25 to Watch: The Breakout Stars of 2016

December 31, 2015

Jovani Furlan

Soloist, Miami City Ballet

As a bold Tony for Maria, a tender Romeo for Juliet or a troubled Don José for Carmen, Jovani Furlan brings frank passion to his partnering. Even in works without plot, this recently promoted Miami City Ballet soloist can amplify character to marvelous effect—with a probing humanity, for instance, in the part originally choreographed for Paul Taylor in Balanchine’s Episodes. His technical prowess, honed at MCB School following training in his native Brazil, heightens leaps and steadies turns, and his natural musicality adds fluency to both solos and the ensemble. Whether spirited or grave, Furlan is an ardent explorer of moods, and his enthusiasm lets us share the pleasure of every nuance he discovers. —Guillermo Perez

Cora Cliburn

Dancer, Post:Ballet

In her debut season with contemporary ballet troupe Post:Ballet, Cora Cliburn has shown maturity beyond her 19 years. She has the pin-prick precision and delicate touch you might expect from her sprightly build, but also a daringness that makes her shine in choreographer Robert Dekkers’ off-kilter movement and origami partnering: She crashed an athletic, sexually charged, all-male trio with gusto in his Yours is Mine, and met the intensity of veteran performer Ricardo Zayas in Reason does not know.

After performing in Post:Ballet’s home season in San Francisco and at Jacob’s Pillow this summer, Cliburn joined the freshman class at Stanford University, where she’s studying math. She is hardly done with dance, however, and will continue performing with Post:Ballet throughout the year, while doing her best to embrace uncertainty about the future. “I like to know where every limb, every muscle is,” she says. “I’m trying to come to terms with not knowing what’s going to happen.”

—Josie G. Sadan

Kaleena Miller

Tap entrepreneur

When she first appeared in the Twin Cities dance scene, Kaleena Miller was often the sole female presence in a testosterone tsunami of male dancers. As the young men around her exploded into rambunctious, raucous tap routines that set audiences screaming, Miller always maintained her cool, engaging crowds with sly wit, flowing limbs and mesmerizing footwork. Relaxed, with easy, impeccable technique, we know now that she was biding her time. Today, Miller is redefining how we consume tap. She’s created The Cutting Board, an open-mic-style tap dance and live music show at a Minneapolis bar; co-founded Rhythmic Circus, a wildly popular troupe that appeared on “America’s Got Talent”; choreographed for her Kaleena Miller Dance, which has been commissioned by the Walker Art Center; and co-founded the Twin Cities Tap Festival, which had its inaugural event this past fall. Miller has become a one-woman show—whether or not she’s wearing her signature red tap shoes. —Camille LeFevre

Francesco Gabriele Frola

First soloist, National Ballet of Canada

Few were surprised when Francesco Gabriele Frola vaulted out of the corps de ballet to become a first soloist with the National Ballet of Canada this season. The 23-year-old has been on an upward climb: In 2010, he took the bronze medal at the International Ballet Competition in Cuba, and in 2012, the silver at Helsinki. In 2014, he received the Patron Award of Merit from NBoC.

Since then, Frola has continued to scale new heights. An understudy for the role of Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty last season, he commanded the spotlight when injuries left artistic director Karen Kain no choice but to cast an untried corps dancer in the role. With his eloquent port de bras, expressive musicality and smoldering sex appeal, Frola amply demonstrated that he was more than ready for the challenge, earning a standing ovation. —Deirdre Kelly

Miriam Miller

Apprentice, New York City Ballet

Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream demands a luxuriously leggy Titania. New York City Ballet has an impressive stable of them these days, including, as of the final day of the company’s spring 2015 season, the previously anonymous apprentice Miriam Miller.

Well, not quite anonymous: At 5′ 9″, she has the requisite legs in spades, making her eye-catching in even the most faceless corps roles. But as Titania, Miller displayed the easy authority of a marquee-name star. A natural actress with beautifully expansive technique, she gave us every side of Titania: the gracious monarch, the strong-willed wife, the sweetly daffy spell victim. Though she had a few wobbles—it takes a lot of strength to control those limbs—nothing appeared to shake her. Indeed, Miller seems blessed with the very Titania-like ability to laugh off her own foibles, secure in the fact that the stage is her kingdom, and she its queen. —Margaret Fuhrer

Renata Shakirova

Corps member, Mariinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky Ballet likes to push ballerinas young, but Renata Shakirova is setting new records. The sprightly brunette started dancing soloist roles with the company while still a Vaganova Ballet Academy student. By the time she graduated last summer, her buoyant jump and precocious technical polish had earned her debuts as Princess Florine, the lead in Balanchine’s “Rubies” and in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH.

Now officially in the corps de ballet, director Yuri Fateyev is grooming the 20-year-old for stardom: She made her debut as Kitri in Don Quixote, her dream role, in October, and will dance Juliet in February. This past fall, she was also featured in the Russian TV competition “Bolshoi Ballet” alongside Kimin Kim, the Mariinsky’s young Korean star. There is a captivating sense of wonder and joy about her as she claims her place in the Mariinsky repertoire, and the world stage might very well be next. —Laura Cappelle

Sterling Baca

Corps member, American Ballet Theatre

Brought up in Larkspur, Colorado, Sterling Baca still has about him a whiff of the West: an expansiveness and self-confidence that feels both unfettered and relaxed. Perhaps that’s why, when he had his debut in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free as the Second Sailor—the one who gets to dance with the girl—it felt so right. His pas de deux with Gillian Murphy packed some heat. “I connected to the role,” he says. “I kind of am that character,” new to the city, full of romantic possibility. Baca is in his fourth year in the corps at American Ballet Theatre, but last season was a bit of a whirlwind. Besides Fancy Free, he also had a turn as the seductive purple-booted von Rothbart in Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake, a variation in which, as he says, “you get to showcase pretty much everything a male dancer does.” And this past fall, he was paired up with both Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston in Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations, and with Murphy, again, in Mark Morris’ new After You. —Marina Harss

Katarzyna Skarpetowska

Contemporary choreographer

A former Lar Lubovitch dancer, Katarzyna Skarpetowska credits him as an influence for her organic, seamless movement. But her dances have a distinct voice, effortlessly treading the line between classical and contemporary technique. Each emerges from a dramatic or emotional idea to evoke “a very particular world,” she says, whether of tension and strife or cosmic harmony. For example, Polaris, inspired by an image from the Hubble Space Telescope, etches the cosmos across the stage—dancers surge along the floor through glittering pinpoints of light, or spin together in place in a way you never want to end. Though she had her first commission in 2002, Skarpetowska’s career now seems poised for flight, with increasing commissions from the likes of Parsons Dance and Richmond Ballet.

—Lea Marshall

Alex Sanchez

Musical theater choreographer

Though as a performer he’s a Broadway vet, Alex Sanchez has yet to choreograph on the Great White Way. But he has proven his mastery of the form across the country, off-Broadway and at some of the most prestigious regional theaters. Last spring, it was a dynamic production of Guys and Dolls at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, showing all the tools in his arsenal: lyrical partnering, kick-line routines, comic interludes. But he topped himself with “The Crapshooters’ Dance,” digging deep into his bag of ballet tricks and sending the scene’s rambunctious gamblers diving to the floor, spinning across the set, jumping toward the flies. He knows how to move large groups of dancers, and how to make small groups look large. And his own career is likely to be looking large soon. —Sylviane Gold

Jim Nowakowski

Dancer, “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 12 tour

Jim Nowakowski has the kind of backstory that’s catnip for “So You Think You Can Dance” producers. Born in South Korea and adopted by an American family at six months old, he underwent multiple surgeries to correct a cleft lip and palate, which made him a target for schoolyard bullies.

But that narrative, moving as it is, faded to the background over the course of Nowakowski’s run on Season 12. It was overshadowed by the pure thrill of his dancing: high-octane, astonishingly controlled, girded by the rock-solid technique he honed during his eight years with Houston Ballet. Nowakowski’s remarkable versatility—he looked nearly as impressive in hip-hop routines as he did in ballet—earned him comparisons to fellow ballet-pro-turned-“SYT”-star Alex Wong. And his elimination just before the finale episode provoked a storm of social media outrage from #TeamJim.

Currently on tour with “SYTYCD,” Nowakowski faces a future full of diverse options: A commercial dance career? A convention gig? A triumphant return to ballet? Whatever he chooses, he can rely on the continued adoration of his devoted “SYT” and classical fans alike.

—Margaret Fuhrer

Shahar Dori

Corps member, Houston Ballet

Shahar Dori, Houston Ballet’s first Israeli dancer, journeyed far from home to make his dream come true. First a hip-hop dancer, he got hooked on ballet after a teacher at his arts high school in Haifa, Israel, suggested he take it to improve his technique. He studied at Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company for two years before making the difficult decision to leave Israel for a summer scholarship at Montgomery Ballet in Alabama. After snagging another scholarship to Houston Ballet Academy, he joined the company in 2012.

Now 23, Dori is a standout in the corps de ballet. He has been chosen for meaty parts, cast in Mark Morris’ premiere The Letter V, and as understudy for the lead role of the groom in Jirí Kylián’s Svadebka. He’s a strong dancer with smooth technique, capable of expressing great depth and feeling onstage. And his underdog path has made him determined to succeed.

—Karen McDonough

Myles Thatcher

Ballet choreographer

As far as breakout years go, it would be hard to top Myles Thatcher’s 2015 season. In February, under the tutelage of Alexei Ratmansky via the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Thatcher premiered Manifesto, his first regular-season commission for San Francisco Ballet, where he has danced in the corps since 2010. His richly musical choreography—he has a gift for layering movement on a score’s syncopations, downbeats and underlying rhythms—proved both abstract and infused with feeling. By the end of the year, Thatcher completed commissions for Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet. Along the way he developed a method for handling the pressure: “First you freak out, then you celebrate. And then you freak out again,” he says with a laugh. That humility is apparent as Thatcher, now 25, continues to hone his talent on world-class stages: “Every day,” he muses, “I can’t believe this is happening.” —Claudia Bauer

Jenelle Figgins

Dancer, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

One look at Jenelle Figgins in motion and you feel as though you’re watching your old friend. Her interpretations, technically and artistically, are refreshingly clean and clear; onstage, she feels sincerely human. But that’s not to say she dances without glamour, spirit or smolder. At Dance Theatre of Harlem, she proved she could take on the classical and the contemporary. This season, Figgins joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, where choreographers like Kylián, Fonte and Elo are king. Audiences will find themselves falling in love with Figgins, and that royal court of choreographers, all over again, when they see her honest approach. —Kristin Schwab

Caitlin Cucchiara

Dancer, Visceral Dance Chicago

Even when Visceral Dance Chicago’s Caitlin Cucchiara is part of a large group piece, your eyes gravitate to her. A petite, perfectly proportioned dancer, Cucchiara’s seamless lyricism, clarity and emotional intensity give her an unusually magnetic stage presence. Watch her finesse the most complex partnering, and you have the sense that her partner can almost sit back and relax, knowing she is totally in control.

Cucchiara was formerly a member of Thodos Dance Chicago, where she was a standout in A Light in the Dark, portraying the young Helen Keller in the one-act story ballet choreographed by Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos. “I knew from the moment I saw Caitlin that she would be the start of what I wanted in my company,” says Visceral artistic director Nick Pupillo. “There’s just something about the way she feels and interprets things, the ways she draws the audience in.”

—Hedy Weiss

Jacquelin Harris

Dancer, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

A marvel of power and poise, Jacquelin Harris is one of the brightest lights at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Repertory doesn’t lie, and Harris is a natural, having graced the stage in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux, Ailey’s Pas de Duke and Matthew Rushing’s ODETTA. Of course, she’s conquered Ailey’s Revelations too, as one of the leads in the iconic “Wade in the Water” section.

And to think: This Charlotte native only just joined the company in 2014. At 23, she has plenty of time to grow in dimension, but one key to her allure is her earthy serenity. Does her love of math—she has a dance degree from Fordham University and The Ailey School, but is a mere three courses away from completing her math minor—have anything to do with her musicality? Perhaps. She eats up space with zest, but best of all is her simple grandeur: She reveals intimacy and liveliness without a drop of sentiment. —Gia Kourlas


Footwork dancer

Jamal Oliver, aka Litebulb, makes footworking look easy, despite its demands for blistering speed and superhuman precision. A descendant of Chicago house dance, footwork resembles tap, hip hop and skating on air; the lower limbs are a blur. Litebulb’s approach is squeaky clean as he propels flexed feet in and out, jumps into semblances of third and fourth position and flings his legs to the side. His arms and hands have expressiveness uncommon in street dance, and his torso can be uncannily still, or fluid and eloquent.

Litebulb first learned about footworking from watching locals in his neighborhood, but by high school, he had the opportunity to learn from some of the masters and innovators of the form. These days the 25-year-old Chicagoan tours nationally and internationally with The Era, the troupe he co-founded in 2014. He hopes to take footworking in new directions this summer, with his multimedia evening-length Living at 160 (the number comes from the beats per minute of footwork music). It’s a project made possible by his recent appointment as a 2015 Lab Artist by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum. —Laura Molzahn

Caitlin Trainor

Modern choreographer

Small but robust, Trainor Dance premiered at seemingly every dance hot spot in the Northeast last year, from Jacob’s Pillow to The Yard. With the fearless choreographer Caitlin Trainor at the helm, and a diverse collection of high-profile freelancers like Kaitlyn Gilliland at her side, the company offers a refreshing blend of highly formal but intensely human repertoire. Trainor’s movement resists classical patterns—a result of her late introduction to modern dance—but maintains clear lines and shapes. No two dancers in her company execute her movement the same. “I like to see unexpected pairings,” she says, “such as a petite woman lifting a muscular man, or very fast, light movement to a slow melody.” Odds are Trainor will continue to move in unexpected directions.

—Lauren Wingenroth

Norbert De La Cruz III

Contemporary choreographer

Like a scene out of the show “The X–Files,” seven lit squares appear on a dark stage, each containing a dancer, as if caught in an alien tractor beam pulling them skyward. This opening scene from rising choreographer Norbert De La Cruz III’s Square None for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet illustrates his keen photographic eye, and talent for dreaming up the unexpected. The 27–year–old, who was born in the Philippines and raised in East Los Angeles, mixes the precision of classical ballet technique with the groundedness of modern dance to create movement that is as intriguing in detail as it is in structure. A stylistically diverse choreographer, he is at home creating sophisticated contemporary ballets for ASFB and more avant–garde works for Tulsa Ballet II and BalletX. In 2016, the New York City–-based De La Cruz says he will forgo his freelance performing career to focus on choreographing full-time. —Steve Sucato

Tamisha Guy

Dancer, Abraham.In.Motion

Tamisha Guy is a jumble of contradictions in the best possible sense: She marries ease and strength, regality and earthliness, balletic lift and sultry swagger. In Kyle Abraham’s The Gettin’, which Abraham.In.Motion toured last season (her first with the company), the former Graham dancer brought seamlessness to his whipping, twisting movement tornadoes, but never lost the importance of the punctuation, be it a narrative gesture or slicing arabesque. It can be hard for some dancers to bring clarity to Abraham’s filled-to-the-brim movement phrases. But when Guy takes the stage, you’re in for a smooth, wild ride.

—Kristin Schwab

Léonore Baulac

Première danseuse, Paris Opéra Ballet

For Benjamin Millepied, Léonore Baulac has become a symbol of the change he wants to bring to the Paris Opéra Ballet, combining French refinement with an appealing sense of freshness. Baulac unsuccessfully auditioned for the POB School as a child before joining as a paying student at age 15. She entered the corps de ballet in 2008, but went mostly unnoticed, despite bright turns as Olympia in The Lady of the Camellias and in the company premiere of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rain.

Since Millepied’s arrival in 2014, however, Baulac’s career has skyrocketed. In addition to being promoted to première danseuse (first soloist), she’s had debuts in The Nutcracker and Paquita, and was featured in the opening ceremony of the Cannes film festival in a piece created by Millepied. With her preternatural fluidity, Baulac also takes to American-style neoclassicism with ease. This fall, she was one of the stars of Millepied’s latest creation, Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward; for her, it’s full speed ahead.

—Laura Cappelle

Kiara Felder

Dancer, Atlanta Ballet

As much a solo dancer as she is a creative collaborator, Kiara Felder reflects her city’s vibe and her company’s style. Last season at Atlanta Ballet, Felder nailed the quick, precise pointework of Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, then dug wholeheartedly into Ohad Naharin’s Gaga-infused Minus 16. In Tara Lee’s the swimmer, she moved as if electricity coursed through her spine and limbs, creating fluidly sculpted curves. With bold lines, buoyant leaps and an undeniably bright stage presence, the 25-year-old is emerging on Atlanta Ballet’s forefront.

—Cynthia Bond Perry


Modern dance troupe

What sets MADBOOTS DANCE apart from other young troupes is its physical and emotional fearlessness. The work tackles male relationships with a queer sensibility that transcends sexuality. Since inaugurating their joint venture in 2011, Austin Diaz and Jonathan Campbell—with pedigrees from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and The Juilliard School, respectively—are making a unique mark on concert dance with highly original movement that pushes skill and stamina to the limit. Both Campbell and Diaz are also prodigious dancers, slithering and streaking through space with dazzling agility.

MADBOOTS DANCE’s new evening-length piece for five men, (Sad Boys), closed the season at Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Theatre in August, toured to Toronto in December and will head to Vancouver in February. BEAU., which also premiered at Jacob’s Pillow, will tour to Atlanta in March. A commission for Point Park University dancers will premiere in April, sharing the bill with A-listers Larry Keigwin and Sonya Tayeh. —Gus Solomons jr

Hiroki Ichinose

Dancer, Nuremberg Ballet

Hiroki Ichinose is a chameleon, and at 23 years old, he’s already got the resumé to prove it. Since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2013, the Maui native has worked with Kyle Abraham, Aszure Barton, and Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, recently portraying a supple, slippery knight in shining armor in Mitchell’s Light Years.

Ichinose has the kind of facility that most dancers dream of. But rather than relying on elegant lines, he uses his abilities to push past his boundaries, moving seamlessly through transitions that appear nearly impossible to even the trained eye. He captivates audiences with his uniquely subtle approach. It’s this quality that has no doubt led him to his next dance venture overseas at Nuremberg Ballet. —Ali Castro

Michelle Veintimilla

Broadway actress

It takes guts to make your Broadway debut alongside Chita Rivera. But Michelle Veintimilla did just that, and more than held her own. Less than a year after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, she captivated audiences as the shadowy, ghostlike younger self of Rivera’s character Claire in The Visit, approaching even the simplest movements with sensitivity. “If Chita moved a shoulder a certain way, I had to figure out how she might have moved her shoulder when she was 16,” she says. In the show’s most powerful moment, a haunting pas de deux between the two, Veintimilla brought out the choreography’s subtleties, evoking the music’s melancholy with every slow backbend and flip of her skirt. Called the “most affecting” pas de deux of all on Broadway last season by The New York Times, the chemistry between Rivera and Veintimilla held the audience spellbound, and Veintimilla proved herself a force to reckon with in her own right. —Suzannah Friscia

Nayara Lopes

Dancer, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Watching Nayara Lopes perform, you could be fooled into thinking the human body was made to stand on pointe. With her uncanny sense of balance (plus beautifully placed épaulement and port de bras) she makes even the trickiest pointework look natural. After launching her career in Orlando Ballet II, Lopes won an apprenticeship to National Ballet of Canada from a top 12 finish at Youth America Grand Prix in 2011. The Brazilian dancer joined Dance Theatre of Harlem two seasons ago, taking on the company’s wide-ranging repertoire with her signature ease: She radiates a sense of effortless calm onstage no matter what kind of choreography she’s tackling. The effect creates a quiet but spell-binding stage presence that pulls the audience in—and keeps them wanting more.

—Jennifer Stahl