How Can a Ballet Company Transcend the "Regional" Label? Three Directors Sound Off
Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.
So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.
Forging a unique artistic identity
Sarasota Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sinfonietta. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet
When Iain Webb came to direct Sarasota Ballet, he looked at American companies with a similar size and budget. "I could almost close my eyes and point to any of them," he says, "because they were all doing the same works. The oft-produced Dracula didn't excite him. Webb decided to go after a well-rounded repertoire of historic ballets, works by established choreographers and new commissions, but his passion for preserving history is ultimately what has distinguished the company.
Investing in new work
Tulsa Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Shibuya Blues. Photo by Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet
Tulsa Ballet, on the other hand, has invested in new work: Studio K, a 300-seat theater opened by artistic director Marcello Angelini on-site at the company's headquarters, is dedicated to presenting new ballets commissioned to create a distinct identity for the company while helping the art form to progress.
Having an eye for rising talent
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jorma Elo's 1st Flash. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ASFB
In 1996, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet started small, commissioning works from then-up-and-coming contemporary ballet choreographers—Jorma Elo, Nicolo Fonte, Helen Pickett—whose work in turn shaped the young company's profile. "All of a sudden," executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty says, "the choreographers we had discovered were of interest on the national and international level." A taste for these kind of works, and those created at ASFB, developed across the U.S., and touring opportunities emerged organically from there.
Sarasota Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Birthday Offering. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet
Of the 154 ballets added to Sarasota Ballet's repertoire under Webb's direction, about 27 are Ashton works—many rarely produced, and some never before seen in the U.S. Webb attributes this to his and Margeret Barbieri's performing careers with The Royal Ballet, and their working relationships with Ashton and Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois.
Recruiting dancers from around the world
Tulsa Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Shibuya Blues. Photo by Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet
Since the world's best dancers aren't likely to come knocking on Tulsa Ballet's door, Angelini talks with colleagues all over the world to locate the best talent, then holds auditions in those places—most recently London, Rome, Cannes, Munich and New York City. The resulting international roster helps make the company relevant whether they are performing in Tulsa, NYC or abroad.
Building a strategic model tailored to the company's home base
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Alejandro Cerrudo's Silent Ghost. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ASFB
In keeping with the American West's pioneering spirit, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet nimbly set up homes in two cities. The company schedules its home performances around tourist season in both Aspen and Santa Fe. Many of their devotees also have homes in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, creating a natural audience base when the company performs in those cities. Dancers are on a 52-week contract so that if a touring opportunity suddenly arises, they are in shape and ready to go.
"Never talk down to your audience."
Tulsa Ballet's Madalina Stoica in Helen Pickett's Meoal. Photo by Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet
"Every program has a work that pleases (comfort food), one that puts us at the edge of our seats (the spicy stuff) and one that challenges us (the plate we never had before and that comes from a faraway place…)" says Angelini. "The important thing is to embark on a journey together with your audience, and continue growing in unison. Never talk down to your audience, just walk the walk together."
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.