Technique My Way: Christine Schwaner
Unleashing her power through Pilates
Christine Schwaner with Luca Sbrizzi in Bournonville’s Flower Festival. Photo: Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Christine Schwaner is the ballerina little girls dream of becoming. During an afternoon rehearsal in a nearly empty studio, Schwaner’s presence makes the room glow. With each step of Bournonville’s meticulous pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano, the pint-sized Brazilian draws you in with her easy movement, expressive eyes, and bright smile. A self-proclaimed bunhead, Schwaner came to the United States at 17 to compete in the International Ballet Competition, where she was offered a contract with Cleveland Ballet. In 2006 she joined PBT with her husband, soloist Alexandre Silva. This season she took her place as one of the company’s leading ladies when she was promoted to principal. In October, her generous performance as Giselle, alongside Silva, was celebrated with sweeping acclaim.
Cross-training for injury
Schwaner’s most serious injury occurred December 16, 2008 at 1:30 p.m. (she recalls the date and time precisely), when she slipped on the marley and severely sprained her ankle, overstretching her flexor hallucis longus (FHL) tendon. It’s the only time she’s had to stop dancing: two months in the dreaded boot. Surgery was recommended, but Schwaner went looking for other options and found Pilates-based therapy. “You have to investigate,” she says. “Ask people, read about it. You’ve got to be curious in that way because in the end it’s your body.” Three months and zero surgeries later, Schwaner was dancing without pain. “I became a believer,” she says.
Now, Schwaner uses Pilates exercises to warm up, strengthen, and heal. Despite a shoulder injury a few years later, she never missed a step, focusing intently on strengthening the joint. The exercises she learned for her ankle and shoulder injuries have become mainstays in her daily routine to ensure she doesn’t repeat the experience.
Shortly after becoming enthralled with the benefits of Pilates, Schwaner tried Gyrotonics on the recommendation of a friend. “You feel like you’re detangled,” she says of the practice. She now combines the two exercise forms in her weekly cross-training schedule, which is as intense as her ballet studio time. “I think Pilates is great when you first get injured because it has restriction and you just get back to the movement,” she says. “And then the Gyrotonics goes beyond. You reach spots that you say, Oh, my god, I can’t believe my body is able to do that.”
A patient warm-up
It’s fairly typical for a ballet dancer to enter the studio before class and plop straight down into a split or the frog—a habit that doesn’t make sense to Schwaner. “I do not stretch before class,” she says, adding that she doesn’t see the advantage of trying to elongate her muscles before they’re warm. Instead, she relies on Pilates exercises that focus on core strength.
As an avid Pilates practitioner, Schwaner feels strongly that an improperly executed exercise is worse than not doing one at all. “Ballet takes a lot of time,” she says. She advises young dancers to approach their warm-up with seriousness. Every morning Schwaner arrives in the studio at least 20 minutes before class begins to prepare.
While Schwaner relies on Gyrotonics and trigger-point therapy to help keep her body aligned throughout the season, during the week of a performance, she lets the choreography do the work. To perform the specific steps for a certain role, Schwaner acknowledges that you may need to be stronger on one leg than the other—or centered a little more to one side than in your actual center. In order to have the strength required for that particular performance, she allows her body to prepare itself in rehearsal and then takes it easy outside the studio—dramatically cutting back on her cross-training routine.
While Schwaner snacks on nuts throughout the season, the week of a performance she’ll increase her carbohydrate intake just a bit to boost her energy level. She also takes Emergen-C multivitamin packets, since long rehearsal schedules and stress can deplete immunity.
Most important for her performance preparation, however, is good old-fashioned ballet class. While some of her colleagues find that a solid Pilates workout prepares them just as well as a barre, Schwaner absolutely will not miss class before a show. “Even if all I have to do is walk on the stage, I take a class,” she says. “If I had 10 shows a day, I would take 10 classes.” On multiple-show days she doesn’t repeat full class in order to avoid overuse injuries, but she has never found a warm-up that better prepares her for the stage than the first five exercises at the barre.
Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Schwaner starts her warm-up the same way every day. The Pilates “cat stretch” engages the spine and back while stretching it safely.
• Start on the floor on your hands and knees, with shoulders and hips square. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders and knees directly below the hips.
• Exhale, pressing your bellybutton toward your spine and pushing down into your hands as you curve your back (like an angry cat). Keep your shoulders down and even. Then shift your weight slightly back toward your feet to feel the stretch in your lower spine.
• Inhale as you release your tailbone, passing through a neutral position, then tilting your rear end up as you lift your head toward the ceiling to create a slight arch. Be sure to lengthen from the top of your head to your tailbone as you stretch and keep your stomach muscles tight. Do not collapse into the flexibility of your spine.
• Repeat six to eight times slowly.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."