Celebrating five dance luminaries: National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain, Noche Flamenca's Soledad Barrio, dance historian David Vaughan, Urban Bush Women's Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and American Ballet Theatre's Marcelo Gomes.
Kain and Nureyev after a Giselle performance in 1976. Photo by L.D. Cartoogian, courtesy DM Archives.
Anyone who saw Karen Kain running down a flight of stairs as the 16-year-old Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty will never forget the thrilling impact of her youthful exuberance. Those were the 1970s, when the National Ballet of Canada, frequently headlined by Rudolf Nureyev, regularly danced at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and crisscrossed North America on lengthy tours. Nureyev recognized Kain's stellar talent early on, and, as her frequent partner in guest engagements, he made sure the world knew, too. She was soon a sought-after artist. But, despite her foreign engagements, she remained loyal to NBoC, and danced with the company for 28 years. Her retirement was celebrated with a special cross-Canada Karen Kain Farewell Tour.
Yet her greatest role might be the one she performs today: NBoC's artistic director. When she took the job in 2005, she set herself three major goals—to raise the level of classical dancing, diversify the repertoire and get the company touring internationally again. Ten years in, NBoC is now dancing better than ever. The repertoire has added works by Aszure Barton, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, John Neumeier, Crystal Pite, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon, whose Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale NBoC co-produced with The Royal Ballet. In 2011, the company unveiled a new staging of Romeo and Juliet by Alexei Ratmansky. Most importantly, Kain has championed new work by Canadian choreographers, presenting all-Canadian triple bills and recently commissioning a full-length version of Le Petit Prince from principal dancer Guillaume Côté.
The combination of excellent dancing and a revitalized repertoire has helped achieve her third goal, to return NBoC to the world stage with visits to Los Angeles, London, New York City and Washington, DC. “Touring has become difficult and expensive," she says. “I can't replicate the experience I had 40 years ago, but I'm determined to pursue what's possible. We'd been almost totally left out for too long. Now, we're part of the conversation in the ballet world again." —Michael Crabb
Barrio performs Antigona with Noche Flamenca in New York this month. Photo by Zarmik Moqtaderi, courtesy Noche Flamenca.
The greatest flamenco artists are said to possess “duende," a Spanish word loosely translated as an inner spirit that emanates from an intense emotional connection with song and dance, and that produces a trancelike state in observers. Or, as Goethe defined it, “a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain."
Soledad Barrio delivers the essence of duende. Through her many performances with Noche Flamenca, founded by Barrio and her husband, Martín Santangelo, she has committed her life to the primal elegance and passion of flamenco. With her snaking arms, sinuously flowing walks, rhythmically complex footwork, intentioned gaze and climactic, fiery eruptions, Barrio is one of the greatest flamenco performers in the world.
Born in Madrid, Barrio danced as soon as she could walk, although she didn't begin formal flamenco studies until she was 18. Gypsy tradition wasn't in her lineage, but it certainly inhabited her soul. “Since I was very young, dance has given my life a reason to exist," she says. “I was lucky enough to encounter flamenco." Her mother's family survived Franco's often brutal dictatorship, an experience that helped shape Barrio's earthy authenticity as a performer.
Barrio studied with such distinguished flamenco artists as Maria Magdalena, El Ciro, El Guito and Manolete. Before forming Noche Flamenca, she danced as a soloist with the companies of Manuela Vargas, Blanca del Rey, Luisillo, El Guito, Manolete, Cristobal Reyes, El Toleo and Ballet Espanol de Paco Romero.
Although she is a master of the full spectrum of flamenco styles, she is particularly known for the soleá, the flamenco form that expresses the deep anguish of a rebellious cry. (The word fittingly derives from soledad, defined as “loneliness" or “solitude"). Dancing it, Barrio innervates the braceo (arms) and floreo (hands) directly from her expressive torso. As she moves to the music of the cantaores, she physicalizes the impassioned pulsations of the guitar and vocals.
“I don't see myself as an artist, I see myself as a worker," says Barrio. “The more hours I can work and study, the better an artist I can become." —Joseph Carman
Vaughan still performs at 91. Here, at the Montreal Fringe Festival with Pepper Fajans. Photo by Gilbert Gaytan.
At 91 years old, David Vaughan could pass for a much younger man. He's writing a book (his fourth), holds monthly film screenings at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and recently went on tour, as a performer, to the Montreal Fringe Festival. These ventures are just the latest in a lifetime of dedication to dance. His indelible contributions to the field—as a writer, historian and archivist—only continue to deepen.
A latecomer to ballet class, Vaughan began formal training at 23 in his native London, though he'd been “obsessed with dancing," as he puts it, from a young age. He moved to New York City in 1950 with a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where he met a modern dance teacher named Merce Cunningham. When Cunningham opened his own studio in 1959, Vaughan became the secretary, which helped to supplement his modest income as a performer in off-Broadway musicals.
Photo by Gilbert Gaytan
That side job blossomed into more. At John Cage's invitation, Vaughan coordinated the Cunningham company's 1964 world tour, a reputation-building milestone for the group. His affinity for collecting and organizing company ephemera—programs, press, photographs, letters—earned him the formal role of company archivist in 1976, created through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The position was unprecedented for a dance troupe; as Vaughan says, “I had to invent the job as I went along." Cataloguing the company's developments—his original index card system, he says, still rivals any computer—he ensured that its history did not fade into the past.
His ingenuity rippled out. “He paved the way for so many of us," says Norton Owen, head of the archives at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, adding that Vaughan set the “gold standard" for dance archiving practices. “In a way, he's still leading the pack."
Vaughan's warm, enlightening prose can be found in Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, his celebrated biography of the British choreographer, and the journal Ballet Review, to which he has contributed since its first issue in 1965. Having poured his vast, meticulous knowledge of Cunningham's oeuvre into the breathtaking book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, he's now at work on a biography of another mid-century renegade, the underexposed choreographer James Waring.
And his performing career? He and his 30-year-old friend, the dance artist Pepper Fajans, plan to return to Montreal in January for a reprise of their award-winning Fringe Festival duet. “We were a big hit!" Vaughan says. He's earned the bragging rights. —Siobhan Burke
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar doesn't simply create choreography. She creates family, giving her dancers the kind of strengthening, nourishing roots that foster the confidence to make their own mark in the world.
Zollar's work, like 1986's LifeDance I...The Magician (the return of She), subverts notions of how women should behave. Photo by Hakim Mutlaq, courtesy DM Archives.
“If you want to go fast, go alone," says Zollar, citing a beloved African proverb. “If you want to go far, go together."
Celebrating her troupe's 30th anniversary last season, Zollar wrote on Urban Bush Women's website, “I wanted a company that brought forth the vulnerability, sassiness and bodaciousness of the women I experienced growing up in Kansas City." Her critically acclaimed work subverts notions of who can dance, how dancers' bodies should look and how women should behave—especially black women. For talented artists like Christal Brown, Paloma McGregor, Nora Chipaumire, Maria Bauman, Samantha Speis and Marjani Forté-Saunders, she has forged inroads into a profession still largely governed by white standards.
Zollar first trained with Joseph Stevenson, a student of Katherine Dunham. She traces her influences to icons like black vaudevillian Cholly Atkins, Dianne McIntyre and Daniel Nagrin whose evening-length solo, Peloponnesian War, she remembers, sent the crowd at an anti–Vietnam War rally into raptures. She perceived, she recalls, “something he was able to do that was very different from any of the speeches."
From Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries—evocative of time, place and the human heart—to the audacious Batty Moves and the new Walking with 'Trane (created with Speis), Zollar's work liberally draws from ballet and modern dance, as well as such styles as club dancing, double dutch and Rastafarian ritual. Her dancers' bodies carry urgent letters to the world, stories bursting to be told. Healing stories, motivating stories, transformational stories. Urban Bush Women, as former member Christal Brown puts it, are medicine women.
Ours is a time that requires us to assert that black lives matter. We live, as well, in a time of joy when American Ballet Theatre admits its first black ballerina to the rank of principal. We also see, in the many Zollar alumnae now claiming their own generative ground, seeds of artistry and activism to carry the legacy forward and make a difference. —Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Ask any ballerina who would be her dream partner, and very likely the answer will be Marcelo Gomes. The Mariinsky Ballet's prima ballerina Diana Vishneva has specifically chosen him to partner her both at American Ballet Theatre and at home in Russia. He partnered venerable ballerina Alessandra Ferri on her farewell tour in Japan and Italy in 2008. Blessed with an uncanny sense of timing, balance and sensitivity to a ballerina's needs, he knows instinctively how to anticipate his partner's movement, allowing her to completely immerse herself in her role.
Yet Gomes can just as easily command the stage on his own. His presence is grounded, magisterial, expansive. With precise technique, the 6' 2" Gomes makes Frederick Ashton's quicksilver choreography for Oberon in The Dream, for example, seem as natural as breathing. He feels just as at ease moving through legato passages with his elongated lines. Since joining ABT at age 18 in 1997, the former Brazilian prodigy has dazzled at all stages of his journey to become one of its most beloved stars.
Gomes uses his 6' 2" lines to his advantage. Here, in Liam Scarlett's With a Chance of Rain. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy ABT.
“Everything about being onstage drives me as a dancer, from the anticipation to the applause," says Gomes, who came to the U.S. at 13 to study at the Harid Conservatory. “But most of all my growth as a human being through my performing is what motivates me."
Gomes' consummate grasp of contemporary movement, matched by his mastery of classical technique, has made him a favorite of choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe. His vast dramatic and technical range allows him to dance Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty one night and the wicked fairy Carabosse on the next.
Gomes has recently demonstrated his emerging talent as a choreographer, creating ballets for ABT, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and La Scala. “I've always had an itch to create my own movements," he says. “I love how music makes me feel, and being creative with dancers is incredibly fulfilling."
Perhaps most impressive are Gomes' humble approach to the work and his generosity as a mentor for younger dancers. “I have learned so much from the dancers that have come before me, and I feel I need to give back," he says. “It's not just about dancing well, but about who you are in your life, both on and off the stage, and how you interact with other artists, and perhaps, most importantly, how you respect the art form." —Joseph Carman