Where Are Today's Dynamite Ballerina Roles?
"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."
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.