25 to Watch
Leriche in Kyle Abraham’s Counterpoint. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
Both delicate and strong, Emilie Leriche can move with the softness of a cool puff of air or strike a pose worthy of the mythic huntress Diana. She crystallizes moments in time with the magic of a born performer. And she’s whip-smart—as clear and mindful in her dancing as she is in conversation. At 22 years old and in her second season with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, she’s already originated major roles in four works, including Robyn Mineko Williams’ Grey Horses and Fluence. Last summer, she gave the opening solo in the premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Counterpoint the serenity and focus of a much more experienced dancer. —Laura Molzahn
Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Constant reinvention is one of Andrew Bartee’s hallmarks. The 2007 Princess Grace awardee danced first for Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he was known as somewhat of a rarity, thriving in contemporary work. That gift has taken him to Ballet BC, where he became a company member this fall. The new recruit will have a chance to impress Vancouver audiences with his precise moves and Gumby extensions, as he is featured in virtually every piece Ballet BC is presenting this year. His limitless curiosity also pushes him as a choreographer for Seattle-based Whim W’Him, Kate Wallich’s The YC and PNB. With exactness of technique and a delightful sense of humor, Bartee is a refreshing artist in the sometimes heavy world of contemporary dance. —Gigi Berardi
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Usually fans fall in love with a dancer’s onstage persona first—and then later, perhaps after a little investigative work online, his offstage personality. But most of us were initially charmed by New York City Ballet’s Silas Farley after encountering him in the AOL On web series “city.ballet.” Season 1 documented Farley’s transition from apprentice to full corps member, and his easy, eloquent musings on the pressures of that momentous career juncture made it apparent that the 20-year-old has a remarkably insightful—and delightful—mind. “Everything up until now has been prologue,” he told the camera crew the evening before his first day as a corps dancer. “Tomorrow we open to page one, chapter one!”
But Farley is delightful onstage, too. At 6' 4", he has a naturally regal presence, which he has already used to his advantage in two soloist roles: Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Those character-driven parts benefited as much from his inquisitive, imaginative mind as they did from the elegant openness of his carriage. —Margaret Fuhrer
Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Keigwin + Company.
It’s tempting to classify Keigwin + Company dancer Jaclyn Walsh as a powerhouse, but that would be selling her short. Though it’s true she’s compact and athletic, a natural jumper and turner (Walsh swears she was a male dancer in another life), she’s just as seamless in the creamier, sultrier stuff of choreographer Larry Keigwin’s pop-culture–rich rep. Whether she’s prowling in the primal Natural Selection, striding confidently in the pulsing, site-specific Sidewalk or gliding through glitzy curtains in Girls, Walsh brings unmatched clarity and seemingly boundless attack to it all—and suddenly you find yourself having a hard time watching anyone else. —Rachel Rizzuto
Photo by William Cameron, Courtesy Cameron.
Minneapolis dancer Alyssa Mann bridges many eras and forms. In Carl Flink’s company Black Label Movement, she takes us back to the grounded virtues and classicism of Doris Humphrey and José Limón and forward to the raw physicality and emotional voltage of contemporary dance today. But there’s a whole other side to this dancer. With hyper-crisp clarity, Mann rocks the rhythms, heat and fluid dynamics of Afro-Cuban soul in Osnel Delgado’s new work for Zenon Dance Company. She embodies a rare combination of technical refinement, fierce athleticism and postmodern cool. —Linda Shapiro
Wallich in her work Super Eagle. Photo Courtesy Kate Wallich.
Where other choreographers might hesitate, wondering if they’re about to alienate their audience, Kate Wallich unapologetically pushes forward. Watching this 25-year-old’s work can be challenging—it takes time to reach its emotional peak. The payoff, however, is seeing Wallich’s sly self-awareness; she has a knack for building tension.
For all its dark glamour, Wallich’s work is not without a measure of underdog angst. In One Plus, a woman pauses to remove her sweatshirt and toss it offstage. Later, a dancer is lifted overhead by four others, only to be dropped to the floor. Members of her Seattle-based company The YC both embrace and abandon technique, resulting in a rawness reminiscent of Batsheva. Wallich is not afraid to ask her dancers to shed the excess. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
Dolven (right) with De Keersmaeker in Fase. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Lincoln Center.
Dancing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s relentlessly repetitive Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich takes a mathematical mind, a clear understanding of movement and an unwavering, but not over-pronounced, stage presence. To dance the masterpiece alongside the iconic choreographer herself takes sheer guts. Last season, when Tale Dolven joined in the hour-long duet with De Keersmaeker—which Rosas has toured for the last three years—her movements were sharp, yet mysteriously cloudy. The energy between the two women gelled like old pals proudly revisiting a work they made together long ago.
That, of course, is impossible. De Keersmaeker created Fase in 1982, when Dolven was just an infant. Old vs. young, choreographer vs. dancer, it didn’t matter. Dolven translated De Keersmaeker’s movement with cool ease. —Kristin Schwab
Fentroy (center) in Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy DTH.
To get its renewed vision on solid footing, Dance Theatre of Harlem needs ballerinas like Chyrstyn Fentroy. Her chameleon-like adaptability and technical prowess is a perfect match for the company’s diverse repertoire. Last season, Fentroy understood the emotional heart of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, which is reverent, spare and unfussy, with an echo of funk. It is also chock-full of intricate pointework that Fentroy danced with restrained finesse. She showed off her acting chops in Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis’ past-carry-forward, and her charismatic stage presence came through in Robert Garland’s Return: She was all sass and dazzle, owning James Brown’s tunes with her sly style. —Nancy Wozny
Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.
When Shiori Kase stepped onstage at the USA International Ballet Competition last June, there wasn’t any doubt that she would win gold. Though she is a technically crisp dancer, it was her attention to style, character and detail that set her apart—her performances were beautifully complete and worlds away from the flash so common at ballet competitions. As Sugar Plum, she was as delicate as icing and as Medora from Le Corsaire she exuded natural confidence, combined with sublime technical security.
The Royal Ballet–trained Kase, 23, joined the English National Ballet in 2009 and has enjoyed a steady rise since, winning ENB’s Emerging Dancer Award, which recognizes up-and-coming talent within the company. Her success at USA IBC put more wind in her sails: She was quickly promoted to first soloist in July and danced Swanilda—her first principal role outside of The Nutcracker—soon afterwards. —Amy Brandt
Photo by William Cameron, Courtesy Zenon Dance Company.
Choreographer Osnel Delgado may have named his fledgling Cuban modern dance company Malpaso—”misstep” in Spanish. But one of the most striking things about this 29-year-old is how confident he seems in his independent path. Though steeped in the island’s distinctive style of modern dance, a blend of Graham and Afro-Cuban techniques, Delgado has incorporated influences from international choreographers like Mats Ek and Itzik Galili.
Afro-Cuban dance’s vitality, fluidity and musicality are innate to Delgado. But he channels them through contemporary energy and form. In his 24 Hours and a Dog, the dancers romp through an imaginary urban landscape, vaulting off Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban jazz score with exuberant movement. U.S. audiences will get a glimpse when Malpaso appears at The Joyce this spring before heading to Jacob’s Pillow. —Jordan Levin
Photo by Tania Lopez, Courtesy Peugh.
Joshua L. Peugh
If Wes Anderson were a choreographer, his dances might look like those of Dallas-based Joshua L. Peugh. Whimsical with a touch of melancholy, Peugh’s work occupies a colorful middle space that’s equal parts kooky and tender. His music choices are all over the map, from Hall & Oates to klezmer music to moody French film scores from the 1960s. In addition to directing his Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, he’s setting work all over, most recently for BalletX and BODYTRAFFIC.
Partnering is one of his brightest choreographic assets—incredibly awkward yet disarmingly charming, and full of surprise. In Marshmallow, the stuffing of square sugar pillows into a dancer’s mouth becomes the beginning of a relationship. With a fling of a limb or curl of a spine, the dancers seem to pose questions to each other, letting us eagerly wait for the answer. Peugh gets that people are complicated, that they might laugh and cry in the same sentence; sometimes it’s even hard to tell if his couples are breaking up or making up. —Nancy Wozny
Visceral Dance Chicago in Sidra Bell’s landings, chasms. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Visceral Dance Chicago.
Visceral Dance Chicago
If a new contemporary company in Chicago makes its debut on the same stage that Hubbard Street Dance Chicago calls home, it better be exceptional. Visceral Dance showed us it had the goods in its season at the Harris Theater in April. Artistic director Nick Pupillo presented a highly polished group of supremely confident and dramatically impressive dancers. Their technique heightened the impact of the troupe’s sophisticated, poetic and rhythmically ferocious contemporary choreography. Pupillo contributed two pieces alongside dances by Robyn Mineko Williams, Monica Cervantes and Sidra Bell. For the 2014–15 season, the company has snagged the rights to a duet from Ohad Naharin’s Mabul. —Hedy Weiss
Turazashvili in Coppélia. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
The “vili” is a giveaway: Bolshoi Ballet corps member Ana Turazashvili hails from Georgia. But that’s not the only reason to compare her to Nina Ananiashvili. Similarly coltish, with expressive, tapering limbs, Turazashvili also shares the great ballerina’s radiating warmth onstage. She moves with a beyond-the-fingertips expansiveness that penetrates the far corners of the theater, every gesture generously oversized. It’s not over-the-top Bolshoi bluster, though: There is subtlety and sensitivity in her dancing, too. Though Turazashvili earned noisy ovations for her fresh, energetic performance of one of Don Quixote’s Grand Pas variations during the company’s visit to New York City last summer, her Spanish courtier wasn’t all spitfire and spit curls. She also took care to show the character’s aristocratic side, through genteelly refined port de bras and perfectly placed pirouettes. —Margaret Fuhrer
Campbell in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.
Ballet latecomer Skylar Campbell was almost 15 when he started dancing. But he plunged in to make up for lost time. Now 23, Campbell is a second soloist with National Ballet of Canada and has already danced a range of leading roles. He brings touching innocence to Alain in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, avian lightness to Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and unsettling emotional fragility to the title role in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Incandescent onstage, Campbell’s laid-back demeanor disguises a burning desire to succeed—and a work ethic that’s enabled him to accomplish it. —Michael Crabb
Photo by Sébastien Mathé, Courtesy POB.
At 21 years old, François Alu has rocketed up the ranks of the Paris Opéra Ballet to become its youngest premier danseur, one step shy of étoile. His explosive technique, both clean and airy, and endearing charm in Don Quixote or as Bluebird have earned him the status of audience darling. Fans have nicknamed him Alu-cinant, a pun on hallucinant, which means “incredible” in French.
There is more to Alu than pyrotechnics, however. Standing 5' 11", with a compact body type by Parisian standards, he has been keen to avoid stereotypes and expand his artistic range, dancing Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris and new choreography with 3e étage, a contemporary touring group of POB soloists. New director Benjamin Millepied was quick to notice his raw potential. Last spring, he created a dazzlingly difficult role for him in Daphnis and Chloe. Millepied may have found his first star. —Laura Cappelle
Williams in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
With a musical ear, quick study skills and a smart sense of style, Stephanie Williams is a choreographer’s dancer. Since joining American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet in 2012, she has sailed smoothly through every opportunity given to her. Most recently, Liam Scarlett cast her in his world premiere alongside some of the company’s top principals. In soloist roles such as Zulma in Giselle or the Fairy of Charity in The Sleeping Beauty, she combines refreshingly classical femininity with streamlined drive and technique. Blessed with a natural lyricism, Williams gave a deliciously creamy reading of Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes during the company’s spring season last year. Her hunger for movement transcends each element of ABT’s varied repertoire. —Joseph Carman
Paulos in Adam Barruch’s Alchemies. Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy Ailey.
Of the many terrific dancers in Ailey II, only a small fraction graduate to the senior ranks of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was no surprise when Danica Paulos was among the chosen few last spring. During Ailey II’s New York City season, Paulos caught the eye with her rare blend of attack and willowy elegance. In Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s Cuore Sott’olio, she instilled big, bold, fast phrases with a fine, silken quality, matching athleticism and extroversion—the kind that Ailey prizes—with a fluent ease less common among the troupe’s dancers.
All of that, grounded in limpid technique and aided by effortless extensions, should serve her well as a full-fledged company member, especially as the Ailey repertoire grows increasingly diverse under Robert Battle. It’s easy to picture her in something as electric as Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 or as delicate as Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux, both in Ailey’s current season. —Siobhan Burke
Photo by Richard Calmes, Courtesy Indya Childs.
If you’re seeking an artist who embodies Atlanta’s growing dance scene, look to Indya Childs. The supple and kinetic 23-year-old is the product of a culturally diverse city with longstanding dance traditions and a recent wave of contemporary influences. She seeks growth through varied repertoire, adapting to the physical and emotional demands of each choreographer’s style. As a member of Ballethnic Dance Company, Childs sails across the stage with pure, neoclassical lines, then slices through space, capoeira-style, with sheer joy and athletic prowess. In T. Lang Dance’s Post Up, a compelling work on grief and family separation, she begins alone onstage, her spine gently rippling, sensing the breath, rhythm and texture of a jazz singer’s voice. Impulses rise rhythmically through her chest as she hinges to the floor—vulnerable, with deep strength. Whether the work is abstract or narrative, subtle or explosive, every move pulses with a sense of purpose that’s unquestionably her own. —Cynthia Bond Perry
Praetorius in Lady of the Camellias. Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.
She may have quicksilver petit allégro and charming Bournonville presence, but Ida Praetorius is not your typical dainty Royal Danish Ballet dancer. There’s a feral quality in her you’d never expect to come out of a doll-like package. In contemporary rep, like Alessandro Sousa Pereria’s Traditional, she can grow so wild that her pristine blond hair whips into a tangled mess across her face. Even as an apprentice, her fearless immersion into Flemming Flindt’s macabre The Lesson was so total it was almost uncomfortable to watch.
These abilities have won her a string of awards, most notably the Erik Bruhn Prize for best female dancer in 2012. Few were surprised when Praetorius was named soloist this season. Just 21, she’s already taken on lead roles in La Bayadère and Romeo and Juliet, and this fall danced Marguerite in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. With her star rising beyond Copenhagen, at festivals from Houston to Hamburg, she might arguably be one of artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe’s greatest legacies of his tenure so far. —Jennifer Stahl
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Ryan P. Casey
First, you notice his height. At 6' 8", Boston tapper Ryan P. Casey towers over his partners. But as soon as his feet start moving, you forget about his frame and focus on his shocking talent. Tap lovers ogle at his freakishly clean footwork, with shaded in-the-pocket rhythms reminiscent of Fred Astaire.
Casey is a gifted choreographer, too. His work reaches beyond traditional notions of what tap should be. In Me & My Shadow, he dances a clever duet with a larger-than-life film projection of himself. Occasionally, he recites poetry as he taps. And his character-driven narratives prove that tap can be funny—something he says he learned while dancing for Michelle Dorrance. “With tap, people have very specific images in their heads,” he says. “They see Fred Astaire or Savion Glover. Anything you can do to subvert those impressions, that’s a success.” —Ashley Rivers
In rehearsal with Hubbard Street. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
Robyn Mineko Williams
There is a sophistication about Robyn Mineko Williams’ works that many choreographers never quite attain. Her inventive movement phrases, compositional clarity and heartfelt emotion are informed by captivating simplicity—she lets the quiet spaces between movements color the work. It’s especially evident in her cinematic One Take for Grand Rapids Ballet. In one section, beautifully fragile images backed by the haunting melody of Debussy’s Clair de Lune reveal a mature choreographic mind that sees grace on a par with physicality.
Since her first major work in 2010, Williams has choreographed for Visceral Dance Chicago, The Nexus Project and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, where she was a dancer for 12 seasons. Most recently, she was involved in the company’s comedic dance theater collaboration with improv troupe The Second City. With her stock on the rise, Williams will create a new work in May with a group of freelance dancers at Baryshnikov Arts Center through her 2014 Princess Grace Works in Progress Residency Award. —Steve Sucato
Singer in Joanna Kotze’s it happened it had happened it is happening it will happen. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Kotze.
After a notable tenure with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Stuart Singer has suddenly become one of the hottest freelance properties around. His technical and expressive skills have continued to grow him into one of the most versatile and distinctive dancers in today’s form-expanding, progressive downtown dance scene. This past season alone, his shape-shifting expressivity lent forceful grace to Einstein on the Beach, as well as works by postmodern boundary pushers Joanna Kotze and Beth Gill, and his role in John Jasperse’s Within between earned him a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance. Singer renders surprisingly delicate physical detail and commands space with grounded fleetness—all with linear clarity worthy of a Cunningham or Balanchine star. —Gus Solomons jr
With Alysha Umphress in a scene from On the Town. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy On the Town.
Jay Armstrong Johnson
As On the Town’s Jay Armstrong Johnson slides down his ship’s offloading ramp, it’s impossible not to be swept up in his exhilarating stage presence. Johnson’s Chip is hilariously endearing and boyishly sincere: His kicks lift a bit higher than his mates’, his turns wind tighter, his arms fly wider. Whether performing slapstick-styled rolls and headstands in “Come Up to My Place” or twitching hip swivels during “I Can Cook Too,” the Texas native wrangles his immense skill with nuance and specificity. Johnson’s previous Broadway stints include Hair, Catch Me If You Can and Hands on a Hardbody. But On the Town is the first role that fully uses all of his chops, from comedian to star dancer. —Lauren Kay
Agami leads a rehearsal with Ate9. Photo Courtesy Ate9.
Israeli-born Danielle Agami is one of the hottest cultural commodities in L.A.’s thriving dance scene. A former member of Batsheva Dance Company, the 30-year-old has garnered raves for her Ate9 Dance Company. Her Gaga-inspired choreography is punctuated by breathtaking physicality, sly humor and a hip theatricality, her own dancing mesmerizing. She mixes deft unison with full-throttle lunges and off-center balances. Audiences relate to her quirky moves and music, a mash-up of original scores with fare such as Radiohead and Nina Simone. She’s worked with local troupes, including L.A. Dance Project, and has already garnered international exposure for her own two-year-old company. Ate9 traveled to Moscow in November for Diana Vishneva’s Context Festival, and the company tours to New York, Texas and Oregon this winter.
In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Houston Ballet’s Madeline Skelly seemed to catapult out of nowhere during her standout first year in the corps. Her riveting performance of William Forsythe’s relentless In the middle, somewhat elevated last season left the audience in a “who’s that girl” gasp. All legs, but not remotely gangly, she also held her own partnering with principal Connor Walsh. Skelly uses her length well, balancing tension and release in a dynamic equation. Judging from her recent performances, she has the technique and stage polish to become one of the company’s stars. —Nancy Wozny
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
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It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.
"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"
She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.
When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.
She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."
But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.