What to Expect From Juilliard's New Dream Team: Damian Woetzel and Alicia Graf Mack
Sometimes, change happens all at once. Last year, The Juilliard School, one of the country's top conservatories for music, dance and drama, got not one new leader but three.
Damian Woetzel, a former star at New York City Ballet, took the reins as Juilliard's new president, the first in the institution's history to come from the field of dance. (The previous six have been musicians.) Evan Yionoulis was named director of drama. And Alicia Graf Mack, an exemplary dancer at both the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, became Juilliard's incoming director of dance—the first African American, and, at 39, the youngest person to ever take up the position.
As Ara Guzelimian, Juilliard's provost and dean recently told me, "it's a generational shift." So, what does this shift mean to the institution?
The Role Model: Alicia Graf Mack
Claudio Papapietro, Courtesy Juilliard
As I watch Alicia Graf Mack teach a third-year ballet class at Juilliard, it is obvious what a model she is to the students. This is true both when she demonstrates steps—she is truly a paragon of form—and when she talks about the underlying principles behind them.
"It's exciting to have that kind of presence inside the school, someone who only left the performing part of her career very recently," Javon Jones, one of these third-year students, says. "And, as a student of color, seeing representation at the front of the room is very empowering."
As a former leading dancer for both DTH—under the exacting eye of Arthur Mitchell—and Ailey, she effortlessly embodies Juilliard's ethos: an equal focus on ballet and modern dance. She also holds a degree in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis. She is an overachiever in every sense.
In class, instead of giving corrections, she tends to engage the students in conversations about ideas.
"How do you isolate the action of that dégagé?" she asks at one point. Two dancers give different answers. "I heard two ideas," Graf Mack says. "Both were really good." She suggests combining both approaches.
Later, in her office—empty minus a photo of her two kids and another, of Arthur Mitchell—I ask about her teaching philosophy.
"I like to talk about building the foundational technique in the body and also about having the information to deconstruct it. Which creates a very smart and exciting dancer," she says.
Juilliard, in her eyes, should also be an incubator for the consideration of larger questions facing the arts.
"Who defines what excellence is? What defines excellence?" she asks. "I've been trying to look at things through multiple lenses in order to find a way to maintain the sense of rigor Juilliard is known for while at the same time giving the dancers the ability to push the boundaries of what is happening today."
To that end, she has been exploring ways to increase the students' exposure to a wider array of contemporary dance forms, including contact improvisation, Gaga, William Forsythe's improvisational techniques and hip hop. She envisions making space in the schedule for classes with a focus on technology, like dance on film and choreography utilizing new media.
Todd Rosenberg Photography, Courtesy Juilliard
She's also intent on making Juilliard more representative of the city and country around it. Hers is a thoughtful approach, based on relationships and an understanding of the barriers that aspiring dancers face. "Diversity is not about looking into a studio and saying, 'You have or you haven't made the mark,' " she says.
Over the next few years, she's planning to visit performing arts high schools, which have traditionally trained a wider swath of the population (not just kids from families who can afford to send them to private dance classes). Repertory is another part of the puzzle—Graf Mack's plans include opening up the pool of choreographers to include more people of color.
With openness and curiosity, Graf Mack is building a new vision for the program. As she puts it: "I would love to have part of my legacy here be to say that wherever a dancer dreams of going, whatever direction, that we have supported that with our curriculum."
The Master of Ceremonies: Damian Woetzel
"I started studying dance and music at the same time," Damian Woetzel tells me in his expansive new office at The Juilliard School, which, incidentally, looks out over his old stomping grounds at New York City Ballet. He didn't grow up in a cloistered dance bubble; as a kid, in Boston, he took flute and guitar lessons along with dance classes.
The sense of the interconnection between the arts has stuck. "My work always overlapped with music and a sense of theater."
Woetzel, a youthful 51, was a star at NYCB for much of his 20-year career there. Since his retirement, he hasn't stopped moving. He has produced shows for the Kennedy Center (the interdisciplinary DEMO series) and sat on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He directed the Aspen Institute Arts Program from 2011 until last year, and still runs the Vail Dance Festival. Along the way he got a master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
He brings this entrepreneurial spirit to his new position as president of Juilliard, a role that requires constant shifts of focus.
"Today I met with alumni," he says, "and then held interviews with people who might be joining our staff. Then faculty meetings and a short conversation with one of our creative associates. And it's only 2:45."
In addition to his other responsibilities, he's teaching a class on "The Arts in Society," open to students in every discipline. And he spends part of every day walking around the building, looking in on classes and striking up conversations with teachers and students.
In his first year at Juilliard, he has introduced a series of initiatives, built around the idea of bringing together artists from different disciplines, fomenting creativity and fostering a sense of community. He calls them "flags in the ground" on the way to a "gauzy and golden-hued age of creativity."
Perhaps the one he is the most proud of is Creative Associates, a program through which Juilliard invites genre-bending artists to engage the Juilliard students at different points throughout the year. They might involve the students in their own creative projects, or act as advisors and coaches, or lead workshops.
The job definition is kept intentionally open. The tap innovator Michelle Dorrance, for example, created a piece with the incoming first-year dance students for Juilliard's opening convocation ceremony. Then she came back during the early weeks of the semester to develop ideas for a premiere she was working on for American Ballet Theatre, and she also worked with musicians in the jazz program. Her interactions with the school were meant to stimulate creativity, both in the students and in her own practice.
Juilliard dance alumna and director of Gallim Dance Andrea Miller gives a master class to fourth year dancers
Rachel Papo, Courtesy Juilliard
The resident artists, and other guests, often stay on to take part in Juilliard's public programs. In October, Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, came to speak to Woetzel's class and then took part in a public conversation with Wynton Marsalis (head of Juilliard's jazz program) about the musical culture of New Orleans.
Woetzel—a performer who loves talking about ideas—is a natural fit for such semi-improvised evenings, in which he often acts as master of ceremonies. "There's definitely an Iron Chef element to it," he says with a laugh, "with so many ingredients, mixed with questioning and curiosity."
Or as dean Ara Guzelimian puts it, "inside Damian beats the heart of a performing artist…and there's no question he's the producer in chief, as well."
To advance the cause of diversity Woetzel has introduced a partnership with Sphinx Performance Academy, which actively recruits and engages students from cultural backgrounds underrepresented in classical music. This coming summer, the two institutions will be partners in a summer intensive for string players, held at Juilliard, with hopes to expand into other disciplines in the future.
The ideas are big, the schedule packed, the ambitions overarching: "To my mind," Woetzel says, "Juilliard can be a vibrant, dynamic, creative, educational nirvana."
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
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.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
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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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.