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Ballet Unbound: SFB's 17-Day Festival Asks Where the Art Form is Headed
The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.
"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"
San Francisco Ballet in rehearsal for Justin Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
Those questions are perennially on Tomasson's mind. He's convened two previous festivals—1995's UNited We Dance and 2008's New Works Festival—to take ballet's current pulse.
This time around, David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon had three-week creative residencies between July and October of last year during which they each created 30-minute works on the SFB dancers.
The roster reflects Tomasson's personal wish list. It is Dawson's first American commission, whereas Wheeldon is an SFB mainstay creating his 10th commission for the company. "The thought was to give the choreographers a forum to try something that they had not tried before," says Tomasson. King, Marston, Rhoden and Ochoa were also paired with directors to create short-form dance films inspired by their new works. (The films are available online.)
Tomasson grouped the ballets into four programs of three works, to be performed in rotation. The festival's second weekend also layers in four symposium sessions, with Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson, dance-meets-tech guru Sydney Skybetter, writer Marina Harss and other influencers discussing hot-button topics like diversity, technology and globalism.
Putting on an event of this scale has taken logistical as well as choreographic creativity. "It's a huge jigsaw puzzle," says SFB general manager Debra Bernard. Organizing last summer's travel and rehearsals for the choreographers, their ballet masters, and, in some instances, their composers and designers was a monumentally complex task. All of the choreographers were back in residence for three weeks prior to the festival to finalize their choreography, costume fittings and staging. "We have, like, 40 hotel rooms for a month," says artistic administrator Abby Masters. "We're also transforming one of our big boardrooms in the building into the choreographers' office and lounge."
The same space will also serve as a satellite fitting room for hundreds of new costumes, which were constructed in the UK, New York City and the Bay Area. "The costume part has been crazy," says production director Christopher Dennis. Scheduling fittings within the dancers' union-regulated working hours has been an additional puzzle.
Frances Chung and Angelo Greco in rehearsal for Dwight Rhoden's LET'S BEGIN AT THE END. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
To prevent fatigue and free the dancers' time for festival prep, Tomasson invited National Ballet of Canada to perform John Neumeier's Nijinsky in the War Memorial Opera House April 3–8, before Unbound's opening night on April 20.
Where does Tomasson hope all of this planning, traveling, creating and schedule-juggling will lead? "I don't honestly think I'm gonna get a definitive answer to where ballet is going," he says. "It's fine if we don't know. For me, it was worth asking the question."
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit: