On August 20, pop goddess Lizzo tweeted, "Someone do a ballet routine to truth hurts pls," referring to the anthem that's been top on everyone's playlists this summer. Lizzo might not know it yet, but ballet dancers are not known for shying away from a challenge. In the past two days, the internet has exploded which responses, with dancers like Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall tagging the singer in submissions.
Below are a few of our favorites so far, but we're guessing that this is just the beginning. Ballet world, consider yourselves officially challenged! (Use #LizzoBalletChallenge so we know what you're up to.)
In the past several years, ballet has been called out time and again for not fostering, presenting and commissioning the work of women. Recently, highlighting women ballet choreographers has become somewhat of a trend, with companies pioneering initiatives to try to close the gender gap, or presenting all-women programs.
But numbers don't lie, and unfortunately, we still haven't made much progress.
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.
When a dance company builds itself a new home, the typical goal is more space and better amenities. But with the right architecture and location, the building itself can serve another purpose: great exposure.
That's what Ballet Memphis had in mind when it built its new $21 million home right on the hottest corner of the city's midtown entertainment district. "If you're going to survive, you need to be seen," says the company's founding artistic director and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh. "You have to make contact with people's lives."
Even if you make it through to the final round of an audition, that doesn't mean that you're guaranteed a spot on the roster. Before handing out contracts, many companies also require prospective dancers to complete an interview with staff. How can you impress your potential employer with your words as much as your dancing? Three artistic directors weigh in on what matters most.
As much as everyone talks about diversity in ballet these days, the barrage of Misty Copeland coverage can sometimes make it seem like she's the only person fighting to break barriers. Just today, Glamour named her one of its Women of the Year for "blazing her own path."
Kudos to Misty, but there many other path-blazers out there, too. Earlier this week, I got to see the work of one I've long admired: Dorothy Gunther Pugh. For over 25 years, the Ballet Memphis director has been committed to leading a company that truly reflects and serves her city, which is over 60 percent black. She's an idealist who's determined to do more than pay lip service to diversity. Ballet Memphis has multiple black, Asian and Hispanic dancers, plus several administrators, teachers and board members of color. Pugh regularly commissions ballets by non-white, non-male choreographers, and invites them to dig into themes not normally seen on the ballet stage—whether that's life in a Baltimore housing project or the relationship women have to their clothing. The company has collaborated with Rennie Harris, Chuck Davis and, recently, female jookers. Like many directors, Pugh gives her dancers opportunities to choreograph, but I met a pair at the Dance/USA conference who told me that she also encourages them to engage with the larger dance community so they can think critically about today's big issues in ballet, like how a company can be a relevant part of its community.
Ballet Memphis and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras' Politics. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
So what's the result of this deliberate diversification? An eclectic company bursting with energy, judging by the program at The Joyce Theater this week. The performance was less polished than what you'd see at major companies, but it was also far more idiosyncratic—in a lovely way. Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times about the evening's pieces, "All four are odd; only one proves a complete work of art—Matthew Neenan’s The Darting Eyes—and it’s every bit as odd as the others. But the mood blowing through all of these dances is generous, imaginatively breaking rules."
Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson in Neenan's The Darting Eyes. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
The company boasts some outstanding performers, particularly Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson. At the same time, a couple of the dancers looked like they could benefit from another year in school. Were they pushed ahead intentionally simply to make the company more diverse? Are the less successful pieces in the repertoire a result of insisting on a range of voices, no matter how green those voices might be? Maybe, maybe not.
Some people argue that pursuing diversity for diversity's sake risks watering down our art form, that it could lead to promoting those less talented on the basis of race and gender alone at the expense of more sophisticated artists who've had greater access to the kinds of resources that come with privilege. (Basically, the affirmative action debate, now with pointe shoes.) I argue that there's far more at stake than sophistication. We have several ballets that are sophisticated. I also want to see ballets that are interesting. I want to be told stories I haven't heard before. I want to be brought into new worlds I don't understand. As much as I loved Matthew Neenan's piece, he would never have made what, for example, Camille Brown created on the company in 2009—and she wouldn't have made his piece. We need more places where both of these artists can share their personal perspectives and work with dancers who bring a variety of different backgrounds to the movement.
Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
By fearlessly taking risks on less-established artists, Pugh is championing examples that can be inspirations for future dancers and choreographers. What's more, she's creating something different from the same-old same-old you find on so many ballet stages. It may not be perfect, but it sure is exciting.
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.
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Every year the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hold a rousing powwow on the Lower East Side. A New York troupe founded in 1963 by a group of Native Americans, the Thunderbird dancers represent a variety of nations descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago, and San Blas peoples. They are not professional, but they’ve handed their dances down from generation to generation. There’s the Caribou Dance (from the Inuits of Alaska), the Buffalo Dance (from the Hopi of the Southwest), and a Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains). Come see how softly and rhythmically these dancers tread on the earth. Theater for the New City, Jan. 25 to Feb. 3. See www.theaterforthenewcity.net/programs. —Wendy Perron
Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee) in an Eagle Dance. Photo by Lee Wexler, Courtesy TNC.
Celebrating American choreographers, Gotham Arts Exchange brings a slew of groups to the Skirball this month. They include the NYC companies of Larry Keigwin, Kate Weare, Pam Tanowitz, Karole Armitage, Aszure Barton, and David Parsons, as well as non-NYC companies Ballet Memphis, Aspen Sante Fe Ballet, Chicago’s Lucky Plush, and L.A.’s BODYTRAFFIC (see “25 to Watch,” page 48). Find out more at nyuskirball.org. And in a related marathon, Gotham presents the second annual Focus Dance, which includes Camille A. Brown, Rosie Hererra, Jodi Melnick, Eiko and Koma, and John Jasperse (see “Quick Q&A,” page 40) at the Joyce, Jan. 8–13. See www.joyce.org. —W. P.
Mora-Amina Parker of Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy Gotham.
2 from Tokyo and 1 from Taipei
Japanese contemporary dance can range from Pokemon-cute to butoh- drastic. This month’s 15th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan & East Asia features a variety of dance. The Makotocluv dance company from Tokyo offers a “post-butoh” piece entitled Misshitsu: Secret Honey Room, co-created by founder Makoto Enda and former Dairakudakan dancer Kumotaro Mukai. The choreographer/singer KENTARO!!, also from Tokyo, brings his singing-and-dancing hip-hop group Tokyo Electrock Stairs in Send it, Mr. Monster. And from Taipei, Chieh-hua Hsieh’s Seventh Sense, for his company Anarchy Dance Theatre, promises to be high-tech and interactive—and hopefully anarchic. Jan. 11–12 at Japan Society. www.japansociety.org. —Kathleen Dalton
Seventh Sense by Chieh-hua Hsieh. Photo by Shou-Cheng Lin, Courtesy Japan Society.