What It's Like to Go from Stardom to the Corps de Ballet
Some careers come together so organically that the dancer barely has time to take stock of how she got to where she is. That's how it was for Betsy McBride, at least until 2015.
Born in Coppell, a suburb of Dallas, McBride began taking ballet at her local school at age 3. At 14, she attended a summer intensive at the school affiliated with Texas Ballet Theater. Within a few weeks, McBride was offered a year-round place at the school with the tantalizing prospect of being hired by the company. Which is exactly what happened just a few months later. And there she stayed, eventually performing some of the most desirable roles in TBT's repertoire: Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora, the glamorous soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies," the title character in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
As the 24-year-old brunette explains, "I wasn't even thinking about a career yet. It was all sort of a whirlwind, and I just went with it." She could have stayed where she was for the rest of her career, cycling through the classical roles and having new ones created for her by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson. "I grew up there—I was comfortable there," she says. But as time went on, she realized she was hungry for a change: a new company, a bigger city, longer seasons, opportunities to tour. "I was ready to go somewhere new and start over."
So early in 2015, she contacted American Ballet Theatre, hoping to arrange an audition. Though she was informed that there were no openings, she was invited to come to New York City to take class. She took them up on the offer, and made a good impression. By chance, a position opened up, and she was offered a contract. She made her debut with ABT as a nymph in The Sleeping Beauty toward the end of the 2015 Met season. (Encouraged by her success, her boyfriend, Simon Wexler, also auditioned and joined the corps a few months after her.)
McBride (left) in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. PC John Grigaitis
But the decision came at a cost: She had to trade in her life as a leading dancer for a place in the corps. "I've definitely struggled with it at times. It's weird, I'm new here, but I'm not new to being a professional. So I just try to keep doing what I need to do and not focus on that too much."
Her clear-eyed approach has already helped cement her place in the company. She has been given some opportunities: a little swan in Swan Lake, Fairy Fleur de farine in Alexei Ratmansky's historically minded Sleeping Beauty, Columbine in his Nutcracker. And more chances seem to be in store: She's rehearsing the role of the lead gypsy in Don Quixote and recently started learning the choreography for Olga, the younger sister in John Cranko's Onegin.
PC Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT
She realizes that nothing is automatic in a big company like ABT. She's fifth cast for Olga, which means she may not get to dance it for a while, if ever. As she puts it, "It's definitely a waiting game." Meanwhile, she's finding sustenance dancing in the corps. "It challenged me to go back to working with my peers and feeding off of each other. You feel that camaraderie and the ups and downs."
"Betsy is an extremely versatile dancer with a vibrant personality on the stage, and quick to learn," says Susan Jones, principal ballet mistress at ABT. "When she joined, it was as if she'd always been here."
Her adaptability was on display in a recent rehearsal of Ratmansky's new ballet Whipped Cream, in which she was creating the role of one of four "swirl girls." Even as she learned the complicated steps, she danced them full-out, with confidence.
It's easy to see why critics back in Texas used adjectives like "reckless" and "daring" to describe her dancing. And she's not timid about trying new things: "Sometimes Ratmansky asks us to do something that seems impossible. And then you realize, once you try it, that you can. It's been kind of a light bulb for me." It seems that with this move she's gotten even more than what she bargained for: a choreographer of international repute who can push her to new heights.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: