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.
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Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
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It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.