Meet Our 2021 "25 to Watch"

December 31, 2020

At a moment when our field feels ripe for reinvention, the artists on our annual list of dancers, choreographers and companies poised for a breakout year are brimming with possibilities. Here they are: the 25 movers, makers and multi-hyphenates we believe are shaping the dance world of tomorrow.

Keerati Jinakunwiphat

Keerati Jinakunwiphat, a Southeast Asian woman dressed in vibrant white track pants and a black crop top, lands on one foot, other leg swing through a parallel back attitude. One arm drapes overhead as she looks over her shoulder to the camera, black hair swinging behind her.
Jayme Thornton

For Keerati Jinakunwiphat, 2019 was like “Rainbow Road” in Mario Kart: “All these big things at once,” she says. “I was touring more and working more and really stepping into a full-time role with A.I.M.” It was also the year Jinakunwiphat created Big Rings for her fellow dancers, marking her first professional commission (from Kyle Abraham, no less) and the first piece set on A.I.M by a company member.

Jinakunwiphat, who is Thai-American, graduated from SUNY Purchase in 2016 and started working with the company as an apprentice the same year. (Abraham is a fellow Purchase alum.) As a dancer, Jinakunwiphat deftly captures Abraham’s signature vocabulary—limbs sweeping and slicing through the air—while bringing her own steady gaze and distinctive presence. Big Rings illustrated her attention as a choreographer to nuance in shaping group dynamics, as well as a knack for creating a fully articulated world onstage. Soon she’ll be expanding her choreographic work beyond A.I.M’s walls: She has a commission for Houston Contemporary Dance Company lined up for 2021. —Caroline Shadle

Laura Morton

Laura Morton, a young white woman dressed in a leotard matching her skin tone, poses in retiru00e9, supporting leg in pliu00e9. She arches side over the working leg, arms gracefully imitating the angles of her legs.
Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

In a visceral solo in Ana Maria Lucaciu’s Long Ago and Only Once, Laura Morton advances across the floor, energy streaming from her core as she scoops her limbs upward, retreats and pivots, arms swiping as if wresting herself from confinement. In George Staib’s starkly contemporary fence, she propels her body across the stage with openhearted abandon, her intensity at once hyperalert and serenely calm.

“She has an uncanny way of imprinting herself into the space,” says Staib. “Nothing is forced. It feels organic, and that comes from a lot of self-discovery—not residing in one interpretation, but knowing that everything can shift in a matter of milliseconds.”

Morton trained with Appalachian Ballet Company and Houston Ballet before finding the wider scope she craved as a Fellowship student at Atlanta Ballet, then led by John McFall. Her apprentice year brought featured roles in works by Gemma Bond, Liam Scarlett and David Bintley. But then-incoming artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin’s more classically restrained approach wasn’t a fit for Morton—her full-body expressiveness couldn’t be reined in.

Immediately, Atlanta’s Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre snapped up Morton, who also joined staibdance a year later. Staib’s collaborative methods, which involve interplay between tension and release and deep personal inquiry, have freed her to discover a softer and more pliable core, which now drives her expansive reach. Morton is gaining traction in Atlanta’s contemporary ballet scene as quickly as the troupes themselves. —Cynthia Bond Perry

Aaron Samuel Davis

Aaron Samuel Davis, a slender Black man dressed in jeans, a brightly patterned shirt and a head wrap, leaps away from the camera above a gravel lot, arms in an exaggerated third position. Greenery, houses and a parked car are visible in the background.
Davis at KABAWIL e.V. in Dusseldorf, Germany

Alexandra Wehrmann/Markus Luigs, Courtesy Davis

Aaron Samuel Davis dances like someone who never lost the magic of moving as a child. There’s an unselfconscious innocence and sense of discovery about his dancing, combined with obviously hard-core training—he has an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His piercing gaze seems to see right into your soul.

Currently, the New London, Connecticut, native is honing his creative chops in Europe. He is a member of the dance-theater company Unusual Symptoms, at Theater Bremen, and is researching his own solo work, Give Yourself a Fade Out, in partnership with composer Felix-Florian Tödtloff. His sparing gestural movement language straddles modern dance and pedestrian activity, but is charged with physical urgency that aims to say, as he puts it, “I exist, you will love me, and we damn sure matter.” —Gus Solomons jr.

Vincenzo Di Primo

Vincenzo Di Primo, a tanned male dancer wearing black trousers, seems to float against a white background, head inclined toward his left leg as it bends in a slight attitude.
Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR

It can be hard for a dancer to stand out at Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where everything is more. The costumes are more dramatic, the music is louder, the dancers’ legs soar higher, and they perform bigger, faster, further. It can be even more challenging for a dancer to stand out in their first season, as they adjust. But amidst the calculated chaos, Vincenzo Di Primo is a steadying presence. His power is measured—calm, uninterrupted and mature. Nothing in his dancing is forced as he shifts seamlessly from balletic movement to striking lines.

His versatility stems from experience. Di Primo’s first exposure to dance was ballroom. He later studied hip hop, and then contemporary, before being introduced to ballet. Di Primo graduated from the Vienna State Opera ballet academy, and, after competing in the Prix de Lausanne, joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice.

There, he worked with Crystal Pite and Wayne McGregor, before moving on to companies in Dublin and Athens, and performing on an Italian TV competition called “Amici.” But now, he’s found a perfect fit for his talents at Complexions. —Cadence Neenan

Bianca Scudamore

After the Paris Opéra Ballet School’s annual performances in 2017, one student’s name was on everyone’s lips: Bianca Scudamore, who sailed through Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude with astonishing technical facility and the joyful ease of a seasoned soloist. Born in Brisbane, the long-legged dancer had realized her dream of earning a spot at the French school in 2015. Upon joining the Paris Opéra Ballet after graduation, she was quickly nicknamed the “baby ballerina” to follow.

She hasn’t disappointed. In soloist roles, including the peasant pas de deux in Giselle and Olympia in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, as well as successful appearances on the local gala circuit, the 21-year-old has found a balance between youthful virtuosity and the polished restraint prized by French ballet insiders. While foreigners are still in the minority at POB, Scudamore was promoted two years in a row at the internal concours de promotion, rising to the rank of sujet (demi-soloist) in 2019, and finished second in the Varna International Ballet Competition’s juniors category that same year. With a little help from POB’s artistic team, a charmed career beckons. —Laura Cappelle

Amanda Morgan

Amanda Morgan, a caramel skinned Black woman wearing a pale leotard and pointe shoes that match her skin tone, balances in sous-sus, arms at her sides, looking over her shoulder toward her back foot.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

Amanda Morgan will be heard. The Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member’s long limbs paint through space with a gentleness that contrasts with the strength of her voice as a creator and leader. She founded The Seattle Project, an interdisciplinary artists’ collective dedicated to creating and presenting community-accessible work, in 2019. The Project—whose collaborators have included dancers from PNB and Spectrum Dance Theater—held its first presentation, “The How of it Sped,” at Northwest Film Forum last February. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Morgan and fellow PNB dancer Cecilia Iliesiu founded a mentorship program to connect PNB School students with company members. Last summer, she spoke out against racism and police brutality at protests following the death of George Floyd.

Morgan’s community advocacy and delicate yet striking contemporary movement came together in “Musings,” the digital work she created alongside Nia-Amina Minor for Seattle Dance Collective last summer, exploring spatial injustice against Black and brown people.

In the fall, PNB commissioned Morgan, who made pieces for the company’s Next Step choreographic showcase in 2018 and 2019, to create a site-specific work as bonus content for its first-ever digital season. “Society may have tried to silence the voices of the marginalized, but you will never silence me,” she proclaimed at a June demonstration.

The dance world is listening. —Lydia Murray

Gaby Diaz

Gaby Diaz, a white woman with close cropped black hair, poses in a mustard yellow dress against a yellow background. She is in forced arch, her free leg pointed as it hovers off the ground, and she twists and arches back almost parallel to the floor, turning her head to gaze towards the ceiling.

James Jin, Courtesy Diaz

Think you know Gaby Diaz? Wait five minutes. In 2015, she won “So You Think You Can Dance” as a tap dancer.
Since then, the endlessly versatile mover has embodied con­temporary fluidity with Shaping Sound, tackled Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s eclectic repertoire as a com­­pany apprentice and performed Justin Peck’s ballet-inflected choreography in the upcoming West Side Story film.

Diaz’s remarkable resumé is a product of her curiosity, and her restlessness. “I’ve never liked feeling comfortable,” she says. “I’ve always needed to dip my toe in as many things as possible to stay challenged.” After training in a multitude of styles at her hometown studio in Miami and the New World School of the Arts, she didn’t want to follow any one professional path. Instead, able to do anything, she chose to try everything. “If something feels right to me, I’m going to do it, even if it doesn’t look like that’d be the logical next step,” she says. What’s feeling right at the moment is working with Peck: Diaz is relocating to New York City to pursue a new project with him. Get ready to discover yet another facet of her talent. —Margaret Fuhrer

Rohan Bhargava

Rohan Bhargava, a South Asian man with a short haircut and facial hair, hovers on a bent standing leg, arms forming a graceful arc as he peers down past his raised working leg.

Rachel Neville Photography, Courtesy Periapsis Music and Dance

Growing up queer in India and experiencing New York City’s gay party culture left Rohan Bhargava in a “melting pot of love, lust and loneliness.” That’s since fueled the human connections so visibly present—and key—in his work. At its most successful, his choreography explores interpersonal relationships, with Bhargava and the dancers of his Rovaco Dance Company developing distinct personalities onstage that transform once they come into contact with each other.

His 2019 full-length KAMA (Sanskrit for “desire”) explores intimate relationships, sex, addiction, abuse, gender norms and hedonism. Dramatic moments are developed through athletic (frequently same-sex) partnering and intricate, expansive unison, as well as subtler instances of genuine human vulnerability and tenderness. The process of alchemizing deeply personal experiences into KAMA, the culmination of a two-year CUNY Dance Initiative residency, has inspired Bhargava to dive deeper, bringing questions of identity—including his South Asian heritage—to the forefront of his future creative endeavors. —Phil Chan

Raianna Brown

Raianna Brown, a Black woman dressed in a long-sleeved black leotard, hair styled into twin puffs, looks calmly to the camera as she poses on the edge of a white block, one knee bent beneath her as the other leg stretches side.

Ta Nycia Wooden, Courtesy Brown

As a dancer, Raianna Brown moves effortlessly through concert and commercial lanes, giving each the presence and authenticity it warrants. The Atlanta-based artist has performed for Fredrick Earl Mosley and staibdance, and danced alongside Shakira and Jennifer Lopez in Super Bowl LIV. In her own choreography, she’s intentional in her approach to melding dance, technology and social activism. She founded Komansé Dance Theater while still an undergraduate student studying industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech while also training in dance at Emory University through dual enrollment. She’s partnered with Georgia Tech on works that utilize dynamic projection mapping and 3-D–printed costumes.

For her recent dance film, rev•er•ie, Brown took inspiration from Alice Walker and James Baldwin to explore ideas of belonging without being policed, or “a lush returning to true freedom,” as she puts it. “Living in a country that often wants to quiet my voice,” she says, “I feel it is my duty to create art that highlights the stories of the silenced.” —Shaté L. Hayes

Leonardo Sandoval

Leonardo Sandoval, a Brazilian man with his hair styled in an afro, wearing white tap shoes, shorts and a t-shirt, is caught mid-jump against a textured red background.

SaulZ, Courtesy Sandoval

Leonardo Sandoval‘s performances are always full of surprises: He likes to add slick turns and sudden slides, punctuate phrases with unexpected heels and toes, or blurt out a particularly fast rhythm after lulling his audience into a groove. He sometimes seems to surprise himself, in fact, as his lanky body twists and glides over the floor, his rhythms swinging as hard as any jazz standard.

Sandoval, 32, often integrates Afro-Brazilian music and rhythms while still honoring the American roots of the art form. His style has influences from Michelle Dorrance, with whose company he has toured internationally, as well as the multi-genre training he received in his native Brazil, where he’s no stranger to the stage or the small screen. Since moving to New York City in 2013, he has been in residence at the American Tap Dance Foundation, presented work at Jacob’s Pillow and the National Folk Festival, and taught for Lincoln Center Education. He collaborates frequently with bassist Gregory Richardson, with whom he directs the company Music from the Sole. Whether choreographing for an ensemble or working alone, Sandoval’s unique style and musicianship are sure to keep causing double takes. —Ryan P. Casey

Boston Dance Theater

Three female dancers in sweats and tank tops or t-shirts work in a white-walled dance studio. The woman at the center of the image opens her mouth wide as though singing, one hand at her hip, as the other two stand on either side, holding invisible microphones toward her mouth.

A Boston Dance Theater rehearsal with Micaela Taylor. Photo courtesy BDT

When Boston Dance Theater streamed an open rehearsal with Rena Butler last summer, 15 different presenters from around the country tuned in. That’s quite a response for a company that’s only been around since 2018. But co-artistic directors Jessie Jeanne Stinnett and Itzik Galili have rapidly built significant buzz around BDT by commissioning works from a diverse group of women, like Micaela Taylor, Shannon Gillen, Sidra Bell and Yin Yue, and presenting rep that’s rarely seen in the U.S. (so far from Galili and Marco Goecke).

The Butler work is part of a new evening-length program that will also include sections choreographed by Rosie Herrera, Karole Armitage and others; it’s centered on the life and artistic contributions of bassist Carol Kaye, who played on an estimated 10,000 recording sessions, with everyone from the Beach Boys to Marvin Gaye, yet remains relatively unknown. By consistently making these kinds of savvy curatorial choices—and pulling them off with finesse—BDT’s quickly grown into a company with appeal far beyond Boston’s city limits. —Jennifer Stahl

Sorah Yang

Sorah Yang, a light-skinned East Asian woman wearing a baggy t-shirt and bright blue pants, takes a wide stance, back arching away from where her wrists stretch in front of her. Dozens of dancers sit, kneel and stand in a semi-circle around her, paying rapt attention as she demonstrates.

Yang teaching a workshop at Arena Dance Camp in Chengdu, China. Photo by T Watcharothon, Courtesy Yang

Fusing hip hop with her own dynamic movement style, Sorah Yang performs with explosive power that defies stereotypes. “I’m a five-foot-tall, very bubbly Asian woman, and there’s always somewhat of a concern that people won’t take me seriously,” she says. But Yang’s work speaks for itself. She first gained attention as a member of the renowned hip-hop crew GRV, which led to teaching opportunities in more than 27 countries. She’s also broken into the K-pop scene, choreographing Monsta X’s “Shine Forever” for their 2017 world tour.

In 2019, she joined Keone and Mari Madrid as the associate choreographer for the upcoming Britney Spears musical, Once Upon a One More Time. When the pandemic postponed the show’s pre-Broadway run in Chicago, Yang mobilized her dance clothing company, ShopSorah, to donate and distribute masks for essential workers and started an online course to help dancers plan sustainable careers. She recently founded Vessel Dance Company, which will perform her original choreography as well as provide its members with training, professional development and community-service opportunities. In all her work, Yang seeks to empower others, earning her a devoted following that continues to grow. —Kristi Yeung

Project Home

Off a rocky beach, gray clouds overhead, a group of dancers dressed in gray embrace in a huddle knee deep in the surf. A camera man circles the group, while a grew member holding a circular light reflector splashes through the waves behind him.

Project Home shooting its first film, “Home,” in Iceland. Photo by Timo Dettmers, Courtesy Project Home

Project Home challenges the conventions of the typical dance film. With inventive choreography, the production company’s heartfelt visual narratives demand watching and rewatching. Its first film, “Home,” features dancers performing intricate movements while traversing breathtaking landscapes in Iceland. In “Kota,” kids playfully dance with towels, uncovering humorous new uses for the prop. “We like to create work that allows people to implant their own story,” says co-founder Chris Martin.

Though many dancers made their first films during the pandemic, Project Home has been specializing in the medium since Martin and Larkin Poynton started the company in 2015. When lockdowns began, they launched multiple initiatives to give dancers a sense of community online. “Chris and I really value home, whether that’s a physical space or the people around us,” Poynton says. Their class series innovatively utilized the digital format, teaching choreography that incorporated students filming themselves with cell phones and giving them dance partners from another country. Their mentorship program, Homework, helps participants develop their dance, storytelling and filmmaking skills, while providing a platform to discuss their work with others. Through both their films and educational programs, Project Home is lighting the way forward for an expanding field. —Kristi Yeung

Rebecca Margolick

Watching Rebecca Margolick dance, the immediate impression is one of physical power. But just beneath that seeming invulnerability is a preternaturally mature sensibility that makes her every gesture magnetic—assertiveness without aggressiveness. Since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2012, the soft-spoken, Brooklyn-based Canadian has been in demand with international movement makers, from Jérôme Bel to Shay Kuebler. Her solo and multidisciplinary group works have been presented in Bulgaria, Poland, Israel, Mexico and Canada. She is also a proud member of Dance Artists’ National Collective, a group organizing toward safe, equitable and sustainable working conditions for freelance dancers.

In 2021, in addition to touring with Chuck Wilt’s UNA Projects and dancing with Kayla Farrish/Decent Structures Arts, Margolick plans to tour internationally with her solo Bunker + Vault. In it, she weaves history, memory and intimacy into athletic sensuality—controlled and chaotic—that shows us we’re more alike than different. —Gus Solomons jr.

Rhodnie Désir

A kind of spiritual historian, Rhodnie Désir reveals ancestral truths in her own Haitian foundations through the rhythms of drum and dance. With her breakthrough project, BOW’T TRAIL, the Montreal-based dancer, choreographer and speaker explores cultures brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, telling stories of resistance and resilience as she draws from jungo, danmyé, son jarocho and vodun movement and blues, gospel and Mi’kmaq rhythms.

Since its 2015 debut, the project has traveled around Canada and to Haiti, Mexico, Martinique, the U.S. and Brazil, exposing the political power of the body. An accompanying web documentary premiered last year, and she finished 2020 by taking home the coveted Grand Prix de la Danse de Montréal, broadening her increasing global stature. —Philip Szporer

Paula Comitre

Earning the Revelation Artist Award from the two most important flamenco festivals in the world in the same year is no small feat for a new talent. But in a year turned upside down by a pandemic, 26-year-old Paula Comitre did exactly that. In February 2020, Comitre debuted a solo show, Cámara Abierta, at the Festival de Jerez. She then graced the stages of the Bienal de Flamenco de Sevilla, both as a soloist in the collaborative Electroflamenco and in David Coria’s ¡Fandango! Whether performing her own work or others’, her expressive dancing displays a unique energy. A primitive ancestral force ripples through her torso, punctuated with rapid head tosses and harnessed by the contemporary technique in her limbs.

Comitre has been featured at Spain’s top tablaos, including Casa Patas and Los Gallos, and was a corps dancer with the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía. But her command of the duality of flamenco—tradition and innovation—first grabbed the attention of the world flamenco community in August 2019, when she was a finalist in the international dance competition Cante de las Minas. “I am in a transformational time,” Comitre says. With both Sevilla’s and Jerez’s Revelation Artist Awards under her belt, she is poised to launch a global solo career. —Bridgit Lujan

Christine Flores

Christine Flores’ resumé to date reads like a how-to list for “making it” in New York City’s dance world. She moves fluidly from burlesque shows with Company XIV to postmodern concert work with Pam Tanowitz Dance to commercial shoots, like Hozier’s 2019 “Almost (Sweet Music)” video, all with striking technical clarity and a palpable brightness of spirit.

Flores, who hails from Canada and graduated from the college program at New World School of the Arts in 2015, has not let the pandemic slow her down. She calculated that she took 455 dance and workout classes during the first four months of quarantine, and is currently at work on three films, two new pieces for Tanowitz, another venture with Danielle Russo Performance Project and ongoing projects with Company XIV. —Caroline Shadle

Khoudia Touré

Imagine being a fly on the wall while Crystal Pite works in the studio. Khoudia Touré, a 34-year-old hip-hop dancer and choreographer from Senegal, did just that for two years. As part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, she was personally selected by Pite in 2018 out of a shortlist to shadow her as she worked with companies around the world.

In late 2019, as Touré presented a confident, well-constructed work in progress in France, it was obvious the experience had unlocked her potential. “Crystal allowed me to get into the core of the creation process,” she says. “I discovered a lot of new tools.” After years of competing in battles and creating mainly as part of the Dakar-based collective Compagnie La Mer Noire, she presented her first solo choreographic work for the closing celebration of the Rolex program last February. In When the night comes, she moved away from improvisation to integrate new techniques with dancers from La Mer Noire.

Touré, who splits her time between her home country and France, also launched a nonprofit in 2017, Association Maggando, to support local artists and highlight the urban dance scene in Senegal. With La Mer Noire’s Lowela scheduled to premiere this month and Touré’s next solo work to debut in early 2022, she is poised to become one of that scene’s leading lights. —Laura Cappelle

DeMarco Sleeper

DeMarco Sleeper, a Black man in a wheelchair, looks up as his arms push in the opposite direction

David DeSilva, Courtesy Axis

With broad shoulders and muscular arms that slice through the air with an uncanny sharpness, DeMarco Sleeper commands the stage. Since becoming a wheelchair user six years ago, he has performed with some of the biggest names in physically integrated dance in the U.S.: Cleveland-based Dancing Wheels Company, Atlanta’s Full Radius Dance and, since 2019, Oakland’s Axis Dance Company. The 26-year-old was drawn to the latter’s education initiatives and outreach work, and today leads wheelchair/seated technique classes for disabled and non-disabled participants. He has also been indefatigable in his quest to advance the athleticism and impact of physically integrated dance. “There’s this level of sportsmanship that I’d like to see grow,” Sleeper says. “Dance and the Paralympics are separate, but I believe dance can be more physical. There can be more extreme movement.” —Rachel Caldwell

Oona Doherty

The beginning of Oona Doherty‘s 40-minute solo Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus has been enthusiastically described by critics so many times that it almost feels clichéd to explain how she pulls up outside the venue in a ramshackle car, and tumbles out of it (cigarette in hand) as “Northern Ireland Yes” blasts from the speakers. But it’s nearly impossible not to talk about Doherty’s work once you’ve experienced it, whether you’re raving about it or slightly shell-shocked. The subversiveness, the swagger, the tenderness—it sticks with you.

Though Hope Hunt has become something of a calling card for the 34-year-old Belfast-based choreographer, she was never meant to perform it at all: The piece—which explores Northern Irish masculinity—suddenly became an even more complex commentary on gender when the original male performer couldn’t make it to a show. Doherty then toured it herself nonstop for four years, earning critical praise and awards at the Dublin and Edinburgh fringe festivals. Doherty is as compelling a performer as she is a choreographer, whether she’s rebounding from the concrete sidewalk as if it’s a trampoline or convincingly embodying a ’90s Northern Irish bro.

She’s also prolific: In addition to her three evening-length dance works, she’s a writer and a visual artist, and recently co-directed, choreographed and starred in a Jamie xx music video. She’s spent the pandemic developing her biggest work yet, NAVY, set to premiere in 2022. —Lauren Wingenroth

Kennedy Brown

In 2019, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa cast an apprentice in the lead role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at Nashville Ballet. Displaying a potent mixture of sensuality and vulnerability alongside sleek technique, Kennedy Brown‘s performances more than substantiated Lopez Ochoa’s faith in her.

The former competition dancer from Indiana capped her early training with Magaly Suarez at the Art of Classical Ballet in Florida. She was a Top 30 dancer on Season 14 of “So You Think You Can Dance” before joining Nashville Ballet 2 in 2017.

“There is a real warmth about her, about the way she moves and communicates out to the audience that I really like,” says artistic director Paul Vasterling. “She is incredibly ambitious and focused, which is what it takes to be a leading dancer.” With girl-next-door charm and a world-conquering stage presence, Brown, now a full company member, is well on her way. —Steve Sucato

Melanie Greene and J. Bouey

Melanie Greene, a dark-skinned Black woman, gazes cooly at the camera as she stretches an arm toward it. J. Bouey, a Black person with a shaved head and some facial hair, crosses their arms across their ribcage as they look calmly at the camera.

From left: Bogliasco Foundation, Courtesy Greene; Alex Diaz, Courtesy Bouey

When they founded the podcast The Dance Union in 2018, Melanie Greene and J. Bouey dreamed of creating a hub where dance artists could find community, conversation, resources and support. They couldn’t have imagined that a pandemic would expedite this dream. But as artists’ lives and livelihoods were upended, suddenly the ideas Greene and Bouey had crafted their podcast around—cracking open the systems our field has silently agreed upon; creating new models for how the dance community can take care of each other—no longer felt radical but urgently necessary. The Dance Union quickly became much more than a podcast, holding popular virtual town halls and raising and distributing upwards of $65,000 to artists affected by the pandemic.

Greene and Bouey have also become de facto public intellectuals of the freelance dance world, speaking from their firsthand experiences as major multi-hyphenates: Greene works with New Yorkers for Culture & Arts, choreographs and has danced with Okwui Okpokwasili, Skeleton Architecture, Dancenoise and others. Bouey, a former member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, also makes their own deeply personal work, often investigating trauma and Blackness.

Though The Dance Union continues to grow as an organization—they were recently able to hire three team members, are converting the pandemic relief fund so that it can address the dance community’s needs on a rolling basis, and have a multimedia project in the pipeline—Greene and Bouey’s long-term goal is actually to leave it, so it can live beyond them. —Lauren Wingenroth

Yesenia Ayala

Yesenia Ayala, a Latina woman dressed in a flowing red jumpsuit, balances in a forced arch parallel attitude front, hands at her hips as she twists toward her working leg, dark hair flying behind her.

Quinn Wharton

Yesenia Ayala‘s Anita was the beating heart of last year’s Broadway revival of West Side Story: a woman so thoroughly alive that dance is the only way she can adequately express herself, thrumming currents of emotion running just beneath her skin. Offstage, Ayala is less volatile, but equally impassioned. Ask her what West Side means to her, and she’s quickly moved to tears. “The movie version was the first time I saw a Latina woman dancing classically,” says Ayala, who was born in the U.S. to Colombian parents. “It’s the only art I saw myself in for the longest time.”

Many audiences have now seen Ayala in West Side. In addition to the Broadway revival, she danced in a production while at East Carolina University, and appeared in two touring companies. She plays a Shark girl in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie remake, her film debut, and wishes she “could live inside the joy of that project forever.” But she’s fundamentally a stage dancer, and hopes to return to Anita on Broadway as soon as the public health situation permits. “Down the road, I’d love to direct musicals, particularly shows that highlight dance,” she says. “There aren’t enough productions where dance is the center, where dancers can be leads. And dancers are such beautiful creatures that we shouldn’t relegate them to the background.” —Margaret Fuhrer

Nia-Amina Minor

Nia-Amina Minor, a Black woman, closes her eyes as she arches back and tips her face toward the sun, angular arms framing her face against the blue sky.

Devin Marie Muñoz/Muñoz Motions, Courtesy Minor

Fearlessly expressive, Nia-Amina Minor presents Donald Byrd’s unflinching interrogations of oppression and redemption like few can. Byrd describes her dancing as “technique, instinct, intellect, combined to produce what for me verges on perfection.” Whether in soulful ensembles or breathtaking duets, Minor sets the rhythm of the entire piece.

Minor, who holds an MFA from University of California, Irvine, believes dance is a medium for collective action. This collaborative vision drives her work as co-founder and curator of Los Angeles’ No)one. Art House, a multidisciplinary collective created under the guiding philosophy “Not the Efforts of One,” with which she also performs. She joined Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater four years ago—a natural home for her astounding physicality and emotional presence. As the company’s community-engagement artist liaison, she’s committed to bringing performance beyond the stage and into the public—a drive that resonates in all her work. —Gigi Berardi

Maria Coelho

Maria Coelho, a Latina woman, balances in retiru00e9 at the barre with other dancers, wearing black socks, sweatpants, a long-sleeved shirt and a puffy vest.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Making an instant impression is Maria Coelho‘s superpower. The 22-year-old’s stage presence is awash with charisma, which she pairs with an exceptional attack-driven technique. “Every choreographer that comes in immediately notices her,” says Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini. “She has a very particular physicality, powerful and commanding. Every time there is one of those strong female roles in our repertory, she is considered for it.” Case in point: As a first-year corps member, Coelho was chosen by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to dance the lead role of Rosalia in the second cast of Vendetta, A Mafia Story. (Performances were subsequently postponed due to the coronavirus.)

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Coelho studied dance at Balletarrj Escola de Dança and American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School before joining Tulsa Ballet II in 2016. She was offered a place in the main company as an apprentice in 2019, and was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2020. “She has been chosen by dance rather than her choosing to dance,” Angelini says. Of the strong female roles Coelho has yet to perform, she says Kitri from Don Quixote is at the top of her wish list. No doubt she is destined to get there soon. —Steve Sucato

Header photo credits, left to right, top to bottom: Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Boston Dance Theater; Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre; David DeSilva, Courtesy Axis Dance Company; Kevin Calixte, Courtesy Désir; Yonathan Kellerman, Courtesy POB; Ian Teraoka, Courtesy Project Home; Beatrix Molnar, Courtesy Comitre; Vanessa Fortin, Courtesy Margolick; Heather Thorne, Courtesy Nashville Ballet; Quinn Wharton; Erin Baiano, Courtesy Flores; Jayme Thornton; Courtesy Tulsa Ballet; Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR; Amanda Gentile, Courtesy Sandoval; Rachel Neville, Courtesy Bhargava; James Jin, Courtesy Diaz; Tina Ruisinger/Rolex, Courtesy Touré; Natalie Tsui, with creative consultation by Marco Farroni, Courtesy J. Bouey; Daphne Jaramillo, Courtesy Davis; Ta Nycia Wooden, Courtesy Raianna Brown; Bogliasco Foundation, Courtesy Greene; Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB; Florian Thévenard, Courtesy Doherty; Devin Marie Muñoz/Muñoz Motions, Courtesy Minor; Saadat Maksat, Courtesy Yang