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"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.
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.”