Inside Christine Shevchenko's Journey to Becoming Kitri—And an ABT Principal
Every soloist hopes and prays for the moment when their director offers that first big lead role. For American Ballet Theatre's Christine Shevchenko, it happened last November when artistic director Kevin McKenzie informed her that the following spring she'd dance the role of Kitri at the Metropolitan Opera House.
After three years as a soloist, she felt ready. Shevchenko was particularly glad that her first lead with ABT would be in Don Quixote. She'd won competitions with the third-act variation as a kid back at The Rock School for Dance Education. A few years ago, she danced the full ballet in Ukraine, the country where she was born, with the Donetsk Ballet. Plus, it's a fun ballet, she told me a few weeks before the debut. The whole cast is rooting for you, she says, clapping along, snapping their fingers.
I got to watch Shevchenko put the finishing touches on her interpretation in ABT's studios, and checked in with her occasionally before, the day of and after her debut.
Shevchenko began to rehearse in December. Since she knew the basic choreography already, she could focus on capturing the flamboyant, Spanish-flavored style and developing her interpretation. She was guided by ballet mistress and great former Soviet ballerina Irina Kolpakova, who focused more on presentation and technique, while McKenzie kept an eye on the big picture and worked on finessing the pas de deux.
Shevchenko had to decide what she wanted her Kitri to be like. "Obviously, she's very fiery," she says, but there are many nuances that can be layered onto the role. Some dancers, like the late Russian star Maya Plisetskaya, have played her as a blazing, larger-than-life character. Shevchenko, a dancer with a more soft-edged, sunnier disposition, opted for a different model: Ekaterina Maximova, a petite, sparkling Bolshoi dancer born 14 years after Plisetskaya. "Her Kitri was a little bit more refined, but with that same fight and energy," says Shevchenko.
The first act presented the most challenges, mostly because the style—broad, explosive, almost masculine—felt the least familiar. Shevchenko worked with Kolpakova on achieving a radiance and line that would help her take up more space onstage without looking forced or tense. Kolpakova pushed her to dance bigger, to use her shoulders more, to be more open and expressive.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko also worked with acting coach Byam Stevens to get a fuller sense of what makes Kitri tick. "What we were working toward was more about a certain soulfulness," says Stevens. There's the obvious, extroverted side of the role, which, Stevens says, can be a trap. But why is she that way? "I think that because she grew up without a mother, she always needs everyone's attention," says Shevchenko. By the third act, once Kitri is convinced that her sweetheart Basilio is trustworthy, she can relax and rely on her poise.
At a rehearsal with McKenzie about a month before the performance, Shevchenko seemed laid-back, open to trying different approaches. The one area she was still working on was her stamina. "I find the first act to be really exhausting," she told me, "because there's just so much jumping." To prepare, she was pushing the Gyrotonic and strengthening exercises, eating lots of anti-inflammatory foods like avocado and salmon, and making sure to get a lot of sleep.
The night before her debut, I texted her to see how she was feeling. "Very prepared and well rehearsed," she answered, "and I'm looking forward to just enjoying myself." She seemed remarkably calm. "She's incredibly confident," Stevens had told me earlier. "If she has a nerve, I don't know where that is."
On the morning of her matinee, Shevchenko was a little bit nervous—her first entrance, she says, was a blur. Still, she entered from stage left with a big, sailing jump and a bright, unforced smile. Her Kitri was playful and sunny. She didn't smack the stage with her fan; instead she sort of tapped it lightly on the beat. Her jumps were light and buoyant; her working leg flew up so high it looked like she might bop herself on the nose. (She didn't.)
She says she relaxed after her first variation. And her partner Alban Lendorf was a great source of support throughout the show. "I remember smiling at him and him smiling back." At each intermission, Kolpakova came back to offer support, along with a few suggestions, mostly about using her head more and dancing bigger. (This had been her constant refrain from the beginning of the process.)
Shevchenko's mother, stepfather and grandmother were in the audience, as well as her boyfriend, who, she says, was more nervous than she was. Backstage—and onstage—her friends cheered her on.
At one point in the third act she lost her balance in a promenade for just a fraction of a second, and then, at the start of her variation, she dropped her fan. Like a pro, she reached down, picked it up and kept right on going, without the slightest sign of distress. In fact, in the coda she peppered her fouettés with double turns, while showily opening and closing her fan. She was clearly enjoying herself.
The main takeaway from that first run was realizing how tiring it was to dance the whole ballet, from beginning to end. "I was surprised by how hard it was to get through it," she says, "just the exhaustion of it. After the first act you're so tired and you still have two more to go."
But there was something else: the sound of the applause at the end of her variations. "It felt crazy," she says, "that it was for me. I get goosebumps just thinking about it."
The night after Shevchenko's debut, she got a call from McKenzie. Principal Gillian Murphy was injured—could she step in? So it turned out she got to dance Kitri not once, but two days in a row. She felt lucky she had a chance to apply Kolpakova's suggestions the very next night. "The whole week felt surreal," Shevchenko says. Even so, she slept well. "I think my body needed it."
Photo via Instagram
Shortly after, she got more surprise news: Due to injuries, she would be debuting as Medora in Le Corsaire the following week. After cramming the choreography over the weekend, with the help of McKenzie, Kolpakova and Anna-Marie Holmes (the official stager of the ballet), she performed the ballet without a hitch. Another milestone, this one unexpected. Toward the end of the season she also had her scheduled debut in Balanchine's Mozartiana, alongside David Hallberg.
And then, in the company's final week at the Met, a prize that had seemed far-off in the future at the start of the season was hers: She was promoted to principal dancer.
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."