Dancers & Companies

The Best of London In Four Days

I was lucky to hit London town in time to see three amazing dance concerts, a rehearsal of a terrific cabaret act and two hallowed centers of dance.

First up was Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor’s new extravaganza for The Royal Ballet. Based on three of Virginia Woolf’s novels, it’s really an ode to Woolf, as well as an ode to the great dramatic ballerina Alessandra Ferri in the first and third sections. (For more about the ravishing Ferri in this work, click here.) The middle section is McGregor as we’ve come to know him: wild partnering, innovative lighting and extravagantly contemporary sets. He succeeded in producing a stark and startling ballet that challenges the dancers, and also succeeding in puzzling viewers who expected a linear plotline. Luckily, I had read Dance Magazine’s interview with him in which he says that a linear story is “not the only way you can deal with complex emotional situations or multiple narratives. I thought this was a good moment to flex the opera house’s muscles in a new way.” The pristinely beautiful Royal Opera House has probably been getting a good flex from McGregor since he made Chroma there in 2006.

I saw two Sadler’s Wells productions that were dead opposites, each satisfying in its own way: Partita 2 and Titanium. The first, a collaboration between Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Boris Charmatz and violinist Amandine Beyer, was dry in tone but completely involving. Without any shred of story to keep track of, I paid alert attention to Bach’s notes on the violin, the artfully deployed cracks of light and how inventively De Keersmaeker and Charmatz recycled their phrases and gestures.

The second, Titanium, was a boisterous production at the Peacock Theatre that melds hip-hop, flamenco and acrobatic break dancing. An all-male group from Spain, it included nine dancers and four musicians—though the musicians were sometimes drowned out by a cheesy sound design of amplified growls and reverse booming. The macho taunting and sparring eventually morphed into camaraderie, and finally into a display of technical fireworks like head spins and crazy fast heel work. The audience went wild, making me think this production could go the commercial route of Riverdance.

I was able to visit the Royal Ballet School and observe master teacher Anita Young’s loving yet strict instruction of a girls’ class. The training is very reverential, and they were asked to give this visitor (me) a formal reverence even before class started. At the barre, Young corrected the head positions, telling the girls that Sir Frederick Ashton always wanted a softly titled head, never a flat-out profile. In center, she emphasized musicality, femininity and movement quality. When doing tendues, she told them to use pressure through space, saying "It's not just dry bones." I also got to see a rehearsal of the advanced students in Christopher Wheeldon’s tricky Rush, which they had  performed so well in NYC in a shared program with ABT’s Studio Company last month.

At The Place, London’s hub of contemporary dance, the director and choreographer Richard Alston along with chief executive Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp took me around to see some of the 11 studios, cafeteria and rehab room. Apparently it’s similar in training to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts dance program. Alston’s excellent company is in residence there, so I was treated to a viewing of a rehearsal of his piece Nomadic, with gypsy music pulling the dancers into dynamic torso movement and joyous momentum. (See our “Choreography in Focus” with Alston here.)

One of the Joffrey Ballet’s star dancers of an earlier time and a beloved teacher at Steps on Broadway, Christian Holder now lives in London. He invited me to a run-through of his cabaret act, "At Home and Abroad." It was pure magic, and if any of you are in London June 5 and 6, I urge you to catch it at Crazy Coqs. Christian is a naturally theatrical creature, and his exuberant soul bursts through his singing, storytelling and bits of dance. Hearing about his life as a dancer/designer/choreographer is an education, and watching him reminisce is a lovely entertainment.

 

 

From top: Ferri and Bonelli in Woolf Works, by Tristram Kenton. Wendy Perron at The Place, by Kenneth Tharp.

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
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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
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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
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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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