Taylor Stanley's Epic Solos By Kyle Abraham Prove The Power of Hiring Unexpected Voices
Ever since I saw it last week, Kyle Abraham's The Runaway for New York City Ballet has been haunting me.
Of course, it was a big deal that the interim leadership team (specifically Justin Peck) asked Abraham to choreograph on the company, marking the first time in more than a decade that NYCB has hired a black choreographer. But what struck me most was not the symbolism of the commission. Or even the experience of hearing Kanye West blasted at Lincoln Center, for that matter. It's what Abraham did with Taylor Stanley that I haven't been able to stop thinking about.
The ballet opens with and returns to a series of extended solos for the remarkable NYCB principal. And each one is absolutely jaw-dropping. For someone who has always seemed so at home in Balanchine's house, Stanley looked just as comfortable taking on Abraham's hybrid movement style. He easily slipped between extended développés and the Nae Nae, confidently melting a jeté into a body roll, then morphing a phrase of popping into a classical port de bras. All the while making the mashup look completely natural.
As a kid, Stanley trained seriously in jazz, hip hop and tap while at The Rock School, and at one point even dreamed of dancing for Missy Elliott. Then he fell in love with Balanchine ballets, and quickly made a beeline for the top of Mr. B's company. Yet seeing the artistry he brought to something so far from his typical repertoire there made one of my colleagues question, "Is Taylor Stanley being wasted at New York City Ballet?"
Of course, that seems like a ridiculous thing to ask. He's a principal dancer at one of the best companies in the world. How could that be a waste? But this piece showed a glimpse into a totally unexplored branch of his talent.
So maybe New York City Ballet had been "wasting" Taylor Stanley in the sense that they had never before fully capitalized on the extent of his versatility. In just three weeks, Abraham (who typically spends a year or more to build a new work collaboratively with his dancers) brought out never-before-seen magic. And not just in Stanley—I've never seen any dancer or choreographer bleed neoclassical technique into a mix of street and contemporary styles so masterfully before. What would happen if Abraham and Stanley could dive in even deeper together on a longer piece, with a more generous creation period?
It just goes to show you what kinds of artistic breakthroughs can happen when a company looks outside the obvious choices and hires a range of voices to collaborate with its dancers. By bringing a new background, a different expertise, a divergent sensibility—and of course, his singular vision—Abraham created something truly original. I can't help but think that Mr. B himself would have approved.
Now, I'm just hoping that Stanley gets cast by Emma Portner, who also received an eyebrow-raising commission from NYCB for this spring. What might she be able to discover within Stanley that we've never witnessed before? We'll just have to wait and see.
Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.
But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
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New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.