Will Dance for Food
It was 6 am on a Saturday, the sun was pulling up a warm summer morning, and the birds were singing just for me. I was “wrapped." I had finished filming “Flesh and Bone" and retired from American Ballet Theatre. I felt like a creature released into the wild, freed into the next phase of my life. Now I could take a breath. Now I could eat carbs.
We'd shot the gritty ballet-themed series over four months, from April to August of 2014. Until my final performance in July, I also danced with ABT. A typical week saw me working Monday and Tuesday on the TV show, Wednesday through Saturday with the ballet company. Sunday was for the gym, for massage, for writing a series of vogue.com columns about my last season as a professional dancer, for running lines and for preparing for Monday, which would kick off with a 4:45 am pickup (warm-up class commenced at 6) and stretch deep into the night. No man should wear a dance belt for as long as I did on those days.
Radetsky with Sarah Hay in a scene from the show. Courtesy Starz.
The “Flesh and Bone" set was a city within a city, a boomtown of trailers and trucks sprouting overnight on the streets of Manhattan or a soundstage in Queens. It drew a range of industry specialists, from sound engineers to gaffers to the Pomeranian wrangler (whose cloud of canine fluff played the role of Princess). Our job as dancer/actors was to put our best pointed foot forward every time the slate snapped shut and the cameras rolled. A given scene involved multiple takes per camera angle, and each angle required a new setup for lighting, sound and props, a fresh set of marks for everyone, continuity checks/touch-ups for wardrobe, hair and makeup, and rehearsals to sync our timing and movements with the crew's. If the scene called for dialogue, which it often did, we danced to the dull pulse of a metronome instead of music. Our show runners were consummate pros, and went to great lengths to capture the dance sequences with efficiency and concern for our physical well-being. But filming takes time. Given the number of moving parts involved, the pace was inevitably slow and repetitive—the reverse of the adrenaline blitz of a live performance. A quick montage of class exercises, for instance, took hours to shoot. We kicked a few weeks' worth of grands battements that day; the Rockettes had nothing on us, except maybe more convincing smiles.
My fellow dancers on the show hailed from a range of ballet companies, but under the guidance of our terrific choreographer, Ethan Stiefel, we coalesced into a single troupe. The strenuous conditions led to some frayed nerves (and teary eyes), but they also bonded us together. Most of us were thankful for this opportunity to bring dance to new audiences and to document what otherwise lasts only in memory after the curtain falls. We were jostled out of our comfort zones and into collaboration with other types of artists, swept into a heady mix not just of dancers, choreographers and musicians, but also of accomplished writers, photographers, actors and visual artists. Imagine Greenwich Village in the Sixties, or the Moulin Rouge of Belle Époque Paris, only with more nudity.
To shoulder my workloads at ABT and “Flesh and Bone," I had to trim away all distractions. I shut down my social life, and extra-curricular activities largely ceased. I streamlined in a literal sense, too: I hit the gym whenever possible, if only for a manic 20 minutes at the end of a day. Before filming began, I cut sugar, grains and starches from my diet, and eventually phased out cheese and juice, as well. My meals, of lean protein and veggies, were modest in portion, and snacks, of nuts and some fruit, were occasional. I often indulged in a glass of wine, but I didn't drink a beer for five months (that one was tough, but I've since made up for lost time). I was part caveman/part monk, and all nerd.
"Flesh and Bone" premieres on the Starz TV network November 8. Courtesy Starz.
I had danced on camera before, in the film Center Stage. I was 22 when we made that movie, still an ABT corps member, just a sweet-sweaty whippersnapper working on his double-double tours. Then, too, I remember the stuttering pace of shooting, the dancing at extreme hours. But such particulars don't faze you at that age; your body is wondrously resilient, and endless dances yet await you, like flavors arrayed in an ice cream shop. This time around, the stakes were different; the end of the arc was near. A sense of urgency animated my every plié.
There were a couple of late nights on the “Flesh and Bone" set when, numerous takes into shooting a dance scene, with my audience reduced to the stoic black eye of a Steadicam lens and the kinetic joy of moving through choreography long ebbed out of me, my inspiration faltered. But then it would surge back, from places of responsibility and gratitude. I've been fortunate to do what I love, among people I love, for many years, to bookend a rewarding career in ballet with a movie and now a TV show. I could certainly hustle up a few more sauts de basque and press lifts for the camera. Maybe I just needed a carrot to chase—or something heartier, to be precise. Get it together, dude. You can frolic in the sunshine and sleep like a bear and eat vast stacks of pancakes very soon, I'd assure myself, my mouth watering. n
Sascha Radetsky is currently writing fiction as a fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT