For summer outlets like ADF and Vail, the additional performances offer a chance for NYC audiences, who may not have the chance to travel to North Carolina or Colorado, to get in on the action. It's particularly a keen move for Vail, since many of its dancers are already based in New York. A press release from City Center mentioned that Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC, with shows November 3–6, will feature many Vail regulars, including American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston (the festival's artist in residence for 2016) and Herman Cornejo; New York City Ballet's Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck; tapper extraordinaire Michelle Dorrance; and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's rehearsal director, Matthew Rushing. Former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Carla Körbes, jukin' phenom Lil Buck, tango artist Gabriel Missé, and others will also be in tow.
The full Fall for Dance lineup has not yet been released, but City Center promised 20 different companies and artists from around the world and two world premiere commissions for its 13th edition, September 26–October 8. Featured performers include ABT, Ailey, Australia's Bangarra Dance Theatre, London's Richard Alston Dance Company, Brazil's Grupo Corpo, France's Compagnie Accrorap, classical Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa and Hong Kong Ballet.
If that isn't enough, the always cool Nederlands Dans Theater will make a tour stop at City Center, November 16–19, with four U.S. premieres. For tickets and more info on the rest of the upcoming season as it becomes available, see nycitycenter.org.