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Three Principal Ballerinas Who are One with Their Role
How three ballerinas have deepened their approach to a career-defining role
Some ballerinas seem destined to embody certain roles. At her debut, there's a palpable buzz. Over a career, however, her interpretation begins to reflect her maturity and worldliness. A deepening occurs that doesn't lessen her former renditions, but that instead gives an audience—especially those lucky enough to follow the career arc—a delicious new experience. Here, three beloved ballerinas speak about the trajectory of their signature roles.
ALESSANDRA FERRI: JULIET
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor. Courtesy ABT.
When Alessandra Ferri made her debut as Juliet, she was 21. “At the time I was just a sheer force of nature," she says, laughing. “I don't recall it exactly, and if I did, I would be lying. But I remember exactly how I felt: It was like an explosion—everything blown out of me." The performance with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden that night was an open “Promenade Evening," where audience members paid a pound for admission and often left chewing gum on the seats. But at the curtain calls, the crowd went wild.
When Ferri performed Juliet with American Ballet Theatre last summer, she was 53—and again, the crowd went wild.
No one would dispute that Juliet is a role that Ferri was born to dance, or, as she says, “It's the role of my soul." (She claims that no ballerina's interpretation influenced her; her Juliet is hers alone.) But over the last 32 years, Ferri's Juliet has evolved. Early in her career, she says, her approach “was super-instinctive, like a puppy." Over three decades, an emotional awareness and consciousness blossomed to deepen her character's involvement with the story, and that enabled her to bring more nuance to scenes such as the bedroom pas de deux. “Once I started having experiences that were happy or painful, I was looking at myself, and I was looking at the role," she says.
Photo Courtesy ABT.
No matter when she dances Juliet, she says, “that girl is made of fire." It's how the fire is handled that's different. “When you're young and naive you don't fear as much because you don't understand the repercussions," she says. “I think that is a very hard balance to find—the purity of feelings and also the curiosity of discovering your own woman. The older I got, the more I understood that." Ferri also discovered the power of stillness—simply being rather than doing.
Working with different partners—and there have been many: Wayne Eagling, Julio Bocca, Angel Corella and, most recently, Herman Cornejo—changes the onstage chemistry of the ballet. “There are people you feel an affinity with that is very clear and others which are more complicated," she explains. “I enjoy dancing this role with people who dance completely with their heart out, because I put the whole of myself there. I need that from a partner. I hate to be alone onstage."
One thing has remained constant in this role throughout her career: She hasn't tampered with the flighty girlish innocence of the opening nursery scene.
Juliet has become central to her in many ways. “It's part of me, part of my DNA," she says. “I know everything about that period, where the story takes place. I don't know why, but I imagine what the streets were like, I know the texture of the clothes, everything speaks to me about that role of Juliet." Once you open that door, she says, “the role becomes eternal."
YUAN YUAN TAN: GISELLE
John Neumeier's coaching in The Little Mermaid helped Tan make her mad scene feel more authentic. Photo by Erik Tomasson. Courtesy SFB.
The character of Giselle possesses a vulnerability and an ethereal essence that comes completely naturally to Yuan Yuan Tan. She has immersed herself in the character since she was 16, when she danced the second-act pas de deux at the Shanghai Dancing School and, later, at international ballet competitions as a teenager. “You are human in the first act, with a mad scene that is a test for your ability to act," says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “Then in the second act, you transform yourself into a Wili, which is technically very demanding because your dancing has to be as weightless as possible. It's hard to do, but this ballet gives me such joy."
The first time she danced the entire ballet, Tan was 23, coached by Helgi Tomasson in his production of Giselle. She had watched tapes of Natalia Makarova and Carla Fracci to absorb nuances of the port de bras and hands and the focus of the head and eyes. While technically strong in the ballet, Tan felt that her artistry came more slowly, even though she had opened herself up in the mad scene to the point where, she says, “I had real tears in my eyes, and I hope the audience did, too."
Photo Courtesy SFB.
Paradoxically, a watershed change in her Giselle interpretation came from dancing a 21st-century work: John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. “That really opened my artistry a great deal," she says. Neumeier's coaching on his ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's poignant story allowed her to root out Giselle's emotional core as both the earthly and the spectral Giselle. “He taught me how to tune in to my innermost feelings and dig deeper, rather than just act the part," she says. “That experience helped me in the mad scene in Giselle, where I was able to hone in on a mixture of emotions—from confusion to betrayal and anger to sadness—to become more than just a character in a story. I've made it an authentic experience for myself, thanks to John's coaching."
She sees similarities between the tragic mermaid and the unhinged Giselle. “In Act I of Giselle, you finish heartbroken," explains Tan. In the end, she says, “they are both stories of forgiveness."
Nevertheless, her Giselle's innocence in the beginning of the ballet has been consistent. “She is shy, vulnerable and happy and in love," she says. “That never changed."
Photo Courtesy SFB.
In October 2015, Tan danced Giselle in Beijing with SFB. “I think that was my best Giselle ever," she says. “Helgi also said that. I was proud and happy to dance in my country. The audience and the energy—that was different."
SARA MEARNS: ODETTE/ODILE
Photo Courtesy NYCB.
Tchaikovsky composed his music as if his life depended on it, and Sara Mearns dances Tchaikovsky with the same sense of urgency. “With Tchaikovsky it's very emotional and dramatic," says Mearns. “It's not small in any way, even in a quiet moment. Every moment means something. Tchaikovsky has a way of tapping into those really deep parts that enable you to let yourself go and let it all out."
That connection to Tchaikovsky, along with Mearns' obsession with a VHS tape of Natalia Makarova's Swan Lake performance with ABT in 1975, prepared her for a shot-out-of-a-cannon debut in New York City Ballet's Swan Lake in 2006. Even though the 19-year-old Mearns had never danced a soloist role with the company, Peter Martins wanted her to learn Odette/Odile three weeks before her scheduled matinee. Adding to the intensity, Mearns contracted a stomach flu the day before. “It was surreal, it was shocking," says Mearns. “I didn't really have any time to get nervous or freak out about it. Or even think about it."
After the performance Merrill Ashley, who had taught her the role, came backstage with tears in her eyes. “I thought, 'I guess I did a good job,' " recalls Mearns. “I was in a daze. I have vivid pictures in my mind of moments right after the show—it was kind of out-of-body, as if I was looking at it from above."
Photo Courtesy NYCB.
Still, from the roots of that auspicious debut, Mearns has wholeheartedly expanded her interpretation of the dual role. “I definitely approach steps differently, and some steps I emphasize more now. The in-between steps are much more important to me than the tricks—every gesture, every facial expression. I've done the fouettés many times, the solos, the codas, all of that. Everybody does that. But what else do you have to give to it? What comes after that?"
A Valentine's Day–weekend performance in 2011 proved to be a turning point in her portrayal. Mearns and her partner Jared Angle (she calls him her Swan Lake “soul mate") had weathered a marathon week of repertory ballets and the opening night of Swan Lake. For the Sunday performance, she says, “We couldn't see straight, we were so tired." She didn't think her way through the performance, but instead surrendered to her muscle memory and gut passion. “I never thought about a step, never thought about my turns, nothing," she says. “I believe that was the best show I've ever had in my career." The thunderous applause at the end reminded her of the ovation for Makarova on the videotape (which she still watches before every Swan Lake).
“What I learned from that is that it's a much bigger picture—it's not about the steps. It's about what you give emotionally and fully to your performance and the captivating moments at the end that everybody is waiting for." As Odile, Mearns thinks of a type of “vicious, puppet-like person who doesn't really have a soul," easily capable of betrayal. “I've brought it to a human level, and that's how I portray it," she says. “Whatever I've gone through—either that day or that year, or for the past 10 years—all goes into that performance."
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.