Audition classes may not differ much from any other class—but directors have ways of sussing out who has what they're looking for. We spoke to three artistic directors to get their perspective from the front of the room.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
No, she isn't like other artistic directors, and that's not just because she's a woman. Lourdes Lopez, who's led Miami City Ballet since 2012, doesn't want this to be taken the wrong way, but as for her vision? She doesn't really have one.
"I just want good dancers and a good company and good rep and an audience and a theater—let us do what the art form is supposed to be doing," she says. "I don't mean that in a flippant way. It's just how I've always approached it."
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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New York, NY (September 2018) – Misty Copeland will open the 61st annual Dance Magazine Awards. The evening will honor Ronald K. Brown, Lourdes Lopez (presented by Darren Walker), Crystal Pite, and Michael Trusnovec (presented by Patrick Corbin). A special Leadership Award will be presented to Nigel Redden. Since 1954 the Dance Magazine Awards have recognized outstanding men and women whose contributions have left a lasting impact on dance. This year's Awards will take place on Monday, December 3, 2018 at The Ailey Citigroup Theater at 7:30 pm. Tickets start at $50 and can be purchased by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new award, The Harkness Promise Award, will shine a light on two emerging young artists for the promise of their artistic work. The inaugural awardees are Raja Feather Kelly and Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie. The Harkness Foundation For Dance received proceeds from last year's Dance Magazine Awards for this grant. The award showcases innovative thinking and how to be an effective artist-citizen who positively impacts dance and the broader community through performance, education, organization and activism. Proceeds from this year's Dance Magazine Awards will be applied to next year's Harkness Promise Awards.
"All of us at Dance Magazine are excited to partner with The Harkness Foundation For Dance for a second year and to benefit these two deserving artists. This year's Dance Magazine Awards has once again chosen a stellar group of honorees and we are thrilled to have Misty Copeland join us. We are confident that the 61st Dance Magazine Awards will be our best yet." – Frederic Seegal, CEO/Chairman Dance Media
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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
While it's appalling that any male leader would use his power to humiliate women, the accusations against Peter Martins opens up a wonderful, rosy possibility. In an email conversation about Martins stepping down temporarily, a friend of mine wrote, "They won't hire a man in this climate."
I suddenly found myself getting giddy with the thought that a woman might lead New York City Ballet. I pictured a former NYCB principal coming in and calming the dancers down, respecting them, inspiring them, treating them like adults, listening to them and encouraging communication between all factions of the company.
Some nights, you head home buzzing with energy. After last night's Dance Magazine Awards, we were dancing with it.
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.
At Miami City Ballet, Lourdes Lopez has shown how to turn around a financially struggling company without losing that for which it's beloved. While building upon founder Edward Villella's Balanchine legacy, she's also embraced Miami's unique cultural identity, commissioning works like Justin Peck's Wynwood-inspired Heatscape and Miami-born artist Michele Oka Doner's underwater reimagining of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lopez's vision has excited local audiences—increasing both donations and ticket sales—and the company's dancers.
Are ballet companies different when led by a female artistic director?
Before becoming its artistic director, Karen Kain danced for every director in National Ballet of Canada's history, then staged ballets, did fundraising and observed the administrative offices under her predecessor James Kudelka. But she wasn't ambitious for the top job. Although she had a strong female role model in founder and first director Celia Franca, Kain says she didn't have huge confidence in her own management abilities. “I may have been naïve, but back then I was happy to be learning and to support James," says Kain. “I didn't necessarily think he was grooming me."
While ballet has always put a premium on female dancers, until recently few companies looked to women for the leading job. But there are some exciting changes today, from major appointments like Julie Kent at The Washington Ballet, to international ones like Aurélie Dupont at Paris Opéra Ballet and regional ones like Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet. Will having more female directors have an impact on the field? Of course, leadership qualities vary from woman to woman. But many female directors share a history of creative perseverance, which can give them a desire to listen and learn from the limits placed on them. Besides acting as role models, these women often bring a more open-minded management style to an industry infamous for its stiff hierarchical history.
A Wealth of Experience
Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet. Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB
For decades, former ballerinas watched as principal men transitioned straight into artistic directorships, often without any outside job experience in-between, while the few exceptional women who made it usually did so with dazzling and varied resumés. The result is that most women who helm companies right now arrived with finely tuned visions. For example, when Lourdes Lopez took the reins of Miami City Ballet in 2012, she'd spent time reporting on the arts for television, managing The George Balanchine Foundation as its executive director and co-founding the contemporary ballet company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. Virginia Johnson founded Pointe magazine (Dance Magazine's sister publication) before relaunching Dance Theatre of Harlem's company. Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis earned a degree from Vanderbilt University and a fellowship from the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Victoria Morgan at Cincinatti Ballet. Matthew William, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
“At one time, the few women running ballet companies of some size in America—Victoria Morgan, Stoner Winslett and myself—we all had college degrees, which was sort of unusual for artistic directors anywhere," says Pugh. “Did we have a different inclination from men that made us want a different toolset to enter that world? I don't know, but I was interested in so many things and knew I needed to be a leader."
Emily Molnar at Ballet BC. Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC
Likewise, Emily Molnar felt the pull of leadership early on, but spent 10 years exploring various artistic management opportunities first: She ran a youth company, and worked as a solo artist and freelance choreographer. She feels these outside experiences influence the way she directs her dancers at Ballet BC today. “I am not interested in a top-down or fear-based structure," she says. After organizing a retreat for her dancers recently, Molnar has begun to ask them more about what they need and how they can contribute to the company. “Who wants to teach? Who wants to choreograph? Who wants to lead? We sat together, not producing work but discussing the vision they have for themselves and for the company," says Molnar. “Innovation comes not only from the stage but also the culture in which we make the work."
An Eye for Diversity
Virginia Johnson at DTH. Quinn Wharton for Pointe
Because they know the so-called glass ceiling so intimately, many female directors are serious about fostering diversity in ballet. For instance, Johnson is reinvigorating DTH with “Women Who Move Us," an initiative aimed at fostering new work by female choreographers of diverse backgrounds. At English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo recently presented a triple bill by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Aszure Barton and Yabin Wang, provocatively titled “She Said."
Since arriving at Grand Rapids in 2010, Patricia Barker has brought 50 works into the repertoire, more than half of them by women, including Ochoa's first full-length ballet. “The previous director was a choreographer and he took all of his work with him, which left nothing in the repertoire," she explains. Barker has embraced the agility of being a small company not bogged down by tradition. “The dancers have flourished by doing so many different works, and as a regional company, I want to provide the audience with a wide spectrum."
For Pugh, programming begins by considering the Memphis community. “We don't just say, 'Oh my gosh, we need a woman on the bill.' The program is set up around ideas we want to have a conversation about," she says. “Next fall we will chew on the ideas behind romantic and classical ballet, exploring the characteristics of these ballets while looking at both gender and racial imbalances."
A Nurturing Leadership Style
Whether or not they become mothers, women are often brought up to have more nurturing qualities. Yet, ballet remains a demanding field filled with tough choices and direct conversations. Stereotype or not, dancers often find women use greater empathy in their language and approach.
For Molnar, solving any difficult personnel puzzle is about having a deeper conversation surrounding artistic fulfillment. “Is someone happy? Are they inspired? Do they want to be in the studio?" asks Molnar. She resists referring to company members as girls or boys, believing it is important to treat her dancers as accountable, self-directed women and men.
Dorothy Gunther Pugh at Ballet Memphis. Carla McDonald, Courtesy Ballet Memphis
“I always get a variety of opinions when I am giving feedback," says Kain. “I try to be sensitive to my relationship to the person—how much trust we have and how much they can accept what I am saying." Pugh agrees: “Never mind HR rules, you have to understand that young artists are vulnerable and be kind first. They might not be able to see what you see."
This type of compassion can help to maintain the health of organizations in trouble or transition. “A lot of times, directors come in and they really want to change a company," says Jeanette Delgado, principal dancer with MCB who spent much of her career under the direction of Edward Villella. “But Lourdes was so thoughtful about how the transition would affect everyone and so it has been a gradual shift instead of a storm." In the studio, the company has adjusted to a new way of working. “Lourdes is more thought-oriented—she takes her time to break phrases apart, she really asks us to think," says Delgado. “Edward was more about the energy and the attack, but Lourdes invites us into a more pensive process."
Patricia Barker at Grand Rapids Ballet. Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet
The effects these women have had are promising. While Barker has grown both the size of Grand Rapids Ballet and its stature (with more than 400 dancers showing up to this year's open audition), both Ballet Memphis and Miami City Ballet have recently toured to New York City to much acclaim. Kain recently celebrated her tenth year with a healthy company of 76 dancers. And a new generation is growing up under the influence of these powerful women.
“It makes me excited that, for the younger generation of dancers starting with Lourdes, the gender issue isn't even a thing," says Delgado. “They don't realize it wasn't always the way it is now. I always thought ballet mistress was the next step, but now there is this spark of possibility."
Three who carved their own paths: Lourdes Lopez, Larissa Saveliev, & Alessandra Ferri
Who are the leaders in our field? What are their attributes? Did they get there by chance or by design? We talked to three amazing women who have recently emerged as leaders in dance, which, let’s face it, is dominated by men—especially in ballet. These women found their way into top positions not only through their talent and skills, but also by embracing new experiences.
When Lourdes Lopez conducts a class at Miami City Ballet, purposeful moments in the studio connect with this artistic director’s life. At 55, Lopez cuts a lithe figure as she drills and demonstrates, sometimes coming in close to adjust a dancer’s body, letting her hands transmit a knowledge inscribed in muscle and bone. But her words also evoke a sustaining past.
Right: Lopez teaching at the MCB School. By Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB
To point out the importance of pliés, Lopez says, “Balanchine would ask us to do these non-stop!” As she explains his insistence on this stabilizing skill—and always moving through first as “an opportunity to correct yourself”—it’s easy to imagine her as a rising star under the master’s guidance at New York City Ballet, where she danced from 1975 to 1997, the last 13 years there as a principal.
After class, Lopez praises one of her early teachers, who ran a studio in South Florida, where her parents settled after fleeing post-revolutionary Cuba. “I was lucky to have Martha Mahr. She showed me there was a right and a wrong way to do steps—and that’s the heritage which gives beauty to our art. She offered me a technical foundation but also made me a stronger person. She taught me respect for work.”
Into her second year leading MCB—and the first that she’s programmed—Lopez instills in her dancers these ethics. “It’s important how you treat a partner, an audience,” she emphasizes. “Ours is an art of good manners.”
Especially notable for a Latina, Lopez has joined a tiny club of female ballet-company directors. But she insists success in this spotlight hinges not so much on gender issues as on meeting challenges as “a fully realized human being.” That condition rests upon the base that her late mother provided. “She taught us a sense of self and pride in being Cuban immigrants,” Lopez says. “We never felt weak in her house.”
Having retired from the stage, Lopez became executive director of the Balanchine Foundation in 2002. As co-founder with Christopher Wheeldon of the contemporary ballet company Morphoses in 2006, she earned what amounted to an advanced degree in development, programming, and marketing. Morphoses, now on hiatus, will eventually be linked to MCB as “a choreographic arm that gives our community a full spectrum of this art and will push our dancers in a different way,” says Lopez.
MCB corps member Adriana Pierce welcomes “the positive vibe” Lopez has created with a more diversified repertoire and her encouragement of the dancers’ forays into choreography.
Principal Jennifer Kronenberg appreciates how the director makes herself available to dancers, pointing out that Lopez “has maintained an open-door policy—a luxury that doesn’t go on everywhere.”
In the wake of founding artistic director Edward Villella’s sudden departure last fall, Lopez faced scary moments. “How do you step in and succeed, especially taking over a position held by such a strong personality?” she questioned. “You’re pulled in so many different directions. I still think back now and wonder how Mr. Balanchine kept his peace.”
Her old hometown has proven surprisingly amenable to both Lopez and her husband, investment banker George Skouras. While her daughter by a previous marriage remains in New York working at Vogue, the Skouras’ younger daughter has been slower to acclimate to her new environment. “I’m hoping she’s going to take from this that her mom embarked on a different path in a chancy environment,” Lopez maintains. “In that, I’m being true to myself.” —Guillermo Perez
“They become fearless,” says Larissa Saveliev, describing what students gain through competing in her organization, Youth America Grand Prix. “In a company, when somebody gets injured, you can throw them onstage, and boom, they go. The stress, which kills some dancers, makes them stronger.”
Left: Teaching at Southland Ballet Academy in California. By Dave Friedman, Courtesy YAGP.
That prized quality—fearlessness—encapsulates Saveliev herself. A fireball of energy, Saveliev has been instrumental in the careers of countless dancers around the world. Now in its 15th season, YAGP has come a long way from Saveliev’s early days of cold-calling ballet schools with invitations.
Twenty years ago, pre-professional ballet competitions were frowned upon by elite schools. For ballet students, there were two options: Regional Dance America, of which one has to be a member, and the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, which, if you win, leads to a scholarship of your choice. YAGP, for students ages 9 to 19, takes the opposite approach: School and company directors on the jury and in the audience award scholarships or contracts to promising dancers, whether they win a medal or not.
Today, the schools affiliated with many of the world’s largest companies, as well as smaller sources of talent, send both students and adjudicators to YAGP. On the rosters of the world’s major ballet companies, you’ll find more than 300 YAGP alumni.
Saveliev is a natural matchmaker. The former Bolshoi dancer makes it her business to know the backgrounds of her most talented competitors—and, generally, what each partner school or company looks for in its dancers. “If Franco [De Vita, principal of ABT’s JKO School] is asking, I can tell him, The parents are very poor so they’re never going to move to New York, but if you want to offer them California, they might come because they have family there.” Over the years, she has learned company preferences as well. “The Stuttgart will never hire anybody without feet. For the Royal, I think face is very important. For Hamburg, it doesn’t matter if their legs are a little shorter, but they have to be a great mover.”
And if a dancer has her heart set on a company that is unrealistic, Saveliev attempts to gently redirect her. “I steer them to the right direction, open their eyes to the company where they might have a good future. I cannot guarantee, I’m not the director—but I can predict.”
Parents and students expect reality checks from Saveliev. She holds frank conversations with families about their child’s potential. And in one extreme case, she even suggested plastic surgery after hearing from judges repeatedly that the young woman’s appearance was holding her back. (That dancer is now a professional.) “It’s not the typical American style; I guess that’s what I get from Russia still. But I will do whatever it takes to get these kids jobs or scholarships.”
Stanton Welch, the artistic director of Houston Ballet who often serves on the YAGP jury (the company’s school also awards scholarships), confirms that she is single-minded about this goal. “Larissa just wants all her kids in companies,” he says. “She’s like the proud parent. She definitely has her point of view—and certainly the kids that I’ve taken directly from the competition have been very successful for us.”
The fact that competitions push technique to the extreme is a longstanding criticism. But Saveliev instills artistic values whenever she can. “I tell them,” she says, “The medal is not your goal. It’s like an A+ in school: It’s great, it gives you self-confidence. But you have to work even harder now.”
She is no stranger to hard work herself. She once organized the New York finals while seven months pregnant with her younger son. Luckily, she is able to rely on her husband, Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP co-founder and former soloist with ABT, to balance her outsized ideas with pragmatism.
Saveliev jokes that if she had known how tough running YAGP was going to be, she would never have started it. But in the end, she finds it rewarding to discover untapped talent. “It’s like looking for gemstones. You find them in the middle of God-knows-where and give them to a good jeweler. And a couple of years later, they sparkle.” —Kina Poon
When Alessandra Ferri, one of the great dramatic ballerinas of our time, retired from the stage in 2007, many felt bereft. Her ability to surrender to both rapture and despair gave audiences an intense emotional experience. But she has come back in triplicate: as a performer, choreographer, and director.
Ferri never fit the mold of a company dancer. Constantly in demand, she appeared as a principal or guest artist with American Ballet Theatre, La Scala, The Royal Ballet, and Roland Petit. “I couldn’t just be in one place and be part of a company. It was against my nature. I just could not be told what to do. It would kill my soul. Right or wrong, that’s my way.”
Right: Fabrizio Ferri for Pointe magazine
In 2007 she accepted a position as director of dance programming of the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In this role she helped revitalize the festival, presenting Pina Bausch, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.
“It was strange at first to be on the other side,” she said in a conversation last August after taking class at Steps on Broadway. “I had to split myself from myself, from being the dancer, liking things because I would have liked to dance them.” But, she adds, “it was a wonderful step that opened my mind to new things. Now I feel I’m more lucid in my choices.”
Another challenge came last summer when she premiered her own production, The Piano Upstairs, written by John Weidman and directed by Giorgio Ferrara, in Spoleto. Although this dance play about the breakup of a marriage was her idea more than three years ago, she didn’t expect to choreograph it as well as perform in it. Having worked with great dance makers from MacMillan to Wheeldon, she admits being intimidated to try own her hand at it. “Sometimes I would be so scared: What if I go into the studio and have no ideas?”
In the end, the piece received a warm response. “It was a fantastic experience,” Ferri says. “To give birth to something right from the seed is very fulfilling. It gives you a sense of freedom.”
Currently she’s creating the lead character in a new work by Martha Clarke, based on a racy Colette story, that opens at the Signature Theatre December 8. To watch her in rehearsals (with none other than ABT’s Herman Cornejo!), you see the full force of her drama. Every inch of her body and face expresses the emotion of the moment, and you cannot help but be drawn in. So convincing are her portrayals that when she breaks character to call attention to a problem, it’s shocking to see her as a normal dancer rather than a woman wracked with passion.
Onstage she gives the illusion that her performing is all based on instinct. But Ferri, who has received many honors, including a 2005 Dance Magazine Award, is very aware of what she brings to ballet. “As my career progressed, I was trying to break the barrier between dance and acting and to really meld the two. It was a particular path I was following; it wasn’t just casual. It was a real search and experiment.”
That experiment influenced other dancers, particularly at American Ballet Theatre. Susan Jaffe, who was a principal there during the same period, says, “Alex broke the mold of what it meant to be a ballerina. She was focused on dramatic impact and freedom of movement rather than ‘purity of style.’ She was her own artist, even at the age of 18. The access she had to her inner voice gave me permission to be confident in my own voice.”
In a coincidence of life following art, Ferri’s own marriage to Fabrizio Ferri has broken up. Although the situation was painful, she turned to her inner resources. “To focus on who I am gave me a lot of strength, instead of focusing on what went wrong.” Her daughters, 12 and 16, still live with her in New York. “We have a very open relationship,” says Ferri. “I say, ‘I’m not just here to look after you—that’s not my role in life only.’ They sense that I’m excited about the next months, and we’re happy together.”
What’s up for Ferri in 2014? She will play Eleonora Duse at La Scala in a ballet to be created for her by John Neumeier. —Wendy Perron