How Do You Make an Angel Fly on Broadway? Hire Dancers, Of Course
The first part of Angels in America ends with a bang: Prior Walter, the character we've followed for roughly three and a half hours as he weathers the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York City, sees an Angel crash through the ceiling. She beats her wings, hovering over the man cowering in his bed, and intones, "Greetings, prophet. The great work begins!" It's an immensely satisfying conclusion to Part One, and makes audiences that much more eager to get to the second.
But how do you make an angel fly?
In the Broadway revival of Tony Kushner's landmark play, specifically the Marianne Elliott–directed production that transferred to the Great White Way after a wildly successful run on the West End, you hire six extra cast members, a combination of dancers and aerialists, and figure it out together.
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg, Courtesy DKC/O&M
Bring in movement consultant Steven Hoggett (who is receiving a Critics' Choice Award from the Chita Rivera Awards this season, and got his own Tony nod for his Harry Potter and the Cursed Child choreography), and you have something akin to magic. With his help, those six performers became the Angel Shadows who make the titular Angel fly, fight or twitch a wing in annoyance, as well as move sets and props, during the two-part, eight-hour play.
We talked to Angel Shadow Silvia Vrskova—an alum of Ballet Hispánico, Cirque du Soleil and Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof—to find out what it's like being a dancer in the most Tony-nominated play in history:
What Rehearsals Were Like
"The day I found out I got cast, we had to do a workshop to audition the Angel understudy. We couldn't believe it! We didn't have a contract and we were already in rehearsal!
"We had two months of rehearsals in Brooklyn. The Brits work very differently—even though we were just "Shadows," we were all on the same level. If you had something to say, you could, and they did such a good job of casting people who aren't just good dancers, but creators as well."
What's an Angel Shadow, Anyway?
"We're the essence of the Angel, the extension of their feelings. The expressions of the worlds, how they feel about each other or the situation—we are that.
"We're very much on the floor, sliding crouching, moving. When we have to lift someone, the preparation has to be seamless—how do we make the Angel go up so you don't really see us? And how do you get the sense that you're part of the Angel even though you're far away?"
Making the Angel Fly
"It was like a puzzle we had to un-puzzle. The flying was too long in London, so we had to figure out how to shorten it. I'm an aerialist, so I loved that they would listen to us, and our ideas to make it faster or safer. You have to have a plan. It's a lot of brainwork. In those rehearsals we were so exhausted, my brain was going to explode trying to find the solutions! We were just so invested in it.
"We know both Angels, what they each want. At the beginning, we had to be more sturdy for Beth Malone, her feet would really push down and she had a lot more movement. Amanda Lawrence, at the beginning, wasn't as...not violent, but energetic. Now I don't need to remember. Intuition tells you what to do with each body."
Amanda Lawrence as the Angel. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg, Courtesy DKC/O&M
Surviving An Eight-Hour Play
"Oh my god! It's not easy. Those days melt together. I'm like, Didn't we just do this!? It's a constant stretching, warming up backstage. We're always on the floor! Everyone is like, Aren't they exhausted?"
Handling Props and Sets
"I never knew putting furniture on the right spot could be so stressful! Sometimes you have to save a scene. You have to prepare your body for the impossible, so you can do what you aren't expecting to have to do—and then make it look like nothing happened so the audience doesn't see it when something goes wrong."
Putting Aside Ego
"It's so humbling to feel that it's not about me this time. We're only a small part, but if we can make it better, that's a big accomplishment. I miss doing what I'm good at, but this is a different challenge, to put the ego aside and be happy for someone else. It's rewarding."
What it Means to be Part of Such an Iconic Work
"In the early rehearsals, when the actors would do run-throughs, I would cry every day! I would love to see it from the front again!
"I was 20 years old when I moved to New York City, and I watched the Angels in America movie with my roommate after one of my friends was diagnosed with AIDS. He almost died at 25 because he couldn't get the pills. I would never have imagined that 20 years later I would be a part of this play."
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With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
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Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.
With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.
Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie
via Bloch Inc.
Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.
"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.
Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?
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.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.
When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.
Even when marking a move in rehearsal, Bobbi Jene Smith seems to dance with her whole being. "It comes from the pelvis," she says while directing a few of her fellow dancers in an undulating phrase. Her lower body spirals, pulling her torso behind it in one swift, visceral motion. "Always keep a bit of groove somewhere in your body," she says during another, more improvisational section.
Dance audiences might be most familiar with this side of Smith: the heart—and the guts—that she brings to her dancing. But in the four years since she returned to the U.S. from Tel Aviv, where she spent a decade performing with the Batsheva Dance Company, she has achieved a balancing act of creative roles: dancer, choreographer, teacher and budding actor.
The scene she's rehearsing is one of 10 she choreographed for Aviva, an independent feature film directed by Boaz Yakin, best known for his 2000 blockbuster Remember the Titans. She also plays a main character in the movement-driven story, as part of a cast of more than 30 dancers that she helped to select—including 20 of her students from Philadelphia's University of the Arts.
Coming this fall to the ever-expanding Ailey organization is an intriguing new event: the Choreography Unlocked festival. From Oct. 12–14 and 26–28, the Joan Weill Center for Dance will host workshops, performances and panel discussions. It is an extension of Ailey's New Directions Choreography Lab, an annual residency fellowship for four emerging and mid-career choreographers, founded by artistic director Robert Battle in 2011.
Cameron McKinney working with students at The Ailey School through the New Directions Choreography Lab. Photo by Nicole Tintle, Courtesy AAADT
The festival offers a rare experience for choreographers to work collectively on their craft, and for students and public audiences to interact firsthand with the process of creating dance. "Choreographers tend to section off on their own, so I wanted to offer classes for them to come together and vibe off each other," says Battle. He also hopes to demystify the choreographic process for audiences.
2018 has seen an endless parade of celebrations in anticipation of Jerome Robbins' centennial—and now the day has finally arrived. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, we dove into our photo archives and selected a few favorite shots of the choreographer whose career defined (and redefined) American dance.