DM Awardees: Alessandra Ferri, Christopher Wheeldon, Donald McKayle, Jimmy Slyde, and Clive Barnes

July 31, 2007
On November 14, the 51st annual Dance Magazine Awards will be presented to five outstanding people in the dance field:
Alessandra Ferri, Donald McKayle, Christopher Wheeldon, Jimmy Slyde, and Clive Barnes
. The awards program, which includes excerpts of performances, takes place at Florence Gould Hall in New York City. For more information, see page 72.

Alessandra Ferri
is a ballerina who is all woman. Her sensuality, impulsiveness, and soul transform ballet’s classical and contemporary heroines. Her Juliet is a playful, keen, fiery girl who erupts with passion and grief at losing Romeo. As The Accused in Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, Ferri is downright frightening, a repressed world of rage and abuse in her every step. Her expressive facility—owing to loose hips, an articulate back, lush arches, hyper-extended legs, and a juicy line—along with her large, dark eyes and piquant features, help to amplify her every move to the back row of the theater.
Born in Milan, Ferri studied at the Teatro alla Scala and was accepted into The Royal Ballet School in London at the age of 15. She captured a Prix de Lausanne in 1980 and joined The Royal Ballet later that year. Sir Kenneth MacMillan, the company’s principal choreographer and artistic director at the time, spotted her potential and placed her front and center. By 1983 she had been promoted to principal and had won the Sir Laurence Olivier award for her work in MacMillan’s
Valley of the Shadows
. But it was her debut as Juliet at the age of 21 that made her a star.
In 1985 Ferri accepted a principal contract with American Ballet Theatre, where then artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov chose her to be his partner in several ballets, including
(excerpts appear in the movie Dancers). Within a few years, ABT would go on to provide Ferri with her most perfect match onstage—the Argentinean Julio Bocca. For almost 20 years they have been ballet’s golden couple. Their performances are filled with immediacy and abandon, and they remain a model of passion and sophistication.
In 1990, Ferri decided to go forward as a freelance artist, while still appearing with ABT and La Scala as a permanent guest artist. French choreographer Roland Petit created
Le Diable Amoureux
(1989) for her, a ballet that had her portray a young man who is later revealed to be a woman. And in 1994 he choreographed La Voix Humaine, which required her to speak onstage. Both ballets pushed Ferri’s limits and received rave reviews. Petit has called Ferri “the greatest star in the world today.”
Ferri, 41, celebrated her 20th anniversary with ABT last spring. A true dancer/actress onstage, she is at her best when telling a story (although she is superb in Robbins’ Other Dances). While some dancers excite by pumping 32 double fouettés at the end of a full-length ballet, Ferri etches her place into our hearts with bold interpretations of ballet’s favorite women—Manon, Giselle, Juliet, Carmen, Titania. It is for Ferri’s total immersion in her roles that we will always cherish her.
—Kate Lydon

Christropher Wheeldon
is one of the finest choreographers in ballet today. In more than 30 works created during a mere eight years, he has breathed fresh life into the classical vocabulary. He has choreographed vastly different sorts of ballets, which have in common only his astounding inventiveness. At 32, he tops the list of sought-after choreographers for ballet companies around the world. He bounces from one creative challenge to another with curiosity and relish.
Born in Somerset, England, Wheeldon began studying ballet at the age of 8 and was accepted into The Royal Ballet School at 11. After seven years of training, he joined The Royal Ballet. In 1991 he won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne. He crossed the Atlantic and started dancing for New York City Ballet in 1993, becoming a soloist in 1998. When he was 19, after he showed his first piece for a School of American Ballet workshop, Jerome Robbins punched him in the shoulder and said, “Mmmm, not bad!”—a high compliment. He gave up dancing five years ago to concentrate on choreography, and was named resident choreographer of NYCB in 2001. He has also made works for more than a dozen companies including The Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Boston Ballet, and has made forays into Hollywood (
Center Stage
) and Broadway (The Sweet Smell of Success).
In his choreography, Wheeldon has negotiated the abstract/narrative dichotomy with special skill. His “abstract” ballets have a strong undercurrent of emotion, and his narrative ballets—from the charming
Carnival of the Animals
to the hilarious Variations Sérieuses to the romantic Carousel—exhibit a formal and structural clarity. His full-length ballets, like Swan Lake for Pennsylvania Ballet (2004) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Colorado Ballet (1997), are bold reworkings of the classics.
Clearly Wheeldon has been influenced by the giants whose ballets he has performed: Ashton and MacMillan, Balanchine and Robbins. But he is an artist of today, fragmented, ambiguous, precise, and surprising. He is an elegant rule-breaker, straying from the conventional A-B-A formula and incorporating long stillnesses or crash landings. For his brilliant triptych of dances to the “difficult” music of György Ligeti, he composed mind-stretching partnering, folding bodies together in new ways. But in two recent duets to music by Arvo Pärt—
and the second half of After the Rain—each gesture is imbued with human tenderness. These dances, both created on NYCB principals Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, have a diamond-like clarity as well as an achingly poignant intimacy.
Some ballet watchers may feel that they have found in Wheeldon the next Balanchine—or MacMillan or Ashton. But Wheeldon is his own man. He is so willing to experiment and his ballets have such a contemporary look, that his work could possibly be called postmodern ballet (along with that of choreographers like William Forsythe and Karole Armitage). It is this forward motion that is taking ballet into the future. —Wendy Perron
A passionate, energetic, and deeply humanistic choreographer,
Donald McKayle
believes that “dancing is movement that lights the soul.” With more than 70 modern dance works created during the past five decades—including the heart-rending classics Games (1951) and Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder (1959)—he has given African American dancers a strong voice and provided a reflection of human struggles and triumphs everywhere. His choreography moves across Broadway stages, as in Golden Boy, Sophisticated Ladies, Raisin, and It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues; TV specials like Free to Be You and Me; and the silver screen in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Great White Hope, and The Jazz Singer. He has received numerous awards including the Capezio Award, the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, a Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival, and the Martha Hill Lifetime Achievement Award. The Dance Heritage Coalition named him “One of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.”
New York born and raised, Donald McKayle began dancing as a teenager after a Pearl Primus performance inspired him to dance. A natural, McKayle won a scholarship to the New Dance Group, where he studied under Primus, Sophie Maslow, and Jean Erdman. In 1948, at age 18, he made his choreographic debut with the New Dance Group. Three years later, he and Daniel Nagrin founded the Contemporary Dance Group, where he premiered Games, a study of inner-city life from a child’s point of view. McKayle then studied on scholarship at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and joined her company from 1955-1956. He also danced with Anna Sokolow and Charles Weidman.
In the 2003 PBS documentary on his life and career,
Heartbeats of a DanceMaker
, he declares that teaching is what continues to sustain him spiritually. At the University of California at Irvine, the Juilliard School, Sarah Lawrence College, American Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, and the Martha Graham School, McKayle has encouraged dancers to allow their hearts to sing out through their bodies. As a teacher he exudes warmth and caring, vocalizing the rhythms, coaxing dancers to do their best. At UCI, where he is the Claire Trevor Professor in Dance, he received the students’ Outstanding Professor Award and the UCI Medal, the university’s highest honor.
In the last five years, McKayle created 12 new works for several companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Colorado Ballet, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Ballet San Jose, and the Limón Dance Company, where he is artistic mentor. His autobiography,
Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life
(Routledge), was honored with the Society of Dance History Scholars’ De La Torre Bueno Prize. Last year he was presented with a medal as a Master of African American Choreography at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
McKayle’s choreography, humanism, and teaching have left a giant footprint on the dance world.
—Jennifer Thompson
Gregory Hines said it: “I can’t decide if it’s
Jimmy Slyde
, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly—or Jimmy Slyde, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire.” Cholly Atkins wrote it:  “My all-time favorite dancer is Jimmy Slyde. If I could tap again and could choose one style, I’d want to dance like Jimmy.” He has been called the “King of Slides” for his heart-stopping trademark slides across the stage; “a dancer’s dancer” for his original, expressive, improvisatory flights; and “the doctor” for his laser-sharp advice. He is a revered mentor. A dancer has to pass many tests of heart, spirit, and intent for Slyde to work with her. “Please don’t call me a ‘master,’ ” he says. “I’m just a nudge.”
Born James T. Godbolt in Atlanta in 1927, he was schooled in Boston and enrolled by his beloved mother at the New England Conservatory to become a concert violinist. He crossed the street to Stanley Brown’s legendary tap studio, where he met his future dance partner, Jimmy Mitchell, and formed The Slyde Brothers duo. Brown, a fabled, rigorous teacher, insisted on “the fundamentals,” required his students to study ballet and other disciplines, and prepared them for show business. There, Slyde met Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles and learned to slide from Eddie “Schoolboy” Ford.
He came up in the swing era but be-bop shaped his style. His exceptional musicality is recognized by the great jazz musicians with whom he has worked. He toured with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong and was featured in the historic 1966 Berlin Jazz Festival. When work became scarce here he went to Paris, where he met Sarah Petronio and performed and taught with her and drummer Michael Silva. He was a member of the Original Hoofers, a Tony nominee for
Black and Blue
, and was featured in such films as About Tap, The Cotton Club, and Tap. Most recently, he has been performing alongside Savion Glover, who calls Slyde “the grandfather of tap.”
Slyde’s dancing is at once poetry, music, storytelling, philosophy. He has an uncommon lyricism, a lucid, inventive, and immaculate rhythmic sensibility. His tonation is nuanced, his sound mellow, his demeanor elegant, and his taps clear as glass. His virtuosity, spiced with those famous slides and an occasional pirouette or double tour, is always in service to the art. Overall, his dancing is fluid, “easy” (one of his pet words)—an unbroken line. He flirts with a phrase, whispers meaning, teases feeling out of mere notes and steps, caresses the floor. Nowadays, his dancing is burnished gold. Pure essence. In person he is as wise, as sly, as thoughtful, and as witty as his feet.
Honored at tap festivals worldwide, he has received countless awards including the rare three-year Choreographer’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as its National Heritage Award, and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. Unfailingly modest and generous, he inspires all who come into his orbit—be they amateur or professional.
Jimmy Slyde could now rest on his laurels; instead he continues to “nudge” forward tomorrow’s dancers and the tradition he loves.  
—Sali Ann Kriegsman 

Clive Barnes
is one of the best known and most influential dance critics of our time. In the 1960s and ’70s, the stylishness of his prose drew a new generation of readers to dance. His encyclopedic knowledge and expertise were coupled with an informal writing style that introduced many new readers into the mysteries of concert dance, which at that time was considered by many to be arcane and elitist. Through his expansive, enthusiastic, and voluminous writing, Barnes helped to create an informed, appreciative public that fueled the dance boom of the ’70s. Following his example other newspapers around the country increased their dance coverage, helping to put dance on the national map.
Born in London in 1927, Barnes was educated at King’s College, University of London. He briefly studied medicine with the ultimate intent of becoming a psychiatrist—a pursuit with obvious application to his future career as a critic of the performing arts. After serving in the Royal Air Force, he abandoned his medical aspirations and went up to study English Language and Literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, from which he graduated with honors in 1951. 
He started to write about ballet in 1949 at Oxford, and in 1950 began a long association with the London-based
Dance and Dancers
, which lasted until its demise in 1997. In addition to writing on dance for The New Statesman in London, he wrote for The Spectator, was the first ever dance critic of The Times of London, became the London correspondent for Dance Magazine, and was executive editor of Plays and Players and Music and Musicians in London. He was one of the first critics to champion the work of Martha Graham and George Balanchine in England.
After joining
The New York Times
as dance critic in 1965, he became its chief drama critic as well in 1967, a position that made him the most powerful dance and theater writer in the business. For eight years he broadcast a daily commentary on WQXR. In 1977 he left the Times to join The New York Post, also as dance and drama critic. He had been a contributor to Dance Magazine since 1956. writing his thought-provoking “Attitudes” column since 1989, Barnes now contributes to Paris’ Ballet2000 and London’s The Stage. Among many honors he has received are the Knight of the Order of Dannebrog (Denmark) in 1972, and a Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) from Queen Elizabeth in 1975. His books include Ballet in Britain Since the War (1953), the Dance Perspective monograph Frederick Ashton and His Ballets (1961), collaboration on Ballet Here and Now (1961), and Nureyev (1982).
—Richard Philp