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What a Transgender Ballerina Could Bring to Odette, And Other Thoughts on Ballet Today
What should we dance about today and how should we go about it? Those questions were on the mind of Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling this summer as he spent six weeks exploring new ways of telling stories through ballet as a fellow at NYU's Center for Ballet and Arts.
Over his 20 years as principal choreographer at NB, Vasterling has created a handful of narrative works, ranging from children's stories to Romeo and Juliet and Lizzie Borden (about the Fall River, Massachusetts woman tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother).
Paul Vasterling with Nashville Ballet dancers. Photo by Anthony Matula
But, he admits, "I rarely have uninterrupted creative time and freedom to let my mind go down all the rabbit holes it should." The fellowship gave him time out to reflect on the genre and find fresh inspiration while watching hour upon hour of ballet, and sharing ideas with a floor full of other artists and researchers.
He shared four takeaways from his time there:
Ballet is too narrow-minded.
"We need to bring in new ideas and encourage ballet choreographers and directors to step out of the usual," says Vasterling. "This profession can be very insular. We tend not to look to the sides."
He feels strongly that the art form will thrive when its makers and doers are exposed to broader ideas—which is why the Center for Ballet and the Arts is so important right now. "This place gives us the opportunity to challenge our norms and our ways of thinking about what a ballet is."
Ballet can be more like poetry than prose.
Years spent making ballets will develop a choreographer's skills and fluency, but it can also lead to not-so-creative habits. The fellowship gave Vasterling time to find a way out of his own creative ruts. "I met many poets during this fellowship and realized I could approach narrative ballet in a different way. It doesn't have to be so literal and so linear," he says.
Realizing it was more helpful to liken ballet storytelling to narrative poetry, with its clear forms and rules, was a breakthrough. "In ballet, we also work with a lot of rules," he says. "Rules are embodied in the technique."
We need to expand the definition of "ballet."
"I want our audiences to understand the vast scope of what a ballet can be," says Vasterling. Pushing that distinction means thinking outside the norm, whether in terms of subject matter, movement vocabulary, use of text and singers, or in performance structure and duration. This raises interesting questions around where exactly we draw the line between ballet and modern dance or musical theatre. But as Vasterling points out, "ballets are made on ballet companies with trained ballet dancers who embody the technique and line inherent in ballet dancing."
It's time to update ballet's approach to gender.
"What's going to happen when we have our first transgender ballerina?" asks Vasterling. Today, there are clear gender lines in ballet. However, ballet is role-playing and in the theater we rely on performers to bring new things to light through their unique qualities and experience. What will a transgender ballerina bring to light in a role like Odette, wonders Vasterling?
Nashville Ballet in Swan Lake, 2014. Photo via nashvillearts.com
"So many things made me go 'Oh wow!' during this process," he says. "Now I am challenging myself to make a new ballet in these terms. I'm nervous about it. It gives me that agitated feeling you get which means you're really going to do it."
Vasterling has headed back to Nashville with a practical outcome from his fellowship: a new libretto written in collaboration with poet Caroline Randall Williams based on her book Lucy Negro, Redux (described as being "part savvy lit crit, part Blues chart, part hip revenge-femme-lyric, part imagined interracial romance saga disguised as poems"). In the book, Randall Williams toys with the notion that the dark lady of Shakespeare's sonnets is a black woman. For the libretto, she and Vasterling weaved together the lives of real and imaginary characters: a present day narrator/poet, Shakespeare, his mysterious dark lady and a younger lover. The ballet will premiere in Nashville in February 2019.
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).