While there are more women making dance than ever before, the question still swirls: Do they have the same programming and mentoring opportunities as their male counterparts? This spring, Ballet West and the University of Southern California are choosing to tackle the question head-on, with performances and residencies that focus on female dancemakers.
Ever dream of having one of your dance videos go viral online? The experience may not be all that you expect. Four dance artists reflect on their sudden fame after their videos became online sensations:
Kirk Henning is a company member at Richmond Ballet. You've seen Henning and his groomsmen dancing for fellow company member Valerie Tellmann-Henning as a surprise at their wedding reception.
Program director of the professional training programs at Steps on Broadway and the director of Harlem School of the Arts Prep Program.
The whole ballet tradition is inherently racist, so the traditional productions of Nutcracker can also be seen as racist. In many versions of Nutcracker, one sees overt racial stereotypes. In the second-act divertissements, many of the dances or variations are borderline caricatures, if not downright demeaning. For example, the way in which Asians have been portrayed in the Chinese variation—with heads bobbing up and down, index fingers protruding, and happy smirks of joy plastered on the dancers' faces—is insulting and embarrassing.
But recently, some versions have attempted to portray a more positive image. The San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker has a Chinese divertissement that represents a dragon from Chinatown, which is culturally specific but more importantly, not demeaning. It is not a difficult thing to do but requires a revisionist attitude toward these dances. The same kind of change could be made to the Arabian dance: In many productions, the female dancer is a seductress with navel exposed as she is lifted to and fro from one male partner to another. What does this say to young children watching and dancing in The Nutcracker? I am sure the people of Arab countries do not like to see their women presented in such a manner.
New York Theatre Ballet's Nutcracker by Keith Michael
Several years ago, I was asked to choreograph a Chinese dance to be performed by a reputable ballet school in Connecticut. I again ran into the expectation of caricature. But I choreographed a dance that I felt was not as stereotypical as the previous version, downplaying the Chinese stereotypes and emphasizing substantial choreography and the beautiful Tchaikovsky score. It was well received but was eventually replaced with the original version that I thought was demeaning to Asians.
Examples of how nationalities can be portrayed without stereotyping include Donald Byrd's excellent 1996 Harlem Nutcracker. Set to David Berger's version of the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the divertissements were drawn from the Harlem Renaissance, celebrating positive images of African Americans. Another is Keith Michael's one-hour Nutcracker set in Art Nouveau style circa 1907, performed by Diana Byer's New York Theatre Ballet. It features innovative choreography devoid of all caricatures and stereotypes.
I feel that more Nutcrackers venturing beyond demeaning stereotypes would invigorate and sustain this joyous holiday classic.
Founding artistic director, Richmond Ballet
There's not one single thing about The Nutcracker that's racist. In terms of casting, we've always cast—this is the 30th season—completely color blind. Beautiful dancers are beautiful dancers.
Last year, with our two Claras and three Sugar Plums, we had a tremendously diverse cast. They each got the part because they were the best for the role. I love that the production looks the way our audience and our community look. And we get a lot of racial diversity through the children in our school.
Richmond Ballet added a dragon to the Chinese dance
Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet
I did our original Nutcracker in 1984, the first full-length performance ever of the professional company. After 19 years the sets and costumes were getting worn so I decided to redo it. I had noticed the children in the audience were so engaged in Act I, but the second act didn't keep the children's interest as much. I knew children love animals. I made Act II focus on the animals. For the mirlitons I made a shepherd and shepherdess and six little lambs. In Spanish we have two couples—the guys are toreadors with capes à la Don Q, the women running through, making horns like bulls. In the Russian, we decided to do a dancing bear with two side Russians.
For Chinese I decided I wanted a dragon; it's something sacred in the Chinese culture. I invited Michael Lowe—he's Chinese and an Oakland Ballet veteran—to choreograph it. When the dragon came, it had a little shade over its eyes. We had a dragon blessing to take the shade off the eyes. We tried to do all the respectful things.
Artistic director, Spectrum Dance Theater, Seattle
I don't find The Nutcracker racist. I think it's Eurocentric in terms of its perspective. You're being told a story—even when it's set in America—from the perspective of a traditional 19th-century European household. Anybody that was not European is presented as exotic—the notion of the Other. I would say it's exclusive rather than racist. It excludes the Other and reserves its experiences for a particular group: Anglo-Europeans. This group is mirrored back to itself onstage in The Nutcracker.
The Harlem Nutcracker that I created had its own form of exclusivity: It was directed at the African American family. The question I asked myself at the time was, How can I include the African American family into the Nutcracker experience? I wanted to make a Nutcracker that reinforces some values that are important to the African American family just as the traditional Nutcracker reinforces values important to Anglo-American families.
A chorus line of snowflakes in Donald Byrd's Harlem Nutcracker
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Courtesy Byrd
As for representation of various racial/ethnic groups in the Nutcracker divertissements, like Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, and Chinese Tea: At worst, they are insensitive, and at best, irrelevant or indifferent, especially when viewed through a 19th-century imperialist lens. How else should the representation be of a world that exemplifies the privilege of an imperializing Europe, other than indifference to the people and places that provided the commodities that supported their comfort?
Taking it a step further: Think of the Mouse King and his marauding horde as foreign, alien elements that sneak in under cover of night to infiltrate, undermine, and disrupt the order of “the house," i.e. country, kingdom, Europe. They are vanquished by the Nutcracker/Prince and Clara. In this context, the second act is a vision of European supremacy. The rest of the world and its people are there only to “sweeten" the lives of the dominant Europeans.
What do you think? Send your response to this question—and these points of view—to email@example.com.
Portrait photos from top: Greg Rourt, Courtesy Alexander; Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet; Courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music
Alison Roper, Paul DeStrooper, and Damian Drake of Oregon Ballet Theatre in Kudelka’s Almost Mozart. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy Kennedy Center.
In the five years since the Kennedy Center launched its Ballet Across America celebration, the focus has shifted from larger companies to those smaller in size, but large in impact. In this year’s edition, six of the nine companies have fewer than 30 dancers on their rosters.
The larger companies have chosen masterworks that take advantage of their size: Boston Ballet performs Balanchine’s modernist Symphony in Three Movements, Pennsylvania Ballet his iconic The Four Temperaments, and Sarasota Ballet Ashton’s delightful Les Patineurs. But the smaller companies’ offerings show that there is plenty of new work being made across the nation.
Along with Sarasota, new to the festival are Ballet Austin, the revamped Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Richmond Ballet, making its Kennedy Center debut. The choreography ranges from that by company directors (Stephen Mills at BA), associate directors (Sasha Janes for North Carolina Dance Theatre) and resident choreographers (Robert Garland at DTH) to dancemakers with ties to other small companies, expanding the festival’s reach further. Ma Cong, who recently retired from Tulsa Ballet to focus on choreography (see “Transitions,” p. 90), made Ershter Vals, Richmond’s offering; and Wunderland by Edwaard Liang, recently tapped to lead BalletMet Columbus, will be danced by The Washington Ballet. Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Almost Mozart by James Kudelka, who has been leading BalletMet as an artistic consultant in the interim. Having so many smaller troupes showcased is something to applaud.
The Mariinsky in Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Photo by Natasha Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky.
One Hundred Years Later
May 29 marks the centennial of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Dance artists pay tribute to the original provocateur around the world (probably without the riots, but one never knows):
Akram Khan Company in the premiere of Khan’s iTMOi in London
Richmond Ballet in Salvatore Aiello’s 1993 version in Norfolk, VA
Shen Wei Dance Arts in Wei’s The Rite of Spring in Houston, TX
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bausch’s Frühlingsopfer in Gothenburg, Sweden
Tero Saarinen’s HUNT, a veritable light show, in Dublin
The Mariinsky Ballet will perform a commissioned Rite of Spring by Sasha Waltz in St. Petersburg. Both a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original and the Sasha Waltz version will be danced in Salzburg, and, on the 29th and in two subsequent performances, at the original scene of the crime: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
The choreographic offerings of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s two-week season at NYC’s Joyce Theater are plentiful: Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Aszure Barton, and Sharon Eyal are represented, along with works by former HSDC dancer Robyn Mineko Williams and resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. But two company performances happening this month in Chicago are no less intriguing: a Picasso-inspired site-specific day at the Art Institute of Chicago on May 9, and a big gala on May 30, honoring the country’s most vocal dance supporter/mayor, Rahm Emanuel. www.hubbardstreetdance.com.
Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino in Ohad Naharin’s THREE TO MAX. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
An American Tale
It’s a simple but elegant solution to the notion that ballet is inaccessible: Draw from the American literary canon to pull in audiences. After mounting The Great Gatsby in 2010, with live jazz musicians and singers that captured the Roaring ’20s, Septime Webre, director of The Washington Ballet, premieres the second work in his American Experience series, Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, based on the classic novel. With a setting that ranges from Paris’ Left Bank to Pamplona for a bit of running with the bulls, it’s an ambitious undertaking. For future productions, the company is looking to adapt works by Henry James, Tennessee Williams, and Langston Hughes—and commission other choreographers. May 8–12 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. www.washingtonballet.org.
Jared Nelson in Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises. Photo by Brianne Bland, Courtesy TWB.
Sounds of Celebration
May 25 is National Tap Dance Day, which falls on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, and the party lasts all month long. Events like Dance Inn Production’s National Tap Dance Day weekend in Massachusetts and Spring to Dance (see below right), where Michelle Dorrance will debut a new piece, provide fun for all. The festivities also go international, from the Norman Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver to a hoofers’ gala at the Moscow International House of Music.
Michelle Dorrance. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Kenn Tam, Courtesy Dorrance Dance.
Spoleto Festival USA welcomes an international crop of dance talent to Charleston, SC, this month. Compagnie Käfig energetically blends samba, hip-hop, and capoeira in Correria and Agwa, while Kuchipudi diva Shantala Shivalingappa and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía tell stories in their own dialects. American artists who bring humor to their work are also in the lineup: Lucky Plush Productions from Chicago and Jared Grimes, who makes his festival debut in a commissioned evening-length work. May 24–June 9. www.spoletousa.org.
Compagnie Käfig in Agwa at Jacob’s Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Pillow.
If the Pointe Shoe Fits
Christopher Wheeldon’s imaginative new version of Cinderella, a co-production between San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, has its U.S. premiere this month with performances in San Francisco from May 3–12. The choreographer’s version is more adult than Disney—he drew inspiration from the dark undertones of Prokofiev’s score. Wheeldon brings the production into the 21st century with spectacular special effects and puppetry by Basil Twist. www.sfballet.org.
Luke Willis, Sasha De Sola, and Sean Bennett rehearse Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, more than 30 groups will descend on the Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis for the Emerson Spring to Dance Festival. Representing the Midwest are companies like Grand Rapids Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, with some friends from the coasts including ODC/Dance and Camille A. Brown. The festival will be a homecoming of sorts for St. Louis native Antonio Douthit, one of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s most riveting dancers, who will perform Ailey’s Pas de Duke with the luminous Alicia Mack Graf. And at just $15 each, tickets are a steal. www.dancestlouis.org.
Antonio Douthit of Ailey in Robert Battle’s Strange Humors. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Ailey.
Contributors: Suzannah Friscia, Kina Poon
Maggie Small in Karinska costume for Balanchine’s Liebesleder Waltzer.
Photo by Matthew Karas.
Maggie Small’s pointe shoe swings inches from the ceiling of a corner studio at Richmond Ballet, as partner Fernando Sabino presses her through a lift, her body arched across his hand. After a slow spin down, the pas de deux continues through shifting romantic moods—lyrical and earnest, charming and flirtatious—punctuated by more gravity-defying lifts. Small and Sabino are rehearsing ballet master Malcolm Burn’s Pas Glazunov under the gaze of artistic associate Igor Antonov. At the end of the run, Antonov mentions to Small that a pirouette seemed late; she says quickly, “Yes, I felt it.”
Small, 26, generates crackling energy from within her small frame. Her vivacity makes you want to run up and hug her onstage sometimes. In sprightly roles such as the mischievous Swanhilda, she brims with comic energy. She dances an elegant and gracious Sugar Plum Fairy, skimming joyfully through her grand jetés. But audiences love best her rippling, smoldering snake in the Arabian Dance. And in a contemporary work such as Ma Cong’s Luminitza, she spirals and arcs through luscious partnering sequences.
“Her range, both technically and emotionally, is very impressive,” says Stoner Winslett, artistic director of Richmond Ballet. “There’s a deep honesty about her performance.” Richmond Ballet is particularly proud of Small’s accomplishment, since she is a homegrown talent. She started dancing at age 3 in a local studio, and by age 5 her mother enrolled her at the School of Richmond Ballet. She came up through the school, served her time as a trainee, then an apprentice, and joined the company six years ago. “You were immediately drawn to her…a little sparkle going on there,” remembers Burn.
As a young teenager Small rode horses, played piano, and roller-skated. “But ballet was always my favorite,” she says. “There was no question that eventually it would take over, once I was allowed to take more classes.”
Small feels a tremendous respect for her teachers at RB. She took as many classes as she could, and even though she’d audition for summer intensives, she ended up staying in Richmond for the chance to work with Burn, who doesn’t teach in the school during the year. Over the course of her career, she has participated in every aspect of RB, even the Minds in Motion program, which brings dance to children in area schools. When the program came to Richmond Montessori School, where Small was in upper elementary class, she says, “I remember thinking it was so cool to see my ‘regular’ friends doing dance moves.”
At right: As Clara in Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker, 1997.
Small’s mother is African-American; her father is white. Race, however, did not play much of a role in her experience inside or outside the ballet. Small doesn’t remember ever being the only student of color in her ballet classes. But, she says, “I also don’t remember looking for it. I really wasn’t very aware; I grew up in a bubble.”
In the midst of her apprenticeship, Small tried college for one year at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “After my first apprentice year it was really hard to decide what to do,” she says, “because it was important to my mom that I went to school, and I didn’t want to. I was happy dancing all day long, and it was really difficult because the company offered me a position and I didn’t know what to do. You know…you want to make your family happy. So I said, OK, I’ll go to school.”
Small was not particularly happy at Tisch. She was not interested in choreographing, for example, which was a big part of the program. After the first year, she called Winslett and asked to return to finish her apprenticeship. Winslett was able to make it happen, and Small has not looked back since.
Growing up at RB has yielded some magical experiences for her, including the chance to work with Antonov, a dancer she had idolized as a child. During her apprenticeship, she remembers, “I was giggly excited to be in the studio with him.” Later, “It was really cool to dance with Igor. For his retirement performance [last fall] I got to dance Who Cares? with him. And it was sort of like a pinch-yourself moment, even now when I’ve been in the company with him for so long.”
Back in the studio, Small and Sabino take a few minutes to work on another lift from Pas Glazunov, with help from Antonov. Small is concerned about her balance at the top of the lift; Sabino is not sure if he can slow down and still manage to press her to full extension.
Small’s partnership with Sabino has developed almost inadvertently. Says Winslett about her 14-member, unranked troupe, “In a small company like this we usually move people around, and we never purposely try to develop partnerships. But they’ve been put together a lot, and work together beautifully.”
Sabino enjoys their complementary styles. “We are completely different,” he says. “But when we are together we become one. I like a lot of improvisation, and she likes to be told what to do. It’s a good marriage. I go with her, and she goes with me.” They call each other “work husband” and “work wife,” though their relationship remains platonic. Small has been dating RB dancer Thomas Garrett for several years. They are rarely partnered, however. “Tommy and I don’t dance together very much,” says Small, who is 5' 5". “He’s real tall, and there are a lot of tall girls here. I’m little.”
Maggie enjoys a rare rehearsal with fellow RB dancer (and offstage partner) Thomas Garrett. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy RB.
After going through Pas Glazunov, Small and Sabino run After Eden for Burn. They are rehearsing for the company’s London debut in June. They throw themselves into the emotional work full-out, breathless and sweaty by the end. Burn compliments them and gives a few notes. Later, he says of Small, “She’s always been wonderfully open to try anything—and laugh while she’s doing it. She’s gutsy and courageous. You can take her and throw her into the air, and she’ll go ‘Wheee!’ as she comes flying down.”
Eve, in After Eden, is Small’s favorite role. “I really love that the steps come from the character and the character comes from the steps,” she says. “It can be different every time—there’s room to make it my own without feeling like I’m not being true to the choreography.”
When studying a new role, Small calls herself “a homework girl.” For Coppélia, in which she performed Swanhilda last February, she studied other dancers’ interpretations on DVD and she read up on the history of dolls. “I had a lot of fun researching automatons,” she says. “It was really creepy. But it’s difficult to decide how you’re going to be a girl, or a doll, or a girl being a doll.”
Burn appreciates the dancer’s intelligence and versatility. “Maggie continues to surprise me. I don’t think there’s any limit to what she will be able to accomplish.”
Small loves the challenge of RB’s repertoire. If she were in a bigger company, she says, “I wouldn’t get to do what I do here. There are days when I cannot possibly give any more. I would love to sit down for an hour. But whenever we actually get that break, I think, ‘Oh, I’m so bored. I should probably go run something downstairs.’ It’s just the way I enjoy dancing—dancing a lot.”
During the summer she explores other opportunities, such as the National Choreographers Initiative, in which she participated for three years as a dancer, and this summer she performed with Jessica Lang’s new company at Jacob’s Pillow.
But she is always glad to return to RB. “I dance with people I like, for people I like, in my hometown. My family is here. I work with my boyfriend every day, and he’s happy. It’s a real good gig.”
Small in costume for Cong's Luminitza. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and interim chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Maggie’s tips on building strength:
Skinny Legs Early on in her apprenticeship with RB, Small realized, “I had really skinny little legs, and I wasn’t superstrong.” So she began strength-building exercises using a Thera-Band.
Practicing the Hard Parts “I like adagio, and I don’t really like petit allegro. But I push hard at all of it, because there’s no variation where you’re going to do just adagio.”
Doubling Up “I always do the exercises at least twice, so that I can build up my strength. If you push yourself in rehearsal and class, then when it gets to show days, it’s not as hard.”
Daily Pilates Since starting Pilates three years ago, she says, “It’s made me even more aware of my core and made me re-think the way I work.”