On Her Own
Although she's retired from NYCB, one semester away from graduating Columbia University with a degree in psychology, Gilliland, 27, has hardly given up dance. In fact, she's in it more than ever. In the last three years, she has worked with emerging choreographers like Emery LeCrone, Adam Hendrickson and Marcelo Gomes; established artists like Pontus Lidberg and Will Rawls; and icons such as Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp. With each project, it seems she grows her artistry further.
Gilliland first turned heads in 2006 when Feld chose to create Étoile Polaire, a 12-minute solo, on the 18-year-old apprentice. In addition to what he called her “extraordinary magical quality," Feld sensed his muse's ambivalence in the NYCB studios. “He could see that I was trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into the company," says Gilliland. “He said, 'Don't fit in, fit out.' It's been a very hard thing for me to do. It's hard for a lot of dancers to do, to embrace the things that make them unlike anyone else."
In Troy Schumacher's "The Impulse Wants Company." Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Schumacher.
Étoile Polaire was a sensational debut, but perhaps a misleading one. Gilliland went on to dance many vividly memorable principal roles with the company, such as her mysterious Dark Angel in Serenade, a bewitchingly sensual Siren in Prodigal Son, an eloquent Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, the enigmatic woman in Jerome Robbins' Watermill and the intensely hypnotic pas de deux from his Glass Pieces. Many assumed she would become an NYCB star, disseminating her singular glamour and artistry in the tradition of Tanaquil LeClercq, Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. But in 2011, Gilliland, still a member of the corps de ballet, left the company.
“It wasn't so much that there was too much pressure on me but that I felt like I was trying to play a part," says Gilliland, the daughter of former American Ballet Theatre soloist Lise Houlton and granddaughter of Minnesota Dance Theatre founder Loyce Houlton. “There were a lot of ballerina roles that I should have been excited about when I was doing them—and I sometimes had trouble finding myself in them." Compounding the problem was a series of debilitating injuries: eroding knee cartilage, multiple broken bones in her feet and a back injury from a partnering mishap in rehearsal.
After bursting into tears in ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy's office one day, unable to dance, watch or sit through another “Snow" rehearsal, Gilliland told Peter Martins and Dunleavy, “I love this company and I can't stay here as a dancer." Martins reassured her that the company was there to support her in anything she did. There was, however, no discussion about an open door in the future.
She immersed herself in school, pursuing a pre-med concentration at Columbia. But she was coaxed back into the studio by Emery LeCrone, then resident choreographer for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative. The process clicked. “I remember Saturday afternoons in the studio together being the highlight of my week," says Gilliland. “She wanted to hear how I felt about things and wanted to incorporate my idiosyncrasies into the movement. There was this dialogue we were having: I was demanding answers about how movement should feel or how I wanted it to feel—and she was listening." The weekly rehearsals also reminded her of the choreographic workshops and classes at her family studio in Minnesota, where creativity was prioritized.
With Michele Wiles in Brian Reeder's "Surmisable Units." Photo by Stephanie Berger; Courtesy BalletNext.
“She's a very honest performer, so when something feels wrong in her body, she needs to tell you," says LeCrone. “That for me is a great thing." When the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series commissioned LeCrone to choreograph both a classical and a contemporary work to the same music, Bach's Partita No. 2 in C Minor, the choreographer chose Gilliland for the contemporary section. “I was looking to push dancers in a new way," says LeCrone, “and I knew working with dancers coming from a more modern, improvisational-based background would really help her."
Above: With Michele Wiles in Brian Reeder's Surmisable Units. Photo by Stephanie Berger; Courtesy BalletNext.
Gilliland has further explored her artistry with other contemporary choreographers such as Pontus Lidberg, the Swedish-born dancemaker who expertly folds ballet vocabulary into his contemporary works and dance films. Last fall, Gilliland performed in two of his pieces at the International Ballet Festival of Havana. “Kaitlyn has an expansive yet natural movement quality," says Lidberg. “She picks up subtle details that relate to other aspects of creating dances: structure, interpersonal relationships. Her ballet technique doesn't stand in the way of her exploring movements or shapes that lie beyond ballet, or what is considered ballet."
Gilliland regards herself as an exploring artist. “One goal moving forward is to allow myself to cultivate dance relationships that are really meaningful to me," she says, citing her connection with Lidberg. “I like to think that the more experiences I have, the more I bring with me. So it's not just going from one job to another. They inform each other."
With New Chamber Ballet in Miro Magloire's "Quartet." Photo by Sarah Thea Swafford, Courtesy New Chamber.
Still, schlepping between gigs has not been easy. It means a lot of subway time and navigating schedules and contracts. Public reactions to her decision for independence have ranged from enthusiastic support to predictions of career disaster.
Gilliland hasn't relegated NYCB to the rearview mirror, either. The management has been very supportive: She briefly managed the New York Choreographic Institute, and recognizing her knack for connecting with kids (she had taught students at Minnesota Dance Theatre), the company offered her a teaching job at the School of American Ballet. Instructing the younger students has helped her shape a new perspective on her own dancing. “I always wanted to do things well without necessarily understanding how or why," says Gilliland, who teaches ages 6 to preteen, and occasionally intermediate students. “With these students, I tell them it's okay to fall, to lose your balance here as long as you take that information and apply it. I started to think, What happened to me? When did I stop hearing that advice for myself? When did I stop incorporating this into what I do?"
Gilliland has ruled out dancing with another major ballet company. “That was not the right environment for me," she says. She cites both Wendy Whelan and Swedish dancer Nadja Sellrup for inspiring her through “their knowledge that they know better than anyone else who they are and what they want to do."
With Landes Dixon in Caitlin Trainor's "Faux Pas." Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Trainor Dance.
In January, Gilliland appeared in the PBS telecast of the Gershwin Prize tribute to Billy Joel in an excerpt from Tharp's Movin' Out. In February, through Danspace Project's Platform 2015, Gilliland paired up with choreographer/dancer/writer Will Rawls to create something completely new. “This commission is not about making a performance," says Rawls. “It's about doing the research and presenting our exchange. We've been exploring different ways of communicating with each other and this idea of being strangers who are meeting each other for the first time."
Gilliland says they have found similarities: “He talks about defining what his practice is. I realize I've spent a lot of time trying to un-define what my practice is."
Although she has wavered about her direction after graduation, all her endeavors have led back to dance, and her roles as dancer, teacher, manager and artist have made her view her life and career more dynamically: “When I wake up in the morning, there's one thing I'm really excited about all the time now—it's dance. In every sense of the word."
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
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.
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."
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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.
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.
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:
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
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.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.