Why NYCB's Russell Janzen Is Taking On Gender-Bending Side Projects
There is no big mystery to why Russell Janzen is often cast in princely parts at New York City Ballet, roles like the cavalier in Diamonds and The Nutcracker, Siegfried in Swan Lake, and the man who partners the "first violin" in the slow movement of Concerto Barocco. His dancing is pristine, and he's tall enough for the tallest ballerinas; he's also handsome, and, most importantly, he's a generous and sensitive partner.
Which is not to say that Janzen is dull or recessive. You want to know what he's thinking whenever he's onstage; one of his greatest assets is an ability to draw you into his world, quietly, engrossingly. He always looks like he's acting out a story in his mind.
Janzen in Swan Lake. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
In 2014, as a corps dancer, he was cast, against type, as the tormented soul in George Balanchine's Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbündlertänze.' His performance was riveting and earned him rave reviews. Janzen is still trying to put his finger on what exactly made it so: "I didn't really feel like I knew what the ballet was or what I had done onstage," he confesses. "I didn't do anything I had planned to do."
The experience of dancing Davidsbündlertänze has grown into a project he will take on at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, a think tank based at New York University, in the fall. Under the trees near the Metropolitan Opera House on a warm afternoon, we talked about writing, his love of ballet—as well as his doubts about it—, the performance of gender and sexual preference onstage, and the increasing number of outside projects he's taking on.
Janzen with Reid Bartelme. Photo by Robert Altman, courtesy Bartelme.
Is it difficult to read what others write about your dancing?
I try not to do it. Every once in a while I'll read a review and no matter what it says it messes with my head. Part of why I'm interested in writing about Davidsbündlertänze is that I got a really good review after my first performance. The second time I danced it, I was wondering: Are people here because they read that? Am I doing the thing that I did before? Did I live up to what they read?
One reason I started writing about dance in the last couple of years is that when I began getting bigger parts, people would mention something I had done onstage and I was like, well that wasn't what I thought I was doing.
When did you start writing?
Both my sister and I wrote a lot when we were kids. Everyone in my family reads a lot. My mom was a high school English teacher, and my aunt was a linguistics professor and teaches English as a second language.
Were your parents surprised when you decided to go into ballet?
I think it was a little bit weird for my parents. They didn't really believe me when I said I wanted to do it. I kept asking for a long time.
At what point did you start writing about dance?
I'm taking a break right now but I was at the New School for a while. I took a class with [the cultural historian] Julia Foulkes where I wound up writing about gender roles and queerness and the experience of performing. I talked to several dancers, including James Whiteside, Faye Arthurs, Taylor Stanley, Katy Pyle and Reid Bartelme—all people I thought would have different perspectives on how their bodies read onstage. I presented the paper at the Contemporary Ballet conference at Barnard last year.
What did you discover in the process?
It was really disheartening. I went into it thinking that ballet was the most natural expression of everything for me. When I go out onstage I feel like I'm just being myself. I feel free. You have a certain task when you're the cavalier: You're showing off this person as if she were the most beautiful thing you've ever seen; that doesn't have to be sexual.
But then I realized that my 15 years of training have taught me to move in a specific way with some sort of hetero masculine idea. Talking to other people who felt more constrained by ballet than I do made me think about it more.
How has that affected your thinking?
These conversations made me even more aware of how much I bought into the constructs of ballet. When I talked to James Whiteside about dancing full-length story ballets, he said, "I feel like I have to act, not only the part of Romeo or the prince, but also the part of the straight man."
Part of what interests me about Adam Lüders, who originated the role I dance in Davidsbündlertänze, is that Lüders and Peter Martins were dancing at the same time but had such different presences onstage. Adam somehow was doing the same thing that his partners were doing, emotionally. And he was still serving the function that the man in ballet is supposed to serve. That's something that I would love to be able to do.
Aren't the qualities of "princeliness"—gentility, nobility, good manners—beyond gender in a way?
I think being a prince is a boring idea to me in a lot of ways. But I love all the ballets that I do. I'm trying to consciously think about how to do what I'm asked to do while doing it in a way that feels good and more true to what I think about things.
So much of ballet is about artifice and approaching some sort of ideal.
Yes! And that's one of the things that's so disappointing to me. My aunt always says that Concerto Barocco represents how she thinks the world should work. But it feels less and less like a good use of time these days in terms of what's happening politically and these conversations we're having in our culture.
Are you disappointed in Balanchine?
No! I guess Balanchine is about the sublime, but it doesn't feel that way to dance it. I've only thought in very specific ways about very specific ballets. I'm definitely not disappointed by any of my rep.
One of the keys to your rise at New York City Ballet has been your mastery of partnering. When did you discover that you were good at it?
I went to the Rock School, where Christopher Fleming, who danced for both ABT and NYCB, taught men's classes and partnering class. Everyone had to do press lifts and shoulder sits and finger turns in class, and he would give us tricky partnering things, stuff that is hard for experienced partners, all the time. But he wouldn't say they were tricky. So when I got to the School of American Ballet I just had an insane amount of confidence in partnering class. [Laughs.]
What do you enjoy about partnering now?
Part of it is similar to why I love dancing. For example, I love dancing with Tess [Teresa Reichlen] because we've always been friendly but I feel like almost all of our intimacy has been established onstage. Partnering is a lot about pleasing my partner, which I like doing in life, too. I want everyone to like me and to do the right thing for people, and partnering feels like an extension of that.
Janzen partnering Reichlen in Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB
In your recent projects with Christopher Williams, Reid Bartelme and Burr Johnson, you've also partnered and been partnered by men. Is that different?
It feels really different. When I danced [the pas de deux from Lar Lubovitch's Something About Night, originally created for a man and a woman] with Reid, I was doing the man's part. In a lot of ways it wasn't different from what I've done before, but it felt different to be physically intimate with a man. When I dance with women it's fun to go to that vulnerable place with them because it's not a vulnerability that extends to the rest of my life. We're creating something, but I don't wonder what that means for us offstage. Looking at a man in that way and creating intimacy for an audience felt like, what does this mean? There was something scarier just in the fact that he's a man.
In Christopher Williams's work-in-progress Narcissus, you went even further, dancing the part of an intersex being, with prosthetic breasts. What was that like?
I think the idea of exploring the duality of masculinity and femininity and not having it be a duality was very attractive to me. I loved that someone thought of me for that part. But I felt uncomfortable wearing breasts. It stressed me out. I like dressing in drag, and I thought it was cool how having breasts made it look like my butt was rounder, for example. But it felt uncomfortable to take on a different physical reality in a way that was so gendered. Especially now; I think it's a time to be really conscientious about how you tell these kinds of stories. But I loved the choreography he made for me.
Not to be superficial, but I notice you're going gray. [Janzen is only 28.] I love how it looks.
Yeah. A few years ago the company asked me to dye it. And I just don't want to—unless I have to play a character who is a certain age, I'm not going to do it. I've thought about my hair more than I ever wanted to. There's something about the care of dying it that doesn't make me happy.
What other choreographers would you love to work with?
Alexei Ratmansky. I wish I were a Ratmansky dancer. Maybe one day. I look at what he has made for Sara Mearns or Jenifer Ringer or Tyler Angle; he sees people so differently from how other people see them and I would feel so honored to find out what he saw in me. I'm so curious.
And Mark Morris. I wish he had tall dancers. I love everything he does. One of the things I hope comes out of the changes New York City Ballet is going through is that Mark Morris will come and work with the company.
What do you love about ballet?
Sometimes I don't know why I love it, but I do, I love my job. It's such a part of me. Recently I've been doing a lot of outreach programs where you move to music. I did the Dance for PD [a dance program for people with Parkinson's] teacher training. It has reminded me that what I like about dance is really moving to music with people in a room.
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:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
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.