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On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Somewhere between Pacific Northwest Ballet's fall 2015 production of Kiyon Gaine's Sum Stravinsky and its winter 2016 Romeo et Juliette, Seth Orza completely changed his look: from a strong, commanding presence to a lanky, impetuous boy.
"For Romeo, I wanted to seem more youthful," says Orza. "I'm 6 feet, and I wanted to lose about 10 pounds."
All dancers work hard to hone technical skills and master thrilling moves. Musical dancers, however, offer something more. Their daring play with rhythm and their completely present reactions to the score make for bold performances that are mesmerizing to watch.
But how can performers learn to let music drive the dance? We asked some of today's most musical dancers how they do it.
It's been a year and a half since Carla Körbes retired from Pacific Northwest Ballet. In that time, Körbes has marked several life passages: a move to Los Angeles, a sumptuous wedding to photographer Patrick Fraser and the birth of their son, Rafael. She also became the associate artistic director of Los Angeles Dance Project at the invitation of Benjamin Millepied, who tasked her with helping to execute his artistic vision at LADP while he was also director of dance at the Paris Opéra Ballet. She returned to dancing last year as a guest artist in Vail, Washington, DC, and New York City, and marked her first appearance onstage with LADP in December, performing Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain with company member Morgan Lugo.
How has your experience of leaving the super-structured life of a PNB principal treated you? Have you enjoyed that uncertainty, or do you find yourself gravitating toward more-structured projects?
The certainty at PNB was attractive: You have very specific schedules, you know what you're getting paid. But I needed a change from the regularity of so many different programs in a performing season. I was stuck in a schedule that was hard on my body. Now, I teach, coach and perform. I am making my own structure, and the flexibility allows me to juggle much better being a working mom.
What attracted you to LADP?
The year I was retiring, I saw longtime friend and dance partner James Fayette after a performance in Los Angeles. I told him that I was trying to figure out what to do, and I soon got a call from Ben. It felt like a perfect opportunity. My husband lives in L.A.—and now it's my home.
Your role as associate artistic director has involved teaching at LADP and its affiliated school, The Colburn Dance Academy, coaching and dancing. What do you enjoy most about your work?
Most appealing to me is the group of dancers. They are young, and have a vocabulary different than what I am used to. Dancing for me is about awareness and involvement, and it's what I work on with the dancers. They're responsive—and hungry to grow as artists. Plus, I like being in an environment that's small enough so as not to be overwhelming. Directing a large company would be a huge commitment! I'm fortunate that I can still dance. I do some guesting, but I also am excited about dancing here in L.A.—my situation feels like a little piece of heaven.
What are some of the memorable guest performances you've done recently?
At the Kennedy Center in DC, I shared the stage with so many different artists, like Damian Woetzel and Heather Watts—it was thrilling. For Vail Dance Festival's New York City performances, I got another chance to take two masterpieces, Martha Graham's Lamentation and Balanchine's Élégie, and develop new interpretations.
What's next for you?
We shall see. I love being a mama, and since the baby was born, I have chosen to stay home rather than go on tour with the dancers. Still, being onstage for me is magical. I've traveled to Vail and NYC to perform, but those are shorter trips than going on a three-month tour of France! I thought I couldn't retire from a big company if I didn't know what the next thing would be, but I'm okay with the uncertainty. The dances I do now are really like a meditation for me.
Though it was only his first season in the corps, Dylan Wald was chosen for a career-defining role last fall: the sole dancer in Jessica Lang's The Calling. His presence, control and focus were astonishing. But Wald's precise sculpting of the dance, as well as his mature port de bras, is something he carried with him throughout the repertoire this past season at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Training: Minnesota Dance Theatre & the Dance Institute, Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Casting jackpot: Also during his first year in the corps, Wald had featured roles in Kent Stowell's Carmina Burana and Alejandro Cerrudo's Little mortal jump. One of his most demanding ballets was William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. “It's a difficult piece—fast cardio, full of jumps," he says. “I wanted to work as hard as I could to really experience the genius of Forsythe firsthand."
Tackling Balanchine: PNB soloist Margaret Mullin attributes their recent partnering success in Balanchine's Square Dance to Wald's unqualified commitment. “We were both premiering in this piece, so teamwork was key," she says. “Dylan was in the studio first thing every day. He works hard to develop his technique, and he makes me feel like my needs come first." To get through the ballet's technical challenges, Wald says, “I try to maintain a connection with my partner and keep up my sense of humor."
What his artistic director is saying: “Dylan works after class, he takes additional classes, he does strength training—he seems to be involved with dance 24/7," says Peter Boal. “When dancers have that level of commitment, there are results."
Head games: Wald's biggest challenge is staying calm. He says he needs to constantly remind himself not to think too far in advance. “I have the least control when I'm thinking two steps ahead," he says. “Trying to stay present helps. I call it 'training the brain.' But it's also important to be okay with being nervous. I try not to be too hard on myself—it's scary at first, but the nervousness goes away."
John Maniaci, Courtesy Li
The modern choreographer/dancer builds extreme strength.
In the final moments of her piece From Grace, Li Chiao-Ping carries three dancers across the stage. At 52 years old, this Wisconsin-based dancer/choreographer is as strong as ever.
A believer in daily strength training, Li sets the bar high for both the dancers in her company, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, and her students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Regular conditioning helps her develop power for the heavy lifting, quick falls and off-balance positions she uses in her work. About 20 years ago, she codified her exercises into a cross-training program for dancers, called “Extreme Moves.”
The class begins seated on a physio ball, bouncing lightly to work on balance and alignment. Push-ups and downward-dog–like balances follow. The idea is to perform an adaptable range of progressions, from beginner movements (such as a push-up with hands on the floor and hips supported by the ball) to more advanced ones (with the body in plank position, with just the toes on the ball, for example). Li believes that working with an unstable base like the ball stresses the core and upper body, building strength more quickly.
Janson Heintz, Courtesy Li
The class then works on different kinds of inversions, such as handstands, headstands, cartwheels, shoulder stands, elbow stands, handstand forward rolls and backward rolls into handstands. (Li was a gymnast before she became a dancer.) Careful to contextualize the strengthening moves within the framework of dance, Li builds phrase-work, improvisation and choreography into the workout to remind dancers that the skills they are working on apply directly to their art.
“You can use almost anything—cans of soup, one-gallon jugs of water—for weights and resistance. A towel or bedsheet works great for strengthening the arch of the foot.”
Pre-performance soup: “Having hot soup a couple hours before a show helps me feel grounded but not too full.”
Vegetarian compromise: “Dinner is usually rice, tofu and vegetables like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, green beans or asparagus. I am mostly vegetarian, but if I crave meat or fish, I eat it. The protein is especially important for strength training.”
Micronutrients: “I sometimes add Emergen-C to my water or tea as an extra precaution. I also eat bananas and other potassium-rich foods.”
More than fuel: “My mother gave me a more mystical sense of food. When my foot was badly injured, she prepared frog legs for me so that I could jump again.”
Justin Reiter is a monster onstage. With his exaggerated moves and outrageous riffs, the Whim W’Him dancer is barely manageable, hardly classifiable, but oh so stunning. His powerfully emotive torso conveys an urgency in the arc of each story he tells. Artistic director Olivier Wevers calls him “a beautiful creature.”
Outside the studio, Reiter likes cooking, crocheting and letter writing. “A handwritten letter is like a hug in an envelope,” he says. Photo by Bamberg Fine Arts, courtesy Whim W'Him.
Company: Whim W’Him
Hometown: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Training: BFA in dance from the University of Minnesota
On the map: In the past five years, the versatile dancer has performed the works of over 20 choreographers everywhere from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to New York City’s Central Park for SummerStage. He’s been a member of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theatre and Minneapolis’ Shapiro & Smith Dance and Contempo Physical Dance.
A magnetic pull: “I was drawn to Whim W’Him by its inventiveness,” says Reiter. “It was bringing in amazing choreographers from all over the world, and Olivier’s sock-clad, spirally, goofy aesthetic attracted me like Mondrian to primary colors.”
Technique and conditioning boosts: Reiter has trained in non-Western dance forms, such as East Indian, West African and Afro-Brazilian dance. “I practice hot yoga every day and Gaga/improvisation weekly,” he says. “It is important for me to have a regular improvisation practice so that I’m always expanding my range.”
What he’s working on: Mindfulness, anatomical awareness and the balance between effort and ease.
What Wevers is saying: “At Justin’s audition, I was immediately drawn to his sincere, gentle manners, his strong energy and his professionalism. He works in a very intelligent way that allows him to be extremely consistent.”
Challenges on the horizon: This month, Reiter will perform in Whim W’Him’s dancer-curated program. “Out of 100 choreographer applications, we chose three artists—Maurya Kerr, Ihsan Rustem and Joshua L. Peugh—to work with,” says Reiter. “I am ferociously excited to be part of the company’s vision of the dancers being full and involved artists.”
Frantziskonis’ current goal? To look relaxed onstage. Here, in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.
At about 5' 3", the petite Jahna Frantziskonis is a force onstage: all speed and lightness as Cupid in Don Quixote, technical and steely in Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and emotionally vulnerable in Nacho Duato’s intense Rassemblement. But the featured Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer is on the move. This July, she joins San Francisco Ballet’s corps to be closer to family and expand her growing repertoire.
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Hometown: Tucson, Arizona
Training: Ballet Arts Tucson, Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division
Breakout moment: Frantziskonis originated a featured role in 2013 in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station. The challenging choreography, which requires the dancer to slide across the floor in splits and, in the next moment, do a classical quadruple pirouette, was her first major role at PNB. “The whole experience was electrifying,” says Frantziskonis. “Before working with Tharp, I had held back at times, but she encouraged me to be more confident. I got to spend one-on-one time with her, and she built a lot of the material on me.”
Career highlight: This winter, Frantziskonis danced in PNB’s live stream of “Forsythe on Stage,” which reached 62 countries. She appeared in not one but two pas de deux in New Suite.
Pull of family and company: Frantziskonis’ brother is currently a student at SFB School. “He’s my best friend and before my last visit, I sent my materials in to San Francisco Ballet to take company class. I so enjoyed those classes. It was an unexpected but delightful surprise when I was offered a contract shortly after.”
What artistic staff are saying: For PNB artistic director Peter Boal, “Jahna shows a natural talent and fearlessness in her dancing.” SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson agrees: “Jahna is a lovely dancer with a lot of potential.” Christopher Stowell, an assistant to the artistic director and ballet master at SFB, praises her for her “beautiful, light jump and innate musicality.”
On joining SFB: “This career allows you to gain knowledge each step of the way,” she says. “SFB does a lot of touring and there are alternating reps for each season program. A dancer can be a Shade and in the same week dance Forsythe. It is a bit thrilling to be moving to a new place.”
This Pacific Northwest Ballet principal goes for a run almost every day.
Above: In Kiyon Gaines’ Sum Stravinsky. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
As a kid, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Maria Chapman loved sprinting, but she gave it up for ballet at age 13. She started running again only after joining PNB in 1995, when she began including running drills in her cross-training routine with former Olympian Peter Shmock.
Today, she can’t imagine not running regularly. “I try to run every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes if my schedule is tight,” Chapman says. She typically goes for a run of up to 45 minutes before morning class, taking her dog to a grassy lakefront trail. She mixes up her program to include intervals some days, faster, shorter runs on other days and occasionally slower, longer jogs. “They each offer their own benefits, and I don’t want my body getting used to one thing.” Sometimes she’ll run later, to warm up before evening rehearsals or performances.
Does she worry about repetitive-stress injuries? “I don’t really run enough to cause stress. And stretching my calves, quads, hamstrings and outside leg muscles following each run helps me avoid injury,” says Chapman. “If I were to ever feel that running was too much on my body, I would ramp down. My ballet performances are my ultimate goal, and any cross-training I do has to support that goal.”
“Running wakes me up when I’m tired and picks me up when I’m down.”—Maria Chapman
Even after surgery for a metatarsal dislocation in her mid-foot in 2009, Chapman (with her doctor’s approval) was running within two months—long before returning to ballet class. In fact, she feels that running helped her rehabilitation process. “The single-plane movement made it a good choice, easier to manage compared to ballet with its constant changes of direction,” says Chapman.
Today, running helps Chapman’s endurance. “I definitely increase my miles when I am preparing for a demanding role like Myrtha that requires a lot of stamina,” says Chapman. “I generally need at least six weeks of the increased intensity.”
But the benefits go beyond the physical perks. “Running gives me the alertness, mental ability and focus I need for dancing. It wakes me up when I’m tired and picks me up when I’m a little down. I can’t imagine not running—it makes me feel so strong.”
Her Shoes: Brooks PureFlow 3
Chapman finds they help support her high arches and 5' 6" frame. “I like minimal padding so my heel is on the same level as the ball of my foot,”
she says. “It encourages the forward-leaning type of running that I do.” It also helps to keep her from landing too hard on her heels.
Maria’s favorite conditioning exercises for running
• For lower body: Tie a Thera-Band around your calves or ankles and practice squat reps, then squat and walk side to side, paying attention to proper alignment.
• For core and inner thigh: Practice sit-ups, bridges and side planks with a ball, pillow or medium-tension resistance ring between the legs.
• For calves: Relevé on pointe 10 times turned out and 10 times in parallel, then élevé 10 times turned out and 10 times in parallel. Repeat or increase reps as needed.
Above photo: Courtesy Brooks
Prepping for class at the Spectrum Dance Theater studios
Photo by Nate Watters for DM.
Space is at a premium in the Spectrum Dance Theater studios in Seattle, but this doesn’t stop 24-year-old Shadou Mintrone from rehearsing in any available corner. She’s running her six-minute quirky, energetic solo in artistic director Donald Byrd’s Soapbox, bounding through the room with her explosive jumps and lengthy extensions.
The 5' 2" dancer accepts the challenge of being “a short, muscular girl in a world that idolizes thin, long limbs.” Nevertheless, she moves in an extraordinary way, with both steady determination and high drama. Her focus gives a strong directionality to Byrd’s ferocious choreography.
The intense work packs an emotional and physical wallop. “But that makes the choreography genuine, immediate,” says Mintrone, who is starting her third season with the company. “And then it’s all the more necessary to listen to my body.
“Emotionally, I’ve totally shifted how I think of myself as a dancer,” she continues. “All of a sudden, I feel I’m only competing with myself. Dance is about me, not about what I should be.” Still, the challenges of dancing and teaching 8 to 10 hours a day can take its toll. Dance Magazine spoke to Mintrone to find out how she stays fully charged through it all.
Waking up at least three hours before class, Mintrone prepares a big breakfast: eggs and toast with coffee and cold lemon water, oatmeal, or yogurt with fruit. She makes time to read in the morning and then dress glamorously, even when her destination is only rehearsal.
Mintrone wears makeup every day—red lipstick and plenty of mascara to open up her naturally large eyes. It wears off in rehearsal, but she doesn’t care. “I grew up idolizing Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and those women always had makeup on,” she says. “It makes me feel ready for the day, able to perform, able to act a character. It adds sass to my already wild style.”
At the Studio
Mintrone typically gets to the studio early to do Pilates and abdominal work before class. “It fires up my energy and gets my blood circulating,” she says. Next come isolation exercises for her head, neck, spine, and torso. She takes a daily 90-minute ballet class at Spectrum, and that’s followed by four to five hours of rehearsal.
Though she’s not one to frequent the gym—her daily activity is enough to keep her body in shape—she may tweak her regimen. “Depending on the show, I may stretch less and do more push-ups—I need biceps!” she says. “Or, maybe I need to be in runner shape, like for Byrd’s A Cruel New World/the new normal. Then I need stamina and calves!”
Over the years Mintrone developed a neuroma (a swollen nerve) in her left foot. “It’s painful in relevé, so arnica and ibuprofen are pretty regimented in my diet,” she says. “Most often I give 100 percent to my day of dancing—but other times I might sit out and stretch during grand allégro, or only do pirouettes on one side, and just relevé in passé on the other.”
Mintrone cooks at home whenever she has the time, only going out to eat for special occasions or if she’s on tour. She believes that the most nutritious foods—essential for a healthy body—are fresh, whole, and seasonal. “My weaknesses with food are absolutely genetic! I love my mother’s Italian dishes, and will always prefer a plate of pasta over anything else.” Her staples? “Tofu and mixed veggie dish for my roommate and me,” she says, “or I’ll make a really big salad with some rice dish on the side.”
Mintrone teaches ballet, jazz, and tap three to four nights a week at a nearby studio. That can mean going until 9:30 at night after a full day of dancing, which is tough on the body.
In class she wears sneakers, which gives extra support to her ankles and feet. (She removes her shoes to demonstrate specific foot actions when necessary.) She’ll occasionally join in, too: “I stretch with my classes, do relevés, and crunches,” she says. “It helps my body wind down from the intensity of rehearsal. I think if I didn’t teach at night, my muscles would be tense and achy.” And there’s another perk, too. For her, being around young dancers is a “fresh reminder that what I do is so precious and unique.”
Shadou's Stretches for Leg Length
-- Move gently into a low runner’s lunge (bending your right knee at 90-degrees and extending your left leg to the back to stretch the hip flexors).
-- Lower your left knee, and grab your left foot with your right hand.
-- Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
-- Repeat on other side.
-- Return to a low runner’s lunge, right leg bent, left leg straight back.
-- Staying low to the ground, rotate to the left to open your hips. Make sure to keep your right bent knee over your toes and your left leg straight. Your left foot will flex.
-- Gently slide into a center split.
-- To complete the exercise, return to the lunge position, straighten your right leg, and return to standing. Repeat on other side.
Gigi Berardi is a Dance Magazine contributing editor.
40 years of PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet is celebrating its 40th anniversary with six world premieres, tours, and the return of nearly a dozen former PNB dancers to the stage. Guest appearances by Patricia Barker, Louise Nadeau, Jeffrey Stanton, Olivier Wevers, and others can be considered a validation of what artistic director Peter Boal is doing—and vice versa. For Barker, now artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, “To be on the Seattle stage once again was like coming home for the holidays. It was filled with joyful memories, and a sense of proud accomplishment to be part of the continued good work.”
At left: Carla Körbes of PNB rehearsing Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
This season the company tours to Spoleto, Victoria, Las Vegas—and to New York City with the full company for the first time in 17 years. The New York engagement at City Center includes Apollo, staged by artistic director Peter Boal, and Concerto Barocco and Agon, staged by Francia Russell. The company also dances Jean-Christophe Maillot’s mesmerizing Roméo et Juliette. Music director Emil de Cou will conduct the 60-member PNB orchestra.
“An important part of our identity remains Balanchine,” says Boal. “From founding artistic forces Janet Reed and then Melissa Hayden to the 28-year tenure of Francia Russell and Kent Stowell—who continue to stage works here—the Balanchine repertory continues to build.” Of PNB’s 40 Balanchine ballets, Boal has acquired nine.
But he also has added the work of more than 20 choreographers new to the company. And with two-thirds of the dancers having been hired by Boal since his arrival seven years ago, PNB is most certainly a different company. In guiding PNB, “It’s been important for me to experiment with choreography,” says Boal. “Could we do [David] Parsons’ Caught and also act in Roméo et Juliette or sing in West Side Story? This is how I find out who the company is and then lead the company to what they could be tomorrow.”