The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What do Alexei Ratmansky and rising Israeli star Sharon Eyal have in common? Both have had creations partly funded by an innovative new organization: FEDORA, which was launched in 2014 as a tribute to composer Rolf Liebermann by French arts patron Jérôme-François Zieseniss to promote innovation and collaboration in ballet and opera across Europe.
Since then, this Paris-based funding organization has built a network of 80 members, most of them opera houses and companies, from 20 countries. Every year, it awards a Prize for Ballet (as well as a sister Prize for Opera) to an upcoming new production by one of these institutions, elected by a jury of professionals; the dance award, sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels, is worth €100,000, or approximately $118,000. This year, it went to the William Forsythe–choreographed A Quiet Evening of Dance, which premieres at London's Sadler's Wells in October.
You'd think the Paris Opéra Ballet would be in damage-control mode after a leaked dancers' survey, in April, brought up worrying reports of harassment and mismanagement. But instead of addressing these issues internally, the French company is suing one of its own dancers in order to strip him of his union representative status and subsequently be free to fire him.
Dalloz Actualité, a French online magazine specializing in legal matters, elaborated on the lawsuit in an article published last week. The corps de ballet dancer taken to court, whom we'll call "S." to protect his identity, wasn't actually a member of the Commission for Artistic Expression, the elected group of dancers who put together the survey. He is described as a "geek" who provided technical support to ensure the validity of the results.
A new production of Swan Lake is no small undertaking—especially at The Royal Ballet, where the last one, staged by Sir Anthony Dowell, lasted 30 years. When it came to replacing it, director Kevin O'Hare opted for a British choreographer who grew up with Dowell's version: Liam Scarlett, a former first artist with and current artist in residence at The Royal Ballet, took up the challenge in tandem with designer John Macfarlane.
Once in a while, a prince will soar onto the stage fully formed and ready to take the repertoire by storm. The preternaturally elegant Hugo Marchand has done just that at the Paris Opéra Ballet. In Pierre Lacotte's La Sylphide, the ballet that earned him a promotion to étoile at just 23, Marchand articulated the steps with a polish and dramatic presence beyond his years. French ballet has found a bona fide leading man.
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Hopping from city to city during audition season can be both expensive and time-consuming—not to mention disheartening if you end up being cut after barre. Since its inception in 2016, the Grand Audition has aimed to solve that conundrum for young ballet dancers looking for a job: This annual two-day event in Europe provides an unprecedented opportunity to audition for 10 companies at once.
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The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
Marcelino Sambé has been an ebullient presence at The Royal Ballet since he joined the company in 2012. A prizewinner at Moscow International Ballet Competition and Youth America Grand Prix, the Portuguese dancer earned a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School's Upper School and shone from the start in virtuosic variations, with technique that was unfailingly bright and airy.
His short stature could have limited him. But last season, Sambé (who is also an enthusiastic choreographer) broke through to the next level, as was shown by the expressive, harrowing role Crystal Pite created on him in Flight Pattern—that of a migrant gripped by despair.
Not many students get the opportunity to perform a variation onstage with the Mariinsky Ballet. But in April 2016, when May Nagahisa was just 15 and training at Monaco's Princess Grace Academy, the Japanese prodigy was invited to perform the Manu dance in La Bayadère with the venerable Russian company—an unprecedented honor for a non-Vaganova student.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
At the age of 11, Julian MacKay gave up his life in rural Montana to move to Moscow and train full-time at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. It paid off: With Apollonian lines and bravura reserves of technique, the young dancer is now a versatile first soloist with St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet, and brings an enterprising American spirit to his Russian life.
Company: Mikhailovsky Ballet
Hometown: Bozeman, Montana
Training: With Christine Austin in Montana, Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow
Accolades: 2015 Prix de Lausanne (Royal Ballet apprenticeship), 2015 Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition (bronze), 2014 Yuri Grigorovich Ballet Competition in Sochi (bronze), 2014 Istanbul International Ballet Competition (gold)
Wayne McGregor has a new home, and he intends to share it. In March, the British choreographer and his company moved into Studio Wayne McGregor, a new, state-of-the-art venue in London. They have since announced two ambitious initiatives: FreeSpace, a program gifting studio time to other artists, and PEER, a mentorship program for final-year dance students and recent graduates.
In Rachid Ouramdane's Tenir le temps, Annie Hanauer articulates the choreography with unforced precision, her natural demeanor and smooth transitions the perfect fit for Ouramdane's undulating, abstract patterns. Few seem to notice that there is something slightly different about her: Hanauer was born missing part of her left arm, and now has a prosthetic one.
Hanauer, 30, has achieved what many thought impossible for a performer with a disability: a thriving career in the mainstream dance world. After performing with the UK's Candoco Dance Company from 2008 to 2014, she is now an in-demand freelancer, and a tall, striking presence in the works of contemporary choreographers Emanuel Gat and Ouramdane.
Born in Minnesota, Hanauer started taking a range of classes at a local studio when she was 10. Both her family and dance teachers were supportive: "I was never excluded," she says. "It was recreational, but when I got to the age of 16, I was taking class every night."
A creation for the Paris Opéra Ballet or The Royal Ballet would have pride of place on any choreographer's resumé. But Crystal Pite is going one better and choreographing works for both companies this season. "Isn't that crazy?" she exclaims at the Palais Garnier in Paris, still sounding surprised. "I have to pinch myself sometimes when I come into this building."
Still, Pite has plainly demonstrated in recent years that she belongs at the top of the choreographic ladder. Since creating her own company, Kidd Pivot, in 2002, the Canadian dancemaker has realized her ambitious vision for dance theater in increasingly large-scale productions: the Shakespeare-inspired The Tempest Replica, in 2011, was described by The New Yorker as "a work of astonishing beauty and thoughtfulness." Since 2013, Pite has been an associate artist at London's prestigious Sadler's Wells Theatre, where her most recent works, from Polaris to Betroffenheit, have made her a critical darling.
With her soulful presence and elegant manner onstage, Yulia Stepanova was touted as a major talent when she graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in 2009. She joined the Mariinsky Ballet, where her sensitive phrasing as Odette/Odile confirmed her potential. Stuck for a promotion, however, she made a bold move to Moscow, and it paid off: Stepanova is now the Bolshoi's newest principal, and a rising star.
The appointment of Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman has already proved controversial.
Unrest is brewing in Berlin. In September, local government officials announced that the current director of the Staatsballett Berlin, Nacho Duato, would be replaced in 2019 by a duo of co-directors: choreographer Sasha Waltz and Sweden's Johannes Öhman. In response, the company's dancers, worried about the future of ballet in Berlin, have fought back through an online petition and official protests.
Home to a handful of international stars, including Iana Salenko and formerly Polina Semionova, the 89-strong Staatsballett is one of Germany's biggest classical companies. Born in 2004 from the fusion of Berlin's three ballet ensembles, previously employed by different opera houses, it became a noteworthy classical company under the direction of Ukrainian-born star Vladimir Malakhov. Duato has proved divisive since his arrival in 2014, but his recent choreography has relied on the classical technique.
The selection of Waltz and Öhman, on the other hand, has sparked anxiety about the potential fate of the Staatsballett's classical tradition. While Waltz is a world-renowned choreographer with her own Berlin-based company, she works in the Tanztheater tradition of Pina Bausch, with a contemporary vocabulary. “She comes from a completely different genre," says Elinor Jagodnik, a member of the corps de ballet and union representative. “The dancers will know more about ballet than she does, and the company will no longer attract classical talent."
The inclusion of Öhman, who has been the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet since 2011, was widely seen as an attempt to balance Waltz's avant-garde approach, but the dancers are unconvinced. Waltz stated in an open letter that her planned repertoire would be 50 percent classical, yet included Angelin Preljocaj's modern Snow White among those classical productions. (Waltz and Öhman declined to comment for this article.)
In addition to around 20,000 signatures, the Change.org petition attracted statements of support from the likes of John Neumeier and Lucia Lacarra. The dancers contend the appointment was political in nature. The mayor and cultural senator of Berlin, Michael Müller, appoints the Staatsballett's director, and he made the announcement three years in advance, shortly before standing for reelection. In October, his political party weakened, and it is likely that he'll be ousted as cultural senator, along with culture secretary Tim Renner. Jagodnik says the dancers hope the new directors' appointment will be reversed. “We're open-minded, but audiences in Berlin deserve to see classical ballet."
The legendary choreographer takes on a new role.
At 69, Jirí Kylián is back in a leadership role in ballet. In 2009, he parted ways with Nederlands Dans Theater after 24 years as artistic director and another decade as resident choreographer; the company shelved his works entirely in 2014. The Czech luminary has since stopped making new pieces for the stage to focus on film and photography, but his blend of classical lines and contemporary fluidity remains a cornerstone of neoclassical ballet worldwide. Starting this season, it will have a new home at the Lyon Opera Ballet, where Kylián is taking up a position as associate artist with a three-year contract.
Kylián’s Sleepless. Photo by Joris Jan Bos, Courtesy Lyon Opera Ballet.
Why did you say yes to becoming associate artist in Lyon?
I started working with the Lyon Opera Ballet in the early 1980s, when Françoise Adret was the director of the company, so it’s a long tradition for me. The current artistic director, Yorgos Loukos, simply asked me to take a more prominent role.
How much time will you spend in Lyon?
We’re still negotiating the plan, but it won’t be as regular as you might think. I won’t be there every month. The company will present existing ballets, including the ones that are already in the repertoire, and I will also present works that I made for older dancers and a photography exhibition, Free Fall.
You have exactly 100 works for the stage listed on your website. Do you have any plans to make new ones?
For now, no. I’m concentrating on film and photography. But once a choreographer, always a choreographer. The danger that I will start choreographing again is great. [Laughs]
What prompted that shift towards photography and film?
I’m interested in the tension between what is alive and what is dead, like photos and film. I’m very old now, I’m almost 70, so death is coming, it is closer to me. Even the photos that I make have some kind of choreography in them, however. I was busy making movement all my life, and I call my images frozen choreography.
You’ve also completed two short films this year, including Oskar for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
You can get closer to faces with film. Onstage, you can be a fantastic dancer, but you’re still removed from the public. I’m interested in working with older dancers, including my partner of 43 years, Sabine Kupferberg. Their faces speak of incredible experience. They are like a map of the world, with so much written inside.
You’ve withdrawn your works from the repertoire of Nederlands Dans Theater for three years, until 2017. Will they be reintroduced next year?
There are no plans to reintroduce my work to the repertoire, and I encourage that. They’re doing fantastically well, and they should keep going the way they have. Before the Kylián period at NDT, there was a Glen Tetley and Hans van Manen period, and now it’s a new one—the company has always renewed itself and been at the forefront of dance’s development. I didn’t want to hang there like an ever-present shadow.
Have you taken any steps for the long-term preservation of your work?
All my work is digitalized. It’s not for my own glory—when I go, I want to make sure that there is good information available, so that people who are interested in what happened can have truthful sources.
Bursting out of a group of corps men at the start of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, Nadezhda Batoeva embodies the ballet’s blend of Russian and American influences, launching into a perilous sequence of fast turns with devil-may-care energy. After overcoming initial obstacles, the bubbly Mariinsky Ballet second soloist now dances with an infectious joy that makes her stand out among her more studied colleagues.
Batoeva’s determination rocketed her from character parts to lead roles. Here, in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo by Natasha Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet.
Company: Mariinsky Ballet
Hometown: Neryungri, Russia
Training: Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg
Accolade: 2008 Hope of Russia prize
Playing catch-up: When Batoeva was accepted to the Vaganova Academy at age 9, her complete lack of previous classical training meant she struggled. “All nine years were a challenge,” she says. “At first I was fighting not to be kicked out.” But her final teacher, Lyudmila Safronova, one of the last remaining students of Agrippina Vaganova, persuaded her that she could do it. “All those years before, everyone tried to tell me that ballet wasn’t for me.”
Character star: Despite her strong technique, when she joined the Mariinsky in 2009, Batoeva’s appearance was considered unsuitable for classical corps work, and she was pigeonholed in character roles. In 2010, she had a breakthrough performance in the sensual Etruscan dance in Leonid Yakobson’s Spartacus, attracting director Yuri Fateyev’s attention.
Typecast no more: With the help of her coach, Galina Kekisheva, Batoeva slowly broke out of the character mold. “Over time she built up her body, and I thought we should try something classical,” says Fateyev. She moved into leading roles, such as Kitri, and, increasingly, romantic parts: Earlier this year, she made her debut as Juliet.
Ratmansky connection: Batoeva’s promotion to second soloist came at the end of the 2012–13 season, after Ratmansky chose her for the Mariinsky premiere of his Concerto DSCH. The speed of his work suits her, and she has since earned international plaudits in his Cinderella. “I love his musicality—it makes you listen from a different angle.”
Choreographer’s muse: Her husband, Anton Pimonov, has choreographed for the Mariinsky, and Batoeva has created roles in his pieces. “It’s difficult to work with him,” she says, “because I feel a responsibility. In the studio, I try to do more, to tell the others if I notice something that would help him.”
On the small screen: In 2015, Batoeva took part in the second season of the TV competition “Bolshoi Ballet,” which features up-and-coming dancers from Russian companies. She and fellow Mariinsky second soloist Ernest Latypov placed fourth. “The conditions were very challenging—there is so much waiting with filming, so I had to learn patience. I was very happy when it ended.”
Last fall, Yasmine Naghdi's debut as Juliet was an instant sensation in London. Hers was a raw, touchingly youthful account of the role. With effortless technique and musicality, she allowed Kenneth MacMillan's steps to sing. Of Persian and Belgian descent, the British first soloist, who joined The Royal Ballet in 2010, is now establishing herself as a lyrical ballerina to be reckoned with, and a proud representative of the British school.
Company: The Royal Ballet
Hometown: London, England
Training: The Royal Ballet School (White Lodge and Upper School)
Accolades: 2009 Young British Dancer of the Year
Breakout moment: Naghdi's first principal role was Olga, Tatiana's carefree sister, in John Cranko's Onegin in 2013. When she reprised it in 2015 with Natalia Osipova as Tatiana, director Kevin O'Hare noticed how much she'd grown, and deemed her ready to dance Juliet. “She really brought Olga to life," he says. “It's easy to get lost alongside Tatiana, but they were equals."
MacMillan heroine: With Matthew Ball, another young British talent, as her Romeo, Naghdi proved a natural as Juliet. “We were both starting from scratch, and I think that helped our bond," says Naghdi. “I like to think of acting more as being, because if you force it, the audience can see that. With Juliet, I felt like I was living onstage as her."
Generation change: Along with Ball, Francesca Hayward and a few others, Naghdi is part of an outstanding UK–trained generation that is challenging the notion that British dancers are too timid. Onstage, she draws the eye with her calm self-possession. “We're quiet fighters—not brash, but quietly working on what we need to do, and then when it's time, really showing what we can do," Naghdi says.
Queen of the Brits: In addition to the MacMillan and Frederick Ashton repertoire, Naghdi is thriving in works by The Royal Ballet's trio of in-house choreographers: Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. “To work with these three face-to-face, you feel like you're making history."
What she's working on: “I'm more of an adagio dancer, so I've had to work on my petite batterie."
What Kevin O'Hare is saying: “She is nicely ambitious—she knows what she wants, and she's a sponge in the studio. She's not going to waste an opportunity."
A trained ear: Naghdi also sings, plays the piano and composes her own music. “It helps with breathing, musicality and to understand musical scores and phrasing. I don't like to count—if there is an opportunity to just trust the music, I will."
In the end, the revolution Benjamin Millepied sought to bring to the Paris Opéra Ballet didn't last long. In February, less than a year and a half after he took over as artistic director, the Frenchman announced that he was resigning to devote his time to choreography. This summer, he will be replaced by former étoile Aurélie Dupont, and his resignation has left France's national company reeling.
Millepied's appointment was initially welcomed by the French media and many dancers as a breath of fresh air for the institution. But issues had been mounting behind the scenes since the beginning of the 2015–16 season. Millepied's impatient criticism of the company's performances and traditions in the press and in a French TV documentary ruffled feathers, and signaled that he still saw himself as an outsider to his own company.
Officially, Millepied stated upon his resignation that the job, with its extensive administrative duties, “wasn't the right fit for me." The Paris Opéra's general director, Stéphane Lissner, who hired Millepied in 2013, praised his work with young dancers and his creation of Paris Opéra's online artistic platform, 3rd Stage. The new health system Millepied implemented, drawing on his American experience, has also been widely credited with improving care at POB, where injuries have been prevalent in recent years.
The company's image has been bruised by Millepied's departure, however. Some were quick to blame the Paris Opéra's conservatism and outdated practices for the fallout, but the dynamics at play were arguably more complex. Millepied's combative style and refusal to compromise with local culture took its toll: Company members stated to the press that they felt he had little regard for France's ballet tradition and had focused on young talent at the expense of the rest of the company, where dancers retire at 42. When Millepied presented his 2016–17 season the week after his resignation, the culture clash was again clear. His last program heavily skewed towards mixed bills and American-style neoclassicism, with five Balanchine works, including the company premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
While Millepied will return to Los Angeles and his L.A. Dance Project, his successor, Aurélie Dupont, is looking to steer POB back to stability. The homegrown étoile paid tribute to Millepied's vision, adding, “I'll do my best, I promise. I have so much passion for the company and its dancers. It takes time to change things, and I will take my time." Little is known about her artistic plans, but she argued that POB would need to dance more than two classics a season, as has been the case in recent years, to improve in the classical repertoire. After outsider Millepied, POB is entrusting its fate to a long-time insider; time will tell if the company grows more insular as a result, or thrives on its own terms.