Breaking Out of the Corps
Last April, at the start of rehearsals for New York City Ballet’s spring season, then-20-year-old corps member Chase Finlay casually checked the casting board—and got the shock of his life. For the first two shows of Balanchine’s Apollo, his name was written next to the title role.
“I initially had a feeling of panic and stress,” Finlay says of learning he’d be performing such a coveted part. “But then I just stood back and said, ‘Wow. This is a crazy opportunity. I’m going to do my best.’ ” (Finlay’s best was so brilliant it earned him a promotion to soloist two months later.)
Dance companies are organized as hierarchies, so there’s usually little surprise when it comes to casting. However, junior company members are sometimes tapped to perform a leading part—particularly when an injury sidelines an artist in the upper ranks. Nothing could be more thrilling for a dancer who has been toiling away in the corps. Every up-and-comer pines for the chance to make his or her mark on a role typically reserved for principals. But those who have been through it know that stepping out of the background and into the spotlight presents challenges as well as rewards.
Finlay says he struggled less with the choreography, which he had been understudying, than with seeing himself as worthy of the part. “It was intimidating to have Peter Martins and Nikolaj Hübbe and all these great dancers do it before me.” And although Apollo was his dream role, he recognized the danger in indulging that. “If you go into it thinking it’s this huge iconic part,” he says, “you set yourself up to be too nervous and uptight.”
Instead, Finlay focused on the ways he could relate to the character. During the weeks leading up to his debut, he worked tirelessly in and out of rehearsal to understand Apollo’s journey in the ballet. In the end, he used his age and relative lack of experience to infuse the role with a fresh perspective. “I tried to give it more of a youthfulness as opposed to a godly figure,” he says. “I was able to be myself rather than try to be someone else.”
Eran Bugge found herself in a similar position when she was cast in a featured part made on the award-winning Lisa Viola in Paul Taylor’s tango-inspired Piazzolla Caldera. Bugge studied Viola’s interpretation on video but ultimately realized she had to develop her own voice. And in this case, the character—which Bugge describes as “a strong, feisty woman”—required her to adopt a new persona.
“I’m the shortest in the company, so I often play a younger ingénue,” she says. “But I don’t want to fall into a type, so it’s nice that he gave me something outside of that.” The dynamic movement also stretched her technically. “I tend to be a softer, more lyrical dancer, and this dance is very snappy and staccato.” While excited to expand her range, Bugge admits there’s more at stake in center stage: “If you screw up you feel like everyone’s going to see it,” she says. “When you’re in the background, it could maybe fly under the radar.” And there’s intense pressure to live up to expectations. “It’s not just representing yourself, it’s representing Paul and Paul’s work, and you want to give it the best possible presentation.”
Of course, this can lead to insecurity. For San Francisco Ballet’s Mariellen Olson, gaining confidence was the key to landing a lead role. She made her debut as Myrtha in Giselle last February after overcoming a mental hurdle. “There was a time when I thought, ‘I’ll never get to do that,’ ” says Olsen, who has been in the corps since 2002 and learned the part in the past. “But then something changed. I was like, ‘Why not? I should be doing this. I’m a jumper and I’m theatrical. This is the role for me.’ I made myself get over my doubts and really went for it. And I think that’s why I got to do it.”
But the physical preparation was as demanding as the psychological. “It’s probably the hardest role I’ve ever attempted,” Olsen says of Myrtha. “It takes everything out of you.” And mastering the athletic choreography required enormous self-discipline. Olsen was in one of multiple casts that alternated rehearsals, so she ran the part every day on her own—in addition to her corps responsibilities. The extra effort paid off, though. “I felt so much stronger for the rest of the season, like I could conquer anything,” she says.
A lead role provides room for artistic growth, too. These three dancers all worked hard to cultivate a commanding stage presence—something that doesn’t come naturally after years of blending into the backdrop. And as daunting as it was to have every eye in the audience on them, sharing the spotlight with principal dancers also took some getting used to. “I put them on a pedestal; they’re stars!” Olsen says of Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro—her Giselle and Albrecht. “And I had to get over that because I had to be the boss,” she jokes, referring to her character.
While Olsen’s fellow dancers supported her turn in the role, such opportunities can breed resentment within the ranks. “There’s always going to be some people who aren’t happy with a younger person getting parts like that,” says Finlay. On top of interpersonal tension, up-and-coming artists often find themselves navigating newfound fame. After New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay raved about his portrayal of Apollo, Finlay told himself to “take the compliments but also leave them, keep working harder and not let it get to my head.” Then there’s the potential for letdown after the performance is over and reality settles in. “Once you go back to the corps, it’s a bummer at first,” Finlay admits (though he didn’t remain there for long).
Olsen made her appearance as the spirit queen at a Saturday matinee and had to dance as a peasant and wili in the evening. “I was on a high from doing Myrtha that afternoon, but that’s life. I am in the corps and was just lucky enough to step out for a show,” she says, adding, “In a way I was relieved because I had done those parts for years. I could relax and enjoy my time onstage.” Bugge agrees. “The next night you might have more of a background role. But it’s nice because we share the pressure and rewards.”
However short-lived, that shining moment is more than worth any angst that comes with it, according to these dancers. “You almost can’t create it completely in the studio. You have to get under those lights and have the red lipstick on and the flower in your hair,” says Bugge.
For Olsen, who had never done a run of Giselle with the full set and smoke before her Myrtha performance, the experience was transcendent. “I kind of went to a different world,” she muses. Finlay can relate. “I was completely lost in the character,” he says of his first show. “Once the curtain went down, I just stood there for a few seconds and was like, ‘Did that happen? Did my dream come true?’ ” He laughs. “It was a great feeling.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Brooklyn Rail.
From top: NYCB’s Chase Finlay as Apollo last spring. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB © Balanchine Trust; Eran Bugge in Paul Taylor’s Also Playing. Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy PTDC; Mariellen Olson in SFB company class. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
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.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
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.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.