The Diversity Experiment at Ballet Memphis
As much as everyone talks about diversity in ballet these days, the barrage of Misty Copeland coverage can sometimes make it seem like she's the only person fighting to break barriers. Just today, Glamour named her one of its Women of the Year for "blazing her own path."
Kudos to Misty, but there many other path-blazers out there, too. Earlier this week, I got to see the work of one I've long admired: Dorothy Gunther Pugh. For over 25 years, the Ballet Memphis director has been committed to leading a company that truly reflects and serves her city, which is over 60 percent black. She's an idealist who's determined to do more than pay lip service to diversity. Ballet Memphis has multiple black, Asian and Hispanic dancers, plus several administrators, teachers and board members of color. Pugh regularly commissions ballets by non-white, non-male choreographers, and invites them to dig into themes not normally seen on the ballet stage—whether that's life in a Baltimore housing project or the relationship women have to their clothing. The company has collaborated with Rennie Harris, Chuck Davis and, recently, female jookers. Like many directors, Pugh gives her dancers opportunities to choreograph, but I met a pair at the Dance/USA conference who told me that she also encourages them to engage with the larger dance community so they can think critically about today's big issues in ballet, like how a company can be a relevant part of its community.
Ballet Memphis and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras' Politics. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
So what's the result of this deliberate diversification? An eclectic company bursting with energy, judging by the program at The Joyce Theater this week. The performance was less polished than what you'd see at major companies, but it was also far more idiosyncratic—in a lovely way. Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times about the evening's pieces, "All four are odd; only one proves a complete work of art—Matthew Neenan’s The Darting Eyes—and it’s every bit as odd as the others. But the mood blowing through all of these dances is generous, imaginatively breaking rules."
Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson in Neenan's The Darting Eyes. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
The company boasts some outstanding performers, particularly Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson. At the same time, a couple of the dancers looked like they could benefit from another year in school. Were they pushed ahead intentionally simply to make the company more diverse? Are the less successful pieces in the repertoire a result of insisting on a range of voices, no matter how green those voices might be? Maybe, maybe not.
Some people argue that pursuing diversity for diversity's sake risks watering down our art form, that it could lead to promoting those less talented on the basis of race and gender alone at the expense of more sophisticated artists who've had greater access to the kinds of resources that come with privilege. (Basically, the affirmative action debate, now with pointe shoes.) I argue that there's far more at stake than sophistication. We have several ballets that are sophisticated. I also want to see ballets that are interesting. I want to be told stories I haven't heard before. I want to be brought into new worlds I don't understand. As much as I loved Matthew Neenan's piece, he would never have made what, for example, Camille Brown created on the company in 2009—and she wouldn't have made his piece. We need more places where both of these artists can share their personal perspectives and work with dancers who bring a variety of different backgrounds to the movement.
Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.
By fearlessly taking risks on less-established artists, Pugh is championing examples that can be inspirations for future dancers and choreographers. What's more, she's creating something different from the same-old same-old you find on so many ballet stages. It may not be perfect, but it sure is exciting.
Imagine this scenario: You get a text from a friend just as you're heading into ballet class, and have to answer as quickly as possible. Now, if you were heading into a juggling class, or water polo match, or fencing practice, you'd be able to send a quick emoji in response. But alas, you're forced to type out a full sentence. Because, to the ballet world's collective frustration, There. Is. No. Ballet. Emoji. Until now...
According to Emojipedia, the site for all things emoji-related, a ballet shoe emoji is slated to come out later this year (the exact date hasn't been announced yet) as part of Emoji Version 12.0. The proposal came from Australia-based tech company manager and ballet fan Rüdiger Landmann. Landmann proposed three separate ballet emojis: a ballerina, a male ballet dancer and a pair of pointe shoes. Only the pointe shoe emoji was approved, and we'll be honest, it doesn't look like any pointe shoe we've ever seen. It's more like a pink loafer with ribbons attached. But we're trying not to complain, as this is definitely a (wobbly, given the shape of that shoe) step in the right direction.
You might still be thinking wistfully of the figure skating choreography at the 2018 Winter Olympics or already looking forward to the gymnastics competition at next summer's games, but we're officially marking our calendars for Paris 2024. Why? There's an excellent chance that break dancing will make its Olympic debut.
The jukebox musical is a bonafide Broadway staple. Everyone from ABBA to Elvis and Billy Joel to The Beach Boys has been given the Great White Way treatment, and shows with Alanis Morissette's and Michael Jackson's hits are on their way. The big question on our minds is, What current artists' songs might we hear on Broadway in the future?
The fourth wall has come down, and it has opened up a whole new kind of gig for dancers. Since Sleep No More became a hit in 2011, immersive theater experiences have been shattering expectations by inviting audiences to move through the world of the performance as they please. What kind of skill set does this burgeoning art form demand?
For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."
But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."
Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."
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Every dancer's nutrition goals are different. Maybe you're trying to go vegan, or maybe you want to cook your own dinner more often. No matter what your personal objectives are—or whether you work with a dietitian—there are all kinds of apps that can help you make smart decisions at the tap of a button.
The lack of female leaders in ballet is an old conversation. But a just-launched website, called the Dance Data Project, has brought something new to the discussion: actual numbers, not just anecdotal evidence.
Whether she's performing on stage, in music videos, or on television, French electro-pop sensation Chris (formerly known as Christine and the Queens) never seems to stop moving.
Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.
Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared five of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.