Cover Story

Why Commercial Star Emma Portner Is Exploding Into the Concert Dance World Right Now

Portner's embrace of the unexpected has led to unexpected opportunities. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine

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."

Show Comments ()
News
Joe Lanteri teaching at Steps in the early 2000s

The iconic New York City dance studio Steps on Broadway has a new leader coming on board: Joe Lanteri. The New York City Dance Alliance founder will be Steps' new co-owner and executive director.

"For me, it's a big full circle," says Lanteri, who used to take class at Steps when he first moved to New York City, and started teaching there in the mid-1980s. The 4:30 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday Advanced Intermediate Jazz slot he held down for many years taught a slew of young talent—including choreographers-to-be like Jessica Lang and Sergio Trujillo. "As a young teacher, Steps was a platform for me to travel the world giving master classes; it became the underlying foundation for what I'm doing now in my life."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Donald Byrd and Beth Corning share the stage for What's Missing? Photo by Frank Walsh, Courtesy Corning.

When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.

I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Nicolo Fonte's The Heart(s)pace. Photo by Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ASFB

Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.

So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Photo via Andrew Seaman/Unsplash

Dear Dance Magazine,

Thank you for demonstrating a commitment to transparency and evolution during this divisive time in our country. Over the past few years I have seen the Dance Magazine content reflect increased awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity in U.S. culture. It also has highlighted the need for the dance industry culture to self-examine and pursue constant revisions (just as dancers themselves do).

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Natasha Sheehan says competing gave her a crack at rep beyond her rank. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB

As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.

"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."

Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Being an introvert doesn't mean you can't shine in the spotlight. Photo by Saksham Gangwar/Unsplash

Most people assume that for dancers to be successful, they have to be extroverts who feed off of constant attention. They figure that introverts don't enjoy being in the spotlight.

But don't let anyone tell you that just because you're introverted, you can't have a career in dance.

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the only real difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time spent alone, while introverts experience the opposite.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Xenos, Akram Khan's final full-length solo, is an ode to the soldiers of World War I. Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

We might have gotten a little bit carried away with this year's "Season Preview"—but with the 2018–19 season packing so many buzzy shows, how could we not? Here are over two dozen tours, premieres and revivals that have us drooling.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Photo Caleb Woods via Unsplash.com

Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.

When news about the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay emerged last week, plaintiff Alexandra Waterbury, a former School of American Ballet student, told The New York Times:

"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."

It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.

But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Mandy Moore at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, during which she took home her first Emmy. Photo courtesy Inline/AP

Every year, as soon as the Emmy Award nominations are announced, the first thing I do is scroll down (way, way, way down) to find the nominees for Best Choreography. Last week's announcement was no different, and it was a delightful surprise to see tap queen Chloe Arnold become a first-time nominee for her work on "The Late Late Show With James Corden." Alongside Arnold, Mandy Moore, Travis Wall, Al Blackstone and Christopher Scott received nominations for their dances on awards heavy-hitter "So You Think You Can Dance." (Shout-out to Blackstone for his first Emmy nod!)

I do, however, have a bone to pick with the Emmys. Namely, that the routines for which these choreographers were nominated do not appear on the nominations section of the site. Worse, not even the episodes in which the Emmy-nominated dances appear are listed.

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Bill T. Jones' Ambros: The Emigrant. PC Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones is one of the few choreographers who can weave together social consciousness with choreographic inventiveness. This is visible in all three parts of his Analogy Trilogy, a 6½-hour marathon that comes to NYU Skirball Center on Sept. 22 and 23.

In this Trilogy, Jones goes beyond his own cultural identity. The first part, Dora: Tramontane, centers on Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who tried to help children during World War II. Her ordeal is told through interviews spoken by the dancers and envisioned in shifting scenes. The second part, Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, is about Jones' nephew, and his involvement in the underground world of drugs and sex in New York in the 80s. This section contains several gorgeously choreographed duets. The third part, Ambros: The Emigrant, is not about a real person but about the nature of trauma and memory.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Seyi Oluyole uses dance to radically change children's lives in Lagos. Via DreamCatchersDance on YouTube.

In Ikoradu, a part of Lagos, Nigeria, "The parents here don't believe in education," says Seyi Oluyole, in a video for Great Big Story. "They just want their kids to just sell stuff." Instead of watching the cycle continue, Oluyole took it upon herself to change these children's lives in a radical way.

Her method of connecting with them? Dance.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Shankman on the set of 2007's Hairspray. Photo by Daniel James, courtesy Shankman

Adam Shankman came into the spotlight in 2007 when he choreographed and directed the movie-musical Hairspray and made his first appearances on the "So You Think You Can Dance" judging panel. But he was already more than a decade into his career as a choreographer and budding director. Today, Shankman is a Hollywood mainstay who has worked on scores of movies, TV shows and commercials, including dance classics like the Step Up franchise, which he produced. Next up: Directing the film What Men Want, which opens in January.

He recently spoke to Dance Magazine about his path to Hollywood and why the dance studio remains his favorite place.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Paul Taylor flying high in 1957. Photo by Radford Bascome, Courtesy DM Archives

The news of Paul Taylor's death two weeks ago at the age of 88 has sparked innumerable tributes to the choreographer. We were inspired to delve into Dance Magazine's extensive photo archives to see what images of the late modern dance titan were hiding there. We present a baker's dozen of our favorites from over the years.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Lucinda Childs' DANCE. Photo by Sally Cohn

Ten years ago I stood outside the New 42nd Street Studios near Times Square in New York City, freezing in a very long line, waiting to audition for Lucinda Childs. I thought about leaving after an announcement was made that dancers who did not register, like me, would not be seen. Today, I am on a plane home from Abu Dhabi where the Lucinda Childs Dance Company just gave its final performance of her 1979 masterpiece, DANCE, at The Performing Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Lucinda will be the first to say that she asked to see all the dancers waiting outside in 2008, and I am certainly grateful to my 24 year-old self for sticking around to see what would happen.

DANCE is the first piece of Lucinda's choreography I learned and it was the first piece that her newly-formed company performed. The process of learning the work presented its challenges; there were tears and much needed pep talks from family and castmates. But I fell in love with DANCE, too. For close to ten years, I was fortunate to dance this evening-length work all over the world. I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to say good-bye.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Sergei Polunin joins the models dubbed the Balmain Army for the fashion house's Fall/Winter 2018 campaign. Photo by An Le, via Instagram.

Joining all of the fashion month festivities is Sergei Polunin—but you won't catch him walking down the runway. The dancer- turned-actor is dipping his toes into the modeling world as part of the campaign for Balmain's Fall/Winter 2018 collection in designs by Olivier Rousteing (known for his embellished creations favored by celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez).

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

477,305 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways