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What It's Like to Be Christopher Wheeldon's Right Hand Man
While still in the corps of New York City Ballet, Jason Fowler was drawn to the role of répétiteur. "Ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy was my rock in the company," he says. Fowler loved the process: learning steps quickly and absorbing the choreographer's intentions. He knew early on he wanted to nurture dancers through the rehearsal period one day. So it comes as little surprise that 20 years later, Fowler is a primary stager of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets around the globe.
Fowler first met Wheeldon as a student at the School of American Ballet in 1993, where he danced in the workshop performance of Wheeldon's Danses Bohemiennes. He was promoted to NYCB soloist in 2006, and performed with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses, on the side. Wheeldon first asked him to teach and rehearse one of his ballets, There Where She Loved, on a Morphoses tour to Vail International Dance Festival in 2008.
Fowler retired in 2010 after several knee surgeries. "I was lost, shocked and heartbroken," he says. But in a synchronistic bit of career timing, Wheeldon offered him a position as ballet master for Morphoses' Canada and California tours that same year. Since then, Fowler has staged over 20 Wheeldon ballets for companies across the globe, from the Broadway-sized Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the stark Polyphonia.
Fowler rehearsing Miami City Ballet dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay
Unlike some répétiteurs, Fowler doesn't use traditional notation. Instead, he writes down the choreography and dances it out to secure it in his muscle memory. "I have a binder which I call my Bible," he says. "It's full of words, drawings, figures, musical notes, anything I can think of to remind me of what that step might be." Sometimes he notates within the score, including key words like "Titanic," for a formation that resembles the bow of a ship. When he sets a piece from a video, he'll often watch three different versions to absorb the specificity of the movement. "Especially when Chris comes in for three days or a week to work his magic, I need to know we're on the same page," he says.
At Pennsylvania Ballet, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Staging time depends on the number of casts, hectic rehearsal schedules and the amount of time the company allots. "I can teach all the steps of Polyphonia and Fool's Paradise in about a week," says Fowler. "But the coaching takes time, preferably three weeks total for two to three casts."
At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Working with a living choreographer, as opposed to re-creating works by a legend like Sir Frederick Ashton or George Balanchine, keeps Fowler on his toes. Wheeldon sometimes alters steps that he didn't originally have time to refine, or tailors them to the current dancer. "Not everyone dances the same—that's the beauty of having someone who can personalize something for a company," he says. "The frustrating part can come when a company gets a video and tries to learn from it and they get confused. That's what I'm there for."
Fowler with MCB dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay
Wheeldon always does the vetting of companies, choosing which ballets are suitable for which troupe, and he usually does the casting. "But if he's not available, it's something that I sometimes do," says Fowler. "I'm his eyes if he can't be there."
Fowler often crosses paths with other répétiteurs setting works by William Forsythe, Jirˇí Kylián and others. "I've known dancers all my life, but now I know more stagers than dancers," he says. "We're all in agreement that no one does this for the money." (The bulk of the work—studying videos and notations or working out steps—is unpaid time.)
At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Still, his life as a nomad, which can sometimes feel lonely with over 40 weeks per year on the road, works for him. "The rewarding part is traveling the world," he says. "If you only want to be in one place, it's most likely not the position for you."
With Wheeldon's rate of prolificacy, Fowler can probably count on a job for life, especially given that Wheeldon, a youthful 44, promises many more decades of creating. And staging ballets rather than choreographing them suits Fowler just fine. "I know what my strengths are—and it's not choreography. I'm like a backup singer."
Mash-ups aren't uncommon in the dance world: Performers of varying styles have been known to share the stage, from ballerina Tiler Peck and famed clown Bill Irwin to Michelle Dorrance, who's mixed tappers and break-dancers. Likewise, collaborations between choreographers and artists from seemingly mismatched disciplines have produced magical creations, such as Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream, featuring Mark Ryden's whimsical and even grotesque designs and costumes.
But the Israeli troupe Ka'et Contemporary Dance Ensemble has found success in one of the most unlikely partnerships: Secular contemporary choreographer Ronen Itzhaki creates movement for a group of rabbis.
While undoubtedly best known for her dancing, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston has also been getting noticed for her style by Allure and Vogue—and with good reason. Her Instagram feed features a mix of on-trend athleisure wear and detailed dresses from runway designers like Valentino and Anna Sui, none of which would be complete without the makeup and hair to match. With a penchant for skin care and an ever-growing lipstick collection, Boylston talked us through some of her beauty must-haves on and off the stage.
Photo by Jayme Thornton
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?
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."
DanceBreak came roaring back to life on Monday after seven years on hiatus, and six choreographers now have the opportunity to be the next Andy Blankenbuehler. Or Joshua Bergasse, Kelly Devine, Casey Nicholaw, Josh Prince or Josh Rhodes. These stellar Broadway choreographers all got their first big shows after Melinda Atwood's musical-theater launching pad let them show the industry what they could do.
Since 2002, DanceBreak has been a sort of "So You Think You Can Choreograph" for Broadway. Although not everyone goes straight there—Mandy Moore and Mia Michaels are alumni, too—the program is meant to funnel talented choreographers to the Broadway stage by providing a platform for their work. Prince, who introduced Atwood to the cheering crowd, has paid DanceBreak the ultimate compliment, creating his own non-profit incubator for theater choreographers, Broadway Dance Lab. On Monday, he recalled the story of how he was offered the role of choreographer on Broadway's Shrek just days after its director saw the 2007 edition.
When caring for your feet or trying to make them look good, it's tempting to seek shortcuts. Bad ideas—like dangerous stretches that promise perfect lines or ointments that were never meant to go on your toes—catch on all too easily backstage.
We asked podiatrists who've seen their dance clients try it all share the habits they'd like to see gone for good.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country: