What Happens When You Ask Tap "Genius" Michelle Dorrance to Choreograph on ABT
"Don't look at the mirror, look at your feet," Michelle Dorrance corrects. Smiling at the counterintuitive suggestion, Gillian Murphy, Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko—American Ballet Theatre principals accustomed to projecting up and out to opera house balconies—look down at their pointe shoes as they shuffle into a line of tight fifth positions.
As polyrhythmic strains of music fill ABT's studios, the trio flashes through small, quicksilver position changes while Teuscher quietly counts a steady 4/4 beat that isn't yet audible in the music. Rapid-fire tendus take on an attack usually reserved for frappés, accom-panied by the sound of boxes purposefully striking the floor. ("The shape can exist a split-second before the note—it's like in tap, the motion has to happen early for the sound to be on time," Dorrance advised before the run.)
When they finish the section without stopping or kicking one another, Murphy smiles ruefully and says, "I need to get louder shoes."
The dancers had to get used to the idea of trying to make more sound with their shoes. Photo by Jim Lafferty
The brisk, brief trio opened Dorrance's Praedicere a few weeks later at ABT's spring gala, the dancers' legs spotlit, their faces (tipped down toward their feet) in shadow. The pièce d'occasion was the MacArthur-certified-"genius" tap dancer's first creation for a ballet company. It was only the first of three works ABT commissioned from her this year as part of the newly minted ABT Women's Movement initiative. The second debuted this summer at Vail Dance Festival (where ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie first saw Dorrance working with ballet dancers last year, sparking the idea for the commissions). The third opens the company's fall season on October 17, alongside existing works by Lauren Lovette and Twyla Tharp.
Conversation around Dorrance's commissions has largely swirled around the question "What is that going to look like?"
The works explore two main ideas: the acoustic possibilities of a pointe shoe that doesn't try to be silent, and the ways classical technique morphs when the emphasis is placed on rhythm over line.
"I'm absolutely interested in them owning being a musician onstage," Dorrance says. "As tap dancers, we are equally responsible for our music and our movement; the aesthetic form of tap dance is because I need to make this sound. So, with dancers who execute line so exquisitely, how can we find both integrity in sound and integrity in their technique?"
Corps member Tyler Maloney was the only male dancer to don pointe shoes for the May premiere. Photo by Jim Lafferty
By accenting the landing of petit allégro steps or clapping mid-pirouette, the dancers create rhythms that layer into a complex melody, merging for unison sections before fracturing back into polyrhythm. In the work's most effective moments, the music the dancers make with their feet seems to shiver up through their bodies, lending the classical steps a new vibrancy.
One avenue that intrigued Dorrance was asking both the men and the women to don pointe shoes in order to amplify the sounds of their feet. Although Tyler Maloney was the only male dancer to wear them for the gala, whether pointe shoes will make a wider appearance in the newest work is up in the air.
"I was a little soft on the rest of the men, except for talking the occasional trash," Dorrance says with a laugh. "I'd like for them to put on the instrument and then see what happens from there, you know?"
That lenience may have had something to do with the relative brevity of Praedicere's creation period, during which it was jostling for rehearsal time with major new works by Wayne McGregor and Alexei Ratmansky, plus seven other full-lengths.
"She spent the first two days just going over rhythms," says Teuscher. "We were also getting used to making sound with our pointe shoes; it took a shift in your brain to think about how you could make more sound with your shoes. And the music was some of the hardest to count I've ever experienced. Up until the day of the show we were listening to the music in the dressing room and getting it in our heads!"
Luckily for Dorrance (and the cast), they're being given a lot more time for the October premiere. "I need to revisit how complex I can go musically—and how much I want to torture these poor, poor, wonderful dancers," she says.
Dorrance is hesitant to state what moments from Praedicere, if any, will reappear. But she intends to use the same music, or at least the same composer—Brooklyn-based ensemble Dawn of Midi. "What I can say is that the dancers will absolutely be making music again, and further developing a relationship to music-making in their technique."
And what about tap shoes? "I keep getting asked that question," she says, laughing. Despite initially denying that she would ask ballet dancers to tap, Dorrance did end up having Craig Salstein, a longtime soloist, mark his farewell performance with a surprise tap solo this spring.
"I could tell you right now that no one's going to put a tap shoe on," she says, "but, you know, I shouldn't shoot myself in the foot, so to speak."
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
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.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.