Dancers Trending

Becoming Isabella Boylston

It takes pluck to grow up with a name like Hildur.

For Isabella Boylston, born Hildur Isabella, it was just a part of her unconventional, free-spirited upbringing. Her parents met on a ski lift in Sun Valley, Idaho. Her father, Mike, was a country/blues drummer and "ski bum"; her mother, Cornelia, a Swedish electrical engineer. They fell in love and got married, raising two kids in a trailer in Sun Valley, with frequent road-trips to her dad's shows in "crappy towns," as Boylston, now 30, puts it. "It was totally Wild West," she adds, with an easy laugh.

She was named after an Icelandic great-grandmother ("a cool lady") and had never thought of changing her name until a company director planted the seed. Isabella Boylston—it does roll off the tongue. "I think growing up with an unusual name shaped my personality in a way," she reflected just days before the start of American Ballet Theatre's fall season.


Photo by Jayme Thornton

She may be right. Isabella Boylston—or Bella, as just about everyone now seems to call her—is one of the most strikingly individual dancers in the company, or anywhere. She's musical, she has great facility and strong technique, but, really, what one notices most is the boldness and joy of her dancing.

Three key moments come to mind: first, her debut in Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream, in 2011 when she was still in the corps. In this spoof of Soviet-style ballets, she played a haughty Moscow ballerina who visits a collective farm during a harvest festival. In the midst of a raucous ensemble, Boylston rocketed onstage with the propulsion and elevation of a torpedo. Who is that? everyone wondered, scrambling for the program.

Another was her debut in Giselle, in 2014, as a soloist. She was high-spirited in the first act, emphasizing the character's love of dance. "I don't think she should be half-dead already," Boylston explains. Her mad scene was understated. But in the second act, she did something extraordinary. It was that moment when Giselle—now transformed into a Wili—raises her leg slowly to the side, then shifts her torso into an arabesque: She did it with such deliberateness and control that the movement became disembodied, like that of a ghost.

Finally, there was her Juliet, a role she debuted last spring season (along with Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée and Sylvia). Her dancing was impetuous. But there was this one detail: the way she rested her chin on her forearm in the balcony scene, as she dreamed of Romeo. It was totally natural, slightly gawky, exactly what a teenager might do in an unguarded moment.

In Romeo and Juliet with James Whiteside. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.

This freshness is what Damian Woetzel, who made her artist in residence at his Vail International Dance Festival last summer, loves about her dancing: "She's alive in a way that is totally in the moment."

The effect is a combination of her personality—open and relaxed—and her very real physical abilities. "The jump is remarkable," says Woetzel, "and it comes out of nowhere."

"She is very alive person," echoes Irina Kolpakova, the great Soviet ballerina of the 1960s who is now Boylston's coach at ABT. "And her body is very talented. She can do everything: jump, turn, stretch, extensions. She is free onstage, and that's not boring."

Still, she's had to work hard. Because of her facility, and, especially, her loose joints, it has taken her some time to achieve a more composed, classical form. She was a late bloomer, she says: "From the time I joined the studio company to when I was 21 or 22, I grew three inches. I have gangly arms and long, hyperextended legs, so it took me a little longer to get the whole package to gel."

She and Kolpakova, and Boylston's previous coach, Susan Jaffe, have spent endless hours on her arabesque line in Swan Lake. "A lot of it is holding my torso strong, keeping my body together and not ricocheting around." Boylston and Kolpakova often use video of her rehearsals to pinpoint exact details that can be improved.

When it came to acting, she initially lacked confidence. She was self-conscious, in part because she hadn't yet found her way into the stories. As she explains, "a lot of the ballets we do"—especially the 19th-century classics—"the stories are pretty far out." She was more comfortable in new pieces by Christopher Wheeldon and works by Balanchine, where she could just be herself. Boylston is someone who needs to believe in a character in order to fully embody it.

"Classical works of character weren't organic to her," says Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director. "She had to work hard to grasp certain behaviors."

Photo by Jayme Thornton

A few years ago, she enlisted the help of an acting coach, Byam Stevens. The two of them read the scenarios and talk about the stories, analyzing the particulars of her character, moment by moment, scene by scene.

Another important experience has been working with Ratmansky. In addition to The Bright Stream, she has danced lead roles in his Firebird, Sleeping Beauty and Chamber Symphony. He pushed her to dance bigger—"Just, jump!" he told her in Bright Stream rehearsals—but also to find more nuance in the characters.

Isabella Boylston Chamber SymphonyIn Chamber Symphony. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy ABT.

"He directed me almost like a film director directing an actress," she says. "For every step or facial movement he has about 15 notes."

When approaching a new role, she goes to the New York Public Library to seek out archival recordings, if possible with original casts. When she was preparing for her debut as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, she watched tapes of Margot Fonteyn. Before Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, a friend bought her a DVD starring Nadia Nerina, the original Lise.

"With Fonteyn, it was her dynamics that impress me. The way she emphasized each step with such clarity. With Nerina, it was the vivacity of her jumps and energy. Ballerinas today have a more homogenous look."

But she knows that in the end, it's up to her. She has to shape her own interpretations. "At a certain point you realize you can never please everyone."

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT

She's like that offstage, as well. Her friends speak affectionately of her independence of spirit. "One of the first things that struck me about Bella was her incredible sense of who she was, and her wonderful ability to laugh at herself," says ABT corps member Lauren Post, who's known Boylston since the two were students at Harid Conservatory. (Post is the person responsible for her unevenly pierced ears; she pierced them with a sterilized needle and some ice cubes in the Harid dorm.)

One thing Boylston has lacked so far is a strong onstage partnership. That may soon change. Last fall, she performed in Twyla Tharp's Brahms-Haydn Variations with the company's newest Danish import, Alban Lendorf. This spring, they're scheduled to dance together in Swan Lake (on opening night), Ratmansky's new Whipped Cream and "Aurora's Wedding" (the third act of Sleeping Beauty).

Isabella Boylston Alban LendorfWith Lendorf in Brahms-Haydn Variations. Photo by Marty Sohl.

The pairing seems promising; he's strong, with a solid Danish technique and an appealing stage presence. "He is a dream!" gushes Boylston.

This summer, Boylston is planning a show of her own, back home in Sun Valley. She has commissioned a new evening-length work from her colleague, the budding choreographer Gemma Bond. The score, too, is a commission, from the Brooklyn composer Judd Greenstein, whom she discovered on Spotify. Kate Duhamel will contribute video designs. Plans are still in the initial stages, but she's hoping to use a story or theme that relates to Sun Valley.

In 2015, she and fellow ABT principal James Whiteside collaborated with the filmmaker Yoonha Park and choreographer Justin Peck on a short film, Early Sunday Morning, shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. She's currently working on a Hollywood film project, Red Sparrow, also with Peck.

She's branching out. "When I was a kid, I was always directing and making things," she says, "and I feel like now I'm ready to spend a little more of my creative energy. I want to do something creative. I want to make things."


The Conversation
Health & Body

When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.

Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.

He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.

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Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims (here in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain) are couple goals both onstage and off. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.

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The Creative Process
Rennie Harris leads a rehearsal of Lazarus. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.

"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."

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Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been struggling with a staph infection after an FHL repair for tendonitis. It took several months to treat the infection, and it's left me with pain and stiffness. Will this ever go away?

—JR, Hoboken, NJ

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Dance on Broadway
Last summer's off-Broadway run of Be More Chill. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates

When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.

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News
Courtesy Siberian Swan

As ballet's gender roles grow increasingly blurred, more men than ever are reaching new heights: the tips of their toes.

It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).

The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.

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Rant & Rave
Via Facebook

Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."

The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.

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Health & Body
Unsplash

You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.

What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.

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Dancers Trending
Rachel Papo

Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.

Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.

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News
A.I.M in Andrea Miller's state. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Google Arts & Culture

Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.

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Just for Fun
Samantha Sturm shared an outtake from a photo shoot. Photo by Ronnie Nelson via Sturm

If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.

Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)

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We Tried It
Brendan McCarthy, Courtesy Brrrn

Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.

But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.

First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.

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Dance Training
Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Dancers Trending
Photos via Polunin's Instagram

If you follow Sergei Polunin on Instagram, you've probably noticed that lately something has been...off.

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:

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Cover Story
Portner's embrace of the unexpected has led to unexpected opportunities. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine

Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.

"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
Pat Boguslawski

If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.

Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA

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Dance History
Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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