Sara Mearns in George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

Dance Magazine Award Honoree: Sara Mearns

Sara Mearns is a force. There is a monumentality to her dancing that was apparent even as a young corps member of 19, cast in her first Swan Lake with New York City Ballet. She threw herself into the role heart and soul, stretching each shape to the limit, trusting the music to carry her to a deep place (and her partner to save her should she go too far). In the 13 years since, her dancing has gained in power and focus, while never losing that edge of risk.


In that time she has performed a wide swath of the repertory—period pieces, black-and-white ballets, dramatic works like La Valse and La Sonnambula, playful parts like the showgirl in Western Symphony. Her response to Tchaikovsky is particularly intense. Music, she says, is the thing that drives her.

"The music will tell you everything," she has said. "It's hard to describe how I go to that place when I hear that music. There's nothing else."

Who can forget the excitement of seeing her whip through the air as Dewdrop in the "Waltz of the Flowers," or walk slowly, solemnly, head thrown back, alongside her partner in "Diamonds"? In these moments, she seems to give herself over to a force mysterious and profound.

The courage of her performances has attracted many of today's top choreographers, including Justin Peck, Kyle Abraham, William Forsythe and Alexei Ratmansky. The last created a blazing solo for her in his ballet Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, a crescendo of hops and leaps and high-velocity turns that makes the audience gasp.

Mearns with Honji Wang

Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

Always hungry for new experiences, Mearns has begun to look beyond ballet, seeking out collaborations with choreographers who have encouraged her to dance barefoot, to improvise, to speak onstage and to engage the floor in a whole new way. In recent seasons she has worked with the choreographers Pam Tanowitz and Jodi Melnick, Matthew Bourne and Joshua Bergasse (her husband); she has appeared with the Martha Graham Dance Company, performed a series of solos by Merce Cunningham and collaborated with the hip-hop collective Wang Ramirez.

But perhaps the most memorable transformation to date happened when she danced a suite of Isadora Duncan solos which she had learned from the Duncan specialist Lori Belilove. Dancing barefoot in a flowing tunic to Chopin, she seemed to become the essence of movement itself.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021