Five years ago, Alex Wong had the kind of career most ballet dancers only dream of: Under the wing of Miami City Ballet founding artistic director Edward Villella, the 23-year-old had already been promoted to principal soloist, was acclaimed for his powerful sky-high jetés and effortless pirouettes, and had recently been named one of Dance Magazine's “25 to Watch." But instead of signing another yearlong contract with MCB, he decided to audition for “So You Think You Can Dance."
“I had done most of the repertory I wanted to do at MCB, so it seemed like the opportune moment to take a leap of faith," says Wong. During a stint on an earlier “SYTYCD" season, his MCB contract had prevented him from moving onto the live shows. Now, there was nothing in his way of becoming “America's Favorite Dancer"—and no place to go if things fell apart.
At first, it seemed like the gamble would pay off. His explosive virtuosity blew the judges away, and he advanced to the Top 10. Then, while landing a split jump in second during a Bollywood rehearsal, Wong snapped his right Achilles tendon. He was out for the rest of the show and the tour that followed. But what could have been a major setback was only a blip on his way to a triple-threat career. With his can-do resilience, Wong now juggles a never-ending string of dance jobs that range from classical to commercial to Broadway. He's strategically marketed himself to create a kind of freedom that lets him slip between genres, going after any gig that excites him.
Behind the scenes: Playing with Ted on set. Photo courtesy Wong
Wong didn't initially intend to go the ballet route when he started dancing. Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, he trained in jazz, tap and musical theater, and dreamed of dancing on Broadway or television. “As I got older, those dreams kind of fizzled away, since it didn't feel realistic for an Asian to be cast in commercial jobs," says Wong, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong. “I never saw anyone who looked like me doing the things I hoped to accomplish."
Wong added ballet classes at the Goh Ballet Academy to get a leg up at competitions, and ended up falling in love with the style's artistry and quest for technical perfection. He also noticed that there were more Asian dancers in ballet companies. “I made the conscious decision at about 15 to focus on ballet, join a company and hopefully have a stable career," he says.
In 2004, Wong became the first Canadian to win Prix de Lausanne, which led to a yearlong contract with American Ballet Theatre's studio company. He danced with the main company during its Met season, but the timing didn't work out to join long-term, as ABT had recently hired several shorter male dancers. Instead, Wong found a home at MCB, where he quickly turned heads. Only a few months after joining, he stepped up to replace an injured dancer in the lead of Raymonda Variations. He was soon promoted to soloist, then principal soloist, dancing lead roles in Balanchine classics like “Rubies," Symphony in Three Movements and Tarantella.
His experience on “SYTYCD," where both a hip-hop and a contemporary routine he danced in won Emmy awards, opened the doors to a career in commercial dance. “He broke the classical mold and showed just what can be done," says “SYTYCD" co-executive producer Jeff Thacker. For his part, Wong doesn't believe he could have made the transition without the show: “I had a great ballet career, but nobody had seen me do anything else."
Watching from behind the camera. Photo courtesy Wong
During his year off to heal his Achilles, Wong signed with Bloc talent agency and booked several print and commercial jobs. As soon as he could dance again, he was performing in the ensemble of NBC's “Smash," on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and with LMFAO on “The Voice." “Originally my plan was to return to a ballet company after 'SYTYCD,' but after being offered these other projects, I saw how many forms of dance I could do," he says. “I didn't want to do just one thing anymore."
Exactly one year and three days after his injury, Wong was auditioning for Step Up Revolution when, during a freestyle, he went for a few of those split leaps in second, and snapped his Achilles tendon again, this time on his left leg. Wong knew immediately what had happened. “But I still wanted to book the movie," he says. “I finished my freestyle on one leg, and then drove to the hospital."
Within weeks of the surgery, he was teaching class on crutches. To expand his marketable skill set, he developed his singing voice, even making it to the semifinals on “American Idol" and releasing a single to iTunes. It came in handy: Once healed, he made his Broadway debut as Sniper in Newsies. “That was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had," he says. “I'm not even mad that I snapped my Achilles, because otherwise I might not have been in Newsies. Although, I do stay away from consecutive jumps in second now."
Now 28, Wong has since been back to “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, starred in the Microsoft “Surface" commercial, danced in Pharrell Williams' “Happy" music video, at the Oscars, in Peter Pan Live! and on episodes of “Glee," “Dancing with the Stars," “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and “Comedy Bang! Bang!" among many other projects.
Recently, Wong spent four months playing Kim on “Flesh and Bone," a ballet-centered TV series that premieres this November on STARZ. The show was choreographed by Wong's longtime idol, Ethan Stiefel. “Alex has an explosive technique, a fearless attitude and an engaging performance persona," says Stiefel. “He's really entering his prime."
Backstage at the Oscars before the “Everything Is Awesome" Lego Movie dance. Photo from @theacademy Instagram
To Wong, the project felt like coming full circle. “I got to go back to my ballet roots, which I was starting to miss," Wong says. “It felt like having the structure and consistency of a company again."
Yet the energy of the commercial world has him hooked for the foreseeable future. “I like adventure too much," he says. “Being in the classical world was like eating a truffle burger—it's always good, high quality. But in the commercial world, some days I get a bacon burger, others an avocado burger, and suddenly—surprise!—a curry burger."
Wong's lifestyle now, split between Los Angeles and New York City, is drastically different from the consistency he left behind. “My ballet schedule was like clockwork, but now, there's no planning ahead," he says. Without a daily company class, he has had to switch up his training routine, fitting in classes when he can (still usually ballet), and also adding weight lifting to bulk up for a more muscular, commercial look.
A big perk of all the juggling is the pay that comes along with it. Wong estimates that his current income, which includes residuals for TV and film work, is five times what he was making as a ballet dancer. “Plus, I have the film or TV episode to watch over and over again," he says.
This summer, Wong's back on “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, and he's the man behind the moves in Ted 2, doing motion-capture work for the title character in an over 100-person dance scene. “The coolest part was that I got to work closely behind the scenes in terms of camera direction," Wong says. “Since Ted isn't real, only I knew where he was during the dance sequence, so I'd work with the camera operator to tell him where to go. The final shot will have come through my hands."
Wong says that if anything, he feels his ethnicity has become a plus when booking jobs. “I think it's given me a chance to stand out, since most directors now want at least a few ethnic people in each cast," he says. The risk-taking mentality he's developed means there's no longer any room in his career for holding back: “I'm trying to keep as many doors open as I can."
Rachel Zar is a writer based in Chicago.
Above: Photo by Nathan Sayers
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
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.
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
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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When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.