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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.
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.
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.
"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.
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).
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."
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.