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Immersive, Integrated & Awkward

Some nights, Jennine Willett convinces two strangers to get into bed with her. Then she reads them a bedtime story for almost exactly six minutes. It's just one of many intimate but carefully calibrated moments Willett engineers between herself and her audience in Third Rail Projects' production of Then She Fell, an immersive theatrical dance production based on the writings of Lewis Carroll.


Dancers don't typically enter the professional field prepared to coax viewers into joining them on a bed, or to hold hands, or skip together side by side. But an increasing number of productions—from high-profile extravaganzas like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More (which has taken over entire buildings in London, New York City and Boston), to avant-garde installations by postmodern choreographers like Jody Oberfelder and Siobhan Davies—require dancers to do just that. Although not your typical choreography, participatory encounters must be as deftly timed as a pirouette—and as rigorously rehearsed. But how do perfomers learn to navigate a show in which every moment may contain a surprise?

Above: Sean Donovan encourages audience members to skip with him around the stage in Faye Driscoll's Thank You For Coming. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Faye Driscoll.

It starts with studying the audience members. For his role in the Dionysian dance-fest Queen of the Night, dance captain Kimo Kepano concentrates on body language as he scans the crowd for someone to pull onto the dance floor. “I'm looking for someone who allows themselves to be open," he says. “Someone who in their eyes has already said 'Yes,' and who has planted their feet firmly on the ground and is already smiling." After locking eyes with his target, Kepano swoops in and asks a simple question. His directness draws viewers in. “I'll go up to someone and ask, 'Are you willing to say yes to me?' " If they answer, Kepano considers it an in. Soon he'll be able to introduce them to higher levels of engagement built into the show, like getting fed out of his hand, or being pulled in for an intimate slow dance. “We come at it from a place of deep, tactile feeling," he says. “It's like meditating with someone." The process forces Kepano to dance more organically to allow his body to pick up on “physical vibrations" from the audience. “Feel the space around you, the air vibrations, the architecture."

Both Brandon Washington and Nikki Zialcita say eye contact helped them navigate Faye Driscoll's recent work, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Establishing a firm but flexible gaze at the beginning of the piece prepared viewers for an eventual touch. “If you look at someone first and then touch them, it's very different than when you just touch them without first checking in," says Zialcita. “The eyes are really important to letting people know you're not trying to put them on the spot. You can't glare," says Washington. In rehearsal, the cast played mirroring games to practice seamlessly reading and responding to impulses from others. Driscoll also invited guests to some rehearsals so the dancers could practice locking eyes.

The Queen of the Night performers, on the other hand, met with a professional dominatrix during their rehearsal process. “It wasn't about anything sexual," says Kepano. “She taught us about approaching people in a way that let them shed their fears. It's different from passion or intimacy—it's about creating a safe space for people to let go."

But what happens when viewers simply refuse to interact? Kepano has learned to deal with closed-off people simply by walking away. “We call them 'energy vampires,' " he says. “And we can't allow it to affect us. We let them be. There's someone else nearby who is just dying to have that experience." It has taken time to learn to let negative energy roll off his back. “I had to create a whole new warm-up that involved hiding out to recharge," says Kepano. “And I see performers around me who are still working to figure out how to do this effectively six days a week and not get overwhelmed."

Above: Alberto Denis and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus in Then She Fell. Photo Courtesy Third Rail Projects.

Not all dancers sign their contracts while anticipating this challenge. When Shamel Pitts joined the Israel-based Batsheva Dance Company, he expected his audience to stay at a safe but adoring distance, since Batsheva mostly performs on traditional proscenium stages. But certain pieces, such as Minus 16, pull audience members up on stage; in Mamootot, dancers perform all the way up to the front row, reaching out and stroking the viewers' hands.

When Pitts was first cast in Mamootot, he was excited to show off his technique up close. But he quickly found that proximity changed his experience of a performer's ego. “To look at the audience, sit near them, see and feel them breathing and sweating," he says, “I connect with something other than how smart I can be with the material. I'm showing them how delicate my virtuosity can be."

The proximity often has a moving effect on viewers, as well. “Israeli audiences are tough," says Pitts. “People aren't afraid to walk out or turn away. But once I was dancing near a big macho-looking guy, a man with gray hair in his fifties sitting next to his wife. I shook his hand and I could see he was shaking, almost vibrating. He looked like he was holding back from crying."

One woman at Queen of the Night once cried on Kepano's shoulder for 10 minutes as they slow-danced. “She told me she had not been touched in 10 years." Other times, visitors have “freaked out, or gotten into a kind of hypnotic state." (Security steps in if an audience grows too rowdy—but this rarely happens, says Kepano.)

For Pitts, rather than overwhelming him, being close to an audience helps him lighten up. “The work we do is total, physical, extreme," he says. “It's challenging to be able to honor the work and the environment, but not take yourself too seriously." During Mamootot, Pitts reminds himself to “chill out and check in with the outside world." Above: Queen of the Night dancers on and around the stage. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Queen of the Night.

Audience interaction has helped Zialcita feel more like herself when she performs—like a person, not just a dancer. Embracing that feeling helps calm her nerves. “I had a first-date feeling when I started," says Zialcita. “But then it became about, What do I do in this situation? Me, as a person. I realized that some aspect of this is social," she reflects. “When you interact with someone, no matter what, you become more yourself."

The process of interaction helps some dancers find something more human in their performance. In New York–based choreographer luciana achugar's recent work OTRO TEATRO, Molly Lieber acted as an audience plant, rising from her seat and entering the stage partway through the show. It surprised many audience members—especially her friends, unaware of her participation in the piece, with whom she had been chatting in the lobby. “Lots of people didn't know I was involved," she says. “To have just been sitting in a chair and then walk into the show—it took away the whole notion of 'show,' for me," says Lieber. “It called my ego into question. It made me realize that being a performer should always be a really honest thing, rather than being in some 'other' state. You can be really complex and still know who you are."

Lizzie Feidelson is a freelance writer and choreographer in New York City.

The Conversation
Just for Fun
Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims (here in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain) are couple goals both onstage and off. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.

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The Creative Process
Rennie Harris leads a rehearsal of Lazarus. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.

"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."

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Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been struggling with a staph infection after an FHL repair for tendonitis. It took several months to treat the infection, and it's left me with pain and stiffness. Will this ever go away?

—JR, Hoboken, NJ

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Dance on Broadway
Last summer's off-Broadway run of Be More Chill. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates

When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.

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News
Courtesy Siberian Swan

As ballet's gender roles grow increasingly blurred, more men than ever are reaching new heights: the tips of their toes.

It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).

The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.

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Rant & Rave
Via Facebook

Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."

The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.

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Health & Body
Unsplash

You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.

What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.

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Dancers Trending
Rachel Papo

Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.

Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.

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News
A.I.M in Andrea Miller's state. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Google Arts & Culture

Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.

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Just for Fun
Samantha Sturm shared an outtake from a photo shoot. Photo by Ronnie Nelson via Sturm

If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.

Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)

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We Tried It
Brendan McCarthy, Courtesy Brrrn

Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.

But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.

First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.

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Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance Training
Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Just for Fun
Dancer Allison Walsh is married to the bassist in the alt rock band Deer Tick. From left: Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Walsh; Photo by Tuyet Nguyen, Courtesy Ryan.

Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.

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Dance Training
Kelly Russo/Unsplash

Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.

However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.

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Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
Pat Boguslawski

If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.

Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA

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Dance History
Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Heather Milne, Courtesy RWB

When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.

She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."

But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.

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