Although Uprising, Hofesh Shechter’s smoky, shadowy study in male camaraderie on the verge of violence, premiered in 2006, it was eerily relevant when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed it at the opening of its recent winter season. That same day, a grand jury had failed to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, sparking a new round of public rage around issues of power and racial inequality. Now here was a group of African-American men expressing that unrest onstage through Shechter’s charged choreography, complete with a chillingly prescient chokehold. “It wasn’t lost on me,” says Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, of the piece’s imagery. “It forces you to think.” However unintended, the connection underscored the sense that Shechter’s work somehow captures a certain current mood.
Uprising features a score by Shechter himself. Photo by Ben Rudick, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
That thrilling urgency and unsettling relevance helps explain how the 39-year-old has managed to catapult into an elite club of highly in-demand international choreographers in less than a decade. This year alone, Shechter premiered his first work for The Royal Ballet, will make his choreographic Broadway debut with Fiddler on the Roof and is working on another as-yet-unannounced high-profile collaboration, in addition to a triple bill of new work for his own company. For all his devoted followers, though, Shechter has detractors, too. His loud, large-scale productions can feel more rock concert than dance event, and their amped-up volume either ignites or offends you. The division can’t be explained purely in generational terms, though he does tend to attract younger, rowdier crowds. But there’s an anger and anti-authoritarian impulse that resonates with some and turns others off. For Shechter, it’s simply the way he makes sense of his surroundings. “It always comes from trying to understand the situation around me and how I understand the world,” he says of his thematic interests.
And Shechter hails from a rather turbulent corner of the world: He was born in Jerusalem, studied Israeli folk dance from a young age and performed for three and a half years with the Batsheva Dance Company under the guidance of Ohad Naharin (two in the junior troupe, while also fulfilling his compulsory military service). But before he was a dancer, Shechter was a musician, picking up piano at age 6. When he left Batsheva, seeking to re-engage with music, he began studying drums. After a stint in France, a relationship and a bandmate eventually pulled him to London. He didn’t mind leaving Israel: “It feels like a very small, narrow, intense place to be.”
Above: Shechter works with his company on Sun Dust, a compilation of sections cut from Sun as it grew into a darker piece. Photo by Victor Frankowski, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
After two years of dance and music gigs (both performing and teaching to make ends meet), he was restless and unsatisfied artistically. In 2003, he decided to go at it alone. “I told myself I don’t want to dance for anyone else anymore,” he says. “I wanted to have my own fantasies.” He gave himself a year to create, to see if he could make it work financially. “I remember the first days in the studio,” he recalls, “the feeling of dread on one hand and excitement on the other.” He took inspiration in something he learned from Naharin: “Everything is allowed.”
The duet that emerged from this period, Fragments, earned him notice at The Place, one of London’s main dance venues. Six months later, he won an award at a choreographic competition. Then came Uprising, which caught the eye of Alistair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, the UK’s most prestigious contemporary dance center, which co-commissioned the equally moody follow-up In your rooms. Suddenly Shechter was one of the country’s most buzzed-about young dancemakers. Arts Council England invited him to form a company (which they still support, covering almost a quarter of his budget), and Spalding named him a Sadler’s Wells associate artist. All within three years.
The Art of Not Looking Back. Photo by Dee Conway, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
“It’s been a pretty rapid rise,” admits Spalding, who says he was attracted to Shechter’s ambitious visions and untamed energy. “We wanted to give him the opportunity to fly, and he did.” For Shechter, the speed of his ascent was “phenomenal and weird,” he says. Though gratified by the attention, he adds, “I remember feeling careful because I could see the fragility of it.”
So far, there’s nothing fragile about the opportunities coming his way. Hofesh Shechter Company employs 16 full-time dancers, and nearly as much staff. (A junior company will soon perform his repertory, as well.) Several high-profile projects are taking him to new artistic territory, like the one with The Royal Ballet that premiered in March. As with much of his work, Shechter composed an original score for the project (in this case, with Nell Catchpole as a co-composer). Composing his own music, though exhausting and time consuming, is an integral part of his vision. “What I like about it is the ability to control a whole atmosphere, a whole situation, a flavor that comes from every direction,” he says.
Working with The Royal Ballet’s dancers has been a pleasant surprise. “I actually quite enjoy it,” he says, “which is rare. Sometimes with creation I can get into a dark place.” That darkness manifests in the finished products and reflects the struggle of an artist deeply ambivalent about the state of the world. “He’s quite a peaceful person, he’s relaxed, he’s funny, he’s joyful—but when he creates, what’s interesting is the conflict,” says Bruno Guillore, who has danced with Shechter for nine years and serves as the company’s associate artistic director. He points to Shechter’s 2013 work Sun. “When we started he wanted to do a light piece but he couldn’t. After a month and a half of fighting it, it became darker and darker. He said: ‘I have to do a piece I connect with and I don’t connect with happy people dancing around.’ ”
As the father of two young daughters, Shechter’s home life is often quite bright and playful, and he isn’t sure why he gravitates to turmoil in his work. He offers the following explanation: “I’m interested in looking at unsolved things, open questions, uncomfortable places,” he says. “It’s where I feel the most, it’s where something can evolve and move and heal.”
Despite the darkness, Shechter’s work isn’t cold. What distinguishes it from the polished, metallic rigor of some of his contemporaries is its cinematic sweep (Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson are influences), flawed humanity and deep emotional core. “He’s very connected to his emotions,” says Guillore, who points out that harmony between head, heart and body is what Shechter seeks in his dancers, as well. “He’s really looking for people who can express emotion through movement.”
For his most unexpected project this year, Shechter will give physical expression to the joy and anxiety of the Russian shtetl of Anatevka. Initially, Shechter balked when Fiddler on the Roof director Bartlett Sher approached him. “I told myself I’d never choreograph a musical,” he says, laughing. But when it turned out to be Fiddler, something shifted. “I thought, Yeah, that’s me.”
Political Mother. Photo by Tom Medwell, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
Shechter’s Jewish identity—more a personal reference point than a religious practice—is a subtle, recurring theme in his work. “There’s something very Jewish about Political Mother,” he says, referring to his 2010 blockbuster that has the feel of a political rally, a punk rock concert and a tribal ritual. The movement, as in much of his work, nods to his Israeli folk dance roots with group circles, deconstructed “grapevine” steps and trembling, outstretched arms as if beseeching God. Early in the process of working with The Royal Ballet, he says, “I wondered when was the last time they had a Jewish choreographer walking into that building?” He started to think about his own status as an immigrant from the Middle East, then about the contentious debate around immigration in the UK, particularly regarding its Muslim population. “It makes me feel like shaking the house a little bit,” he says.
That impulse may be shared by a number of choreographers, but few have managed to wrap the urge in such an appealing package that seduces, and unnerves, large audiences. “He doesn’t want us to feel too comfortable about this kind of enjoyment,” says Sadler’s Wells’ Spalding. “He wants there to be some grit in the oyster.”
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."
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.
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."
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:
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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.
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.
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:
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.
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
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.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.