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Why I Dance: James Whiteside
Photo Courtesy NYC Dance Project
American Ballet Theatre principal
My mother passed away during this past ABT Met Season. It spurred changes in me and my art that I could not have foreseen. I used to tell people that I dance simply because the music obliges me to. As though I’m compelled by some unseen force, like a man possessed. Perhaps that’s the reason I started dancing, but the reason I continue is an entirely different matter.
I had never lost anyone truly close to me before. My mother died of a panoply of cancer. The degeneration of a wildly vital woman was something I will not soon forget. My director and coach, Kevin McKenzie, had often asked me to recall feelings of loss, and apply it to my portrayals. But before this year, death wasn’t a part of my personal reality, and I couldn’t draw from such an experience.
Every Sunday during ABT’s spring season, I would take the train to Connecticut, and my father would pick me up and drive me to visit my mother. I remember being in the middle of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, dancing his sensitive and brutal “Chamber Symphony,” when I witnessed a real turn in my mother’s health. She became emaciated and incoherent, but instead of complaining, went to a peaceful and loving state of mind, like that of a docile child. “Chamber Symphony” is based on Shostakovich’s life, which was riddled with oppression and loss. This obviously has nothing to do with a dying mother, but I imagine the pain of losing someone you love so much being somewhat universal, so I used it. I walked through the corps and shrank in posture in a descending crescendo of shuffling steps. I imagined I was a doomed man scuttling down the neon hallways of some forgotten hospital ward, dragging his IV along like a macabre pet on a walk.
The tears came. But I’m not one to sit and cry; it wasn’t until I could use my life in my art that I began to feel better. Not only through the movement, but the music as well.
I thought this essay would be bubbly, would have my bite and humor. But sometimes real life creeps in, making even a clown into a somber man. I may have started dancing because the music made something in me feel right, accepted and beautiful when nothing else could, but I continue dancing because life keeps happening all around me: love, loss, laughter, tears, parties, racism, homophobia, war. And since I haven’t yet figured out how to feel things in a traditional way, this art will have to be the window through which my vital madness escapes.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
We all know that the general population's knowledge of ballet is sometimes...a bit skewed. (See: people touching their fingertips to the top of their head, and Kendall Jenner hopping around at the barre.)
Would your average Joe know how to do ballet's most basic step: a plié? Or, more to the point, even know what it is?
SELF decided to find out.
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.
But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.
The wait for Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of Petipa's Harlequinade is almost over! But if you can't wait until American Ballet Theatre officially debuts the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 6, we've got you covered. ABT brought the Harlequinade characters to life (and to the Alder Mansion in Yonkers, NY) in a short film by Ezra Hurwitz, and it's a guaranteed to make you laugh.
When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.
Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.