Growing up with a father who's a swim coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, Emma Hawes was in the water almost from the time she was born. From ages 6 to 12, she swam competitively.
"I would have two swim practices a day during season, then go to ballet class," says Hawes, who's now a first soloist at both National Ballet of Canada and English National Ballet. "It was pretty normal for me since my parents are both athletes." (Her father is also an avid cyclist and triathlete; her mom was a competitive runner.)
While swimming gave Hawes stamina, dance helped her body awareness in the pool. "I was able to make fine-tuning adjustments—like rotating the angle of my forearm—because of ballet," she says.
A Broadway luminary and a postmodern darling bring their talents to ballet, a music video maven turns to the concert stage, and a contemporary choreographer gets soulful with Aretha Franklin. Our editors' must-sees this May are all about the unexpected.
In the six years since taking over as artistic director at English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, 44, has been lauded for revitalizing the company. She has presented classics danced with gusto alongside contemporary commissions, including a radical reworking of Giselle by contemporary/kathak choreographer Akram Khan, setting the story in a community of migrant factory workers. ENB brings Khan's Giselle to Chicago's Harris Theater, Feb. 28–March 2, the company's first trip to the U.S. in 30 years.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
You nominated the best performances you've seen so far in 2018, and we narrowed them down to our favorites. Now it's time to cast your vote to decide who will be featured in our December issue!
Voting is open until September 17. Only one submission per person will be counted.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
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Barre classes have soared in popularity. Last year, Time Magazine labeled them a "phenomenon" among fitness routines, with an estimated 800 studios in the U.S.
But: Has the fad penetrated the rehearsal studios of professional ballet dancers? Not necessarily, according to feedback from several ballet companies.
As a kid, I often had trouble getting any words out the way I really wanted to. I developed a fantasy where I could find each character from each story I read within myself, and use them to communicate. I was always "Evan," but embodying different characters broadened the way I could connect with people. I felt that each character was like an instrument and that communicating effectively required the whole orchestra.
Then, when I was 8, I saw John Cranko's Onegin. I hadn't known that dance could develop characters in a way that would resonate so strongly. It was the first ballet that made me want to dive into this life of expressing the human condition through the body. The role of Onegin ended up following me through my career, and it taught me to rely on my humanness.
It's tricky to recognize Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla in the latest character he's written for himself. The fictional Milton Frank—star of the new mockumentary series "Off Kilter"—is a moody choreographer whose tender ego is easily bruised as he attempts to revive his floundering career. Cadilla, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and humble; the actor/filmmaker loves to chat about his family and is clearly more comfortable raving about his colleagues' successes than turning the spotlight on his own. But Milton Frank isn't something Cadilla pulled out of thin air—the character comes from everything Cadilla experienced during his many years as a dancer.
All dancers work hard to hone technical skills and master thrilling moves. Musical dancers, however, offer something more. Their daring play with rhythm and their completely present reactions to the score make for bold performances that are mesmerizing to watch.
But how can performers learn to let music drive the dance? We asked some of today's most musical dancers how they do it.
What does it take to sustain a 20-year ballet career? The luminous principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu, who just marked two decades with National Ballet of Canada, shares how she's kept her body strong for long-term success:
To hear the screaming throngs of teenagers, you might think this was a Beatles concert in 1964. But no, it's dance students from all over the world joining together for the Youth America Grand Prix's gala at Lincoln Center, excited to see some of the greatest stars in dance today. Their rafter-shaking enthusiasm was heartening to hear, as they will no doubt become the performers, teachers, donors and audiences of tomorrow.
Actually, every single dance was a "best moment." In the first half of the YAGP gala, dubbed the "Stars of Tomorrow," 11 young dancers from the United States, Argentina, Portugal, Czech Republic, Japan and China displayed their outsized talents in solo variations. The young audience responded to the astounding turns and jumps that kept coming and coming.
Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Wheeldon's "Carousel," all photos Siggul/VAM
What makes a ballet truly Canadian? Sprinkle in a some lumberjacks, says Will Tuckett. That's just one of the many details we're loving about the brand-new production of Pinocchio that the British choreographer is creating at the National Ballet of Canada. Though it doesn't open until March 11, the company has offered several glimpses into the creative process with an ongoing video series. Check out Episode 2 below, which lets you be a fly on the wall during rehearsal. First soloist Skylar Campbell's movement as Pinocchio isn't what you'd expect to see in a ballet—he's all angles and no flow, but then again he's a puppet. This is one time we actually prefer a dancer's movement to be wooden, at least until he becomes a real boy.
National Ballet of Canada dancers took barre in a very unusual location earlier this week: Toronto's Union Station.
Principal Heather Ogden led a group of company members through typical combinations to the delight of several surprised commuters. The event celebrated the Toronto Transit Commission's We Move You ad campaign, which features photos and videos of NBoC members dancing in various trains, buses and stations around the city.
The campaign ran into a surprising controversy last month. The group Body Confidence Canada criticized the ads for not representing ordinary commuters. An online statement complained that the images "perpetuate unrealistic and highly regimented bodies as some sort of an ideal of 'beauty' " and that "the body type of most ballet dancers do not adequately represent those of most Canadians and dare we say most TTC users."
TTC spokesman Stuart Green pointed out to The Toronto Star that no one's ever had a problem when the organization has used athletes from major sports teams in its ads. Those body types don't exactly represent most Canadians, either. Neither do the unrealistic images of actors and models that surround us every day in all sorts of advertising and media.
Principal Naoya Ebe
But it seems the stereotype of skinny dancers makes them a target. Of course, ballet has a history of not exactly being open to diverse bodies. Still, it seems odd to object to celebrating what highly-trained dancers can do simply because their bodies don't reflect the general population. Obviously, depicting what's ordinary or everyday was not the aim of this campaign. (I, for one, would be much more excited about taking the subway if this was regularly happening on my way to work.)
Although the underground barre event had already been planned before the controversy erupted, hopefully it opened a few commuters' minds. Seeing some of what goes into creating a dancer's physique by watching an up-close-and-personal barre can be an eye-opening experience for non-dancers. Maybe, rather than being offended by the dancers' shapes, Torontonians were inspired by their abilities.
Jurgita Dronina is doing fouetté turns with her back to me. Facing the far wall, she builds momentum with the precise placement of each demi-rond-de-jambe. She apologized ahead of time, explaining with a self-deprecating smile: “I can't spot in the mirror. I'm always telling my partners, 'Don't worry, I'll turn fine onstage.' "
On this particular morning, the National Ballet of Canada principal is working before scheduled rehearsals to prepare for two upcoming galas in Taipei and Singapore. First on the program is Aurora's Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet she's performed numerous times, and I'm struck by how fresh the century-old choreography looks inside her body. Breathing into the retirés that mark the beginning of the solo, Dronina finds brightness and vulnerability. Her upper-body elegance extends into her port de bras and legs. But what she offers, first and foremost, is emotion. When she steps into first arabesque, her gorgeous extension comes with a surge of glee. She's actually blushing—exactly what you'd expect of Princess Aurora on her wedding day.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Dronina considers dance and acting inseparable. While she has earned a reputation for her unremitting work ethic—mornings that often begin at 7 am, with personal training and Pilates before company class—she says this is all in service to the foundation she needs to perform. “I want to go onstage and lose myself," she tells me. “I can't be thinking about anything technical. That's why I work so hard, so that onstage I've transformed."
Dronina was born in Saratov, Russia, in 1986, but she grew up mainly in Vilnius, Lithuania, where her family relocated when she was 4. She started out studying ballroom dancing—following in the footsteps of her older sister—and then moved on to gymnastics, but found it physically grueling to no justifiable ends. “It was useless to me—to break my body for nothing? I didn't see the purpose."
One day a choreographer came to the gym to lead the warm-up. Taking note of the 9-year-old Dronina's musicality and grace, he suggested she try out for the local ballet academy. For the audition, the somewhat bewildered Dronina improvised a hip-hop solo. “The jury didn't know what to think—but they started clapping," she says with a laugh. “Then they accepted me."
Dronina's physique might seem genetically predisposed to ballet, but she claims that this is an illusion created by relentless work. Training six days a week at the academy, she was often told that she probably wouldn't make it as a professional. “They told me, 'You don't have a jump, you don't have the legs, you're not turned out.' "
Soon, however, Dronina began competing at international competitions, winning gold and silver medals and proving her real power as a performer. After she finished her studies at the Munich International Ballet School, she accepted a position in the Royal Swedish Ballet from artistic director Madeleine Onne, who'd seen Dronina in competitions and been persistent in asking her to join. Onne cast her in soloist roles right off the bat, letting her attack the full spectrum of the company's classical repertoire. Three years later, when Dronina was just 22, Onne promoted her to principal dancer.
Yet the Royal Swedish Ballet lacked the variety she was looking for, especially in the way of new commissions. Hankering for more creative breadth, Dronina joined the Dutch National Ballet in 2010. But Amsterdam never felt like home, and within a few years her focus began to shift again, especially after the birth of her son Damian Ulysses in 2012. (Dronina is married to former Dutch National Ballet dancer Serguei Endinian.)
“I started thinking it wasn't the repertoire I wanted to dance until retirement," Dronina says. “Amsterdam wasn't the city I wanted my kid to grow up in. I was 29 and I thought if I stayed past 30, I might stay there forever."
She put her feelers out for a new company, wanting one with a good balance between classical ballets and new works in a big, vibrant city that her whole family would enjoy. Canada was an attractive option from the outset: Her husband grew up in Montreal (and danced originally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens). They spent 10 days in Toronto and fell in love with both the city and NBoC. “The dancers were so friendly and supportive, everyone sharing ideas and approaches to the work," Dronina says, adding that she cried on the plane home. “I said to my husband, 'My love, I don't want to leave. I feel so good here.' "
Artistic director Karen Kain wasn't in the market for a new female principal dancer. But after Dronina's visit, Kain started to wonder whether she could make it work. “She was very special," Kain says. “She has lovely articulation in her legs and feet. And she's very technically assured—although I'm sure she doesn't feel that way." Kain raises her eyebrows knowingly. “And I really liked her. It seemed like it should happen."
Dronina's first season was full of the dramatic roles she thrives in. Last November, she danced Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale, and loved what it demanded from her as an actress. “I talk in my head with every gesture," Dronina tells me, referring to the climactic trial scene in which Hermione pleads for her life. The next challenge came from La Sylphide, set by Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg. “I'd never danced a Bournonville ballet before and Johan was a great teacher. The style is so simple but so clear. You can't add anything on top of it, like at the beginning I wanted to do something extra"—she demonstrates a little épaulement—“and he said, 'No, no, no! Very plain. Very Bournonville.' It was a totally different approach." Her meticulous attention to detail paid off—reviews were unanimously glowing.
Dronina maintains a position as principal guest artist with the Hong Kong Ballet, now run by Onne, who continues to nurture Dronina's career. Dronina also recently curated, hosted and danced in a gala in Vilnius, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Lithuanian Ballet.
Meanwhile, her family takes full advantage of Toronto, often attending museums, galleries, concerts and festivals. Family is a huge source of stability in her life. “When I met my husband, my life changed. He didn't judge my approach. He says, 'This is what ballet should be, so much more than performing steps.' Once I found happiness in life, I became happy in ballet."
Yet Dronina maintains that her work is still fraught with a sense of struggle. “You get a new body every day. You see me in tendus and I'm crying. I have sweat dripping into a pool below me."
And yet it's these challenges that make her dancing most meaningful. Once company class is over, she puts the grueling technical work aside and dives headlong into character, setting and emotion. “At 11:30 am, I'm done. I can rehearse Giselle." She meets my eye and her smile becomes radiant. “You achieve something and you think: Oh, it was worth it. Now I understand."
Although her parents were professional dancers, Fischer has come into her own with roles like the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle. Sian Richards, Courtesy NBoC
As the Tall Woman in Balanchine’s “Rubies,” long-limbed Hannah Fischer injects a saucy mischievousness into the choreography’s almost jazzy angularity. As the Principal Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty’s prologue, she exudes a benign authority and expansively serene grace. Whether in abstract or dramatic ballets, the National Ballet of Canada second soloist demonstrates an energized versatility and confident poise that is capturing the attention of audiences and critics alike.
Company: National Ballet of Canada
Hometown: Toronto, Ontario
Training: Rhythmic gymnastics, ages 6 to 11; then full-time at Canada’s National Ballet School
Accolade: 2015 winner of the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize
All in the family: Both of Fischer’s parents had illustrious international performing careers. Now, her mother, Mandy-Jayne Richardson, is NBoC’s senior ballet mistress, and her father, Lindsay Fischer, is the principal ballet master. She admits that working under the daily scrutiny of her parents took some getting used to. “But they’re very good at what they do, and in the studio our relationship is strictly professional.”
Breakthrough moment: Fischer says she was “a hundred percent shocked” when Christopher Wheeldon chose her to dance the dramatically and technically challenging lead role of Hermione in the company’s premiere of The Winter’s Tale last November. Her achingly powerful portrayal of a wronged wife who finds the capacity for forgiveness earned her a standing ovation. Watching her reprise the role at the Kennedy Center in January, Washington Post dance critic Sarah L. Kaufman praised the way Fischer used her “ribbonlike form to suggest fragility and purity.”
Favorite roles: Although Fischer’s repertoire is already stylistically wide-ranging, she’s inspired by the challenge of portraying a character. “What I dream of doing are those meaty dramatic ballets.” She’s hoping Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile will come her way and would “just love” to dance Juliet. “Ballets where people die,” says Fischer, only half-jokingly, “somehow they just make you feel more.”
What Karen Kain is saying: “I’d been watching Hannah for years at the National Ballet School, and it was crystal clear she had great potential,” says the NBoC artistic director. “She’s extremely flexible, extremely musical and extremely intelligent. And she’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful package.”
Insider tip: “This profession really does test you,” says Fischer. “When you’re young, there’s a tendency to make everything into a bigger deal than it is. I had people always telling me it’s going to work out, but I had to find a way to believe that for myself.”
NBoC bounces back from last season, when 16 dancers were out due to injury.
Company class at National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, courtesy NBoC.
When National Ballet of Canada’s Jenna Savella made her entrance in Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 in Toronto last May, she created the kind of drama you least want to experience at the ballet. While sliding onstage, her shoe got caught on the floor, spraining a ligament in her foot that forced the recently promoted dancer to wear a walking cast for four weeks.
But she was not NBoC’s only sidelined dancer. An unprecedented 16 company members, almost a quarter of the ballet’s 67 dancers, were out last season due to injuries. The wounded ran the gamut, from principals and soloists to young members of the corps de ballet. The injuries themselves were similarly across the board: Guillaume Côté hurt his knee dancing The Nutcracker; recently anointed principal dancer Elena Lobsanova succumbed to a foot injury; and Evan McKie suffered from a herniated disk. “It’s a blow when a company has to deal with lots of simultaneous injuries,” says McKie, who had to forfeit key roles. “But it brings a company closer together because dancers have to teach each other steps and assume responsibility for the production.”
That cohesiveness was apparent when the National Ballet presented its lavish production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty in June. Faced with a shortage of dancers, artistic director Karen Kain made the bold decision to bring forward several from the lower ranks to dance the ballet’s lead roles for the first time. Stars were born of necessity, like Harrison James, who leapfrogged to the position of first soloist from the corps after taking on the role of Prince Florimund.
But the National Ballet isn’t taking this happier-than-usual ending for granted. Plans are under way to expand the company’s Dancer Health and Wellness Programme. Je-an Salas Leavens, a former company dancer turned Pilates instructor and a member of the health team, has been working closely with the company to enhance its current system with increased monitoring of injured dancers. “The dancers will undergo a detailed evaluation based on me observing them closely in class and in rehearsal,” says Salas Leavens. “The long-term goal is to ensure the dancers’ health following an injury and before they resume full-time dancing.”
“We have one of the most highly regarded dancer wellness programs in the world,” says Kain. “We’re just going up one level.”
Meiss builds explosive power by jumping on and off a 24-inch box. Photo by Sian Richards, Courtesy NBOC.
As a student, Chelsy Meiss was told that to become a professional ballet dancer, she should never lift weights. “ ‘No one likes an overly muscular ballerina,’ ” she says, repeating a common refrain. After joining the National Ballet of Canada in 2008, however, Meiss injured her ankle and the recommended rehabilitation program involved weight lifting to build strength, stamina and explosive power. Initially, she had her doubts. “It was a little daunting—ballerinas usually don’t lift anything heavier than themselves,” she says. “I really had no idea what I was getting into, and I didn’t think I would like it.”
Yet, after a few sessions with personal trainer Freyja Spence at Toronto’s Fortis Fitness, surrounded by guys in sweat-stained shorts and hard rock radio echoing off the industrial-strength equipment, Meiss quickly became a convert.
Standing 5' 6" and weighing a lithe 111 pounds, today the 28-year-old second soloist deadlifts 140 pounds. She also sweats through 95-pound front squats, 24-inch box jumps and one-arm dumbbell lunges—often executed consecutively as part of an intense circuit training program known as Tabata. It’s a killer workout that leaves Meiss utterly spent but also renewed. “I could see very quickly that weight training really improved my allégro, my jumps, my explosive and powerful movements, without changing my balletic line,” Meiss says. “Ballet dancers, especially female ones, are concerned that lifting weights will bulk them up. But that has not been my experience at all.”
What it has done instead is give her a noticeable edge. Visiting choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon and Marco Goecke have recently hand-picked Meiss to dance leading roles in their ballets. “Staff and colleagues have noticed a positive change in me and some are now going for weight training themselves,” Meiss adds. “They see the benefits, and are now willing to get past the stigma that lifting heavy weights is bad for a ballerina.”
Ready to Pump Some Iron?
Always lift weights with a trainer or a spotter who can recommend the proper resistance-training methods for your body type while also assessing your technique and gradually increasing the intensity over time. Here’s Meiss’ routine:
1. Warm up first. Meiss starts her gym workouts by standing in parallel, one leg lifted to the side at a 45-degree angle. She then traces a series of small circles in the air with the toe of the working leg extending back behind the body in a low arabesque. This fires the gluteal muscles and warms up the hips.
2. Kettle bell swings. Squatting in a parallel second position with the glutes sticking back and toes pointing slightly outwards, let the kettle bell hang down between your legs. Then thrust the weight up to chest level using the buttocks, not the arms, for momentum. Repeat 15 to 20 times. Meiss, who uses a 35-pound kettle bell, swears this exercise is made for women on pointe: “It lifts the hips and prevents the feet from sinking into the shoes.”
3. Box jumps. Find a sturdy object with a height you can safely jump on and off of. Start with feet parallel, hips-width apart, and then plié in front of the box. Jump up on and then off the box, landing with your core braced and stepping back before beginning the sequence over again. Repeat up to five times. Meiss finds this builds stamina and power for jumps.
4. Dumbbell lunges. Hold a dumbbell in one hand (Meiss uses a 20-pound weight) and lunge forward, alternating legs for a total of 10 lunges on each before shifting the weight to the opposite hand. Keep the core lifted and knee straight over the foot. “You should be lunging deep enough so that the back knee lightly touches the ground,” says Meiss. This strengthens the hips and lengthens the psoas muscles.
TIP: When lifting heavy weights, chalk is like rosin for the hands: It helps your grip and ensures that the weight doesn’t slide when you get tired.