Dancers & Companies

The Divine Diana

No matter how many twists and turnabouts Alexei Ratmansky sends her way, Diana Vishneva makes them flow. This is her gift. She’s a warm, charismatic dancer with the texture of plush velvet. And Cinderella is Ratmansky’s gift to her.

The Mariinsky Ballet, now resident at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is only giving three performances of Cinderella; the last is tomorrow and has a different cast. 

In Saturday’s performance, which was the American debut of this three-act 2002 ballet, Ratmansky used Vishneva’s dramatic range beautifully. I was in rapture over her dancing, and its range gave me a chance to contemplate her artistry.

We first see her cowering in a dark corner. This ballerina can fill up the stage with a single gesture, but she also knows how to cede center stage to others. And Yekaterina Kondaurova certainly took command with her spiky, me-first Stepmother.

Vishneva’s sense of wonder at finding herself in the palace was a little oasis that gave meaning to her rags-to-riches rise. It wasn’t about how beautiful she looked to others, but how she was discovering the new environment. Her special quality of tenderness, seen in the tilt of the head or a rolling of the hands, lasts the whole ballet, not just at those touching moments. Just look at this YouTube of her dancing that section with Andrei Merkuriev.

One of the most delicious scenes is when Cinderella performs a tiny bit of shy dancing at the ball and the party-goers step forward to applaud her with elaborate politeness. It’s typical of Ratmansky’s humor, but it also shows the vulnerability of this Cinderella: She’s a girl who loves to dance but was never encouraged to show it.

I think Vishneva embodies Ratmansky’s vision of what romantic ballet is. It’s not big triumphant positions, lifts on high, and swooning dips. It’s a back and forth kind of thing, a simultaneous going and coming that requires trust. (You can see this churning kind of partnership in his Nutcracker too.) In the last act of Cinderella, the prince propels her leaps toward stage right but then she curves her left arm in front of her and now they are heading stage left. This boomerang effect adds dimension to the pas de deux.

I wouldn’t say that every bit of the choreography delighted me. As in Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet for National Ballet of Canada, there were revelatory parts, and other parts that were over-choreographed, for instance the ballroom scene.

But I did feel that every moment of Vishneva’s scenes were deeply responsive to Prokofiev’s sorrow-edged score. The illusion was that she was dancing steps she had made up herself. Vishneva fully realized Ratmansky’s vision of a gentle, neglected girl who finds herself through meeting her life partner—but not just because he’s a handsome prince who can lift her out of poverty, but because he’s a man she can dance with. She’s has found not only love but freedom too.

Kader Attou - Compagnie Accrorap flying high in Attou's The Roots. Photo by João Garcia, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.

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Courtesy India Bolds

It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.

Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.

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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.

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When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.

"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."

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Dancers & Companies
Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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