Ballet's Boys Club
Are ballet companies all starting to look the same?
Ten companies, including the Joffrey, will collectively dance 16 different Wheeldon works this season. Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy Joffrey.
This season, Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon will premiere a new work for The Royal in February as part of a Wheeldon triple bill, before the company reprises his much-acclaimed The Winter’s Tale (which was also performed in November by the National Ballet of Canada). And in addition to a new ballet for New York City Ballet and a new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet in December 2016, Wheeldon’s signed on for stagings of his previous works for seven other international troupes.
PNB is one of three companies to dance Peck's Year of the Rabbit this season. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.
Justin Peck will choreograph two works for NYCB, a new ballet for San Francisco Ballet and stage his Year of the Rabbit for Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Similarly, Wayne McGregor’s and Liam Scarlett’s premieres and previous works will be danced from Paris to Houston to San Francisco. And it’s no surprise that Alexei Ratmansky will continue his global ubiquity, especially in the narrative-ballet department.
All five men are wonderfully accomplished choreographers. Wheeldon and Peck instinctively shape ensembles with master craftsmanship and musicality. Scarlett and McGregor display a deft contemporary edge that appeals to young audiences. And Ratmansky brings heart and soul to the stage. Why wouldn’t any company jump at the chance to work with this millennium’s best?
While some may decry the death of ballet, this burst of creative output and shared goodwill has others heralding a new golden age, a cornucopia of choreographic plenty. But are companies oversaturating the market with these named choreographers, and making ballet too safe?
Truthfully, hot-property choreographers have always existed. William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied and Nacho Duato have all had their Warholian 15 minutes—or longer. But this gang is different. All are resident or affiliated artists with ties to major traditional big-budget companies: The Royal, NYCB and American Ballet Theatre. Their prestige is both institutionally sanctioned and marketed by corporate teams. The widespread presence of these pedigreed men reflects the merchandising of ballet that can happen in a nanosecond. The way companies now cyber-network allows them to easily communicate and share information, as well as to determine which choreographic offer-ings they like via a YouTube clip. And the licensing and dissemination of ballets has emerged with impressive sophistication.
Naturally, with globalization, there are some significant positives. High-quality choreography can be imported almost anywhere. Dancers get to stretch their technical and stylistic chops working with world-class artists. Companies can share productions, particularly expensive full-length ballets, making the process more cost-efficient.
With the pressure to sell out theaters, ballet companies turn to respected names, similar to the way Broadway shows now bank on star actors to guarantee a box-office bonanza. The troubling erosion of ballet audiences can be mitigated by marketing a sexy, young choreographic prodigy. And the companies, choreographers and dancers tweet, Instagram and Facebook their experiences.
Of course, with all this inevitably comes “branding”: a word that makes some salivate and others groan. A choreographer these days is often a traded commodity, and, as it seems, part of a programming formula, in which a good season starts with a modernized classic by Ratmansky and ends with a wild work by McGregor. Franchising is here, in what Mark Morris has accurately called “the ballet industry.” Will this monopolization of choreography make the biggest, richest companies the Apples and Amazons of the ballet industry?
And in the act of franchising, what is lost? For one, companies need an original voice to claim artistic distinction. In the previous century, you could absolutely discern the Joffrey Ballet or ABT from NYCB or The Royal Ballet in terms of style and repertoire. The Royal Ballet demonstrated the precision, musicality and dramatic integrity of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. ABT upheld the theatricality of Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille. NYCB boasted the neoclassicism and musicality of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Today, when so many troupes dance Year of the Rabbit, can we detect the heart of a company and the uniqueness of its dancers in such a shared context? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Ratmansky at MCB. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy MCB.
In the best of all possible worlds, today’s amazing dancers can absorb and process 10 different styles with acumen. But the reality of choreographic globalization can unfortunately lead to jeopardizing a company’s artistic spirit and style. In worst-case scenarios, a bland homogeneity of tenor and approach ensues. Outsourcing of talent can also preclude the local nurturing of artists who are homegrown and perhaps best know and appreciate the skills of their native city’s dancers.
That latter downside in particular leads to the most troubling aspects of the omnipresence of the pack: the striking lack of diversity. There are no women or people of color in this boys club of choreographers, and few among the primarily male directors. Chris knows Peter and Peter knows Justin and Justin knows Benjamin and so on. Doesn’t that skew the direction away from a desired goal for more multiculturalism and outreach in the ballet world?
There are exceptions. For example, PNB had a November program called Emergence, featuring contemporary works by prominent female choreographers Jessica Lang and Crystal Pite. In April, English National Ballet will present She Said, a triple bill dedicated to female choreography with world premieres by Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang. And Boston Ballet’s 2015–16 season doesn’t include any of the voguish quintet in its programming. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the results will be better—just that they are presenting an alternative. And there are smaller companies, exemplified by Sarasota Ballet’s dedication to Ashton’s legacy and Ballet Memphis’ commitment to the community’s cultural flavor and impressive diversity, which offer refreshing options.
I look forward to seeing what these gifted men will produce in the future. They have already changed the face of ballet in this century and have whipped up masterpieces that inform us, as great art always does, about ourselves in today’s world: Think of Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, McGregor’s Chroma and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. The Winter’s Tale by Wheeldon might rank as the finest new story ballet in decades. But perhaps ballet directors need to step back, take a look at other talent that exists and strive to present ballets that speak to their audiences and truly represent their locale, their dancers and the singularity of a director’s vision.
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
The Lineup for 2015–16
• Raven Girl: The Royal Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Chroma: Pennsylvania Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Dyad 1929: Houston Ballet (March 2016)
• Infra: Mariinsky Ballet (May 2016)
• Commissions: Paris Opéra Ballet (Dec. 2015), The Royal (May/June 2016)
• Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes: New York City Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Year of the Rabbit: Miami City Ballet (Feb. 2016), Pacific Northwest Ballet (March 2016), Dutch National Ballet (June 2016)
• Paz de la Jolla: NYCB (Feb. 2016)
• Chutes and Ladders: PA Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• In Creases: POB (March/April 2016)
• Everywhere We Go: NYCB (April 2016)
• Belles-Lettres: NYCB (May 2016)
• Commissions: NYCB (Sept./Oct. 2015), NYCB (Feb./April/May 2016), San Francisco Ballet (April 2016), POB (July 2016)
• The Sleeping Beauty: Teatro alla Scala (Sept./Oct. 2015), American Ballet Theatre (Jan./June 2016)
• Russian Seasons: Bolshoi Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Piano Concerto #1: ABT (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Lost Illusions: Bolshoi (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Romeo and Juliet: National Ballet of Canada (Nov./Dec. 2015, March 2016)
• Cinderella: Mariinsky (Dec. 2015, March/May 2016), The Australian Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• Seven Sonatas: POB (March/April 2016), SFB (April 2016), ABT (May 2016)
• Concerto DSCH: Mariinsky (March 2016), NYCB (May 2016)
SFB's Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in Scarlett's Hummingbird.
Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
• Pictures at an Exhibition: NYCB (April 2016)
• Shostakovich Trilogy: ABT (May 2016)
• Firebird: ABT (May/July 2016)
• The Golden Cockerel: ABT (June 2016)
• Commissions: ABT (May 2016)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Royal New Zealand Ballet (Aug./Sept. 2015)
• No Man’s Land: English National Ballet (Sept./Nov. 2015)
• Viscera: The Royal (Oct./Nov. 2015), MCB (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Asphodel Meadows: PA Ballet (May 2016)
• Commissions: SFB (Jan./Feb. 2016), Frankenstein at The Royal (May 2016)
• Fool’s Paradise: Joffrey Ballet (Sept. 2015)
• Tide Harmonic: PNB (Sept./Oct. 2015)
• DGV: PA Ballet (Oct. 2015)
Wheeldon's Rush at Houston Ballet. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
• The Winter’s Tale: NBoC (Nov. 2015), The Royal (April/June 2016)
• Polyphonia: POB (Dec. 2015)
• Continuum: SFB (Jan./Feb. 2016)
• This Bitter Earth: NYCB (Feb. 2016)
• For Four: PA Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• After the Rain: The Royal (Feb./March 2016)
• Within the Golden Hour: The Royal (Feb./March, May/June 2016)
• Estancia: NYCB (Feb./April 2016)
• Rush: SFB (April 2016)
*Scheduled repertory as of press time
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."
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:
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.