Tales from the Dark Side
Dancers on the power of witchy roles
That makes a witch? Is it just warts and a mastery of the black arts? Or is it strength and intelligence united in a woman whose power frightens people? Witches creep through dance in various forms, and they almost always cause trouble, or at least scare the pants off people. Think of evil Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, or fortune-telling Madge in La Sylphide. In a dark corner of early modern dance lurked the masked witch-woman in Mary Wigman’s solo Hexentanz II (1926); and more recently, The Bell Witch cast her spell in a ballet choreographed by Ann Marie DeAngelo for Nashville Ballet.
But what makes these witches such troublemakers? Often, it’s jealousy. Carabosse, the wicked fairy, is enraged at not being invited to Aurora’s christening and flings out a curse, ruining the party. Madge takes revenge on James for throwing her out of the house when she reveals to his fiancée that he loves another (the Sylph). The Bell Witch is said to have harrassed the Bell family in Tennessee out of jealousy or spite. Only Wigman’s witch dances purely from a sense of her own power. With Halloween looming, Dance Magazine set fear aside and spoke to several dance artists familiar with these roles to find out more about the creatures behind the makeup and masks.
One Fairy Gone Bad
The trouble with Carabosse, says Malcolm Burn, artistic associate and ballet master of the Richmond Ballet, is that no back story is given about her. “Why did she end up being a bad fairy in the first place, the one they didn’t invite?” he asks. “I would love to know.” When Burn staged The Sleeping Beauty last year, he performed the role of Carabosse himself. The lack of clear motivation doesn’t bother him. “That’s what makes it all the more delicious to be her, because truly she is vicious,” he says. “There’s nothing redeeming. She’s just the epitome of evil.”
Carabosse has often been performed by men. “We used the masculinity inside the female costume to create a female who moves differently from other females,” says Burn, whose costume included corset, wig, and elaborate makeup. “She’s big, she’s not fairy-like, she doesn’t have those beautiful legs and feet and lovely tutu. So one tries to exploit that to make her look more imposing and cold.”
But the evil fairy is also performed by women. Carmen Corella, who was cast as Carabosse in American Ballet Theatre’s recent production of The Sleeping Beauty, focused on subtleties like facial expressions in her performance. “I tried to do the role in a way that the expressions would be strong enough to read,” she says, “instead of just screaming and making noises.”
From a Dark Place
Sorella Englund’s Madge, from the Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide, is possibly the most famous characterization of the role today. Allan Ulrich, a Dance Magazine senior advising editor, says, “She looks like a great beauty of yesteryear gone to seed. Her red hair suggests a Klimt painting. Sorella interprets Madge as a jealous, spurned lover. She seems to have gotten under James’ skin psychologically, and thanks to her RDB training, she possesses a wonderful specificity in mime.”
Englund has performed the role for over 25 years, not only with Royal Danish Ballet, but also with The Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet. “I would never have believed I would tour as an old witch in my old age,” she says. “But it’s deeply exciting.”
The witch’s character is not simply evil. “There are no human beings who are born only evil or only good,” Englund says. “Most witches in history were incredibly bright and very passionate. This woman Madge—I think she was never loved. What maybe was worse for her was that nobody wanted her love.” Her Madge does not rely on the usual witchy tricks of cackling or cursing. “I think it’s much more dangerous when you’re quiet,” she says, and offers an interpretation that could be the key to her success with the role: “Maybe she is the shadow or the dark side of the Sylph.”
When coaching other dancers in ths Bournonville classic, Englund gives them a certain amount of freedom. “I try to tell them to find their own dark place,” she says, “because all art, I think, is personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not very interesting.”
Sorella Englund as Madge in Boston Ballet's La Sylphide
Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet
A Local Legend
In Adams, Tennessee, in 1817, the family of John Bell began to experience violent disturbances in their house and on their land. Bedcovers were yanked off; pillows were thrown; they were slapped; their hair was pulled; strange voices tormented them. The “Bell Witch,” as the ghost became known, achieved notoriety throughout the region for her nasty temper and irrepressible violence. In 2003 the Nashville Ballet commissioned Ann Marie DeAngelo to create The Bell Witch in homage to the feisty poltergeist.
Nashville Ballet in The Bell Witch, by Ann Marie DeAngelo
Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy NB
To portray the Bell Witch and her mischief, DeAngelo says that she relied on both theatrical effects and dance devices. The Witch was thought to have tried to prevent the marriage of John Bell’s daughter, Betsy, to her suitor Joshua Gardner. Choreographically, that idea became a pas de trois where the Witch keeps preventing Betsy and Joshua from getting close to each other or touching, though they don’t actually see her.
“We portrayed the witch a little more sympathetically. There were scary moments and there were comic moments, so it made it really entertaining,” says DeAngelo. “I didn’t create her with some bizarre kind of movement vocabulary. I humanized her a little bit more. I know people who know ghosts, who’ve experienced it, and say that the ghost feels very real.”
Behind the Mask
Scholar and dancer Betsy Fisher has reconstructed and performed Mary Wigman’s famous Hexentanz II (1926), or Witch Dance, which was influenced by her ideas about mysticism. In this solo, the body unleashes demonic energy from the unconscious or supernatural forces. A fragment of film from the original piece shows Wigman, face hidden behind a smooth and sinister mask, seated with her knees drawn up. The music crashes discordantly as she claws the air and then advances jaggedly towards the viewer, still seated, but wrenching herself forward with legs and arms.
“I always get the feeling that there’s an incredible power in this figure; the power that can destroy and the power that can create,” says Fisher. “In a way she’s like the mother earth: It can be the volcano or it can be the nurturer of new life.” When she performed the piece recently at American University, Fisher says, “A young man came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Look what you did!’ He’d been grabbing his pen so hard that it exploded in his hand. His hand was filled with ink.”
Kansas City Ballet's Kimberly Cowen in Wigman's Hexentanz
Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB
Fisher feels that everyone who performs the piece discovers a different witch. “You know, when they find that creature inside of them and when they let it go explosively through their whole body, then they’re going to have the witch, and it won’t be like anybody else’s.”
Part of the witch’s power comes from the mask. Kansas City Ballet’s Kimberly Cowen, who learned the dance from Fisher, says, “When you put that mask on, it takes away your inhibitions. Then you’re able to just be the character instead of thinking about yourself in the character.”
Reflecting on the role, Cowen says, “There was a little bit of desperation in her, and because of that she used her power to scare and influence people.” And scare people she did—at least young people. Apparently one young boy, during a recent Kansas City Ballet performance, tapped his dad and said, “This is kind of scary.” A few minutes later, he tugged on his dad again and said, “I think we need to go. ”
Good and Evil
Malcolm Burn, musing on the idea of the witch, says, “There is inherent in all fairy tales, and in our biblical tradition, and just about every tradition, a very strong sense of good and evil. What we teach our children in the fairy tales is that evil is actually there, and good is also there. And one is to be desired and one is not. And then as they get older we can say to them, ‘Both are within you.’ ”
Lea Marshall, a freelance writer based in Richmond, VA, is co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
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:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
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.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.