Chiara Valle is just one of many dancers heading back to the studio this fall as companies ramp up for the season. But her journey back has been far more difficult than most.
Valle has been a trainee at The Washington Ballet since 2016, starting at the same time as artistic director Julie Kent. But only a few months into her first season there, she started experiencing excruciating pain high up in her femur. "It felt like someone was stabbing me 24/7," she says. Sometimes at night, the pain got so bad that her roommates would bring her dinner to the bathtub.
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?
Katherine Barkman's career reads like a storybook: At 18, she left Pennsylvania and moved to the Philippines to become a principal at Ballet Manila. She danced Juliet, Giselle, Odette/Odile and Kitri, but three years in, it was time for new challenges. Late last year, Barkman joined The Washington Ballet, bringing her scintillating, pure Vaganova technique and her warm stage persona to U.S. audiences.
I have a confession. Until today, I had never seen the seminal classic Center Stage.
When news reached the Limón Dance Company that Colin Connor was replacing longtime director Carla Maxwell in 2016, the tight-knit group experienced a range of emotions. "Everyone agreed that fresh energy would be a benefit to the company," says veteran dancer Logan Kruger. But the excitement lasted only until the fear sunk in—there would be changes, and some of them might even include saying good-bye.
It's understandable to experience feelings of shock, fear and even abandonment if your director leaves. It's not just that you'll have a new boss—a shift at the top can have a domino effect on casting, programming, rehearsal structure and branding. Here's how to forge a relationship with your new director and take advantage of the opportunities that come from having fresh eyes on your dancing.
One of the most crucial responsibilities of an artistic director is the development of dancers. Sharing the benefit of my experience through daily class and rehearsals is perhaps the most gratifying part of my work at The Washington Ballet. But artistic leaders also need to help dancers in the broader navigation of their careers.
Whether it involves difficult conversations with seasoned professionals or with teenagers coping with the anxiety of an uncertain career path, advising dancers is personal because our art is personal. Dancers create their art with their own bodies—not on paper, not with instruments made of brass or wood and strings, but with themselves. This highly intimate element of the job cannot be underestimated, and as a result, every conversation about the work essentially becomes about the person. Trust is not assumed nor is it given easily, as only time and shared experiences allow for it to grow.
Dancers are physical communicators. It is both our profession and our passion. But what happens when the music stops and there is a break in rehearsals?
Our communication doesn't end when the choreography is completed. The truth is, the way you act at rest can make or break your career. Ballet masters, choreographers and artistic directors see meaning in all forms of body language, not just those that happen while the music is playing.
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Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Here is my list of favorites from this year, some of them with video clips embedded. I've also added "lingering thoughts" about certain situations in the dance world. As usual, my choices are limited by what I have actually seen. Most of the following are world premieres.
• Andrea Miller's Stone Skipping in the Egyptian room at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Ancient and ultra-modern at once, gaga-initiated grapplings, telling many stories of people in struggle and solidarity. The group sequence (with her company Gallim plus dancers from Juilliard) from lying on the floor with pelvis bobbing to standing, to swaying, to skipping wildly about was transcendent.
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.
I have a guilty pleasure to confess: I kind of really, really love Le Corsaire.
I totally get why many people hate this ballet. Although it's loosely based on a Lord Byron poem, the plot as it exists in ballet form today is absurdly thin. More importantly, it's morally repugnant: Centered around the selling and stealing of sex slaves, it basically portrays women as weak, non-human objects, and Muslims as evil or buffoon-like. (Yep, the last stereotypes that need to be reinforced today.)
Much of the story is silly, unnecessary or nonsensical. Like how the women flirt coquettishly as they're being bought and sold. Or how in the end, the two lead characters survive a sinking ship solely because of "the strength of their love," as American Ballet Theatre's program notes put it.
As she was stepping into her new role as artistic director of The Washington Ballet this July, ballet icon Julie Kent made a natural fit for the cover of our first-ever Feminist Issue. At the time, she was still just starting to get her feet wet. Writer Marina Harss' profile of Kent covered some of her dreams for the troupe, like increasing the roster, expanding the repertoire and using live music whenever possible. But now we've started to see some of her changes in action. So what does a Washington Ballet led by Julie Kent actually look like?
Live Music is Here
Count it as Dream Accomplished: Yesterday, the company announced that each of its spring performances will feature a live orchestra, led by a guest conductor from other ballet companies around the country. (What a fun idea!) Charles Barker, from American Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Ballet, will conduct Giselle in March, and Martin West of San Francisco Ballet will conduct the company's season-closing repertory program in May.
The Nutcracker music will be taped because, as Kent told The Washington Post's Sarah Kaufman, “We won’t sell one more ticket if we have live music, and it’s about $100,000 a week. We have to move forward strategically and sensibly, and use the money for the orchestra where we can get the most out of it.”
No word on how the company will foot the live music bill this spring, although TWB's website does have eight separate categories listed under "Support."
Big ABT Names Sign On
Kent with Stiefel in 2008, PC Kent Becker
We also found out yesterday that Kent's first-ever commissioned work will go to Ethan Stiefel, one of her former partners. He's recently dabbled in choreography on Flesh and Bone, at the Royal New Zealand Ballet and on ABT's Studio Company. His new one act ballet, tentatively titled Frontier, will be based on John F. Kennedy's determination to land a man on the moon.
He's not the only ABT alum Kent's brought in. Former principal Xiomara Reyes, who retired the same year as Kent, is the new head of The Washington Ballet School.
New Dancers Hired
Kent has hired two ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School grads: Brittany Stone as a dancer and Adelaide Clauss as an apprentice. She's also brought in two major stars—the much-loved Cuban dancer Rolando Sarabia and former Korean National Ballet principal Eun Won Lee. Expect many more names in the coming seasons if the company grows from 21 to 40, as Kent hopes it will.
Kent with David Hallberg in Seven Sonatas, via nytimes.com
This spring, TWB will add to its repertoire two works by ballet's most sought-after choreographers today: In Creases by Justin Peck and Seven Sonatas by Alexei Ratmansky (in which Kent was in the original cast). The company will also tackle Sir Frederick Ashton's beloved classic The Dream for the first time.
Workshops for Outside Dancers
If you're really curious what Kent's like at the head of the studio, sign up for her master class series next month. Reyes will be teaching on November 12 and Kent on November 19. The two-part series will also include character and contemporary classes, plus post-class Q&As with the two directors. The series is open to adult dancers—and could be a smart audition opportunity for anyone curious about joining the company.
Of course, it's still early in Kent's directing career. But so far, most of these choices seem like savvy moves—even if they're heavily inspired by her ABT background. We can't wait to see what else she has in store.
After dying for the last time on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, body limp on a cold slab of marble beside her Romeo, Julie Kent rose as she had countless times before to receive the audience's acclaim. As she stood there, surrounded by tearful colleagues and looking impossibly young in Juliet's wispy sheath, she gazed out with a mixture of sadness and gratitude, and perhaps a hint of disbelief.
For many ballet-lovers, it's difficult to remember a time when Julie Kent wasn't dancing on that stage. She began her career at American Ballet Theatre in 1985, at 16, and starred alongside Baryshnikov in Dancers just two years later. After being promoted to principal in 1993, she went on to spend another 22 years at the company, dancing in works by everyone from Petipa to Twyla Tharp.
“It was the most difficult, wonderful experience," she said recently of her retirement. But there has been little time to wallow. Soon after that final Juliet, she became the artistic director of ABT's summer intensives, a network of training programs that serves approximately 1,400 students each year. It seemed like a natural progression, one followed by many women: dancer, teacher, ballet mistress, coach. Ballet is an art sustained by women.
But it is not a profession—at least not in this country—in which women tend to attain the very pinnacle of the hierarchy: the director's office. (Several companies, including the Boston and Pennsylvania Ballets, were started by women—and ABT was co-founded by one—but men have usually replaced them later on.) So it was doubly welcome when it was announced that Kent would be taking over The Washington Ballet starting this month, as a replacement for Septime Webre, who is leaving after 17 years to devote his time to making new works and teaching.
Kent's long ABT career is part of what attracted the search committee. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
The call came, out of the blue, late last year. At first, Kent balked. “I said, 'I'm really very happy with the position I have,' " she explains with a chuckle. She couldn't imagine walking away from a job she had just begun to explore, or, more importantly, uprooting her husband and two children, and leaving behind a close network of friends and colleagues. “I wasn't looking for a major change," she says. “I had already gone through that by ending my performing career." The Washington Ballet search committee persisted. Eventually they met in New York for the first of a series of discussions.
The company had big ambitions, they said. They wanted to expand, to broaden the repertoire, to increase their already significant reach in the community. They were looking for someone who could lead them toward a more prominent place both within and beyond the nation's capital. They were drawn to her name, of course, and her international reputation and connections. But they were also “seeking someone who understood the importance of building an institution," explains Sylvia de Leon, board chair of The Washington Ballet. In other words, someone who would approach the job with a vision for the long term, not just a name. They were impressed by her sense of loyalty—to her company, to her colleagues. Was it important that she was a woman? “It wasn't something we discussed as a committee or was a priority," says de Leon, “but, yes, it was of interest."
Eventually, Kent was won over. The transformation involved a subtle altering of her definition of a leader: not “someone who tells people what to do, somebody who likes to be the boss," but rather someone devoted to serving the art form that had made her who she was. Isabella Boylston, whom Kent coached as Juliet and Sylvia this year, attests to her ability to help dancers find their way into a role. “She doesn't spoon-feed me," Boylston says. “She leaves the structure loose for me in some places so that I can make my own choices." By directing a company, Kent would be in a position to promote arts education, form the next generation of dancers and argue for the inherent value of art, beyond such ephemeral gratifications as fame or Instagram followers. “I want to be the reassuring voice that reminds dancers that at the end of the day, it's about the work. That is your reward. That's what you're left with."
It made sense in other ways, too. Kent grew up in nearby Potomac and studied at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, under Hortensia Fonseca, who studied with Mary Day, co-founder of The Washington School of Ballet and artistic director of The Washington Ballet for more than 20 years. Kent's mother, sister and brother still live in the area. She and her husband would be able to move their family into a house, with a yard—something their 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, in particular, is excited about. “The minute it left her lips" that she had been approached by The Washington Ballet, says Kevin McKenzie, Kent's boss at ABT, “I had a bittersweet thought: This is going to happen, and of course it should happen."
Kent hopes to shape students' priorities. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy TWB
Kent has started to draw up plans: Expanding community programs like the company's existing collaboration with THEARC (through which it provides training, a sliding-fee payment scale, classes for beginners and more). Building up the number of dancers from 21 to 40 so that the company can perform a wider variety of repertoire (her first hire was Cuban dancer Rolando Sarabia). Bringing in masterworks by the great choreographers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Using live music whenever possible. Finding a replacement for the director of the school, Kee Juan Han, who retired in April. And, of course, commissioning new ballets from internationally respected choreographers and introducing new choreographers to the DC audience.
Her first program will be a 40th-anniversary event called Looking Back~Moving Forward. Another will include Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, Alexei Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas—she was in the original cast—and Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. In the spring, she hopes to put on Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas and Frederick Ashton's The Dream, both of which she danced countless times.
These ballets (which are all in ABT's rep as well) would then lead into future seasons, in which she'd like to introduce themed programs of English, Russian and American works. She's looking at ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Mark Morris—maybe even Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. And after that, who knows? She would like to build a collaboration with one of the city's other large cultural institutions, perhaps the Smithsonian or the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I want to try to create an atmosphere inspired by the Ballets Russes exhibition When Art Danced With Music," she says, “where you have the artists of the day designing sets and costumes to a new creation by the choreographer of the day with a new score." Her ambitions are not timid.
“It's a big step to go from being a choreographer-led company to a company with an orientation toward building the institution and building audiences," says Sarah L. Kaufman, the dance critic for the Washington Post. “Until now, there's been an emphasis on energy and the new, and not always as much of an emphasis on refinement of classical technique."
One of the reasons Kent is so confident that she can get this all done is that her husband, Victor Barbee, is coming with her. He too is a company man, having worked with ABT for four decades, first as a dancer, and, for the last 13 years, as associate artistic director. He'll have the same title in Washington; only his boss will change. It's heartening to see a husband prepared to play the supportive role in the workplace. By his own account, he prefers to get things done outside the spotlight, spending his days between the studios and administrative offices, “seeing to one detail after the next, refining and refining."
Her final curtain call: “The most difficult, wonderful experience." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
Like any new opportunity, the move is a leap of faith. Kent has never directed a ballet company, planned seasons, courted donors, hired or fired dancers. But how will she ever know if the job suits her unless she tries it? “I gave myself the advice I would have given my children," she says. “You have to go for it."
Major changes are afoot at The Washington Ballet. Although former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent doesn't officially step into her role as the company's artistic director until July, she's already making moves in preparation for the 2016–17 season. This afternoon, she announced that another former ABT principal will be joining the team: Xiomara Reyes will head The Washington School of Ballet, effective September 1.
The move marks Kent's first staff appointment. Reyes will take the place of revered teacher Kee Juan Han (who famously trained David Hallberg) and who announced his retirement in late April. Reyes' husband, Rinat Imaev, currently a company teacher at ABT, will also join TWSB as senior faculty and company teacher. We spoke with Reyes about the vision she and Kent share, her Cuban roots, relocating to DC and more.
Xiomara Reyes, with Jared Nelson, when she guested with TWB in their Sleepy Hollow last year. Photo by Media4Artists—Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB.
What have you been up to since you retired from ABT last year?
I have been dancing, guesting, judging, teaching. We just came from teaching in Japan for three weeks. We still have commitments for various summer intensives, and we have IBStage, which is our summer intensive that we co-direct in Barcelona. And we are going to Varna this summer, too, so we have been moving a lot.
How did The Washington School of Ballet opportunity come up?
When Julie knew they were looking for somebody to take care of the school, she told us and wondered if we would like to apply. She wants to create something with the company, and I think we probably have the same idea and vision for the school. I know there were a lot of people they were considering, but I had worked with The Washington Ballet last year when I danced in their Sleepy Hollow, so I knew I was not unknown to them.
Kent and Reyes will soon be working together again. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post)
How is your vision similar to Kent's?
We both want to offer a very nourishing approach to life and to dance and to the kids. It's about trying to nourish the artistic part, but also we have a pretty high standard for what we want to see in the kids. That's very important right now because she wants the connection between the school and the company to be closer.
Will you incorporate any aspects of your Cuban training at the school?
Oh, of course. [laughs] All of the faculty already come at it from their different backgrounds—like a melting pot. It’s not going to be a Cuban school; it’s not going to be a Russian school; it’s going to be what we find is the best approach to provide the kids with the best background to be able to dance in the company.
How has your husband influenced your teaching style?
I have learned a lot from his way of teaching. He’s extremely giving and generous. It’s always not about you, the teacher. It’s about the person that’s in front of you. And what I have always admired about the Russian school is the arms: the port de bras, the épaulement, the space in the movement. That’s something that I’m always trying to grab from him and incorporate in my dancing and in my teaching, too.
What do you think you’ll miss most about living in New York, and what are you looking forward to about life in DC?
I enjoyed working at ABT so much—the friends, the dancing. And I love the city, but, you know, I’m not really a city girl. I prefer the other side, more nature, and Washington has a blend of both. It has a very nice cultural life and at the same time that wonderful...suburban feel. We are looking forward to that.
Any advice for dancers who hope to have a career in ballet?
You really have to love it. You have to be very passionate about it and know that you’re going to have to put a lot of effort and concentration into it. But when you have passion, it’s not so much work. It becomes a way of being. You have to push yourself a lot, but, at the end, it’s the most rewarding thing.
What happens to companies when their stars retire?
Paloma Herrera will dance her final performance with ABT on May 27. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Shouts of “Brava!” will accompany a number of ballerinas when they take their final bows this summer. American Ballet Theatre’s Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes and Julie Kent will soon dance their final performances with the company: Herrera in the May 27 matinee performance of Giselle; Reyes in the same ballet that evening; and Kent in Romeo and Juliet on June 20. Carla Körbes will also retire, from Pacific Northwest Ballet, on June 7 (in a program to be announced).
Körbes, 33, has been a dynamic presence at PNB. “With Carla it’s not about the pirouettes, jumps, feet, extension—though that’s all there,” says artistic director Peter Boal. “It’s about these higher levels of humanity, a graciousness, a generosity—the rapport she develops with a corps de ballet around her and the partner she’s dancing with.”
When ballerinas retire, it has an impact on a company. Corps members emulate them. Choreographers tailor roles for them. They sell tickets. They create an esthetic and often mentor younger dancers. But as physics states, nature abhors a vacuum, and younger dancers rise to the occasion. “I think you’ll see a shift,” says Boal. “There are other PNB dancers with a fan base. There are choreographers who were very excited to create for Carla. When they got here, they discovered somebody else as well.” Boal has also hired back Noelani Pantastico, who will return as a principal this November.
At ABT, Herrera has established her own commanding charisma since joining as a brilliant 15-year-old prodigy in 1991, then later as a fully blossomed ballerina. Several reasons led to her decision to retire: a desire to leave the stage while still dancing with full-tilt energy; her enjoyment in teaching and coaching younger dancers; and “feeling kind of like a dinosaur” regarding the social media frenzy that now shapes ballet careers. In recalling former ABT stars who retired, she says: “It was a huge thing when Alessandra Ferri retired. I cried more when she retired than when I told Kevin McKenzie I was retiring. For me she’s always been a huge role model.”
Boal recognizes that although ballet companies try to delegate roles equitably among dancers, stars do emerge and those retirements can be heartbreaking. “But it can’t be a one-ballerina company, even though people gravitate to that.” Körbes assumed a sort of stardom that former PNB ballerina Patricia Barker had before. “Somebody does emerge in the public’s eye and the public appoints them prima ballerina,” he adds. “We certainly don’t.”
Herrera has no regrets about her 24-year career at ABT. After doing a farewell tour this fall in Argentina, she will turn 40 in December. “And then it will be a whole new life,” she says. “I’ve been part of an era—an incredible era. I enjoyed it. Now it’s a new generation.” —Joseph Carman