From left: Sofiane Sylve, Frances Chung, Koto Ishihara, Maria Kochetkova, and Elizabeth Powell of San Francisco Ballet in Borderlands, with lighting by Lucy Carter. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
It’s the day after Wayne McGregor’s Borderlands for San Francisco Ballet premiered in January, and the second cast has just completed its run-through in the studio. The ballet, which prompted a standing ovation the night before, is fiendishly difficult. Although it’s inspired by Josef Albers’ geometric paintings, it sends the dancers into extreme twists and maneuverings where they crawl or grope or poke their way through a partner’s negative space. McGregor, 43, and ballet master Ricardo Bustamante are sitting on the floor with the dancers, giving them notes. When the choreographer asks if anyone has any questions, Dana Genshaft, who has just ripped through the strikingly strange opening duet, asks, “When are you coming back?”
Both onstage and off, dancers all over the world respond to McGregor’s wildly complex movement and his upbeat warmth. They relish the bracing challenges he poses, and he appreciates them as individual artists. In the pre-performance talk at the War Memorial Opera House, he told the audience that when he sets a work on a particular dancer, the way he or she does it “burns itself into my retina.”
McGregor’s curiosity has fueled multiple projects that bring out the creativity in others. He has given his own dancers at Wayne McGregor/Random Dance the responsibility to lead workshops, and he has encouraged corps dancers at The Royal Ballet, where he is resident choreographer, to make dances. When invited to lead the biannual Big Dance event in Trafalgar Square last July, he turned the pre-Olympics celebration into a collectively made event for almost 1,000 people. He’s choreographed for opera, theater, music videos, and film, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The innovative Creative Learning department of Random Dance, which is resident at Sadler’s Wells, recently extended to Kenya. McGregor’s choreography and educational initiatives have earned him many awards and honors, including a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his service to dance.
Since his schedule in San Francisco was as hectic as in London, I interviewed McGregor on the car ride from SFB to the airport. As he got into the back seat, he murmured that it’s always hard to say goodbye to the dancers he’s gotten attached to. —Wendy Perron
Watching your amazing dancing this morning at our photo shoot, I was wondering, How do you think of energy going through the body? It’s almost like a chain that’s linked. There’s a point of initiation that has a repercussion somewhere else in the body. The best classical dancers also have that sense of chains of action so the energy moves out through the fingertips.
Do the dancers ever say to you, Well actually that would travel differently through my body? Not really…I try to provide a problem for the body to solve, so they have to find a way. And that’s part of the pleasure of working with people who make different decisions in how they might solve it. It not only teaches me something but it gives them something. That’s why it becomes as much about them as it does about me.
Noah Long and Greta Hodgkinson of National Ballet of Canada in Chroma (2006). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBC.
Some of the dancers just dive into your movement. How do you know which dancers are wild enough to do it? There are always surprises, so you can’t always know. When I go to a company and I don’t know the dancers, I can just tell, from what they do in their daily work. It’s something about how they fire up those feet in class. For casting, the time I love most in class is in pliés—the attitude, the approach. If they’ve got that kind of hunger in the 50,000th ballet class they’ve ever done, then it’s likely that if you give them interesting rich material, they’ll do something quite challenging with it.
Does the title Borderlands have to do with Josef Albers’ paintings? It’s partly to do with that. For me the Albers color theory always oscillates between two points of view and two facts—the fact of yellow and the fact of salmon or something—so you’re thrust into these ambiguous states. It felt to me like some kind of threshold. The border of the art form of painting and the art form of dancemaking—I wondered how that threshold would be to investigate.
In the part with the men’s arms vibrating, is that like when one color vibrates against another? Exactly like that, yeah yeah. It’s how you pop the image or force the image to do something different. The collapsing light we have there for the vibration edits out some of the facts of that picture. You distrust your eyes in a way. We put video thru the LED, almost like the TV static that gives you that sense of instability.
SFB’s Pascal Molat, Sarah Van Patten, Carlos Quenedit, and France Chung in Borderlands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
I also saw very saturated colors of green and purple on stage right. They’re all versions of blue. You read a different color even though it might be the same color you’ve just seen. Your eye is tricked into believing something else, and I tried to do that physically as well. I trick the eye into thinking it’s going in one physical direction and then it switches and goes somewhere else.
There are some parts of Borderlands that are incredibly sensual and sexual, more than most of the pieces I’ve seen of yours. Did you feel that? I find Albers’ work very intimate, spiritual, and that demands a certain type of physical response and sensitivity. Some of his paintings are quite dirty in a way, not quite resolved—some of the stuff we were able to see in the archive where he’s testing things out. We’re used to seeing the perfected end. At the archive [in Connecticut] we were able to see the evidence of a process; it’s much more confused. In some way it’s soiled, or the relationship is dysfunctional, using your body to be manipulative, rather than being manipulated.
I’ve heard you talk about your interest in the body “misbehaving.” Is this dirty quality related to that? Definitely. I think there’s something about extreme sensuality. When you watch dance you can’t help but see some kind of sexual dimension to it. There’s a biological relationship to those bodies that you cannot deny. It’s interesting to play on the edges of what that might look like.
Random Dance in Entity (2008). Photo by Ravi Deepres, Courtesy Random.
Wasn’t some of Borderlands in bare feet? No, I use pointe shoes and flat shoes quite promiscuously, if you like. I didn’t want to make this or that the “pointe shoe bit” so it’s very mixed up all the way through. They’re not actually in bare feet but sometimes in light-colored flat shoes. Masha [Maria Kochetkova, first cast as a lead] might do one thing in pointe shoes and the next in flat, back and forth. In a way, the pointe shoe just becomes part of the language.
You’ve pointed out that we all have filters we see things through, and you’ve worked with scientists at UC San Diego who looked at your creative process. What have you learned about your own filters? I think the fact that we have filters that make us make certain decisions is important to note. Understanding them allows you to open up a whole different sense of possibility. These things are called choreographic thinking tools, and it’s just a way of breaking down your process. I can go into the studio and not think about any of the filters and just make instinctively in the moment and see what happens. But sometimes I can work in a different way, where I can attend to something I wouldn’t normally. Say I’m working with a couple and I’m thinking of them architecturally from a visual point of view. How is it if I shift my mindset to think of them as radiating sound, and that they are like sonic instruments? How would that make me change the things that I make on them? We found a way to help dancers, as well, recognize what cognitive loop they may be working in and how might they be able to extend what their normal habits of making are.
I think that gets reinforced, when you ask the dancers, as you did today, “How would you describe this section?” That process for me is about us building a collective imagination for the work. I’m not the sort of choreographer who says, This is what it has to be. We’re inventing it together. I’m curious to see what they’re feeling or thinking when they’re watching or performing the work. Building that language gives you those anchor points that hopefully make the work more cohesive. I feel that way of pulling out the information from them gives me a richness that I wouldn’t have, but it’s shared in a group format. Some dancers, it takes a little while before they feel confident enough; it’s quite exposing. With my Random lot, you can’t shut them up, but in a ballet company it’s a different thing.
The Royal Ballet in Limen (2009). Photo by Tristram Kenton/ROH, Courtesy Royal Ballet.
Were you satisfied last night after seeing Borderlands? I think I’m never satisfied. I guess that’s why I make something else. I never sit there and think, Well done, Wayne! That’s just not my personality. I’ve had a fantastic process with the dancers; I’ve learned so much from and with them. But in terms of the work itself, I always see things that I want to do differently, so I never feel there’s an endpoint. In a way Borderlands is a representation of a series of decisions that were made at the time, and that has a beauty of its own.
What do you look for in a dancer? I look for someone who is really open-minded and who looks at me in the eye when I go into the studio on the first day. Someone who’s not intimidated to have a conversation with you, who’s prepared to work really hard, who knows something about their body and wants to experience something else in that body. I think that’s the most pleasurable dancer to have.
Random in UNDANCE (2011), inspired partly by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo by Ravi Deepres, Courtesy Random.
What’s coming up in Wayne’s world
April 30–June 17, Dyad 1929, The Australian Ballet, Sydney and Melbourne
May 2–12, Chroma, Boston Ballet
May 24–June 8, Raven Girl, world premiere, The Royal Ballet, London
May 27–28, UNDANCE, Random, Katara Village, Doha
June 1–2, FAR, Random, Macao Cultural Centre, Macao
June 22–23, UNDANCE, Random, Sadler’s Wells, London
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
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As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.