Dancers Trending

Where Are Today's Dynamite Ballerina Roles?

Have roles like Giselle gone missing? Photo courtesy Stanislavsky Theatre

"Ballet," said George Balanchine, "is woman." Throughout his long choreographic career, he placed the ballerina at the center of the action, and all eyes were on her. There are numerous examples, from Mozartiana to Theme and Variations, Square Dance and Chaconne.

In this sense, Balanchine was carrying on the tradition of Marius Petipa and other 19th-century choreographers whose story ballets, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, featured vibrant ballerinas at the heart of their tales.


Other 20th-century choreographers, like Sir Frederick Ashton with Ondine and Sylvia and Antony Tudor with his Pillar of Fire, also centered some of their masterpieces around a female protagonist. She was partnered with a principal male dancer, but still claimed center stage.

In many Balanchine works, like Diamonds, a central ballerina leads the corps. Photo by Damir Yusupov, courtesy Bolshoi Theatre

But where are the great prima donna roles of the 21st century? Many of today's top choreographers concoct ballets with impressive corps de ballets that form dizzying, computer-graphic-like patterns. Numerous male and female soloists grab the audience's attention and then disappear back into the group. Think of Crystal Pite's Dark Matters or Justin Peck's In Creases and Paz de la Jolla.

But are they quick to spotlight those juicy ballerina roles? Not really. To many current choreographers, building a ballet around just one commanding female dancer feels like a moth-eaten method of choreographing. To others, it feels too restrictive.

Times Are Changing—So Choreography Is, Too

In many ways, this shift reflects changes in our culture at large. One factor that has indisputably altered our art is the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships and the rise of gender fluidity.

"There's more focus now on male-male partnering and female-female partnering, and that shows perhaps a shift away from the singular-ballerina role within a ballet," says choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. "As the world becomes more accepting of same-sex partnerships, that is inevitably going to influence and inspire artists."

Choreographer Helen Pickett believes that as gender and racial equality penetrate the ballet world, its center of gravity will move.

"New stories are being created from other people's histories," she says. When ballets don't always come from the imaginations of white men, new perspectives emerge. "I think ballet will spread its wings," she says, then adds, "but I think we have a long way to go."

Pickett points out that traditional ballerina roles haven't always been empowering ones. "Putting the female on the pedestal was a way to say she is untouchable, but not in an elevated way—in a way that she is perhaps suffering," she says. "There was a lot of that in the Romantic era: Giselle goes nuts for her love. In Swan Lake she turns into an animal."

In her own work, Pickett has been keen to feature strong female characters, including in her next full-length ballet, an adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible for the Scottish Ballet.

Where The Singular Ballerina Hierarchy Came From

The traditional hierarchy with a sovereign ballerina at the core emerged from the origins of ballet: a dance for royalty and their court.

"You had the queen or king at the center of it, and it all kind of radiated out," says Robert Binet, choreographic associate at the National Ballet of Canada. "As our culture has become less hierarchical we've seen choreographers more interested in a diverse set of social and, therefore, balletic structures."

In Crystal Pite's Emergence uses the power of the group. Photo by Bruce Zinger, courtesy National Ballet of Canada

In today's ballets, the soloists often stand on almost equal footing with the corps. "They're part of the patterns. They don't sit outside the patterns," says Binet, "so it creates much more of a sense of community."

Part of that democratic feel can be traced back to ballet's embrace of modern-dance techniques and crafting, led by iconoclasts like William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor. Contemporary ballet choreography owes much to the more egalitarian modern-dance approach, as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp have demonstrated. (Martha Graham, on the other hand, usually featured a grand dame—typically herself.)

Of course, there are some exceptions among current choreographers. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has created works centered on female protagonists, such as Blanche DuBois and Frida Kahlo. Wheeldon has choreographed a few ballerina-centric pieces, such as Mercurial Manoeuvres. "I think using one central ballerina very much depends on the subject matter of the work and/or on the music," he says.

Tiler Peck in Wheeldon's Mercurial Manoeuvres. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB

Trends Have Pulled Choreographers In Other Directions

Binet points out that the single-ballerina prototype typically has two uses: telling a story with one clear protagonist; or creating an abstract work where the patterns center around one person.

"Anything that lives in-between, which is where I think a lot of dancemakers' work is landing now, doesn't really make sense with that kind of structure," says Binet. "That hierarchy brings such a specific aesthetic and a very rigid structure to exist within. You can find many different ways for the structure to flow when you have more soloists in the work."

The ways today's choreographers approach musicality is often more varied—for better or worse—than the example set by Balanchine. In his ballets, Balanchine reveals the three-dimensionality of the score, as the dominant orchestral instruments steer and spotlight the ballerina's actions, placing her center stage. The oboe in Symphony in C shepherds the ballerina, while the piano briskly propels her through Allegro Brillante. Today's choreographers are seldom that single-mindedly resolute with their use of music.

And as stagecraft evolves to include multimedia technology like projections, videos, computerized graphics and other wizardry, the focus easily switches from the dancers to the dazzling performance elements. One ballerina, no matter how splendid, can get lost in that mix. On her way to the ball, Wheeldon's Cinderella, for example, gets vastly upstaged by designer Basil Twist's mega-sized puppetry.

Choreographers have also turned to men as muses. Alexei Ratmansky's recent work Whipped Cream pivoted around a sugar-shocked party boy, and "Chamber Symphony," from 2013's Shostakovich Trilogy, starred David Hallberg as a tortured artist. (To be fair, Balanchine, like other choreographers, created great male roles like Apollo and The Prodigal Son; but his greatest muses clearly were ballerinas.)

James Whiteside in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT

Are We Better Off Without One Ballerina?

Plenty of dancers would love to claim the stage in one of those classic queen bee roles. But the old model of spotlighting one ballerina seems like an endangered species. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe it's neither. Perhaps ballet has been refashioned to a point without a conventional framework. Using unorthodox vocabulary and a democratic structure to shape ballets seems to be the way of the future.

"It's a reflection of the way the world is moving socially," says Binet. "Hopefully our art form is leading. But if not leading, at least keeping up."

Show Comments ()
News
Gina Gibney's organization has grown invaluable to the NYC dance scene. Photo by Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.

Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Stagestep's Encore hardwood flooring for full-service broadcast production facility, dance center and venue, Starwest, in Burbank, CA.

What is the right flooring system for us?

So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
Dancer Voices
Yuka Oba, Ednis Ariel Gomez Mallol and Connie Flachs in Swing by Olivier Wevers. Photo by Ryan Jackson, courtesy Flachs

"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."

My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"Off Kilter" has real dancers playing dancers. Still courtesy CBC Arts

"It just...always looks better in my head."

While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.

We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Jay Sullivan Photography, courtesy Julie Granger

Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.

One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.

"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."

Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Carol Fox and Associates

José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.

Get the print edition!
Health & Body
Give your partner space to process their own emotions about the injury. Photo via Thinkstock

Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Chris­topher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.

"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
University of Texas at Austin students in When. Photo by Lawrence Peart, courtesy ACDA

What's on the minds of college students today?

I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.

Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Herman Cornejo and Tiler Peck at Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail

It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
Courtesy of barre + bag

Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.

Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).

barre + bag's Summer Collection

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
News
Henry Leutwyler

Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.

"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Chase Johnsey quietly made modern ballet history when he performed as part of the women's ensemble in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Elliot Franks, Courtesy In the Lights PR

Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?

But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways