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Why I Gave Up Stardom at Cirque de Soleil to Pursue Classical Tajik Dance
Two years ago, I was touring the world as a principal dancer in Cirque du Soleil's production of Dralion. But after 1500 shows on a five-continent and 170-city tour, I left the commercial entertainment world to reconnect with the art form I'm most passionate about: Central Asian dance.
I have dedicated the last 18 years of my life to dance styles from the Central Asian Silk Road region. My fascination started when I was 13 and fell in love with the miniature paintings of Central Asian dancers and the Arabic calligraphic script I saw in museums. My mother, who is a classical Indian dancer, also danced in a Persian dance company. These influences prompted me to seek out the music, culture, dance and people of Central Asia.
People ask me, "What does that look like? It's kind of like Bellydance, right? " or "Yeah, I think I've seen that style before, isn't it kind of like Indian dance?" Central Asian dance is highly diverse and each regional style is evocative of its environment, acting as a living link to the land. Most people are surprised to learn that Tajikistan has a classical dance form called Shashmakom that is technically rigorous, and like ballet, was patronized in the royal courts of the Emirs and has been around for over a thousand years. Or Uyghur dance, for example, is highly rhythmic, with nuanced shoulder isolations, swift spins, complex footwork, knee spins, drops to the floor, backbends and fluid yet intricate hand gestures with specific finger placements. A lifetime of study in the style is not enough to learn all there is to know.
Months after leaving Cirque, I moved to Tajikistan. I had planned to stay for one month but ended up staying for a whole year and dancing as the first Westerner in Lola, the state-funded Tajik National Ensemble. The other dancers were confused, cautious and curious about me. In the beginning, I felt like a complete outsider. I was new to their culture, food and environment, and could not speak the language. My daily routine after a full day of rehearsals was to also take a private class to better understand the nuances of the different styles and to push myself technically. The other dancers observed my dedication, and over time I earned their trust and respect. By the end of the year, I learned how to speak street Tajik from vendors at the vegetable markets and made close friends with my fellow dancers.
Our company was commissioned to perform new works for state holidays on live television in large stadiums or at the opera house when the President was in attendance. We performed for heads of state and for private galas. Sometimes I had issues getting into high security buildings because of my American passport, so our director had to start carrying a certified paper clearing me for entrance. We toured within the country on poorly-maintained roads via a bus provided by the state. There were rarely enough seats for all of us, and often the men would stand for long parts of the journey so the women could sit. When people got tired we would smash four or five people to a seat depending on the length of the journey, which was sometimes up to 12 hours. Once, we travelled to the Pamir Mountains to perform a televised concert, and were taken on a state helicopter with no seats, just a shell and one long bench on either side.
During rehearsal one day, a local journalist noticed me and, thinking I was Tajik, invited me to participate in a televised dance competition which brought together dancers from every region of the country. I made it through all four rounds of cuts and amazingly, I won. I was given the title of Malika, Queen of Tajik dance, despite being an outsider to the region. I was stopped several times on the street by strangers—the produce guy at my local grocery store said he was excited to see me dance so beautifully in a style from his culture, and hoped that if a foreigner placed so much value on their art forms that local Tajiks would learn to appreciate these forms more themselves.
This year, I was selected by Forecast, an international mentorship platform, to have my work produced in Berlin under the mentorship of Richard Siegal. The piece uses ethno-contemporary Central Asian dance and music in collaboration with a 3D mapping artist and Paradise Sorouri, Afghanistan's first female rapper, to express the concepts of migration, otherness and gender inequality. The choreography pulls from my experiences living a single foreign woman dancing in the Tajik State Ensemble in Dushanbe.
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).