This Ballet Mockumentary Is Basically "The Office" of the Dance World
It's tricky to recognize Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla in the latest character he's written for himself. The fictional Milton Frank—star of the new mockumentary series "Off Kilter"—is a moody choreographer whose tender ego is easily bruised as he attempts to revive his floundering career. Cadilla, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and humble; the actor/filmmaker loves to chat about his family and is clearly more comfortable raving about his colleagues' successes than turning the spotlight on his own. But Milton Frank isn't something Cadilla pulled out of thin air—the character comes from everything Cadilla experienced during his many years as a dancer.
The Puerto Rican–born Cadilla started dabbling in filmmaking while still dancing in Spain's Compañía Nacional de Danza under Nacho Duato. After 15-odd years of experience at companies ranging from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal to Ballett Frankfurt, he was starting to wonder what was next. Cadilla always had an interest in film, acting and writing—he sees a dynamic correlation between the flow of a cinematic shot and the flow of movement across a stage—so he enrolled in a local screenwriting course. For one assignment, he wrote a short biographical script about his stage fright, and shot it with a cheap camera. As luck would have it, the film was seen by American actor and producer Edward James Olmos, who included it in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. It was favorably received and Cadilla felt encouraged. "I thought, Maybe I have an eye for this."
Acting was also on his mind. "I would have been an actor if I'd never discovered dance," he says. So in 2007, he spent a year at the Oxford School of Drama. When he returned to Madrid he took his first stab at making a mockumentary, about the lives and intrigues of a ballet company, casting his former colleagues in the project.
He wanted it to have wry, dry humor, like BBC's "The Office." "It was an unmitigated disaster!" Cadilla recalls with a laugh. "It just wasn't funny. It ended up being everything I really dislike about pretty much every dance film that I've seen."
But timing presented another opportunity. Duato was offered a position at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, making him the first foreign director of a Russian ballet company in over a century. Cadilla imagined a behind-the-scenes documentary about Duato in his new role, but didn't quite feel ready to tackle the project on his own. He got in touch with Ulrik Wivel, a former colleague from Pacific Northwest Ballet, who was working as a filmmaker. "That was basically my film school, going to Russia and watching Ulrik shoot."
They shot Disportrait over three years, two of which they funded on their own until the Tribeca Film Institute backed the project with a grant. Cadilla moved to Canada, where he started making short films for National Ballet of Canada. Then the CBC, Canada's major public broadcaster, gave him the green light for a documentary on Canadian painter William Fisk. Cadilla finally felt like a busy, working filmmaker.
But he'd never forgotten his failed ballet mockumentary, and on one of his many train commutes between Toronto and Montreal he met comedian Amy Cunningham. "She was cracking me up, she was so funny," he says. He had a hunch that Cunningham was just what his old project needed, someone with a natural understanding of comedic timing and delivery. She joined as a co-writer.
Shot at Canada's National Ballet School and starring real dancers—National Ballet of Canada principal Harrison James and former Royal Winnipeg Ballet soloist Sarah Murphy-Dyson—"Off Kilter" uses a casual interview format interspersed with rehearsal footage. While the show is still in an early phase of development, it's already been green-lit for production by the Independent Production Fund, and garnered attention from the Tribeca Film Institute and critics at The Globe and Mail. It took 10 years, but Cadilla finally feels he has the cinematic chops to make his comedy work. "Off Kilter" is officially back on.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.