Over eight years, Sasha Mukhamedov rose through Dutch National Ballet to become a principal dancer in 2016. Of its ranks—aspirant, élève, corps de ballet, coryphée, grand sujet, soloist and principal—she skipped élève and grand sujet along the way. "In having these levels, if you feel you've done well and your director is happy and promotes you, it gives you this motivational push knowing you made it one step closer to what you've dreamed of," she says.
Many large European ballet companies have preserved the traditional multi-runged ladder of rankings, which originated with the Paris Opéra Ballet. (DNB dropped the aspirant level in 2013 with the addition of its second company.) Others, like The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Dresden Semperoper Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and English National Ballet retain at least five levels.
Paul Taylor cultivated many brilliant dancers during his 60-plus-year career, but seldom have any commanded such a place of authority and artistry as Michael Trusnovec. He models what it takes to become a great Taylor dancer: weight of movement, thorough grasp of style, deep concentration, steadfast partnering, complete dedication to the choreography and a nuanced response to the music.
Trusnovec can simultaneously make choreography sexy and enlightened, and he can do it within one phrase of movement. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has excelled in roles as diverse as the tormented and tormenting preacher in Speaking in Tongues; the lyrical central figure—one of Taylor's own sacred roles—in Aureole; the dogged detective in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); and the corporate devil in Banquet of Vultures.
"Ballet," said George Balanchine, "is woman." Throughout his long choreographic career, he placed the ballerina at the center of the action, and all eyes were on her. There are numerous examples, from Mozartiana to Theme and Variations, Square Dance and Chaconne.
In this sense, Balanchine was carrying on the tradition of Marius Petipa and other 19th-century choreographers whose story ballets, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, featured vibrant ballerinas at the heart of their tales.
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
While directing and choreographing the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the musical Bandstand, Andy Blankenbuehler found himself tied into knots. After the wild success of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton, for which he would win the 2016 Tony Award for Best Choreography, he began comparing his unsatisfactory rehearsal rut to what he called "the best work of my career."
"I was really struggling," he says. "I knew I wasn't reaching the same bar as I had with Hamilton." Seeing his frustration, his wife reminded him that there would never be another Hamilton—but that didn't mean his other work couldn't be great, too. "She saw how I was beating myself up trying to accomplish a similar thing." Happy ending detour: Blankenbuehler regained his footing and won his third Tony Award for choreography for the Broadway production of Bandstand.
Petipa relied on Tchaikovsky, Balanchine bonded with Stravinsky and Merce Cunningham collaborated with John Cage. When a choreographer cultivates a special partnership with a composer, their collaborations often take on a deeper richness. In the current creative climate, young choreographers have successfully enticed composers to lay out their musical blueprints for both narrative and non-narrative ballets.
Joby Talbot has written highly memorable scores: the whimsical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with its fantastical percussion and its riff on the "Rose Adagio," illustrates Christopher Wheeldon's trippy imagination. Similarly, the drama and joy of his Winter's Tale lay the groundwork for Wheeldon's contrast of the night and day of the ballet's moods.
Now more than ever, ballet companies are searching for creative ways to build revenue. One tactic has stood out: patrons choosing to donate via the sponsorship of a particular dancer. Often implemented by large troupes like American Ballet Theatre (all of its principals and most soloists have sponsors), the trend has now reached smaller companies such as Cincinnati Ballet and Carolina Ballet.
The History of the Tradition
The custom of bankrolling dancers goes back at least to the 19th century and the Paris Opéra. The right amount of money guaranteed a patron a visitation to the foyer de la danse, built as a space for the men to mingle with the ballerinas. (The foyer was off limits to wives and male dancers.) Louis Véron, a director of the Paris Opéra in the 1830s, observed that "attending the Opéra was fashionable; keeping a ballet girl even more so." Fortunately, 21st-century patrons aren't allowed to indulge such salacious intentions.
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While still in the corps of New York City Ballet, Jason Fowler was drawn to the role of répétiteur. "Ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy was my rock in the company," he says. Fowler loved the process: learning steps quickly and absorbing the choreographer's intentions. He knew early on he wanted to nurture dancers through the rehearsal period one day. So it comes as little surprise that 20 years later, Fowler is a primary stager of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets around the globe.
Fowler first met Wheeldon as a student at the School of American Ballet in 1993, where he danced in the workshop performance of Wheeldon's Danses Bohemiennes. He was promoted to NYCB soloist in 2006, and performed with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses, on the side. Wheeldon first asked him to teach and rehearse one of his ballets, There Where She Loved, on a Morphoses tour to Vail International Dance Festival in 2008.
How three ballerinas have deepened their approach to a career-defining role
Some ballerinas seem destined to embody certain roles. At her debut, there's a palpable buzz. Over a career, however, her interpretation begins to reflect her maturity and worldliness. A deepening occurs that doesn't lessen her former renditions, but that instead gives an audience—especially those lucky enough to follow the career arc—a delicious new experience. Here, three beloved ballerinas speak about the trajectory of their signature roles.
ALESSANDRA FERRI: JULIET
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor. Courtesy ABT.
When Alessandra Ferri made her debut as Juliet, she was 21. “At the time I was just a sheer force of nature," she says, laughing. “I don't recall it exactly, and if I did, I would be lying. But I remember exactly how I felt: It was like an explosion—everything blown out of me." The performance with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden that night was an open “Promenade Evening," where audience members paid a pound for admission and often left chewing gum on the seats. But at the curtain calls, the crowd went wild.
When Ferri performed Juliet with American Ballet Theatre last summer, she was 53—and again, the crowd went wild.
No one would dispute that Juliet is a role that Ferri was born to dance, or, as she says, “It's the role of my soul." (She claims that no ballerina's interpretation influenced her; her Juliet is hers alone.) But over the last 32 years, Ferri's Juliet has evolved. Early in her career, she says, her approach “was super-instinctive, like a puppy." Over three decades, an emotional awareness and consciousness blossomed to deepen her character's involvement with the story, and that enabled her to bring more nuance to scenes such as the bedroom pas de deux. “Once I started having experiences that were happy or painful, I was looking at myself, and I was looking at the role," she says.
Photo Courtesy ABT.
No matter when she dances Juliet, she says, “that girl is made of fire." It's how the fire is handled that's different. “When you're young and naive you don't fear as much because you don't understand the repercussions," she says. “I think that is a very hard balance to find—the purity of feelings and also the curiosity of discovering your own woman. The older I got, the more I understood that." Ferri also discovered the power of stillness—simply being rather than doing.
Working with different partners—and there have been many: Wayne Eagling, Julio Bocca, Angel Corella and, most recently, Herman Cornejo—changes the onstage chemistry of the ballet. “There are people you feel an affinity with that is very clear and others which are more complicated," she explains. “I enjoy dancing this role with people who dance completely with their heart out, because I put the whole of myself there. I need that from a partner. I hate to be alone onstage."
One thing has remained constant in this role throughout her career: She hasn't tampered with the flighty girlish innocence of the opening nursery scene.
Juliet has become central to her in many ways. “It's part of me, part of my DNA," she says. “I know everything about that period, where the story takes place. I don't know why, but I imagine what the streets were like, I know the texture of the clothes, everything speaks to me about that role of Juliet." Once you open that door, she says, “the role becomes eternal."
YUAN YUAN TAN: GISELLE
John Neumeier's coaching in The Little Mermaid helped Tan make her mad scene feel more authentic. Photo by Erik Tomasson. Courtesy SFB.
The character of Giselle possesses a vulnerability and an ethereal essence that comes completely naturally to Yuan Yuan Tan. She has immersed herself in the character since she was 16, when she danced the second-act pas de deux at the Shanghai Dancing School and, later, at international ballet competitions as a teenager. “You are human in the first act, with a mad scene that is a test for your ability to act," says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “Then in the second act, you transform yourself into a Wili, which is technically very demanding because your dancing has to be as weightless as possible. It's hard to do, but this ballet gives me such joy."
The first time she danced the entire ballet, Tan was 23, coached by Helgi Tomasson in his production of Giselle. She had watched tapes of Natalia Makarova and Carla Fracci to absorb nuances of the port de bras and hands and the focus of the head and eyes. While technically strong in the ballet, Tan felt that her artistry came more slowly, even though she had opened herself up in the mad scene to the point where, she says, “I had real tears in my eyes, and I hope the audience did, too."
Photo Courtesy SFB.
Paradoxically, a watershed change in her Giselle interpretation came from dancing a 21st-century work: John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. “That really opened my artistry a great deal," she says. Neumeier's coaching on his ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's poignant story allowed her to root out Giselle's emotional core as both the earthly and the spectral Giselle. “He taught me how to tune in to my innermost feelings and dig deeper, rather than just act the part," she says. “That experience helped me in the mad scene in Giselle, where I was able to hone in on a mixture of emotions—from confusion to betrayal and anger to sadness—to become more than just a character in a story. I've made it an authentic experience for myself, thanks to John's coaching."
She sees similarities between the tragic mermaid and the unhinged Giselle. “In Act I of Giselle, you finish heartbroken," explains Tan. In the end, she says, “they are both stories of forgiveness."
Nevertheless, her Giselle's innocence in the beginning of the ballet has been consistent. “She is shy, vulnerable and happy and in love," she says. “That never changed."
Photo Courtesy SFB.
In October 2015, Tan danced Giselle in Beijing with SFB. “I think that was my best Giselle ever," she says. “Helgi also said that. I was proud and happy to dance in my country. The audience and the energy—that was different."
SARA MEARNS: ODETTE/ODILE
Photo Courtesy NYCB.
Tchaikovsky composed his music as if his life depended on it, and Sara Mearns dances Tchaikovsky with the same sense of urgency. “With Tchaikovsky it's very emotional and dramatic," says Mearns. “It's not small in any way, even in a quiet moment. Every moment means something. Tchaikovsky has a way of tapping into those really deep parts that enable you to let yourself go and let it all out."
That connection to Tchaikovsky, along with Mearns' obsession with a VHS tape of Natalia Makarova's Swan Lake performance with ABT in 1975, prepared her for a shot-out-of-a-cannon debut in New York City Ballet's Swan Lake in 2006. Even though the 19-year-old Mearns had never danced a soloist role with the company, Peter Martins wanted her to learn Odette/Odile three weeks before her scheduled matinee. Adding to the intensity, Mearns contracted a stomach flu the day before. “It was surreal, it was shocking," says Mearns. “I didn't really have any time to get nervous or freak out about it. Or even think about it."
After the performance Merrill Ashley, who had taught her the role, came backstage with tears in her eyes. “I thought, 'I guess I did a good job,' " recalls Mearns. “I was in a daze. I have vivid pictures in my mind of moments right after the show—it was kind of out-of-body, as if I was looking at it from above."
Photo Courtesy NYCB.
Still, from the roots of that auspicious debut, Mearns has wholeheartedly expanded her interpretation of the dual role. “I definitely approach steps differently, and some steps I emphasize more now. The in-between steps are much more important to me than the tricks—every gesture, every facial expression. I've done the fouettés many times, the solos, the codas, all of that. Everybody does that. But what else do you have to give to it? What comes after that?"
A Valentine's Day–weekend performance in 2011 proved to be a turning point in her portrayal. Mearns and her partner Jared Angle (she calls him her Swan Lake “soul mate") had weathered a marathon week of repertory ballets and the opening night of Swan Lake. For the Sunday performance, she says, “We couldn't see straight, we were so tired." She didn't think her way through the performance, but instead surrendered to her muscle memory and gut passion. “I never thought about a step, never thought about my turns, nothing," she says. “I believe that was the best show I've ever had in my career." The thunderous applause at the end reminded her of the ovation for Makarova on the videotape (which she still watches before every Swan Lake).
“What I learned from that is that it's a much bigger picture—it's not about the steps. It's about what you give emotionally and fully to your performance and the captivating moments at the end that everybody is waiting for." As Odile, Mearns thinks of a type of “vicious, puppet-like person who doesn't really have a soul," easily capable of betrayal. “I've brought it to a human level, and that's how I portray it," she says. “Whatever I've gone through—either that day or that year, or for the past 10 years—all goes into that performance."
Seeing the world's greatest ballet companies and comparing their styles and personalities is a ballet lover's dream. On October 4, fans will have the chance to do just that as five companies participate in the third annual 23-hour live-streaming event known as World Ballet Day LIVE. The Royal Ballet, The Australian Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and National Ballet of Canada will throw open their doors for four hours each of classes, rehearsals, interviews and backstage preparations on worldballetday.com. Each host company will also show a prerecorded video package of two or three other ballet companies roughly in their time zone.
The inspiration for World Ballet Day LIVE came from The Royal Ballet, which in 2012 hosted its own nine-hour live-streaming event via YouTube and The Guardian website, called Royal Ballet Live. It was so successful that in 2014 the troupe decided to invite other companies for a full-day event starting in Australia and ending in San Francisco. “The goal was to highlight the art form for a wider audience, to create the opportunity to talk about ballet in a different way and to allow general audiences behind the scenes to see what a day in the life of a ballet company looks like," says Mary Beth Smith, San Francisco Ballet's director of marketing and communications.
Due to viewer requests, this year's web stream will feature entire company classes, including barre. Because SFB will be rehearsing for an upcoming tour of Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella and performances of William Forsythe's Pas/Part 2016, those ballets are likely to be seen in rehearsal. National Ballet of Canada will feature rehearsals of Onegin, Cinderella and a film of The Dreamers Ever Leave You, choreographic associate Robert Binet's audience-immersive ballet inspired by the paintings of Lawren Harris, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Viewers can bank on there being equally exciting and diverse programming from The Royal Ballet, The Australian Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet in the midst of their fall seasons.
The continued participation of the five ballet companies has real advantages. In 2014, SFB saw $80,000 of revenue impact from the webcast by running promotional ticket discounts during the event. “World Ballet Day LIVE gives us the opportunity to create a sense of community with this art form we all care about so much. It's clearly getting a very sizable audience and it's growing pretty dramatically each year," says Caroline Giese, SFB's artistic administrator. Last year the event clocked in 350,000 live-stream views. “It's an opportunity to engage our existing audience and audiences around the world and provide them with the answer to the question: 'How do you do what you do?' "
Melody Mennite's first published review hurt like a punch in the gut.
While dancing Clara's solo in The Nutcracker, Mennite, then a teen, decided to sustain a balance for a few seconds. “I got greedy and held it too long and then fell flat on my face," says Mennite, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet since 2008. The critic who reviewed the show gleefully called her out on her face-planting. “I was mortified," she says. “But, even though it was there in the newspaper, I've always been able to laugh at myself. My very first review set me up really well to let stuff roll off my back."
Mennite performing in Paquita choreographed by Stanton Welch.Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Nobody enjoys getting a bad review. Whether in print or online, it can feel like public humiliation. The purpose of reviews is to help readers understand the value and quality of a performance, to analyze it and provide some historical context. Some critics take the responsibility quite seriously, while others indulge all their feelings, no matter how petty. In the world of cyberspace, anyone can become a critic, so it's no longer only the traditional print journalists creating the noise. And while the performers themselves aren't the target audience of reviews, reading about yourself can become as addictive as it can be deflating.
After a performance, some dancers simply choose to avoid their reviews altogether. Veronika Part, a principal with American Ballet Theatre since 2009, has been the subject of polarized reactions from critics who have either thrilled to her dancing or shrugged lukewarmly. In response, she chooses not to read reviews of any kind. “I learned early on in my career that if I didn't want to listen to the bad reviews, I should also ignore the good ones," she says.
Photo by Gene Shiavone.
Other performers simply remain cautious. “You have to go in and say, 'Am I sure I want to read this? Can I handle it?' " says McGee Maddox, a National Ballet of Canada principal. “If you expect something bad to happen, you don't have to read it." More than a decade in the ballet business has armored him for any acidic comments. “When I was younger I probably would have stewed about reviews, but now I'm aware of what the source is, what their agenda is," he says, referring to critics who try to create a splash in print or satisfy their need to opine. “Critics and bloggers are part of a world that doesn't affect how I enjoy my job or how I approach my work."
Maddox performing in Swan Lake.Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Not all dancers take their criticism so silently, especially when a comment feels out of bounds. There have been significant instances of dancers aiming back at critics, such as when Jenifer Ringer, then a New York City Ballet principal, nobly defended herself on NBC's “Today" show against Alastair Macaulay's piercing critique of her weight. Another came after the 1994 premiere of Bill T. Jones' Still/Here, when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce—without having seen the work—complained about “dancers I'm forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women or disfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art." Jones, taking offense as a dancer, choreographer and person, returned the favor by claiming Croce was among those who “have a frightened and limited definition of normal."
Absorb and Move On
With the right approach, reviews can be used constructively. Jenna Riegel, who currently dances with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, recently took the blunt impact of a 2015 review of the premiere of Jones' Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, based on the experiences of Jones' mother-in-law, Dora, as a French Jewish nurse during World War II. In his June review, New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Yet the excellent dancers must also speak, and their amateurish line readings continually undermine the show." Although many women share the vocalization of Dora's words, Riegel says, “I think I took it to heart a little more because I carry a good load of that text." Riegel reacted to the review in two ways. First, she tried to see what could be positively gleaned from it. “What of that can I take in?" she asked herself. “Could the nuances be shifted?" But she also wanted to respect Jones' intention that the dancers' personas shine through, rather than to offer a literal reading of one woman's voice. She ultimately decided that her approach could be “a little more fluid," but her own voice needed to be heard—a director's motivation that the reviewer might not be aware of.
Photo by Paul B. Goode.
Even vague critiques can lead to breakthroughs. When Mennite was granted first cast of the title role of La Sylphide, she and her partner worked exhaustively with a Bournonville expert to hone the tone, precision, style and drama of the ballet. Most of the reviews skewed positively, but one stung. “The writer critiqued me as not being a mature enough dancer to grasp the nuances of the role," she says. “And then the review said that my partner and I just needed some time." Although she felt let down, those comments helped her to grow because she was curious about what was blocked in her performance. “I would probably agree with it now," she says, particularly in the exploration of character development.
Still, the opinions that matter most come from the coaches, choreographers and the artistic director. “My job is to listen to those opinions—the people who are actually involved with the production," says Maddox, who says he has never changed his approach based on a review.
After working exhaustively, Mennite was critiqued as not being mature enough for La SylphidePhoto by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Reviewing The Critics
When do critics go too far? Mennite draws the line at attacking a dancer's physique. “I feel very disappointed at their lack of respect," she says. “You can criticize the art form but when you start attacking who someone is, I don't like that."
In the past, Mennite has wished she could tell some critics to broaden their education in the art form so that they “know what they're talking about." But recently, she has realized that audiences aren't always educated about dance, and reviewers are also delivering entertainment. “Now I would say that it would be nice if they could focus on the task at hand, try to write honestly and not to give in to any kind of sensationalism."
Part offers a decidedly different retort: “I would like to see a critic dance Swan Lake," she says. “When I retire I will happily lend them my tutu and pointe shoes."
A Bite from the Big Apple
New York City critics are infamous for their searing reviews, the most stringent of any U.S. city. Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite has learned from experience: “I have almost no expectations at all about receiving any positivity in those reviews," she says. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company member Jenna Riegel admires the dancers and choreographers who weather the harsh critical media in New York. “I just applaud people for making their art," she says. “They're pretty resilient. And to not be swayed or changed because of a review—that's even more impressive to me." No negative New Yorker, however, can compare with a dancer's inner judge. Says National Ballet of Canada's McGee Maddox, “No critic is as hard on me as I am on myself."
Embrace the last step of your career.
Jenifer Ringer after her retirement performance in Balanchine’s Union Jack. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
For a BalletMet performance in April 2014, Carrie West danced principal roles in both Balanchine’s Symphony in C and Edwaard Liang’s Wunderland. But she had no idea this would lead to the end of her performing career. During a dress rehearsal, West tore her meniscus. She was scheduled for a routine surgery, but the surgical team applied microfracturing without her approval, resulting in a much more dubious recovery. At age 39, simple fondus and relevés on one leg proved nearly impossible. “I could fake my way through class and rehearsals but I’d get home and barely be able to walk,” says West, who performed with BalletMet for 17 years. “My husband would look at me and go, ‘Y’know, maybe enough’s enough?’ ” Artistic director Liang offered to let her dance a final performance with modified choreography, but she declined. Her past season had been extremely satisfying, with roles like Odette/Odile. “I felt at the top of my game,” she says. “I didn’t want my last memory onstage to be something less.”
Retirement is one of the hardest decisions a performer will make in their career. There’s no right answer to the question of when to retire. But there are ways to make the transition out of dance as rewarding as possible.
New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer always had an idea in the back of her mind that she would retire at 40. As she turned 39, she began weighing what it took to sustain ballerina excellence against her real-life needs. The former principal dancer’s checklist read: “How is my body this morning? What foods am I eating? Did I get enough sleep? Can I jump over that puddle or will I be out for the show tonight? Can I run after my child on the playground or will that burn out my legs?” In 2013 she decided to put those questions to rest, to appreciate the lifespan of her career, to maximize time spent with her two children and to let younger dancers have a shot at stardom.
When weighing the decision to retire, West feels that dancers should draw the line at compromising the integrity of their art. “If I couldn’t lose myself in that role because I’m concerned about an injury, then it’s not worth it to me or the audience,” she says. “If it’s not going to happen, then you have to step aside.”
Coming to terms with your decision to retire can be difficult, but taking charge of the way you say good-bye can ease the blow. When Eddie Taketa, now 57, retired from Doug Varone and Dancers in 2015, he didn’t want any grand fanfare: “I never needed to mark it with any kind of ritual,” he says. “But everyone around me was acknowledging it and celebrating it. I realized I needed to process it.”
NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins was surprised when Ringer told him of her retirement decision and even more surprised that she wanted to exit with a performance of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Balanchine’s Union Jack. Ringer recalls him saying, “Are you sure you want to take your last bow in your button costume? Don’t you want the ballerina moment with the pink dress and the glamour?” She chose Balanchine’s tribute to the U.S.’ British heritage because of its frivolity and its inclusion of the entire company. “That’s how I started—loving dance and being silly,” she says. “What a great way to end—loving dance and being silly.”
Retirement doesn’t have to mean leaving the dance world entirely. Many dancers find meaning in post-performance life by teaching. Ringer, who moved with her family to Los Angeles after retiring and accepted the position of director of Colburn Dance Academy, suggests that dancers “meet retirement head-on” and “approach it with your eyes open.” She wants dancers to fully appreciate their careers as they unfold rather than fret about getting the right roles. “It would be such a shame if, when you stop dancing, you realize that you spent your whole career dissatisfied with what you got,” she says. “It’s important to know that it will end someday and to think about ending it as gracefully as when you are in it.”
A dancer’s partnership with the conductor is far more complex than asking for a faster tempo.
Boston Ballet in Balanchine’s Coppélia, with Jonathan McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. Photo by Ernesto Galan, courtesy Boston Ballet
During a memorable performance of The Sleeping Beauty, conducted by San Francisco Ballet music director and principal conductor Martin West, principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan experienced one of those exceptional “on” performances in the Rose Adagio. “I held my attitude and didn’t come down,” she recalls. “Martin was there and helped me. He continued to stretch, stretch, stretch out the music—and the audience went crazy.”
Arriving at that remarkable moment of perfect musical and technical synchronicity, however, requires years of honed craft and artistic collaboration between the stage and the orchestra pit. A ballerina’s ability to effectively communicate with her conductor—and vice versa—often determines the security of her performance. The proper wording or nonverbal demonstration of tempo, as well as a mutual trust, come crucially into play.
Collaborating in the Studio
In most major American ballet companies, the conductor spends a substantial amount of time in the studio with as many casts of principal dancers as possible. “At ABT, we’re brought up on the idea that we have to be in the studio,” says Ormsby Wilkins, American Ballet Theatre’s music director. “There should be a dialogue.” Often that discussion also includes choreographers, ballet masters and directors.
The musical rendition, nonetheless, rests with the arm that holds the baton. With various casts in the studio, says West, “you see the different interpretations of the music, you see what they’re trying to achieve in the music. You always have to remember that they don’t speak our language and we don’t speak theirs. I make it my job to be the translator. Sometimes they’ll ask for something and I’ll say, ‘Think about the implications that will have on the music that will affect something else along the way.’ I just make them aware of the consequences.”
Isabella Boylston (here with James Whiteside) consults with the music staff to try various approaches in Giselle. Photo by MIRA, courtesy ABT.
Tan says that the elongation of her limbs often requires a lengthened musical phrase. “I need a little more time to get ready for a preparation than another dancer who is more compact,” she says. “The conductors understand our body language, so I ask them to watch me do my movement to set the tempo.” Then the pianists can make notes on the score with a code name, like “fish lift,” to mark what each ballerina needs.
ABT principal Isabella Boylston tries a different tactic. “Sometimes I try to sing the music to the conductor to describe what I want, even though I have a terrible voice!” she says. “My dad is a professional drummer, so I learned a little bit about music from him.”
But communication can sometimes get dicey when dancers try to take on music terminology. “I think a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” says West. “Dancers have a different way of expressing, because the movement is in their body. It’s more of a breathing thing. I’ve learned to try to work out what they’re trying to tell me.”
Some of the most common problems crop up with dancers’ oversimplified requests. “Most of the places you have musicality issues are not in the main body of a section, but in the transitions,” says Boston Ballet’s music director and principal conductor, Jonathan McPhee. “Usually the number-one misunderstanding happens when a dancer will say, ‘That’s too fast.’ That doesn’t help. The problem is usually about seven bars earlier. They’re not in trouble yet, but they’re going to be in trouble because they’re heading into the transition section.” McPhee tries to mitigate the music/movement problem by fashioning transitions that flow smoothly while retaining the music’s integrity. “It might be a little juicier rubato here or there or a slight breath at the corner and then you can move forward,” he says. “There’s almost always a musical solution to a dancer’s problem.”
Coordinating From the Stage
When performing, a dancer needs to have a partnership with the conductor. For example, at the end of the central pas de deux of Balanchine’s Diamonds, Tan knows she has to coordinate perfectly: She bourrées backwards into the arms of her partner and hits an attitude devant with her spine flexed forward, arms curving overhead, followed by a pause in the music. “When I stretch my leg, I hit the subsequent note on the first step,” a timing essential to the somber transition in tone of the music.
In one of her first performances of Theme and Variations, Boylston’s nerves ambushed her, causing her to forget to read the baton’s upbeat signal before her solo began. “I started way ahead of the conductor and it ruined my whole performance,” she says.
Martin West rehearses the SFB Orchestra. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
Over time, ballerinas and conductors learn to collaborate and intuit, much in the way that male dancers and their ballerinas develop a sixth sense in partnering. For Giselle’s consecutive entrechats quatre in Act II, Boylston deliberated whether to decelerate the tempo to emphasize the elevation of the jumps or to focus more on the speed and precision. With consultation from the music staff, she’s tried it both ways in performance. “That’s one of the fun things about performing the classics during a career,” she says. “There isn’t just one right way to do things, and your choices evolve.”
As in many companies, says Wilkins, “it’s always traditional at ABT for the conductor to go onstage before the performance,” to check in on agreed-upon tempi with the principal dancers and confirm if a variation begins on- or offstage. “They might even say, ‘I’m changing my step slightly, I’d like a little more time,’ ” he says.
That brings us back to the Rose Adagio, which can amount to a thrilling sequence or a visual disaster with grand accompaniment. The conductor not only has to set the correct tempo for the ballerina, but also must intuitively read what she needs within a given phrase. West uses the analogy of a driver approaching a pothole without diving into it: “You see it coming and gently change lanes so no one is aware anything has happened. If you wait until the very last minute to try and change something, it’s very uncomfortable—not a very nice ride.”
For dancers, engaging in the process helps to witness the larger picture. “Conductors are trying to make the music work for you, even if they can’t necessarily do what you want,” says Tan. “You need to have respect for the conductor’s relationship to the musical score and to the entire orchestra. I’ve learned, because when I was young I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s too slow.’ The conductor has to conduct the whole orchestra, and it’s not that easy. It’s an artistic collaboration.”
Are ballet companies all starting to look the same?
Ten companies, including the Joffrey, will collectively dance 16 different Wheeldon works this season. Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy Joffrey.
This season, Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon will premiere a new work for The Royal in February as part of a Wheeldon triple bill, before the company reprises his much-acclaimed The Winter’s Tale (which was also performed in November by the National Ballet of Canada). And in addition to a new ballet for New York City Ballet and a new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet in December 2016, Wheeldon’s signed on for stagings of his previous works for seven other international troupes.
PNB is one of three companies to dance Peck's Year of the Rabbit this season. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.
Justin Peck will choreograph two works for NYCB, a new ballet for San Francisco Ballet and stage his Year of the Rabbit for Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Similarly, Wayne McGregor’s and Liam Scarlett’s premieres and previous works will be danced from Paris to Houston to San Francisco. And it’s no surprise that Alexei Ratmansky will continue his global ubiquity, especially in the narrative-ballet department.
All five men are wonderfully accomplished choreographers. Wheeldon and Peck instinctively shape ensembles with master craftsmanship and musicality. Scarlett and McGregor display a deft contemporary edge that appeals to young audiences. And Ratmansky brings heart and soul to the stage. Why wouldn’t any company jump at the chance to work with this millennium’s best?
While some may decry the death of ballet, this burst of creative output and shared goodwill has others heralding a new golden age, a cornucopia of choreographic plenty. But are companies oversaturating the market with these named choreographers, and making ballet too safe?
Truthfully, hot-property choreographers have always existed. William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied and Nacho Duato have all had their Warholian 15 minutes—or longer. But this gang is different. All are resident or affiliated artists with ties to major traditional big-budget companies: The Royal, NYCB and American Ballet Theatre. Their prestige is both institutionally sanctioned and marketed by corporate teams. The widespread presence of these pedigreed men reflects the merchandising of ballet that can happen in a nanosecond. The way companies now cyber-network allows them to easily communicate and share information, as well as to determine which choreographic offer-ings they like via a YouTube clip. And the licensing and dissemination of ballets has emerged with impressive sophistication.
Naturally, with globalization, there are some significant positives. High-quality choreography can be imported almost anywhere. Dancers get to stretch their technical and stylistic chops working with world-class artists. Companies can share productions, particularly expensive full-length ballets, making the process more cost-efficient.
With the pressure to sell out theaters, ballet companies turn to respected names, similar to the way Broadway shows now bank on star actors to guarantee a box-office bonanza. The troubling erosion of ballet audiences can be mitigated by marketing a sexy, young choreographic prodigy. And the companies, choreographers and dancers tweet, Instagram and Facebook their experiences.
Of course, with all this inevitably comes “branding”: a word that makes some salivate and others groan. A choreographer these days is often a traded commodity, and, as it seems, part of a programming formula, in which a good season starts with a modernized classic by Ratmansky and ends with a wild work by McGregor. Franchising is here, in what Mark Morris has accurately called “the ballet industry.” Will this monopolization of choreography make the biggest, richest companies the Apples and Amazons of the ballet industry?
And in the act of franchising, what is lost? For one, companies need an original voice to claim artistic distinction. In the previous century, you could absolutely discern the Joffrey Ballet or ABT from NYCB or The Royal Ballet in terms of style and repertoire. The Royal Ballet demonstrated the precision, musicality and dramatic integrity of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. ABT upheld the theatricality of Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille. NYCB boasted the neoclassicism and musicality of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Today, when so many troupes dance Year of the Rabbit, can we detect the heart of a company and the uniqueness of its dancers in such a shared context? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Ratmansky at MCB. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy MCB.
In the best of all possible worlds, today’s amazing dancers can absorb and process 10 different styles with acumen. But the reality of choreographic globalization can unfortunately lead to jeopardizing a company’s artistic spirit and style. In worst-case scenarios, a bland homogeneity of tenor and approach ensues. Outsourcing of talent can also preclude the local nurturing of artists who are homegrown and perhaps best know and appreciate the skills of their native city’s dancers.
That latter downside in particular leads to the most troubling aspects of the omnipresence of the pack: the striking lack of diversity. There are no women or people of color in this boys club of choreographers, and few among the primarily male directors. Chris knows Peter and Peter knows Justin and Justin knows Benjamin and so on. Doesn’t that skew the direction away from a desired goal for more multiculturalism and outreach in the ballet world?
There are exceptions. For example, PNB had a November program called Emergence, featuring contemporary works by prominent female choreographers Jessica Lang and Crystal Pite. In April, English National Ballet will present She Said, a triple bill dedicated to female choreography with world premieres by Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang. And Boston Ballet’s 2015–16 season doesn’t include any of the voguish quintet in its programming. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the results will be better—just that they are presenting an alternative. And there are smaller companies, exemplified by Sarasota Ballet’s dedication to Ashton’s legacy and Ballet Memphis’ commitment to the community’s cultural flavor and impressive diversity, which offer refreshing options.
I look forward to seeing what these gifted men will produce in the future. They have already changed the face of ballet in this century and have whipped up masterpieces that inform us, as great art always does, about ourselves in today’s world: Think of Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, McGregor’s Chroma and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. The Winter’s Tale by Wheeldon might rank as the finest new story ballet in decades. But perhaps ballet directors need to step back, take a look at other talent that exists and strive to present ballets that speak to their audiences and truly represent their locale, their dancers and the singularity of a director’s vision.
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
When Hannah Marshall joined American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet in 2014, she showcased her textbook technique in a vividly individual way. Her essence as a dancer is soulful legato, very different from the speedy soubrette of her mother, former ABT principal Cheryl Yeager. Still, in small featured roles at ABT, Marshall knows instinctively how to flesh out a haughty courtier or a flirtatious peasant. Now, she revels in the classical repertoire she’s always dreamed of performing.
Taught by her mother, Marshall is now making her own mark at ABT. Photo courtesy Marshall.
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Hometown: Rockland County, New York
Training: Ballet Academy East, ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School
Breakout moment: With the ABT Studio Company, Marshall danced the “Dying Swan” segment of Alexei Ratmansky’s Carnival of the Animals, coached by his wife, Tatiana, and following Anna Pavlova’s legendary version.
Getting dramatic: Marshall capitalizes on any cameo acting roles. When she performed the peasant girl in Swan Lake, “who flirts with the prince and gets thrown around a little bit,” she says, “I ran with it. I tried to act my butt off. I got some notice in that. Sometimes I take it a little too far. But I feel like that’s better than being timid onstage.”
Why ABT: Marshall grew up surrounded by stories of the company. “I had posters all over my house,” she says. “I just fell in love with the rep, and I really wanted to dance a lot of classical ballets at the Met with this incredible company. The girls that I get to stand in line with in the corps are so talented.”
Her distinctive asset: “I’ll never be satisfied. I always want to take the correction,” she says. “Every opportunity I get, I’ll probably go crazy and work on it at home. Some people get comfortable. I’m hungry.”
What she’s working on: Marshall has a list. “I feel like I’m always standing back on my weight,” she says. “I do Pilates to help that. And my feet—I’m never happy with them, and I sometimes have battles with my shoes.”
On her unique quality at ABT: “What makes her stand out onstage is her ability to get inside a role’s character and make it come alive with nuances that are very personal and particular to her personality,” says ballet master Nancy Raffa. “She’s also very musical.”
Her dream role: Even more than Odette or Giselle, it’s Juliet. “I watch every balcony pas with every cast,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, I just want to see it and hear the music. Everyone has a different interpretation of Juliet—and that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to it.”
How dancers’ unions are faring in the current economy
Brooke Moore (right) is both a principal dancer and an AGMA delegate for Pennsylvania Ballet. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.
Once considered the keystone of the American middle class, unions in the United States have been losing membership recently. Traditionally-unionized industries have become a reduced sector of the nation’s workforce, and state governments have limited union power. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has fallen to 14.6 million, a rate of 11.1 percent of total U.S. wage and salary workers; in 1983 the membership was 17.7 million, or 20.1 percent. With this reduction comes a loss of clout and bargaining power. So how are the dancers’ unions doing in this economic climate?
The union associated with concert dance, including ballet and contemporary companies and dancers in operas, is AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. AGMA’s sister unions include AEA (Actors’ Equity Association), which covers musical theater artists; and AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists), which represents performers in variety shows. SAG-AFTRA (a merging of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) represents actors and dancers in film, television and commercials.
The benefit of a union, says Alan Gordon, AGMA’s executive director, “is that the dancers are both protected against injury and have a voice about what happens to them.” AGMA helps negotiate health-care options for its members, and has negotiated retirement plans, better working conditions and rehearsal restrictions. Recently, New York City Ballet dancers procured a new exercise/health facility at Lincoln Center. For these benefits, AGMA dancers pay 2 percent of their gross pay in dues, along with a $78 annual fee. The initiation fee for joining is $500.
According to Gordon, AGMA is doing well, particularly when many arts organizations are struggling. “Most of the companies are healthy and we’re not suffering the loss of membership,” he says. “Our membership gets larger every month, and dancers are getting paid better.” AGMA dancers’ salaries have generally kept pace with inflation, although runaway housing costs in urban centers like New York and San Francisco remain a challenge.
There are currently 22 AGMA dance companies—more than there were 10 years ago—including new inductees such as Ballet West and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. They range from big-budget troupes like NYCB, where the weekly salary in 2015 for a first-year corps member is $1,137, with 37 guaranteed weeks, to smaller-budget companies like Tulsa Ballet, where first-year corps members earn $578.01, with 40 guaranteed weeks. Gordon says that 80 to 85 percent of professional dancers in established companies are AGMA members, even in right-to-work states, where workers are not required to join a union in unionized companies.
Not all dance unions have been doing as well. AEA’s 2013–14 analysis of employment and earnings stated that, post–Great Recession, “in such times, stability may be the best goal achievable.” It also noted that employment in theater “may not yet be progressing at the same rates” as in the past, “but it is not shrinking either, and the same is true of member earnings on Equity contracts.”
Gordon says that AGMA negotiates its contracts differently from AEA: “Equity has three or four major contracts. We have contracts for individual companies, and we only have people who are actually dancing take part in the negotiations.” The current minimum guaranteed Equity salary for a dancer in a Broadway show is $1,861 per week, but a show’s long run is never guaranteed. Under AGVA contracts, the Rockettes earn around $1,500 per week, although their work is seasonal.
Gordon cites two factors for the durability of AGMA-affiliated troupes. “They are non-profit companies whose artistic motivations go beyond simply making a profit,” he says. “The companies always bargain aggressively, but dancers are the company, so there’s no point in screwing around with the company.”
Life as a Delegate
AGMA delegates are company artists who enforce union rules, act as intermediaries between artists and management and orchestrate contract negotiations. Brooke Moore, a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet since 2012, has been an AGMA delegate for three years.
On being a delegate: “I want to stand up for the dancers because I believe so strongly that if we are taken care of physically, mentally and emotionally, we perform better.”
On contract gains: “The last negotiations were about providing a better work environment, like getting our casting ahead of time and getting notice of when répétiteurs and choreographers are in town.”
On negotiation presentations: “We compare PAB to ballet companies with similar budgets to see how we rank with things like physical therapy, pay scale and overtime rates.” —JC
Although she's retired from NYCB, one semester away from graduating Columbia University with a degree in psychology, Gilliland, 27, has hardly given up dance. In fact, she's in it more than ever. In the last three years, she has worked with emerging choreographers like Emery LeCrone, Adam Hendrickson and Marcelo Gomes; established artists like Pontus Lidberg and Will Rawls; and icons such as Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp. With each project, it seems she grows her artistry further.
Gilliland first turned heads in 2006 when Feld chose to create Étoile Polaire, a 12-minute solo, on the 18-year-old apprentice. In addition to what he called her “extraordinary magical quality," Feld sensed his muse's ambivalence in the NYCB studios. “He could see that I was trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into the company," says Gilliland. “He said, 'Don't fit in, fit out.' It's been a very hard thing for me to do. It's hard for a lot of dancers to do, to embrace the things that make them unlike anyone else."
In Troy Schumacher's "The Impulse Wants Company." Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Schumacher.
Étoile Polaire was a sensational debut, but perhaps a misleading one. Gilliland went on to dance many vividly memorable principal roles with the company, such as her mysterious Dark Angel in Serenade, a bewitchingly sensual Siren in Prodigal Son, an eloquent Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, the enigmatic woman in Jerome Robbins' Watermill and the intensely hypnotic pas de deux from his Glass Pieces. Many assumed she would become an NYCB star, disseminating her singular glamour and artistry in the tradition of Tanaquil LeClercq, Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. But in 2011, Gilliland, still a member of the corps de ballet, left the company.
“It wasn't so much that there was too much pressure on me but that I felt like I was trying to play a part," says Gilliland, the daughter of former American Ballet Theatre soloist Lise Houlton and granddaughter of Minnesota Dance Theatre founder Loyce Houlton. “There were a lot of ballerina roles that I should have been excited about when I was doing them—and I sometimes had trouble finding myself in them." Compounding the problem was a series of debilitating injuries: eroding knee cartilage, multiple broken bones in her feet and a back injury from a partnering mishap in rehearsal.
After bursting into tears in ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy's office one day, unable to dance, watch or sit through another “Snow" rehearsal, Gilliland told Peter Martins and Dunleavy, “I love this company and I can't stay here as a dancer." Martins reassured her that the company was there to support her in anything she did. There was, however, no discussion about an open door in the future.
She immersed herself in school, pursuing a pre-med concentration at Columbia. But she was coaxed back into the studio by Emery LeCrone, then resident choreographer for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative. The process clicked. “I remember Saturday afternoons in the studio together being the highlight of my week," says Gilliland. “She wanted to hear how I felt about things and wanted to incorporate my idiosyncrasies into the movement. There was this dialogue we were having: I was demanding answers about how movement should feel or how I wanted it to feel—and she was listening." The weekly rehearsals also reminded her of the choreographic workshops and classes at her family studio in Minnesota, where creativity was prioritized.
With Michele Wiles in Brian Reeder's "Surmisable Units." Photo by Stephanie Berger; Courtesy BalletNext.
“She's a very honest performer, so when something feels wrong in her body, she needs to tell you," says LeCrone. “That for me is a great thing." When the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series commissioned LeCrone to choreograph both a classical and a contemporary work to the same music, Bach's Partita No. 2 in C Minor, the choreographer chose Gilliland for the contemporary section. “I was looking to push dancers in a new way," says LeCrone, “and I knew working with dancers coming from a more modern, improvisational-based background would really help her."
Above: With Michele Wiles in Brian Reeder's Surmisable Units. Photo by Stephanie Berger; Courtesy BalletNext.
Gilliland has further explored her artistry with other contemporary choreographers such as Pontus Lidberg, the Swedish-born dancemaker who expertly folds ballet vocabulary into his contemporary works and dance films. Last fall, Gilliland performed in two of his pieces at the International Ballet Festival of Havana. “Kaitlyn has an expansive yet natural movement quality," says Lidberg. “She picks up subtle details that relate to other aspects of creating dances: structure, interpersonal relationships. Her ballet technique doesn't stand in the way of her exploring movements or shapes that lie beyond ballet, or what is considered ballet."
Gilliland regards herself as an exploring artist. “One goal moving forward is to allow myself to cultivate dance relationships that are really meaningful to me," she says, citing her connection with Lidberg. “I like to think that the more experiences I have, the more I bring with me. So it's not just going from one job to another. They inform each other."
With New Chamber Ballet in Miro Magloire's "Quartet." Photo by Sarah Thea Swafford, Courtesy New Chamber.
Still, schlepping between gigs has not been easy. It means a lot of subway time and navigating schedules and contracts. Public reactions to her decision for independence have ranged from enthusiastic support to predictions of career disaster.
Gilliland hasn't relegated NYCB to the rearview mirror, either. The management has been very supportive: She briefly managed the New York Choreographic Institute, and recognizing her knack for connecting with kids (she had taught students at Minnesota Dance Theatre), the company offered her a teaching job at the School of American Ballet. Instructing the younger students has helped her shape a new perspective on her own dancing. “I always wanted to do things well without necessarily understanding how or why," says Gilliland, who teaches ages 6 to preteen, and occasionally intermediate students. “With these students, I tell them it's okay to fall, to lose your balance here as long as you take that information and apply it. I started to think, What happened to me? When did I stop hearing that advice for myself? When did I stop incorporating this into what I do?"
Gilliland has ruled out dancing with another major ballet company. “That was not the right environment for me," she says. She cites both Wendy Whelan and Swedish dancer Nadja Sellrup for inspiring her through “their knowledge that they know better than anyone else who they are and what they want to do."
With Landes Dixon in Caitlin Trainor's "Faux Pas." Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Trainor Dance.
In January, Gilliland appeared in the PBS telecast of the Gershwin Prize tribute to Billy Joel in an excerpt from Tharp's Movin' Out. In February, through Danspace Project's Platform 2015, Gilliland paired up with choreographer/dancer/writer Will Rawls to create something completely new. “This commission is not about making a performance," says Rawls. “It's about doing the research and presenting our exchange. We've been exploring different ways of communicating with each other and this idea of being strangers who are meeting each other for the first time."
Gilliland says they have found similarities: “He talks about defining what his practice is. I realize I've spent a lot of time trying to un-define what my practice is."
Although she has wavered about her direction after graduation, all her endeavors have led back to dance, and her roles as dancer, teacher, manager and artist have made her view her life and career more dynamically: “When I wake up in the morning, there's one thing I'm really excited about all the time now—it's dance. In every sense of the word."
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
Jennifer Homans raised eyebrows when she delivered ballet's eulogy in Apollo's Angels, her 2010 book on the history of ballet. Today, when she reflects on writing the phrase “I now feel sure that ballet is dying," Homans says, “I was trying to make people think, but I was also saying what I was feeling. In light of what I had learned in the last decade studying history, I was trying to figure out, Where are we?"
Now, she wants to do her part to prevent the art form from flatlining. In September, Homans opened New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts, a research institution for exploring new ideas in ballet. The Center will fund several full-time and associate fellows per semester with the help of a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and additional support from NYU, including office and studio space and some administrative salaries and operational costs.
Fall fellows included former New York City Ballet dancer Heather Watts and Trey McIntyre Project co-founder John Michael Schert. Homans has also recruited dance outsiders from different disciplines to help reinvigorate ideas in ballet. Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, for instance, has chosen to work with choreographer James Sewell to turn one of his films into a ballet. Spring fellows will include Oxford English professor Susan Jones, choreographer Béatrice Massin and composer Scott Wheeler. Public programs so far have included a master class and discussion with Mark Morris and a conversation with Alexei Ratmansky, moderated by New York Public Library's LIVE from the NYPL curator Paul Holdengräber. Events like these will be offered regularly. “My real focus is on creating space for artists and scholars to work and creating a public conversation around ballet and the arts," says Homans. “Ballet is never just itself."
The center's success, says Homans, can only be measured by how artists are stimulated by their experiences. “I don't need to see that we've created three ballets or four books in the course of a year," she says. “If 10 years later, someone creates some great work, whether it's scholarship or a dance, and they say time spent at the center somehow informed this—terrific."
At first glance, Justin Peck, with his full-rim glasses and modest demeanor, resembles Clark Kent. What he's accomplished choreographically, however, seems more like Superman. At 26, the New York City Ballet soloist has already created 20 ballets, and the buzz about his talent has people equating his potential with the likes of Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. Critics laud Peck's expert craftsmanship: the kaleidoscopic patterns, the layered musicality, the stylish linkage of steps and an almost freakishly uncommon ease in working with the corps de ballet.
“With Justin it wasn't difficult to see the raw gifts that he possessed right away," says NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins, who named Peck NYCB's resident choreographer this July. “It is my business to recognize talent when it emerges. What happens next is entirely up to him, but I am confident that it will be a very fruitful partnership."
What's next is Peck's biggest season yet: a September NYCB premiere to César Franck's Untitled piece (Solo de piano), for piano accompanied by string quintet, Op. 10; a November Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere; a February 2015 NYCB premiere to Aaron Copland's iconic Rodeo (Peck's plan is to “strip it of theatrical features and do more of a dance and music piece"); a March premiere for Miami City Ballet featuring set design by street artist Shepard Fairey; and a revival of In Creases for the Joffrey Ballet in April. Filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes' documentary Ballet 422, which focuses on Peck's creation of Paz de la Jolla, has been picked up by Magnolia Films for nationwide release. And Peck's choreography is even featured in a new app called Passe-Partout that allows anyone with an iPad to remix his steps and create a ballet on their tablet.
Peck's success is all the more startling in that he only began studying ballet 13 years ago. While employed as a supernumerary in American Ballet Theatre's production of Giselle in San Diego, Peck was blown away by the dancers' athleticism and discipline, and immediately enrolled in classes at the California Ballet. He transferred to the School of American Ballet at 15, then joined the NYCB corps four years later. “Being exposed to all these genius abstract works by Balanchine and Robbins and other choreographers working today, I got a taste for the range of what a ballet could be. I started to think about what it would be like if I tried to make my own dances."
He participated in five sessions at the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of NYCB. Martins asked him to expand one of his works for the company—and the October 2012 premiere of Year of the Rabbit, set to music by Sufjan Stevens, started the rabbit run of Peck's sudden career sprint. “It sort of put me on the map as a choreographer," says Peck. “It interested other ballet companies and I started to get a lot of offers."
Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, has since commissioned two ballets from Peck—2013's Chutes and Ladders and the upcoming premiere. “I find him incredibly inventive," she says. “He's not derivative, although you might see a little Balanchine or a hint of Ratmansky. It looks like something you've never seen before." She particularly lauds his gift of comfortably embracing pointe work, and the way that he grants both the principals and the corps their own brilliance.
Peck's never been drawn to separating out the ranks. “In Year of the Rabbit, I sort of tipped the scale in terms of the focus," he recalls. “I wanted to make the corps really stand out. It still had a lot of movement for the principals, but I was trying to challenge that hierarchy."
NYCB principal Sterling Hyltin says this structure even affects the dancers' approach: “We're all part of a large group—it almost feels like we're part of the cause. It's not about anyone, it's about the ballet."
Although one of Peck's greatest gifts lies in the ability to manipulate the morphing configurations of his dancers, Peck shrugs off the suggestion of an ingeniously mathematical mind. “For me it's easier to work with bigger groups," he says. “There is more possibility." While the energy of an ensemble of dancers feeds him, he admits that what's really challenging is to work with a few dancers, or, even worse, just one.
With every ballet, the process always begins with the music. While at SAB, Peck took piano lessons and learned to read scores. Today, he listens to a piece over and over as his starting point. “From there I start to come up with a structure for the ballet," he says. “Then I'll plot out all the counts and what I'm planning to do with the music at each point. Being prepared allows for a sense of spontaneity once the dancers are in the studio."
He's picky about the composers he'll collaborate with. He counts Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner among the few he trusts. “They're both classically trained, so they have an understanding of the classical genre and also have experience writing whatever you want to call it: rock, pop, folk or indie," says Peck. (They both also know how to craft a score that's danceable, a special skill.)
Lopez says that for someone so young, Peck shows a mature command in the studio. “He has the ability to walk in and engender a certain kind of respect from the dancers," she says. “He's very confident in his skin—very authoritative, calm, doesn't get flustered. It's a very cerebral process."
Continuing to dance with an ever-mounting choreographer's schedule has proven tricky. Peck, promoted to soloist in 2013, is honest about the challenges, especially transitioning from creator to interpreter. “After premiering Everywhere We Go and then returning to performing almost every evening, I remembered how painful dancing is physically," he says. But he also appreciates the way his creativity benefits from dancing alongside his colleagues and knowing them personally. He has sensibly turned down some offers to choreograph: “I'm trying to maintain a sense of balance and pace myself. It's hard to say no, though."
In addition to champions like Lopez and helpful advisors such as Ratmansky, Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied, Peck cites Peter Martins for his invaluable support. “He's someone I can confide in and speak to not just about the work but the whole process of choreographing in an institution," he says.
And if NYCB's resident choreographer could speak with its founding choreographer, Mr. Balanchine, what would he say? “I would have a conversation on music, and how it relates to dance," Peck says without hesitation. “And talk to him about specific works. I would just be in heaven speaking with him."
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
Two photos, from top: Ashley Bouder and NYCB in Peck's Year of the Rabbit, by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB; Dance Project in Peck's Murder Ballads, Courtesy LADP.
2010 USA IBC contemporary competitors. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.
In the contemporary round at ballet competitions, dancers often perform wildly varying styles—it’s not uncommon to see neoclassical pointework followed by barefooted modern dance. But the USA International Ballet Competition, which runs every four years and returns June 14–29 to Jackson, Mississippi, hopes to standardize its contemporary category to make judging less subjective. This year, competitors who advance to Round II will work directly with choreographers Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan. “We decided it would be beneficial to the dancers if they not only get to learn pieces by highly acclaimed choreographers, but also have the choreographers work with them,” says executive director Sue Lobrano. “And the jury and audience will be able to see how well each dancer grasps the requisite contemporary choreography.”
In March, the competitors were given online access to videos of the selected works. Soloists will perform excerpts of pieces by McIntyre, who contributed one dance to each division (Junior Men, Junior Women, Senior Men and Senior Women); pairs chose one of two Neenan works per division. Dancers were responsible for learning the choreography on their own. Once the 99 competitors arrive in Jackson, McIntyre and Neenan will lead one-hour group coaching sessions before the judges, chaired by former Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella, evaluate.
Dancers who move on to Round III will also perform a prepared contemporary solo or duet of their choice, choreographed in 2010 or later so that the works, says Lobrano, are “truly contemporary.”
When Tiler Peck was 3, her mother, a dance teacher in Bakersfield, California, taught her two two-minute dance routines which the toddler zipped through with flair. At 9 she started on pointe and a few months later danced Clara (on pointe) in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in California. By 12 she had danced the Black Swan variation. Peck joined New York City Ballet's corps at 16 and performed Dewdrop in The Nutcracker later that year. Now 25, the former prodigy appears frequently on the NYCB stage as a principal dancer with an ascending career.
Right: Tiler Peck in Peter Martins' Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Baby ballerinas have commanded the public's fascination ever since George Balanchine discovered Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova, both age 12, and Tatiana Riabouchinska, 14, students of former Imperial ballerinas Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska. Balanchine engaged them as stars of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and the publicity surrounding the prodigies helped revive interest in ballet in the 1930s after Sergei Diaghilev's death. Their careers served as a highbrow analog to the craze for child performers like Shirley Temple in Depression-era Hollywood.
Like young concert musicians, dancers start training very early. The exceptionally gifted quickly get noticed—musicality and certain physical traits appear early, and a child who has that constellation of abilities will stand out. Often, these youngsters end up in a ballet company by their mid-teens. Given the short shelf life of a dancer's career, there can be a temptation to exploit an artist before her career fades. And in a culture that celebrates youth above all (witness Justin Bieber), prodigies have remained popular.
Moving Beyond Typecasting
But not all early talent blossoms into the full fruits of artistry or yields a long career. Injuries, burnout, irregular growth patterns, fatigue or an inability to convert aptitude into adult brilliance have knocked many whiz kids off their paths to success. So why do some succeed while others falter?
Former prodigies who, like Peck, have made the transition have various answers. San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sarah Van Patten joined her first ballet company, the Royal Danish Ballet, at 15 and was immediately cast by John Neumeier as the heroine in his Romeo and Juliet. She credits her strong early training, the emotional support she received and her all-around resiliency for her continued success. “You need the right people around you and the mental strength to withstand what it takes physically and emotionally to have a professional career," says Van Patten. She also credits SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson for the way he has helped shape her career. “You grow with the work you're given," says Van Patten, who has danced Giselle, Tatiana in Onegin and Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, among other roles.
Left: Sarah Van Patten in Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc. Photo by Erik Tommason, Courtesy SFB.
Peck, in turn, cites her early eclectic training—in addition to private ballet lessons with Alla Khaniashvili, Peck studied jazz, contemporary, lyrical and tap—which she believes served her in a company where choreography is prioritized. “In jazz you go for everything," says Peck. “You don't worry about hurting yourself. A lot of other people in NYCB were afraid to try things." Peck also credits Suki Schorer, who taught her at School of American Ballet, and NYCB ballet master Susan Hendl with helping her develop the sophisticated use of her port de bras.
A critical turning point for Peck (and for others who questioned her esthetic maturity) came when Christopher Wheeldon featured her in Carousel (A Dance), partnered by Damian Woetzel, at 17. “I was always given 'turny, jumpy' roles," she says. “I knew in my heart I preferred the more lyrical numbers, so I was so happy when given the opportunity to dance a beautiful pas de deux. It was the first time I thought I could be a ballerina."
But along the way, Peck saw other gifted students falter, such as fellow SAB graduate Ashlee Knapp (chosen by Teen People magazine as one of “20 Teens Who Will Change the World"). “She was this huge prodigy who got injured," Peck says. “And it didn't end up working for Kathryn Morgan, a former soloist with NYCB. There's pressure that comes with being in a company, and people deal with it differently."
When the Spotlight Disappears
That pressure can take many forms. Few young talkabouts realize how completely the spotlight can vanish during their first years in the corps. For some, the newfound anonymity is too frustrating. But others who initially struggle with company life find their footing later. Having won a slew of honors, including the gold medal at the 2012 International Ballet Competition in Varna, Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack still rejects the title “prodigy." Although he didn't begin ballet lessons until age 12 with Radenko Pavlovich in Columbia, South Carolina, he had such natural coordination, ballon like a Wham-O Super Ball and the ability to absorb style and technique like a sponge, that he quickly caught up. But the biggest challenge in his first job as an apprentice with the Joffrey Ballet was the transition from student to professional, a period defined by marking time as a third cast understudy in the back of the studio and a general lack of attention from the artistic staff. “In a company they expect you to know how to do everything," he says. “Not a lot of time is invested individually. The people who get attention are the ones who are most accomplished already." For some wunderkinds, for whom attention means everything, that lack of guidance and coaching can sour into disillusionment with the profession.
Above: Brooklyn Mack partnering Maki Onuki in Christopher Wheeldon's There Where She Loved. Photo by Paul Wegner, Courtesy TWB.
For Van Patten, her life experience became the conduit for enriching her artistic expression, something she finds especially marked in her approach to Romeo and Juliet. “At 15, I didn't have much to pull from in the crypt scene," she says. “Now I have 15 years of dancing professionally and having family members pass and other things in my life happen." She recalls her naiveté when dancing Romeo and Juliet for the Queen of Denmark without a hint of nerves. “I had no idea what was going on. If I did that in my early 20s, I would be so nervous. You get into your 30s and gain a little perspective and realize that it's a performance, not heart surgery, and go on to the next one."
As for advice for baby ballerinas who want to last until 30 and beyond, Mack, now 27, advocates “finding your inspiration and self-motivation and never letting go of it for anything, no matter what is said to you, no matter the amount of attention you're getting."
Van Patten, in turn, stresses the commitment through the drudgery. “It's so important for you to be absolutely 100 percent passionately in love with ballet," she says. “It's way too hard if you aren't. It seems very glamorous when you're young, but you need to accept that there's a lot of physical and emotional pain that goes into it. It's very rewarding, but it takes so much work."