An Unlikely Prince
Edward Watson doesn't fit the traditional British dance profiles. Yet he's become a paragon of today's Royal Ballet.
In The Metamorphosis, Watson unleashed his wild side. Photo by Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH.
Pale, intense and writhing in black slime, The Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson made an indelible impression on Americans on his 2013 tour. The Londoner’s extraordinary performance as the hapless insect-man in Arthur Pita’s ballet version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was as far from the English ballet’s celebrated lyricism as is possible to conceive.
America’s next view of Watson will be a little more conformist, squiring the former First Lady of New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan in a night of new choreography, titled Whelan/Watson: Other Stories, at New York City Center. The pairing is an intuitive one of two absolute originals, neither of them your standard classical beauty, both radiating idiosyncratic power and shape-shifting charisma onstage—a lure to choreographers everywhere.
His performance in The Winter's Tale won a 2015 Benois de la Danse award. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy ROH.
I meet Watson inside the Royal Opera House, where, in his 21-year career, he’s had more roles created for him by in-house choreographers than anyone thinks has been equaled at any time at Covent Garden. On this occasion he looks very much younger than 39, his apricot hair and alabaster skin gleaming like a teenager’s. He’s not your standard classical prince—big-shouldered, extremely flexible, androgynous, able to be graceful or gawky at the flick of a switch.
“I think I’m not what used to be expected of an English dancer,” he agrees, “but perhaps I’m how an English dancer would be expected today. And I like that idea. People say, Oh, Ed’s not very ‘English.’ No, I’m not Michael Somes! I’m not an Ashton expert. I’m a very British dancer. I’m lucky enough to be involved in the British choreography scene today.”
Watson is a man of two faces. One is what he’s called his “psycho roles.” He is par excellence the exemplar of the twisted souls that populate many ballet dramas on his side of the Atlantic: Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, with his knotted limbs and bewildered eyes; the tortured Crown Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling; guilty Leontes in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. The other is the humanoid abstractions his hypermobility inspired in Wayne McGregor’s modernist ballets such as Symbiont(s) and Infra.
He’s an extremist, I suggest to him. Watson laughs easily. “I know. I worry that I’m going to be a caricature of myself. People think, Oh, he’s going to do that tortured thing where he throws himself on the floor.” Fans with a British sense of humor sometimes send him skulls, macabre signs of appreciation for his morbidly mesmerizing Rudolf in Mayerling. “But I don’t want to bore people, or be bored myself by just getting out a bag of tricks. I just do what I’m told, really. And if I’m well directed, then it’s all right. I learned something important from Wendy, which is that I don’t need to be so obvious, that you can draw people in in really sharp focus by not doing that much.”
The two first met when they danced a duet together in Wheeldon’s Morphoses, and they hit it off. “We did a few things at the Guggenheim Museum and she just walked on and everyone clapped, and I went, Ah, she’s the big time. She was very approachable, a good laugh, but when she started doing her thing, it made everyone go, Whoa, okay, respect.
“What’s so remarkable about those New York ballerinas is that you can’t not watch them. They just know how to do it, in leotard and tights, whereas we’ve grown up being given a costume. It’s a way of moving, it’s a way of being, it’s a stage thing. There’s less doubt in them. I think all that Balanchine choreography requires you to be really brave, to make it say what you want it to say. I’ve danced a few Balanchines—you nearly lose your teeth on some of those steps.”
The Other Stories evening, which was co-produced by The Royal Ballet and New York City Center, is an even split of the two dancers’ tastes, with solos and duets by London-based choreographers Javier de Frutos, Arlene Phillips and Arthur Pita; North American–based Annie-B Parson and Danièle Desnoyers; and (new for the U.S. tour) the London-New Yorker Christopher Wheeldon. The two dancers worked to harness all these disparate voices into a single suggestive arc.
Watson shows a lyrical side in the Phillips solo, while the noble Whelan shows an unexpectedly comic side in Pita’s blackly witty tango duo—which brought up a kind of “English” partnering that she was very unaccustomed to, says Watson quasi-apologetically.
Watson, here in Infra, is a regular muse for Wayne McGregor. Photo by Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH.
“I’m kind of used to throwing people into stuff with all the force of my body weight. Wendy’s more used to being sculpted, although in some of the Wheeldon pieces she’s been partnered in some crazy ways, she’s always sort of floating up there. It took her a while to get used to it until she realized I wasn’t going to do it any other way.”
In fact, Watson is an exemplary, caring partner (as compensation for the torturing by tango, he introduced a grateful Whelan to banoffee pie—a dessert of banana, toffee and cream). His safe hands and burning eyes as Romeo in MacMillan’s choreographic version are much loved by London’s Juliets. But this season he decided to give Romeo up—it wasn’t his body but his memory that couldn’t take any more.
“I have had so many amazing Juliets. Even now I can shut my eyes and remember their faces, and how they felt. Amazing memories, and I really didn’t want to blot that out. It’s time for others to do Romeo.”
It’s not time to stop dancing, though. Ahead in 2016 lie a reprise of The Winter’s Tale and yet another new Wheeldon narrative ballet. This fall he danced a favorite Ashton, the hushed, lunar Monotones II, and is presently finding shelf space for a rush of new awards: Member of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen, and a 2015 Benois de la Danse award for The Winter’s Tale, to add to his 2012 Olivier Award for The Metamorphosis.
With a long CV of roles created for his physicality and his acting gifts by Pita, Wheeldon, McGregor, Kim Brandstrup and Alexei Ratmansky, among others, Watson is the distinctive, even definitive dancer of the present-day Royal Ballet, male or female—a man on dramatic and athletic cliff-edges, a man of the present. While some cry that The Royal is no longer generating the Ashtonian classical lyricism of Anthony Dowell’s era, Watson’s preeminence says a great deal about the company’s modern appeal, as a place where choreographers and curious dancers are welcomed.
“I think Ashton might be like the ‘British accent’ which Americans love,” Watson reflects. “But the ‘British accent’ is only a small part of Britain.”
Ismene Brown, founder of The Arts Desk, is dance critic of The Spectator.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
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Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.
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."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
When coming up with phrases of movement, choreographers all have their habits: certain patterns they return to again and again, tendencies that repeat themselves whether they mean for them to or not.
What if artificial intelligence could be used to help choreographers mix things up by suggesting thousands of other options—and ones that still fit their choreographic style, no less?
In the early 1960s, a group of dancers started questioning the existing rules of choreography. Influenced by John Cage, they created dances that were startling in their simplicity and risk-taking. Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Elaine Summers and Lucinda Childs were all part of this group. Most of them had studied or danced with Anna Halprin or Simone Forti. Visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay were part of this cauldron of experimentation as well as composer Philip Corner.
The Museum of Modern Art has mounted an expansive exhibit called "Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done." It gathers photos, artwork, scores, objects and films that bring the period alive. If you get there before January 16, you'll see the films of Brown's early work. Her piece Walking on the Wall was so disorienting that it was almost hallucinatory. (Actually, this film and most of the Brown pieces are from the 70s.) Playing with perception was a big part of the Judson and post-Judson eras.
Balanchine and Stravinsky. Cunningham and Cage. Graham and Copland. Twentieth-century dance was dotted with memorable partnerships between musicians and choreographers that wrought magical, full-bodied, brilliant works.
Today's composer-dancemaker duos, though, have gone in a decidedly different direction. In ever-growing numbers, mainstream musicians are this century's dance collaborators. Sufjan Stevens has aligned himself with New York City Ballet's Justin Peck; Bon Iver's brought his signature indie folk to Minnesota contemporary troupe TU Dance; and even Sia's getting in on the act, working with Akram Khan on a dance theater piece premiering this summer.
What is it that's drawing pop artists to the dance floor?
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
I've just read Emma Sandall's piece on hyperextension and the 180-degree position. It's intelligent, interesting, well-written. But there are a few mistakes and some misleading remarks. I can't resist writing the following.
1. If Guillem says Fonteyn said would have lifted her leg higher if she could, then that's what Guillem says.
But she's wrong. Keith Money's book "Margot Assoluta" (published in 2000) includes a photo of Fonteyn in rehearsal doing a seconde almost to shoulder-height: she told Money "I can get the leg that high—but it ruins the line." Fonteyn wanted level hips, something crucial to many ideas of placement but not discussed by Sandall.
The cover star of the January 1974 issue of Dance Magazine was beloved Italian ballerina Carla Fracci. She was adored by ballet fans in the U.S. for her guest appearances with American Ballet Theatre, and a bona fide celebrity in her hometown of Milan. But she nevertheless made time for her director husband and their young son, who often accompanied her on tour. "I don't like to be only ballerina," she told us. "I say: the dance—all right. I like it. I like my work, and I do the best that I can. But it is not 'all' for me...Most dancers are closed, in a way, because it takes so much to dance, the physique is under so much stress, that often they are too tired, even to read, or to go to the theaters, the museums, to hear music, to be with people. But you can't be a dancer without these things...You can't just close your eyes and go to the barre. You get lost in this obsession with the barre and toe shoes. Your life can be destroyed that way."