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.
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.