How to Nail the Mad Ballerina Role in Robbins’ Funniest Ballet
In last week’s all-Robbins program at New York City Ballet, we got a slice of his many terrific ballets, each one unique in its boldness. The triple bill at Lincoln Center included the beautifully crafted Glass Pieces; the intense—and intensely silent—Moves; and the hilarious romp The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody).
Sterling Hyltin in Jerome Robbins' The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik
It is this last one I want to talk about. Everything about The Concert is a delight, from the onstage pianist (played with delicious frumpiness by Elaine Chelton) to the guffaw-inducing “Mistake Waltz,” to the poignant umbrella scene.
The basic “plot” of this 1956 ballet is that various characters straggle in to listen to a concert pianist playing Chopin, and they are each in their own private world. Last week Sterling Hyltin played the starring role, the loopy lady with ballerina fantasies, to the hilt. Carried away by the beautiful music, she is the gateway to a string of brilliantly wacky episodes.
Hyltin in The Concert, photo © Paul Kolnik
The role was made for Tanaquil LeClercq, the glamorous French dancer who was married to Balanchine in the 50s. But it has also been done—with comedic flair—in different decades by Allegra Kent, Stephanie Saland and Maria Kowroski.
I asked Saland what she remembers about dancing this role when Robbins was still alive. (She was with NYCB from 1972 to 1993, the last nine years as principal, and is now a master teacher in Seattle.)
Stephanie Saland in an undated photo © Daniel Sorine
“He called it the mad ballerina role,” she said. “The comedic aspects only work when we do not play to the joke, but believe her thoroughly. It was so much fun, although Jerry was phenomenally particular about timing, especially with comedic work.”
While coaching her in the scene where she gets chased by the cigar-chomping, two-timing husband, Robbins told her to watch Maya Plisetskaya on video. He wanted Saland to capture that silent-movie style of drama, with big eyes and exaggerated gestures.
Her favorite scene was when her character tries on different hats. “Jerry was very precise about where you look and when you slump with disappointment. And when they put the ridiculous fluffy blue hat on you, you just know it’s right for you.” Saland says she actually started making her own hats after dancing the role.
Hyltin, on the other hand, says in this charming clip from NYCB that the hat-changing scene was the most difficult for her.
The Concert is widely recognized as the funniest ballet ever made. It’s been in the repertories of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and more. Needless to say, it requires dancers who have a knack for comedy, and they are hard to come by. But when it clicks, everyone in the audience and onstage become deliriously happy.
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.
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.
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?
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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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.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.