Tiba Vieira’s capoeira class at the Ailey studios. Photo: Kyle Froman, Courtesy Ailey
About halfway through a beginner capoeira class at the Ailey Extension, students pair off to put the movements they’ve been developing into practice. The instructor, Tiba Vieira, lightly pounds a tall, wooden drum to keep the time. Facing one another, the men and women rock back and forth low to the ground until one executes a surprise roundhouse kick, forcing the other to lunge and duck or spin across the floor.
“You’re gonna get a free haircut,” Vieira quips after one student just barely clears his partner’s sweeping leg.
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art dating back to the 16th century, when it’s believed African slaves began disguising their self-defense training as a dance. “We say we dance like a fight and fight like a dance,” says Vieira, who’s been teaching and performing the style for almost two decades. “The movement requires you to be strong and tough, but delicate at the same time.” That unique combination has attracted the attention of the modern dance world in recent years. Choreographers like Ronald K. Brown and Larry Keigwin have infused their work with hints of capoeira, and dancers have discovered the benefits of studying the form.
A typical class begins with a warm-up followed by a succession of elements of simulated combat, starting with the ginga, a foundational swinging movement. (See sidebar.) From there the students learn various kicks and strikes as well as defensive moves like dodges and rolls to react to their partner’s attacks. At advanced levels cartwheels, flips, and other tricks are added to the mix.
Dance Brazil. Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy CAMI
But once you break into pairs to play (capoeira is characterized as a game of fakes and feints as opposed to a contact sport), there are no set sequences to fall back on. It’s entirely improvised. “There’s a lot of room for personal expression,” Vieira says. “Once you learn the rules you can break them and bring creativity to it. You don’t have to move exactly like everyone else.”
This is one of the big advantages for classical dancers, says Kamilah Turner, a ballet dancer turned capoeirista who is currently the sole American member of Dance Brazil. (Founded by Jelon Vieira—Tiba’s uncle and teacher—Dance Brazil has toured the U.S. for more than 25 years.) Turner was introduced to the style as a member of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Denver, where she danced for five years after a stint with Urban Bush Women and touring with the Broadway show Aida. “Growing up I wasn’t exposed to improv,” she says. “As dancers, we always want to be prepared before we get out there. But with capoeira, you’re constantly in the moment. It helped me learn to move without thinking so much.”
And the movements themselves are nothing like classical technique. “In ballet everything is up, up, up,” says Turner. “But in capoeira you have to get grounded and feel the earth and maneuver yourself around people.”
Leandro Silva, director of New York City–based Silva Dance Company, agrees. “It’s a different type of strength and coordination,” he says. “In capoeira there’s a lot of changing levels—going to the floor, coming up to a jump and torque, and then going back to the floor.” Silva also teaches at Steps on Broadway, where, he says, many professionals take his class to improve the flow of their dancing. “It’s beautiful to see a dancer do 300 turns, but to do 300 turns and flip in the air and connect the two movements without stopping—that takes you to a different level.”
Dance Brazil in Jelon Vieira’s Batuke (2011). Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy CAMI
Other dancers study capoeira for the physical workout. Vieira notes that many classical and contemporary dancers lack upper body strength, something capoeira demands. With its acrobatic elements, “your hands become another set of feet,” he says. And since it’s all about timing, capoeira can also help dancers with partnering. Eye contact and control is essential. “They kick and you respond with another kick or move away,” says Vieira, likening a game to a conversation. “You can feel the person. Two people become one.”
Turner says capoeira has made her a stronger dancer inside and out. And that’s why no matter what her future holds after Dance Brazil, she will keep playing. “It’s so much bigger than anything I’ve done,” she says. “Capoeira is a part of me now.”
Elaine Stuart is an NYC writer who has covered dance for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Capoeira “Cliffs Notes”
Many dance studios have added capoeira to their roster. Here are a few terms you might hear in class.
Ginga: “The soul of capoeira,” as instructor Tiba Vieira puts it; all other moves are built upon its rocking motion. A low, swooping side step (from a wide fourth on one side to a wide fourth on the other) with torso opposition, the ginga’s purpose is to ground the body and prepare it for more elaborate movements.
Atabaque: A large Afro-Brazilian hand drum, traditionally made of Jacaranda wood and calfskin, that’s often used by instructors to establish rhythms and lead songs. Most classes don’t have independent accompanists; capoeiristas are expected to play the indigenous instruments—like the atabaque, berimbau, pandeiro, and caxixi—as part of the form.
Roda: The circle in which capoeiristas face off; two dancers play in the center while those on the perimeter clap, sing folk songs, and watch for an opening to take their turn. The dancers replace each other seamlessly, moving in and out of the circle like liquid. Vieira often uses the image of water to describe the quality and philosophy of capoeira, because “it finds its way around anything.”
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.
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.
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?
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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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.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
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.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."