With over 68 new works in its 13-year history, BalletX is known for being an epicenter of creation. The company will outdo itself in its 2018–19 season, treating Philadelphia to seven new works, four of them by women. "We are interested in growing, not cutting costs," says artistic director Christine Cox. "The unknown adventure of new ballets means there is an unknown process and a different learning curve we get to work on every day."
As the fall performance season kicks into high gear, we've been cramming as much excellent dance on our calendars as possible. But if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the options, we've got you covered: From rare U.S. appearances by one of our 2018 "25 to Watch" to an autumn mainstay for New Yorkers, Romeo and Juliet to The Handmaid's Tale, here's what caught our eye.
New York City Center just announced programming for the 2018-19 season, and we're frantically marking our calendars for all the must-see dance. This year is the venue's 75th anniversary, and they're pulling out all the stops—from the reliable fan favorite Fall for Dance to the most epic Balanchine celebration and more:
The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.
"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"
In a surprising move last February, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal announced it had struck a deal giving it worldwide exclusive dance and circus rights to legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's repertoire for five years. The particularity of the terms and Cohen's godlike status in his hometown of Montreal indicated this was not business as usual for the company. BJM's ambitious Cohen-inspired show, Dance Me, debuts December 5–9 in Montreal, and then begins extensive touring nationally and internationally.
While directing and choreographing the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the musical Bandstand, Andy Blankenbuehler found himself tied into knots. After the wild success of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton, for which he would win the 2016 Tony Award for Best Choreography, he began comparing his unsatisfactory rehearsal rut to what he called "the best work of my career."
"I was really struggling," he says. "I knew I wasn't reaching the same bar as I had with Hamilton." Seeing his frustration, his wife reminded him that there would never be another Hamilton—but that didn't mean his other work couldn't be great, too. "She saw how I was beating myself up trying to accomplish a similar thing." Happy ending detour: Blankenbuehler regained his footing and won his third Tony Award for choreography for the Broadway production of Bandstand.
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Happy Halloween! If you're still not in the spirit, who better to turn to for some spooky style inspiration than your fellow dancers? These pros' costumes caught our eye (and made us laugh).
1. Recreating a Legend
Famed ballerina Anna Pavlova recently made an appearance at American Ballet Theatre's company class. Oh, no, that's just principal James Whiteside and his impeccable petit allegro. Could've fooled us.
As soon as we started putting together a list of the most influential people in dance today, we knew two things. By the very nature of the topic we were tackling, our final list was going to be:
1. Entirely subjective, and
2. By no means comprehensive.
We wanted to get your input and hear who else you felt should be on the list. So we asked you who we missed, and here's what you told us through email, Facebook and Twitter:
Lately, when Daniil Simkin hasn't been performing with American Ballet Theatre or flying off to dance in international galas, he's been putting together his own project: INTENSIO. “I miss European contemporary dance," explains Simkin, who grew up in Germany. “This is an outlet for me and my colleagues to experience that and approach the ever-looming question: Where is ballet going?" The evening-long performance features new works by Jorma Elo, Alexander Ekman, Gregory Dolbashian and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, created on a group of ABT dancers and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal's Céline Cassone. Each piece merges dance and technology, with innovations like real-time video projections. After its world premiere at Jacob's Pillow this summer, INTENSIO will tour to Houston and Buenos Aires in November, and New York City in January.
Caffeine and productivity
Simkin starts his day with coffee and his iPhone. “I'm not a functional human being without a cup of java," he says, “and I just can't get enough of those endorphins from the notifications from my phone's home screen." Breakfast is usually yogurt with trail mix while checking e-mails and shopping online (typically hunting on eBay for deals on clothing from designers like Rick Owen). As one of the biggest techies in the ballet world, Simkin has set up his iPhone 6 Plus to control the temperature and lights of his apartment. “You can argue that my phone is my alter ego," he says. “All it needs is to grow legs and it'll soon be dancing!"
Simkin starts each morning online, often shopping on eBay.
When time is tight, Simkin gives himself his own barre before rehearsal.
Before going to rehearse for INTENSIO, Simkin warms up by taking class with other company members at ABT or by giving himself his own barre. ABT provides its dancers with 36 weeks of work each year, so Simkin schedules all INTENSIO rehearsals and tours during his 16 weeks of off time. “It's a win-win situation," he says. “We get to stay in shape and do new, exciting work."
Rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's new work with Cassandra Trenary.
Experimenting with Alexandre Hammoudi and Blaine Hoven.
Rehearsal at DANY Studios
To Simkin, the best part of rehearsals is seeing how each choreographer's approach develops. He likens learning new choreography to learning a new language. “The more you speak it, the more fluent you become and the more enjoyable the piece becomes," he says.
Filming rehearsals helps Simkin remember what they've done. He also likes to share clips with his 47,000 followers on Instagram. But he never uses the videos to judge the merit of works in progress. “Something that looks good on video in slow motion but might not look good onstage."
Simkin with Calvin Royal III.
Simkin prefers a light lunch such as salad or sushi, and during their break he often plays delivery boy. “Annabelle might request a Red Bull, somebody else wants a banana. I get myself a cookie or a coffee."
Simkin considers it a luxury when he gets to be at home alone in the evenings. “I just want to play my computer games," he admits. He has a projector and surround-sound system and plans to get a PS4 to play games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III. He also winds down by reading, typically working on two books at once—one fiction and one nonfiction. (He's read all of Haruki Murakami and recently finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.)
But first, Simkin usually attends fundraising dinners or grabs food in his Brooklyn neighborhood with non-dance friends. “I like getting to learn about different ways of thinking," Simkin says of socializing with people in different fields. After spending every day surrounded by dance artists, “outside company stimulates my imagination."
Ballet Hispanico in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Anchored in the old, hungry for the new, contemporary ballet is a style that remains ambiguous. It allows the body to careen off balance and the stage relationships to shift. It’s less bent on creating masterworks, and more curious to be playing in a sandbox of possibilities. But is contemporary ballet any ballet being made today? Or is there a particular tone, approach or style that marks it as contemporary? Dance Magazine spoke to five choreographers attached to this label to learn what it means to them.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change the shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. But it still uses the classical vocabulary and the aesthetic of a beautiful line.
For me, the woman in classical ballet is so feminine, and I try to change that frail thing so she’s not that 16-year-old princess. I want her to be a woman of our time. She’s stronger. When I use pointework, it’s lower: I have the girls hanging more with their hip, forward or back. I’m looking to use the fluidity of my contemporary work in pointe shoes. I also try to change the position of the female dancer in relation to the male. I make her more powerful and him more visible, so he’s not just lifting her up and down. I try to find tender moments from him toward her, so it’s not that he’s always strong and she has to be as light as possible.
Above: Ochoa rehearsing Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Choreographer in residence, Atlanta Ballet
There’s a quandary about the definition of contemporary ballet that hovers over the ballet world. The term at times seems deliberately ambiguous, almost as though we don’t want to define this era, to stay loose about it so it doesn’t get fixed.
But we need to be clear so dancers can be clear. How do we define this for dancers going to auditions? With the dancers who come to contemporary ballet auditions, there isn’t that beautiful command of the pointe shoe where it’s malleable and looks like part of the foot, or that deconstructed torso, where energy bounces into the torso, then back out into the limbs.
Here’s a definition: Work where the dancer has an incredible sense of complex coordination, where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of épaulement. In Forsythe’s company, where I danced for 12 years, it was about the fully investigated body, absolute physical prowess, going to the end of a movement and asking, How does that take you to the next place?
The classical technique, the anchor, must be there so the riffs can happen. And perhaps the riff is the contemporary part of ballet. Like jazz riffs, like in a poetry jam, you have your anchor and then you go from there.
Right: Pickett in an Atlanta Ballet rehearsal. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Artistic associate, The Royal Ballet
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
For me, contemporary ballet means any ballet choreography made today. I consider all of my ballets, story or abstract, to be contemporary ballet. The real question, I suppose, is, What defines a ballet? For me, the pointe shoe is one of the major factors that define a dance piece as a ballet rather than modern dance. However, my movement language comes from many influences, including modern dance.
Above: Wheeldon working on An American in Paris with Nathan Madden. Photo by Matt Trent, Courtesy Wheeldon.
Above: James Whiteside and Whitney Jensen in Elo’s Brake the Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Resident choreographer, Boston Ballet
There should be some sort of investigating of movement that is not directly taken from the ballet book, something new so you’re not just repeating what the vocabulary has been for hundreds of years. For example, I base my knowledge of how to use the back from Cunningham and from Graham technique, as well as my Vaganova training. I use angles from the legs, from the arms, other parts of the body; I don’t isolate the spine. Some dancers more easily go into movement research. They are not afraid to be in situations that are unfamiliar; they are mentally more flexible.
Above: Elo setting work at Boston Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Artistic director, Kidd Pivot
Associate choreographer, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
It’s hard to find new language within classical ballet, but now there’s more openness to bringing in a new vocabulary and smashing it together with the ballet body. At the Paris Opéra Ballet, for example, there’s work by Emanuel Gat, Sasha Waltz, Jérôme Bel. Even though I danced with Forsythe, now when I work with a ballet company, I feel like I speak a different language. I think, How do I get back into pointe and do I want to? Emergence at National Ballet of Canada was about being otherworldly and alien and insect-like, and the pointe shoes really lent themselves to that strange creature-like state. But to use pointe shoes to try to get at other kinds of content, I don’t really have an interest in that.
Maybe the question is, What kind of training does a company do every morning? Are they at the barre, doing tendus? At Cedar Lake they do ballet every day, but they might do improv depending on who’s visiting. At Kidd Pivot, every once in a while we’ll do a quick-and-dirty barre. It’s healthy to be training in different ways. If ballet is in the mix, great. But it needs to be one part of a bigger picture.
Right: Pite rehearsing Emergence at NBOC. Photo by Sian Richards; Courtesy NBOC.
Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine editor at large, is author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer. Her website is wendyperron.com.
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.