Deaf Dancer Bailey Anne Vincent and Michele Wiles Are Combining Sign Language and Ballet
"I'm going to end up in Timbuktu," jokes Bailey Anne Vincent about navigating New York City's bus system. The Washington-DC–based dancer, choreographer and director (of her multi-genre, body-positive Company360) instead opted for an Uber to meet her collaborator, BalletNext artistic director Michele Wiles, and me at a diner in midtown Manhattan.
In lamenting the buses' challenges, Vincent's complaint isn't with their routes. Though you might never know it from conversing with her or watching her dance, she's mostly deaf. She began losing her hearing in her teens due to a medical condition called atypical cystic fibrosis—a complicated diagnosis that impacts a number of her organs. But this hasn't stopped Vincent from dancing. She trained at Rockbridge Ballet in Virginia before college and later danced with a small company in the DC-metro area. Now 31, Vincent has hardly slowed down.
BalletNext's work-in-progress will combine American Sign Language with ballet. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, Courtesy Overdrive PR.
Her newest project, with Wiles as co-choreographer, incorporates ballet and American Sign Language (ASL). The two dancing directors presented a work-in-progress showing this week before its premiere in March at New York Live Arts. She and Wiles hope to bring inclusivity and awareness to the dance community regarding hearing-impaired needs, without sacrificing technical or artistic standards.
The two met through a "cold email" Vincent sent to Wiles in the fall. "I sound like a creepy stalker, but I was sort of a big dance nerd and a fan of BalletNext," Vincent says. She floated the idea of creating a ballet incorporating ASL, but didn't expect much of a reply. Wiles, however, was intrigued. The former ABT principal dancer doesn't shy away from a challenge. Exhibit A: She left the premier company at the height of her career in 2011 to start her own troupe. Experimentation is one of Wiles' primary tenets: "That's why we're here with BalletNext," she says. "Because we want to take risks."
The idea to integrate ballet and ASL felt organic. "It's an advantage for BalletNext, for the choreography we're doing. It's inspiring me to make something in a new, unique way," says Wiles. The yet-unnamed piece has five dancers, including Wiles, Vincent and members of BalletNext.
From left: Bailey Anne Vincent, Violetta Komyshan, Michele Wiles, Alice Regnouf and Egle Andriekaite. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, Courtesy Overdrive PR.
The process began with Vincent teaching a few ASL signs. For example, placing the index fingers next to each other and then moving them apart denotes a feeling of disconnectedness. A single finger held at the chest conveys the feeling of being alone. Adding ballet vocabulary, Vincent and Wiles paired "disconnect" with a piqué and "loneliness" with a soutenu. From there, they combined more signs and steps, elaborating on, repeating or chopping up certain phrases.
An internal metronome allows Vincent to dance in time without hearing the music, while in daily life, she gets by through lip-reading. When she's choreographing, communicating details is easier with an interpreter. For this trip to New York City, Vincent's friend and fellow dancer Emily Moran was able to help. She even interpreted Wiles' and Vincent's introductory comments for the audience at the showing.
Vincent equates the piece's signing with poetry rather than prose. It deals with more abstract concepts—like being disconnected from others—rather than spelled-out storylines. Similarly, dance and ASL aren't always literal. A single hand sign might represent an idiom rather than an exact translation of a word. Barring pantomime scenes, the language of ballet evokes feelings, not specific words.
Dancers have something to gain from practicing a non-verbal language. "Anyone these days can kick their leg up to their face," says Vincent, but without épaulement and artistry, ballet can appear robotic. "In ASL, your face is your inflection." She notes that posture and expression can turn a sign phrase—or a balletic step—from a soft question into an angry declaration.
In addition to incorporating ASL, Vincent and Wiles are challenging the idea that pointework and landing jumps should be soft and graceful. "We're thinking of doing it a capella where the music completely cuts out, as if we were all not hearing," says Wiles, "and the only way we can hear is by making these really loud pointe shoe sounds." Even without hearing her shoe boxes hitting the floor, Vincent chimes in, "To be loud is liberating."
Wiles and Vincent hope the emotional impact of their piece will resonate across audiences of varying abilities. Vincent believes it will be touching for deaf audience members: "It elevates this language that means so much to the deaf community." For their hearing counterparts, Wiles says, "It's going to open their eyes."
Though piece is still in its early stages, Vincent feels that dancing and choreographing with a high-profile collaborator like Wiles is already building more awareness. Even little things like having a signer interpret curtain announcements is a good place to start. "Deaf culture can be very positive," says Vincent. "Instead of having this thing taken away, we gain this beautiful visual language that's so much like dance."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
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.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.