A beloved ballerina, a postmodern renegade, a brilliant choreographic storyteller, a gifted Broadway director/choreographer, and a pioneering healer. This month, Dance Magazine trains the spotlight on five luminaries who have made extraordinary contributions to our art form. We honor them because each, with her or his own brand of magic, has made dance an even more magnificent world to be a part of. The 2011 Dance Magazine Awards were presented December 5th, 2011.
Only a few ballerinas are blessed with that particular gift of dancing that seems to engage the audience in a conversation—and Jenifer Ringer is one of them. Detail and nuance spring from an inner source, a warm generosity that soars to the last ring of the theater. Her lyrical brand of dancing manifests in port de bras that speaks eloquently, a movement quality that sings outward, and a manner that communicates lovingly with her partners. By just watching her dance, you instinctively know you would enjoy her company. As a valued principal dancer with New York City Ballet, she has also overcome obstacles—and spoken openly about them—in a way that makes her a natural role model for all dancers.
Raised in South Carolina, Ringer trained at Mary Day’s Washington School of Ballet, where she first danced a Balanchine ballet, Serenade. It instantly resonated with her soul and she knew she wanted to be a professional dancer. (The waltz girl from Serenade would later become one of her signature roles with NYCB.) After a year of training with the School of American Ballet and a brief apprenticeship, she joined NYCB’s corps de ballet in 1990.
She caught the eye of Jerome Robbins, who knew that her fresh, vital approach, combined with her appealing femininity, would perfectly suit his ballets like Interplay, The Concert, and 2&3 Part Inventions. She was promoted to soloist in 1995, but she suffered from depression, sustained a back injury, and gained weight. She took time off, graduated from Fordham University and slowly made her way back to class, and then the company.
With a newfound sense of artistry, she imbued ballets like Divertimento No. 15 and The Four Seasons with sparkling precision. In the tempestuous third duet of In the Night, she brought a sense of fraught delicacy and emotional will. She was promoted to principal dancer in 2000.
Other choreographers have loved her too. Twyla Tharp wrote her into the majestic angst of The Beethoven Seventh. Alexei Ratmansky used her ability to create an authentic emotional life in Russian Seasons and Namouna: A Grand Divertissement (as the cigarette-smoking seductress). Rarely do dancers disappear from the stage and then resurrect their careers with such mastery. But Ringer did.
She has found a niche at NYCB in works that showcase her lush, romantic physicality: the windswept second movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet; the sensuous duets of Dances at a Gathering; the heady subtext of Liebeslieder Walzer; and the passionate “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Who Cares? Her radiant, inexhaustible Aurora and her capricious Swanilda easily carried full-length ballets with crackerjack technique. Her Odette highlighted the human tragedy of Swan Lake and conjured up memories of a young Margot Fonteyn. She also proves her theatrical know-how as a fierce singing/dancing Anita in West Side Story Suite.
When Ringer was thrust into the national spotlight after a review that included a harsh comment about her body, she disarmed any shadow of negativity with her grace on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Today Show.
As a revered ballerina and an elegant spokesperson, Jenifer Ringer has graciously served as a goodwill ambassador for dance and dancers. —Joseph Carman
From top: Jenifer Ringer in Ratmansky’s Namouna: A Grand Divertissement; Ringer and her husband, James Fayette, in Robbins’ Interplay. Photos by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Yvonne Rainer reigned supreme as the dancer who broke the rules in the 1960s. Starting from the ground up, she remade modern dance and gave it a name: postmodern. She whisked away the dusty A-B-A format and the “heroic posturing” that made some modern dance seem remote. Fresh from Robert Dunn’s workshop, which extended John Cage’s philosophy that any-sound-can-be-music to any-movement-can-be-dance, she and her peers approached Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village to show their work. Thus, in 1962, Judson Dance Theater was born. This collective of dancers, musicians, and artists fairly exploded with experimentation. As Rainer has said, “There was ground to be broken, and we were standing on it.”
She embraced the “ordinary” but shunned the facile. Her first full-length piece, Terrain (1963), had nothing easy about it for either the dancers or the audience. And yet her choreography was infused with humor and sensuousness. When she wrote the infamous “No Manifesto” (“No to spectacle, no to virtuosity,” etc.), it was a way to declare a break with the past and start all over again.
One of her influences was the Dada movement in Europe and the idea of radical juxtaposition (a Susan Sontag term). She might put a technical dance phrase next to an action of lugging a mattress around. She might make strange little sounds, or scream, or recite a speech while dancing. She could be radical in the political sense, as when, for the People’s Flag Show in 1970, she and her colleagues danced “Trio A” nude, except for an American flag tied like a bib at the neck. One of her group works evolved into the Grand Union, a legendary improvisation collective that included Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, and Nancy Lewis.
Rainer’s ideas have come down through the generations, influencing many later choreographers. Bill T. Jones and Liz Lerman have inserted text rampantly, Ralph Lemon and John Jasperse use radical juxtaposition to poetic effect, and Susan Marshall and Susan Rethorst have had a heyday with “ordinary” movement.
Although Rainer abandoned dance for filmmaking in the mid ’70s, dancing often cropped up in her films. One could see the same aesthetics of refusal—or at least a stubborn kind of plainness—that marked her dances.
At Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation to lend a dance for his Past/Forward project in 2000, she returned to the dance world. Since then she has made a number of works with a small group of dancers (always the wordsmith, she calls them her Raindears). She still exemplifies the Judson spirit, which she described in her autobiography, Feelings Are Facts, as “a dare-devil willingness to try anything.”
Looking at her recent work, one could say, Yes to dancing, yes to interrupting your dancing with words, yes to laughing, yes to mining the past, yes to letting the individuality of your dancers show, yes to simultaneous planes of action, yes to radical juxtaposition, yes to a rough-hewn sort of beauty. —Wendy Perron
From top: Yvonne Rainer in the early ’60s. Photo from DM Archives; (Left to right) Patricia Hoffbauer, Emily Coates, Keith Sabado, Rainer (in background) in Assisted Living. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Performa.
When the Bolshoi Ballet appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream was a surprise hit with New Yorkers. A zesty, funny, sweet-natured remake of a banned 1935 work to music by Dmitri Shostakovich about an official visit to a collective farm? Who was this guy Ratmansky? For one thing, he had taken over the directorship of the Bolshoi the previous year and was busy awakening this Moscow sleeping beauty from the torpor that it had sunk into during the 10 years following Yuri Grigorovich’s tenure as artistic director.
The Bright Stream is now in the repertoire of American Ballet Theatre, where Ratmansky has been artist in residence since 2009. By the time he gave up his administrative job at the Bolshoi in 2008 so he could focus on making dances, company directors had realized that he was one of the most intriguing ballet choreographers on the international scene. That belief was clinched in the United States by the beautiful Russian Seasons, which he created for the New York City Ballet in 2006. At present, the Bolshoi, the State Ballet of Georgia, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Kirov (Maryinsky) Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and more all have Ratmansky ballets in their repertoires; NYCB boasts three, ABT six.
Ratmansky’s early dance career followed some unusual paths after he graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 1986, already hot to choreograph. He danced with the Ukrainian National Ballet and then the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where he performed in works by Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, and Tharp. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet as a soloist in 1997 and was promoted to principal in 2000, dancing in Bournonville’s masterworks, as well as in contemporary pieces by Mats Ek and others. The most profound storytellers, the most musical choreographers, the boldest innovators became part of his artistic DNA.
These strands, braided into his knowledge of the Russian classics and molded by his powerfully individual imagination, have produced a remarkably varied body of work—about 30 ballets in 14 years. Since the days of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, no Russian ballet choreographer has been adventurous in the way that Ratmansky is. When he revives a work from the past, like his Nutcracker for ABT, his Don Quixote for the Dutch National Ballet, or his The Little Humpbacked Horse for the Maryinsky Ballet, he doesn’t “modernize” them, but goes deeper into their poetic underpinnings and ambiance, shaping the classical steps to yield different musical and emotional qualities.
Even in his plotless works, like Seven Sonatas or Concerto DSCH, Ratmansky creates semblances of worlds onstage. Often the background is as alive as the foreground. Dancers seem aware of one another and the pattern they’re creating together. His choreography can make a string of quick steps ripple like laughter and jumps burst out as elation. Intimations of love or joy or loneliness or even death cling lightly to these ballets—unforced, just there, as in life. —Deborah Jowitt
From top: Ratmansky in an ABT studio. Photo by Matthew Karas; After the ABT premiere of The Bright Stream. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
As the orchestra gears up for the title number in Kathleen Marshall’s production of Anything Goes, the audience collects itself into a tight, anticipatory knot. It’s the moment they have waited for, the moment when the show takes all its period charm and winds it up into one thrilling, ebullient tap dance extravaganza. Wave after wave of sound pours over the audience as the ensemble cuts loose for an extended eight minutes. As the curtain comes down on Act I, the audience sighs with happiness. They are right where they want to be.
Marshall, a Broadway choreographer and director, has turned restaging classic musicals into an art—the art of old-fashioned entertainment. No one working on Broadway today can rival her ability to take the familiar and make it fresh. For Marshall, storytelling remains at the heart of her vision. “We treat the characters like real people who have real problems and emotions,” she says. “You can’t approach a scene from a campy point of view. You must start with an honest core and let the joy, humor, and effervescence come out.”
That vision has led to her choreographing and directing a string of celebrated revivals, including Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game, as well as Anything Goes. (See “The Beat of Dancing Feet,” May.) Marshall got her start on Broadway assisting her choreographer brother Rob Marshall on hits like Kiss of the Spider Woman, and she quickly gravitated toward vintage musicals. She became involved with New York City Center’s Encores! series, serving as artistic director from 1996–2000. She spent hour upon hour immersed in songs by the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Berlin. Encores revives the lost gems of Broadway musical theater, and it gave Marshall an education in staging Broadway’s past.
Today she often turns to old kinescopes of earlier versions of shows. But the research process doesn’t end with seeing how others have done it. “I listen to the songs over and over, and keep reading the scene that leads into a song,” she says. “If I have trouble coming up with the steps, it’s because I haven’t figured out why the people are dancing.”
That “why” is Marshall’s special strength. It’s a commitment to narrative that once was integral to musicals, to the way they enshrined the foibles and heartbreaks that make people human, and it gives Marshall’s productions their innate appeal. For Marshall, the kicklines and lifts, the comic relief and yearning romanticism, must be true in order to do their job. From the loopy merchant marine conga dancers in Wonderful Town to the sparkling nightclub entertainers in Anything Goes—and the rollicking factory workers of Pajama Game in between—the dances come right out of the characters themselves.
Yet Marshall’s quest is also for the spirit of the show itself. “You want,” she says, “to have the audience of today have the experience that the audience had when they first saw the show, to be transported, lifted up for a couple of hours, forgetting the outside world and taken for a ride.” And when the lights go down, Marshall’s audience can’t wait for that ride to begin. —Hanna Rubin
Kathleen Marshall leading a rehearsal of Anything Goes. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Watching Dr. William Hamilton at work is almost like observing a sculptor shape his clay. Dancers come to him in their lowest moments, putting their bodies in his hands in hopes that he can help them to heal. He handles their limbs with complete authority, with an assertive yet sensitive touch that can only come from someone who’s devoted his career to fixing the broken.
Although he’s never danced professionally, Hamilton may very well be the most prolific man in Lincoln Center. His work appears every time the curtain rises on New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ethan Stiefel, and countless others owe years of their careers to this pioneer of dance medicine.
In 1972, Hamilton was an orthopedic surgeon at New York City’s Roosevelt Hospital when George Balanchine, while visiting a friend there one night, asked a young resident if any doctors might be interested in taking care of a ballet company. The resident recommended Hamilton, who sometimes saw dancers at his office near Lincoln Center. “I had no dance training, but I’d been to the ballet several times,” says Hamilton. “During that era, Balanchine was coming out with a new masterwork every year. I knew very little, but I knew there was magic in that theater.”
At the time, there was no such field as “dance medicine.” With no footsteps to follow or medical literature to look up, for almost five years, Hamilton regularly watched Balanchine’s classes on weekends to study the technique and how it affected the body. The NYCB dancers taught him the names of the steps and gave him exposure to their world. “From the very beginning, I learned that although they get the same injuries as athletes, dancers are artists first,” says Hamilton. He developed a close friendship with Balanchine, and later became his doctor during the choreographer’s illness and death. “He left so many legacies, and I am one of them,” Hamilton says. “His hiring me is what founded dance medicine.”
Hamilton published what he learned about dancers in medical journals. He described how unusual they were and how their injuries almost always related to the altered kinesiology of ballet technique. He saw that most of the problems occurred in the foot and ankle. He began to take a special interest in those areas, which eventually led to his becoming president of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society.
In 1975, Lincoln Kirstein asked Hamilton to also be the doctor of the School of American Ballet. In 1980, when Baryshnikov became director of ABT, he asked Hamilton to work with his company too. Today, Hamilton also cares for ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, The Ailey School, and various Broadway shows, and has consulted for the New York Knicks and Yankees. He has implemented in-house physical therapy programs at both NYCB and ABT, where screening efforts have helped to correct the dancers’ weaknesses with the aim of preventing injuries before they occur.
“The best part of my job is just helping, in some small way, to produce the magic that goes on onstage,” Hamilton says. “The ultimate reward is seeing someone, perhaps whose career was essentially over, perhaps who was lying on my operating table, back dancing again.” —Jennifer Stahl
Dr. William Hamilton treating a dancer in his office. Photo by Khara Hanlon.