Audition classes may not differ much from any other class—but directors have ways of sussing out who has what they're looking for. We spoke to three artistic directors to get their perspective from the front of the room.
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."
Ilaria Guerra only joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet in January, but she's already a towering presence in the San Francisco company—and not just because she's 6' tall. Guerra employs her seemingly infinite limbs with luscious fluidity and propulsive power, instinctive musicality and a self-assured presence. And as exquisitely as she embodies King's choreography, she also makes it entirely her own.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
"Whatever I'm into, whether it's ballet or healthy food," says Natasha Sheehan, "I'll research anything and everything about it."
That curiosity has led the San Francisco Ballet corps member, 19, to develop a sideline as an Instagram foodie star and food blogger. Sheehan shares recipes and photos of her beautifully styled meals, along with behind-the-scenes ballet insights, with her more than 44,000 followers.
The first week of San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works was all about new ballets, with 12 world premieres by the likes of Justin Peck, Dwight Rhoden and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The second weekend provided time to reflect, as artists and influencers gathered for "Boundless: A Symposium on Ballet's Future."
Dance Magazine sat in on two sessions.
The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.
"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"
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As side hustles go, Margaret Cromwell might win the prize for most unusual.
When she's not onstage with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, the modern dancer moonlights as a first officer on dinner cruises on the San Francisco Bay. After company class and rehearsal from 12:30 to 5:30 pm, one to two days a week she'll work on a boat from 6 pm until 1 am, pulling ropes, lifting heavy objects, running up and down stairs, and assisting the captain.
Vibrant, dazzling, a little bit dangerous: Angelo Greco is a firecracker. He pushes his breathtaking jumps and turns to the very edge of control, yet imbues each step with lyrical musicality and sensitive emotion. Those qualities, along with a boyish mop of curls, made Greco an instant audience favorite when he joined San Francisco Ballet from La Scala as a soloist in 2016. A frequent partner for prima ballerina Maria Kochetkova, he was promoted to principal in 2017—and he's just 22.
When Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer James Gowan started meditating in early 2017, he was seeking a more mindful approach to his dancing. "I was trying to be more aware of what I was doing inside the studio, so that it could help me be more positive with myself and my work," he says. He found it so helpful that he now does breathing exercises and visualizations for 45 minutes a few mornings a week. On rehearsal breaks, he'll take five minutes to do a body scan or calm his mind.
But he finds the benefits go far beyond the studio. "Meditation has provided me a new perspective," he says. "It really does bring a heightened awareness of what's going on around you."
Science shows that meditation's myriad benefits range from physical health to emotional well-being. Meditation's popularity has risen to trend level, and savvy entrepreneurs have caught on, capitalizing on the wave of interest with subscription-based meditation apps, exotic retreats and $29-a-pop classes. But what are the benefits for dancers specifically?
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
Janie Taylor didn't know if she'd ever return to the stage. But that's exactly where the former New York City Ballet principal has found herself: Nearly three years after retiring, she is performing again, as a member of L.A. Dance Project.
Taylor officially debuted with the company at its December 2016 gala in Los Angeles, then performed in Boston, via live stream from Marfa, Texas, and at New York's Joyce Theater before heading off on tour dates in France, Singapore, Dubai and beyond.
"She is wildly interesting to watch—and not conventional," says LADP artistic director Benjamin Millepied. "There are films of Suzanne Farrell dancing, where you feel like the music is coming out of her body," he says. "I think Janie has that same kind of quality."
To stay in shape, San Francisco Ballet's Sofiane Sylve takes class with the trainees, taught by SFB School associate director Patrick Armand. Why? Because it's 30 minutes longer than company class.
"You have to floss deep," quips the 41-year-old principal.
Sofiane Sylve doesn't mince words. "If you are just going through the motions," she says to her trainee class at the San Francisco Ballet School, "we might as well stay home."
The veteran SFB principal is famed as much for her directness as for her exquisite technique, astonishing interpretive range and captivating stage presence. "I don't do average," she says in an interview at SFB headquarters, across a tree-lined street from the War Memorial Opera House. "If somebody has made the effort to come and sit in the audience, I'm going to give everything I have. There is no holding back."
These are among the first words Sylve has said to the press since she joined SFB as a principal in 2008. Defiant of the trend for self-promotion, she avoids interviews and social media. "I'm highly, highly private," says the French-born ballerina, who turns 41 this month. "I'd rather spend time in the studio."
It's fitting that choreographer Benjamin Millepied named a recent work On the Other Side. After a difficult two-year tenure as artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, he is happily settled in Los Angeles and reemerging with big plans for L.A. Dance Project, the contemporary company he founded there in 2012.
Today, his ambitious vision is redefining what an independent dance company can do: grow into an online dance platform and a lifestyle brand, host a building and performance space, and build an international presence.
When Katelyn Prominski came down with swine flu in 2009, she never quite recovered. Six months later, she remembers, "I started feeling super-exhausted, super-hungry, always thirsty. Just really, really run down."
Then a corps member with Pennsylvania Ballet, Prominski didn't know that the virus had triggered Type 1 diabetes. The disease is normally diagnosed in childhood, so it didn't occur to Prominski or her doctors that she could have developed it at age 25.
Craving candy? Doubling down on dessert?
In sensible amounts, sweets can be tasty treats and can even provide a quick energy boost. According to well-designed research, athletes like dancers tend to metabolize sugar efficiently, so they can safely consume reasonable amounts as part of a healthy diet.
But if you fuel up on too many sweets, you risk being "overfed and undernourished," says certified dietitian nutritionist Heidi Skolnik. That's because sugar provides quickly digested calories (16 per teaspoon) and no other nutrients.
If your cravings feel out of control, here's how to tame them without feeling deprived.
At Hubbard Street's new intensive in Los Angeles, dancers dig into the choreographic process.
“Give it more intensity," says Robyn Mineko Williams, the choreographer in residence at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's inaugural pre-professional summer intensive at the University of Southern California. The dancer tries her solo again, moving across the floor in wider second-position pliés, bending her torso more deeply, jutting her elbows more sharply.
The studio bursts into applause. “I think the other students could feel this dancer changing right before their eyes," Williams says afterward. That kind of aha moment is exactly what the program is designed to cultivate. An odyssey into the contemporary dance-making process, it challenges dancers to immerse themselves in collaboration with a world-class choreographer and offers a taste of life in a top-tier company.
Come back stronger by using your body’s natural healing response.
It’s the end of a tiring rehearsal, but you try that challenging jump one last time, and land sideways on your foot. Within minutes you begin to notice the signs of a sprain: swelling, pain and heat, and eventually bruising.
As a group, these symptoms are called inflammation. It hurts—and it looks awful—but is it dangerous? “Inflammation is part of the healing process,” says Dr. Joey Fernandez, a sports medicine specialist with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Inflammation is natural and unavoidable, and you can work with it to get back on your feet more quickly.
When you have an acute soft-tissue injury like an ankle sprain, Fernandez explains, inflammation sends in immune cells and chemicals, such as neutrophils, cytokines and macrophages, to clear out damaged tissue. “It’s like renovation,” he says. “You put up scaffolding, and the workers have to remove the damage before they can rebuild.”
Get the Swelling Down
Swelling is a result of fluid leaking out of the blood vessels into the surrounding tissue during the inflammation process. This delivers the repair cells to the site, but it can also slow recovery. “Let’s say you have a partially torn ligament,” explains Dr. Selina Shah, who treats dancers at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital’s Center for Sports Medicine in Walnut Creek, California. “The fibers are going to have a hard time coming back together if the fluid from swelling is in the way.”
Immediately after the injury, you can help clear out the excess fluid by wrapping the site in an ACE bandage or brace to apply gentle compression and by elevating the injured area (above the heart, if possible). Ice can also be applied (using a towel to protect your skin from frost burn) for 15 minutes about three times a day. You can continue these treatments for as long as the swelling is visible and you notice a benefit.
Fernandez estimates that the debris-removing macrophages need about 36 hours to eat up damaged cells. Dancers should avoid weight-bearing activity on the injured body part during that time, he says, “or you can be dancing on tissues that haven’t started to build new cells.” However, he prescribes gentle movement immediately after injury. For a sprained ankle, for example, lie on your back, raise your injured ankle toward the ceiling, and carefully rotate your ankle, wiggle your toes and flex your foot. These “open-chain” exercises, where the limb is free to move without resistance, promote healing without further damaging the tissue. “I tell dancers, Think of your ankle sprain as having lungs,” explains Fernandez. “It needs oxygen to heal, and the physical motion squeezes the tissues to encourage drainage.”
“NSAIDs get a bad rap,” Fernandez says of the over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, which have been blamed for everything from liver damage to ulcers. He is comfortable recommending short-term use to reduce pain. “Nothing is going to happen unless you have a predisposing condition,” says Shah. Addressing another common misconception, she adds that “they’re absolutely not addicting.”
However, both doctors warn against using anti-inflammatories to push through class or rehearsals before an injury has healed sufficiently. “Teachers and directors expect dancers to heal on a timeline,” Fernandez says, “but you might actually take two steps back.”
“There are a lot of misconceptions about inflammation in the dance world,” Shah warns. Many existing studies are poorly designed and unreliable, she says, “but people read them on the internet and think they’re true.”
In particular, she says that many dancers underestimate the power of the inflammatory response. “They’ll say, ‘If you use ice or NSAIDs, you’re going to stop the inflammation.’ They don’t stop the process—your body is a lot smarter than that and has many pathways to healing.”
Ultimately, every body is unique and responds to inflammation—and treatment—in its own way. “There is a sweet spot for each person,” Fernandez observes. “What we want to do is get the benefits while minimizing the side effects.”