Say What? How Dancers Handle Their Worst Reviews
Melody Mennite's first published review hurt like a punch in the gut.
While dancing Clara's solo in The Nutcracker, Mennite, then a teen, decided to sustain a balance for a few seconds. “I got greedy and held it too long and then fell flat on my face," says Mennite, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet since 2008. The critic who reviewed the show gleefully called her out on her face-planting. “I was mortified," she says. “But, even though it was there in the newspaper, I've always been able to laugh at myself. My very first review set me up really well to let stuff roll off my back."
Mennite performing in Paquita choreographed by Stanton Welch.Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Nobody enjoys getting a bad review. Whether in print or online, it can feel like public humiliation. The purpose of reviews is to help readers understand the value and quality of a performance, to analyze it and provide some historical context. Some critics take the responsibility quite seriously, while others indulge all their feelings, no matter how petty. In the world of cyberspace, anyone can become a critic, so it's no longer only the traditional print journalists creating the noise. And while the performers themselves aren't the target audience of reviews, reading about yourself can become as addictive as it can be deflating.
After a performance, some dancers simply choose to avoid their reviews altogether. Veronika Part, a principal with American Ballet Theatre since 2009, has been the subject of polarized reactions from critics who have either thrilled to her dancing or shrugged lukewarmly. In response, she chooses not to read reviews of any kind. “I learned early on in my career that if I didn't want to listen to the bad reviews, I should also ignore the good ones," she says.
Photo by Gene Shiavone.
Other performers simply remain cautious. “You have to go in and say, 'Am I sure I want to read this? Can I handle it?' " says McGee Maddox, a National Ballet of Canada principal. “If you expect something bad to happen, you don't have to read it." More than a decade in the ballet business has armored him for any acidic comments. “When I was younger I probably would have stewed about reviews, but now I'm aware of what the source is, what their agenda is," he says, referring to critics who try to create a splash in print or satisfy their need to opine. “Critics and bloggers are part of a world that doesn't affect how I enjoy my job or how I approach my work."
Maddox performing in Swan Lake.Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Not all dancers take their criticism so silently, especially when a comment feels out of bounds. There have been significant instances of dancers aiming back at critics, such as when Jenifer Ringer, then a New York City Ballet principal, nobly defended herself on NBC's “Today" show against Alastair Macaulay's piercing critique of her weight. Another came after the 1994 premiere of Bill T. Jones' Still/Here, when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce—without having seen the work—complained about “dancers I'm forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women or disfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art." Jones, taking offense as a dancer, choreographer and person, returned the favor by claiming Croce was among those who “have a frightened and limited definition of normal."
Absorb and Move On
With the right approach, reviews can be used constructively. Jenna Riegel, who currently dances with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, recently took the blunt impact of a 2015 review of the premiere of Jones' Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, based on the experiences of Jones' mother-in-law, Dora, as a French Jewish nurse during World War II. In his June review, New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Yet the excellent dancers must also speak, and their amateurish line readings continually undermine the show." Although many women share the vocalization of Dora's words, Riegel says, “I think I took it to heart a little more because I carry a good load of that text." Riegel reacted to the review in two ways. First, she tried to see what could be positively gleaned from it. “What of that can I take in?" she asked herself. “Could the nuances be shifted?" But she also wanted to respect Jones' intention that the dancers' personas shine through, rather than to offer a literal reading of one woman's voice. She ultimately decided that her approach could be “a little more fluid," but her own voice needed to be heard—a director's motivation that the reviewer might not be aware of.
Photo by Paul B. Goode.
Even vague critiques can lead to breakthroughs. When Mennite was granted first cast of the title role of La Sylphide, she and her partner worked exhaustively with a Bournonville expert to hone the tone, precision, style and drama of the ballet. Most of the reviews skewed positively, but one stung. “The writer critiqued me as not being a mature enough dancer to grasp the nuances of the role," she says. “And then the review said that my partner and I just needed some time." Although she felt let down, those comments helped her to grow because she was curious about what was blocked in her performance. “I would probably agree with it now," she says, particularly in the exploration of character development.
Still, the opinions that matter most come from the coaches, choreographers and the artistic director. “My job is to listen to those opinions—the people who are actually involved with the production," says Maddox, who says he has never changed his approach based on a review.
After working exhaustively, Mennite was critiqued as not being mature enough for La SylphidePhoto by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Reviewing The Critics
When do critics go too far? Mennite draws the line at attacking a dancer's physique. “I feel very disappointed at their lack of respect," she says. “You can criticize the art form but when you start attacking who someone is, I don't like that."
In the past, Mennite has wished she could tell some critics to broaden their education in the art form so that they “know what they're talking about." But recently, she has realized that audiences aren't always educated about dance, and reviewers are also delivering entertainment. “Now I would say that it would be nice if they could focus on the task at hand, try to write honestly and not to give in to any kind of sensationalism."
Part offers a decidedly different retort: “I would like to see a critic dance Swan Lake," she says. “When I retire I will happily lend them my tutu and pointe shoes."
A Bite from the Big Apple
New York City critics are infamous for their searing reviews, the most stringent of any U.S. city. Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite has learned from experience: “I have almost no expectations at all about receiving any positivity in those reviews," she says. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company member Jenna Riegel admires the dancers and choreographers who weather the harsh critical media in New York. “I just applaud people for making their art," she says. “They're pretty resilient. And to not be swayed or changed because of a review—that's even more impressive to me." No negative New Yorker, however, can compare with a dancer's inner judge. Says National Ballet of Canada's McGee Maddox, “No critic is as hard on me as I am on myself."
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:
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
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.