"Musée de la danse" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy MoMA
They were part of an exhibit titled “Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures," a collaboration with the French choreographer Boris Charmatz presented by MoMA's Department of Media and Performance Art. The program, which was promoted as “re-imagining the function of dance and its relationship with the body, society and the institution," is an example of a growing trend of postmodern dancers and dance companies performing site-specific works in museums. In recent years, MoMA has also showcased the work of Yvonne Rainer, Ralph Lemon and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, positioning these “outsider" artists firmly within the establishment. It's a move that's given a sense of weight and permanence to a traditionally ephemeral art form.
Of course, the idea of live dancing in museums isn't entirely new. Steve Paxton's 1972 performance series at New York City's John Weber Gallery, Trisha Brown's 1974 residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and other “happenings" at that time explored the relationship between movement and public spaces for art.
But over the past several years, these presentations have moved from the margins of the art world to inside leading cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. The choreographer Liz Santoro even won a 2013 Bessie Award for her site-specific work Watch It at New York City's Museum of Arts and Design. The facts that MoMA created a department for producing performances in 2008 and the Whitney Museum of American Art hired a full-time performance curator in 2012 suggest that dance today is seen as a core component of programming, not an occasional novelty. These museums are aware of the current popularity of performance art, and have invested in helping to direct its transition into the mainstream.
Above: Shen Wei Dance Arts at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
“What happened with photography—it was not originally considered fine art—is happening now with dance," says Muriel Maffre, executive director of San Francisco's Museum of Performance + Design and a former principal with the San Francisco Ballet. “It's being recognized by a bigger group of people and finding a place next to great paintings." Ana Janevski, a curator of the “Musée de la danse" exhibit at MoMA who describes dancers as “living archives," agrees. “Dance is not only about movement, but about space and writing and thinking," she says. “What we've tried to show is how dance is not just a footnote or sporadic event but an art form contained in itself."
This recognition has helped to elevate dance, which is often perceived as less serious than fine art, says Diane Madden, associate artistic director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, who has set the choreographer's works at MoMA, the Tate Modern, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Getty and Hammer Museums in Los Angeles. “People go to a dance performance expecting to be entertained, but people go to an art museum expecting to put thought and time into what they're seeing," she says. “It does give it a little more validity to associate ourselves with these more accepted art forms."
It also provides a profoundly different way to experience dance. Unlike a traditional theater, where the audience is fixed and their attention is focused on a proscenium stage, site-specific works in museums often allow viewers to move throughout the performers, shifting their proximity and perspective. As a result, these pieces are more intimate and interactive. “It shows the humanity of the dancers," says Madden, who recalls how during a performance of Roof Piece Re-Layed at MoMA in 2011, a group of middle-aged women started doing the steps along with them. The dance, which is about the transmission of movement, really resonated “in a space where the audience can be with them instead of looking upon them."
For Shen Wei, whose company has performed everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum to the North Carolina Museum of Art to the Collezione Maramotti in Italy, this reflects a larger mission. “When we perform onstage, it's showing," he says. “But more current dance works are not about showing something. They're about discovery. And those things fit well in these kinds of surroundings."
Maffre believes this immersive quality appeals to dance and non-dance audiences alike. “More than ever people are looking for experiences," she says. “In the past museums were considered temples of art, but museums are becoming more of a place of exchange and encounters." As Evan Copeland, a member of Shen Wei Dance Arts, puts it: “Museums are sacred ground—don't touch—whereas we're like, 'Please touch, be part of this, contribute.' We're making the space accessible."
Site-specific works can also make dance more accessible, engaging audiences who might never set foot in an opera house. But they require certain sacrifices of the artists. Because these spaces weren't designed for dance (awkward layouts, no sprung floors), steps have to be modified and rehearsals are limited. And dancers used to performing in theaters have to get used to people staring them in the face.
“There's not that distance of the stage, so you're very vulnerable," says Copeland of works like Undivided Divided, where the practically naked performers dance and roll around in paint on 7x7-foot squares while the audience wanders among them. But he ultimately enjoys the sense of community this generates with the viewers, just as Shen finds the location constraints stimulating. “It makes you create something you wouldn't think of before you saw the space," he says.
And since many cities lack affordable performance venues, alternative spaces like galleries provide more opportunities for dance artists to present their work. But as with all trends, there's the chance that dance in museums will become too ubiquitous. “The challenge is how to continue to reinvent and not enter into certain patterns," Janevski says. “If you're really interested in breaking down the fourth wall and trying to push how an audience views art, that's awesome," adds Copeland. “But if you're just using the space to dance around, personally I don't find that interesting."
Shen stresses that just like dance in a theater, the quality of site-specific works varies. But he believes the potential for connecting with audiences—both new and old—and making dance come alive outweighs any risk of this becoming a gimmick.
Madden agrees, citing the reactions she's seen as proof of the powerful impact of these pieces. “Inevitably, there's some joyful surprised discovery that happens among the audience, and I just love that. It tells me we're on the right track."
5 Dancers on Balancing Motherhood and Career
Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg had a clear vision of how things would go when she and her husband, fellow MCB principal Carlos Miguel Guerra, decided to have a baby. Then she passed her due date by two weeks and had an unplanned cesarean section. “I had to take off longer than expected and couldn’t do any physical activity other than walking for eight weeks,” says the mom of Eva, now 1. “I was devastated. I had this whole plan in mind and it got shot down.”
Right: Tania Isaac, with Eve, on the barre, and Naomi, underneath the barre, in the dance studios of Drexel University. By Jonas Gustavsson, Courtesy Isaac.
In a way Kronenberg’s delivery mirrors the experience of having children as a professional dancer: You can never really predict or be prepared for how your life will change. Yet more and more dancers are choosing parenthood and continuing to perform or choreograph. The key, these artists say, is embracing the ups and downs and learning to adapt. In doing so, they’ve found their lives enriched not only by the presence of their children but also by a fuller, more rewarding career.
The first challenge of having a baby as a dancer is deciding when. Heather Olson, a New York City choreographer and veteran member of Tere O’Connor Dance, admits she worried about taking time off, since a dancer’s professional life can be brief. “I had a feeling I was at a really good place in my career and nervous about cutting that moment short,” she says.
Kronenberg can relate. “Timing when to have a child is difficult because you know it’s going to put a big pause in your career,” she says. “And every season has some role you want to do.”
Left: PNB's Kaori Nakamura, backstage with Maya, during Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. Photo courtesy Nakamura.
Olson found a way to diffuse her anxiety through dance. Just before giving birth to her daughter, Lake, 2, she presented her first solo show, and the piece centered on her mounting apprehensions. “I felt like I was about to travel into an abyss of the unknown, and the whole creative project became about that,” she says. “It gave me an outlet for my fears and also a feeling of strength—if I was able to make an evening-length piece and perform it while seven months pregnant, I would be able to figure it out afterwards.”
Such determination comes naturally to many dancers. Take Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Kaori Nakamura. She always knew she wanted to be a mom but assumed she’d wait until she retired. “But when I turned 40 I realized I still want to dance and I still can dance, but at the same time 40 is getting old to have a baby,” Nakamura says. “So that’s when I decided I’ll have a baby and then come back.” And three months after her daughter, Maya, now 2, was born she performed the grand pas de deux from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The decision to have a baby can be even more daunting for freelance artists, especially when things don’t go as planned. Tania Isaac, a dancer/choreographer and assistant teaching professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, had to cancel a tour with Rennie Harris because she was so sick while pregnant with her first daughter, Naomi, 9, and was bedridden for eight months with her second, Eve, 2.
Right: Lori Yuill shares the studio with Lola. Photo by Emily Marcel Theys.
Houston-based dancer and choreographer Lori Yuill had a performance lined up for after her daughter’s birth but, like Kronenberg, had to revise her expectations when Lola, 1, arrived. “It was frustrating,” Yuill admits. “I had imagined that in six months I’d be back to normal. Now I’m realizing some things may never be back to what normal was.”
All of these women say their lives were altered dramatically by having children. Balancing a dance career and a baby involves stress and sacrifice, both in and out of the studio. There’s constant concern over financial stability and childcare. Some of these artists manage by bringing their children to work—even when that means long rehearsals, late performances, and touring. “I have, for better or worse, not respected the rigorous rules of bedtimes,” says Isaac. But she believes her daughters have benefitted from this choice. “I watch my 9-year-old adapt in wildly various social settings, and I love that some of that has come from the culture of art.”
Above: Healther olson with Lake at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, Florida State University. Photo by Carol Ann Olson, Courtesy Olson.
Nakamura and Kronenberg, whose schedules are more fixed, rely on full-time nannies. But spending all day away from the baby presents its own challenges. “It’s really hard emotionally and mentally, and it’s already hard physically,” Nakamura says. And Kronenberg admits she worries about Eva constantly. “Before, in the studio it was ballet, ballet, ballet. I never thought about anything else. Now it’s this constant tape running in my mind.” But, she adds, the nature of her job helps her suppress that. “It comes down to focus, and ballet dancers are so focused there can be a hurricane happening next to you and you know how to block it out.”
Then there’s the enemy of all new parents: exhaustion. “It’s difficult to rehearse when you’ve been up for most of the night,” says Olson—noting that you quickly learn to do more with less. “I used to push really hard, but now I’m learning how to ride the physics of what I’m doing. I’m learning how to be more efficient, and strangely enough it’s improved my dancing.” Less energy also means less negative energy, which can have unexpected benefits onstage. Nakamura says she doesn’t get as nervous before performing with the perspective her daughter provides.
Of course, parenthood means shifting priorities. For Isaac and Olson, touring is more of a challenge than it once was, and Yuill says she has less of a need to rush the rehearsal process. But what’s more surprising is how having a baby reinforced these dancers’ devotion to their art. Isaac considers her work “my first and most needy child” and believes that starting a family deepened her commitment to a life in dance. Yuill—who has been developing a gestural dance based on Lola’s movements—agrees, saying, “I’m able to see things with fresher eyes. Since everything in her world is a new discovery, it’s taken away a little of the cynicism.” Or as Kronenberg puts it, “I feel like a more complete person and bring that into my work as a ballet dancer.”
Above: MCB's Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg shows Eva how to tie her ribbons. Photo by Carlos Guerra, Courtesy Kronenberg.
And in some ways, even the struggles of being a professional dancer who is also a mother can be empowering. “There is something really great about learning how to survive and make it happen. It’s a skill a lot of dancers have, and you draw on that skill,” says Olson. “I have days I feel overwhelmed and upset, but most days I feel unbelievably lucky to have both of these experiences in my life.”
Advice for New Moms
Share a sitter
If there are other dancers with kids in your company or project, hire one babysitter to watch the group and split the cost.
Make the most of breaks
Have an hour off for lunch or a lag between rehearsals and live close by? Head home for a midday visit with your baby.
Learn to let go
Accept the fact that you’ll rarely be able to arrive early to warm up before technique class or squeeze in that extra strength-training session. Beating yourself up about it will only make you less productive in the studio.
A New York dance writer, Elaine Stuart is expecting her first child in December.
Tiba Vieira’s capoeira class at the Ailey studios. Photo: Kyle Froman, Courtesy Ailey
About halfway through a beginner capoeira class at the Ailey Extension, students pair off to put the movements they’ve been developing into practice. The instructor, Tiba Vieira, lightly pounds a tall, wooden drum to keep the time. Facing one another, the men and women rock back and forth low to the ground until one executes a surprise roundhouse kick, forcing the other to lunge and duck or spin across the floor.
“You’re gonna get a free haircut,” Vieira quips after one student just barely clears his partner’s sweeping leg.
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art dating back to the 16th century, when it’s believed African slaves began disguising their self-defense training as a dance. “We say we dance like a fight and fight like a dance,” says Vieira, who’s been teaching and performing the style for almost two decades. “The movement requires you to be strong and tough, but delicate at the same time.” That unique combination has attracted the attention of the modern dance world in recent years. Choreographers like Ronald K. Brown and Larry Keigwin have infused their work with hints of capoeira, and dancers have discovered the benefits of studying the form.
A typical class begins with a warm-up followed by a succession of elements of simulated combat, starting with the ginga, a foundational swinging movement. (See sidebar.) From there the students learn various kicks and strikes as well as defensive moves like dodges and rolls to react to their partner’s attacks. At advanced levels cartwheels, flips, and other tricks are added to the mix.
Dance Brazil. Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy CAMI
But once you break into pairs to play (capoeira is characterized as a game of fakes and feints as opposed to a contact sport), there are no set sequences to fall back on. It’s entirely improvised. “There’s a lot of room for personal expression,” Vieira says. “Once you learn the rules you can break them and bring creativity to it. You don’t have to move exactly like everyone else.”
This is one of the big advantages for classical dancers, says Kamilah Turner, a ballet dancer turned capoeirista who is currently the sole American member of Dance Brazil. (Founded by Jelon Vieira—Tiba’s uncle and teacher—Dance Brazil has toured the U.S. for more than 25 years.) Turner was introduced to the style as a member of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Denver, where she danced for five years after a stint with Urban Bush Women and touring with the Broadway show Aida. “Growing up I wasn’t exposed to improv,” she says. “As dancers, we always want to be prepared before we get out there. But with capoeira, you’re constantly in the moment. It helped me learn to move without thinking so much.”
And the movements themselves are nothing like classical technique. “In ballet everything is up, up, up,” says Turner. “But in capoeira you have to get grounded and feel the earth and maneuver yourself around people.”
Leandro Silva, director of New York City–based Silva Dance Company, agrees. “It’s a different type of strength and coordination,” he says. “In capoeira there’s a lot of changing levels—going to the floor, coming up to a jump and torque, and then going back to the floor.” Silva also teaches at Steps on Broadway, where, he says, many professionals take his class to improve the flow of their dancing. “It’s beautiful to see a dancer do 300 turns, but to do 300 turns and flip in the air and connect the two movements without stopping—that takes you to a different level.”
Dance Brazil in Jelon Vieira’s Batuke (2011). Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy CAMI
Other dancers study capoeira for the physical workout. Vieira notes that many classical and contemporary dancers lack upper body strength, something capoeira demands. With its acrobatic elements, “your hands become another set of feet,” he says. And since it’s all about timing, capoeira can also help dancers with partnering. Eye contact and control is essential. “They kick and you respond with another kick or move away,” says Vieira, likening a game to a conversation. “You can feel the person. Two people become one.”
Turner says capoeira has made her a stronger dancer inside and out. And that’s why no matter what her future holds after Dance Brazil, she will keep playing. “It’s so much bigger than anything I’ve done,” she says. “Capoeira is a part of me now.”
Elaine Stuart is an NYC writer who has covered dance for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Capoeira “Cliffs Notes”
Many dance studios have added capoeira to their roster. Here are a few terms you might hear in class.
Ginga: “The soul of capoeira,” as instructor Tiba Vieira puts it; all other moves are built upon its rocking motion. A low, swooping side step (from a wide fourth on one side to a wide fourth on the other) with torso opposition, the ginga’s purpose is to ground the body and prepare it for more elaborate movements.
Atabaque: A large Afro-Brazilian hand drum, traditionally made of Jacaranda wood and calfskin, that’s often used by instructors to establish rhythms and lead songs. Most classes don’t have independent accompanists; capoeiristas are expected to play the indigenous instruments—like the atabaque, berimbau, pandeiro, and caxixi—as part of the form.
Roda: The circle in which capoeiristas face off; two dancers play in the center while those on the perimeter clap, sing folk songs, and watch for an opening to take their turn. The dancers replace each other seamlessly, moving in and out of the circle like liquid. Vieira often uses the image of water to describe the quality and philosophy of capoeira, because “it finds its way around anything.”
Five dancers discuss how learning from their mothers shaped them.
Photo of Stacey Tookey by Joe Toreno for Dance Teacher.
At age 13, Stacey Tookey didn’t like the solo her dance teacher was creating for her, and she had the audacity to say so. “I thought I could do better, so she left me to do it,” says the three-time Emmy Award–nominated choreographer best known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance. “In the end it was a good thing,” she adds.
That teacher was Shelley Tookey, Stacey’s mother. She owns Shelley’s Dance Company, a school in Edmonton, Alberta, now in its 44th year of operation. The studio started out in the family basement, where as an infant Stacey would be lulled to sleep by the sounds of tapping and jumping. As soon as she was old enough to walk, she began taking dance classes from her mother. “She taught me everything I know to this day,” Stacey says. “There’s not one exceptional moment in my life career-wise that I don’t root back to something my mom taught me.”
That’s not to say it was always easy. Despite providing certain advantages, having your mother be your instructor can complicate an already fraught relationship. “We spent so much time together that at moments we wanted to kill each other,” Stacey admits. Like any teenager, she tested her mother—but in her case that usually happened in the studio.
“You feel like you can take liberties, not follow direction—but she would put me right back in my place,” Stacey says. She recalls the time she refused to remove her sweatshirt after warm-up, a rule Shelley strictly enforced. “I was just being a brat, and she came up and took the back of the shirt and tore it off my body,” Stacey says with a laugh. But her mother’s tough love ultimately paid off. “She ingrained in me that I had to set a good example because I was her daughter, and that has made me a very good leader.”
Ellis Wood (aloft) and her mother, Marni Thomas, kneeling, in an early version of Wood’s "Flower Fiction." Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy Wood.
Sometimes, though, being the teacher’s child has the opposite effect. Ellis Wood, a noted choreographer and director of Ellis Wood Dance, trained with both her parents—Marni Thomas and the late David Wood, former Martha Graham company members who co-founded the dance department at the University of California at Berkeley. As a little girl, she recalls “doing triplets up and down the hallway” at home, and her mother and father leading her and her sisters through Graham classes on a train during a cross-country trip. But when it came to studying with them formally at Berkeley, where she was a dance major, she would hide in the back of the room for fear of looking like she was getting preferential treatment.
“I didn’t want to be aggressive in my mom’s class. I didn’t want to stand in the front and take parts; I felt like it would look bad,” says Ellis, noting that this habit hurt her at the outset of her career. “When I got to New York I would stand in the back of auditions and wonder, Why is no one taking me?” She eventually figured out that she had to put herself out there to be noticed. Ellis appreciates that her parents focused on sharing their passion for dance rather than pushing it as a profession. “But at certain times I think more guidance would have been helpful,” she says. “One part of me felt like, Why didn’t you teach me this?”
Susan Pilarre, visiting her daughter Zoe Zien, backstage at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Lilly Echeverria.
Miami City Ballet corps member Zoe Zien received plenty of insight into the profession from her mother, Susan Pilarre, a former New York City Ballet soloist who now teaches at the School of American Ballet. Zien was 11 when she started taking weekly technique classes from her mother. Like Tookey, she had moments of “teenage angst” in the studio, especially when getting corrections. “As a kid it’s a little more overwhelming coming from your mother rather than someone you’re not emotionally attached to,” she says. “But I always knew that she was giving me such valuable information—a realistic sense of the art form, what’s going to be rough—in a way that I was really lucky to have.” This was especially useful when it came time to look for a job. “She was very encouraging about me having a career,” Zien says. “It was frustrating for her that I didn’t end up at NYCB and I was disappointed, but she always made sure I knew there were other Balanchine companies, including the one I’m in.”
Photo of Daniil Simkin by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.
While Tookey, Wood, and Zien mostly trained in a class setting, some dancers work with their mothers one-on-one. That was the case for American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin, whose parents were both professional ballet dancers in Russia and Germany. Simkin’s mother was his only teacher for 10 years—but she never pressured him to follow in their footsteps. “I was immersed in this world from early on, but for my parents it was more important to provide me with the opportunity to decide that I really wanted to do this, because they did not have that choice,” he says. “In Soviet Russia, the profession chooses you!” His mother made sure he had as normal an upbringing as possible and limited his lessons to two hours a day, a method that suited Simkin. “I think if she would have forced me to train I would have done everything in my power, for better or worse, not to do it.”
Jared Grimes, performing in DRA’s Fire Island Dance Festival. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Grimes.
Jared Grimes’ mother took a more hands-on approach. The tap artist who performs this month at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and this fall in Cotton Club Parade on Broadway started out taking dance lessons from her in Jamaica, Queens. When he latched on to tap, which was not her strong suit, she taught him the basics and then coached him around the clock. She’d drag a plank of wood from the garage into the living room, “and we’d be up in the wee hours of morning and she’d be drilling me—‘Keep it clean! Watch your arms! Look up! Smile!’ ” recalls Grimes. “I never did anything perfect for her. Even if it was perfect for another teacher, it was not perfect for her. That used to annoy the hell out of me, but it made me a better performer.”
Heightened criticism isn’t the only challenge these dancers faced growing up. Tookey remembers walking into a dressing room where other mothers were gossiping about a scholarship she’d received and how her mother had orchestrated it “to keep the money in the family.” (In fact, she’d had nothing to do with it.) “There were all these rumors [about nepotism], but to be honest I think it’s the opposite,” Tookey says. “You actually get less attention because you’re family. You’re almost in the shadow of paying customers.” Similarly, Wood says her mother shied away from casting her in her dances at Berkeley, and Zien’s mother felt she couldn’t call artistic directors she knew to recommend her as she would any other student because she was her daughter.
Still, all of these dancers say the positives of being trained by your mother far outweigh the negatives. And all their relationships have continued to evolve—even from afar. “I’ll be struggling with something and I’ll tell her over the phone It’s this section of the ballet when I do this step, and she gives me an idea of how to fix it,” Zien says of her mother. “I know she’s dancing the step on the phone and the next day I go in and apply that and it’s extremely helpful.” Simkin, too, still relies on his mom for guidance and advice. “Her vision brought me to where I am in life. I would consider it stupid to stop listening to her now.”
Grimes and Tookey see their mothers’ influence when they choreograph and teach. “I advocate that same kind of perfection from the students I work with,” Grimes admits. “I’m probably worse than her.”
Wood and her mother are charting new territory by performing together in an intergenerational dance called Flower Fiction that also includes her daughter (they are 78, 48, and 8, respectively) at the Ailey Citigroup Theater this June. “We laugh more; we hug more; we talk more. It’s this incredible place to be in with her,” she says.
And, of course, although your mother/teacher may be a tough critic in the studio, in the audience she’s your most devoted fan. “She always reminds me that I haven’t stopped growing as a dancer,” Zien says of Pilarre, who recently saw her perform a lead role in Liam Scarlett’s Euphotic and was moved to tears. “When she comes, it’s always the best she’s ever seen me,” she says. “And then the next time it’s even better.”
Elaine Stuart is an NYC writer who has covered dance for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Members of Columbia Ballet Collaborative in Emery LeCrone’s Five Songs for Piano. Matthew Murphy, Courtesy CBC
After the highly praised premiere of his Year of the Rabbit last October, many people know the name of New York City Ballet corps member and up-and-coming choreographer Justin Peck. But fewer realize that Peck got his dance-making start at a small, student-run troupe: the Columbia Ballet Collaborative (see “Taking Off,” April 2011).
Founded in 2007 by five Columbia University students who had danced for companies like Pennsylvania Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre, CBC provides a platform for accomplished classical dancers to keep performing while pursing their education. It has also become an unlikely incubator for new creative voices, rare to begin with in ballet. In addition to Peck—whose 2009 pas de deux for CBC caught the attention of NYCB’s artistic director, Peter Martins—the increasingly in-demand choreographer Emery LeCrone has made eight original works for the troupe and serves as resident artist.
CBC is composed of students from the university’s four undergraduate colleges: Columbia, Barnard, Engineering and Applied Science, and General Studies (a program for returning and nontraditional students). Its current members have danced with companies like Boston Ballet, NYCB, Miami City Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet. The troupe holds auditions twice a year for its fall and spring shows—31 dancers was the largest cast to date—and members rehearse two hours per week per piece. They also give a free open ballet class for the Columbia community every Saturday and teach dance to second-graders as part of a public school outreach program.
Artistic director Ariana Lott insists that CBC is intended to supplement, not substitute, what’s offered at Barnard, home to the university’s dance department. A double major in biology and dance, she says the department is very supportive, lending the group costumes and studio space. Most CBC members, she notes, study technique at Barnard and dance in departmental showcases.
But CBC arose out of a perceived lack of regular performance opportunities for classical and contemporary ballet dancers. “What the students wanted, they created—that was the genesis of CBC,” says Katie Glasner, assistant chair of the Barnard dance department and a faculty advisor to the collaborative since its inception. “That it’s flourished is a great testament to its founders and students.”
And flourished it has. Thanks to the caliber of dancing and occasional big names on the bill, CBC shows have attracted considerable attention. They often take place at well-known venues like Columbia’s Miller Theater or Manhattan Movement and Arts Center. Another distinguishing feature is CBC’s commitment to presenting new work, which has grown even stronger in recent years. Every show includes premieres by both student and outside choreographers.
“When I came to CBC I had never been part of the creation of a new work,” says Lott, adding that this is also true for some members who have danced professionally. “In ballet you do a lot of Sleeping Beauty, things that have been around for hundreds of years. So it’s nice to be part of something new and see how people’s minds work.”
And emerging choreographers benefit from having a built-in laboratory. “CBC provides the raw materials for anyone who wants to make dances,” LeCrone says. “It’s a place where I’ve had the opportunity to play and learn.” Glasner thinks this is filling a void. “I really believe ballet choreographers need an experimental ground like CBC,” she says.
But as much as it values innovation, CBC also strives to expose the Columbia community to the ballet canon. (Its upcoming shows on May 4 and 5 will include excerpts from The Four Temperaments, with permission of the Balanchine Trust.) After all, CBC isn’t just about keeping ballet in its members’ lives through college, but also bringing it into the lives of others. “We’re trying to make it more accessible to students,” Lott says. “I hope they come see one of our shows and think, Maybe I will go to a ballet or try another dance thing. And maybe down the line they will be a supporter of the arts.”
Three top dancers on their cross-training discoveries
Sara Mearns with trainer Sebastian Plettenberg at Gyrotonic Manhattan, Photo: Christopher Duggan
It’s 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and while most people her age are still asleep, New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns is working out. Dressed in baggy sweatpants and a faded Bon Jovi T-shirt, her wet hair tied in a loose knot, she curves and arches her back while balanced on her knees, her arms tracing circles on gliding disks. Her trainer, Sebastian Plettenberg, looks on, “checking how her spine moves after a very full day yesterday.”
During the past six years, as she shot to super-stardom, Mearns has been practicing Gyrotonic. The non-impact exercise methodology developed by Juliu Horvath involves three-dimensional, spiral movements and coordinated breathing to stretch and strengthen the muscles while stimulating the nervous system and opening joints. Mearns, currently getting over a back injury, credits it with cutting her healing time down considerably.
“It’s probably the number one thing dancers should do when recovering from something,” she says in between sets of scissor kicks on the Leg Extension Unit, a complex system of weights and pulleys, at Gyrotonic Manhattan on 57th Street.
Mearns is one of many leading dancers who have discovered the value of training outside the studio—not only when recuperating from an injury but also as a preventative measure. “As I’ve gotten older and started dancing more, I’ve been finding things in my body are off a little bit—or a lot,” she says, noting that she has scoliosis and an uneven pelvis. “So I need to work hard to keep my body in check.”
Mearns squeezes in an hour-long Gyrotonic session with Plettenberg five to six days a week, usually before her morning technique class. If he isn’t available to train her, she’ll go through some exercises on her own. “I can’t walk into class and just start. I have to warm up my body and my senses and find a rhythm before I get to the barre,” she says. “If I just go to class, I feel like my body is closed up like a clamshell. But if I do this I’m completely open and expanded, free to move in any direction and experiment more. I feel so much stronger and on top of my legs in class and rehearsal.”
Alicia Graf Mack of Ailey, Photo: Andrew Eccles, Courtesy Ailey
For veteran Ailey dancer Alicia Graf Mack, cross-training is crucial for building stamina and endurance. She jogs for 20 to 30 minutes on her days off to keep her muscles activated. “Our rep is so demanding that your body has to be in Olympic-athlete shape,” she says. “If I don’t prepare my legs for high-powered movement, I have a really hard time.”
Mack first took up running while on a hiatus from dance. In 1999, after four years with Dance Theatre of Harlem, she was suffering from a knee tear on top of a bad bout of arthritis (she has an autoimmune disorder that affects her joints) and decided to enroll at Columbia University. She began jogging for a cardio workout. “I like to get outside and be physical and feel spent,” says Mack. And her knee improved as a result. So when she started dancing again in 2003, she kept it up as a contrast to her time spent in the studio.
“From the outside it probably looks like a light prance,” she says, adding that she walks for half an hour afterward to lengthen her muscles. “With dance, you work your body in such extreme ways—everything is turned out—so I tend to do things that put me back at neutral, parallel, to keep my body strong and well aligned.”
Carla Körbes warming up for rehearsal, Photo: Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB
Many dancers accomplish that by doing Pilates. Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Carla Körbes swears by the popular fitness system for both overcoming and staving off injuries. She was first introduced to it as a student at the School of American Ballet, when she had a ligament tear in her foot that required reconstructive surgery; she couldn’t dance for a year and a half. “Pilates was a big part of my recovery,” Körbes says. “And throughout 16 years of dancing, every time I get an injury I do baby Pilates and it makes me feel like, OK, I can get back to this. It takes time, but it’s always a tool I will use.”
In Seattle, Körbes trains once a week when she can with Michele Miller of Halfmoon Acupuncture & Pilates. (She sees her partner for treatments, too; “they’re like a dream team to me,” she says.) “What I like is you’re not just doing crunches or lifting weights; because you’re lying on a machine with springs connected to you, you have to work every muscle.” And while she does some mat work on her own, she has learned to listen to her body: “I have to be conscious of how I feel that day and what I have that week,” she says. “More is not necessarily better. If I do a lot of working out incorrectly, it throws me off.”
For all three dancers, a major benefit of exercising with a trainer is having an expert eye on you at all times. Körbes says Miller noticed her left calf was still a little weak from an injury she endured a year ago, so she’s been having her do additional repetitions and relevés on that side. And Mearns recalls that after she sprained her ankle four times last year, Plettenberg came to see one performance and immediately identified the cause (she wasn’t landing from jumps properly) and began addressing it in their sessions.
In fact, much of the work these dancers do outside the studio is to correct imbalances and bad habits developed inside it. Despite her stature in the ballet world, Mearns uses Gyrotonic to perfect basic steps, like her arabesque. “I have such a mobile back—that’s how I got into this place I’m in,” she says of her injury. “My body’s smart and finds a way to get my leg up, but it might not be the right way.” When she had the privilege of meeting Gyrotonic founder Horvath, he explained that a proper arabesque engages the legs and pelvis more than the back, which just accommodates the bend.
On the other hand, part of the appeal of running for Mack is that it takes her mind off of dance. She likes to jog with her husband, listen to her iPod (usually gospel or pop music), and just enjoy being in nature. Then when she returns to work, she feels refreshed. “I’ve never met Mr. Ailey, obviously, but a lot of people tell me he loved dancers who are real people, who went outside of the studio and experienced life and then had something to bring back to the studio,” Mack says. “The studio is sacred, and it’s hard to live in that sacred place all the time. It can be kind of draining. For me, running is a way to take a deep breath.”
All of these dancers report that outside exercise also serves as a form of stress relief. “Whenever you work out and feel good about what you did for your body, it’s helpful mentally,” Körbes says. Or as Mearns puts it, “Your mind is at ease when your body is. Gyrotonic creates a good energy in your body that automatically translates to mind and spirit. I walk out and feel confident about the day. It’s so uplifting that it gets addictive.”
And, of course, being in peak physical and psychological shape leads to career longevity, which is another reason these dancers engage in cross-training. “As the body gets older, you have to get smarter to make the aging process as smooth and beneficial as possible,” says Plettenberg. He claims that regularly practicing Gyrotonic can add a decade to a dancer’s professional life.
That is an especially strong motivation for Mearns. Having risen to the top of the ranks at City Ballet in record time (see cover story, June 2012), she wants to stay there as long as possible. And getting injured again last May helped her understand that sometimes means slowing down. “It made me reevaluate how I approach my rehearsals, my schedule, everything,” she says, noting that after her back spasm five different dancers had to fill in for her in one weekend.
Now Mearns is focused on “what I need to do to have a career that lasts 20 more years.” And Gyrotonic is an integral part of that plan. “It’s my secret weapon in a way,” she says with a grin while sprawled on the floor of Plettenberg’s studio after her Saturday morning session. “I feel like I have an edge.”
Elaine Stuart has written for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as for Dance Magazine.
Franco De Vita (left) and Alexei Ratmansky audition dancers for The Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
There are many memorable moments in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker—from a baby mouse wreaking havoc in the Stahlbaums’ kitchen to Clara and her Nutcracker Prince meeting their adult selves amid swirling snow. And almost all of these standout scenes involve its youngest cast members. American Ballet Theatre’s version of the holiday classic, which debuted in 2010 and returns to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, features world-class dancers and thrilling feats of choreography in its principal parts. But the real stars of this production are the kids.
Of course, children are always showcased in this family-friendly ballet. But the 52 kids in ABT’s version, who range in age from 10 to 15 and are all students in the affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, perform with an uncanny level of poise and professionalism. This is the product of months of rehearsals that focus on both technique and storytelling.
“We don’t leave any stone unturned,” says Kate Lydon, artistic associate of the ABT Studio Company (and a Dance Magazine editor at large) who has served as a rehearsal director for the children’s cast. “We prepare them 100 percent so there are no surprises.” And yet what makes the students so endearing onstage is that they still retain their joy in performing. “Alexei wants personalities,” Lydon adds. “He doesn’t just want them to be technical machines.”
The children of ABT’s Nutcracker are selected at a September audition attended by Lydon, assistant principal of the JKO School Melissa Bowman, JKO ballet mistress Harriet Clark, and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. Ratmansky usually observes as well, but this year he was out of town (though the casting of lead roles is never finalized without his input). Technical skill and height factor into the decisions, and acting ability is essential. “They have to be animated,” Bowman says. “The kids bring the story alive.”
The students begin rehearsing for three hours every Saturday afternoon. The JKO faculty teach the choreography in segments, then focus on polishing, spacing, and getting the children comfortable with props. In the final lead-up to the shows, the kids join in company rehearsals for the ensemble scenes and tricky transitions, like the Polichinelles maneuvering around the stilts under Mother Ginger’s skirt.
Athena Petrizzo as Clara in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Character is emphasized from the earliest rehearsals. “We have conversations about the story and make sure they understand what they’re portraying,” says Bowman. “That’s a great lesson for any dancer, but Nutcracker lets them chew on that a bit, so we try to get into it as much as we can.” The constant attention to acting is necessary, she says, since not all children develop at the same pace. “Some come by it naturally; others are hidden gems—with a bit of coaching and patience they shine just as brightly.”
At a late-September rehearsal for the party scene, Bowman worked with the students on expressing excitement and disappointment. “Where are the gifts?” she exclaimed as a cluster of girls and boys burst through imaginary doors at the back of the room. “Oh, no, are they over there?” she yelled while they sprinted from one side of the studio to the other, mouths agape and arms outstretched. After a few runs she stopped to explain a stomping step. “It’s like a fit—angry—not arm, arm,” she said, imitating classical port de bras. She turned to address one of the boys. “I don’t feel the sense of bummed I need when the parents go, ‘No!’ Because everyone else around you is seriously bummed.”
A compelling stage presence and acting ability is even more important for the lead children, particularly young Clara. In Ratmansky’s interpretation, as in many Nutcrackers, the role requires a certain sweetness and innocence (a “Clara-ness” as Bowman puts it). While the technical demands are high, it’s Clara’s dramatic performance that ultimately carries the ballet.
For Athena Petrizzo, 13, who danced the part the past two years, this was the greatest challenge. She had some previous acting experience from doing community plays in her New Jersey hometown, but she still worked tirelessly on her character. “I always wrote down what Alexei told us we should be feeling. When I went home I would sit myself in front of the mirror and just go through the dance and see what facial expressions and emotions would suit the role of Clara,” Petrizzo says.
Internalizing the character allowed Petrizzo to really let go onstage, especially in the complex snow scene where she and her Nutcracker transform into a grown-up prince and princess, performed by ABT principals. “I tried to focus on how I would actually react in real life, not making it too balletic or fake,” she says. “I thought about making the audience believe that they weren’t watching a ballet but a real-life story.”
For a few of these gifted children, the dream of one day becoming a principal dancer may eventually come true. But regardless of their future in ballet, they walk away from The Nutcracker with great pride and confidence.
“It takes a lot of hard work to get there, but every role is important and they know it,” Lydon says. “They’re part of something so big that’s so good.” Petrizzo agrees: “It was such a spectacular feeling. Being onstage with the company, with the lighting, with the scenery, with the costumes, it’s just something I will never forget.”
A New York City writer, Elaine Stuart danced the role of Clara in the Charleston Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker when she was 13.
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Teaching the master’s work at colleges brings its own challenges and rewards.
Juliana Rodzinski of Vassar Repertory Dance Theater in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Madeline Zappala, Courtesy Vassar © George Balanchine Trust.
Last winter, Juliana Rodzinski performed George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux after being coached by one of the choreographer’s muses, Merrill Ashley. But Rodzinski isn’t in a professional ballet company, affiliated school, or even a university dance program. She is a Russian Studies major at Vassar College.
Traditionally, enrolling in a liberal arts institution meant hanging up your pointe shoes to pursue your education. But in recent years, Rodzinski’s experience has become more common. Colleges like Vassar, Harvard, and Princeton—better known for their academics than their ballet degree programs—have all staged Balanchine ballets, giving more college students the chance to dance these iconic works.
To acquire the rights to these ballets, the schools must go through the Balanchine Trust, a legal entity that was established in 1987 to preserve the choreographer’s legacy. Just like professional companies that wish to license his ballets, colleges submit DVDs of the proposed dancers to be assessed by the trustees. If approved, the university pays an undisclosed honorarium to the Trust to have an authorized repetiteur set the work. (Repetiteurs work under a separate contract.)
“If what the school is requesting seems suitable, then the Trust will say yes,” says Ellen Sorrin, director of the Balanchine Trust. “Our desire is always to say yes; we think that teaching in schools and universities is a wonderful exercise.”
Yet this exercise presents certain challenges. Some of these schools don’t have dance departments, and the students’ technique isn’t always up to par. “At the college level, many dancers have left behind pointe work for several years and gone from taking daily ballet classes to weekly and monthly ballet classes,” says Heather Watts, the former New York City Ballet star who has staged Balanchine works at Harvard and Princeton. The lack of male dancers or women trained in partnering can be other limitations. There are also serious time restraints. While Watts has taught semester-length courses, most stagers spend only a week or two setting the ballet—rehearsing around the students’ academic schedule—and then return the week of the performance to refine it.
Under these circumstances, some ballets work better than others. Serenade was made for students, Watts points out, so sections of it are natural building blocks; if full-length dances aren’t feasible, the schools can license excerpts. Repetiteurs also have the freedom to accommodate the dancers’ abilities within the context of the choreography. “Sometimes you have to change a step or two,” says Merrill Ashley, who worked with Rodzinski at Vassar and taught Valse-Fantaisie and sections of Who Cares? at Indiana University. “We don’t do it lightly, but you know Balanchine changed things to not have it be obvious that people are struggling.” As Sorrin puts it, “We have a certain standard when staging for companies, and people who stage at schools understand they have to temper that to give the students a fulfilling experience rather than a frustrating one.”
The repetiteurs focus on stylistic elements. But they aim for understanding, not perfection. “You show art students the great paintings in the Louvre; you don’t expect them to paint the great paintings in the Louvre,” Watts says. “I show them everything I know about Balanchine and we dance it however we can dance it.” She recalls that when Balanchine taught class, his example was not the most gifted dancer but “the worst dancer who was willing to do the biggest, fastest glissade in the world. Balanchine would say he showed the idea of it the best,” she says. “I’m teaching them about Balanchine—his process, his aesthetic, and mostly his belief system, which is, Do more, don’t be meek, don’t be mild.”
Still, Watts and Ashley are impressed by how much the dancers improve. “I always walk in and say, Oh dear, this may be over their heads,” Ashley admits. “But they finish doing a respectful job and it’s really gratifying to help get them there.” The students commit to the work intellectually, as well, and emerge with a deeper respect for Balanchine. “When you’re part of his ballets you see the intricacies of the choreography better, you understand the musicality better, you appreciate the subtle wit in a way you never would if watching a video or even a live performance,” Ashley says. “There’s such a tradition behind it, and it’s good for them to feel that connection.”
In the semester-long course Watts co-taught with senior lecturer Rebecca Lazier at Princeton, which had classroom and studio components, they helped the students draw even broader connections. “We lay down Balanchine in the context of the time,” Watts says. “If we’re looking at Agon, we’re talking about civil rights. Stars and Stripes—it’s the Cold War and super-patriotism. When I teach the ballets, we never learn just steps.”
There’s no question that this immersion in the repertoire enriches a liberal arts education. “It is a gift to get to dance Balanchine,” says Watts. “And the receptive nature of the dancers is kind of magical.” Rodzinski experienced that while watching New York City Ballet principals perform Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux a few months after her school show. “I heard the notes in my head before they even started playing and was able to know how they were feeling and appreciate it 10 times more from the audience,” she says. “And it made me realize how much the art of dance means to me and how I’ve benefited from it in my life.”
The hope of the Balanchine Trust and its repetiteurs is that students will carry this passion for the art form with them out into the world.
Watts saw that happen literally at Princeton—she spotted her students performing the dances they learned around campus “like a flash mob.” To her, it was the ultimate form of validation. “When I see them doing Agon in the parking lot, I’m like, ‘I did a good job! You love Balanchine as much as I do!’ ”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe.
The Petronio dancer brings tough and tender together.
Growing up in New York City, Jaqlin Medlock attended many performances at the Joyce and dreamed of dancing on that stage. “It’s a landmark theater for New York—like if you perform at the Joyce, you’ve made it!” she says. So when she found herself there last March, in her first season with the Stephen Petronio Company, she could hardly contain her excitement.
Many audience members felt a similar rush watching this petite newcomer perform. In a program filled with firsts—Petronio’s interpretation of a 1970 Steve Paxton solo, New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan’s appearance as a guest artist, and the world premiere of the choreographer’s latest work, The Architecture of Loss—Medlock’s tough yet tender debut in the revival City of Twist made a strong impression.
“I loved the part I had,” she says. “I could be sassy and have a really good time with it. I didn’t feel like I was performing. I felt like I was myself.”
Despite her long lines and clean technique, it’s Medlock’s presence that sets her apart. Petronio noticed it in her audition (see “Through Petronio’s Eyes,” Feb. 2012). “She has a lot of natural personality and a sense of style with everything she does—the way she talks, the way she walks, and the way she dances,” he says.
Medlock, 27, can’t remember exactly when she started dancing, only that she was too young for the local studio. “So I had Saturday morning ‘ballet class’ in the living room,” she says. “My dad would put on Van Halen and Tina Turner and let me dance.” She began training seriously around age 12 while dancing in a youth company in Fairfield, Connecticut, under the direction of Angela D’Valda and Steve Sirico. There she studied ballet with Franco DeVita, now principal of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. “He was definitely on my case,” she says. “He put me into professional mode.”
After high school, Medlock returned to New York City to attend Marymount Manhattan College. She graduated in 2007 with a dance major and photography minor. She spent two years with Steps Repertory Ensemble, the resident company of Steps on Broadway, and toured to South Africa as part of the Global Arts Initiative. At the same time she launched a photography business and took up tango. After freelancing for Bradley Shelver Contemporary Dance Theater, Bennyroyce Dance Productions, and other troupes, she was looking for a full-time position when a friend suggested she audition for Petronio.
She wasn’t convinced at first. “I’ve always loved the company, but I had it in my head I wouldn’t be a good fit,” she says. She had just taken a Petronio workshop at Steps, though, and decided to audition for fun. To her surprise she was hired—and given a month to learn Underland, the hour-long piece the company toured last fall.
Petronio worked with Medlock to mold her classical foundation to his slippery movement style—specifically to achieve the softness at the hip joint it demands. “My work’s a language and it takes a while to learn to speak it fluently,” he says. “Her body eventually just let go, and it was beautiful to watch that.” She found learning the movement challenging but rewarding. “My body worked so hard to adjust that sweat would seep into the battery of my hearing aids,” says Medlock, who has been hard of hearing all her life. “The batteries would die on a daily basis.”
Her next test as a newbie company member was being part of the creation of The Architecture of Loss. In typical Petronio fashion, it was a group effort. “The way it gets put together is kind of a free-for-all,” Medlock says. “That was shocking for me—having that kind of freedom and artistic collaboration.”
Medlock still can’t quite grasp that she’s made it by her own benchmark. But having achieved one goal, she’s quickly decided on the next. “I’d love to be one of those people who, when we’re creating new work, Stephen goes, ‘Yeah, do it like her!’ ” she says. “That comes with mastering the style. I know I have work to do, which means growing as an artist. And that’s all I can ask for really.”
Elaine Stuart is a New York City writer.
Medlock auditioned for Petronio for fun. Photo courtesy Medlock.
Last December, an unlikely headline appeared on the front page of the Yale Daily News: “Yale Dance Leads New Chapter in Cunningham Legacy.” The article described how the Yale Dance Theater, a year-old troupe founded and directed by professor Emily Coates, would be the first entity to license a Merce Cunningham work after his company disbanded. “What’s wonderful is that Yale students caught the importance of this,” says Coates. She feels that the visibility of Yale Dance Theater, in combination with the school’s dance studies courses, “makes the presence of dance here impossible to ignore.”
That wasn’t always the case. When Coates arrived at Yale as an undergraduate in 2003, a dance curriculum didn’t exist. Drawing from her career with New York City Ballet, Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Twyla Tharp, and Yvonne Rainer, she completed an independent project in performance studies. After graduating, she was offered a job to help develop a dance studies program at Yale. Coates now serves as director of that program and artistic director of the World Performance Project, an interdisciplinary research initiative. In 2010, prodded by associate dean of the arts Susan Cahan, Coates submitted a proposal to form a faculty-directed company focused on the intersection of performance and research. Soon after, Yale Dance Theater was born.
Coates describes YDT as “White Oak meets Yale,” adding that the repertory model was inspired by her experience working with Baryshnikov. “I was able to learn about the cutting edge of experimental dance through his commissions, and it always felt to me that that format was a kind of research project,” she says. “I wanted to take that deep curiosity and pull it into a Yale context.”
YDT differs from other dance groups on campus in its rigor—the 18 members rehearse for six hours every week—and in that it is not student-run. “I really wanted a situation in which they would have mentorship,” says Coates. Each session begins with a warm-up class in the choreographer’s style to help students improve their technique. (Yale does not offer a wide range of purely technique classes; many of its courses integrate studio practice with dance history and composition.) And although it is extra-curricular, the initiative is designed to supplement Yale’s dance studies coursework. “It was like the pages of our books coming to life for us, which was really magical,” says junior Amymarie Bartholomew of learning Twyla Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls in the pilot program last spring.
For the 2012 project, Coates invited four generations of Cunningham dancers (Meg Harper, Neil Greenberg, Patricia Lent, and Jennifer Goggans) to stage an excerpt from Roaratorio and create a MinEvent of choreography from the 1970s to 2000s, to be performed on April 27. This multigenerational approach, Coates says, “allows the students to ask questions like, How does dancers’ knowledge change? How does a choreographer’s style change? And how can we reconstruct a work in a way that brings together these voices harmoniously?”
YDT members also keep a group blog, wrestling with these ideas in writing. “You’re learning in your body but also trying to tap some interesting thoughts and even—not to exaggerate—revelations about the process,” Bartholomew says. “It’s a fabulous example of digging into both theory and practice.”
Coates’ focus so far has been to expose students to seminal American dancemakers who will challenge them both physically and intellectually. But in the future she hopes to juxtapose retrospectives with commissions of new works in the vein of White Oak. “It’s been wonderful to see it grow in only two years,” she says of YDT. “My feeling now is, Think of where we could go.”
Yale student Cecillia Xie and former Cunningham dancer Jennifer Goggans. Photo by Zoe Gorman, Courtesy Yale Dance Theater.
How does the director decide who to hire?
Dancers learn a phrase from Petronio’s Underland at an audition for his company. Gino Grenek (in gray sweatshirt, at back) leads. Photo by Rachel Papo.
Early on in a packed audition for his contemporary dance company, Stephen Petronio offered some advice: “Try not to kill each other.”
For the past half-hour, 75 dancers in a small studio at New York City’s Steps on Broadway had dodged flailing limbs and four unfortunately placed pillars in an attempt to reproduce the choreographer’s movements. It was one of two back-to-back auditions on a sweltering Friday in July. Dozens of hopefuls had been unable to register after the 160 spaces filled up. Petronio was looking to hire one man and one woman.
“Please don’t be nervous,” he told each group before the audition began. “You have no idea what I’m looking for. I barely do. Whether you get called back is not a reflection of your talent.” Then he handed the floor to his veteran dancer Gino Grenek.
Bald and brawny, with a large tattoo snaking down his right arm, Petronio doesn’t fit the stereotype of an artistic director. His edgy image and irreverence for the classical vocabulary led critics to dub him “the bad boy of dance” when he founded his troupe in 1984. These days—with countless commissions, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Bessie Award under his belt—his tough side is tempered by a preppy aesthetic. He arrived at Steps wearing thick-rimmed glasses, khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and black Birkenstocks—which he promptly kicked off while observing the dancers from a chair at the front of the room.
Grenek began by teaching an excerpt from Petronio’s Underland. The choreographer chose it because he needed to fill two places in the work before his company’s fall tour, and it provided a good introduction to his fluid, off-kilter style.
“This phrase is very confrontational, so really charge at us,” Grenek said before demonstrating the steps. He sliced the air with windmill arms and lunged into a deep plié in second position, then twisted his torso and bolted across the floor. The dancers hovered around him, mimicking his moves. While they practiced, Petronio occasionally piped in: “Look at the weight washing from side to side. There’s a shape, but it has flow to it.”
After dividing the room into two groups, Petronio had the dancers do the combination five at a time. They performed without music because that’s how he choreographs; the studio was silent except for the pounding of feet and the odd grunt or muffled curse escaping the lips of a dancer who messed up.
Petronio’s eyes darted between bodies. He scribbled notes, as did four members of his company who were seated around him. Petronio always solicits his dancers’ input on potential hires. “It’s like adding a sibling to your family,” he says. “I’m wringing stories out of their bodies that are very personal, so it matters to me what they think.”
When all the dancers had performed, Petronio called “a quick powwow” with his company members. A buzz of chatter erupted in the room as they conferred—whispering and pointing to names on his clipboard. Finally he stood and the din disappeared. “We’re going to call numbers. These people stay and everyone else, thank you very much.”
After the cut, 28 dancers remained. They then learned a more demanding sequence that featured rapid-fire footwork and Petronio’s trademark undulations of the spine. “The first section was basic, so that tells me a lot about alignment and their ability to drop and recover weight,” he says. “The pyrotechnics of the second phrase let me see their skill.”
By the end of the second audition, the choreographer had narrowed the pool down to 10 dancers whom he invited to a company rehearsal at Joyce SoHo (two apprentices competing for the jobs also attended the callback). He didn’t extend offers until three weeks later.
Petronio notes that his contracts are typically for at least a two-year commitment. As a result he avoids making snap judgments. “The first impression could be just a beauty contest…who am I attracted to? On one level you imagine them as your ideal love as a dancer. So I try to see if that impression pans out.”
Two dancers who made a positive impression at Steps were Jaqlin Medlock, a freelance dancer, and Samantha Figgins, a recent graduate of SUNY Purchase. Both had attended a Petronio workshop the previous week, and their familiarity with his style showed (see “Learning from the Masters,” Jan.). Medlock says she went into the audition with the mindset of having fun and being herself, which relieved the pressure. “If a company doesn’t like you for who you are, they’re not going to hire you for who you are portraying,” says the petite brunette.
That attitude resonates with Petronio: “I want someone who knows who they are. I always say I’m looking for technique so good it’s invisible, because I want to see the person.” And he was so taken by what he saw in Medlock that when he found out she had a conflict with the Joyce rehearsal, he asked her to a private callback the following week. She attended, and later that same evening he called to offer her a contract.
“There is a sense of wildness to her movement in combination with her razor-sharp lines that smacks of raw potential,” Petronio says of his newest company member. (He also hired one of his apprentices, Nick Sciscione.)
Figgins shined at the callback but ultimately didn’t land the job. “That’s the most difficult thing—getting so far and then hearing, ‘We really like you, but we’re looking for something else,’ ” she says.
Petronio admits that in this case physique was a consideration; Medlock has a similar build to the dancer she replaced. “I don’t have an ideal body in mind, but I have a specific need for specific roles,” he says. “As a choreographer I’m making a picture onstage, and the dancer that’s auditioning never knows what that picture is.”
Petronio offered Figgins an unpaid apprenticeship, but she accepted one with Complexions Contemporary Ballet instead. Still, she says this was the best audition experience she’s had because it challenged her to stretch beyond her classical training and, as she puts it, “show my spirit through dance.”
For Petronio, that’s the point. So he hopes he’ll see Figgins and others from the audition in future classes and workshops—and maybe even one day onstage. “The most beautiful part of my job is watching dancers grow into this language, because this movement is hard,” he says. “To watch somebody get really good at it is one of the joys of my life.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe.
Inset: Petronio (second from right) and his company members observe the dancers in the room. Jaqlin Medlock (left) soars through the Petronio audition. Photos by Rachel Papo.
Last April, at the start of rehearsals for New York City Ballet’s spring season, then-20-year-old corps member Chase Finlay casually checked the casting board—and got the shock of his life. For the first two shows of Balanchine’s Apollo, his name was written next to the title role.
“I initially had a feeling of panic and stress,” Finlay says of learning he’d be performing such a coveted part. “But then I just stood back and said, ‘Wow. This is a crazy opportunity. I’m going to do my best.’ ” (Finlay’s best was so brilliant it earned him a promotion to soloist two months later.)
Dance companies are organized as hierarchies, so there’s usually little surprise when it comes to casting. However, junior company members are sometimes tapped to perform a leading part—particularly when an injury sidelines an artist in the upper ranks. Nothing could be more thrilling for a dancer who has been toiling away in the corps. Every up-and-comer pines for the chance to make his or her mark on a role typically reserved for principals. But those who have been through it know that stepping out of the background and into the spotlight presents challenges as well as rewards.
Finlay says he struggled less with the choreography, which he had been understudying, than with seeing himself as worthy of the part. “It was intimidating to have Peter Martins and Nikolaj Hübbe and all these great dancers do it before me.” And although Apollo was his dream role, he recognized the danger in indulging that. “If you go into it thinking it’s this huge iconic part,” he says, “you set yourself up to be too nervous and uptight.”
Instead, Finlay focused on the ways he could relate to the character. During the weeks leading up to his debut, he worked tirelessly in and out of rehearsal to understand Apollo’s journey in the ballet. In the end, he used his age and relative lack of experience to infuse the role with a fresh perspective. “I tried to give it more of a youthfulness as opposed to a godly figure,” he says. “I was able to be myself rather than try to be someone else.”
Eran Bugge found herself in a similar position when she was cast in a featured part made on the award-winning Lisa Viola in Paul Taylor’s tango-inspired Piazzolla Caldera. Bugge studied Viola’s interpretation on video but ultimately realized she had to develop her own voice. And in this case, the character—which Bugge describes as “a strong, feisty woman”—required her to adopt a new persona.
“I’m the shortest in the company, so I often play a younger ingénue,” she says. “But I don’t want to fall into a type, so it’s nice that he gave me something outside of that.” The dynamic movement also stretched her technically. “I tend to be a softer, more lyrical dancer, and this dance is very snappy and staccato.” While excited to expand her range, Bugge admits there’s more at stake in center stage: “If you screw up you feel like everyone’s going to see it,” she says. “When you’re in the background, it could maybe fly under the radar.” And there’s intense pressure to live up to expectations. “It’s not just representing yourself, it’s representing Paul and Paul’s work, and you want to give it the best possible presentation.”
Of course, this can lead to insecurity. For San Francisco Ballet’s Mariellen Olson, gaining confidence was the key to landing a lead role. She made her debut as Myrtha in Giselle last February after overcoming a mental hurdle. “There was a time when I thought, ‘I’ll never get to do that,’ ” says Olsen, who has been in the corps since 2002 and learned the part in the past. “But then something changed. I was like, ‘Why not? I should be doing this. I’m a jumper and I’m theatrical. This is the role for me.’ I made myself get over my doubts and really went for it. And I think that’s why I got to do it.”
But the physical preparation was as demanding as the psychological. “It’s probably the hardest role I’ve ever attempted,” Olsen says of Myrtha. “It takes everything out of you.” And mastering the athletic choreography required enormous self-discipline. Olsen was in one of multiple casts that alternated rehearsals, so she ran the part every day on her own—in addition to her corps responsibilities. The extra effort paid off, though. “I felt so much stronger for the rest of the season, like I could conquer anything,” she says.
A lead role provides room for artistic growth, too. These three dancers all worked hard to cultivate a commanding stage presence—something that doesn’t come naturally after years of blending into the backdrop. And as daunting as it was to have every eye in the audience on them, sharing the spotlight with principal dancers also took some getting used to. “I put them on a pedestal; they’re stars!” Olsen says of Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro—her Giselle and Albrecht. “And I had to get over that because I had to be the boss,” she jokes, referring to her character.
While Olsen’s fellow dancers supported her turn in the role, such opportunities can breed resentment within the ranks. “There’s always going to be some people who aren’t happy with a younger person getting parts like that,” says Finlay. On top of interpersonal tension, up-and-coming artists often find themselves navigating newfound fame. After New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay raved about his portrayal of Apollo, Finlay told himself to “take the compliments but also leave them, keep working harder and not let it get to my head.” Then there’s the potential for letdown after the performance is over and reality settles in. “Once you go back to the corps, it’s a bummer at first,” Finlay admits (though he didn’t remain there for long).
Olsen made her appearance as the spirit queen at a Saturday matinee and had to dance as a peasant and wili in the evening. “I was on a high from doing Myrtha that afternoon, but that’s life. I am in the corps and was just lucky enough to step out for a show,” she says, adding, “In a way I was relieved because I had done those parts for years. I could relax and enjoy my time onstage.” Bugge agrees. “The next night you might have more of a background role. But it’s nice because we share the pressure and rewards.”
However short-lived, that shining moment is more than worth any angst that comes with it, according to these dancers. “You almost can’t create it completely in the studio. You have to get under those lights and have the red lipstick on and the flower in your hair,” says Bugge.
For Olsen, who had never done a run of Giselle with the full set and smoke before her Myrtha performance, the experience was transcendent. “I kind of went to a different world,” she muses. Finlay can relate. “I was completely lost in the character,” he says of his first show. “Once the curtain went down, I just stood there for a few seconds and was like, ‘Did that happen? Did my dream come true?’ ” He laughs. “It was a great feeling.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Brooklyn Rail.
From top: NYCB’s Chase Finlay as Apollo last spring. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB © Balanchine Trust; Eran Bugge in Paul Taylor’s Also Playing. Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy PTDC; Mariellen Olson in SFB company class. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Jennifer Chin recalls this scene from her early days as a dancer: In a class of 40 students, only five would be male. And all five would receive corrections from the instructor, compared to just two or three females.
The disparity didn’t go unnoticed. “I’d be annoyed,” says Chin, who’s now on the faculty at Montclair State University and the José Limón Institute. “Part of me was like, ‘Hey, what about the women?’ Not to put the men down at all, but it felt imbalanced.”
Unfortunately, this is still a common scenario in dance studios across the country. Distributing attention equally in light of the age-old gender gap is an issue that educators continue to face. Chin makes a conscious effort to encourage her male students while not discriminating against the women. “I’m really aware of that as a teacher—trying to give feedback to everyone in class,” she says. “I’m not always successful, but I strive for that.”
To some degree a bias toward boys is inevitable—perhaps even defensible. A few male dancers naturally stand out in a sea of female students. And educators are eager to nurture men since they’re so underrepresented in the art form. “It is amazing, the tenacity of the gender imbalance in dance,” says Wendy Rogers, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has taught throughout her 40-year career. “They are a scarcer presence, so it automatically triggers that.” As Kaitlin Paul, who graduated from Montclair last May, puts it: “It’s the sheer fact of the lack of men in the dance world that when they are in class, teachers want to keep them around.”
But as a result, talented women may be overlooked or have to work twice as hard for the same recognition as the guys. And in some cases, gender overshadows a particular student’s potential or drive. Growing up, Paul had the experience of being in class with boys who lacked commitment but still dominated the teacher’s time. “It’s frustrating for the female dancers who are putting their heart and soul into every technique class, and attention is being placed on someone who doesn’t want to be there,” she says.
Of course, some boys need that extra push to overcome the social hurdles that stand in their way of pursuing dance. “It’s still an unusual profession for a young man,” says Charles Flachs, who directs the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet with his wife, Rose. “If I have any sort of bias toward guys, I may talk to them more about how difficult it is.”
Rogers appreciates “the gauntlet that men dancers have gone through” but notes that women have their own cultural challenges. Girls aren’t always socialized to fight for the spotlight, or to speak up when they feel they’re being treated unfairly. “What we aspire to is freedom from gender roles, but it might not happen in a given class,” says Rogers.
Flachs admits women can sometimes get lost, especially in a large school. But he is also quick to point out that male attention doesn’t necessarily equal positive feedback or praise: “With young gentlemen, I may be harder on them because I know what they’re going to face. There’s a real plethora of excellent male dancers now—that is different than when I was dancing 35 years ago. I can’t overemphasize the skill and preparation you need to compete on the professional level. So it’s not, ‘Let’s give this guy a break.’ ”
Men do often get a tuition break, however, creating another source of resentment for female students. As in many schools, Flachs makes financial accommodations for male dancers so that he’ll have enough partners for the ladies. But even with scholarships, the shortage persists—and that can have downsides for the men as well as the women. Daniel Grzelak, a former student of Flachs’ who now studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, wishes he had more peers to motivate him. “It would be better for my training if I had competition,” he says.
The lack of male dancers also leads to uneven performance opportunities. “That’s where you really see the discrepancy in university settings,” says Chin. “Men get more roles and better roles.” It doesn’t help that many classic works that colleges set, like Paul Taylor’s Company B, require multiple male artists. Montclair’s dance department sometimes has to poach musical theater majors to fill the parts. Chin thinks schools with programs that are 75 percent women should choose repertory that features them, or have separate male and female casts for the same piece—like Montclair has done in the past.
Be it in the studio or onstage, Flachs finds that talent matters far more than the gender of a student. Instructors inevitably gravitate toward the most gifted dancers, he says. His pupil Abby Lieberman agrees: “Dance is a meritocracy. It’s based on what you do, and gender sort of becomes irrelevant.” Teachers also tend to focus on the students who are fully engaged in class and who understand that corrections are aimed at everyone. As Rogers says, “You respond to the ones who take the ball and run with it.”
Chin echoes that sentiment. “Boys or girls, the students who put themselves out there get more attention. I try to cultivate any young person who has the desire and ability to work in the field,” she says. But from time to time, when teaching a class, she thinks back to her own childhood experiences and pauses to ask herself: “Am I doting so much on this student because he’s a boy, or because he has an amazing attitude and energy?” That may not make her perfectly impartial, but she believes it’s a step in the right direction. “The best thing we can do as teachers is just be aware of it.”
A former dancer, Elaine Stuart has written about the art form for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Charles Flachs works with student Liam Saito at his studio in Massachusetts. Photo by Carrie Homstead, Courtesy Flachs.
Ailey’s Antonio Douthit teaching at COCA in St. Louis, where he was a student. Photo by Cyndy Maasen, Courtesy Ailey.
Every January, following their New York City Center season, members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater get three weeks off to relax, take a vacation, or perform elsewhere as guest artists. For the past eight years, Antonio Douthit has chosen to return to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. But his schedule there is almost as demanding as when the company is in session. Monday through Friday, Douthit teaches class and choreographs on students at COCA (Center of Contemporary Arts), his former dance school.
Sounds exhausting, right? But Douthit claims the opposite is true. “Working with children can refuel you as an artist. You see exactly why you’re dancing—all the things you loved about it when you first started, before the paycheck and the audiences got involved. You get that fulfillment back,” he says. “So whenever I’m home I go to the studio to see what the younger generation is doing and be reenergized by them.”
Douthit is one of a growing number of professional dancers who find time to teach on the side. Traditionally, many dance artists become educators after they retire, but most don’t prioritize teaching at the height of their careers. This is understandable; few jobs require the same level of physical and emotional commitment. The sheer number of hours dancers spend honing their craft often makes it hard to maintain a social life, let alone an outside gig. But despite the challenges, more professionals are recognizing the benefits of training young dancers—both for the students and themselves.
Teaching is in tap phenomenon Michelle Dorrance’s blood. Her mother co-founded the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, where she studied as a child, and her father coached the Women’s U.S. Soccer Team. “That kind of leadership is valued in my family and I grew up admiring my parents’ ability to do it,” she says. When ballet turned out not to be her thing (“I was a disaster,” she says with a laugh), Dorrance joined the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. By the age of 13, she was teaching repertory. Now the New York–based Stomp star and director of Dorrance Dance returns to her native state every summer to lead master classes at the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival. She is also on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, and is a guest teacher at Steps on Broadway and tap festivals around the world.
Like Douthit, Dorrance finds working with students invigorating. “I love watching people get excited about tap dance,” she says. “It feels just as good to teach an incredible class as to take an incredible class.” But she also does it out of a sense of responsibility to her discipline. “Tap dance is a street form, so I think it’s the duty of practicing professionals to carry on the tradition at the highest level while at their peak.”
Dorrance admits that teaching prior to retirement is more common in her field than in other genres—especially ballet. She suspects this is due to the rigors of life in a classical company, and perhaps subtle biases. “I think there’s a certain stigma to teaching in other dance communities. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re teaching now? OK, you’re done.’”
One artist who challenges that assumption is ballet luminary Paloma Herrera. The American Ballet Theatre star, currently in her 20th-anniversary season, manages to squeeze in teaching engagements when not headlining performances with the company. She’s been a guest faculty member at the Fabrice Herrault Summer Intensive at the Ailey Extension for two years, and has taught ballet technique, pointe, and variations in Florida, California, and Italy. “Every time I have the chance I do it,” Herrera says, adding that her motivation stems from her high regard for the studio. “I love the working process. Of course I love the stage—that’s a given—but I love taking class. I love rehearsal. And that’s why I love to teach. For me, it’s a never-ending inspiration to keep getting better.”
All of these performers point out that teaching enhances their artistry. “Dancing in front of your students pushes you to practice what you preach,” says Dorrance. Herrera agrees: “You have to be an example. When you show the steps, you have to be clean and precise.” Douthit feeds off the students’ energy. “When you teach, it keeps you young and vibrant,” he says. “You come back with fresh ideas that make your performance more innovative.”
And as instructors, they can integrate skills they want to work on directly into the class. “It’s really fun to develop exercises that apply to fundamentals you need and use in performance,” Dorrance says. “You teach rudiments that will immediately translate to the stage.” Douthit, whose background is in classical ballet, discovered that teaching Ailey’s Horton technique helped him master its nuances. “It makes it easier for you to understand because you’re breaking it down for other people to understand. You’re seeing how it works on other people’s bodies.” As Herrera puts it, “I teach, but at the same time I’m still a student. Whatever I say I want the kids to do is actually what I want to accomplish.”
Young dancers profit from this approach as well. Not only do they get to see the steps demonstrated by leading artists whom they can emulate, but they also gain insight into the profession. Douthit shares his experiences with students “so they can be more aware of what I didn’t know when I went out into the world to dance.” Dorrance also believes having a performer for an instructor helps bridge the gap between training and career. “You’re reminding them that every lesson in class is applicable,” she says.
There’s another purpose that drives these dancers to teach on top of their full-time jobs. They want to pay tribute to the mentors who shaped them and pass on the kinds of opportunities they were fortunate to receive. “I’m trying to give everything back. And the more experience I have, the more I can give,” says Herrera. The same urge sends Douthit to COCA year after year. He credits the arts center, which awarded him a scholarship since his family couldn’t afford classes, with where he is today. “Dance really saved my life,” he says. “I feel like because I was given so much, the only right thing to do is give back to the younger generation. Someone did it for me, so we must continue this legacy.”
A former dancer, Elaine Stuart has written about the art form for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Inset: Michelle Dorrance at Vortex Dance Center in Moscow, Russia. Photo Dmitriy Sobolev, Courtesy Dorrance; Paloma Herrera rehearsing with Marcelo Gomes: “I love the working process.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
On a snowy Saturday morning last January, 190 elementary and middle school students filed into Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. They had been hand-selected by the National Dance Institute, a nonprofit arts education organization, to receive regular weekend dance training for free as members of its performing groups.
In one studio, legendary New York City Ballet star and NDI founder Jacques d’Amboise rehearsed his work for the program’s year-end performance. It was a reimagining of Balanchine’s Apollo, the iconic ballet for which d’Amboise is perhaps best known. The significance of this was not lost on the students. “It’s amazing that normal kids get to work with a famous ballet dancer,” said Noa Bornstein, 11.
That’s just one of many amazing aspects of NDI. Over the past 35 years, the educational initiative has impacted the lives of more than 2 million children through its partnerships with New York City schools and residencies nationwide and abroad. But considering the staggering success of NDI, what’s most striking is the fact that the organization has never had a home base.
“We’ve been gypsies,” says artistic director Ellen Weinstein. “We’re lucky to have extraordinary friends and relationships. But there is nothing on paper; there’s no contract. We’re always worrying and wondering.”
In a few months, that will all change. This summer NDI is moving into an 18,000-square-foot facility in Harlem. The property, part of an abandoned school that’s been converted into a residential development and community space, marks the culmination of NDI’s 10-year search for a home of its own.
The new Center for Learning and the Arts will house four studios—the largest of which doubles as a 175-seat performance venue—plus administrative offices and a lobby art gallery. “I want it to be a haven for our artists, and not just them but artists in the community,” Weinstein says. “I want it to be a bubbling, living center for dance and the performing arts for children.”
Despite the new digs, NDI’s core mission of helping students in the classroom won’t change. The institute conducts programs in 30 New York City public schools, working year-round with 4,000 children—mostly from low-income communities with no other access to the arts. Once a week, an entire grade gathers in the auditorium or gym with a lead teaching artist, a teaching assistant, and a live accompanist (NDI stresses the connection between music and dance). Academic teachers sit in on the sessions to see their students in a new light, and shared curricular themes help them bridge lesson plans.
This year’s theme is “A Sense of Wonder: Science and the Arts Play Together.” The idea is to “take a scientific principle and—using music, dance, poetry—playfully celebrate that principle,” as d’Amboise explained to the dancers in his rehearsal. The previous Tuesday, fifth-graders at P.S. 20 captured that spirit. They memorized movement patterns based on alphabetical science terms (“ ‘A’ is for atom, ‘B’ is for biosphere”), and teaching artist Mary Kennedy incorporated a fluid “Matrix” step, inspired by the movie, into a dance routine.
“Although we’re demanding excellence, we’re doing it in a way that feels joyful,” says Tracy Straus, associate artistic director and a veteran teaching artist. D’Amboise agrees. “The teachers are models for the passion and love of an art form, and the morality that is involved in it,” he says. He adds that he is eager to expand NDI’s teacher training program. The organization has developed a rigorous methodology for its educators, but has had to borrow or rent space for the two-week training workshops. With the new building, Straus says, “We’ll be able to pilot different structures of the teacher training because we’re not beholden to anybody else.”
Similarly, the Center for Learning and the Arts will enable NDI to increase its after-school and Saturday offerings. Each year, around 200 children receive additional instruction on weekends. Around 100 are invited from NDI’s partner schools to join the SWAT (Scholarships for the Willing, Achieving and Talented) Team. “They may not be technically perfect,” program director Aileen Barry says of SWAT participants. “But they’re the kids who love it, who are dancing while they wait for the bus.” After SWAT, some children join the NDI Celebration Team, a group of about 80 junior-high students who show exceptional promise. Weinstein hopes to grow these programs as much as fourfold.
NDI also plans to broaden its international presence from this New York base. It has organized cultural exchanges with Russia, Australia, Bali, and China, but d’Amboise looks forward to seeding ongoing NDI-affiliate programs around the world. They are already experimenting with new technology to reach children in other countries. Last summer, using Cisco’s TelePresence video equipment, NDI hosted the first real-time virtual rehearsal with young dancers in Shanghai. “This building is meant to be a communications center for the arts and children globally,” says d’Amboise. (Anyone who reads his new autobiography, I Was a Dancer, will learn of d’Amboise’s extensive global experience as both a dancer and mastermind of NDI.)
The new facility also means something psychologically to an organization that’s been around since 1976 but never felt a sense of permanence. As 13-year-old Celebration Team student Ben Korman put it, “Everyplace needs a home, and NDI finally found its.” NDI has always run on the passion of its people, but on top of that energy, there is suddenly a palpable excitement for the future. “We will be in control of our destiny,” Weinstein says. “So I feel like the sky’s the limit now.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal Time Out New York Kids.
NDI Dancers rehearse at LaGuardia High School. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy NDI
In the fall of 2008, during the early rumblings of the recession, Parsons Dance Company’s board of directors sat around a table discussing the choreographer’s first evening-length work. It was a collaboration with East Village Opera Company called Remember Me. “We kind of all stared at ourselves and said, ‘We’re looking at going forward with the biggest, most ambitious, most expensive initiative ever undertaken by Parsons Dance just as the economy appears to be on the brink of tanking—what are we doing?’ ” recalls executive director David Harrison. “It was at that point that as an organization we made what I believe was the right decision, but also a very courageous decision. We said we’re going to stay on mission.” In other words, they decided the show must go on.
Like arts organizations across the country, dance companies suffered a crippling blow when the financial crisis hit. Many are still struggling to stay afloat in what has proven to be the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. But despite the hardships they faced, some dance troupes managed to weather the storm. They did so by reaffirming their creative integrity and seeking out new ways to sustain it. Whether their success stemmed from taking a calculated risk, making a miraculous turnaround, or just persevering through dire straits, these companies represent the resilience of the art form.
In the case of Parsons Dance, the path to a firm financial future was paved by the board’s Remember Me gamble. After green-lighting the costly rock opera, the modern company set a fundraising record for the 2009 fiscal year that paid for the production’s two seasons in New York City, a domestic tour, and the taping of a Public Television special. “When you can look a donor in the eye and say, ‘If you will help us, we can put this show on national television and reach thousands, maybe millions of new audiences and have a DVD to establish its legacy’—people couldn’t wait to help,” Harrison says.
Contributions didn’t continue at that dramatic level for long, but donations by individuals have increased 171 percent over the past four years. Harrison credits Parsons’ recent success in fundraising to the new “Campaign for Creation,” intended to cover artistic expenses like studio time, dancers’ salaries, costumes, and lighting design—as opposed to overhead costs. “People want to feel like they’re part of the creative process,” he says. Patrons can even co-commission new works at lower amounts. This helped pay for two of the three world premieres the troupe debuted at the Joyce Theater in January.
Sometimes the removal of a key artistic element spurs supporters to action. That’s what happened when Miami City Ballet resorted to canceling its orchestra in 2008 due to a lack of funds. The company performed without musicians in the pit for almost two years—until it was awarded a $900,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. But the money came with a catch: The company had to raise half of the award amount itself. Arts philanthropists stepped up to the plate, pledging enough matching gifts to secure live accompaniment for the dancers through 2013.
The recession forced some companies to make an even more impassioned plea to the public. In May of 2009, Oregon Ballet Theatre revealed that unless they came up with $750,000 in a month they would likely have to close their doors for good. The company’s precarious financial state resulted from both the bad economy and bad luck: Donations declined 50 percent after the economic collapse, and ticket sales for the prior year’s Nutcracker were devastated by the worst snowstorm in the history of the state.
Their lifesaver was a massive fundraising event called Dance United. In just three weeks, artistic director Christopher Stowell put together a gala performance with leading dancers throughout the nation that helped them net $900,000. The galvanizing effort ensured the company’s survival, but it also prompted a series of scalebacks aimed at longevity. The following season Oregon Ballet reduced their administrative staff, staggered performers’ work weeks, and forfeited the orchestra (all of which they are no longer doing). “I believe that collectively people understood the necessity,” says Stowell. “It was painful though.” Stowell also showcased existing repertory rather than invest in new works.
As a result of these cost-cutting measures, OBT trimmed its budget by 28 percent and ended the last fiscal year with a slight surplus. “We’re not out of the woods yet. I’m not sure we’ll ever be out of the woods,” says executive director Diane Syrcle. “But we’re well on our way to becoming—and sustaining—a healthy dance organization.” In June of 2010, a year after Dance United, the company reprised the event but on different terms. “It was a celebration this time and not a cry for help,” Stowell says.
The triumph of Dance United inspired similar ventures. After conferring with Stowell and others at OBT, Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, organized a Moving Together gala last summer to benefit his small troupe based outside of Denver. Again dancers from far and wide participated. “What a huge and humbling thing it was to see that kind of generosity from throughout the dance community,” Ammon says. Ticket sales bolstered finances, he adds, but mostly the performance raised awareness. “It helped get the word out about where we were. It was very grassroots in how it was achieved.” Ballet Nouveau Colorado also tightened the purse strings. One of the company’s 12 dancers left and was not replaced; the number of performances was reduced; senior staff members, including Ammon and his wife, associate artistic director Dawn Fay, took pay cuts; and cuts were made in all areas, including delaying upgrades to office computers and marley floors in the school.
With philanthropy down, some groups turned their attention to earning extra revenue. Since Chicago is a major corporate headquarters, roughly $2 million of Joffrey Ballet’s budget comes from corporate donations. When that number dropped by half due to the dismal economy, the classical troupe explored ways to grow their income so they’d be less reliant on contributions. They now have a large merchandising business—on site, online, and on tour—and have begun renting their studios for weddings. “I think you have to have an entrepreneurial culture in the organization,” says executive director Christopher Clinton Conway.
Equally important with a volatile market is saving money. Last August, the Joffrey offered a three-ticket package at 61 percent off on Groupon.com. It was the first time a dance company had been featured on the popular discount website, and they increased their subscriber base by a whopping 50 percent. The organization typically shells out $300 to $500 to obtain each new subscriber, notes Conway, which “means that the cost for us to have acquired those 2,500 people could have been well over a million dollars.” After analyzing the Groupon data, the Joffrey found they’d attracted a fresh audience: Less than 2 percent had previously attended a performance. Conway hopes to renew the majority.
Some companies benefited from having a bare-bones business model to begin with. The 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet employs only five full-time administrative staff members and operates on a modest budget of $3.2 million. “We don’t have a wardrobe person. We don’t have a company manager,” says executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty. “Those are some of the sacrifices we made to put the dancers first.” As a result, there was no one to lay off and no fiscal fat to trim when the economy unexpectedly plummeted.
Instead, ASFB responded proactively. “Our ticket sales went down 20 percent,” says Malaty. “What did we do? Most people cut back; we added some performances.” Since the company has two bases, both populated largely by tourists and second-home owners, it was able to produce an encore in each town six weeks after the original program and capture a new crowd at little additional cost. The dancers have a 52-week contract, so they were available, and there weren’t season subscriptions or extensive marketing materials to worry about since the troupe has never had those. “Where our focus turned, more than to the bottom line and the bank accounts, was how to not lose our artistic value,” Malaty says.
At the end of the day, the saving grace of all these companies was resourcefulness and tenacity. Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s Ammon puts it best: “Is it tight? Sure. Is it gonna be tight for a while? Yeah. But if we can get through this period, we can get through anything. It’s a test of ourselves and our belief in our art.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York Kids.
The Joffrey Ballet in Jessica Lang's Crossed. Photo by Hergert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey
Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" residency captures kids' hearts and minds.
At 1:45 p.m. at Bea Fuller Rogers Middle School in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, high-pitched laughter, chatter, and screams reverberate through the hallways. But inside a small dance studio on the second floor, the atmosphere is different. Two dozen seventh-graders stand silently in a wedge formation, an inverted triangle with one student at the point. Their backs are straight, feet in second position, and arms extended about six inches from their sides. “Heads down, jazz hands,” calls a voice from the front of the room.
Many people would recognize this as the opening pose of “I’ve Been Buked,” the first section of Alvin Ailey’s signature work, Revelations. Teaching this choreography is a core element of the Ailey organization’s “Revelations: An Interdisciplinary Approach,” a pioneering dance-based curriculum implemented in public schools across the country. The initiative launched in 2000 but took on heightened significance this year in honor of the beloved ballet’s 50th anniversary.
“The movement that you do in your body is bigger than your body,” says Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, who is leading today’s session with the help of three assistants. “You gotta think about the space around you. Dance is bigger than that.” The girls and boys watch “Miss Nasha” with rapt attention as she demonstrates a deep plié leaning to the right and then the left while emphasizing, “wide, big, like I have the world.”
A former Ailey dancer, Thomas-Schmitt has been nurturing children’s creativity for more than a decade. As co-director of Ailey Arts in Education Program and national director of AileyCamp, she demands discipline: no talking unless called on, “yes” instead of “yeah.” But despite her no-nonsense demeanor, the vibe is genial. Kids giggle when she refers to a vibrating motion as “Beyoncé” and an arm position as “Egyptian.”
“Alvin had done outreach before it was a buzzword,” Thomas-Schmitt says; it was his idea to use Revelations as a teaching tool. Kathleen Isaac, a dance educator and former Ailey instructor, developed the codified lesson plans, which have since been introduced in many cities, among them Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, DC, and London. The middle-school curriculum gets kids moving, but there is also an academic component. In this interdisciplinary approach, dance is the vehicle through which students learn language arts and social studies.
During a typical five-day residency, young people with no previous dance exposure explore the life and contributions of Alvin Ailey. “We want them to see him as an interesting person, someone they can relate to,” says Thomas-Schmitt. They also examine the historical, cultural, and political themes of Revelations. To help these abstract concepts resonate, students are encouraged to find their own creative voices. For one assignment, the Bea Fuller Rogers kids rewrote the words of the opening spiritual to reflect their experiences. One student replaced “I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned” with “I’ve been bullied and I’ve been put down.” They also write poetry.
But the most powerful device is the drama and dynamism of the dance itself. The students learn parts of Revelations, then alter the steps with their own ideas. An exercise based on reaching and bending motifs in “I’ve Been Buked” requires pairs of students to come up with 48 counts featuring six distinct elements (reach, bend, move away, come together, turn, reach). They must mirror each other when presenting, which adds another degree of difficulty. After each duet performs, Thomas-Schmitt leads a class assessment. “We talk about the movement quality. Are there patterns? Is it fluid or percussive?”
For many kids, the chance to choreograph is a highlight of the week. “You get to express yourself inside and out,” says 12-year-old Jhonay Allen. “I think of a story or topic I really want to dance about. For angry, I’d probably punch or do sharp stuff.” One group experimented with a peeling motion inspired by a student’s suggestion of plátanos, or plantains. When a new term, like canon, emerges in these sessions, it is added to the “word wall.” (Earlier, when the children wrote what dance means to them on the wall, José Baez, 12, eagerly penned “passion.”)
As the culmination of the residency, students get to watch the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations live. This has a profound effect on them, says Denise Brown, a teacher at Bea Fuller Rogers. “The athletic strength required is amazing to a child. They want to emulate that.” Her class attended the 2010–2011 New York City Center season, which kicked off a 24-city tour. As the national celebration of Revelations at 50 continues, the residency will travel to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, and other locations.
Thomas-Schmitt marvels at the residency’s impact. “It’s a big self-esteem builder,” she says, noting that in the past 10 years she’s seen more participation from boys. Few of her public school students go on to pursue dance professionally, but to her that’s not the point. “Computer scientist or gourmet cook or electrician—everyone has to be in touch with their creative self to develop critical-thinking skills and to problem-solve. And also to enjoy what they do. The arts are tools that help us engage on that level.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York Kids.
Nasha Thomas-Schmitt teaches Revelations at Bea Fuller Rogers Middle School. Photo by Rachel Papo
Like looking down the first plunge of a roller coaster, or being on an elevator when the wires are cut—that’s how Holley Farmer describes the sensation of learning in February 2009 that her contract would not be renewed after 13 blissful years with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The executive director told her the decision was based on artistic reasons. But the late choreographer himself let her know privately that letting her go was necessary for the company to stay afloat financially. (Two other lead dancers were also let go.) To Farmer, the rationale didn’t really matter. “I was in torment,” she says. “I felt so betrayed.”
Fast-forward to September 2009, when Farmer debuted a principal role in Twyla Tharp’s new musical Come Fly With Me in Atlanta (now titled Come Fly Away; see cover story). “It’s the first time I’ve played a character in over a decade,” she says. “It took a lot for me to step onstage wearing a blue satin dress and a boa!” Farmer credits Tharp for challenging her to expand her artistic horizons—something she never expected to do at this advanced stage in her career. “I had to let go of that identity as a Cunningham dancer. It was through her mentoring that I was able to see a differentreality for myself.”
Farmer believes getting fired was a blessing in disguise. “After working with Merce all those years, I defined myself that way and felt I was defined by it,” she says. “Now I realize that Merce was just part of my journey.”
With the recession causing budget cuts across many companies, layoffs are an ever-present anxiety for dancers today. But even in sunnier economic times, there’s always a chance you could lose your job. As scary as that seems, those who’ve been through it often find it instills resilience and exposes a side of themselves they never knew existed. The key is being open to unforeseen opportunities and trusting the age-old adage that everything happens for a reason.
That’s the mantra of Kansas City Ballet member Deanna Doyle. She’s currently in her sixth season with the company, but back in 2003—after being hired and then abruptly fired by Karole Armitage (who had not yet founded Armitage Gone! Dance)—she feared she would never dance professionally. Doyle recalls how her “whole world shattered” when she got the news that her contract was being terminated due to a lack of funds. The experience at such a young age (she was 22 and had just graduated from the University of Kansas) was emotionally devastating. Luckily, the relationship she’d cultivated with the director of the dance department at her alma mater paid off. Even though she was no longer a student, he helped her land the lead in a ballet being choreographed by William Whitener, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, who soon offered her a company spot.
Now Doyle sees being laid off in a whole new light. “I’m actually glad it happened because it’s such a better fit for me,” she says of KCB. “I grew up studying ballet, tap and jazz. If I had stayed with Karole, I wouldn’t be able to dance Dewdrop in The Nutcracker and The Cowgirl in Rodeo.” Add to that a principal role in Armitage’s Arctic Song, a new work the choreographer set on Kansas City Ballet (and personally cast) last May. As Doyle puts it, “In this company, I can do it all.”
Of course, finding a new job isn’t always so easy. When Lindsay Purrington was let go from Pennsylvania Ballet last February after two and a half years in the corps, she dreaded getting back on the audition circuit. “It was difficult to go to so many cattle calls,” she says. “I was one of the oldest people there, and not everyone is looking for experience.” Purrington estimates she sent her resumé, DVDs, and press clippings to a dozen companies before receiving an offer in June from Carolina Ballet, where she had been a founding member in 1998. Today she is a second soloist and thrilled to be performing more than ever before. “It’s great to be part of new works and create roles,” she says. And yet she recognizes how instrumental her previous jobs were in paving the way. “I wouldn’t be the dancer I am now without Pennsylvania Ballet. I grew technically and artistically.”
For Jennifer Goodman, a veteran of the Joffrey Ballet whose contract was not renewed when it expired in June 2009—after 16 years with the company—the transformation was psychological as well as physical. “It’s kind of like going through a breakup,” she says of coming to terms with the decision of Ashley Wheater, who became artistic director in 2007. “I completely understand him wanting to make changes. I represented the old Joffrey.” Still she struggled not to take it personally. Part of what helped her get there was landing a pair of prestigious freelance gigs: She’s been dancing with The Metropolitan Opera in Carmen and Aïda (“There were 300 women at the audition and they picked five—that really boosted my self-esteem”), and the eight-member company BalletX, based in Philadelphia. She also dances with Avi Scher & Dancers in New York. “What I’m loving is that I’m being respected for my age and experience,” she says. She’s adopted a new life philosophy. “I’ve given up on trying to control things. Some people like you and some prefer a different look or style. I used to dwell on what I don’t have. Now I dwell on what I do have.”
She continues: “BalletX is more contemporary than what I’ve done, so it’s fun exploring that.” Goodman was so intent on using this experience to stretch herself as an artist that she auditioned everywhere, from Amsterdam’s Het Nationale Ballet to Cirque du Soleil.
Farmer can relate: “When Twyla first came to me about the role in Come Fly With Me, I was as bemused as anyone. I had to trust her vision for me, because I couldn’t see myself doing what she wanted me to do. It required a huge leap of faith.” Now she’s reaping the rewards of taking that risk. “On a daily basis I get to do movement that fascinates me.”
For these four women, it was a combination of determination, drive, and faith in the future that inspired them to persevere—and catapulted them to a better place. The lesson they learned is that just because a career transition is forced doesn’t mean it can’t be fortuitous. “Anything that happens to you—regardless of whether it was your choice or not—becomes part of your story,” says Farmer. “And this story for me has had a very happy ending.” She pauses, then adds: “And a beginning.”
Elaine Stuart, a former dancer, has worked as an editor at Modern Bride and Child magazines.