Hollywood may have the Oscars, but ballet has the Prix de Benois de la Danse. Held every spring at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, the prestigious international awards ceremony recognizes dancers, choreographers, composers and designers for their extraordinary work on and off the stage. This year's laureates, chosen by a jury, were announced during an awards ceremony last night, followed by a star-studded gala featuring many of the nominated artists.
In our eyes, being a dancer is remarkable. Add motherhood to the mix, and you're practically a superhero.
We salute all the incredible women who have two of the hardest—and most rewarding—jobs around. Here are just a few of our favorite #ballerinamom moments. (And don't say we didn't warn you: Prepare for full-on cute overload.)
I am a ballerina. I am a feminist. This might seem to be an oxymoron. Ballerinas do what they are told by choreographers and directors—positions that we have become painfully aware of as traditionally male roles. Feminism is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. By that description, the two terms seem contradictory.
Alexei Ratmansky—now famously—expressed on Facebook last fall: "sorry, there is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point, men lift and support women. women receive flowers, men escort women offstage. not the other way around (I know there are couple of exceptions). and I am very comfortable with that."
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:
We're less than a week away from New York City Ballet's Fall season, and the only people more excited than us might just be the dancers themselves. It officially kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 19 with Swan Lake, and the dancers have been hard at work perfecting their swan arms. And with some major debuts—Tiler Peck and Megan Fairchild as Odette/Odile and Zachary Catazaro, Gonzalo Garcia and Chase Finlay as Siegfried—there's even more buzz than usual around the ballet classic.
But if you can't wait until the season starts, we've been keeping an eye on the dancers' Instagram accounts for all of the behind-the-scenes action.
Lurking on dancers' social media pages, among the video clips of superhuman pirouettes and the photos that immortalize them above the stage in grand jeté or crouched on a windowsill wearing lingerie, pointe shoes and a sultry expression, is the occasional political post.
It's hard not to have a political opinion in the age of Trump. And on social media, opinions are easy to express. We might have to thumb the history book all the way back to Abraham Lincoln to find a more polarizing president (alas, the two leaders' similarities decisively end there).
I feel torn about taking time off from dance to have a child. I'm married and my biological clock is ticking. I just don't know what age to take the leap for the health of the child.
—Would-Be Mother, San Francisco, CA
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At this point, I don't think we can bear to see another botched ballet video. How many times do non-dancers have to don pointe shoes or a leotard and prance around for popular outlets like Vogue Spain and Vanity Fair? (No, Kendall Jenner, we don't think you're owning those pointe shoes. And Elle Fanning? We don't want you to show us how to "make a ballet turn." *Face palm.* Don't even get us started about this ballet tutorial where Petra Collins "teaches barre" to Vanity Fair staffers.)
Dancing is for everyone, absolutely, but let's leave the professional representations to the professionals. It's not about being elitist. It's about respecting and honoring the incredible hard work and dedication that dance requires.
*Steps off soapbox.*
Throughout New York City Ballet's almost 70-year history, very few dancers have returned to the stage after having a baby. Yet the company is having something of a baby boom right now, with three principal dancers currently diving into motherhood while upholding their careers. In March, writer Jen Peters sat down with Abi Stafford and her 8-month-old Colin, Maria Kowroski and her 4-month-old Dylan, and an 8-months-pregnant Ashley Bouder to discuss motherhood in the life of a principal dancer.
Jen Peters: What was early pregnancy like, and how did you tell the company?
Ashley Bouder: I was preparing Swan Lake when I found out. I had to tell the costume department, and then I told Peter [Martins]. He had the best reaction, just so happy! I was also getting sick during rehearsal, so I told John Stafford, who was rehearsing me, so we could end early some days or take it easy.
Maria Kowroski: The company was in DC when I was two months pregnant, and, of course, I was performing in a white leotard. My chest was really big and I kept thinking, I hope no one can tell! I kept closing my dressing-room door and taking naps. I finally told Peter because casting was going up and I didn't want to do Concerto Barocco because it's too hard (and in white)!
Abi Stafford: I had to do an extra Dewdrop during Nutcracker the day after Christmas. I was almost thinking I should just tell them so I wouldn't have to. But it was almost time for my three-month checkup, and I wanted to be sure everything was fine before I told anyone.
JP: Did anyone ever assume you weren't coming back to perform?
AB: I think everyone here knows you are coming back, but I've had outside people say, 'Oh, so you're done dancing?'
AS: Or they say, 'Are you going to teach now?'
MK: I'm glad it happens to you guys too. Since I'm old, people always say that!
JP: What's your time frame for postnatal recovery?
MK: I am planning to start back the first week of spring season, so five months after delivery. It's really individual; the company is very supportive.
AS: I had Colin in July and came back for Nutcracker. I scheduled outside gigs to give myself a goal of four months off. I was really grateful to have my first show in Maryland, not New York!
AB: I'm maybe overly ambitious. I'm hoping to take two months. My friends tell me the longer you stay home, the harder it is to go back!
JP: How did you approach class during pregnancy?
MK: I took class until nine months, just barre and a bit of center. I didn't wear my pointe shoes because I was afraid of breaking my ankles, since I was so heavy!
AS: I performed until four months, took class through five months and then stopped. I was afraid to overexert myself, so I just enjoyed some time off. I did absolutely nothing!
AB: I still do everything except jumps, and am hoping to wear my pointe shoes the whole pregnancy. I stopped jumping around six months because Marika Molnar, our director of physical therapy, watched class and didn't like how it looked for my back.
JP: Did you continue with full extensions, too?
AB: Yeah, I can't bend backwards, but my arabesque somehow got better? My hips don't feel any looser, though; my side extension feels tighter!
AS: I never felt any looser either!
JP: How did you deal with the physical changes?
AS: I definitely had some body-image issues. I didn't really accept what was happening to my body until about six months. Afterward my doctor said to be patient and trust that everything will go back.
MK: It was hard not being able to fit into costumes. Watching the scale go up at the doctor's office was strange. But as long as the baby is healthy, that's what matters.
JP: What did you do to get back in shape?
MK: I started with Gyrotonic, to get everything strong again, and bike and elliptical for cardio.
JP: Any pregnancy cravings?
MK: I ate healthier than normal, a lot of salmon and eggs for protein. Towards the end I really lost it, though—all I wanted was chocolate and cheese.
AS: Me too. Towards the end I'd get Frosties and McFlurries. And white chocolate!
AB: I was the opposite. Right away I only wanted sweets. I would have a pint of ice cream for dinner while performing Swan Lake! It was ridiculous. Now all I want are big salads and Mexican food.
JP: Coffee during pregnancy?
JP: How do you find balance between work and baby?
MK: I'll start with sporadic performances. Things are happening quickly—sitting up, rolling over—and I don't want to miss out.
AB: I'm excited to have my fiancé bring her to the theater during performance nights. She can hang out with all the girls backstage.
[Maria looks at Dylan lying on his stomach in a frog position.]
MK: Ahhh, he has great turnout…bad feet, but great turnout! That's okay, we don't want you to dance, anyway!
JP: I was going to ask how you feel about your kids dancing…
AB: My fiancé already said, 'No stretching the baby!'
AS: He'll only dance if he asks and shows interest.
AB: It's difficult to have a child want to dance, because we've made it to the top of our field. I would never want her to feel inferior to her mom, who at that point will not be cool!
JP: Do you think being a dancer helped with labor/delivery?
MK: I don't think it helped at all! It is such a normal thing that every woman's body can do, and I realize how truly amazing our bodies are. This pain was like nothing I ever experienced as a dancer. I did labor standing up and in second-position grand plié trying to get him to come down!
AS: During labor Colin wasn't dropping, so they almost did a C-section. But with all my core strength, I said 'Get down!' My doctor couldn't believe I actually birthed him that way. After going through childbirth I feel like I can do anything onstage.
JP: Is anything about childcare surprising you?
MK: The amount of time breast-feeding requires. I was in tears a lot that first month because I felt like I couldn't go anywhere.
AS: The first two weeks were the most difficult because you just aren't sleeping. But the hardest thing was giving myself over completely. It was quite an adjustment.
JP: How did you decide this was the right time to become a mother?
AB: I'm 32, and I wanted to come back and still be at the peak of my career.
Just before this issue went to print, Bouder gave birth to Violet Storm de Florio. Kyle Froman
AS: For my husband and I, it was our plan to have a baby around this age—I'm 33—so it was mostly the clock-is-ticking thing.
MK: I wondered what my body would be like after having a baby: What if I can't dance as well? What if things don't work the way they did before? I wanted to feel completely fulfilled before having a baby.
JP: In NYCB history, few dancers have had babies and come back to perform, and now all three of you, all principals…Do you feel like something is changing?
AB: Definitely. People are going to college and doing more outside projects. People have realized you don't have to be a tunnel-vision ballerina—you can be just as dedicated and as good an artist with more going on in your life.
MK: If not better!
AB: I remember Margaret Tracey being phenomenal after two babies!
AS: And Kyra Nichols, too, Jenny Ringer, Jennie Somogyi…
JP: What do you think the difference is?
MK: It's a different mentality. For me, this [holding Dylan] is such a huge priority and a happiness you can't get from anything else.
AS: Maybe the dancing pressure is off a bit because you realize what real stress is!
AB: But you can also really enjoy your time being free and dancing, free of all that responsibility while doing something you love, and then go home to someone that you love.
MK: I feel like such a pedestrian still. I have a new appreciation for what we do as dancers. It will be unbelievable to get back to that level, because it feels so far away! I will truly appreciate being onstage and having that escape from everything. It will be my time. In the end we still are our own people, even as mothers.
Jen Peters is a contributor to Dance Magazine, a dancer and a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York.
Ballet stars are diving into creative projects on the side.
Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar before an Ashley Bouder Project performance. Photo by Dan Freeman, Courtesty Freeman.
Although he was hard at work this spring creating a new piece for Boston Ballet and performing with the company, principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio somehow made time for even more dance. This summer, his new choreographic side project, Cirio Collective, will premiere in Massachusetts. With help from his sister and fellow principal Lia Cirio, he has been working on videos for the new website, talking to costume designers and searching for music.
Cirio is among a pack of entrepreneurial ballet dancers looking to branch out at the peak of their careers. Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective, Daniil Simkin’s INTENSIO, Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet and Ashley Bouder’s Ashley Bouder Project are other budding examples. And though dancers forming pickup companies isn’t exactly a new notion, past iterations have mostly been summer layoff projects that combined well-known repertoire and big international stages. These talents represent a new breed of do-it-all artists who prize small-scale projects and artistic collaboration. And the DIY culture of the digital age makes it easier than ever for star dancers to give voice to their artistic visions and connect with curious fans.
Bouder, who doesn’t choreograph but directs Ashley Boulder Project, felt an urgency to experiment before it was too late. “I am over 30 and I don’t know when my technical ability will drop out,” she says. “There are a lot of things I want to do before that happens.” A large part of her vision is connecting with audiences in areas where dance is underserved, like the rural Midwest, with discussions and workshops. Currently, she’s fundraising for a dance film, and is focused on showcasing female choreographers, most recently Andrea Schermoly and Adriana Pierce.
For Cirio, forming his own troupe has allowed him to experiment with his choreography in a small, intimate setting. Though he’s thankful for his opportunities to make dances for Boston Ballet, he had a desire to create without the pressures of the big stage. “It’s not about trying to please a director or the artistic staff,” says Cirio, who hopes to expand the troupe’s vision to include other choreographers and non-dance artists. “It is just about us getting in the studio and sharing our ideas.”
Our cover story reveals Ailey artistic director Robert Battle’s thinking behind his choices, as well as the challenges that two of his most stunning dancers, Jamar Roberts and Rachael McLaren, face with these new works. In Kina Poon’s “The New Ailey,” you’ll get a sense of how much the company has changed, and yet how much the Ailey spirit has remained an anchor.
On the other side of the dance universe, I got to see the legendary Lyudmila Kovaleva teach class at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg last June. Apparently, Kovaleva still, to this day, coaches her former student Diana Vishneva on certain roles. That gave me the idea to ask Vishneva, as well as other top dancers, about their favorite teachers, the ones who really made a difference. Read “They Taught Me To...” to learn who Ashley Bouder, Kathleen Breen Combes, Desmond Richardson, and Jason Samuels Smith cherish as the mentors who changed their lives.
Right: Rachel McLaren and Jamar Roberts in Barton's LIFT. By Jayme Thornton
While I watched class and rehearsals at the old Mariinsky theater, I was surprised to encounter a British dancer. I had no idea that Xander Parish had left The Royal Ballet and joined the Mariinsky. He guided me from one studio to another, and I soon realized that his story could be told quite nicely in a “Why I Dance”—which appears on our back page this month.
Lastly, this is my final “Curtain Up” because I have transitioned into a role as editor at large. As you will see in “DM Recommends,” a book of my writings has just come out, and it has opened up some new opportunities for me. I am leaving the magazine in good hands, those of the very capable Jennifer Stahl. I have enjoyed working on Dance Magazine immensely.
Wendy Perron, Editor in Chief
Top dancers on how their favorite teachers shaped their dancing
Behind every gravity-defying leap, each soul-wrenching solo, each flawless fouetté is a great teacher who worked tirelessly to hone a young dancer’s potential. Ask any successful dancer how they got to where they are today and they will always thank a teacher (or three!) for helping them to reach their potential. Dance Magazine’s Emily Macel Theys spoke to five top-of-their-game dancers about mentors who helped to sculpt their careers.
Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover
Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with New York City Ballet, credits Darla Hoover, now at New York’s Ballet Academy East as well as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for her mastery of Balanchine technique. The two have very similar career trajectories: Both trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, both received scholarships to the School of American Ballet, and both became dancers at New York City Ballet. “I’ve known Darla since I was very young. She grew up dancing with my mother and she trained me until I was 15.” A répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Hoover worked with Bouder on a core Balanchine aesthetic. “She taught me how to bring out the music through the way you’re moving your body,” says Bouder. “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.”
Above: Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover: “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.” Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
What stands out to Bouder is what Hoover helped her to refine: speed and technical cleanliness. “She starts you off going slow and building strength so that when you get to moving fast, it’s accurate. You need to have a clean fifth position and clean pointed feet and can’t be messy in between.” Bouder started attending Hoover’s advanced class when she was 11. “She would have me stand behind one of the other girls to learn. The girl she had me behind was Noelani Pantastico, now with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.” Bouder says she transitioned from being the dancer standing behind another to being a model in the class for younger dancers to stand behind.
Though now a celebrated principal dancer, Bouder still keeps Hoover’s advice close at heart. “She’s always with me when I do petit allégro because that’s what she teaches best.”
Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover
Jason Samuels Smith is one of the busiest tappers in the world. He’s sought after to perform on national and international stages, on TV shows, and in movies—but perhaps even more to spread his rhythmic command through master classes, workshops, and festivals. While the 33-year-old tap-lebrity gives credit to many tap legends and teachers for his dance upbringing (including his mother Sue Samuels, who got him into dance), Samuels Smith says his most influential tap teacher was Savion Glover.
Left: Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover: “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort.” Photo by Jayme Thornton.
“Savion showed me that you could accomplish anything that you wanted to as an artist,” Samuels Smith says. “He was involved in so many things at an early age, from Broadway to teaching to choreography, and that was definitely a major influence for me.”
Samuels Smith started studying with Glover at Broadway Dance Center, where his mother was teaching, when he was 8. Glover was only 15 but was already a buzz-worthy Broadway veteran. Glover instilled a strong work ethic in Samuels Smith from the get-go. “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort. If you were hitting it and doing what he wanted to hear, that was a plus. But the harder you worked, your work ethic was what he would praise the most.” Glover saw talent in Samuels Smith early on and gave him his first highly visible dance gig—a spot on on the PBS show Sesame Street, where Glover had become a regular guest.
What the younger tapper appreciates most about Glover’s mentorship is his focus on those who came before: Gregory Hines and Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, Dianne Walker. The ways he presented the vocabulary of the greats was new and accessible, Samuels Smith says. “He focused on a lot of paddle and roll, things rooted in cramp rolls and pullbacks, but it was all about how he was using the steps and creating musical phrases. That still inspires me when I think back to some of the stuff that I learned as a kid.”
Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank
“You’re coming to the space to electrify the sanctuary. You have to infect that space.” This was advice that Penny Frank, Graham teacher at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, gave to a young Desmond Richardson. And clearly, the advice hit home.
Right: Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank: “Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.” Photo by Jae Man Joo, Courtesy Complexions.
Richardson, the co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet who has electrified stages as a principal for both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre, as well as bringing his larger-than-life presence to Broadway (he’s currently a member of the ensemble in the Broadway show After Midnight), got a late start to dance. “I came into the audition at the High School of Performing Arts not knowing that there were dance clothes needed. I just knew I wanted to dance. I got into the school and I was very hard on myself because I have a perfectionist mind and I knew that I was late to dance.” Richardson says Frank noticed how he was correcting himself constantly. “She would say ‘instead of beating yourself up, why don’t you take the opportunity to use this to think about your process. Take your time to get everything.’ When she told me that, things started to come faster.”
Frank taught Richardson the Graham principal of movement starting at the core. “I do that ad nauseam now because I had that information when I was young.” She also emphasized awareness of time and space. Richardson remembers, “She would say, ‘You must sustain at this moment because people are watching. If you continue through movement, it’s like a run-on sentence: There’s no pause, no lilt, no rise.’ I say that to my dancers today. Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.”
In addition to teaching technique and artistry, she also gave Richardson advice that has helped him throughout his wildly successful career. “She taught me to be humble, to be real and honest in all of my dancing.”
Diana Vishneva on Lyudmila Kovaleva
‘‘All my years at the company school, I worked with her, and whenever I am in St. Petersburg, dancing at the Mariinsky, I go back to her. She’s strong and demanding and pays a lot of attention to details. She doesn’t care how you feel, what bothers you. If you come to work, be ready to work hard and be very precise.
Left: Diana Vishneva on coach Lyudmila Kovaleva: “Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
‘‘Every dancer knows his body better than anybody else. Everyone has their own problems—me, too. I know that my body is probably not ideal. Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage. She has a very good eye, and she’s always honest with me. We trust each other. If that were not so, we probably would not have been able to work together all these years.’’
Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon
Kathleen Breen Combes, principal with Boston Ballet, says she wouldn’t be the powerhouse jumper that she is today without Magda Aunon, her teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique from ages 8 to 12. “She was the first teacher who saw real potential in me. She honed in on that and made me realize that I could have a future.”
Above: Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon: “She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’" Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
With Aunon, it wasn’t just about the technique. “She was always interested in the artistic quality,” Combes remembers. “Her biggest thing was the performing qualities in dance. She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’ ”
Having a teacher who urged Combes to prepare for a performance by starting at the barre made a huge impact on her as both a performer and now as a teacher herself. “I find myself telling my students a lot of things she said to me. It’s not just about what’s happening from the waist down, it’s about the big picture.”
What stands out to Combes about Aunon’s teaching style was the individualized attention she received. “She saw you for what you had to offer and tried to make you the best that you could be rather than fitting into a mold. She would adjust her teaching style to make sure you’re featured in the best way you could be.”
As a young dancer Combes admits she wasn’t a very good jumper. “When I was 9 she brought a mini trampoline in and she made me do all my small jumps on it during class. She would hold my hand while I worked on my ballon. I think that’s why I can jump as high as I do now.”
Emily Macel Theys is a Pittsburgh-based contributing writer to Dance Magazine.