A former dancer with Milwaukee Ballet Company, Candice Thompson received her MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a co-founder of DIYdancer, and currently based in Atlanta, GA.
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.
With over 68 new works in its 13-year history, BalletX is known for being an epicenter of creation. The company will outdo itself in its 2018–19 season, treating Philadelphia to seven new works, four of them by women. "We are interested in growing, not cutting costs," says artistic director Christine Cox. "The unknown adventure of new ballets means there is an unknown process and a different learning curve we get to work on every day."
For Ashley Wegmann, food is about fuel, but it is also about community. A few times a month, she joins a group of Atlanta Ballet dancers for a rotating party they call "Family Dinner."
"Someone hosts, and we all help prep and cook while snacking and drinking wine," says Wegmann. The group also hosts a big Thanksgiving dinner each year since the dancers are always busy rehearsing The Nutcracker, and most don't live close enough to family to travel home.
As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."
Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.
Samar Haddad King lives in Palestine but regularly choreographs on dancers in New York City for her company Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre. While technology has helped her bridge an ocean, she has also found it useful when checkpoints and road closures make travel between Israel and Palestine difficult—if not impossible—for her local company members. Choreographing remotely has allowed her to keep creating despite physical barriers.
Though few choreographers are working with such difficult geopolitics, many are finding that constrained rehearsal schedules and budgets require some amount of remote work. Video conferencing and smartphone apps make it possible to at least share the same screen space. But there are pros and cons to creating this way. Choreographers and dancers can be freed up for more opportunities. Yet almost all would still prefer to be in the same room, collaborating in real time.
Here's how some choreographers are making it happen:
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
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While there are more women making dance than ever before, the question still swirls: Do they have the same programming and mentoring opportunities as their male counterparts? This spring, Ballet West and the University of Southern California are choosing to tackle the question head-on, with performances and residencies that focus on female dancemakers.
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Update: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has released the following statement:
"Following Chase Johnsey's claims of harassment and discrimination by the management of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and his subsequent resignation, the Board engaged an independent investigator to review these claims, including interviewing 24 witnesses that included current and former company members. On the issue of legal claims, the investigator did not find that any substantiated legal claims were presented. However, any assessment of an organization will reveal areas where things can be improved, and the Board has faith that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and its management team will benefit from this process and will use this assessment to continue the company on a successful trajectory."
On January 1st, Chase Johnsey resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In a YouTube video, he outlined allegations of harassment and humiliation over his celebrated 14-year tenure with the company, ranging from discrimination for appearing too feminine to being told that he could no longer perform with the company should he choose to undergo a gender transition.
While the company has issued a statement denying Johnsey's claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, they have also hired an independent, outside expert to investigate the allegations. We caught up with Johnsey by phone in Barcelona, where he has decamped with his husband.
When Roman Baca returned home from active duty in Iraq in 2007, he found himself having a tough time transitioning to civilian life. "I remember a couple of instances where I was mean and angry and depressed," says Baca. "My wife sat me down and said, 'You are not the same guy I knew before.' " She suggested Baca return to his roots in dance. "She asked me, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?' " Ten years later, Baca seems to be well on his way to answering that question as a Fulbright Fellow in London, working to educate audiences about the realities of war through dance.
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
The first time I saw a Hofesh Shechter work, the usher handed me a program and a pair of earplugs as I walked up to the theater door. I was running late so I stuffed the tiny foam pieces in my pocket. I could not imagine in what universe I would ever need such things if I didn't even use them at rock concerts. And then I walked into the theater. I was pleasantly surprised to be accosted by the decibel level of what appeared to be a death metal band playing live for Shechter's Political Mother. I never used the earplugs, but perhaps the usual concert dance audience was grateful for the gesture.
In 2012, the show was a surprise even by the standards of Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In the years since, the Israeli choreographer has continued to shock and awe American audiences with his powerful, raw dance theater. His latest creation, Grand Finale, is a mature study in the contrasts and contradictions, the violence and the transcendence, that mark the modern human condition. I caught up with Shechter, now based in London, ahead of the work's appearance at BAM Next Wave November 9–11.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
What was your inspiration for Grand Finale? Is it purely abstract or is there a story in it for you?
I try to make work that is like a real night dream: You feel a lot of things and kind of know where you are are, and you kind of understand what is happening. It is an opportunity to express and digest a lot of emotions in the world today and in my life. And the responses are subjective; some people speak to me about the absolute despair in it and some speak of the hope they see, a shining star in the dark or a celebration of life. I think these two powers just exist together. There is a feeling of celebrating life regardless of how difficult it is, and, perhaps new to me, the feeling that there is beauty in the horrifying truth of our world, in what people are and how they behave. I was trying to make poetry with atrocities around me.
This past spring, Atlanta gave birth to a brand-new dance company: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. Embracing a do-it-yourself spirit in a city fond of entrepreneurship, its five founding members created Terminus following last year's leadership change at their former home, Atlanta Ballet.
When John McFall announced that he would retire from Atlanta Ballet at the end of the 2015–16 season, after 21 years, a search for the next artistic director began. The search committee included prominent dancers Tara Lee, Christian Clark, Heath Gill and Rachel Van Buskirk. On the short list was John Welker, McFall's protégé and a veteran company member. Welker had founded and spent several years producing Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet's summer company, and the four dancers felt that he would be the ideal choice. When the board named Gennadi Nedvigin the new artistic director instead, Welker chose to retire and focus on finishing his degree at Kennesaw State University while the other four began to mull over a plan B. "We felt a drastic pivot in process and culture," says Welker. "We were also all at a point in our careers where we were recognizing time was short. So we asked ourselves, 'What do we want? How do we make this a positive thing?' "
Whether you've just started on the circuit or you're already the proud owner of several medals, dance competitions can be nerve-wracking. How can you make the most of the experience? Three former comp kids who've gone on to find major success in their careers shared their top tips.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
At Cincinnati Ballet, the 2017–18 season boasts that 8 out of the 15 company productions are from female choreographers. For the past five seasons, Cincinnati Ballet had devoted one program a year to works by women, which allowed for a directed conversation about the need for female voices. "People always responded strongly to that series, so I thought, Why am I sequestering them?" says artistic director Victoria Morgan. "We have enough feistiness to respond to the conversations that are happening, not only in our community but across the country, about the lack of women in leadership."
Go into almost any dance studio, and you'll find students anxiously trying to stretch their feet. They'll force their body's weight over their toes, or ask a friend to sit on their arches. But stretching your feet might not actually be the most effective strategy to improve your line.
"Stretching is a strategy to go after a tight muscle," explains Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet. "But a better-looking foot is not just a range-of-motion issue. What most dancers are after when they want 'better feet' is more about strength and support of the bony structure."
While David Hallberg was recovering from Achilles tendinopathy, one of the treatments that the Australian Ballet rehab team gave him was a stair running exercise. "This is an exercise David needs to continue to do forever, every day," says AB's principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes.
The basic idea is to run up and down flights of stairs to the beat of a metronome in order to monitor and challenge the intensity and volume of loading on the Achilles tendon. The exercise simultaneously strengthens the tendon and provides a cardiovascular workout.
Back in 2002, dancer and choreographer Jonah Bokaer founded an art space in Brooklyn called Chez Bushwick. As Manhattan and Brooklyn were quickly becoming unaffordable, and many studio spaces were closing, Bokaer seized upon "creative placemaking"—the idea that the arts can play an integral role in community-building—before it became a buzzword. "We have been sustaining and maintaining one of the most affordable dance studios in New York State since the very beginning of my career," he says.
Fifteen years later, the challenges for choreographers in expensive urban centers continue unabated, and Bokaer has found his original mission magnified. While Chez Bushwick remains a haven for the next generation, there is also a growing number of young dancemakers who have been inspired to create their own residencies, communities and, ultimately, opportunities.