During the iconic “One" at the end of A Chorus Line, the entire ensemble creates a huge circle, each link essential, no star brighter than the next. This image of a true ensemble captures the pride of being one part of a whole.
Over the years, though, some people have come to devalue the ensemble, the word itself often suggesting a less appreciated, nameless chorus versus star principals. One Broadway veteran even recalls a young girl rejecting her autograph after finding out she was “just in the ensemble." But despite the sometimes negative connotations, the ensemble is the undeniable hero of any Broadway show. Not only do they create the show's world, but many times, it's the ensemble performers who are doing the hardest work onstage, too: In the Rob Ashford–choreographed revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the ensemble swung through Ashford's difficult partnering and created a slew of characters who drummed up the onstage office business. Memphis opens on a club scene with an ensemble slinking and flying through Sergio Trujillo's gorgeously intricate moves, heating up the show's Southern atmosphere.
Thriving at the heart of live theater, the ensemble is a true representation of a team effort. Without it, the show wouldn't go on. Dance Magazine spoke with Sarrah Strimel, Paloma Garcia-Lee, and Bahiyah Hibah to investigate the crucial work of ensemble women.
With legs that just won't quit and a sassy style all her own, Sarrah Strimel is beginning her fifth Broadway show. “Throughout my career, the most challenging part has been dancing uniformly," says Strimel with a laugh. “I love dancing so much that sometimes it's hard reining it in. But the older and more experienced I am, the more I'm celebrated for it."
Strimel, 31, trained at Rosalene Kenneth Professional Dance Studio (owned by fellow Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak's mother), was cast in the Pittsburgh Musical Theater's production of Crazy for You at 14, and earned her equity card at 18. She nabbed the tour of The Producers before moving on to Broadway. “When I first started working as a teenager, I remember looking around at the beautiful, tall women working together to achieve art and thinking it was so magical," recalls Strimel.
Strimel's unique dynamism has proved challenging in casting: She often doesn't blend in. (She was even let go from a pre-Broadway workshop for “pulling focus.") But this quality has also earned a step outside of the ensemble: Now, she has snagged the featured part of Girl in the Water in Susan Stroman's Big Fish.
Her time in the ensemble has been instrumental to this step. “In the ensemble, you're the heart of the piece," she says. “There's an unspoken bond between chorus girls. It teaches you humility and hard work; it also teaches you how to create a variety of characters within one show—from a baker to a cheerleader to a mermaid. I'm using that now!"
While her style is undoubtedly personal, in auditions for ensemble tracks, Strimel (who was an “On the Rise" in April 2008) advises honoring the choreography given. “Complete the choreography the way they show it," she says. “They want to see if you can adapt to the style. That being said, bring your own essence, your joy of dancing.
Respect, for yourself and teammates, transfers to your “backstage show," where the team effort comes first. “It's not all about you: You might have a quick change but someone might have a quicker one!" Strimel says. “Keep a 360 degree view that the ensemble is your family."
When the work might become difficult, Strimel relies on a simple hypothetical situation to keep her invigorated: “I always honor that family that saves up money and comes from Iowa perhaps with a daughter that dances," she says. “They pay $100 a ticket to see the show—to see you. If you don't give 100 percent for her, you haven't done your job. Do it for that little girl who is watching you in the line, thinking, 'Wow, I want to do that!'"
• Be protective of each other as women: You're family.
• Include cross training in your routine. Doing the same thing eight times a week without balancing it with other types of exercise leads to injuries.
• Find choreographers who believe in you and fortify those relationships.
• Try yoga for not only physical strength, but also spiritual support to handle grueling, eight-show weeks. Calming your center will help you focus—and re-focus—for fresh shows each night.
At age 22, Paloma Garcia-Lee already has two Broadway shows under her belt: Phantom of the Opera and Nice Work If You Can Get It. The fawn-like stunner with wild extensions and a subtle attack trained at her mother's dance school in Pennsylvania. She found an early connection to the ensemble when she played Graziella in the North Carolina School of the Arts' production of West Side Story. “I fell in love with the collaboration with other dancers," she says. “You have a dance partner you truly get to know and girls who become family. It's beautiful to see how you're individuals but creating an entire vibe. When people ask you what part you are, if you say ensemble, sometimes they scoff. But they don't understand that it takes the strongest group of individuals to come together to create a show."
Growing up with serious ballet training (honed at the North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as at summer programs with American Ballet Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Kaatsbaan) Garcia-Lee learned about dancing in a corps early on. This came in handy at age 17 when she booked Phantom of the Opera—in the gigantic ensemble. “I learned how to dance in true unison," she remembers. “The note we always got was simply to 'breathe together.' "
Sometimes, though, this strictly uniform dancing made Garcia-Lee feel like “moving scenery." To combat this, “I always challenge myself to be a better performer, to point my feet harder, set small challenges in each performance, and not go on auto-pilot…ever," she says.
In Nice Work If You Can Get It, Garcia-Lee had the opportunity to explore the other side of ensemble work: individual choices, as encouraged by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall. “Each ensemble woman had her own character and storyline throughout the show," explains Garcia-Lee. “I learned how to be myself onstage while still being part of the group."
Garcia-Lee feels a humble, positive attitude is an ensemble essential. “My mother, a Broadway ensemble dancer, taught me it's important to be easy to work with, friendly, and kind," she says. “So much of casting an ensemble is thinking 'Who are the most talented people who can work easily in a group?'"
• If you're on tour with a large ensemble and there are problems, confront them immediately. And leave all personal issues outside of the theater.
• When you enter the dressing room, observe where everyone is that day before launching into your own stories.
• Don't overstretch. Try active stretching before a show to ensure quick reaction time of your muscles.
• Always keep moving in small ways throughout the show to stay warm backstage.
• Find the foods that work best for your body: Don't compare to what others eat or do.
A Juilliard graduate, Bahiyah Hibah danced with Ballett Frankfurt and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before shifting her focus to Broadway. Her time in those troupes has helped her navigate communication in a large group, as well as how to read the energy and different personalities in either arena. “It's usually best to sit back, be quiet, and first take account of the situation," she says. “See who is in control, who is respected, and who has a difficult personality before you figure out where you fit in."
Hibah, a 2003 “25 to Watch" and cast member of Warren Carlyle's upcoming After Midnight, is careful to note, though, that this approach should not be confused with timidity. “You can be assertive, ask questions, and know that you bring your unique essence to the project," she explains. “You can also show people who you are without talking: For example, I'm warming up long before most others. The director and stage manager see that—they see I'm dedicated and smart. Be prepared and let your work shine for itself. Even in a group, it will be noticed."
Being part of an ensemble provides a training ground for principal work, too. “Get the book of songs and scenes and take it upon yourself to learn parts that you think you're right for," she says. “Many great leads on the stage came out of the ensemble." (Case in point: Hibah earned the lead role of Velma in Chicago on Broadway in 2011.)
While in the ensemble of The Color Purple, Hibah spent time learning the part of Nettie. Then, in a “put-in rehearsal" (when a new cast member is put into the show) lacking a Nettie, “I was able to say 'I know it,'" Gaines says. “It was appropriate because I was needed; I wasn't trying to shove forward. Or if you know they're looking for a replacement, it's completely fine to ask to be seen. But take the time to find those right moments."
When all of these aspects gel, Hibah says she finds serious satisfaction in being part of an ensemble. “When you're part of a tight ensemble that is highly present in a show, like in A Color Purple, it's strengthening," she says. “When there's no weak link, it's like a finely tuned machine."
• Develop good relationships with your partners. Those interactions keep things fresh onstage.
• Remember that everyone has the same goal: Despite issues in rehearsal, once you get to tech and dress you all want to put on the best show.
• Enjoy the offstage and dressing room relationships you build with the cast.
Want more? Come behind the scenes of Dance Magazine's photo shoot with Strimel, Garcia-Lee, and Hibah—click here.
Lauren Kay is a musical theater performer and proud ensemble member based in NYC.
All photos by Jayme Thronton for Dance Magazine. Hair and makeup by Rob Harmon.
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."
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:
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.