Richard Siegal's New Ballet Company is All About Celebrating Difference
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
"We are trying to reconcile what has felt like, in a certain sense, discrete agendas: the uptown/downtown split, tension/release, Eurocentric/Afrocentric postures," says founding artistic director Richard Siegal. "There is always an element of discourse in the room, and it asks on both ends: Contemporary dancers must stretch in one direction and vice versa of the more classically trained." Siegal brings a variety of practitioners, from fashion designers to dramaturgs, into the studio to collaborate, while drawing on his own experiences in classical ballet and in the diverse dance scene in New York City.
The American expat choreographer spent 10 years creating cross-disciplinary productions in nontraditional formats for his avant-garde company, The Bakery. Then, in the last few years, he began receiving commissions from major ballet companies across Europe. "I had to source a different skill set when I started making ballets," says Siegal. "I really enjoyed it, and I was surprised to feel that. Coming back down to the nuts and bolts of the music, the steps, and the quality and potential of human movement—it was all such a pleasure." His aesthetic will be familiar to anyone who attended Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's final season in 2015, which memorably featured the company displaying electric showmanship in Siegal's glam-rock My Generation.
When Ballet of Difference was officially formed in the spring of 2016, the licenses on some of his works were about to revert back to Siegal just as a number of talented dancers with whom he had worked found themselves looking for employment (due to the closure of Cedar Lake and director changes at Bayerisches Staatsballett and Ballet National de Marseille). Receiving a three-year grant from the city of Munich, the choreographer made his move.
Guest performer Joaquim de Santana. Photo by Ray Demski, Courtesy Siegal
The company now boasts 12 dancers (including Cedar Lake alumnus Matthew Min Rich, European star Katharina Markowskaja, and Courtney Henry, formerly of Alonzo King LINES Ballet), as well as a wide range of artistic collaborators and homes in both Munich and Cologne.
While the company debuted in its home theaters last spring, Siegal's new triple bill, On Body, which premieres February 22, will take the dances on a wider tour. The company will also spend the next year working on a cross-genre theater project and engaging in think tanks and symposiums. The first of these took place in December and brought together dance scientists and researchers to investigate the ways that culture, identity and movement are intertwined.
Siegal is looking forward to creating more dialogue, in more places, around the idea of difference. "I count myself as very lucky that my relationship with dance has far surpassed my expectations for it," he says. "We have only had a taste and I am hungry for more."
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.