Why Commercial Star Emma Portner Is Exploding Into the Concert Dance World Right Now
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.
Portner, 23, may be soft-spoken, but she's a powerhouse mover. Anyone who has seen her Instagram videos can recognize the ferocity with which she throws her body—and seemingly her soul—into each moment.
That said, the energy in the rehearsal space is anything but frenetic. A calm, collaborative feel permeates. "What do we need to do next?" she asks the dancers. "Is everyone okay?"
How Fame Has Changed Her
Portner's meteoric rise is almost unheard of in the dance world. In addition to her recent commercial work, which includes choreographing for a new Netflix show and music artist Maggie Rogers' most recent video, in September Portner premieres a piece with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. In January, she'll choreograph a new work for New York City Ballet—a major coup in the ballet world, and a whole new forum for Portner.
"Not a lot of young queer women are asked to do these things, especially in the ballet world," she says. "I'm proud to be part of the revolution. It makes me feel a certain type of value you don't often find."
Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton says he was intrigued to commission one of Portner's first big concert dance projects because of the inventiveness and quirkiness of her choreography. "She has a sense of deep imagination," he says. "It feels like she's on the brink of exploding."
Portner has been choreographing since about age 14, but the spotlight on her intensified in 2015, when she choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's "Life Is Worth Living." The video went viral, garnering more than 50 million views.
Although she already had a big Instagram following, she was still self-producing poorly attended shows in New York City, and sweeping the floor at Battery Dance to get reduced-rate studio space. Suddenly she was being approached for all kinds of work—choreographing for music videos and TV shows, dancing briefly with Michelle Dorrance, and choreographing Bat Out of Hell, a West End musical (as the youngest woman to ever do so).
The attention became even more relentless when news broke in January 2018 of her marriage to the actress Ellen Page, and she started posting videos of the two dancing together in rough and sensual, intense and physically demanding duets.
For an artist whose work is about exploring her own self-declared "brokenness," this newfound attention is complicated. It is a lucky, privileged challenge, she is quick to add, but one nonetheless. "What's most challenging is remaining open and courageous enough in such a public platform," she says. "Pain in artistic work can be magnetic to some people. The more successful you are, the more you're a target."
Unexpected fame has meant that her work and private life are now public claim, and she needs to move through the world with more caution. There's a "before and after," she says, that no one can prepare you for.
Why She's Grateful For Loneliness and Rejection
The one thing that hasn't changed? Dance is still what she wants to share with the world, which is all she's wanted to do since her days as a lonely, quiet child. "I was extremely grateful for dance because it was my lifeline, my safe zone, my fuel, my refuge," she says.
Trained in competition dance from age 3 in her native Ottawa, Canada, Portner went on to study at Canada's National Ballet School, but didn't pursue ballet actively. "I wanted to express myself in so many ways," she says, "and I didn't think ballet could hold it all."
Although she auditioned for Juilliard, she was immediately cut. "I'm grateful for my broken Juilliard dream," she says. "I would have just been starting my career now!"
Instead, she studied at The Ailey School, and at age 17 took a career-changing summer intensive with RUBBERBANDance. Each day there would end with a cipher—a long, circle-based improv session—but Portner was too intimidated to participate.
One day, Anne Plamondon, the company's associate artist, gave her a talking-to. "She told me, 'You're being absolutely selfish with your talent,' " Portner says. "I realized that by not contributing, by staying quiet and not giving of yourself, you'll never know the impact you can have."
Portner finally went into the cipher and danced with total abandon. Everyone looked at each other, shocked. And then the cipher ended. "I thought I'd done something wrong!" she says. "I still get emails from people: 'Remember when you shut the cipher down?' It was such a pivotal moment in my training."
Making Work As a Young Queer Female
One of the most remarkable things about Portner's work—as well as her own dancing—is that while the movement itself defies categorization (is it modern, contemporary, hip hop?), there is an intuitive, organic and vibrant feel to it. As an audience member, you know where you are, but you have no idea where you're going. And yet you trust Portner to take you there because the surprises along the way are a total delight, jolting shocks to the system. There is something magnetic and destabilizing about it.
"There's always a lot of gravity to her choreography," says Keanu Uchida, who has danced with Portner since they were kids. "As a queer artist, Emma finds it important to have that be part of the work, even if it's not at the forefront of what a particular project is about, it's still there, part of us in some way."
This was true of the piece with the glass box that I watched Portner and Uchida rehearse in L.A. It was for a short film commissioned by the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland, inspired by Francis Bacon's paintings and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. Portner took a starkly political bent on these artists' work: A black woman is trapped inside the glass box (reminiscent of Bacon's glass boxes), "which is a comment on many years of black history," Portner says. The white male dancer is the only one who moves freely in and out of the glass box, but in the end, this woman of color—standing on a chair—grows taller than anyone else in the piece.
"I'm a young queer female," Portner says, "so I have to talk about how a young queer female is responding to pieces of art by old white men, during a time when women didn't have the same access to making work."
Despite her exposure to myriad genres, Portner seems to have become an artist from her explorations alone in the studio, most of which she records and studies. "The amount of time I've spent alone in a studio training myself versus with other people is about 50/50," she says. "I can zone in on my own heart. Then when I enter a process, I take the horse blinders off."
Unsurprisingly, Her Schedule Is Booked Until 2020
Portner dreams of Broadway, starting a residency, and her own company. Photo by Quinn Wharton.
The next few years are so busy Portner wistfully talks about taking a break some time in 2020. She hopes to start a small company (à la Crystal Pite); to try out acting, directing, and editing and coloring film; to dance on Broadway; to open a dance residency in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and to spend more time with Page, whom she rarely gets to see.
"In 2016, I reached a point where I felt like I'd achieved all I could possibly achieve—and then this year happened," she says.
In spite of the incredible demands of the last few years, dance is still where Portner finds solace. "It's where I feel safest, heard, loved. It's where I feel hated sometimes, and that's okay too," she says. "No matter what, I always hope to be dancing."
"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.
It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:
Ilaria Guerra only joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet in January, but she's already a towering presence in the San Francisco company—and not just because she's 6' tall. Guerra employs her seemingly infinite limbs with luscious fluidity and propulsive power, instinctive musicality and a self-assured presence. And as exquisitely as she embodies King's choreography, she also makes it entirely her own.
So you're on layoff—or, let's be real, you just don't feel like going to the studio—and you decide you're going to take class from home. Easy enough, right? All you need is an empty room and some music tracks on your iPhone, right?
Wrong. Anyone who has attempted this feat can tell you that taking class at home—or even just giving yourself class in general—is easier said than done. But with the right tools, it's totally doable—and can be totally rewarding.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
How do you honor a comedian lauded for her physical humor and awkward dancing? Commission a contemporary dance, of course. Better yet, have the stars of HBO's "Broad City," Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—physical comedians and awkward dancers in their own right—star in a contemporary dance.
Last month, comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus was awarded the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center. (The ceremony airs tonight on PBS.) Most known for her role as Elaine on "Seinfeld," Louis-Dreyfus has had a long career of tickling funny bones, from her start at Chicago's Second City, then on "Saturday Night Live," CBS's "The New Adventures of the Old Christine" and now as foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer on "Veep."
The "Broad City" gals determined that the best way to honor their idol was to dance, an appropriate choice considering "The Elaine," the dance that became Louis-Dreyfus' piece de resistance on "Seinfeld." (Not to mention her other go-to physical comedy moments as Elaine, like "The Shove"—hands on the chest, forcefully pushing one's companion back, sometimes with the exclamation "Get out!"—or the twitchy forefinger devil horns.)
What makes big-time music artists and their collaborators think they can directly plagiarize the work of concert dance choreographers?
And, no, this time we're not talking about Beyoncé.
Last Wednesday, country artist Kelsea Ballerini performed her song "Miss Me More" at the Country Music Awards. The choreography by Nick Florez and R.J. Durell—which Taste of Country said "stole the show" and Billboard lauded as "elaborate"—features a group of dancers in white shirts and black pants performing with chairs onstage, often arranged in a semicircle. They move in quick canons, throw their heads back, and fling themselves in and out of their chairs.
When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.
"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:
Many choreographers use spoken word to enhance their dance performances. But the Campfire Poetry Movement video series has found success with a reverse scenario: Monticello Park Productions creates short art films that often use dance to illustrate iconic poems.
When I was just a little peanut, my siblings and I used to find scrap paper and use them as tickets to our makeshift dance performances at family gatherings. They were more like circus shows, really, where my brother was the ringmaster, and my sisters and I were animals; we dove through imaginary flaming hoops and showcased our best tightrope acts with the suspense of plummeting into an endless pit of sorrows. This was my first introduction to the beauty of movement as a way of communicating.
Photo by Lindsay Linton
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown sees himself as a weaver—of movement, but more importantly, of stories. "When I started my company Evidence 33 years ago, I needed to make a space for what I thought of as evidence—work that tells stories, so that when people saw the work, they would see a reflection or evidence of themselves onstage," says Brown, now 51. "That was my mission, my purpose."
Fast-forward to today: Evidence has become a mainstay in the modern dance world and Brown is now considered a vanguard among choreographers fusing Western contemporary dance with movement from the African diaspora, including popular dance and traditions from West African cultures like Senegalese sabar.
She may not be the first choreographer to claim that movement is her first language, but when Crystal Pite says it, it's no caveat: She's as effective and nuanced a communicator as the writers who often inspire her dances.
Her globally popular Emergence, for instance, was provoked in part by science writer Steven Johnson's hypotheses; The Tempest Replica refracts and reimagines Shakespeare. Recently, her reading list includes essays by fellow Canadian Robert Bringhurst, likewise driven by a ravenous, wide-ranging curiosity.
General director of Spoleto Festival USA since 1995 and, for two decades (1998-2017), the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden has an internationalist's point of view on the arts—expansive, curious, informed by the cultural wealth that the world has to offer.
He is the son of an American diplomat and grew up moving from place to place—Cyprus, Israel, Canada, Italy—until eventually setting of for Yale to study Art History. After visiting the Spoleto festival in Italy as a young man, and working there while he was still an undergraduate, he very quickly realized what he wanted to: direct festivals. And that's what he has done for most of the last quarter century.
No, she isn't like other artistic directors, and that's not just because she's a woman. Lourdes Lopez, who's led Miami City Ballet since 2012, doesn't want this to be taken the wrong way, but as for her vision? She doesn't really have one.
"I just want good dancers and a good company and good rep and an audience and a theater—let us do what the art form is supposed to be doing," she says. "I don't mean that in a flippant way. It's just how I've always approached it."
Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
Paul Taylor cultivated many brilliant dancers during his 60-plus-year career, but seldom have any commanded such a place of authority and artistry as Michael Trusnovec. He models what it takes to become a great Taylor dancer: weight of movement, thorough grasp of style, deep concentration, steadfast partnering, complete dedication to the choreography and a nuanced response to the music.
Trusnovec can simultaneously make choreography sexy and enlightened, and he can do it within one phrase of movement. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has excelled in roles as diverse as the tormented and tormenting preacher in Speaking in Tongues; the lyrical central figure—one of Taylor's own sacred roles—in Aureole; the dogged detective in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); and the corporate devil in Banquet of Vultures.
Based on the novel by Roland Topor and the 1976 Roman Polanski film, The Tenant follows a man who moves into an apartment that's haunted by its previous occupant (Simone, played by ABT's Cassandra Trenary) who committed suicide. Throughout the show, the man—Trelkovsky, played by Whiteside—slowly transforms into Simone, eventually committing suicide himself.
But some found the show's depiction of a trans-femme character to be troubling. Whether the issues stem from the source material or the production's treatment of it, many thought the end result reinforced transphobic stereotypes about mental illness. We gathered some of the responses from the dance community:
Update: Raffaella Stroik's body was found near a boat ramp in Florida, Missouri on Wednesday morning. No information about what led to the death is currently available. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.
Raffaella Stroik, a 23-year-old dancer with the Saint Louis Ballet, went missing on Monday.
Her car was found with her phone inside in a parking lot near a boat ramp in Mark Twain Lake State Park—130 miles away from St. Louis. On Tuesday, the police began an investigation into her whereabouts.
Stroik was last seen at 10:30 am on Monday at a Whole Foods Market in Town and Country, a suburb of St. Louis. She was wearing an olive green jacket, a pink skirt, navy pants with white zippers and white tennis shoes.
Whether or not you see yourself choreographing in your future, you can gain a lot from studying dance composition. "Many companies ask you to generate your own content. Choreography is more collaborative now," says Autumn Eckman, a faculty member at the University of Arizona.
Look beyond the rehearsal studio, and you'll find even more benefits to having dancemaking skills. "Being a thinker as well as a mover is what creates a sustainable career," says Iyun Ashani Harrison, who teaches at Goucher College. "Viewing dance with a developed eye and being able to speak about what you're seeing is valuable whether you're a dancer, a choreographer, an artistic director or a curator."
Succeeding in composition class often has more to do with attitude than aptitude. Above all, you need "a willingness to play along and explore," says Kevin Predmore, who teaches at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. "You have to let go of the desire to create something extraordinary, and instead be curious."
Egg Drop Soup's "Partying Alone" video turns a run-of-the-mill dance team audition on its head with a vision of female power from a mature woman. The panel is stunned when a gray-haired, red-lipsticked 80-something tosses aside her cane and lets loose, flipping her hair—and the bird.
Egg Drop Soup - Partying Alone (Official music video)
Take a second look at that head-banging grandma—she is none other than renowned dance researcher and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna. An affiliate research professor in anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, the author of numerous scholarly books and an expert witness in trials for exotic dancers, she has spent her career getting us to think about dance's relationship to society. Hanna, 82, said she hadn't performed since college when she got a call from a music video producer, who caught a video of her dancing with her 13-year-old grandson. The rockers of Egg Drop Soup loved her energy and flew her out to Los Angeles for a day-long video shoot. We spoke to Hanna about the experience.
Tired of the typical turkey and stuffing? For Thanksgiving this year, try something different with these personal recipes that dancers have shared with Dance Magazine. The ingredients are packed with dancer-friendly nutrients to help you recover from rehearsals and fuel up for the holiday performances ahead.
If anyone raises an eyebrow at your unconventional choices, just remind them that dancers are allowed to take some artistic license!