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."
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.
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.
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?
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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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?
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.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
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.
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.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."