Dancers & Companies

The Diversity Experiment at Ballet Memphis

As much as everyone talks about diversity in ballet these days, the barrage of Misty Copeland coverage can sometimes make it seem like she's the only person fighting to break barriers. Just today, Glamour named her one of its Women of the Year for "blazing her own path."

Kudos to Misty, but there many other path-blazers out there, too. Earlier this week, I got to see the work of one I've long admired: Dorothy Gunther Pugh. For over 25 years, the Ballet Memphis director has been committed to leading a company that truly reflects and serves her city, which is over 60 percent black. She's an idealist who's determined to do more than pay lip service to diversity. Ballet Memphis has multiple black, Asian and Hispanic dancers, plus several administrators, teachers and board members of color. Pugh regularly commissions ballets by non-white, non-male choreographers, and invites them to dig into themes not normally seen on the ballet stage—whether that's life in a Baltimore housing project or the relationship women have to their clothing. The company has collaborated with Rennie Harris, Chuck Davis and, recently, female jookers. Like many directors, Pugh gives her dancers opportunities to choreograph, but I met a pair at the Dance/USA conference who told me that she also encourages them to engage with the larger dance community so they can think critically about today's big issues in ballet, like how a company can be a relevant part of its community.

Ballet Memphis and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras' Politics. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

So what's the result of this deliberate diversification? An eclectic company bursting with energy, judging by the program at The Joyce Theater this week. The performance was less polished than what you'd see at major companies, but it was also far more idiosyncratic—in a lovely way. Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times about the evening's pieces, "All four are odd; only one proves a complete work of art—Matthew Neenan’s The Darting Eyes—and it’s every bit as odd as the others. But the mood blowing through all of these dances is generous, imaginatively breaking rules."

Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson in Neenan's The Darting Eyes. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

The company boasts some outstanding performers, particularly Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson. At the same time, a couple of the dancers looked like they could benefit from another year in school. Were they pushed ahead intentionally simply to make the company more diverse? Are the less successful pieces in the repertoire a result of insisting on a range of voices, no matter how green those voices might be? Maybe, maybe not.

Some people argue that pursuing diversity for diversity's sake risks watering down our art form, that it could lead to promoting those less talented on the basis of race and gender alone at the expense of more sophisticated artists who've had greater access to the kinds of resources that come with privilege. (Basically, the affirmative action debate, now with pointe shoes.) I argue that there's far more at stake than sophistication. We have several ballets that are sophisticated. I also want to see ballets that are interesting. I want to be told stories I haven't heard before. I want to be brought into new worlds I don't understand. As much as I loved Matthew Neenan's piece, he would never have made what, for example, Camille Brown created on the company in 2009—and she wouldn't have made his piece. We need more places where both of these artists can share their personal perspectives and work with dancers who bring a variety of different backgrounds to the movement.

Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

By fearlessly taking risks on less-established artists, Pugh is championing examples that can be inspirations for future dancers and choreographers. What's more, she's creating something different from the same-old same-old you find on so many ballet stages. It may not be perfect, but it sure is exciting.

 

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Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Dancers & Companies
Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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Dancers & Companies
From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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News
When it comes to BodyVox, it's best to expect the unexpected. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy BodyVox

In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.

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