The Top of His Game
In a large studio on the fifth floor of the David H. Koch Theater, Amar Ramasar and four women from New York City Ballet's corps are rehearsing “Phlegmatic," from Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. Ramasar goes through his solo, analyzing each step as if attempting it for the first time. Energy shoots through his fingers in an arabesque penchée. His face beams as he pops through a thicket of women's bodies, like a jack-in-the-box. When he and his four backup dancers do a sequence of développés to the side, his legs reach up as high as theirs, the line completed by a sharply pointed foot. “It hurts, Rosemary, it hurts!" he jokes to the ballet mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy, in mock agony after one of these impressive extensions, then begins again.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Afterwards, he thanks the pianist, hugs Dunleavy and high-fives his fellow dancers. Everyone agrees: Ramasar is a mensch, as quick to give encouragement or welcome a newcomer as he is to pick up choreography or find a solution to a partnering riddle. At 34 and clearly at the top of his game, he is unfailingly modest. This sunny disposition, and the adaptability that underpins it, has served him well in a profession that is at times grueling, and never easy.
His own path has certainly demanded a certain amount of grit. He started ballet relatively late—at 12—after taking part in a New York City–wide after-school musical theater program called TADA! Daniel Catanach, a teacher and choreographer then working with TADA!, noticed him right away. “He used to follow me around," says Catanach, “asking, 'When do I get a solo, when do I get a solo?'
Because he could see how much Ramasar loved to dance, Catanach showed him a video of Balanchine's Agon. Something awoke in Ramasar: “I fell in love. I thought, 'I can do this.' The four guys standing there—I could relate to it. It had almost a street vernacular, like hip hop. I had done lots of hip hop with my friends after school." Catanach, a mentor whom Ramasar refers to as his uncle, arranged for an audition at the School of American Ballet. He got in.
It turned out that ballet was a lot harder than it looked. The boys standing next to Ramasar at the barre were four or five years younger and already knew what they were doing. “I was the tallest in my class, and a little chubby," he says, “and they were all so beautiful, with the right facility and physique." He felt inadequate and unsure of his gifts.
His awareness of being different, a mixed-race dancer in an art where whiteness is still the norm, may have played a part. But it's not something he talks about readily. “I've encouraged other boys of color to audition for SAB," says Catanach, “and they couldn't deal with the lack of diversity. But it didn't affect him. He was there to dance." Ramasar never complained. “I figured if I cried my mother would pull me out," he says, “so I put on a good face." At least classes in the boys' program at SAB were free—otherwise, ballet training would have been beyond the family's means.
Ramasar in The Four Temperaments. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
Though Ramasar's parents were okay with his studying dance, neither could take time off of work to usher him to and from class, so he got used to navigating the subways from the Bronx at a young age. (“I had the longest commute of anyone," he says.) His mother, Merida, is originally from Puerto Rico and worked as a nurse. His father, Churan, is of Indian descent, from the island of Trinidad; he is a computer technician. It was a multicultural home, in which both the Hindu and Catholic religions were observed. There was a lot of music: “My mother taught me every Latin dance that was ever invented," Ramasar says, smiling. “Salsa, merengue, bachata, all of it."
Ramasar's parents wanted him to be a doctor or a scientist, particularly after he was accepted at The Bronx High School of Science, a prestigious public school in New York City. It wasn't until he danced the lead in Balanchine's Danses Concertantes at SAB's year-end workshop, he says, that they fully realized what their son had become: a professional dancer.
A few months later, in 2000, he was taken into the company as an apprentice. From the beginning, Peter Martins, NYCB's ballet master in chief, pushed him: “He said, 'You need to work on your fifth position. Remember, that's the base,' " Ramasar recalls. He had a natural affinity for the more contemporary ballets, but the elongated, clean, relaxed lines associated with classical roles have taken him longer to acquire. The process of reining in his almost manic energy also took time. “In the contemporary pieces it didn't matter so much if you had flat turnout and perfectly straight knees, but that was what I was trying to obtain," he says. Still, there was something about him that made you want to watch him move.
He became a soloist in 2006, and a principal three years later, but his rise has not been as steady as the timeline might imply. “I had a lot of growing up to do. I had to work harder," he admits. “It was a hard plateau to pass." But in the last few years, he has found a new focus. He religiously attends morning class, though he confesses to hating barre. “It's just the rawest kind of bare vision of your technique," he explains. “You can't hide the problem at barre." The work has paid off, particularly in recent seasons; his footwork has become clean, his jumps sharp and explosive, his musicality fine-tuned. He has acquired style and presence. These days he's less apt to mug for the audience, an endearing tendency from his younger days. He is moving into more rarefied territory: Monumentum pro Gesualdo, “Emeralds" and the diaphanous pas de deux in the second act of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One day, he hopes to dance “Diamonds."
Ulysses Dove's Red Angels. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
Meanwhile, he has worked with practically every visiting choreographer, from Alexei Ratmansky to Liam Scarlett, Angelin Preljocaj to Kim Brandstrup. The young resident choreographer Justin Peck has used him in several works. He's danced plenty of Robbins (including Robbins' own role in Fancy Free), as well as much of the modernist Balanchine repertoire, including the ballet that got him hooked in the first place, Agon. Some nights at the Koch, he barely leaves the stage. “No one can do everything," says Peter Martins, “but Amar comes close."
In fall 2014, Ratmansky created a role for him in his new Pictures at an Exhibition. His character appeared to be a kind of sorcerer, conjuring up a storm with his arms and legs. Ramasar jumped and twisted, slapped his thighs and launched into a demented-looking Charleston. He ensnared a woman (Sara Mearns) in his arms, lifting and twisting her in the air, then spiraled off on his own. Every movement looked slightly unhinged and at the same time sharply etched. It's difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into the role. Maybe that's what happens when a dancer comes into his own—every role becomes an extension of his personality. One thing is abundantly clear: Ramasar is exactly where he wants to be.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.