Alexander Shiriaev: The Hidden Genius of Ballet and Film
Have you ever heard of Alexander Shiriaev? I hadn’t either, until Dance on Camera showed a film about him called A Belated Premiere a couple years ago. Last week, Barnard College showed them again as part of its "Celebrating the Ballets Russes" series at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.
The man’s work in dance animation and preservation is astounding. And it all happened between 1906 and 1908, at the dawn of filmmaking, at the dawn of dance notation, and well, at the dawn of the 20th century.
Shiriaev invented a way to preserve choreography that has to be the most labor-intensive ever. Along the way, he happened to invent film animation too. He was Petipa’s choreographic assistant and the second ballet master at the Maryinsky Theatre. But he was denied access to the dancers for his memory/preservation project. So he made 8-inch-high puppets out of paper-maché and wires and put them in positions to replicate the choreography. He wore the floorboards down going back and forth setting up the puppets, taking the shot, and setting up another position, more than 7,000 times for a single ballet.
The results are totally absorbing. As the narrator says of this documentary says, his work “erased the border between the living and the lifeless.” In an animated skit called something like “Pierrots as Artists,” two identical clown figures draw a house on the backdrop while carrying on various antics. Suddenly the door of the house opens and a lovely girl puppet comes out. And this was wayyyyy before Harold and the Purple Crayon! (Click here.)
Some of the footage has real dancers. In one sketch, again with a Pierrot figure, a dancer alternates with a dummy, turns into a sack of laundry, or is taken apart and put into a suitcase, then the live dancer-clown battles his way out of the suitcase (click here). I learned that Shiriaev was one of Fokine’s teachers, and it’s plausible that, with films like these, he influenced Fokine's character of Petrouchka.
Shiriaev was both a classic and a character dancer; he had an amazing memory for movement and started teaching when he was 24. Even before the puppets, he made drawings on strips that could be played on home cinema projectors (though it’s not clear if they ever were). He staged his own lead part in the “buffoon” dance, or hoop dance, in the original Nutcracker in 1892, and preserved the choreography later through these drawings. This documentary film, made by filmmaker Viktor Bocharov in 1995, sets it to music, and voilà, there is the Candy Cane dance we see in Balanchine’s Nutcracker! As Lynn Garafola, the esteemed dance historian who is on Barnard’s faculty, said (with excitement in her voice), here is a tangible link to dance of 100 years ago (click here to see it).
As we look back 100 years to Diaghilev, let’s not forget artists who were forerunners of Diaghilev. Shiriaev not only invented a form of dance notation and preservation—and a form of film animation—but he was also an artist who created pieces that are fascinating to see today.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Fox produced a live broadcast of Rent in January—but could an original musical be next? Photo by Kevin Estrada, Courtesy Fox
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
When you're a foreigndancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.