Song & Dance

Skimpy rehearsal periods, wretched studios, lousy music tapes, dancer injuries. You think choreographers have problems now? Ha! Those traditional vexations pale in comparison to the challenge of confronting the ego of a genuine opera diva. Yet dancemakers are taking the plunge and besieging the world’s opera stages. In some of the most prestigious opera houses, they are running the show.

 

Choreographers have participated, sometimes peripherally and often anonymously, in the production of opera since its beginnings in 16th-century Italy. From the age of Monteverdi, dance has been an integral element in opera. The French even gave dancemakers the opéra-ballet, a hybrid genre that enlisted ballerina legends like Sallé and Camargo.

 

When Mark Morris directs a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera this May, it will herald a milestone. This will be the first time in more than 50 years that a famous dancemaker has directed an opera at the Met (the last was George Balanchine, who staged his friend Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in 1953). Similar projects are happening this season in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin. Directing opera is the newest frontier for adventurous choreographers.

 

Opera companies in the United States have always welcomed them—in limited amounts. Today, when the plot requires a dance, the Met commissions it from the best and the brightest. Doug Varone’s ultimately topless “Dance of the Seven Veils” for Strauss’ Salome three years ago and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Dance of the Hours” for La Gioconda last fall have attracted favorable notice.

 

But to evolve from hired hand to boss marks a major step for a dancemaker. The surprise is who is doing it. For the intensely musical Morris, opera seems a natural, evolutionary step. But it has also attracted such varied artists as brainy postmodernist Trisha Brown, text-driven dance theater veteran Joe Goode, and Vincent Paterson, whose background includes dances for Broadway (Kiss of the Spider Woman), movies (Dancer in the Dark, Closer), Michael Jackson music videos, and Madonna tours. If each of these choreographers has arrived at opera through a different route, their goals remain similar: to lavish everything they know about movement on an art form in which posturing and immobility have become routine. Moreover, choreographers are finding that no opera diva can resist enlightened, compassionate stagecraft. The director is there to make them look good.

 

Paterson, who steered the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon last September, came to the project because of his previous collaboration with the charismatic Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Hired to direct her in a DVD album of classical music videos—which became a bestseller—he quickly gained her confidence. Then, when company director Placído Domingo approached him to direct Netrebko’s debut as one of opera’s most appealing material girls, he jumped at the opportunity.


At the time, opera meant little more to Paterson than the names Callas and Pavarotti. To address this gap, he spent almost three years researching the work, attending more than 30 operas, and apprenticing himself to another director. He had heard “nothing but horror stories” about opera. But once rehearsals were underway, he soon realized that directing it was an extension of everything he had done previously in his career.

 

“I have always been grounded in narrative, and I have always talked to dancers as if they were actors,” Paterson says, during a break from rehearsals. “Even when doing music videos, I talk to them about subtext, about where the movement comes from, whether its purpose is narrative or abstract.” Paterson has found that the experience of this Manon has enriched the possibilities for his own choreography. “I’ve acquired an understanding of the most explicit yet natural way to move on a stage,” he says. “My aim is to make it so naturalistic and flowing that singers won’t feel like they’re in an opera.” Paterson will restage Manon for the Berlin State Opera in April.

 

Innovation, he feels, is still possible in the opera world—in contrast to his experience in New York after his Tony nomination for Spider Woman: “I was enticed by that saying, ‘Broadway needs new blood.’ When it came to the reality, they wanted the same old blood.”

 

Gaining the trust of opera singers is one of a director’s major hurdles. “I like people to feel safe with me,” says Joe Goode. He was seduced into working for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program by its director, Sheri Greenawald. She offered him the opportunity to mount Conrad Susa’s Transformations in the intimate Cowell Theater. This is a music-theater work that places Anne Sexton’s rhymed fairy tales in a contemporary context—in this case a suburban backyard.

 

On the surface, this was a bizarre match-up. Goode has always devised his own texts for the Joe Goode Performance Group (see “Twenty Goode Years,” June 2006); and, in the past, he has complained about dance’s dependence on music. There’s also no place for dance in Transformations.

 

So what changed his mind?

 

“I’m a big Sexton fan. I love the language,” says Goode. “Yes, the music is difficult. I realized that the way to do it was to animate it, to let it be a bit of a cartoon, to let it shimmer on the surface.” About the young singers, he says, “I was nervous. What were these divas like?” recalls the choreographer. “Are they going to stand in one spot and just sing?”

 

He was pleasantly surprised. “Opera singers train differently these days,” he says. “They come to rehearsals knowing they have to act and be part of the director’s vision. A few of them were terrified, but as soon as we based their contributions in character, we could work together.”

 

For Goode, opera and dance are a good match. “My work is all about the interior life. That’s what opera is about, too. I’ve never felt such freedom before.” Opera, he believes, may even be where dance-theater is headed. “For the past 10 years, dancemakers have been reinventing themselves according to their own rules,” says Goode. “We’ve been allowed to be interdisciplinary, to bring in other elements. This permission has got us into some interesting territory. Opera, in many ways, is the ultimate interdisciplinary form. We choreographers have been in training for this.”

 

Trisha Brown made the dances “and a lot of other stuff” for a production of Carmen staged by Italian film director Lina Wertmüller in the 1980s. “I was stimulated by the surrounds of song and the enormous décor,” she says. When, in 1998, the Monnaie Opera in Brussels invited her to direct Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo, Brown steeped herself in the music and history of the score. Yet as a choreographer who inclines to abstraction, she harbored doubts. She turned to her friend artist Robert Rauschenberg for advice.

 

“I said to Bob, ‘There’s a narrative here. How will I handle it?’ He answered, ‘Trisha, don’t be afraid of a hug or two.’ ”

 

But there were problems with the singers. “They were, at first, reluctant to do what I wanted,” recalls Brown. “But when they realized how deep was my knowledge of the music, I had their respect. I remember I wanted the singers to roll down a rake. At first, they resisted. I had my company teach them very carefully and they got really involved with it.”

 

Since then, Brown has collaborated with the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Her production of his Luci mie traditrici (an account of the homicidal 17th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo) led to her directing the world premiere of his Da gelo a gelo last year in Germany. Subtitled, “100 scenes and 65 poems after Izumi Shikibu’s diary,” the work is about an 11th-century Japanese poet and her relationship with a prince.

 

“It’s a love story, and a cyclical work,” says Brown. “At first, it was a mystery to me. When I realized what Sciarrino was doing, writing 100 scenes of contrasting lengths (some run only three or four seconds), I could see a structure. Because the dramatic impact is in the music, I didn’t have to be literal in my direction.” Da gelo a gelo will be repeated in May and June at the Paris Opéra’s Palais Garnier.

 

With Rameau’s Platée, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and last year’s production of the latter’s King Arthur under his belt, Morris is the veteran opera director of the group. He staged Gluck’s Orfeo in a touring version in the mid-’90s and made the dances for an even earlier production. His first directing job was a Marriage of Figaro, undertaken in the early ’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group was in residence in Brussels.

 

Morris recalls falling in love with opera when he was a teenager in Seattle. His interest lies solely with the score, rather than with the ambiance of opera. He spurns “queer opera heroine worship” and he pokes fun at the typical Met production with “all those staircases.” Morris notes that singers’ egos have never presented a hurdle—and he has worked with some of the best of his generation. “All performing artists,” he says, “have different ways of validating their self-esteem.”

 

The problems in working with singers are more technical. “Dancers function with rhythm. Singers have trouble with it; they become so self-conscious on the stage that their rhythm goes away. You have to train them to walk on the beat,” says Morris. “So, I focus on physical tempo and breathing. I have found that, with most of the mammals I work with, if they breathe, they can relax.”

 

The seamless integration of singers and dancers achieved by Morris in King Arthur suggests that he has already intuited the secret of directing opera: “I simply respond to the crashing emotional stuff that happens in the music.”

 

 

Allan Ulrich is a senior advising editor of Dance Magazine, an operaphile, and contributor to many publications in the U.S. and abroad.

The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?

—Anonymous

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
News
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

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.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox