This year we celebrate six extraordinary dance artists: American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland, Youth America Grand Prix's Larissa Saveliev, jazz master Luigi, American Tap Dance Foundation's Brenda Bufalino and Tony Waag, and choreographer Wayne McGregor.
Misty Copeland is more than a dancer. As an outspoken advocate for racial equality in ballet—and living proof of the possibilities—she's an icon.
Her story is by now familiar to Copeland's many fans: She began training at 13 after being discovered at a Boys & Girls Club in California. She was recognized as a prodigy almost instantly, and had her first performance with American Ballet Theatre just four years later.
Since then, she's become the first African-American soloist at ABT in over two decades, and she's used that distinction to become an ambassador for ballet: In the past year alone, she's starred in jaw-dropping ads for Under Armour, debuted as a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance" and published a memoir that's now being adapted into a feature film. She is also on the advisory committee of ABT's Project Plié diversity initiative, and spends her “free time" doing outreach at public schools and teaching master classes around the country.
“It's so easy to say my dream is to be the first female African-American principal at a major company," says Copeland. “But, really, my goal is to bring in a new crowd of people who are going to continue to support ballet even after I leave."
Despite her many projects, Copeland's classical career remains her primary commitment. On ABT's Australian tour this August, she made a highly acclaimed debut as Odette/Odile. “Performing Odette is something I never imagined I would do," she says. “I'm always preaching to young dancers of color to see every possibility for themselves. And yet, there's this subconscious thing ingrained in our brains that a white swan is just this ideal of a long, pale, thin Russian woman." Reviews praised her nuanced characterization, and her “ravishing" chemistry with her Prince Siegfried, Alexandre Hammoudi.
Copeland says the challenges of being an African-American ballet dancer change daily. Yet she's confident that race is an issue that will no longer be swept under the rug. “It's a conversation the ballet world has to face because it's gone beyond them," she says. She's thankful her high-profile projects have recently inspired the mass media to cover the topic—but she won't slow down until the major ballet schools are filled with more faces like hers.
With such relentless determination, it's easy to wonder if she ever has any downtime. “I try to take Sundays off," she says, then adds, “in the spring." —Jennifer Stahl
Above: Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.
No nail polish, no jeans and no bangs. These rules were handed down from the Bolshoi management in the 1980s. But at least one teenage corps member didn't listen. Frustrated by the restraints, Larissa Saveliev was a rebel. She cut her hair, painted her nails and wore denim. In 1995 she and her husband, fellow Bolshoi dancer Gennadi Saveliev, came to the United States; three years later they co-founded Youth America Grand Prix, which has become the most successful student ballet competition in the world.
So, how did a teenage rebel from Soviet Russia become a mogul of international ballet?
“In Soviet times we didn't have video or YouTube," recalls Saveliev. Competitions were how the Bolshoi dancers found out about the ballet world outside of Russia. When Saveliev traveled to London on tour in 1994, she got a glimpse of the prosperity in the West. “That was a shock," she says, “like: 'Wow, we don't have anything like that!' "
When she and Gennadi first arrived in the U.S., they taught at a small ballet program at a jazz school in New Jersey. “I really fell in love with teaching," she says. But she noticed a dearth of big conventions where ballet teachers and students could share methods. She took a page from the jazz conventions like New York City Dance Alliance and European international ballet competitions to create a new entity.
Her teenage rebelliousness translated into a whirlwind of DIY energy. With Gennadi's help, she started YAGP in Boston, Washington, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boca Raton. Today, it's expanded to include 14 cities in four countries, for a total of about 50,000 entries (many are repeat participants), with dancers earning $2 million in scholarships. More than 300 alumni now dance with top companies like American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West.
Saveliev is involved in every aspect of the operation. At one point last season, she watched 12-year-olds compete in Philadelphia while stealing looks at her laptop to see 9-year-olds live-streamed from Houston.
Her charisma—part blunt honesty, part sharp wit, all devotion to ballet training—is appreciated by parents and judges alike. She holds the names of myriad students in her head, and her keen eye matches many of them to the school that will best nurture their unique talent. John Selya, a frequent YAGP judge, has watched participants grow into top-notch professionals through the striving that Saveliev fosters. “YAGP is the real ballet academy of this country," he recently declared.
Yet YAGP is more than a competition or an academy. By commissioning new work, Saveliev has also developed the choreographic abilities of the likes of Marcelo Gomes and Emery LeCrone. And, to inspire the students, she has invited international figures to perform at the annual galas, giving American audiences their first glimpse of many superstars. Before joining ABT, Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev and Polina Semionova all made their New York debuts at YAGP. —Wendy Perron
Above: Saveliev teaching class in Southern California. Photo by Joe Toreno.
Brenda Bufalino and Tony Waag
An American Tap Dance Foundation event is bound to feature virtuosity in a variety of styles: cheeky song-and-dance duets, ensemble numbers brimming with up-and-comers, rhythmic solos paying tribute to tap's lineage and ingenious contemporary works drawing inspiration from all of the above. It's also sure to feature two individuals: Brenda Bufalino and Tony Waag.
Working together, with Bufalino serving as the resolute captain and Waag the bright beacon searching for new paths ahead, they have nurtured a thriving tap community in New York City. And they've held fast to their artistic mission, providing a home for dancers that's rooted in the rhythmic tap tradition yet expansive in its outlook.
ATDF began in 1986 as the American Tap Dance Orchestra, founded by Bufalino. She and her mentor Charles “Honi" Coles thought company work could be the antidote to tap's dilemma: Traditionally considered a soloist's form, tap was vulnerable to setbacks when individual stars fell out of favor. “We were trying to move tap dance from being a vaudeville act onto the concert stage," says Bufalino.
The ATDO toured extensively, often performing Bufalino's choreography, an enticing mix of sophisticated counterpoint melodies and lilting phrasing. (Two of her creations, Haitian Fight Song and Buff Loves Basie Blues, have since been honored with American Masterpiece grants from the National Endowment for the Arts).
Perhaps most important, ATDO provided a supportive creative environment. Although the group performed as an ensemble, each member's individual style was celebrated.
But in the 1990s, the ATDO fell victim to dwindling financial support. Waag, an original member—and an indefatigable optimist—launched Tap City, the New York City Tap Festival in 2001. In 2002, he relaunched the ATDO as the American Tap Dance Foundation, taking over as artistic and executive director. Bufalino became artistic mentor.
“This organization has been very successful at returning to its roots and reinspiring itself," Waag says. ATDF's many programs include concerts, choreography residencies and showcases. They have also built a comprehensive educational program founded on the Copasetics' rhythm tap canon.
Yet ATDF welcomes tappers of every stripe, a tribute to its original mission: inclusive, community-minded collaboration. “That is where Tony and I both have stood together," Bufalino says, “and are still standing." —Katie Rolnick
Above: Bufalino and Waag. Photo by Rachel Papo for Dance Teacher.
From lengthened reaches up to the sky to sultry walks with opposing shoulder angles, Luigi's trademarks can be found on the Broadway stage and TV screen alike. His classic jazz technique, born out of exercises aimed at healing himself after a devastating car accident in 1946, is now known world-over for its sophistication, elegance and sensuality. The gliding footwork, majestic épaulement and jazzy musicality are so imbued in classic jazz that, often, students don't even realize they've already learned Luigi's basics.
Originally Eugene Louis Faccuito, the Steubenville, Ohio, native was one of 11 children, and he started his career tapping and later singing in a touring orchestra act. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Luigi made his way to Hollywood, training with Bronislava Nijinska, Michel Fokine and Eugene Loring.
Upon waking from a coma after the car accident with one side of his body partially paralyzed, doctors telling him he'd never walk again, Luigi resolved to inhabit his now-trademark saying “Never stop moving." He practiced modern choreographer and eurythmic dancer Michio Ito's angular port de bras, which became the underpinning for his own technique, eventually morphing into the 24 arm motions dubbed L'urythmics. Back in the studio post-injury, Luigi worked on creating a stable second position that would help him regain balance, pressing down on an invisible barre—now a recognizable Luigi stance.
Soon, Luigi was dancing again, working in such films as An American in Paris and Annie Get Your Gun, before adding Broadway to his resumé. Eventually he opened Luigi's Jazz Centre in New York City. “When I first started to do exercises, I wanted to make sure I'd always be able to dance," says Luigi. “And, I wanted to teach it correctly."
Today, Luigi's classes are still filled with Broadway veterans (past students have included Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli, among others) and recreational dancers alike, and the immense value of his technique in creating balance, a center and style are obvious. Though his classes are now mostly taught by his invaluable assistant, teacher and dancer Francis Roach, Luigi is still very much involved, always maintaining a supervising eye. “The dancers still move the way I wanted to see it," Luigi says, his signature black leather cap perched on his head. “The sophistication of it, the beauty: To me it's just as elegant as when I started." —Lauren Kay
From top: Luigi in 1964 (2), photos by Jack Mitchell, Courtesy DM Archives; Watching a class today, photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
When Wayne McGregor burst onto the ballet scene in 2006, it was as a disarming outsider. Chroma, his landmark hit for The Royal Ballet, was an idiosyncratic shot of energy, all fast, quirky feats of hyper-articulation, plugged into the zeitgeist of the time with its White Stripes score and roots in scientific research. The ballet was in the deconstructivist tradition of William Forsythe, yet unlike anything else being created. In a matter of weeks, McGregor became the first non-ballet-trained choreographer in residence at The Royal.
It wasn't the first time the choreographer had come from left field to change dance from within. McGregor founded Random Dance in 1992, and began spinning original movement out of his unique body, mining its loose-jointed, alien-like quality. He drew inspiration from fields as apparently distant as cognitive science, medicine and digital technology, earning acclaim for the savvy results onstage. “Learning through the process of making is one of the most exciting things for me, and we do ourselves a big disservice in dance by saying it's a non-intellectualized art form," he says. “Actually, the relationship between the brain and the body is absolutely critical."
At the heart of his work is a desire to position dance into the wider world and foster collaboration, whether it's with anthropologists or rock singers. No venture is too lowbrow or highbrow. In 2012, he created a public dance with 1,000 participants for London's Olympic Games; this fall, he commuted from the set of a new Tarzan movie to New York Fashion Week, where he created an installation for Gareth Pugh.
Companies around the world, from the Mariinsky to Alvin Ailey, have embraced his work, with multiple productions of Chroma and 2008's Infra. McGregor has also nurtured budding choreographers at The Royal Ballet and Random Dance, taking them out to see performances in other genres or meet artists. “I think one of the great aspirations in creativity is difference, and what is asked for in training is often sameness."
His own work shows astonishing creative facility. In 2015, he will tackle his first full-length ballet for The Royal, Woolf Works, and Random Dance will gain a new building with a “huge capacity for technology" in London's former Olympic Park, designed as a creation space and innovation hub. The outsider has arrived, and his imagination shows no signs of running dry. —Laura Cappelle
From top: McGregor with composer Dustin O'Halloran; McGregor rehearsing Atomos. Photos by Ravi Deepres, Courtesy McGregor.