The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
As Dance Theatre of Harlem turns 50, Arthur Mitchell's company has proven to be just as tenacious and resilient as he was. At times it looked like it wouldn't make it. But with the spirit of the phoenix it rises again.
Every member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem family can recite co-founder Arthur Mitchell's credo, "You represent something larger than yourself." Whether consciously or not, they all move through the world accordingly. Mitchell often remarked that "I don't have no dumb dancers," and he took pride in the fact that after being at DTH, dancers could be successful in any field they entered.
Sometimes, change happens all at once. Last year, The Juilliard School, one of the country's top conservatories for music, dance and drama, got not one new leader but three.
Damian Woetzel, a former star at New York City Ballet, took the reins as Juilliard's new president, the first in the institution's history to come from the field of dance. (The previous six have been musicians.) Evan Yionoulis was named director of drama. And Alicia Graf Mack, an exemplary dancer at both the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, became Juilliard's incoming director of dance—the first African American, and, at 39, the youngest person to ever take up the position.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
Even when marking a move in rehearsal, Bobbi Jene Smith seems to dance with her whole being. "It comes from the pelvis," she says while directing a few of her fellow dancers in an undulating phrase. Her lower body spirals, pulling her torso behind it in one swift, visceral motion. "Always keep a bit of groove somewhere in your body," she says during another, more improvisational section.
Dance audiences might be most familiar with this side of Smith: the heart—and the guts—that she brings to her dancing. But in the four years since she returned to the U.S. from Tel Aviv, where she spent a decade performing with the Batsheva Dance Company, she has achieved a balancing act of creative roles: dancer, choreographer, teacher and budding actor.
The scene she's rehearsing is one of 10 she choreographed for Aviva, an independent feature film directed by Boaz Yakin, best known for his 2000 blockbuster Remember the Titans. She also plays a main character in the movement-driven story, as part of a cast of more than 30 dancers that she helped to select—including 20 of her students from Philadelphia's University of the Arts.
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Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.
"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"
She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.
After 20 years at The Royal Ballet, Marianela Nuñez has more than a few words of wisdom to share. As writer Lyndsey Winship points out in our September cover story, over the past two decades Nuñez has never missed a season, and never once had a serious injury. She's stayed with the company through four directors, rising through the ranks to become its star.
So what's the secret of her staying power?
James Whiteside isn't your typical American Ballet Theatre star. So when we asked writer Brian Schaefer to write a cover story on him for our August issue, we knew we were in for a treat. But the piece ended up making us fall in love with Whiteside even more.
Here are a few of our favorite excerpts from Schaefer's story:
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
In 1989, Congress passed a resolution naming May 25—the birthday of tap legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson—as National Tap Dance Day, and it has been celebrated annually on that date ever since. For years, the May issue of Dance Magazine featured a tap dancer on its cover to coincide with the holiday and highlight the form.
But some considered the gesture to be mere tokenism. "It feels like a handout," says tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. "Our art form deserves more than that."
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
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."