A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
On Monday, The New York Times broke a story about ballet that was quickly picked up by other national and international news outlets. Peter Martins, longtime ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet and head of the faculty of the School of American Ballet, has been accused of sexual harassment in an anonymous letter. The dance world may or may not have been surprised by this.
I certainly didn't feel surprise at the news. Writing this on the day that Time magazine has named "The Silence Breakers" of #MeToo "Person of the Year," this story seems of a piece with the many others we've watched in recent weeks with a mixture of horror, relief and vindication as men begin to face consequences for their disregard for the personhood of the women around them.
Ting-Yu Chen believes there is no one path to deserving an A in dance. Photo by N_Link_Photography
The challenges and rewards of grading college technique classes.
Bring up the subject of grading dance in higher education, and professors and students alike will sigh. What does a “B” tendu look like? How can you give a jumping combination an 83?
Grades and art do not get along well, as almost any dance professor will tell you. Still, at most colleges and universities, grades must be given, and so professors must find ways to quantify the unquantifiable.
Grading rubrics may appear straightforward, but they present challenges for both instructors, who grapple with how to define the art form’s inherent subjectivity, and students, who may focus more on scores than refining their skills. Each person has their own aesthetic biases, and there are many ways to dance well.
When Jillian Harris first joined the faculty at Temple University, she helped to create standards for modern technique, which took the form of a checklist where a “5” represents very proficient and confident and a “1” represents not proficient or confident. Temple’s standards for Level I modern include items such as “Overall movement efficiency and proper alignment” and “Using the plié and cushioning through the feet.” Level IV standards include “Ability to seek out and investigate new information as part of the learning process” and “Embodiment of a mature work ethic, consistent with that of a professional performer.”
Ting-Yu Chen, dance division chair and associate professor at Shenandoah Conservatory, looks at grading as a way of determining “how well students are mastering their own instrument.” She relies on a rubric that breaks down grades into Technique, Artistry, Accuracy (how clearly they perform the choreography), Body Maintenance (overall physical condition) and Professionalism. Each category weighs 20 percent of the “Dance” portion of the technique grade, which weighs 90 percent combined with 10 percent for written work.
Attendance is often a critical factor, since showing up for technique class is how the work gets done, unlike in a lecture course where students can catch up on reading and notes if they miss class. In many institutions, students are allowed a certain number of absences in technique over the course of a semester, and for each absence beyond that their final grade will be dropped by one step (for example, from a A to A-, or A- to B+).
Even with the most thorough standards, though, there is often cause to disregard them. “I don’t teach a codified technique, so there’s no exact way to do what I’m asking,” says Cornelius Carter, professor and director of the dance program at University of Alabama. “I just get totally ill when it comes to grading.” Carter teaches jazz and modern, in addition to composition courses, and feels his “job is to get students involved in questioning.”
He’s created a rubric that allows for open discussion and includes elements such as attendance, consistency and work habits. But, Carter notes, “quite often, the brilliant students don’t do anything on the rubric and, when teaching a combination, you are constantly surprised by the different ways students present their intelligence.”
Despite the difficulty of assigning grades, some benefits do emerge. Grades force professors to deeply consider what they are teaching and what results they seek in their students. Chen says, “It’s so much about us, the graders, searching inside ourselves. Every grade we assign, we’re putting out there our philosophy of what dance is.” She also notes that in an academic environment, grades “give you something to strive for. We assign students a grade that helps them know where they are.”
Drawbacks emerge when students—conditioned by endless standardized testing in K–12 education—focus too much on grades, often saying, “Tell me what I need to do to get an A.” There’s no one answer, and the path to an A in dance will not always seem easy, or even fair. Chen says, “Some students with raw talent and a gifted body type come in at a high level; others have to work really hard to get to the A range.” That’s why most grading rubrics take into account elements such as work habits and professionalism, since, as Carter says, “we’ve all seen students who can do anything you ask, but they’re asleep.”
Outside of academia, of course, grades have little meaning. An artistic director watching a dancer audition is not going to look at college transcripts to check the dancer’s technique grades. They’re going to watch how the dancer performs in front of them and interacts with others. “The grade that comes out at the end does not guarantee you a job,” Chen says.
This tension between the reality of the field and the expectations of academia cannot be erased by the perfect grading rubric. Students ultimately must accept that earning a degree in dance means dealing with grades, even though grades don’t mean much once they graduate. As Harris says, “All I can do is be honest with students about that tension. When you leave the university, no one is going to give you a rubric. You have to be self-motivated and create your own.”
The Pros of Self-Grading
To mitigate the impersonal nature of grades in technique classes, Cornelius Carter incorporates self-assessment into his grading process at University of Alabama. “In my process, the students get to propose their grades. We sit down one-on-one, go through their proposal and see how it matches up against mine.” This self-assessment follows the syllabus-grading breakdown exactly as Carter’s does. Most of his faculty adopted this marriage of self-assessment and instructor feedback. “Let’s come in and hash it out so we can both cry and fall on the floor and get it over with,” he says. It takes a bite out of students receiving electronic feedback and having no way to really engage or respond.
DIY grant-writing advice for your next project
Grant writing can be both intimidating and empowering, tiresome and exhilarating, especially if you are new to the process. I found this true when I started my first grant proposal 15 years ago for Richmond-based Ground Zero Dance, and it’s still true for me today. Yet grants are a key to financial support for your organization, as well as professional validation. In crafting a well-written proposal, you produce not just a clear case for funding, but a detailed road map for the realization of your project.
Dream, In Detail
Your idea should drive your grant seeking—not the other way around. You may end up tailoring your project to better fit a grant’s requirements, but you shouldn’t alter it beyond recognition. Lay out the idea clearly before you begin looking for grantors whose interests intersect with yours. Are you focusing on a particular population or issue? Use those keywords (i.e., “gender,” “youth”) in your search for grantors. Maria Bauman, former associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women who now runs her own dance company, has written many successful proposals and served on grant-review panels. “Start as local as possible,” she says. “You’ll have a better chance with a regional opportunity than competing for national attention.”
Above: Maria Bauman suggests inviting a grantor to see your work. Photo by David B. Smith, Courtesy Bauman.
Read up on the mission and programs of any granting organization that looks promising. Does your mission fit with theirs? What other projects have they funded and how do those compare with yours? What size grants are typically offered?
Most grant applications request some combination of the following: your mission and brief history of your organization, detailed project description (often called the “narrative”), project budget, biographies of key personnel and work samples. Generally, the narrative and budget make up the bulk of a proposal.
Once you’ve completed a draft, ask several colleagues—particularly any with grant-writing experience—to offer feedback. Proofread carefully, and be attentive to length and formatting requirements. After submitting your proposal, be patient: Most grantors give a time frame for responses, and following up will not help your chances.
If your proposal is successful, use your narrative and budget as key parts of your implementation plan. At the end, look at your actual expenses and revenue and compare them to the initial budget. Did things cost more or less than you thought? Note any reporting requirements to complete at the end of the project, and send thank-you notes to staff and directors of the granting agency. If your project is not funded, contact the grantor to ask for feedback. Some will provide the reviewer’s comments in the rejection letter, giving you more information for the next proposal.
Get Real: The Budget
I’ve heard grant review panelists confess that the first thing they read in any proposal is the budget, since it’s a clear guide for translating the project idea into reality. A few things to keep in mind:
Be realistic. Look up what things cost—materials, supplies, postage—don’t just guess. Over-budgeting can erode a grantor’s trust when you file a final report and haven’t spent all the funds you requested. Under-budgeting can impact the success of your project.
Be specific, within reason. Don’t just list “Personnel” with one big number; add dancers, lighting designer, technical director, etc., with each associated fee. Under “Hospitality,” however, just list “post-performance reception” with an amount, rather than a detailed menu of hors d’oeuvres.
Pay yourself. Include a budget line in “Personnel” for yourself as grant writer or administrator. Even a modest fee shows you respect the work put in by yourself and others.
List diverse income sources. Most grantors don’t want to fund an entire project. What will your other sources of revenue be? Ticket sales? A Kickstarter campaign? Private donations?
▪ Use positive language, like “will” instead of “would.” You want to convey dedication to the project’s ultimate success.
▪ Contact the organization with questions. “Applying cold can work,” says Bauman, “but is less likely than if you’ve gotten a little more information, or a staff person from the organization knows your work.”
▪ Don’t mention partners or collaborators if you haven’t talked with them yet. You need to have at least broached the idea with anyone you’re including in your proposal.
▪ “Have someone read what you wrote and make sure they can understand the project,” says Bauman. “You can see what parts you illustrated clearly and what you might want to be more explicit about.”
Dance/USA Keeps an updated list of current funding opportunities (local to national), with deadlines and many other resources: danceusa.org/opportunitiesforfunding
National Assembly of State Arts Agencies Provides a directory of state and regional arts agencies with contact information: nasaa-arts.org
U.S. Regional Arts Organizations Lists regional funders, such as Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, with descriptions and web addresses: usregionalarts.org/funding.htm
Foundation Center Offers free or paid search of a substantial database of foundations with areas of funding interest, in addition to resources on national trends, grant writing and more: foundationcenter.org
GMU dancers perform Stephen Petronio’s Lareigne during a residency. Photo by Evan Cantwell, Courtesy GMU.
Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes has been an artist in residence at more than 10 universities over the last decade. These gigs have given her the chance to hone her teaching skills and develop and present her work. “I feel so lucky my residencies have always gone well,” she says. “I choreograph not because I know how but because I’m trying to figure it out, quite actively, and to invite people into that conversation.”
College residencies can be a boon to working artists. Funding! Dancers! Space! Audiences! Institutional validation! And artists in turn benefit college dance programs through performing, teaching and perhaps even hiring students they have worked with. There’s rarely an application process, but there are a few steps you can take to work your way toward coveted artist-in-residence status.
Starting the Conversation
Getting considered for a residency starts with researching what college programs might be a fit for you and your work. Sending out press kits (whether in print or by e-mail) to a wide swath of possible presenters is unlikely to get you anywhere. A college administrator is usually overtasked and may not have time to review them, especially if it seems like they were mailed out en masse.
Learn as much as you can about university programs before approaching them—research the aesthetic of institutions that interest you, says Susan Shields, director of dance at George Mason University. Then show the director you’ve done your homework through an e-mail, phone call or letter describing your work and how you think it fits with their program. “What’s helpful is when someone can say, I’ve got this piece—click here. And this is why I think your school might be interested in it,” she says.
Networking is key. Try watching a college company perform at a festival and approaching a faculty member afterward with your card and a reflection on what you saw and why it interested you. Barnes notes that when performing on tour, she used to reach out to nearby universities (if they had dance programs) and offer to teach a master class, sometimes even for free. Faculty who have seen you teach will remember your name when opportunities arise at their institution.
What to Offer
When you approach a director, be clear and articulate about your aesthetic, teaching interests and experience. What parts of the curriculum intrigue you and why? And how might you fit in? Can you teach modern classes? Composition or choreography? Does your work emphasize community engagement? Are you interested in advising or mentoring students? The answers to these questions should be apparent on your resumé or website, or in your conversations with faculty or directors. Some schools may want you to teach, set work or perform; others might be interested in offering lecture demonstrations or master classes in their community. Be clear about what you will and will not be available to do, and how much is included in your artist fee.
In general, your offerings should reflect an interest in college dance. “You have to have a love of students, and no snobbery toward dance in higher education,” says Shields.
Keys to Successful—and Future—Residencies
Once you’ve made it in the door, do your work well and make good on what you offered. “The only thing that has ever gotten me the next job was, whatever job I had, doing it really well,” says Barnes. “I’ve always tried to represent myself accurately. So that when I came somewhere, they didn’t feel disappointed that I didn’t teach Cunningham. It is a small network and people know what they want. And everybody is honest about it. There’s an integrity to the way the system works.”
Strengthening ties with its community, North Carolina Dance Theatre has rebranded itself as Charlotte Ballet.
Gregory Taylor and Emily Ramirez in Dwight Rhoden’s Gateways. Photo by Peter Zay, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.
To some, it was a surprise when North Carolina Dance Theatre announced in April that it had changed its name to Charlotte Ballet. But for artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and his wife, associate artistic director Patricia McBride, who took over the Charlotte-based company in 1996, solidifying NCDT’s regional brand had been a long-term goal. “Jean-Pierre and Patricia have always thought the name should be Charlotte Ballet,” says executive director Douglas Singleton. “Everything we do is ballet.”
The name change has come in response to an evolving Charlotte, now home to Bank of America and many other large financial operations. Today, the city ranks as one of the fastest growing in the U.S. As its population has shifted, so has NCDT’s audience. “Many folks moving to Charlotte haven’t brought an understanding of the ‘dance theater’ tradition with them,” says Singleton. “They are bringing a ‘ballet’ tradition with them.”
North Carolina Dance Theatre had spent recent years refocusing its audience development and marketing strategies. It has paid off: Ticket sales have increased 75 percent and donor gifts have tripled. And in 2010, NCDT moved into the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance. Still, consultants agreed that renaming the company would substantially help it bridge connections to Charlotte’s artistically conservative community: In a preliminary poll surveying potential local customers—people who had not attended a performance in at least three years—nearly 50 percent said they were familiar with the name Charlotte Ballet, even though the brand did not yet exist.
Singleton emphasizes that the company programming of family-friendly classics and innovative contemporary works will not shift. “The product has not changed,” he says. “Our name has aligned with the product.”
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Choreographers need to be smart in how they showcase work.
A choreographer must be able to show work to presenters and competition judges in a portable format. But creating an effective reel can pose challenges, the biggest being that no single sampling is appropriate for all opportunities. Sometimes you must submit an entire piece, or a collection of excerpts that indicates your range. Sometimes the wording is vague: The American Dance Festival, for instance, simply requests a DVD of recent work.
Those who routinely vet footage urge choreographers to invest in their reels. Make sure you have the tools you need to shoot and edit good video—or hire those who do. “If you’re really serious about touring,” says Walter Jaffe, general manager of the White Bird Dance festival in Portland, Oregon, “you should put aside money to create video that shows off the work.” Here are five tips to keep in mind.
1. Represent your work honestly.
It can be tempting to pursue as many opportunities as you can, especially early on in your choreographic career. But if you edit a video to conform to someone else’s aesthetic, presenters will see through it, or will realize it after they give you a gig. Only pursue the opportunities that fit your particular style. Then, says choreographer Nathan Trice, “you want to ask the presenter what they prefer to see.”
2. Follow the rules.
Once you focus on an opportunity, dig into the details. Are you sending unsolicited work to a presenter? Or applying to a choreography competition? Each probably has specific requirements. Do they give a time limit on the excerpt? Do you only send a sampling of one work, snippets of several works or a complete piece?
Choreography competitions, such as the Joffrey Ballet’s Choreographers of Color Award, or Hubbard Street’s National Choreographic Competition, have detailed requirements. Ignoring guidelines can get your reel tossed without viewing.
3. Include credits and a description.
Don’t omit the details that will give a complete picture of the work. Each excerpt should include credits, date of creation/premiere, full length and contact information, including a web address where more content can be found. Sometimes, a written description (usually a page or less) may be required as well. “It should tie together what they’re seeing on the video,” says Trice. Make sure you edit your description as carefully as you put together your reel. You don’t want a presenter to stumble over it.
4. Don’t edit the reel yourself.
You know your work better than anyone, but that’s why you’re not the best person to edit it. “Have someone who’s not so close to the work make the selection, so they can give you perspective on what they see,” says Trice. “If anything, you want your editor to read your description and then go in and edit. He or she is going to have an outside eye.” Benoit-Swan Pouffer, choreographer and former artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, adds that dancers or choreographers who know you and care about your work can be ideal editors or, at a minimum, provide useful feedback.
5. Avoid clutter.
Resist the temptation to overedit, add special effects or otherwise clutter up the viewer’s experience of your work. Your reel shouldn’t feel choppy. Let passages develop, and try to achieve some kind of emotional or thematic arc. Says Trice, “A two- or three-minute clip should really be able to give you some feel of the beginning, middle and end. Make clear, clean, basic edits. No spinning, or sparkly stars—all that stuff is unnecessary.” Jaffe also cautions about superimposing music. “Sometimes you see reels with sound that has nothing to do with the movement being shown. That’s not helpful at all,” he says. Stick with music from the work or, in the case of a series of quick excerpts, use music that reflects your movement. Don’t forget the basics, either. Jaffe points out what should be painfully obvious—work that is darkly lit will not show up well on video.
Bottom line, your reel should help the work speak for itself in a way that piques interest. Says Pouffer, “I think the more simple a thing you have, the more truth that comes out. You see what this person is about and what they have to say.”
Lea Marshall is a writer and interim chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance & Choreography.
Maggie Small in Karinska costume for Balanchine’s Liebesleder Waltzer.
Photo by Matthew Karas.
Maggie Small’s pointe shoe swings inches from the ceiling of a corner studio at Richmond Ballet, as partner Fernando Sabino presses her through a lift, her body arched across his hand. After a slow spin down, the pas de deux continues through shifting romantic moods—lyrical and earnest, charming and flirtatious—punctuated by more gravity-defying lifts. Small and Sabino are rehearsing ballet master Malcolm Burn’s Pas Glazunov under the gaze of artistic associate Igor Antonov. At the end of the run, Antonov mentions to Small that a pirouette seemed late; she says quickly, “Yes, I felt it.”
Small, 26, generates crackling energy from within her small frame. Her vivacity makes you want to run up and hug her onstage sometimes. In sprightly roles such as the mischievous Swanhilda, she brims with comic energy. She dances an elegant and gracious Sugar Plum Fairy, skimming joyfully through her grand jetés. But audiences love best her rippling, smoldering snake in the Arabian Dance. And in a contemporary work such as Ma Cong’s Luminitza, she spirals and arcs through luscious partnering sequences.
“Her range, both technically and emotionally, is very impressive,” says Stoner Winslett, artistic director of Richmond Ballet. “There’s a deep honesty about her performance.” Richmond Ballet is particularly proud of Small’s accomplishment, since she is a homegrown talent. She started dancing at age 3 in a local studio, and by age 5 her mother enrolled her at the School of Richmond Ballet. She came up through the school, served her time as a trainee, then an apprentice, and joined the company six years ago. “You were immediately drawn to her…a little sparkle going on there,” remembers Burn.
As a young teenager Small rode horses, played piano, and roller-skated. “But ballet was always my favorite,” she says. “There was no question that eventually it would take over, once I was allowed to take more classes.”
Small feels a tremendous respect for her teachers at RB. She took as many classes as she could, and even though she’d audition for summer intensives, she ended up staying in Richmond for the chance to work with Burn, who doesn’t teach in the school during the year. Over the course of her career, she has participated in every aspect of RB, even the Minds in Motion program, which brings dance to children in area schools. When the program came to Richmond Montessori School, where Small was in upper elementary class, she says, “I remember thinking it was so cool to see my ‘regular’ friends doing dance moves.”
At right: As Clara in Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker, 1997.
Small’s mother is African-American; her father is white. Race, however, did not play much of a role in her experience inside or outside the ballet. Small doesn’t remember ever being the only student of color in her ballet classes. But, she says, “I also don’t remember looking for it. I really wasn’t very aware; I grew up in a bubble.”
In the midst of her apprenticeship, Small tried college for one year at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “After my first apprentice year it was really hard to decide what to do,” she says, “because it was important to my mom that I went to school, and I didn’t want to. I was happy dancing all day long, and it was really difficult because the company offered me a position and I didn’t know what to do. You know…you want to make your family happy. So I said, OK, I’ll go to school.”
Small was not particularly happy at Tisch. She was not interested in choreographing, for example, which was a big part of the program. After the first year, she called Winslett and asked to return to finish her apprenticeship. Winslett was able to make it happen, and Small has not looked back since.
Growing up at RB has yielded some magical experiences for her, including the chance to work with Antonov, a dancer she had idolized as a child. During her apprenticeship, she remembers, “I was giggly excited to be in the studio with him.” Later, “It was really cool to dance with Igor. For his retirement performance [last fall] I got to dance Who Cares? with him. And it was sort of like a pinch-yourself moment, even now when I’ve been in the company with him for so long.”
Back in the studio, Small and Sabino take a few minutes to work on another lift from Pas Glazunov, with help from Antonov. Small is concerned about her balance at the top of the lift; Sabino is not sure if he can slow down and still manage to press her to full extension.
Small’s partnership with Sabino has developed almost inadvertently. Says Winslett about her 14-member, unranked troupe, “In a small company like this we usually move people around, and we never purposely try to develop partnerships. But they’ve been put together a lot, and work together beautifully.”
Sabino enjoys their complementary styles. “We are completely different,” he says. “But when we are together we become one. I like a lot of improvisation, and she likes to be told what to do. It’s a good marriage. I go with her, and she goes with me.” They call each other “work husband” and “work wife,” though their relationship remains platonic. Small has been dating RB dancer Thomas Garrett for several years. They are rarely partnered, however. “Tommy and I don’t dance together very much,” says Small, who is 5' 5". “He’s real tall, and there are a lot of tall girls here. I’m little.”
Maggie enjoys a rare rehearsal with fellow RB dancer (and offstage partner) Thomas Garrett. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy RB.
After going through Pas Glazunov, Small and Sabino run After Eden for Burn. They are rehearsing for the company’s London debut in June. They throw themselves into the emotional work full-out, breathless and sweaty by the end. Burn compliments them and gives a few notes. Later, he says of Small, “She’s always been wonderfully open to try anything—and laugh while she’s doing it. She’s gutsy and courageous. You can take her and throw her into the air, and she’ll go ‘Wheee!’ as she comes flying down.”
Eve, in After Eden, is Small’s favorite role. “I really love that the steps come from the character and the character comes from the steps,” she says. “It can be different every time—there’s room to make it my own without feeling like I’m not being true to the choreography.”
When studying a new role, Small calls herself “a homework girl.” For Coppélia, in which she performed Swanhilda last February, she studied other dancers’ interpretations on DVD and she read up on the history of dolls. “I had a lot of fun researching automatons,” she says. “It was really creepy. But it’s difficult to decide how you’re going to be a girl, or a doll, or a girl being a doll.”
Burn appreciates the dancer’s intelligence and versatility. “Maggie continues to surprise me. I don’t think there’s any limit to what she will be able to accomplish.”
Small loves the challenge of RB’s repertoire. If she were in a bigger company, she says, “I wouldn’t get to do what I do here. There are days when I cannot possibly give any more. I would love to sit down for an hour. But whenever we actually get that break, I think, ‘Oh, I’m so bored. I should probably go run something downstairs.’ It’s just the way I enjoy dancing—dancing a lot.”
During the summer she explores other opportunities, such as the National Choreographers Initiative, in which she participated for three years as a dancer, and this summer she performed with Jessica Lang’s new company at Jacob’s Pillow.
But she is always glad to return to RB. “I dance with people I like, for people I like, in my hometown. My family is here. I work with my boyfriend every day, and he’s happy. It’s a real good gig.”
Small in costume for Cong's Luminitza. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and interim chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Maggie’s tips on building strength:
Skinny Legs Early on in her apprenticeship with RB, Small realized, “I had really skinny little legs, and I wasn’t superstrong.” So she began strength-building exercises using a Thera-Band.
Practicing the Hard Parts “I like adagio, and I don’t really like petit allegro. But I push hard at all of it, because there’s no variation where you’re going to do just adagio.”
Doubling Up “I always do the exercises at least twice, so that I can build up my strength. If you push yourself in rehearsal and class, then when it gets to show days, it’s not as hard.”
Daily Pilates Since starting Pilates three years ago, she says, “It’s made me even more aware of my core and made me re-think the way I work.”
In America, Balanchine's famous quote does not apply offstage. Last week The Richmond Ballet convened a panel to examine the question, Why aren't more women in charge of ballet companies? I came away from a discussion of and by a group of female artistic directors on the generally male-dominated leadership of American ballet companies with more questions than answers. The panel, titled “The Glass Slipper Ceiling,” was put together by the Richmond Ballet under artistic direction of Stoner Winslett. Participants were Andrea Snyder (executive director of DanceUSA), Anna Kisselgoff (former chief dance critic of The New York Times); Celia Fushille (artistic director of Smuin Ballet); Victoria Morgan (a.d. of Cincinnati Ballet); Dorothy Gunter Pugh (founder and a.d. of Ballet Memphis); and Ms. Winslett herself. (Suzanne Farrell was to have attended but could not due to a last minute scheduling conflict.)
The climate that gave rise to this panel: All top-tier ballet companies (budgets over $7M) in the U.S. are run by men. Of the next tier down, only four companies are run by women, all of whom participated in the panel. This male domination of leadership roles is not true outside the States; England’s Royal Ballet, France’s Paris Opéra Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, are all run by women.
Kisselgoff, as moderator of the panel, provided a fantastic historical perspective, and asked great questions herself. She pointed out that many major American ballet companies had been founded or originally directed by women, but that by the 1980s, ballet company leadership had become overwhelmingly male. She attributed this to the star power and draw of artistic leaders such as Balanchine, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov. But she questioned why, as soon as ballet companies became institutionalized (and thus legitimized), women faded from leadership roles. Ms. Snyder pointed out that this was also around the time when nonprofits began to adopt corporate, “business-like” models of operating, which at the time lent themselves to male leadership.
The women, most of whom had not originally set out to direct companies themselves, agreed in general that when they first stepped into leadership roles and met with other directors at conferences and meetings hosted by the likes of Dance/USA, they faced a sort of “boys club” atmosphere. Dorothy Gunter Pugh noted that more recently, with a younger generation assuming directorial roles, that atmosphere has softened—less pontificating, more asking questions.
The panelists offered a wonderful range of experience and perspectives: Pugh, in particular, noting that while balancing her company with family demands has been “a juggling act, I’ve created what works for me.” Winslett recounted her founding of a dance school in a neighbor’s basement at age 13.
Yet I found myself wanting more pointed answers to Kisselgoff’s questions—answers that moved beyond the women’s individual experience and addressed issues of the field as a whole (although Snyder, whose position provides her with excellent and far-reaching insights into exactly that, did offer excellent information). I want to know: Are female dancers encouraged with equal enthusiasm to choreograph? Do they have access to similar mentorship opportunities as male dancers, opportunities that might foster their potential as leaders and directors? Are they encouraged to even think of directorship as a possibility? And if not, can the field’s current leaders begin to fill these gaps? How?
Left to Right: Celia Fushille, Victoria Morgan, Andrea Snyder, Anna Kisselgoff, Stoner Winslett, Dorothy Gunther Pugh
Photo by Aaron Sutton, Courtesy Richmond Ballet
A tall redhead with chiseled, elegant features, Richmond Ballet dancer Lauren Fagone has an arresting stage presence. At the start of Jessica Lang’s Women and the Sea: A Tribute to Will Barnet, Fagone stands completely still for two minutes, poised on a staircase in a portrait of melancholy, then in a single sweeping gesture she leaps from the steps into her partner’s arms. It is a typical moment for Fagone—from perfectly still to dramatically breathtaking.
Lang noticed Fagone, 29, early on in her work with the company. When the choreographer staged To Familiar Spaces in Dream at Richmond in 2005, she says, “I just couldn’t stop looking at her.” Two years later, Lang cast Fagone in the emotionally affecting role in Women and the Sea. “I knew she could stand still for two minutes and be completely present onstage,” Lang says. “She has a quality that’s like a painting.”
Now in her seventh season performing Richmond Ballet’s diverse repertory, Fagone has been drawn increasingly to contemporary work like Lang’s, despite her early classical training. “I’m captivated by roles requiring an infusion of personal experiences and feelings,” she says.
During her training, though, Fagone aspired more to classical and neoclassical roles. Growing up in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, her inspiration came early. “My mom loves to tell the story of how when I was 4, I saw Suzanne Farrell on Sesame Street and apparently I was so enthralled I ran around the house and begged my mom to put me in ‘ballyay.’ I couldn’t even pronounce it, but I knew I wanted to do it.” From classes at the local YMCA, Fagone went on to study at the School of American Ballet in New York; at North Carolina Dance Theatre under Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux; and at Indiana University with Leslie Peck, Violette Verdy, and others. After two years in the program, Peck, who had served as Richmond Ballet’s ballet mistress for 13 years, recommended Fagone to artistic director Stoner Winslett.
Says Richmond Ballet artistic associate Malcolm Burn, “Lauren was very much in the classical mold. She knew her vocabulary, she knew her presentation.” Yet despite a solid technical grounding, Fagone says she never felt at ease in a traditional framework. “For so many years,” she says, “I seemed to be battling against the need to conform to a certain aesthetic, which I was told throughout my training I didn’t possess.” At Richmond, she felt excited that the company regularly commissioned new work and hoped that she might have opportunities to explore in a contemporary vein.
Her wish came true. “Now she’s the darling of the modern crowd,” says Burn. “They all want her for their ballets. She can adapt to a new style, a new set of rules, a new set of information. Her work ethic is phenomenal.”
Fagone credits some of her artistic growth to dancing for the National Choreographers Initiative over the last four summers. Based in Corona del Mar, California, NCI hires off-contract professional dancers and provides choreographers with the opportunity to create and show new works. “I love the process of trying new movement,” she says. “There’s no other feeling like putting yourself out there and giving it a whirl.”
Versatility has become Fagone’s signature at Richmond Ballet. It’s earned her opportunities as well as praise from Winslett. “She’s grown technically to shed any particular style and become a sponge that’s adaptable to a new style,” says Winslett. “That’s what you need in order to do this repertory.”
Over the last year, Fagone performed the fairy godmother in Malcolm Burn’s Cinderella, and “An Episode from His Past” in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, in addition to dancing in a range of new works. Watching Fagone blossom at Richmond Ballet, Lang says, “Each time I go there, I can see her growing into a beautiful, confident woman and artist.”
Fagone’s future looks bright, with plenty of new challenges coming to her each season. And down the line? “As long as I feel I’m in a place like Richmond Ballet, I want to milk it for all it’s worth,” she says. “And I think maybe someday when I’m ready to hang up the pointe shoes, I might be interested in pursuing a completely different type of movement.”
Lea Marshall teaches dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Photo by Aaron Sutton, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.
On a September evening in the Richmond Ballet’s intimate Studio Theatre, the company’s versatile dancers delivered a touching performance of Tudor’s Lilac Garden and swirled through a dancey premiere by William Soleau. Each season, the company offers four Studio Series performances in which new pieces—often introduced by a short video—are paired with repertory works and ticket prices are kept low. With every step in the performance, you can feel the dancers buoyed by a loving audience. After the show, audience and performers mingle in the “Ballet Barre” reception area. The popularity of these evenings is one reason why, with a strong history of commissioning new work, growing national visibility, and a fierce commitment to their home community, Richmond Ballet is a jewel in the city’s growing arts treasury.
When dancer Phillip Skaggs was first hired by the Richmond Ballet 10 years ago, there were buckets rigged up in the ceiling of the company’s small studios on Lombardy Street to catch rain from the leaky roof. Skaggs was an extra hire, chosen as a “tall guy” to partner the tallest woman in the company of 12 dancers. He became the 13th. Now in the midst of its 25th anniversary season, the company consists of 19 dancers with 5 apprentices, and owns a spacious, renovated building in downtown Richmond a couple of blocks from the James River.
Artistic director Stoner Winslett, in her 29th year with RB (the first four were before the company turned professional) is one of the few women artistic directors in American ballet. She’s also one of the longest-reigning leaders of a ballet company. Since its inception, RB has sought, according to its mission statement, “to awaken and uplift the human spirit, both for audiences and dancers.”
However, when preparing for their move to the new building (which occupies an entire city block) in 2000, the company put together a think tank to revise its mission. But after six weeks of hammering out a new statement, according to Winslett, “One of the trustees said, ‘You know what—it’s not as good as what we had before.’ ” At which point, the group redoubled its commitment to the old mission. “It was all about it being art-centered, and having a collaborative environment and a supportive culture,” says Winslett.
Ballet master Jerri Kumery, a former dancer with New York City Ballet who has worked with RB for a year, cherishes the company’s philosophy. She came to Richmond after 17 years with North Carolina Dance Theatre. “A door opened one day, and I walked in and fell in love with it,” she says. “Throughout the organization, it’s not about you or me or I. It’s we. It takes all of us to do this.”
Creativity and Growth
Part of that joy, for dancers and audience alike, stems from the creation of new work. RB’s repertory of classics like Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and, of course, The Nutcracker, is complemented by original works created by dance artists such as Colin Connor, Jessica Lang, Mauricio Wainrot, and William Soleau. “The level of commitment to new work here is amazing,” says Connor, who has set four works on RB since 1996.
When commissioning new works, says Winslett, “I look for choreographers that can take the ballet vocabulary and use it in new and interesting ways. I love liquid movement. I’m not so interested in people who make new ballets in the style of Petipa or in the style of Balanchine.”
Richmond Ballet’s dancers move fast and cover lots of ground; they’re not afraid to give in to the floor. “They were always incredibly visceral and energized and willing to take risks—sort of ballsy,” says Connor. “The technique of the dancers, to me, has lots of dimension to it now—and they’re still ballsy.”
Kumery lauds their openness, saying, “They try anything. They accomplish any kind of style, whatever you throw at them. They will continue to work until they get it.”
Strength in Humility
Indeed, alongside their talent and seasoned professionalism these dancers convey an endearing humility, a willingness to remain in service to the art. You can see it both in their dancing—clean and impassioned, with no showboating—and in their offstage demeanor. “There is a sense of shared purpose here,” says Connor. “People come in, and they don’t have their love of dancing kicked out of them.”
The dancers agree. “The Richmond Ballet creates a very special bond, as far as friendships go, and how we relate to each other in the studio,” says veteran Phillip Skaggs. Also, he feels he has been challenged at just the right pace. “They pushed when I needed to be pushed,” he says. “They gave me opportunities when I was ready for it; I was never left behind.” He points out that the company does not have a ranking system. “Some days I get to be the prince, and some days I’m in the back holding a spear,” he says. “And I think that keeps you humble.”
Dancer Angela Hutto is now in her third season as a full company member. Having started out as a child in the School of the Richmond Ballet, she exemplifies the locally grown talent: a broad smile, lean and leggy, and seemingly fearless. Like Skaggs, Hutto sees RB as a place to grow. “I know audiences enjoy the technical side of it,” she says, “but what keeps them coming is that growth, and that artistry.” The company has influenced her own growth both onstage and off. “I used to be so shy,” she says, “And now I’m more comfortable in my own skin. It’s nice to be able to have that kind of relationship with the people you work with. I feel like it’s my second family.”
Some of that family atmosphere may come from having a woman in charge. “I think Stoner brings a very nurturing quality to RB,” says Connor. He points out her holistic approach to the way the dancers represent the company offstage as well as on. With new company members, he says, “Stoner always does a sort of etiquette lesson.” She tells them the dress code for company events and to write thank-you notes to patrons.
Winslett acknowledges that diversity among the dancers is still a challenge, as with many ballet companies. “I hire the best dancers I can possibly find,” she says. “I’m always delighted when that group of dancers reflects all the different faces in our community, and it usually does.” She admits that, at the moment, the representation of minorities in the company is not proportional to their presence in the community.
“That’s something to fight for,” she says. Minds in Motion, RB’s major outreach effort, reaches 1,500 fourth-graders of all shapes, sizes, and colors in 22 local schools. Many Minds in Motion students later enter RB’s school on scholarship and occasioinally progress all the way to company members, such as dancer Maggie Small, now entering her third season with the company.
Small says the program is a great incubator for potential company members, but not at first. It took four or five years “to reach more kids who might want a ballet career. But,” she says, “it’s starting to happen now.”
For her part, Winslett would like to see Minds in Motion become part of every fourth-grade class throughout the Richmond community.
In the larger dance world, Winslett says, “I’d like to see the field looking more creatively at how this art form can exist as time goes on. The czar is not coming back, as far as I’ve heard.” Like the English language, she says, ballet needs to grow and change with the times, and that’s part of what the Studio Theatre is about: making ballet more accessible. This season the company changed the theater configuration to accommodate 50 more seats.
“A Little Up”
Richmond Ballet’s constructive mentality gets noticed when they travel far from home. During the tech rehearsal for the company’s 2005 debut at The Joyce Theater, one of the Joyce staff said to Winslett, “You’re making your debut at the Joyce! Are you freaking out?” She replied, “We don’t freak out at Richmond Ballet. We prepare.”
Looking back over the company’s history Winslett feels justifiably proud, yet she doesn’t rest on her laurels. “Nicholas Beriosoff, who was my mentor when I first came to RB, used to say to me, ‘Stoner darling, every time you go onstage you must perform a little up, every time just a little up. Then one day you’ll realize it’s become a big up.’ The dancers and I talk about that all the time—the idea that every single show, every minute, counts, and let’s just go ‘a little up.’ Then you look over your shoulder and realize it’s ‘a big up.’ And that’s what I think has happened to us.”
Lea Marshall teaches dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in VA.
Within each dancer lies the story of her talent—how she discovered it, how a teacher fostered it, how it grew within her. It may take years before talent is revealed. But occasionally a student’s raw ability is so exceptional that it’s almost spooky. That’s when she might well be considered a prodigy. What does dance mean to a kid who seems to have been born doing it? What does such a student mean to a teacher? What can the dance world expect from such gifted young people? To find out, Dance Magazine spoke to several such children and their teachers.
The Soul of a Gypsy
Marlon Dorantes, an 11-year-old boy from California, dances flamenco like a gypsy in Spain. Inspired by his older sister’s dancing, Marlon tried a flamenco class at age 4 and loved it. Seven years later, he’s taking advanced classes with adults and performing with great success around Los Angeles. “Audiences just eat that little boy up,” says Linda Vega, one of his teachers. “Marlon totally gets flamenco. It’s a complicated art form. It’s not just the dance moves, it’s the rhythms, the singing, the hand clapping, the guitar, and all of it together.”
Juggling classes, homework, and rehearsals can be hard, Marlon admits. “But dancing feels really fun,” he says, “and it’s a time when you can express your feelings.” He loves the fast footwork, and he likes performing to live music. “The singers can sing to you in different ways and it really gets me into the music,” he says. His dream is to go to Spain to study and perform, and his teachers share that dream. “He’s got an amazing talent. He belongs in Spain where he can be challenged, studying every day,” says Vega. “When I announce him in my shows, I call him the niño prodigio.”
From a Dancing Family
As a toddler, Nikolas Gaifullin sat in the lap of coach Pavel Fomin while his parents, Daniil and Stephanie Gaifullin, rehearsed Raymonda. His father has a video of him performing the mad scene from Giselle with his mother in their living room. Now 12, Nikolas placed second in his division at the Youth America Grand Prix 2007 Finals, and has performed by invitation at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. The Gaifullins, co-founders of Ballet Amarillo in Texas, remain dumbfounded by their son’s talent, even as they teach him themselves. “He’s like an old-soul personality. It’s really rare in the ballet world,” says Daniil. Larissa Saveliev, artistic director of YAGP, first saw Nikolas perform when he was 9 years old. “He really lights up the stage. Somehow he can smile without smiling. Everybody around him gets this warm feeling.”
“I’ve been thinking about ballet since I was 2,” says Nikolas. “When I’m dancing, I feel very confident; I know what I’m going to do. And I feel proud of myself.” He likes turns and jumps; he’s working on beats. His favorite ballet is Spartacus because of the sword fighting, and he hopes one day to dance for Ballet Amarillo in Swan Lake and La Bayadère. As teachers and parents, Daniil and Stephanie are doing their best to lay the right path for Nikolas. Even in the face of his obvious talent, they say, “We’re trying to take care of our son slowly. We’re just wishing him a happy, not too stressful, artist’s life.”
Mind Body Spirit
“There used to be a ceiling fan in my grandma’s house, and when I was a baby my feet would move to the beat of the fan. Whenever I heard music I would start banging my feet on the floor,” says Krithika Rajkumar, a 15-year-old student of the Indian classical dance form Bharata Natyam in Oak Park, Michigan. From the age of 4, Krithika has studied with Sudha Chandrashekar, who noticed right away that she was exceptional. “Her attitude toward the dance was very happy—excited to perform and very happy to learn,” Chandrashekar says. “She retained what she learned, and I could try the most difficult moves with her.”
Krithika made her debut at age 12. Her preparations included long hours of rehearsals, strength training, and focus on expression—not her strong point at the time, she says. But with a successful debut behind her, Krithika continues to delve into different branches of Bharata Natyam. “It is such a big world,” she says. “It’s like an ocean of knowledge.”
In Krithika, says Chandrashekar, “The mind-body-spirit link is very much there. She has a natural talent for it. All this success has not gone to her head. I believe that she has understood the essence of the dance.”
In the future, Krithika hopes to use her dancing as a tool for community service, offering workshops to children with disabilities. And of course, she hopes to continue performing. “I like to connect with my audience, and I like when people enjoy my performance,” she says. “When you get involved in it, it’s an uplifting experience.”
New York-based tapper Ayodele Casel started teaching Warren Craft when he was 9 years old, and she saw immediately that he had the gift. With tap, she says, you can tell right away who has that ear, that natural ability to pick it up. Warren did, and Casel taught him privately every Sunday for two years. “He was the dream student. I was able to communicate advanced concepts with him the way I would with an adult. If there was anything he’d have trouble with, he’d have it corrected by the next week.” When talking about him as an improviser, she mused, “I wonder if I’ll ever have a student like that again.”
Warren, now 14, loves improvisation. He also trains in ballet, which he believes helps his presentation as a tap dancer. He has performed with American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tap City, and in Casel’s Diary of a Tap Dancer, in which voiceovers of each dancer described their personal relationship to dance. “I talked about how accepting the tap dance community is of me and how willing they are to share their knowledge with me,” says Warren. Looking ahead, he would like to perform with Tap City on tour. “My dream job would be to become a song and dance man.”
With high arches, gorgeous extensions and a brilliant smile, 15-year-old Beth Miller has been catching teachers’ eyes since she began studying ballet in the second grade. In sixth grade, she saw Sylvie Guillem perform Juliet with The Royal Ballet in London, and she realized then that dancing was what she wanted to do. “Dancing is one of those things I just can’t imagine my life without,” she says. Studying in The Washington School of Ballet’s Release-Time program, she has worked hard to develop the strength to support her flexible frame, and is extending her technique past her comfort zones. “I’m starting to like turns more and more. That used to be my weakness, but I’ve worked hard on them.” Beth hopes to perform the role of Juliet herself one day, and she dreams of dancing for The Royal Ballet.
Becky Erhart, artistic coordinator of The Washington School of Ballet, has been working with Beth for the past two years. “The thing that really stands out is her passion and her natural movement quality,” says Erhart. Beth’s work ethic and positive attitude shine through everything she does. “You can tell how much she wants it, and how much she loves to dance,” continues Erhart. “When I’m teaching her, I get caught watching her do a very simple port de bras; she’s so involved in the movement. In rehearsals, when everyone’s tired and they’ve worked seven days in a row, Beth is in the corner smiling. She has such a positive energy.”
A Storybook Success
When he was 9 years old, Isaac Hernandez began studying ballet in his backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico, with his father, Hector Hernandez, who had danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Houston Ballet. Within three years, Isaac had won medals at competitions and a scholarship to The Rock School in Philadelphia.
Bo Spassoff, co-director of the school, recalls seeing Isaac for the first time at Youth America Grand Prix in 2002 and being floored by his technique—and his wonderful onstage personality. “He has a beautiful physique, gorgeous legs and feet, a beautiful line, natural coordination,” says Spassoff. “And he turns like a top.” Once he began at The Rock School, co-director Stephanie Spassoff says, “There were times when we’d sit there and watch him, and we’d all just turn and look at each other, and the whole faculty would have tears in their eyes.”
“Ballet was a huge door that opened my world,” says Isaac. “It was the way for me to express myself, and now I enjoy the challenges that I have.” Of all his 10 siblings, only he and his brother Esteban latched on to ballet when their father offered it. (Esteban, now 13, was named Best Male Dancer in his age range at the 2006 American Ballet Competition in Miami.) Isaac loves the classical repertoire and has performed the Don Quixote variation since he was 11. It’s his yardstick now, the way he measures his progress in technique and expressiveness. “I guess it’s the Latin blood in me. I feel like I was born doing it,” he says. Still, he hopes one day to perform full-length versions of his favorite ballets—particularly Don Q and Giselle. At 17, with a place now in American Ballet Theatre II, that hope seems likely to be realized.
Though a young dancer may possess extraordinary talent, the same work must be done to move the dancer toward success. Commitment, a positive attitude, and hard work combine with time and luck to make an artist out of a prodigy. What Sudha Chandrashekar says applies to both talented students and their teachers: “The inner meaning of art is to strive for excellence. You have to fight against all kinds of obstacles, and then through art you can find yourself.”
Lea Marshall teaches dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in VA.
Dancers on the power of witchy roles
That makes a witch? Is it just warts and a mastery of the black arts? Or is it strength and intelligence united in a woman whose power frightens people? Witches creep through dance in various forms, and they almost always cause trouble, or at least scare the pants off people. Think of evil Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, or fortune-telling Madge in La Sylphide. In a dark corner of early modern dance lurked the masked witch-woman in Mary Wigman’s solo Hexentanz II (1926); and more recently, The Bell Witch cast her spell in a ballet choreographed by Ann Marie DeAngelo for Nashville Ballet.
But what makes these witches such troublemakers? Often, it’s jealousy. Carabosse, the wicked fairy, is enraged at not being invited to Aurora’s christening and flings out a curse, ruining the party. Madge takes revenge on James for throwing her out of the house when she reveals to his fiancée that he loves another (the Sylph). The Bell Witch is said to have harrassed the Bell family in Tennessee out of jealousy or spite. Only Wigman’s witch dances purely from a sense of her own power. With Halloween looming, Dance Magazine set fear aside and spoke to several dance artists familiar with these roles to find out more about the creatures behind the makeup and masks.
One Fairy Gone Bad
The trouble with Carabosse, says Malcolm Burn, artistic associate and ballet master of the Richmond Ballet, is that no back story is given about her. “Why did she end up being a bad fairy in the first place, the one they didn’t invite?” he asks. “I would love to know.” When Burn staged The Sleeping Beauty last year, he performed the role of Carabosse himself. The lack of clear motivation doesn’t bother him. “That’s what makes it all the more delicious to be her, because truly she is vicious,” he says. “There’s nothing redeeming. She’s just the epitome of evil.”
Carabosse has often been performed by men. “We used the masculinity inside the female costume to create a female who moves differently from other females,” says Burn, whose costume included corset, wig, and elaborate makeup. “She’s big, she’s not fairy-like, she doesn’t have those beautiful legs and feet and lovely tutu. So one tries to exploit that to make her look more imposing and cold.”
But the evil fairy is also performed by women. Carmen Corella, who was cast as Carabosse in American Ballet Theatre’s recent production of The Sleeping Beauty, focused on subtleties like facial expressions in her performance. “I tried to do the role in a way that the expressions would be strong enough to read,” she says, “instead of just screaming and making noises.”
From a Dark Place
Sorella Englund’s Madge, from the Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide, is possibly the most famous characterization of the role today. Allan Ulrich, a Dance Magazine senior advising editor, says, “She looks like a great beauty of yesteryear gone to seed. Her red hair suggests a Klimt painting. Sorella interprets Madge as a jealous, spurned lover. She seems to have gotten under James’ skin psychologically, and thanks to her RDB training, she possesses a wonderful specificity in mime.”
Englund has performed the role for over 25 years, not only with Royal Danish Ballet, but also with The Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet. “I would never have believed I would tour as an old witch in my old age,” she says. “But it’s deeply exciting.”
The witch’s character is not simply evil. “There are no human beings who are born only evil or only good,” Englund says. “Most witches in history were incredibly bright and very passionate. This woman Madge—I think she was never loved. What maybe was worse for her was that nobody wanted her love.” Her Madge does not rely on the usual witchy tricks of cackling or cursing. “I think it’s much more dangerous when you’re quiet,” she says, and offers an interpretation that could be the key to her success with the role: “Maybe she is the shadow or the dark side of the Sylph.”
When coaching other dancers in ths Bournonville classic, Englund gives them a certain amount of freedom. “I try to tell them to find their own dark place,” she says, “because all art, I think, is personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not very interesting.”
Sorella Englund as Madge in Boston Ballet's La Sylphide
Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet
A Local Legend
In Adams, Tennessee, in 1817, the family of John Bell began to experience violent disturbances in their house and on their land. Bedcovers were yanked off; pillows were thrown; they were slapped; their hair was pulled; strange voices tormented them. The “Bell Witch,” as the ghost became known, achieved notoriety throughout the region for her nasty temper and irrepressible violence. In 2003 the Nashville Ballet commissioned Ann Marie DeAngelo to create The Bell Witch in homage to the feisty poltergeist.
Nashville Ballet in The Bell Witch, by Ann Marie DeAngelo
Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy NB
To portray the Bell Witch and her mischief, DeAngelo says that she relied on both theatrical effects and dance devices. The Witch was thought to have tried to prevent the marriage of John Bell’s daughter, Betsy, to her suitor Joshua Gardner. Choreographically, that idea became a pas de trois where the Witch keeps preventing Betsy and Joshua from getting close to each other or touching, though they don’t actually see her.
“We portrayed the witch a little more sympathetically. There were scary moments and there were comic moments, so it made it really entertaining,” says DeAngelo. “I didn’t create her with some bizarre kind of movement vocabulary. I humanized her a little bit more. I know people who know ghosts, who’ve experienced it, and say that the ghost feels very real.”
Behind the Mask
Scholar and dancer Betsy Fisher has reconstructed and performed Mary Wigman’s famous Hexentanz II (1926), or Witch Dance, which was influenced by her ideas about mysticism. In this solo, the body unleashes demonic energy from the unconscious or supernatural forces. A fragment of film from the original piece shows Wigman, face hidden behind a smooth and sinister mask, seated with her knees drawn up. The music crashes discordantly as she claws the air and then advances jaggedly towards the viewer, still seated, but wrenching herself forward with legs and arms.
“I always get the feeling that there’s an incredible power in this figure; the power that can destroy and the power that can create,” says Fisher. “In a way she’s like the mother earth: It can be the volcano or it can be the nurturer of new life.” When she performed the piece recently at American University, Fisher says, “A young man came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Look what you did!’ He’d been grabbing his pen so hard that it exploded in his hand. His hand was filled with ink.”
Kansas City Ballet's Kimberly Cowen in Wigman's Hexentanz
Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB
Fisher feels that everyone who performs the piece discovers a different witch. “You know, when they find that creature inside of them and when they let it go explosively through their whole body, then they’re going to have the witch, and it won’t be like anybody else’s.”
Part of the witch’s power comes from the mask. Kansas City Ballet’s Kimberly Cowen, who learned the dance from Fisher, says, “When you put that mask on, it takes away your inhibitions. Then you’re able to just be the character instead of thinking about yourself in the character.”
Reflecting on the role, Cowen says, “There was a little bit of desperation in her, and because of that she used her power to scare and influence people.” And scare people she did—at least young people. Apparently one young boy, during a recent Kansas City Ballet performance, tapped his dad and said, “This is kind of scary.” A few minutes later, he tugged on his dad again and said, “I think we need to go. ”
Good and Evil
Malcolm Burn, musing on the idea of the witch, says, “There is inherent in all fairy tales, and in our biblical tradition, and just about every tradition, a very strong sense of good and evil. What we teach our children in the fairy tales is that evil is actually there, and good is also there. And one is to be desired and one is not. And then as they get older we can say to them, ‘Both are within you.’ ”
Lea Marshall, a freelance writer based in Richmond, VA, is co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.