Dancers Trending

Inside Christine Shevchenko's Journey to Becoming Kitri—And an ABT Principal

Kyle Froman

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.

The Preparations

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.

Kyle Froman

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.

Kyle Froman

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."

Kyle Froman

The Performance

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.

Kyle Froman

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 Coda

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.

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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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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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.

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Getty Images

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—JR, Hoboken, NJ

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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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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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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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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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