Breaking Stereotypes
The author (with her hair down) in Jane Comfort's Deportment

These days I work as assistant to shoe icon Steve Madden. It's a busy job, and it had me running late for my first dance rehearsal with Jane Comfort and Company after…22 years? Yikes!

When Jane asked if I'd like to perform in her 40th-year retrospective, I didn't hesitate to say yes. I'd worked with Jane for many years, and really missed her and the process of putting a show together. The pieces I'd be performing involved mostly gesture, like Four Screaming Women, and singing and acting in She/He. At 64 years old, I was thrilled at the chance to hit the stage again.

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Dancers Trending

The Glass Menagerie? Fantastic! Seventeen years ago, our dance group jointly gave birth to Faith Healing, Jane Comfort’s brilliant deconstruction of Tennessee William’s play, The Glass Menagerie. We were working with an amazing team of downtown dancer/actors: Mark Dendy as Amanda, David Neumann as The Gentleman Caller, and Scott Willingham as Tom. I played Laura, the painfully shy, physically and emotionally crippled young girl.

 

Being a huge fan of Tennessee Williams, I was excited to start the rehearsal process. Since much of Jane’s choreography incorporated text, humor, gesture, and pure dance movement, I had no doubt that The Glass Menagerie was the perfect vehicle for the company.

 

We began to tinker with Jane’s reinvention of Williams’ play. She interwove chosen snippets of text with original choreography, and incorporated physicalized versions of iconic film segments, which helped to articulate the characters’ inner lives and fantasies. A really fun improvisation resulted in one of my favorite scenes: the segment where David and I “fly” as we’re lying side-by-side on stools, arms and legs outstretched, Superman-style. This scene was totally inspired by David, and grew into a collaboration between all of us. Jane encouraged our participation in the making of the piece, which made me feel personally invested in its success as a creative work.

 

Last week, I was invited to watch a rehearsal of the 2010 revival of Faith Healing. I was excited to see the piece again, and curious to see how “our” roles would be transferred onto other minds and bodies. The only original cast member is Mark Dendy, and to watch him 17 years later pull out all stops as Amanda was pretty spectacular. It seems life experience has added a more sympathetic dimension to his portrayal of a woman whose time has come and gone. While watching the run-through, the fact that Mark isn’t a woman never crossed my mind.

 

I was curious to see what Heather Christian would bring to the part of Laura, and her portrayal has a feisty energy that’s refreshing and endearing. After working so closely with David, it was hard for me to imagine anyone else in the part of the Gentleman Caller, but Matthew Hardy brings a sweet, genuine quality to the role that makes it shine. Leslie Cuyjet steamed up my glasses in sexy fantasy scene with “Tom”, and Sean Donovan is flawless as the disturbed Tom; he brings a vulnerability to the part that makes the story that much sadder.

 

Performing in Faith Healing in 1993 was one of the highlights of my dance career. I’m not sure I ever felt as connected to a part as I did to the role of Laura. To be able to see it again brought me back to the time and place where I was living my dream. I’m grateful I was once part of this amazing piece, and I look forward to seeing the show this month at Joyce Soho.

 

 

Nancy Alfaro and David Neumann in the original Faith Healing, photo by Arthur Elgort, Courtesy Jane Comfort

Dance can be a moral transporter as well as an artistic one. It’s a form that joins the heart and mind and has the power to bridge different worlds. Dance Magazine interviewed several artists who are using dance to engage in, or raise awareness for, a variety of causes.

 

Boulder, Colorado’s Eco Arts was founded by Marda Kirn. Her mission is to bring together science, environmental arts, and indigenous organizations to increase awareness about climate change and sustainable living. Eco Arts’ projects combine the cognitive power of science with the emotional power of art to get people to think about these issues. “We try to be to scientifically accurate, and to have as many full-on collaborations as possible,” says Kirn, who also edits the International Tap Association Newsletter. This is where local dancer/choreographer Michelle Ellsworth comes in. She is collaborating with climate change scientist Jason Neff on a piece called The Wheels of Blame, which will be performed in a program called “Balancing Acts: Visions for a Sustainable Future.”

 

Dancer Ellsworth and scientist Neff believe that each of their native “languages” is inadequate for communicating ideas. Says Ellsworth, “We thought it would be pleasing to use each other’s forms to make a hybrid that deals with the problem of global warming.” Ellsworth is inspired by the rigor of science; and Neff, for his part, feels that dancers can help make scientific fact more easily digestible.

 

“The issue of global warming is not going to go away,” says Ellsworth, “and its implications are enormous.” Ellsworth hopes that if scientific evidence is presented through the lens of performance, people will connect to the information in unexpected ways and begin to take action.

 

Tap, ballet and jazz dancer Amy Danielson got the idea for Genesis Sarajevo after volunteering to teach dance at a children’s camp in war-torn Bosnia. In June of 2006 she offered her first dance intensive at the camp, which is sponsored by Foundation Land of Friendship and Peace in Kakringe, a town outside Sarajevo.

 

Danielson now travels to Bosnia twice a year for the two-week sessions. The students study technique, perform group exercises, and work together to put on together a show. Her new goal is to bring tap and hip hop companies to mentor the students and have Genesis Sarajevo perform what they’ve developed. “I’ve been their only teacher for the past two years,” she says. “Now I need to involve more people.”

 

Danielson feels that young people in areas of conflict need this kind of outlet, and that dancing together provides a meeting ground for differing cultures and religions. “The ultimate goal is to have a fully functioning dance company in Sarajevo,” says Danielson. “If some of the girls want to pursue dance professionally, they can go that route. And if they’re just doing it for fun, they’re getting an experience that they may never have had.”

 

Eventually Danielson would like to broaden the project to include other conflict-ridden areas like Uganda and Manila. “I get a lot out of teaching these girls because they respond so quickly,” she says. “They are joyful and excited, and that’s so rewarding.”

 

New Jersey dance studio owner Kathleen Cirioli is a tap dancer and cancer survivor. She’s also the founder of Dance for the Cure, an organization that promotes cancer awareness at corporate events. Her lyrical “dance of hope,” performed by four young dancers, ends with the audience singing “Go and Get Your Mammogram” and tap dancing to the tune of “Button Up Your Overcoat.” “If I can educate people to know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and inspire them to get mammograms and not be afraid,” she says, “I will have fulfilled my dream.”

 

Many of the moms at her studio, Cirioli says, are surprised to hear she’s overcome so many obstacles. She believes her passion for dance has fueled her mission of hope. “Having dance to look forward to made me recover,” says Cirioli, who had both breast and ovarian cancer. “In order to get through my surgeries and treatments, I thought about how I missed teaching, choreographing, and moving.” And she sees a benefit for the students who got involved. “The young girls who participated in Dance for a Cure learned so much. If they have to address these issues in the future, they’ll be more prepared to help themselves and others.”

 

Since last February Ashley Hilton has taught ballet to kindergarteners, first and second graders in the outreach program at The Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, the education arm of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Orlando Ballet School in Florida. The conservatory recently developed a dance program in conjunction with Metropolitan Ministries School, a charter institution for homeless and disadvantaged children in levels K through 5.

 

Hilton has already noticed an improvement in her students’ focus and interest. “The kids can be creative and physical here, and they are learning an artistic discipline,” she says. “Dance shows them that they can do something they’re proud of, and they learn to concentrate—which is also good for schoolwork and sports.” Inspired by the children’s progress, Metropolitan Ministries has added more classes and is bringing in guest artists like Bill T. Jones and Ballet Hispanico.

 

Since the children don’t have dance gear, they take class in jeans and skirts—but they give it their all. Patel Conservatory organized a drive to give the children ballet slippers. “Many of the kids have told me they love their ballet shoes and want to sleep in them,” says Hilton. “And they’re so excited to have a real dance studio, with ballet barres.”

 

“As the children’s home lives improve,” Hilton adds, “they leave the school, but they get to take their shoes with them, in the hopes that they’ll pursue dance elsewhere.”

 

Our daily lives bombard us with reminders of hardship, from the front page of the morning paper to the roundup on the nightly news. Buckling under an information overload, we find it hard to take action, easier to turn away. But dance can speak to people in ways that other language can’t. Whether making a statement about the state of the world, creating common ground between clashing cultures, or teaching just one child the rewards of hard work, as dancers we can move toward making a difference.

 

 

Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in NYC.

Dancers Trending

Ivana Müller
Florence Gould Hall, NYC
September 24–26, 2008
Reviewed by Nancy Alfaro

 

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

Karen Røise Kielland,

Pere Faura, Stefan Rokebrand,

Katja Dreyer, and Bill Aitchison

in Ivana Müller's While We Were

Holding It Together at Dance Theater Workshop.

 

While We Were Holding It Together is a witty theatrical event from Paris- and Amsterdam-based choreographer Ivana Müller. Co-presented by Dance Theater Workshop and the French Alliance’s “Crossing the Line” series, the piece opens with a colorful tableau vivant: Four performers assume a variety of frozen standing positions, while the fifth casually reclines on the floor, propped on her elbow.


Because these initial poses are in perfect silence, the viewer is able to absorb the barebones staging; the actors’ deadpan expressions; and their colorful, shabby-chic street-wear. The lack of sound and movement leaves the audience expectant, and when the first blackout occurs you believe you’re in for your reward. The scene is revealed again, and nothing new happens, so the audience’s refuted expectation becomes a humorous self-observation.

 

When the lights come up a third time, the setting remains the same. But the actors begin to speak, starting each time with the words, “I imagine.” Their fantasies, wishes, and thoughts are revealed with phrases like “soldiers in a minefield,” or “statues in a museum.” Because there is no set or movement, the audience is riveted by the text, the sound of the actors’ voices, and their European-accented English.

 

As the evening progresses, the performers switch places and adopt the previous actor’s stance, or strike their own new positions. The only movement we really see is the shaking of limbs as the performers struggle to retain the stillness of their outstretched arms. Somehow this small, tremulous movement becomes an added layer, a new focal point, and you wonder whether or not their shaking is really originating from strain, or if the actor is exaggerating its intensity.

 

Bit by bit, the complexities of Müller’s concept emerge. Even when the lights go off, the actors continue to speak, leaving the imagination to determine where they are in space. It’s like listening to a radio play, where you’re free to create your own scenario. The text is mundane yet somehow profound and funny, and the actors’ simple storytelling approach makes their pronouncements easy for the audience to identify with.

 

I liked While We Were Holding It Together and thought it a clever theatrical work. But the question of whether or not it’s dance isn’t even debatable; it’s not. And because there is so little money available for dance and choreography, the need to distinguish which works are presented as dance is absolutely necessary.

Bringing dance to new audiences across the country and around the world is exciting for touring dancers. But whether you’re dancing at a nearby school or as far away as Australia, you’ve traveled there in cramped quarters on a plane, train, or bus. And while you probably won’t leap from the runway directly to the stage, it’s best to arrive at your destination as supple, energized, and ready to move as possible.

 

But keeping your joints oiled during travel requires some ingenuity. So Dance Magazine spoke to several performers and experts who are pros at fighting touring trauma. Read their tips and stay loose!


Combat Dehydration Virginia Wilmerding, past president of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, says that when flying, the altitude creates conditions that can promote dehydration, which puts you at risk for swollen legs and creaky joints. Drinking lots of water, and even electrolyte-carbohydrate beverages like Gatorade, may help keep swelling at bay. And staying away from alcohol, which is dehydrating, is a must. Wearing compression stockings (found in hospital supply stores) may help relieve swelling. So can performing relevés, which are easy to do while standing in narrow aisles.

 

Tamara Riewe, of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, has her travel routine down to a science, as the company tours an average of two weeks every other month. When flying, she drinks 20 oz. of water every two hours, and orders a vegetarian meal. “It has less fat content and more fiber, so it keeps the system regulated,” she says. She also makes sure to pack fresh fruits and veggies to snack on.

 

Paul Taylor Dance Company veteran Robert Kleinendorst also says that dehydration is the number one body wrecker. Dancers’ overstressed muscles need water to release lactic acid, so they don’t become stiff. Kleinendorst recommends taking ibuprofen, since it thins the blood and increases circulation, helping to flush out toxins.


Travel Exercises Riewe makes sure to book an aisle seat so she can stand up easily. “I am that dork who’s actually doing a little yoga in the bulkhead space,” she says. And since planes now supply pamphlets and videos that give passengers limited-space exercises, Riewe’s noticed more and more “civilians” working out while flying.

 

“Even though we try to keep a low profile, on long flights we’ll go to the galley and stretch,” says Kleinendorst. “I loosen my hamstrings and lower back by hanging over, because there’s not a lot of room. You want to stay out of the way of the other passengers and crew.” He’ll also try to work in shoulder circles, contractions, pliés, and quad stretches to keep him from “fusing into solid bone.”

 

Massage therapist Russ Beasley has worked with many dancers. He says that you should get up and walk the aisle every hour to counterbalance the time you’re seated. He also suggests calf stretches and pulling the knee up to the chest while standing. “Even standing and reaching for the ceiling can provide lengthening movement,” says Beasley. And some trains have larger bathrooms, where Beasley suggests carefully engaging in standing stretches. “Just be aware there can be sudden stops,” he says.

 

John Michael Schert dances with LINES Ballet and the Trey McIntyre Project (see “On the Rise,” Nov. 2007). “I don’t think air travel is natural. The pressure is brutal on joints. My ankles swell, and when I land they’re not aligned,” he says. He performs lots of ankle rotations and suggests manually manipulating the foot by moving the metatarsal in a circular motion with your hand.


Carry-On Baggage While seated, Riewe uses softball-sized body balls with rubbery spikes to self-massage. “This applies pressure to my back. And rolling balls with my feet keeps them more active than they normally would be while flying,” she says. Lots of her touring buddies use them too.

 

Beasley says the seats in planes, trains, buses, and cars tend to pitch the pelvis backwards, causing undue stress on dancers’ hypermobile joints. He recommends traveling with inflatable lumbar and cervical (head/neck) support pillows for long trips. These can be found at most luggage shops and some drug stores. If you don’t have time to search them out, rolled up towels can provide support too.

 

On the Ground As soon as Schert boards a flight of 12 hours or more, he adjusts the time on his computer, cell phone, and watch to mentally prep for his new time zone. Before the meal, he’ll take a sleeping pill prescribed by his doctor. Then he eats, goes to the bathroom, and hits the hay. “I try to get a solid block of sleep on the plane, because it helps my body to behave like it would in the time zone I’ve landed in,” he says.

 

When traveling by bus or car, use rest stops to stretch and move as much as you can. Try developing a supported stretch routine with another dancer, or walk around and shake out the kinks. Just make sure to dress comfortably so your movement choices aren’t restricted.

 


Nancy Alfaro lives (and stretches) in New York.

Massage. The word evokes visions of serenity, sensuality, and relaxation. But for dancers who work 6, 8, or 10-hour days, massage is also a basic requirement for maintaining physical and mental health.

 

Massage practitioners study a variety of techniques, and may combine different styles within a typical hour-long session. Dancers may experience Eastern massage forms like shiatsu or acupressure (Japanese compression massage based on Chinese theories of health and well-being), or Thai massage, which incorporates yoga-like stretching to increase range of motion. The therapist may also include Western styles like deep tissue, Swedish, or myofascial release. All three include long, gliding strokes and kneading. They focus on releasing chronic tension patterns in deeper layers of muscle tissue, alleviating chronic pain, and increasing blood and lymph circulation.

 

Michael Leslie, massage therapist for San Francisco Ballet, finds deep-tissue technique in greatest demand there. “It helps dancers use their bodies better because it aids their alignment,” he says. It softens tissue and helps muscles release so they “fall back into place.” Deep-tissue massage also helps normalize muscle tone, allowing the dancer to perform better at the next rehearsal or performance. Russ Beasley, who works on Broadway and American Ballet Theatre dancers, notes that it’s not easy to pinpoint which technique is most effective. But, he says, “Most dancers would probably expect and ask for a deep-tissue session that gets down and into the layers of muscle and fascia.”

 

Frequency of sessions varies according to schedule and individual preference. Beasley works on some dancers on a daily basis, and with others on a weekly or bimonthly basis. Most of his dance clients come in for a weekly visit on their day off, with occasional extra visits during the week for spot work. Beasley feels the weekly sessions allow therapists to get to know a dancer’s likes and dislikes, and allow for a better understanding of the unique aspects of each dancer’s body.

 

Injury often plays a role in what areas get worked on. “First we’ll look at the muscle groups surrounding the injured part to see what we can do to keep those areas functioning optimally,” says Jennifer Levitz, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer who is now a company massage therapist. “When inflammation decreases, we work right on the injured area to restore function.” SFB’s Leslie says that working with tissue surrounding the trauma area will enhance the healing process, since it improves circulation to the area. Work on a typical overuse injury can start within a day.

 

Beasley feels massage rarely makes things worse for a dancer. But a physician should evaluate injuries first, especially if there’s bruising or if pain prevents sleep. “Generally, injuries need a period of rest before being treated with massage, whether it’s 24 hours, several weeks, or longer,” he says. Once an injury has been properly identified, and the physician gives an OK, massage is safe when approached conservatively.

 

All agree that, by taking on mild soreness before it becomes a bigger problem, massage can help prevent injury. Says Beasley, “At Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production of Movin’ Out, the overwhelming consensus of the performers was that massage was the single most effective technique to keep them going and to limit injury.” ’Nuff said!

 

 

Nancy Alfaro, a New York writer, danced with STREB, Jane Comfort, and Meredith Monk.

The audience settles and the lights begin to dim. The music’s cued, and you prepare to make your entrance. Though you know your director and fellow dancers trust you, and you’ve worked your buns off rehearsing for your moment in the limelight, an unfounded fear suddenly floods your being. Rather than bounding onstage with joyful energy, you’re quaking in the wings, with your legs shaking and your heart racing so fast you could never dance to its beat! That, fellow dancers, is what’s known as stage fright. If you’re a victim of it (or if you just want to understand it), please read on.

 

Michelle Yard, a veteran of Mark Morris Dance Group says, “I get stage fright all the time!” Yard reveals that she’s slightly panicked every time she steps onstage, though not to the point of being frozen in her tracks. But her queasy stomach and pounding heart let her know she’s about to go on.

 

“Working with live music and different stages makes everything new all the time, so you get nervous,” says Yard. She also feels that handling difficult costumes contributes to feeling anxious, and that pieces where she’s featured are even more difficult to perform. “You’re out there by yourself, and if fear distracts you and your mind goes elsewhere for a second, you’ve got to come to your senses and figure things out fast!”

 

Yard’s been with the company for 10 years, and admits the fear was worse at the beginning. “When you’re new you want to show what you can do and why they hired you,” she says. She feels that having to prove yourself is nerve-wracking, and she believes it plays into the fear of going onstage. “Ultimately you want the company to think they made a good choice!” she says.

 

Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist Megan Keough doesn’t often experience stage fright, but she does remember having an episode when she danced in Bournonville’s Pas de Quatre. “When I first did the piece, I was so nervous I actually choked onstage,” says Keough. “I didn’t fall down, but the final diagonal of turns was nothing like it was in rehearsal—I was stumbling!”

 

Keough says she was terrified and that the experience “shocked the hell,” out of her. “I felt like I was standing about an inch off the stage, like I wasn’t connected to the floor,” she says. She was so afraid to “mess it up” that that’s exactly what she did!

 

She feels she’s learned from that one experience. “I saw that I needed to spend more time in pointe shoes beforehand. I wasn’t taking class on pointe, and I let my guard down,” she says. Keough also decided that she can’t approach every piece the same way. “Learning these things is part of growing as a dancer and as an artist.”

 

BalletMet Columbus’ Emily Ramirez finds that dancing solo is a nerve-inducing experience. “My stage fright developed over time as the choreography got more difficult, and I realized I had more of a chance of screwing it up,” she says. The anticipation of performing certain pieces gives Ramirez the shakes, and her heart rate escalates noticeably. “These symptoms can even start when the music comes on,” she says. “It’s ridiculous, because I’m a ham. But I’m a ham and a ball of nerves all at once!”

 

Ramirez’s heart rate has gotten so high when performing certain parts that she’s lost feeling in her legs. “It’s scary to go onstage when you can’t feel your legs,” she says. “That’s an extreme thing.”

 

But she has found that standing in the wings with her arms raised above her head helps calm her down. “I close my eyes and take deep breaths to lower my heart rate,” she says. “It’s relaxing. I can get into my own zone for a while.”

 

She’s also afraid of heights, so being lifted and tossed around in the air is fear-inducing too. “I did a James Kudelka piece where I ran into a treacherous lift right off the bat,” she says. “My partner knew how scared I get, so we’d do a funny little dance in the wings to shake the nerves off.”

 

Humor still helps her through tough stage fright bouts. “If I’m nervous in the wings, I’m going to lighten the mood,” she says. “I’ll be the one to say something irreverent. First I resort to joking, and then I do some trusty deep breathing and close off my surroundings. I say to myself, ‘I’m a dancer in a ballet and I have to make it work!’ ”

 

Audra Johnson has been with American Repertory Ballet for four years. During her first season with the company, Johnson says she was filled with fear. “I am classically trained but was doing contemporary movement,” she says. “I felt if it didn’t feel right, how could it look right?”

 

Johnson says even onstage she would battle her nonstop internal monologue. “I was in my head all the time,” says Johnson. “It was hard to stop worrying and get comfortable with the movement.”

 

The director of the company took Johnson aside and told her she needed more confidence and that everyone was rooting for her. Once she began to understand that, she could let go of some of her fear. “I tried not to be so worried about how I looked and felt,” she says. “Dance is not about the perfect pirouette; it’s so much deeper than perfection.”

 

Johnson doesn’t experience stage fright too often anymore. “Of course I get the jitters before a show, but I have to trust myself and my partners,” she says. “I tell myself to go out there and have fun.”

 

John Heginbotham, another member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, isn’t a victim of perpetual stage fright, but he has gotten it while performing I Love You Dearly, a highly aerobic solo. The first time he did it, he says, “I was alone in the wings and I felt my heart in my stomach. For about three seconds I entertained the idea of leaving the theater!”

 

As the piece began, Heginbotham felt like he was on a rollercoaster ride. Once he was accomplishing his landmarks, he began to enjoy dancing. But when he was asked to perform it for the company’s 25th-anniversary season, he found himself getting nervous again. As he was warming up, he felt he needed some words of wisdom to help him get through the dance. Morris happened to be backstage, so Heginbotham asked him to tell him something about the piece he didn’t know. “This piece is easy,” said Morris. “But I can’t tell you you’ll have a good life!” The humor helped him to relax, and when he thought of it as easy, it flowed better.

 

“There are always pieces that are more nerve-wracking than others, but you have to get through it,” says Heginbotham. “There are worse things that can happen in life than making mistakes onstage.”

 

So if stage fright is your constant or part-time partner, remember: Even the most accomplished dancers have experienced it sometime in their career, and most dancers do find ways of coping with their fears. Breathe, laugh, and enjoy your time onstage.


Nancy Alfaro lives and writes in Queens, NY.

You enter the studio, drop your bag, and find your place at the barre. As you switch sides during your initial stretch, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. But that glance is often far from casual, and what crosses your mind in that split-second sighting can flavor the rest of your class. Are you happy with your visual image, or does it initiate a doubt-riddled downward spiral? If used as a means of self-sabotage, the mirror can be hazardous. But viewed mindfully, the mirror is a dancer’s most honest friend.


Donna Silva, who teaches at The Boston Conservatory and Boston Ballet School, knows how the mirror can play havoc with self-esteem. Says Silva, “Dancers can get caught up in their imperfections and think, ‘I’m not good enough.’ ”


Once a dancer is caught in that downward spiral, says Silva, they “see” that they’re never thin enough, and that their legs are never high enough. “I got into such a habit of looking in the mirror and judging myself,” says Silva, a former Joffrey dancer, “that I never felt I was living up to my potential.”


Silva acknowledges that being thin is part of the dance aesthetic. “They’re always conscious of their weight,” says Silva about her students. “At some point they have to take off the baggy clothes, take a look in the mirror, and begin to work with what they have.”


Silva does think the mirror is beneficial for checking where the head should be, correcting arm and leg levels, and for assessing line. “I use the mirror to help students find their alignment,” she says. “If they’re in the process of changing that, it’s good to look first. Then I try to get them to feel it from the inside out.”


Recently, however, one of Silva’s students was doing an alignment check when she said, “I don’t want to look in the mirror. I don’t like what I see, and it never seems right.” When this kind of thing happens, says Silva, the teacher has to step in and help students to see themselves in a healthy light. She tells them to look at their good points, and reminds them that no one has the perfect body.


When preparing for performance, Silva recommends facing away from the mirror. This helps dancers’ muscle memory and gives them a chance to dance fully, using focus, expression, and artistic interpretation.


Stephanie Saland, a former New York City Ballet principal, teaches in Seattle (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” July, 2006). Says Saland of her days at the School of American Ballet, “I used the mirror to keep up with the steps when I couldn’t remember an exercise. I began dancing quite late and did not retain sequences easily.” Saland believes that if the mirror is not used carefully, its detriments can outweigh its benefits. “Dancers are often their own harshest critics,” she says. She believes the mirror can reinforce this dynamic of unforgiving self-evaluation, creating a distorted viewpoint. “The mirror reflects how things appear,” she says, “and the student can have a constant self-dialogue in response to what they think they see, and whether it measures up.”


According to Saland, using the mirror incorrectly can shift the focus of movement and alignment from an internal experience to an external one, where the dancer begins reading her progress (or lack of it) from a flat sheet of glass, rather than from what she feels.


Saland believes dancers need to nurture their sensory awareness and learn to trust their feelings, rather than relying on the mirror. “Students need to develop a connected sense of ‘right’ that is honed with the inner eye,” she says. “The dancer needs to shift to a feeling state and learn firing patterns and movement qualities that come from an ‘inner seeing.’ ”


Saland says that working away from the mirror and interfacing with it again at intervals is a healthy way to help dancers “take inventory.” Check to see if the feeling matches your perception of alignment, precision, and movement quality. “But don’t do it alone,” she advises. “Have another eye in the studio, an intelligent advocate.”


William Whitener, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, recalls the healthy use of mirrors in his early dance days at the Cornish School in Seattle. “We used the mirror as a tool, not as a crutch,” he says. “We weren’t transfixed by our image, because we were trained to interpret the music, and to use phrasing as a way to show we understood rhythm and expression.”


Whitener feels that “mirror-gazing” has increased in the past 20 years, leading to an erosion of the expressiveness of épaulement. “It’s OK to check your barre work in the mirror,” he says, “as long as the head keeps moving and doesn’t fixate.”


Gus Solomons jr, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, began his dance training with Jan Veen at The Boston Conservatory. Early on, Solomons learned about moving in relation to the space around him—minus the mirror. “This enabled us to understand direction and shape in three dimensions and to pick up styles easily.”


Solomons thinks that many dancers are so busy examining everything they do, that they don’t experience movement kinesthetically. Like Silva and Saland, he feels that mirrors are a good tool to use on the way to attaining sensory self-knowledge. “The function of the mirror,” he says, “is to be able to see what you’re doing so that you can begin to feel it.”


Solomons notes that some of his female students are 5 to 10 pounds over a professionally desirable weight, and that the mirror makes this quite plain. “But we don’t make them neurotic about it,” says Solomons. “We let them become women, and then in time they slim down,” he says. “They see what’s out there and take steps to fix their visual image. I try to keep as many demons out of the studio as possible.”


Augusta Moore, ballet program director of ODC Dance in San Francisco, thinks the mirror allows students to believe that they know a movement, but that their knowledge is not based on sensation. She thinks the mirror doesn’t let them feel movement fully. “When I taught without the mirror, dancers used their heads and necks, and there was a sense of innocence and joy,” she says. “With the mirror their movement was more self-conscious.” She aims for dancers to be absorbed by their own sensations. “You want to progress beyond what you see and start to feel it.”


Janet Panetta, who teaches in New York, and at Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, remembers her classes with the legendary teacher Margaret Craske. “There was only one small mirror in the studio, and you’d look at it when you had to check what you were doing,” she recalls. “We learned to use the mirror as a tool.”


Panetta says that the discrepancy between what dancers feel they’re doing and what they’re physically enacting can be surprising, and that by using the mirror as a functional tool, they should be able to bridge that gap.


“Dancers should give in to their dependency on the mirror; they should give in to using it as an instrument,” says Panetta. “I have my class practice things away from the mirror to get it into their bodies. Then I have them do the movement straight on to the mirror, and they are often shocked by what they see.”


Panetta feels that dancers must work on being devoid of narcissism, and put themselves in a position of deference to the art form. “A lot of dancers get lost in their own images, but people who can’t stop looking at themselves are looking at the wrong things,” she says. “If your legs are two feet long, they are not going to become four feet long just because you keep looking at them.” Panetta urges dancers to “objectify” themselves when looking in the mirror and to envision seeing a skeletal version of their bodies.


Panetta says dancers should try to have an instinct about making the right movement choices. “Ultimately, the mirror is there to help you see things,” she says. “Later, you begin to feel them. Above all, you should be able to look in the mirror and respect what you see: a human being trying to attain an art form.”



Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer.

What to do when ZZZs are but a dream

 

 

You’ve kicked the blankets to the floor, turned the pillow over and upside down (10 times), lowered the shade, raised it, and turned out the light—again! You’ve danced Swan Lake and gone over your new choreography, all inside your tired brain. You’ve even envisioned your thunderous curtain call, complete with a deep and humble bow. In the words of a popular ’60s tune, you’ve been tossin’ and turnin’ all night. In plain English, you CAN’T SLEEP!


Lack of sleep is a major discomfort that affects people from all walks of life. But for the professional dancer, sleep loss can have more profound repercussions than napping at your desk during the late-afternoon slide into the “valley of fatigue.”


Marijeanne Liederbach, Director of Research and Education for the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York, says many dancers don’t take time off because they are afraid of losing ground technically. “Sleep loss is a big part of what’s called overtraining syndrome,” she says. Dancers with the syndrome experience changes in sleep behavior and appetite, and may suffer mood disturbances, diminished energy, and lower immunity. It occurs when training becomes monotonous and training-to-rest ratios fall out of balance, not uncommon with the physical  overload of class and rehearsal. “To help avoid burnout,” says Liederbach, “we encourage teachers to vary the way they approach classes and rehearsals.” And dancers need to take appropriate rest cycles. “They have to understand,” says Leiderbach, “that they are helping their overall performance by taking a day (or two) off from training.”


How often should a dancer alternate rest with training? “It varies individually,” says Leiderbach. “You may be in a butoh piece or a highly physical role, but no matter what you’re dancing, you need downtime and at least one full day of rest per week to let the tissues recover and de-stress.”

 

Rachel McKeever, a self-proclaimed night owl and dancer with American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, suffered severe insomnia between graduating from her performing arts high school and joining ARB. She says it helped her to develop a nightly ritual. “Teach yourself that routine, and your body will know it’s time to sleep. It has to include something relaxing, so nix the mile run. I like to take a hot shower and read a magazine or book that I don’t have to concentrate on, so I can easily slip into some zzzs.”


New York dancer/choreographer and former insomniac Tamar Rogoff attended a sleep clinic for a year. “I look at not being able to sleep as a balance problem. If you rehearse late, learn a new part, and are over-stimulated, it’s hard to sleep. You are the only one who can balance these things.” Rogoff choreographed several dances with sleep as a theme. “I tried to process the issue through my work,” she says. “Doing the work put certain issues to rest, and then I could sleep better.”


At the clinic, Rogoff got tips in “sleep hygiene” that helped her establish the balance she was seeking. She was told to assign a time to worry, and not to do it near bedtime. “If you actually put words to your worries with pencil and paper, it minimizes them. When the lights are on, it turns monsters into elves.” She was also told not to have work-related things in her bedroom, and to establish a pre-bedtime habit, like taking a bath, reading, or listening to stories on tape.

 

Practically every sleep expert on the planet will tell you that alcohol and caffeine—found in coffee, soda, and chocolate—are musts-to-avoid at least five hours before sleep. These substances raise your alertness level, and increase your heart and breathing rates, making sleeplessness more likely. Rogoff touts the benefits of calcium, which she takes before bed along with magnesium. “It’s like a glass of warm milk,” she says. She also drinks a sleep tea with valerian.


Gigi Berardi, a dance medicine specialist and Dance Magazine contributing editor, says the stress of performance anxiety, dancing close to bedtime, and eating late-night post-performance meals are all stimulants that can keep you up. In addition to “ritualizing sleep,” Berardi recommends a comfortable mattress. She claims that a darkened and noiseless room can help even the most energized dancer catch some shut-eye. “Don’t start anything stressful before going to bed,” says Berardi. “And if you’re having a hard time getting to sleep, get out of bed and quietly read or sew ribbons on your pointe shoes.”


Rogoff agrees that “lying and trying” just doesn’t work. “If I wake in the night I take more calcium and read. Try not to lie in bed with your mind racing. Get up and get your costume ready, and when you feel sleepy, climb back into bed and try again.”


McKeever found that a support system is helpful too. “Using your teacher, director, or friends as an outlet can relieve tension and keeps me from internalizing things,” she says. She sometimes thinks she waited too long to discuss her problem. When she got to ARB she finally talked to a nutritionist, who diagnosed her insomnia and suggested Ambien to retrain her body for sleeping. “I was concerned about taking a pill, but he assured me they weren’t addictive. And after the three weeks, I was fine.”


McKeever is addicted to Starbucks coffee, but in the morning only. “I watch my caffeine intake. I try not to have coffee after 5 p.m., because during performances it’s a little bit harder to unwind at night. If there’s a new rep, I’ll sometimes go over the choreography in my head so I don’t mess up. I’m also thinking, how can I make that role work for me? I can’t wait to get started and I want to keep working. And that’s when having a sleep routine comes in handy.”


When McKeever had insomnia, she was getting only about 10 hours of sleep per week. When asked how her dancing was affected, she says, “It made it harder to retain choreography, and a lot harder to focus. I started to hallucinate. If I was at the barre doing a combination, I’d feel like the teacher was behind me and then I’d realize he was on the other side of the room. An overall state of paranoia took over. Even though I could function, nothing felt right—not to mention the horrible, unattractive bags I had under my eyes.”


Turning the sleep monster into a dreamy elf entails making some changes and mustering a dash of discipline to enforce them. If you create your own bedtime ritual, watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, talk to friends, and take a day off here and there, keeping your eyes open long enough to finish this article may become harder than you’d think.


Nancy Alfaro, a former dancer with Streb and Jane Comfort, lives and writes about dance in New York City.

What—and when—to eat and drink before performing

 

 

Whether you dance through a season’s worth of high-powered performances, or just gear up periodically for a couple of big ones, you have probably tried every possible food combination to help fuel you past your first entrance. You’ve eaten power shakes or steaks, had protein bars or Gatorade, downed a pre-show bag of M&Ms, slugged back an espresso after a can of tuna, all in an effort to keep that larger-than-life performance energy cranking. Well, there’s food news flying through the dance world that will make you energized, not to mention satisfied.

 

While dancers need to look ethereal, they also must be able to work through long tours and dance-intensive reps. So developing the right combinations, portions, and meal times, and understanding food’s nutritional wallop is a real asset.

 

Elaine Winslow-Redmond, a former Rockette and athletic trainer for the Radio City Rockettes, encourages the company dancers not to be overly concerned about their weight. “They sometimes do four 90-minute shows per day, and they burn a lot of calories. Throughout the day they should eat small meals, and keep carbs in their plan because they act as fuel.”

 

Many dance company nutritionists give the same advice, especially if a dancer has a heavy performance schedule on top of rehearsals or a particularly athletic repertoire. In general you should eat six small “meals” a day, be they protein shakes, nuts, or something as substantial as a turkey sandwich. You should have one about two hours before the show and one after the show, as soon as possible. If you’re too nervous to eat right before a performance, have a protein shake, a Gatorade, or half a toasted bagel—they’re chock-full of good fats and proteins for energy. During intermission, some dancers eat protein bars or bananas if they feel faint. (Bananas are potassium-rich so they help prevent cramping.)

 

Winslow-Redmond makes a point of urging dancers to keep hydrated. “It can prevent injury by helping them resist fatigue. Think of a dehydrated sponge. Your muscles are brittle without water, and when you’re hydrated, they’re more pliable. Dancers with hours of rehearsals and performing should drink up to two liters of water a day and sports drinks to help replace electrolytes.”

 

It’s all about fluids, agrees Beth Glace. A sports nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Glace says the type of exercise dancers do is high-intensity work that is carbo-dependent. On performance days, she recommends they eat smaller, largely liquid meals, followed by liquid. This makes food more digestable, which is crucial, as it has to be readily available. “You want something low in fat (fat slows digestion), high in liquid, and with a lot of carbs,” Glace says. “Chicken noodle soup with extra noodles is great because it’s liquid, yet the carbs help keep your energy up.”

 

Glace’s ideal performance day menu consists of soup with whole grain bread followed by water or Gatorade. And oatmeal and other hot cereals are high on her list of energy boosters. “Hot cereals are a thick liquid, but they are liquid. Apple sauce is also very liquid. That’s important because food has to empty out of the stomach by performance time.” If it sounds a little dangerous having so much liquid before a show (what’s a dancer to do if nature calls mid-performance?), Winslow-Redmond says, “Know the breaks in the show that will allow you to run to the powder room.”

 

According to Glace’s plan, dancers should eat the bulk of their calories early in the day, and should eat again in the evening, taking small meals in between. Low-fat smoothies, water, protein, juice, and carbs should be taken six times a day. She also says not to worry about gaining weight if you eat a larger meal before you sleep—you’ll eat less at that meal if you haven’t starved yourself during the day.

 

Eat, eat (and drink) is the main message doctors and nutritionists are broadcasting to the dance community. Dr. Richard Gibbs, a former dancer and supervising physician of the San Francisco Ballet says, “We’ve definitely moved away from recommending three squares a day. We say, eat when you’re hungry and find foods that leave you satisified. Eat smaller amounts and eat better. What often happens is that the dancer eats nothing all day, and at the end of the day pigs out on the wrong foods.”

 

While no one is recommending Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, Gibbs says, “White bread, white rice, and other junk foods break down so quickly that it’s almost like eating plain sugar. You get an insulin rush, and 15 minutes you’re left with less energy and you’re hungry again. If you’re going to eat carbs, eat brown bread and brown rice. They stay in your system for a few hours, and continue to feed you energy.”

 

Gibbs also says that there are good and bad fats. Olive oil and omega-3 fatty oils (found in fish) are great for dancers because they break down slowly and protect your heart. “Dancers need non-processed foods, some healthy fats, and adequate protein to replace muscle tissue that’s being broken down,” he says. Gibbs believes in eating whole grain toast with peanut butter and honey at breakfast—and he’s adamant about not skipping that first meal. “Don’t make the mistake of having your system work on no fuel. You’ll run the risk of overeating, having no energy, or eating improperly later on.”

 

Try shaking up your idea of what’s-OK-to-eat-when. “If you feel like having almonds for breakfast, go for it,” says Gibbs. “They’re cardio-protective and provide energy for hours.” He also wants women to drink a glass of skim milk for a dash of calcium. For lunch have small amounts of whole grains, some low fat cheese, or chicken or meat with the fat trimmed off. And eating broccoli, carrots, and other high fiber snacks throughout the day keeps your appetite at bay.

 

Some dance companies now have workshops to educate dancers towards a more healthy life on and off the stage. “There is life after dance, so it’s important to eat well while you’re dancing—and performing,” says Gibbs. So eat more often, have great performance energy, and maintain your weight. It’s a prescription for a healthier, happier, totally energetic performer.

 

Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in New York.

 

Jumps soar higher and higher. Legs fly up to ears. And pirouettes routinely come in four—and more. Audiences gasp with excitement, and standing ovations are now standard fare. Is this the Olympics, the circus, or just ballet in the era of competitions?



Critics, dance teachers, artistic directors, and competitors had ample opportunity this year to debate the impact of competitions. The recently concluded USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson witnessed more virtuosity than ever before. So have renowned European competitions like Varna and the Prix de Lausanne, and newer competitions like Youth America Grand Prix.



While competitions are venues for discovering exciting young dancers, they are also a controversial topic among ballet’s major players. The number of pirouettes a dancer does is quantifiable; how she flirts with her fan in Don Quixote is immeasurable. Judges confronted with Kitri variations need some basis for consistent evaluation. And this may explain why extreme technique has moved to center stage.



Artistry lies at the heart of the debate. Competitions emphasize perfecting excerpt, not sustaining an entire performance. Steps are divorced from character or the piece’s meaning. Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet director Marcia Dale Weary feels many dancers who focus on learning variations for competitions are sacrificing artistry for technical prowess. She believes young dancers benefit more from being in the corps. “Working with other dancers as a team is what’s necessary to artistic development,” says Weary.



Nevertheless, many young dancers who compete say they learn a lot, and it polishes their performing skills. Seventeen year-old Rock School student Kara Haraty entered her first competition, Youth America Grand Prix, this past year. “In preparation, my teacher, Natasha Bar, would coach me almost every day for an hour, having me rehearse my variations over and over until every last detail had been corrected,” she recalls. While Haraty, who placed second in the senior women’s contemporary division, admits competing can be stressful, she felt the experience helped her achieved a new facility. “I surpassed my limits,” she says.


Not every teacher has Weary’s approach, either. Stanislav Issaev, chair of the dance department at South Carolina Governor’s School of the Arts and a well-respected competition coach, believes competitions help popularize ballet. “If a dancer sees someone do something technically amazing, and wants to do it too, that advances the art form,” he says.

 

Bo Spassoff, president and director of Pennsylvania’s Rock School, is proud of his five students who won medals at the USA-IBC. “Today’s dancers are amazing artists, and the technique bar has gone higher,” he says. He believes this has made ballet a richer art form. “In some cases, more is more exciting,” Spassoff says. “Dance is extremely compelling now because people can do different kinds of things.”



When judging competitions, he looks for a combination of exceptionally clean technique and the ability to do things other dancers can’t. “Judges are not unimpressed by that,” he says. But he also says that he looks for what “grabs him” in a dancer. “Maybe it’s their high jump or their exquisite artistry;” he says. “Hopefully it’s a combination of both.”


Sixteen-year-old competitor and Rock School student Isaac Hernandez, who won the Junior Mens gold at USA-IBC, sees no conflict between technical achievement and artistry. “You try to achieve the cleanest technique possible, but artistry has to be there, too,” he says. Hernandez feels that it’s important to know ballet history, to look at videos of other dancers, and to play with the choreography to “make it your own.”



But other teachers, and even artistic directors, have some of Weary’s concerns. Do competitions’ emphasis on technique reach into the realm of professional performance? “Competitions are scary,” says Francis Perron, managing director of New York’s Studio Maestro. “It’s like the Olympics. Judges are looking for technical skills, and that hurts artistry.” He has had students ask him, “If I can’t do tricks, will I be able to get a job?”



Perron’s unease strikes a chord with other teachers and coaches. “In my realm people are sacrificing artistry for technique,” says Henry Berg of The Ballet Studio in San Francisco. He often sees technically gifted dancers pushed into roles they aren’t artistically ready for. “The technical thing is very important now,” he says, “but it’s more a minus than a plus for dance.”



Former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe, who has judged Youth America Grand Prix competitions and co-directs the New Jersey School of Ballet in Princeton (CHK), feels that while technical ability in today’s companies has soared, the level of artistry has suffered. She remarks on our cultural affinity for bigger, better, and more, as a quantifier of American success. “It’s a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality,” she notes. To an audience, a dancer who can perform quadruple pirouettes must be a better dancer than the dancer that does three. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that dancer is an artist,” says Jaffe. “And young dancers have to be careful not to think that extreme technique is the goal.” She believes dance is all about the “wow factor” now. “When I’m watching the kids scream as a dancer goes into a huge panche at YAGP, I think it’s lovely, but there’s so much heart energy missing.”


Artistic directors, who often attend—and judge—competitions, must walk a fine line. Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, has both competed and judged. “The whole competition thing is overrated,” he says. He’s skeptical of dancers who roam from competition to competition in search of prizes. Like Weary, he fears that once they’ve won, they won’t want to rise through the ranks. “Being in a company is a process. You have to function in a group; it’s not just about dancing a solo,” he says.



None of this is to diminish the importance of good technique. “You have to focus on technique to make the body usable,” says Weary. But the soul is also important. “Once dancers move from their souls and feel the music, they’re on their way. There are some bodies that are only passable onstage, but they make you feel more, and that’s what dance is all about.”


 Nancy Alfaro is a writer and former dancer who lives in New York.

In 1961 Rudolph Nureyev defected to the West, fleeing his homeland to expand his artistic horizons. In the 1970s, fellow Russians Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov followed suit. They are among countless dancers the world over who have come to the United States in an effort to explore new forms—and in doing so, have enriched our world immeasurably. But getting (and staying) here isn’t as easy as you’d think. And as fears of terrorism and joblessness fuel the current immigration ruckus, the number of artists who will be able to enter the U.S. in the future remains uncertain. Dance Magazine talked to five artists about their personal journeys.



Boston Ballet corps member Jaime Diaz first trained at his parents’ school in Bogota, Colombia. He ventured to Cuba at age 13 to study at the prestigious school of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and entered the company as a first soloist in 2000. He dreamed of performing contemporary and classic works. In 2003 that dream became a reality when he successfully auditioned for the Boston Ballet. Though Diaz was scheduled to start with the company in August, he didn’t get his visa until December. Diaz doesn’t know why his visa was held up, but he thinks the fact that Colombia is perceived as a nation linked to terrorism and drug smuggling may have had something to do with it.


Luckily, the Boston Ballet staff pushed for him to get to the U.S., which sped up the process. Now that he’s here, the soft-spoken Diaz says, “My favorite part about the States is that you get a lot of opportunities. In Cuba, we dance all the classics. But here we get to dance a mixed repertory.” Happily, he has been cast in works by Forsythe and Kylián as well as Petipa.


Hiroshima native Yasuko Yokoshi, now an established presence in downtown New York, arrived here in 1981 with one suitcase and no hotel reservation. She had studied classical ballet as a child, but abandoned it to prepare for a career as a bilingual secretary. In order to improve her English, she went to Dean College in Massachusetts—where there were no other Japanese students. But she deep-sixed her secretarial career when she joined Dean’s excellent modern dance program.



Yokoshi believes that today’s immigrants are creating a dynamic society within American culture. But she also thinks that the faction of Americans who are railing against immigrants feel threatened by them. “Sometimes American artists say, ‘You’re Japanese, why are you taking our money?’ ” Yokoshi understands their frustration, yet feels that it’s easier for people to expel their anger on someone of a different race or nationality.



She’s been here so long that she has developed a double identity. “I’ve been here more than half my life,” she says, “so Japanese people consider me almost American when I go back.”  Recently she received a U.S. grant to study in Japan, with a master of traditional Kabuki dance—who accepted her as a student because she was “American.” Her latest piece was an intriguing blend of her Kabuki training and the writings of the very American Raymond Carver. (Imagine pulling a cigarette lighter out of a kimono sleeve in slow motion.)



Caracas, Venezuela is the birthplace of dancer/choreographer Julieta Valero. A former member of Caracas’ Danzahoy, she founded and directs Brooklyn-based Rastro Dance Company, made up mostly of dancers who are South American immigrants. She came to New York in 1995 on a student visa to study at the Merce Cunningham studio. After a year and a half, she left the Cunningham school, which meant her student visa was no longer legal. She was broke and afraid she’d be deported. “I was on the subway when I had a panic attack and thought I was going to die,” she recalls. She nervously called her then-boyfriend, Edgar Rodriguez, a fellow Venezuelan who was living in Utah. Luckily, Edgar had been born in the States, and he and Valero decided to marry. (He is now assistant director of Rastro). She was not allowed to leave the U.S. for two years while she waited for an updated visa. The red tape was endless.



But the struggle for Valero to live here has been worth it. “I feel liberated. When I present my work here, I am free to experiment,” she says. “Even if the audience is mad when they leave the show, at least I’ve made a mark, a footprint.”



Kaori Nakamura, a principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, was born and raised in Gumma, Japan. After winning a ballet competition in Lausanne at 15, she chose to come to the School of American Ballet in New York on a student visa. She spoke no English, but soon made friends and started to feel more at home—so much so that she thought she’d dance here permanently. But that wasn’t in the cards—the green card to be exact. Because she didn’t have one, she was forced to go back to Japan, where ballet companies are very different. “In Japan you have to buy your own pointe shoes, because there’s no money for art,” she says. In order to make a living as a dancer, you have to teach, too. “In the U.S. I can concentrate on my dancing,” she says. “It’s great!”



Nakamura danced throughout Japan, and in 1990 left to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she was made principal. After seven seasons, she was itching to step out and dance a new rep. She was accepted into Pacific Northwest Ballet as a soloist in 1997, but missed her first season while waiting for her visa to come through. She had sold her house in Winnipeg and had to scramble for places to stay for a month. “I was waiting, waiting, and the company had started work. I was stuck in Canada with nothing to do and nowhere to live,” she says. She finally got a special artist’s visa, which had to be renewed yearly. “Every year is like hell when you’re waiting for that visa,” says Nakamura. After a few years, she got a green card, which involved a lengthy process of talking with lawyers and, you guessed it—waiting. Now that she has her green card, she feels her dancing has improved. “I don’t have to worry,” she says. “It’s so much less stressful that my dancing feels better.”



Nora Chipaumire, a powerhouse of a performer with Urban Bush Women, hails from Zimbabwe, a land of unrivaled natural beauty. In Africa, dance is part of everyday life, and Chipaumire learned to dance by watching others. Most African artists in Zimbabwe are self-taught, as it’s a prejudiced belief that the arts are something that Africans don’t need to learn. “I grew up in Harare, the capital, where only Europeans could go to ballet classes,” she says. After a high school career as a radio-play actor and broadcaster, Chipaumire got her law degree at a Zimbabwean university. She came to New York on a student visa for New York University’s journalism school, but once here, she decided she wanted to become the next Spike Lee, and headed to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which Lee had attended. When she didn’t get in, she fled to California, heartbroken. She enrolled at Laney College in Oakland. When her student visa ran out, she was illegal for a hot second. She wanted to stay in the States, as she’d discovered modern dance at Laney. “I saw that I could tell stories through dance, and that modern dance was built upon self-expression,” she says. “Everything I had been experimenting with came together for me.”


Chipaumire was able to remain here because she got married. It was a real (not just-for-the-green-card) marriage that lasted eight years. In 2003, after attending Mills College, she auditioned for Urban Bush Women, and made it into the company. “UBW were using a movement language that was close to what I was investigating—that’s a pretty happy union,” she says.



But after all her years in the States, she still feels the sting of being an immigrant. “I know the fears of being under the table, of being an outsider, and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. “There’s a more aggressive urgency to survival for immigrants in the years I’ve been here.” She says that poor treatment (like being underpaid and disrespected due to lack of language skills) causes immigrants to feel shamed, and then they try to be invisible. But one positive thing has come out of these observations: Chipaumire is creating a dance investigating this “being the other” phenomenon. While she feels lucky to have a green card, she thinks people need to remember that part of what has made America great is the fact that outsiders have historically been welcomed. “This country was built by immigrants,” says Chipaumire. “The reason people come to America is to pursue their dreams.”


Nancy Alfaro, a former dancer, is a writer based in New York.

She’s spicy. She’s Spanish. She’s flirtatious and playful, with just a splash of sexy. And when she’s hot, she can flutter a fan with the best of them. No, this is not the dish on Penélope Cruz. It’s all about Kitri, the muse of the impossible dreamer (and title character) of the ballet Don Quixote.


Decorative fans are as Spanish as paella, castanets, and flamenco. For ages, they were used to beat the heat and as a means of communicating furtive love messages. At one time, there was even a “language of the fan” that every Spaniard understood. So who would Kitri be without her glamorous accessory, the extension of her very arm?


The solo fan variation takes place during Kitri’s wedding, the culmination of the ballet. She’s gotten her man and she’s presenting her lighthearted and self-assured persona. She’s wonderfully classical to boot. But how does the dancer manipulate a fan while turning, jumping, and hopping on point? How does she smoothly integrate the use of this small but unwieldy prop into the core of her character?


Kirk Peterson, American Ballet Theatre ballet master and Don Q coach, says, “I like to put the architecture (the steps) down first, and then we talk about how to use the fan—where to use épaulement, the flirtatious nature of the variation, and using the fan as an expression of the character.” Peterson encourages the dancer to get comfortable by simply holding the fan while practicing the steps first, then tackle the technique for seamlessly opening and closing the fan. Conversely, many dancers spend a week or so working with the fan and music only—no steps allowed.


The extraordinary Gelsey Kirkland dazzled as Kitri in the 1970s and ’80s. Her approach, she says, was to first find the weight of the movement, the spiraling épaulement, and the strong accent that the character needed. “When you feel the gestures clearly without the fan,” she says, “you start to understand the impetus needed to use the fan properly.” Kirkland worked on fan use with Spanish dancer Maria Alba, later integrating it into the mime scenes with coach Pilar Garcia. “Mastering different uses of the fan is technically tricky at first, but not as tricky as breaking down the scene, which dictates the dialogue and etiquette of the fan. You need to know when and how to use it, and why you are using it,” says Kirkland.


She says the tricks of the fan-wielding trade include releasing the wrist invisibly before opening the fan. “Stiff and held joints on transitions are a nightmare,” she says. “You have to know when to use resistance, which reads as a hold, and to release the wrist slightly before working the hand.”


Zoica Tovar, a Cuban-trained dancer with the Orlando Ballet, feels the purpose of the fan is to make Kitri more charming. “In Spain, women tell men things with their fans. You use the fan to be provocative. It’s a way to look coquettish, and to seduce Basilio, Kitri’s love-interest.” She says the fan must be opened fluidly, closed softly, and not held in a vise grip. The line of the arms and the fan should be as one.


New York ballet coach and choreographer Elena Kunikova, who teaches at Steps on Broadway, guards against unqualified fan use among Kitris. She teaches dancers details like how to place their hands on their hips properly. “You have to know how the arm goes from point A to point B exactly,” she says. “There is technique involved, but each ballerina chooses her own tinctures, depending on what she wants to express.”


Festival Ballet Providence principal dancer Leticia Guerrero took character class (with fans) in her native Venezuela. She says that certain wrist moves ensure that the decorative side of the fan faces the audience. “But it took the most practice to learn how to open and close it, and to time it with the movement,” she says. “It’s a matter of doing it over and over again.” Guerrero learned the variation in a week of daily two-hour rehearsals. “The hardest technical part comes at the very end,” she says, “when you have to hop from one foot to the other, do pas de cheval, keep the fan going, do the port de bras, and stay on the rhythm. You also have to open and close the fan before starting the pattern again.”


Samantha Dunster, the ballet mistress of Orlando Ballet, is a Kitri veteran and coach. She encourages dancers to practice using the fan at home with music. “If the dancers have never used a fan before, I give them one to take home,” she says. “I teach them how to use it in a natural way, as though they were really overheated.” She then incorporates the fan into the variation. “I find if I do it the other way, a lot of fans are broken.”
Leticia Oliveira, first soloist with Houston Ballet, first performed the Don Q variation for a competition at the tender age of 12. She says that after dropping and breaking her fair share of fans, she came up with a repair plan. “I started taping them together to save money,” she says. “I went through a lot of tape.” She also found a solution to another problem. “If you do the full length Don Q, you can get really sweaty, and that's how the fan slips. I rosin my hands before the variation.”


“In Russia, the ballerinas tie the fan to the wrist,” says Irina Kolpakova, ABT’s ballet mistress and Don Q coach. “The variation is so short that if you lose the fan, it will be over before you get it back!” She asks ABT dancers to try working with the string first, as it’s easy to use and “no one will see it if you put makeup on it.” Kolpakova says her dancers tie the fan on during rehearsal, but rarely during performance. With a fan delicately attached to her own wrist, Kolpakova demonstrated various flirtatiously playful movements, épaulement, and port de bras during the interview. Her Kitri needed no words. The fan seemed to be part of her anatomy, and she was brilliantly seductive and disarming in her demonstration. “You see how easy?” she said. Not really, Madame!


There have been a few fan faux pas over the years. “I remember having to tie the fan to my hand a couple of times, because I had an accident or two where it ended up in the orchestra pit!” says Guerrero. “After that, you over-grab the fan, and that’s when you end up breaking it!” And Dunster recalled a dancer who, while rehearsing the first act fan dance, tossed it to Basilio, who missed it, sending it flying right through an open studio window. Maybe that string’s not such a bad idea after all!


The fan variation is often chosen to be performed in galas and competitions. Because Kitri’s character develops during three acts, it can be difficult to pull the variation out to perform at galas. On the other hand, Kunikova says that once you decide what kind of girl your Kitri is, you should easily be able to conjure her up for a gala performance. And ABT’s Kolpakova says, “Kitri’s persona is so clear, the ballerina can dance the fan variation in full character without a problem.”


Kirkland says that in order to do the solo with conviction, the dancer must keep in mind that it is part of Kitri and Basilio’s marriage celebration.
“Unfurling the fan like the opening of a flower accentuates the dignity, strength, and fullness of their love. Of course, a little spice, a little taste of Kitri’s willful temperament is a reminder of who is really in control. But the games are over, and trust, commitment, and joy can reveal themselves. In the end, true love is the winner.”


Nancy Alfaro, who danced with Meredith Monk and Robert Wilson, lives and writes in New York.

 

Think being in a second company means you’re second rate? Think again. Companies like Taylor 2, ABT Studio Company, Boston Ballet II, Pennsylvania Ballet II, Hubbard Street 2, and Ailey II offer first-rate performing experience. Their dancers often work with major contemporary choreographers in addition to performing classic works.


Dancers on the cusp of their professional careers look to second companies as a way to learn the ins and outs of working professionally, and as a helpful segue from their student status into full-blown dance adulthood. Dance Magazine got seven dancers’ takes on second-company life.


ABT Studio Company member Eric Tamm says that being in the second company offers “an opportunity for us to dance principal roles that we wouldn’t get if we were in the ABT corps.” He’s found working with up and coming choreographers exciting, too. “I’ve gotten to work with Ben Millepied, Sean Curran, and Dominic Walsh,” he says. “It’s really cool to be choreographed on, and to get to do the classical work like [Balanchine’s] Divertimento Number 15.”


This is Tamm’s first job, and in addition to the performance perks, he’s learned how to work in a professional environment. He knows what it means to work in a group, respect his co-workers, and interact with choreographers. Not to mention the fact that he’s getting paid to dance! “We’re not raking it in,” he says, “but it’s great to get us off the ground.”


The Studio Company tours about four months a year, and has traveled to such exotic locales as Costa Rica, London, and Bermuda. They perform about once a month, and have “a good amount of shows per year,” says Tamm—not counting the twenty-one Nutcrackers they did with Ballet Pacifica in Irvine, California last year. Tamm says, “The Studio Company has prepared me for what lies ahead. It’s run like a regular company with rehearsals and tours, and we get to dance high-level classical, neo-classical, and even some modern. I can’t say enough good things.”


Luca Sbrizzi came to the States knowing not one word of English. “I couldn’t talk to anyone for five months,” he laughs. Sbrizzi left his family in Udine, Italy, to train at the Boston Ballet School. “The transition between the school and the company is hard,” he says. In school, the teachers push their students, but dancers must motivate themselves when they get into Boston Ballet II. Even so, Sbrizzi says, “It’s my first job as a pro, and everything is perfect—we’re treated like company members.”


The dancers don’t earn much, so some have to take on extra work to sustain themselves. But, Sbrizzi says, “We’re getting paid in experience.” BBII dancers take company class in the morning and rehearse six hours a day. They dance classics like Don Q, and are given the opportunity to learn and perform contemporary works, too.


Because Sbrizzi’s experience at BBII has been so comfortable, the idea of being in a major company doesn’t intimidate him. His dream is to be in Boston Ballet, and he says he’ll work “3,000 percent” towards that goal. “You can change your life to reach your dream,” he says, “and I did everything I could to get where I am now.”

 

Taylor 2 performs Paul Taylor’s choreography, and for dancer Jamie Rae Walker, that’s just perfect. Walker was introduced to Taylor’s works at Miami City Ballet, where she danced in the corps. “MCB is where I caught the Taylor bug,” she says. She craved the artistic satisfaction his choreography offered, and came to New York three years ago to work with the second company. “The dances are re-staged for the six dancers in our group. It’s an irreplaceable experience in learning how to do his work,” she says.


This past year, the company had 44 weeks of work. “It’s almost unheard of for a second company,” says Walker. Much of the performing is done on the road—six weeks in spring and six more in the fall. “I like to travel quite a bit, so it’s good for me,” she says. The outreach programs generally take place in summer. “Teaching is an invaluable part of this experience,” she says. “You have to be able to communicate the work to every kind of dancer, including non-pros.”


Walker looks toward the moment she can enter the main company. She knows, however, that she has to wait for a spot to be available. “But I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback from Mr. Taylor,” she says hopefully. “It’s the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” she says. “I can push myself further as an artist, and this organization has introduced me to a whole other side of modern dance.”


Puerto Rican–born Luis Oscar Ramos has danced with Hubbard Street 2 for two years. He says, “Joining the company was the greatest decision I could have made. I learn many types of dance here, and that’s what I like!”


Hubbard Street 2 performs contemporary, hip hop, and Capoeira, and is constantly on the lookout for new choreography. Ramos says his biggest HS2 challenge is the hard work being in a company entails. “We’re a six-member group that dances a lot,” he says. “Like a family, we push each other.”
In between intense work periods, HS2 tours far and wide, including trips to Germany and Switzerland. One unusual feature is that HS2 holds a choreographic competition every summer, and the winners come and set brand new works on the company. “They create them just for us,” says Ramos, “which is the greatest thing a dancer can have.” This fall, they will be learning a new work by Edwaard Liang (see “25 to Watch,” January).


Sometimes, though, Ramos thinks people misunderstand the nature of a second company. “They think of it as a junior company, or that we’re second-class,” he says. But Hubbard Street 2 has its own rep and tours, and gets paid a living wage. “It’s a great place to be and grow,” says Ramos, whose future dreams include joining the first company.


“I’ve been watching the Pennsylvania Ballet since I was a kid,” says Ian Hussey, who’s just completed two years in Pennsylvania Ballet II. Hussey grew up in southern New Jersey, and trained at The Rock School, which was then affiliated with Pennsylvania Ballet. He was the Prince in PAB’s Nutcracker as a kid, and it’s been his dream to join the company ever since. “I kind of grew up with them,” he says.


Even though the six-member group often performs in the main company’s corps, they have their own rep, which is also basically classical choreography. And then there’s the mental component: Hussey says as young dancers on their way to professional careers, the experience is invaluable. “You get a feel for what you need to do to make a successful company career,” he says.


The second company works very closely with their teachers, and the benefit of taking class with only five other dancers offers them lots of personal attention. “When you’re in the main company class with 40 other dancers, you have to be very independent,” he says. “But the class is very intimate and our teacher helps us a lot.”


A high percentage of second company dancers get into the first company, according to Hussey, who will be an apprentice with the first company next year. And if dancers don’t make it into the main company, the staff helps them get jobs elsewhere.


“I was skinny and flexible as a kid,” says German-born Dominique Rosales. At 18, after graduating from the State Ballet Conservatory in Berlin, she landed a job in the German production of The Lion King. She saved her juicy paychecks and came to New York to try her luck at The Ailey School. “My dream came true so far,” she says. Rosales was quickly asked to apprentice with Ailey II, and has two years left with the company. “I’ve gotten a lot out of being here,” she says. “I accomplished my dream of working with Alvin Ailey, and have worked with Doug Varone, Troy Powell (Ailey II’s wonderful associate artistic director), and Camille Brown.”


She’s learned a lot about (and from) working with other dancers, and enjoys rehearsing in the beautiful Ailey studios that overlook Manhattan’s skyline. “Of course I would like to be in the first company,” she says, “but all I can do is continue to work hard. I know it sounds cheesy, but everything is possible. If you want something really badly, there’s a way to make it happen.”


Nancy Alfaro writes in New York City.

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