This year we celebrate five extraordinary artists: San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan, dance-theater innovator Martha Clarke, European maverick Mats Ek, Balanchine ballerina Patricia Wilde, and the composer who makes us want to lose ourselves in dancing—Philip Glass.
Yuan Yuan Tan
When Yuan Yuan Tan receives the Dance Magazine Award this month, it will mark an historic occasion. The Shanghai native, who joined San Francisco Ballet as a teenager in 1995, is the first dancer from an American ballet company outside New York to receive the honor in the six-decade history of the publication’s annual prize giving.
Left: Tan in costume for Frederick Ashton's Thaïs Pas de Deux. Photo by Matthew Karas.
That Tan is a gorgeously proportioned, immensely communicative, obsessively fastidious and eternally growing artist is justification enough for the accolade. But with this celebration comes the recognition that the West has barely begun to acknowledge the wealth of dancing talent lurking in contemporary China, that Tan’s rise to international ballerina status will surely bring others in its wake. The award signals, too, the thrilling evolution of the San Francisco Ballet in the past 28 years under Helgi Tomasson’s discerning eye. At the fifth International Ballet Competition in Paris in 1992, he watched Tan take the junior division gold medal and invited her to San Francisco as a guest artist.
Tan arrived speaking no English, toting a single suitcase and not nearly enough poundage on her 5' 4" frame. Her debut performance as Sugar Plum in a midweek Nutcracker matinee heralded a striking talent. An opening night gala appearance in the Esmeralda pas de deux confirmed her gifts. Tomasson offered her a soloist contract, on the proviso that she put on weight. When she asked how much, he replied, “I will tell you when it is right.” Tan, who advanced to principal status in 1997, has been neither Tomasson’s first muse (nor will she be his last), but she has been instrumental in contributing to the company’s distinctive profile.
Above: Tan and Damian Smith rehearse Wheeldon's After the Rain. Photo by Erick Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Tan’s training, starting at 11, at the Shanghai Dancing School (Vaganova syllabus) and a few months at Stuttgart’s John Cranko School, barely prepared her for the cornucopia of styles she would encounter and absorb in San Francisco. The Mariinsky classics came early, and it did not take long for choreographers to seek her out. She has been a favorite of resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov since he propelled her through a Magritte-inspired landscape. Christopher Wheeldon has been one of several choreographers to capitalize on Tan’s unique manner of infusing geometry with sensuality. Before San Francisco, Tan had not danced Balanchine. Tomasson threw her overnight into Stravinsky Violin Concerto; then, with incandescent results, revived Bugaku for her. Every new Balanchine assignment now seems an exploratory journey for the dancer.
Left: Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Kudelka's Ruins. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Still, Tan hungered for something else, for a role that would permit her to probe her inner self. She found it when John Neumeier staged The Little Mermaid in San Francisco. Tan’s portrayal of the lovelorn protagonist in this psychodrama yielded some of the more shattering moments in recent seasons. She now refers to the American expatriate choreographer as a mentor.
Tan sees herself as a perfectionist inside the studio and a cultural ambassador outside it. Her presence at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics cut through miles of red tape and generated a San Francisco Ballet tour to China in 2009. Tan won’t deny that she is a media star in her homeland. The American fashion press discovered her long ago. Never one to dissimulate, Tan confesses that she has loved every moment.—Allan Ulrich
An innovative creator of original work, Martha Clarke synthesizes dance into each project that she conceives. With a choreographer’s instinct, she weaves movement, music, design, and dialogue into her own brand of dance-theater. Clarke’s stage offers dream states with swirling petticoats and cavorting romps at one moment, naked backsides and brutal boot stomping the next. Dancers appear as bawdy peasants and flying angels. Erotic passions contrast with sequences of heart-breaking innocence. “Magic is something that is a delight to make,” says Clarke. “To define the ineffable is, to me, the most exciting thing.”
Above and below: Clarke works with Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo on Cheri. Photos by Kyle Froman, Courtesy Pointe.
Clarke’s early dance studies began in Miss Kit Kat’s eurythmic classes and at the Peabody Conservatory with Graham dancer Dale Sehnert in Baltimore, Maryland. At 14, she went to the Perry-Mansfield performing arts camp to ride horses but happily began dancing under the tutelage of modern dance great Helen Tamiris.
For the next summers, Clarke trained at the American Dance Festival, studying with Louis Horst, who recommended she attend Juilliard as a dance major. Clarke flourished there, enamored with Antony Tudor’s emotionally charged approach to ballet and Horst’s compositional analogies with other art forms. Both perspectives still underscore her creations.
Each project takes many months to develop. “I work through improvisation and I research a lot.” Some days Clarke relies on a structure, but other days she simply says to her performers, “Entertain me; make me laugh.”
When she joined Pilobolus, Clarke was one of the two women in the group in the early ’70s. Drawn to the group’s irreverence and its rediscovery of the body, she says, “Pilobolus also taught me to stand on my own two feet.” After seven years, Clarke co-founded a new company, Crowsnest, creating The Garden of Villandry (now in the repertoire of American Ballet Theatre), among other trios.
Exploring another garden of romantic entanglements, Clarke’s first full-length venture, Garden of Earthly Delights in 1984, was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting. The New York Times critic Dinitia Smith wrote that Clarke “burst upon the theatrical world with … a blend of theater, dance and music that was at once beautiful, sensual and terrifying.” That work was followed by decades of equally ingenious creations that have sustained off-Broadway runs and extensive touring, including Vienna: Lusthaus (1986), set in fin de siècle Vienna. In Miracolo d’Amore (1988), a fanciful Venetian reverie about romance and its discontents. Endangered Species (1990), a Brooklyn Academy of Music extravaganza, featured Flora, the elephant. Belle Époque (2004) explored the world of Toulouse-Lautrec. For Manhattan’s Signature Theatre 2013–14 season, Clarke’s production of Colette’s Chéri stars Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri, and she will also stage Threepenny Opera.
Martha Clarke’s approach has been called “art in action.” She has compared her dance-theater to moving paintings or the house you pass in a train at night. “You never forget the moment you see someone move through the lighted window. I want my work to be endless windows.” —Janet Mansfield Soares
Swedish choreographer Mats Ek is one of the defining voices of the age. His distinctive choreographic language searches for the essence of the human soul, and expresses this in movement shorn of all pantomime and frippery. His revisions of classical ballets have provoked murderous thoughts among traditionalists who crave aesthetic beauty in dance. His Giselle is in a madhouse, Odette has forgotten her pointe shoes, Aurora leaves her Prince for Carabosse and, Heaven help us, produces a black baby!
Above: Ek with Laguna and Baryshnikov. Photo courtesy Kultur.
In these and his shorter works, Appartement (for the Paris Opéra), A Sort of… (for Nederlands Dans Theater), and She Was Black, he deviates from the strand of contemporary dance that sees “the medium as the message” demanding that his dancers express emotion through the movement. His works deal with the paraphernalia of ordinary life: doors, tables, chairs, and vacuum cleaners. His characters, tender, funny, and very human, are everyday folk dressed in everyday clothes. But from the commonplace he creates extraordinary theatrical moments that suggest the answers to life’s big questions about relationships and even existence.
Ek began his professional career in drama, including a stint assisting filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. He committed to dance later, attracted by the challenge of an art form where, as he said, “you could not cheat or pretend.” His first choreography was for Cullberg Ballet, the company founded by his mother, Birgit Cullberg. However, there was no suggestion of mentoring: “She had a complete understanding that I had to be my own boss, to learn for myself.” Ek’s career is inextricably linked with the company, where between 1976 and 1993 he was engaged as dancer, choreographer, and finally director.
He worked briefly with NDT, and also with Ballett am Rhein, a company with a traditional classical repertoire. Their productions appealed to audiences but dealt, as Ek saw it, with the superficial rather than the source. “The classical ideal has a value in itself, but I am drawn to modern dance for the weight, the earth, the dung.”
Above: A scene from Julia & Romeo. Photo by Gert Weigelt, Courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet.
Ek came to international prominence with his 1982 Giselle, finding his inspiration in the class conflict between “castle and cottage.” Ana Laguna, his wife and muse, who created the role of Giselle, possesses par excellence the qualities he looks for in his dancers: coordination and musical phrasing, strength and vulnerability. He continues to choreograph for her and other great artists who, in their maturity, search beyond technique. In his award-winning TV film of Smoke, he paired his older brother, Niklas, with Sylvie Guillem; for Place, he paired Mikhail Baryshnikov with Laguna.
In his new work, Julia & Romeo, for the Royal Swedish Ballet, he dispenses with Prokofiev’s great ballet score to find the perfect companion in Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works; a black-box set throbs with color and emotion, and his tiny Julia, Mariko Kida, holds an audience enthralled with her vulnerability. The master choreographer again finds an original twist to a classic story, and with his penetrating eye for detail of lighting and design, he presents a quintessential dance-theater experience. —Maggie Foyer
Dancing with New York City Ballet from 1950 to 1965, Patricia Wilde gave iconic performances in many of Balanchine’s greatest ballets. Coming to NYCB from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she was well versed in dance theatricality, but was true to Balanchine’s philosophy that personal stamp did not demand excess mannerism. Speed and size, power, grace and graciousness: Her dancing fused all of it. She was brisk, precise, but also rapturous and abandoned. She took risks. “Balanchine loved that I would just go,” she recalls about her jumps in Serenade. “He liked that I really seemed to have a ball doing everything. The more difficult it was, the more I seemed to like it!”
Above: Teaching at the Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive. Photo by Susan Blackburn, Courtesy SSDI.
Curious about all forms of dance, Wilde has studied the techniques of Martha Graham and others. After retiring from the ballet stage, she enjoyed distinguished careers as teacher and school and company director. At 85, she continues to teach, to explore, to give of herself freely.
Wilde grew up in the rural outskirts of Ottawa. She and her older sister Nora began taking dance lessons as toddlers. They trained extensively with Gwendolyn Osborne before moving to New York, where they studied at the School of American Ballet. At 16, Wilde danced with Marquis de Cuevas’ Ballet International. Her association with Balanchine began in the summer of 1945, when he took her and a small group of dancers for a residency in Mexico City. There Balanchine created a solo for her in the opera Faust; it was the first of nearly 20 roles he made for Wilde during the next two decades.
In the fall of 1945, Wilde joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine was chief choreographer, but she also worked there with Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, Ruthanna Boris, and Valerie Bettis. In 1949 she spent a year in Paris, studying with Olga Preobrajenska and Nora Kiss, and dancing with Roland Petit’s company. She returned to New York after Balanchine asked her to join NYCB in time for its London debut in July 1950.
Left: Wilde in Allegro Brillante, 1960. Photo from DM Archives.
Over the next 15 years, Wilde starred with the company at City Center in New York, and on tour across the United States, in Europe, Australia, Japan, and Russia. She brought to life not only Balanchine’s athletic virtuosity, but lyric, dramatic, and mysterious elements in his work. She was acclaimed for her Odette in Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake, and in the title role of his Firebird. More opportunities to show her range came in William Dollar’s The Duel, and in pieces like Lew Christensen’s comic Con Amore and Boris’ Cakewalk.
In 1965, Wilde resigned from NYCB and became co-director of Harkness House ballet school. “You can always come back,” Balanchine told her, and that’s what she did when her approach did not mesh with Rebekah Harkness’. Wilde taught and coached at NYCB, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet school and the school of American Ballet Theatre. Eventually she worked full-time for ABT. She was ballet mistress in the company, while teaching at its school and eventually directing it.
Wilde became artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1982. She added many Balanchine works to their repertoire; while under her direction the company also performed works by Fokine, Tudor, Nijinska, Ashton, Paul Taylor, and the 19th-century classics. She expanded the company’s school, increased performance weeks and dancers’ salaries, and oversaw a new building to house company and school. She nurtured young choreographers, prominent among them Ohad Naharin, and helped develop a Dancers’ Trust to assist company members with life after retirement. She stepped down as PBT director in 1997. Today she travels the country as a guest teacher, most recently at the Colorado Ballet, Ballet Arizona, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive. —Joel Lobenthal
Some composers write music that simply begs to be danced: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Stravinsky come to mind. Add to that list Philip Glass, whose compositions have seduced choreographers since the early 1970s. In the bridge from the 20th century into the 21st, few composers have made such an impact on choreographers. Within the first four measures of listening to the propulsive rhythms of Glass’ scores, whether In the Upper Room, “Heroes” Symphony, Einstein on the Beach, String Quartet No. 5, Satyagraha, or Music in 12 Parts, the choreographer’s response is immediate: a desire to capture and mirror that sense of time, meter, energy, and spaciousness. Like a spiraling constellation, Glass’ music winds into the space where motion and sound meet, that point from which artistic inspiration flows. Choreographers and dancers couldn’t ask for a greater gift.
Photo by Steve Pyke, Courtesy Philip Glass.
Glass studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago and musical composition at The Juilliard School and at the Aspen Music Festival with Darius Milhaud. Later, through a Fulbright scholarship, he studied in Paris with the pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Under the influence of sitarist Ravi Shankar in Europe in the 1960s, he revamped his approach to composition, emphasizing the union of rhythmic and harmonic structure. In 1967, he returned to New York and formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, a group of seven musicians playing keyboards and woodwinds that were amplified and fed through a mixer. The composer’s interest in all aspects of experimental theater, such as the group Mabou Mines, of which he was a founding member, led to a collaboration with the director Robert Wilson and dancer/choreographers Andy deGroat and Lucinda Childs on the epic five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach. From that point forward, choreographers, as well as dancers, were hooked.
Although Glass dislikes the term “minimalism” to describe his work, there is a sense in his compositions of distilling music’s structure—melody, harmony, modulation, and rhythm—to create a driving aural velocity. Glass has said he prefers the term “music with repetitive structures,” and his mesmerizing shifts from a waltz tempo to a brisk 6/8, for example, make for delicious dance phrasing. His sonic designs have laid the groundwork for some of the most memorable dances of the postmodern era. Iconic pieces such as Lar Lubovitch’s North Star, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Lucinda Childs’ Dance, Molissa Fenley’s Dreaming Awake, Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, Doug Varone’s Lux, Laura Dean’s Patterns of Change, Jirí Kylián’s Wings of Wax, and Susan Marshall’s Les Enfants Terribles have given dance a new vibration, a new amplitude of movement, and a new approach to the choreographic landscape. Many other choreographers, such as David Gordon, Wendy Perron, Doug Elkins, and Kathryn Posin, also found inspiration in those pulsing rhythms. Younger choreographers such as Jorma Elo, Larry Keigwin, Helen Pickett, Jonah Bokaer, Nicolo Fonte, Justin Peck, Sarah Michelson, and Nancy Turano have translated those hypnotic Glass scores into dance.
Above: Miami City Ballet performing Tharp's In the Upper Room to Glass' propulsive score. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.
Given the prolific nature of Glass’ output—his more than 200 works include compositions for solo piano and organ, string quartets, chamber works, symphonies, choral works, music for theater and films, commissioned dance scores and operas—expect to see choreographers mining his musical riches for creative fuel for many decades to come. —Joseph Carman