Through the Glass Ceiling
Three who carved their own paths: Lourdes Lopez, Larissa Saveliev, & Alessandra Ferri
Who are the leaders in our field? What are their attributes? Did they get there by chance or by design? We talked to three amazing women who have recently emerged as leaders in dance, which, let’s face it, is dominated by men—especially in ballet. These women found their way into top positions not only through their talent and skills, but also by embracing new experiences.
When Lourdes Lopez conducts a class at Miami City Ballet, purposeful moments in the studio connect with this artistic director’s life. At 55, Lopez cuts a lithe figure as she drills and demonstrates, sometimes coming in close to adjust a dancer’s body, letting her hands transmit a knowledge inscribed in muscle and bone. But her words also evoke a sustaining past.
Right: Lopez teaching at the MCB School. By Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB
To point out the importance of pliés, Lopez says, “Balanchine would ask us to do these non-stop!” As she explains his insistence on this stabilizing skill—and always moving through first as “an opportunity to correct yourself”—it’s easy to imagine her as a rising star under the master’s guidance at New York City Ballet, where she danced from 1975 to 1997, the last 13 years there as a principal.
After class, Lopez praises one of her early teachers, who ran a studio in South Florida, where her parents settled after fleeing post-revolutionary Cuba. “I was lucky to have Martha Mahr. She showed me there was a right and a wrong way to do steps—and that’s the heritage which gives beauty to our art. She offered me a technical foundation but also made me a stronger person. She taught me respect for work.”
Into her second year leading MCB—and the first that she’s programmed—Lopez instills in her dancers these ethics. “It’s important how you treat a partner, an audience,” she emphasizes. “Ours is an art of good manners.”
Especially notable for a Latina, Lopez has joined a tiny club of female ballet-company directors. But she insists success in this spotlight hinges not so much on gender issues as on meeting challenges as “a fully realized human being.” That condition rests upon the base that her late mother provided. “She taught us a sense of self and pride in being Cuban immigrants,” Lopez says. “We never felt weak in her house.”
Having retired from the stage, Lopez became executive director of the Balanchine Foundation in 2002. As co-founder with Christopher Wheeldon of the contemporary ballet company Morphoses in 2006, she earned what amounted to an advanced degree in development, programming, and marketing. Morphoses, now on hiatus, will eventually be linked to MCB as “a choreographic arm that gives our community a full spectrum of this art and will push our dancers in a different way,” says Lopez.
MCB corps member Adriana Pierce welcomes “the positive vibe” Lopez has created with a more diversified repertoire and her encouragement of the dancers’ forays into choreography.
Principal Jennifer Kronenberg appreciates how the director makes herself available to dancers, pointing out that Lopez “has maintained an open-door policy—a luxury that doesn’t go on everywhere.”
In the wake of founding artistic director Edward Villella’s sudden departure last fall, Lopez faced scary moments. “How do you step in and succeed, especially taking over a position held by such a strong personality?” she questioned. “You’re pulled in so many different directions. I still think back now and wonder how Mr. Balanchine kept his peace.”
Her old hometown has proven surprisingly amenable to both Lopez and her husband, investment banker George Skouras. While her daughter by a previous marriage remains in New York working at Vogue, the Skouras’ younger daughter has been slower to acclimate to her new environment. “I’m hoping she’s going to take from this that her mom embarked on a different path in a chancy environment,” Lopez maintains. “In that, I’m being true to myself.” —Guillermo Perez
“They become fearless,” says Larissa Saveliev, describing what students gain through competing in her organization, Youth America Grand Prix. “In a company, when somebody gets injured, you can throw them onstage, and boom, they go. The stress, which kills some dancers, makes them stronger.”
Left: Teaching at Southland Ballet Academy in California. By Dave Friedman, Courtesy YAGP.
That prized quality—fearlessness—encapsulates Saveliev herself. A fireball of energy, Saveliev has been instrumental in the careers of countless dancers around the world. Now in its 15th season, YAGP has come a long way from Saveliev’s early days of cold-calling ballet schools with invitations.
Twenty years ago, pre-professional ballet competitions were frowned upon by elite schools. For ballet students, there were two options: Regional Dance America, of which one has to be a member, and the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, which, if you win, leads to a scholarship of your choice. YAGP, for students ages 9 to 19, takes the opposite approach: School and company directors on the jury and in the audience award scholarships or contracts to promising dancers, whether they win a medal or not.
Today, the schools affiliated with many of the world’s largest companies, as well as smaller sources of talent, send both students and adjudicators to YAGP. On the rosters of the world’s major ballet companies, you’ll find more than 300 YAGP alumni.
Saveliev is a natural matchmaker. The former Bolshoi dancer makes it her business to know the backgrounds of her most talented competitors—and, generally, what each partner school or company looks for in its dancers. “If Franco [De Vita, principal of ABT’s JKO School] is asking, I can tell him, The parents are very poor so they’re never going to move to New York, but if you want to offer them California, they might come because they have family there.” Over the years, she has learned company preferences as well. “The Stuttgart will never hire anybody without feet. For the Royal, I think face is very important. For Hamburg, it doesn’t matter if their legs are a little shorter, but they have to be a great mover.”
And if a dancer has her heart set on a company that is unrealistic, Saveliev attempts to gently redirect her. “I steer them to the right direction, open their eyes to the company where they might have a good future. I cannot guarantee, I’m not the director—but I can predict.”
Parents and students expect reality checks from Saveliev. She holds frank conversations with families about their child’s potential. And in one extreme case, she even suggested plastic surgery after hearing from judges repeatedly that the young woman’s appearance was holding her back. (That dancer is now a professional.) “It’s not the typical American style; I guess that’s what I get from Russia still. But I will do whatever it takes to get these kids jobs or scholarships.”
Stanton Welch, the artistic director of Houston Ballet who often serves on the YAGP jury (the company’s school also awards scholarships), confirms that she is single-minded about this goal. “Larissa just wants all her kids in companies,” he says. “She’s like the proud parent. She definitely has her point of view—and certainly the kids that I’ve taken directly from the competition have been very successful for us.”
The fact that competitions push technique to the extreme is a longstanding criticism. But Saveliev instills artistic values whenever she can. “I tell them,” she says, “The medal is not your goal. It’s like an A+ in school: It’s great, it gives you self-confidence. But you have to work even harder now.”
She is no stranger to hard work herself. She once organized the New York finals while seven months pregnant with her younger son. Luckily, she is able to rely on her husband, Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP co-founder and former soloist with ABT, to balance her outsized ideas with pragmatism.
Saveliev jokes that if she had known how tough running YAGP was going to be, she would never have started it. But in the end, she finds it rewarding to discover untapped talent. “It’s like looking for gemstones. You find them in the middle of God-knows-where and give them to a good jeweler. And a couple of years later, they sparkle.” —Kina Poon
When Alessandra Ferri, one of the great dramatic ballerinas of our time, retired from the stage in 2007, many felt bereft. Her ability to surrender to both rapture and despair gave audiences an intense emotional experience. But she has come back in triplicate: as a performer, choreographer, and director.
Ferri never fit the mold of a company dancer. Constantly in demand, she appeared as a principal or guest artist with American Ballet Theatre, La Scala, The Royal Ballet, and Roland Petit. “I couldn’t just be in one place and be part of a company. It was against my nature. I just could not be told what to do. It would kill my soul. Right or wrong, that’s my way.”
Right: Fabrizio Ferri for Pointe magazine
In 2007 she accepted a position as director of dance programming of the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In this role she helped revitalize the festival, presenting Pina Bausch, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.
“It was strange at first to be on the other side,” she said in a conversation last August after taking class at Steps on Broadway. “I had to split myself from myself, from being the dancer, liking things because I would have liked to dance them.” But, she adds, “it was a wonderful step that opened my mind to new things. Now I feel I’m more lucid in my choices.”
Another challenge came last summer when she premiered her own production, The Piano Upstairs, written by John Weidman and directed by Giorgio Ferrara, in Spoleto. Although this dance play about the breakup of a marriage was her idea more than three years ago, she didn’t expect to choreograph it as well as perform in it. Having worked with great dance makers from MacMillan to Wheeldon, she admits being intimidated to try own her hand at it. “Sometimes I would be so scared: What if I go into the studio and have no ideas?”
In the end, the piece received a warm response. “It was a fantastic experience,” Ferri says. “To give birth to something right from the seed is very fulfilling. It gives you a sense of freedom.”
Currently she’s creating the lead character in a new work by Martha Clarke, based on a racy Colette story, that opens at the Signature Theatre December 8. To watch her in rehearsals (with none other than ABT’s Herman Cornejo!), you see the full force of her drama. Every inch of her body and face expresses the emotion of the moment, and you cannot help but be drawn in. So convincing are her portrayals that when she breaks character to call attention to a problem, it’s shocking to see her as a normal dancer rather than a woman wracked with passion.
Onstage she gives the illusion that her performing is all based on instinct. But Ferri, who has received many honors, including a 2005 Dance Magazine Award, is very aware of what she brings to ballet. “As my career progressed, I was trying to break the barrier between dance and acting and to really meld the two. It was a particular path I was following; it wasn’t just casual. It was a real search and experiment.”
That experiment influenced other dancers, particularly at American Ballet Theatre. Susan Jaffe, who was a principal there during the same period, says, “Alex broke the mold of what it meant to be a ballerina. She was focused on dramatic impact and freedom of movement rather than ‘purity of style.’ She was her own artist, even at the age of 18. The access she had to her inner voice gave me permission to be confident in my own voice.”
In a coincidence of life following art, Ferri’s own marriage to Fabrizio Ferri has broken up. Although the situation was painful, she turned to her inner resources. “To focus on who I am gave me a lot of strength, instead of focusing on what went wrong.” Her daughters, 12 and 16, still live with her in New York. “We have a very open relationship,” says Ferri. “I say, ‘I’m not just here to look after you—that’s not my role in life only.’ They sense that I’m excited about the next months, and we’re happy together.”
What’s up for Ferri in 2014? She will play Eleonora Duse at La Scala in a ballet to be created for her by John Neumeier. —Wendy Perron
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
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For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
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.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
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.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.