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8 Movie Stars Who Were Dancers First
It seems like more Hollywood actresses are taking on the physical challenges of action movies. For both Zoe Saldana, starring in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Charlize Theron, the bombshell in The Fate of the Furious, previous dance training has been a plus.
Saldana has said that she felt her ballet background helped her get her breakout role in Avatar. "I thank god for something like ballet, which gave that space for me to be by myself and find peace," she said recently in an interview with The New York Times. "Ballet was my meditation, my therapy, my escape, my answer."
Zoe Saldana as Eva in Center Stage (2000)
For Theron, her high school years were spent training at the Joffrey School in New York until a knee injury made her rethink her career. In her more athletic movie roles, that training kicked in. "As a former ballerina, Charlize brings all that physicality, and a special awareness and discipline and sense of valuation of her character through gestures," said George Miller, director of Mad Max: Fury Road.
That got me to thinking of other movie stars who trained intensively, some of them hoping to dance professionally. They each have a special elegance, an aura that marks them as dancers first. Here's a partial list:
• Neve Campbell, who studied at the National Ballet School of Canada from age 9 to 15, starred in the fictional movie The Company (2004) about the Joffrey Ballet. About her training, she told SF Gate, "It was my life and my introduction to the arts." But with her, too, injury forced her to turn to acting.
• Claire Danes took lessons with master teacher Ellen Robbins in New York from the age of 6 to 14. Robbins' approach is to focus on creativity, which helped build a foundation for Danes' work in Hollywood. In Showtime's Homeland, she plays a bi-polar expert at solving intrigue.
• Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, studied at the School of American Ballet. She is the New York City Ballet board member who came up with the brilliant idea of making NYCB's annual fall gala a hub of collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers.
And of course, there are those stars of Hollywood's Golden Age that we can't get enough of: Audrey Hepburn, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron.
• Audrey Hepburn trained with Marie Rambert in London in the late 40s and performed the lead in Gigi on Broadway in 1951. In this 1952 film, Secret People, her youthful, unpolished talent is on full display. And then in 1953, she hit it big in Funny Face as Fred Astaire's gamin model and love interest—the same year she did Roman Holiday, a huge non-dancing hit. Her ballet ability ensured the effervescence of her dance numbers in Funny Face as well as her regal bearing in Roman Holiday.
• Cyd Charisse started lessons at the age of 6 and danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In one of her early films, The Harvey Girls (1946), she played a dreamy ingenue who breaks into a lyrical solo steeped in romantic feeling. Later she played a vixen whose allure for Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951) and Fred Astaire in Band Wagon (1953) is legend.
Leslie Caron, MGM
• Leslie Caron danced since childhood in France. Gene Kelly spotted her with Roland Petit's company, Ballet des Champs Elysées, cast her in An American in Paris (1951), and the rest is history.
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.