This month, American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg sees the first test of his directorial chops with the launch of ABT Incubator, the company's latest initiative to promote the creation of new ballets, particularly by in-house talent.
We might have gotten a little bit carried away with this year's "Season Preview"—but with the 2018–19 season packing so many buzzy shows, how could we not? Here are over two dozen tours, premieres and revivals that have us drooling.
What do Alexei Ratmansky and rising Israeli star Sharon Eyal have in common? Both have had creations partly funded by an innovative new organization: FEDORA, which was launched in 2014 as a tribute to composer Rolf Liebermann by French arts patron Jérôme-François Zieseniss to promote innovation and collaboration in ballet and opera across Europe.
Since then, this Paris-based funding organization has built a network of 80 members, most of them opera houses and companies, from 20 countries. Every year, it awards a Prize for Ballet (as well as a sister Prize for Opera) to an upcoming new production by one of these institutions, elected by a jury of professionals; the dance award, sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels, is worth €100,000, or approximately $118,000. This year, it went to the William Forsythe–choreographed A Quiet Evening of Dance, which premieres at London's Sadler's Wells in October.
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
It's no secret that American Ballet Theatre's artist in residence, Alexei Ratmansky, is obsessed with the choreography of Marius Petipa. Since 2007, he has been involved in reconstructions of several of Petipa's ballets, starting with Le Corsaire for the Bolshoi and continuing through Paquita (2014), The Sleeping Beauty (2015) and Swan Lake (2016). As Ratmansky said recently, "I believe in Petipa's choreography—I admire the structure, the changes of mood, all these things that are so brilliantly clear in his choreography."
Most recently, with the dancers of ABT, he has taken on Harlequinade (originally Les Millions d'Arlequin), a comic ballet created by Petipa in his waning years at the Russian Imperial Ballet. (He was 82 by the time of the premiere in 1900.)
When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.
Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.
Many choreographers have been defeated by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. However, one dancemaker whose stridency, rhythmic daring and sheer inventiveness could possibly match Stravinsky's is Wayne McGregor. For his first commission from American Ballet Theatre, McGregor has taken on this earth-cracking music in AFTERITE, to premiere at ABT's Spring Gala. Also on the May 21 gala program are excerpts from Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of the comic ballet Harlequinade, the full version of which will premiere next month, and a pièce d'occasion by tapper Michelle Dorrance. May 21–26. abt.org.
The role of Harlequin in Marius Petipa's comic ballet Harlequinade is one American Ballet Theatre dancer Gabe Stone Shayer knows quite well. He first performed a variation of the role when he was just nine years old. Today, he explores commedia dell'arte in Alexei Ratmansky's new take on the ballet, premiering at the Metropolitan Opera House this June.
We stepped into a rehearsal of Harlequinade with Shayer and fellow ABT dancer Cassandra Trenary for our "In The Studio" series:
As a kid, I often had trouble getting any words out the way I really wanted to. I developed a fantasy where I could find each character from each story I read within myself, and use them to communicate. I was always "Evan," but embodying different characters broadened the way I could connect with people. I felt that each character was like an instrument and that communicating effectively required the whole orchestra.
Then, when I was 8, I saw John Cranko's Onegin. I hadn't known that dance could develop characters in a way that would resonate so strongly. It was the first ballet that made me want to dive into this life of expressing the human condition through the body. The role of Onegin ended up following me through my career, and it taught me to rely on my humanness.
Last week we wrote about how choreographer Alexei Ratmansky set off a Facebook firestorm with a post proclaiming that "there is no such thing as equality in ballet" when it comes to gender roles. Coming from one of today's foremost choreographers in ballet, his words unsurprisingly drew hundreds of heated reactions.
And maybe that was part of the point.
And if that statement rubs you the wrong way—particularly coming from a highly acclaimed white male choreographer—you're not alone.
On Sunday, American Ballet Theatre artist in residence and international ballet choreographer Alexei Ratmansky posted this on his Facebook page:
Obviously, there's a lot to unpack here. And many of the comments did the unpacking for us:
This Saturday night, New York City Ballet principal Rebecca Krohn is performing for the last time, in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. After 19 years at the company, she's transitioning into a ballet master role. As she told Playbill, she's incredibly grateful for the coaching she's received during her career, and now she wants to give back to the next generation.
In a company filled with buzzed-about stars, Krohn can sometimes fly under the radar. But then you'll see her in certain roles—particularly in Balanchine's "leotard ballets" —and she'll completely win you over with her bright, charming presence. Here are a few of the reasons we're going to miss her.
For Dance Magazine's 90th anniversary issue, we wanted to celebrate the movers, shakers and changemakers who are having the biggest impact on our field right now. There were so many to choose from! But with the help of dozens of writers, artists and administrators working in dance, the Dance Magazine staff whittled the list down to those we felt are making the most difference right now.
Click through the links below to find out why they made our list.
In the last five years, Alexei Ratmansky has made seventeen ballets for nine different companies in five countries. These include an abstract ballet set to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, an interpretation of Plato's Symposium set to Leonard Bernstein, reconstructions of three Petipa ballets based early twentieth-century notations, a re-imagined Baiser de la Fée, and an exploration of Soviet themes set to Shostakovich. Not all have been successful (his version of The Tempest was a bit of a flop), but there's no question that he is the most prolific ballet choreographer, and possibly the most wide-ranging one, working today.
Ratmansky has made danced storytelling, and mime, feel vibrant again. He is as comfortable with farce and pastiche as he as he is with deep subjects, as conversant in irony as he is in sincerity. He has made us reconsider our assumptions about ballets we thought we knew, like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. He has reinvigorated classical technique, pushing for a fuller and more articulate use of the body. Perhaps most remarkable of all has been his effect on dancers; he teases new qualities out of them them, making them more interesting, complex performers. As the Miami City Ballet dancer Renan Cerdero recently put it: "he changes people."
On Friday, The New York Times posted an article to its website titled "A Conversation With 3 Choreographers Who Reinvigorated Ballet," a joint interview with Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. It's a delightful conversation at first, veering from process to style to musical choices—delightful, that is, until a question about the dearth of female choreographers in classical ballet arose.
Screenshot via nytimes.com
These responses range from sort-of-passable (Peck at least acknowledges the need for systemic changes) to worrisome (Wheeldon's apparent bafflement) to troubling (Nijinska? Seriously?). In a word, problematic.
Each year, the Benois de la Danse selects the best male and female ballet dancer and a top choreographer from an impressive group of international artists. But just because it draws on a worldwide talent pool doesn't mean the names are all unrecognizable. This year's Moscow-based awards highlight the performances of many Dance Magazine favorites—and no less than three former cover stars. Plus, American Ballet Theatre received a nomination in each of the three categories.
Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo in Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Every time I step into the Metropolitan Opera House, I have this wild daydream about how great it would be to run past security and snoop around backstage.
Well, lucky me—and you! The Wall Street Journal's new virtual reality series is taking readers on a visual journey backstage at the Met. American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane, who played Aurora in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty, is your guide. There's footage of her in the studio, onstage, in the dressing room and in the wings.
The best part? It's in 3D, filmed with a 360-degree camera, which gives you that fly-on-the-wall feeling. On your computer, you can click and drag to watch Lane perform a manege around you, and take a look at her dressing room. But if you want to feel super stealth, I suggest getting out your smartphone or tablet—all you have to do is tilt your screen to explore.
Myles Thatcher in the studio. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
A New Ballet Voice
This season, budding dancemaker Myles Thatcher had the opportunity to be mentored by one of the world’s greatest classical choreographers. Alexei Ratmansky chose the San Francisco Ballet corps member for the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative, taking him under his choreographic wing, so to speak. Now Thatcher will premiere a ballet with six couples set to Bach. It’s his first for SFB’s main season, on a program with works by none other than William Forsythe and Hans van Manen. Select dates Feb. 24–March 7. sfballet.org.
Choreographer Asher Lev. Photo Courtesy Chop Shop.
A popular festival in the Seattle area, Chop Shop: Bodies of Work, offers a refreshing lineup of contemporary dance from the region and beyond. This year includes the Bay Area’s Alex Ketley, Gabrielle Revlock from Philly and Seattle’s Stone Dance Collective, led by Eva Stone, the mastermind behind Chop Shop. International entries include Donald Sales, from Vancouver, and Asher Lev, from Belgium/Israel. Several choreographers will also give master classes, with scholarships available to pre-professionals. Feb. 14–15, Theatre at Meydenbauer. chopshopdance.org.
Ballet Memphis in Gabrielle Lamb’s Manifold. Photo by Andrea Zucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis.
Four Choreographers, One Work
It’s an ambitious project: Gather four choreographers from different dance worlds, ask each to create something that speaks to their identity, then link them together and make one cohesive performance. Ballet Memphis’ I Am will include the voices of Reggie Wilson, Gabrielle Lamb, Julia Adam and Steven McMahon in I Am A Man, I Am A Woman, I Am A Child and closing with I Am, respectively. Each piece will be inspired by the theme of civil rights struggles in America.
“Part of my quest is building a ballet company that looks like our community,” says artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh. “If you look at our culture, women, children and people of color are still not fully valued. I want the work we create to have value in other people’s lives. That we realize that ballet is part of the world—not the world.” Feb. 20–22 at Playhouse on the Square. balletmemphis.org.
Yumiko Takeshima and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet in David Dawson’s Giselle. Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Semperoper Ballet.
A Modern Take on an Old Tale
Novels, films and operas have captured the tragic love story Tristan + Isolde. This month, Semperoper Ballet dances a new ballet version by David Dawson, whose work has become a staple of many European repertoires. This isn’t the abstract choreographer’s first narrative, though. Dawson, who credits his years dancing for William Forsythe as his most influential, created an unconventional but well received Giselle for the company in 2008. (And it’s on this year’s rep list, as well, with performances in April). Select dates Feb. 15–26 at the Semperoper in Dresden. semperoper.de.
Eve Schulte and Kelly Vittetoe in Nicolas Lincoln’s Semi-Detached. Photo by V.P. Virtucio, Courtesy James Sewell Ballet.
Two Styles, Fused
James Sewell Ballet, known for exploring the possibilities of what ballet can be, has commissioned a work from New York City postmodern darling Joanna Kotze. Her new work will take its ideas from what’s lost in translation—between conversations, cultures and the ballet-vs.-modern-dance division. Also on the bill: Works by Houston’s Jane Weiner and Minnesota choreographers Lance Hardin and Amy Earnest, as well as a new piece by company dancer Nicolas Lincoln. Feb. 6–15, The Cowles Center. thecowlescenter.org.
Rizqi Rachmat of Urban Artistry. Photo by Isaac Oboka, Courtesy Dance Place.
Urban Dance Sampler
Following its grand reopening in September, Dance Place continues to present weekly performances, now with expanded space and technology. Up next is the Urban Dance Theater Festival, curated by Junious “House” Brickhouse of local troupe Urban Artistry, with Ariston “B-Boy ReMind” Ripolya from California’s Style Elements Crew; Helsinki’s Sara “Lil Flex” Hirn; and Memphis jookin’ pioneers G-Force. Dec. 6–7. danceplace.org.
Two Mediums Meet
Fitting right in with the dance-in-museums craze is Shen Wei, a choreographer who actually is a painter, as well. His latest effort draws on both talents, co-presented by Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design and MDC Live Arts. Shen Wei—In Black, White and Gray premieres during Art Basel—Miami Beach with five gallery performances by Shen Wei Dance Arts, Dec. 5–7. Shen Wei’s 11 paintings stay on view until Feb. 1. mdcmoad.org or mdclivearts.org.
Above: Shen Wei’s Undivided Divided. Photo Courtesy Rockaway PR.
A Choreographer’s Next Step
Jessica Lang has spent 15 years as a freelance choreographer, creating works for prominent companies like the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. Yet just this year, she won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. What qualified her to oddly fall under the elusive “emerging” umbrella? Her troupe Jessica Lang Dance is a green 3 years old. “Freelancing helped me figure out who I was as a creator,” says Lang. “When I started choreographing, I knew the last thing the world needed was another dance company that couldn’t support its dancers—they don’t deserve that. Now I have the foundation I need to have a company. And I’m able to investigate more and reach my fullest potential.”
This month, Lang premieres her first narrative full-length work set to Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, about a young woman who misleads the love of a journeyman. But The Wanderer will not be your typical swoony ballet. The scenery—trees, roots, brook and all—will be made entirely of 3,000 yards of white string, a stage installation that the dancers will manipulate from scene to scene. Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dec. 3–6. bam.org.
Above: Laura Mead and Kirk Henning in The Wanderer. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM.
It seems as though
modern-day storyteller Alexei Ratmansky is out to redo all the ballets, one classic at a time. Next in line is Paquita at Bayerrisches Staatsballett. Dec. 13–Jan. 11 (select dates), Nationaltheater Munich. staatsoper.de.
Right: Ratmansky rehearsing with American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
You’ve probably seen or danced The Nutcracker too many times to count. On Land of Sweets overload? Here are four new or notable productions to shake up your holiday tradition.
Grand Rapids Ballet
Dec. 12–14, 19–21
The company debuts Val Caniparoli’s collaboration with Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of The Polar Express and Jumanji, and Eugene Lee, who designed sets for Broadway musicals Sweeney Todd and Wicked.
Oklahoma City Ballet
Choreographed by artistic director Robert Mills, this production will feature scenes by Emmy Award–winning designer Gregory Crane.
LAST CHANCE PRODUCTIONS
American Ballet Theatre
Alexei Ratmansky’s version will have its fifth and final run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Beginning next year, ABT will bring it to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, each winter.
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Nov. 28–Dec. 28
Kent Stowell’s production will take the stage for the last time. The company will dance Balanchine’s next season.
Above: Lindsi Dec in PNB’s Nutcracker. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
The Royal Ballet’s Jonathan Howells and Sarah Lamb in Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Royal Opera House
Everyone loves a good story. They drive our imaginations, teach us life lessons and entertain us. They also warn us not to hold grudges against cradled babies, trust seductive women in black tutus or casually flirt with vulnerable peasant girls. From its historic beginnings, ballet has been a narrative-driven art form, so it’s not surprising that tradition has held fast, even through the era of postmodernism.
But the recent proliferation of new story ballets, usually full-length, by popular choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, seems exceptional. Even choreographers who made careers in abstract works have recently followed the temptation: Peter Martins created the underwater fantasy Ocean’s Kingdom in 2011; Twyla Tharp took on the children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin in 2012; Wayne McGregor collaborated with author Audrey Niffenegger to make The Raven Girl in 2013. And last September, the Joffrey Ballet received a $500,000 challenge grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation towards an endowment specifically for the creation, production and performance of full-length story ballets.
Right: Scottish Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Andrew Ross, Courtesy Scottish Ballet
But wasn’t Balanchine’s aesthetic—dropkick the libretto and allow the choreography to tell its own story—supposed to have dramatically shifted the focus of American choreography to pure dance? Certainly, over the past few decades, audiences came to expect innovation from the abstract more than from the literal. Few would have predicted evening-long narratives to be the future of ballet.
Yet today there seems to be an increasing need to feed the public stories. Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier has been creating psychologically driven narrative ballets for over four decades and discovered something interesting when speaking with a PhD candidate writing her thesis on his work. “There’s a theory that while postmodernism condemned anything that seemed to have a narrative,” he says, “post-postmodernism (or metamodernism) has turned toward drama and the necessity to give in to the desire for drama in one’s life.”
But how does that play with members of the millennial generation who want something right this nanosecond on their iPhones? Is there patience for a full evening in the theater? Neumeier points to the enormous popularity of television series like “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” that require committing to the long haul. “They involve the lengthy process of the destiny of a person and others,” he says. “In addition to the quickness of this generation, there is also a desire for the long, big story.”
Left: Carsten Jung and Alina Cojocaru in Neumeier’s Liliom. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy Hamburg Ballet
William Whitener agrees. “People are accustomed to a narrative in film and TV,” says the former artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, whose original three-act Tom Sawyer was a hit in 2011. “Depending on an audience’s level of exposure to dance, they might find they’re more comfortable with the familiarity of the story.”
Yet passion for drama is one thing and successfully conveying it is another. Christopher Wheeldon, his global success with pure dance works like Polyphonia notwithstanding, has choreographed a number of full-length ballets: His most recent include Cinderella, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, which The Royal will premiere in April. Wheeldon points out that ballet’s ethereal properties often work against the grounded nature of linear contemporary stories. “Choreographers gravitate to fantasy, escape and romance because these are themes that work in the pointe shoe,” says Wheeldon. “I think it’s more of a challenge to depict modern stories using such a refined and specialized dance form. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think it poses more complex problems. You’re more likely to see a contemporary dance choreographer tackle themes of today.” For Wheeldon, a return to stories means that new ballets often have more in common with Tchaikovsky’s fairy tales than they do with the gritty contemporary realities audiences typically see in other art forms today.
But that doesn’t mean classical choreographers haven’t tried tackling more current themes. In 2012, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (collaborating with director Nancy Meckler) choreographed a highly successful A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish Ballet. “I chose Tennessee Williams’ play because it’s an amazing and poignant story that I feel is still relevant nowadays,” says Ochoa, who had never choreographed a narrative work before. “I’m not the fairy tale type of gal, so my aim was always to choreograph a ballet about real people’s drama.”
Right: Kansas City Ballet in William Whitener’s Tom Sawyer. Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB
Neumeier choreographed his version of A Streetcar Named Desire for Marcia Haydée in 1983 because Williams’ play “is full of music and layers of dreams and desire and poetic substance.” But, he adds, “I don’t think I could create a ballet on a play by Arthur Miller because the words are so important and the material is so realistic that it doesn’t really lend itself to a nonrealistic structure or form.”
According to Neumeier, just as in translating texts to another language, the worst kind of story ballet is a word-for-word translation to the stage. He thinks it’s necessary to find “blocks of structure and to invent a parallel world.” When Neumeier begins working on Tatiana based on Eugene Onegin, which premieres this June, he won’t be discussing with the dancers what Pushkin said about Tatiana or Onegin. “When I’m making a story ballet, it’s not retelling the story, or acting out in movement the text of the prose, but actually doing a ballet about my reaction to that piece,” says Neumeier. “Translating it into a wordless medium means I have to take liberties with it. I have to find a form that will convey something that’s immediate, something of today.” Depending on the choreographer, that can result in solipsism or ingeniousness.
Arguably the most commercially successful choreographer of story ballets has been Matthew Bourne, whose iconoclastic attitude has remodeled the Tchaikovsky trifecta (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty). He finds the pacing of ballets critical to keeping audiences engaged. “One of the things that bugs me now about the classics is they’re so slow,” says Bourne. “When the tempo becomes funereal, it loses the spirit of the music and the story.”
Left: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Mikah Smillie, Courtesy New Adventures
Bourne adds that for him, creating story ballets isn’t about maintaining tradition: “My instinct is always to do something different. When I make a work, I always try to imagine there is someone sitting there who knows nothing about the ballet or the story.” Thus in his Sleeping Beauty, Aurora turns 21 amidst Edwardian tennis matches and awakens in the 21st century. “I found the timeline really fascinating—the idea that there is a hundred-year interval in the middle of the ballet,” he says. “For my version, the styles of dance change to reflect the manners and dances of the periods.”
It seems that story ballets are here to stay. So how can they dodge Disneyfication, eschew schlocky themes, avoid portraying women as victims and stay relevant to today’s culture while representing people and circumstances that are recognizable and riveting? Perhaps with a blend of live onstage musicians, actors and dancers, suggests Ochoa, the story-ballet form can become more flexible. Commissioning new scores and including teams of all types of artistic talent, as did Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, could potentially keep things fresh. How about a Hitchcockian ballet thriller set to the music of Bernard Herrmann? Or diving into the realm of magical realism with something along the lines of the fantasy-driven film Pan’s Labyrinth? The possibilities are only limited by imagination.
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor for Dance Magazine.
Back when “modern dance” meant Martha Graham, we knew what modern was. It reacted against the airborne nature of ballet and went for a more earthy, on-American-soil approach. Then Merce Cunningham came along. He was drastically different; he put his faith in movement for its own sake rather than as a vehicle to tell stories or portray psychological states of mind. The dance world had to find a new name, so we called it “contemporary dance.” But now, with all the dance on television, the term “contemporary” has slid around to mean several different styles. Mulling over the still-shifting use of these words, we at Dance Magazine decided to canvass key figures in the field to get their takes on the difference between modern and contemporary. Turn to “Modern vs. Contemporary: Which Is More Now?” to see 10 different opinions.
It’s Nutcracker season, and we report on four new Nutcrackers in “Dance Matters.” We also have a “Centerwork” on coaching the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis students who perform in American Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. In this intriguing production, Alexei Ratmansky has integrated the children into the story more than usual. His snow scene begins with Clara and her Nutcracker innocently playing in the snow and escalates to a frightening storm—through wildly musical choreography. Read Elaine Stuart’s “When Kids Run the Show” to see how the children animate the story. And to all Nutcracker dancers everywhere, have a good holiday season!
Photo of Parisa Khobdeh, above, and photo of Wendy Perron, at top, by Matthew Karas.