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What It's Like to Be Christopher Wheeldon's Right Hand Man
While still in the corps of New York City Ballet, Jason Fowler was drawn to the role of répétiteur. "Ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy was my rock in the company," he says. Fowler loved the process: learning steps quickly and absorbing the choreographer's intentions. He knew early on he wanted to nurture dancers through the rehearsal period one day. So it comes as little surprise that 20 years later, Fowler is a primary stager of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets around the globe.
Fowler first met Wheeldon as a student at the School of American Ballet in 1993, where he danced in the workshop performance of Wheeldon's Danses Bohemiennes. He was promoted to NYCB soloist in 2006, and performed with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses, on the side. Wheeldon first asked him to teach and rehearse one of his ballets, There Where She Loved, on a Morphoses tour to Vail International Dance Festival in 2008.
Fowler retired in 2010 after several knee surgeries. "I was lost, shocked and heartbroken," he says. But in a synchronistic bit of career timing, Wheeldon offered him a position as ballet master for Morphoses' Canada and California tours that same year. Since then, Fowler has staged over 20 Wheeldon ballets for companies across the globe, from the Broadway-sized Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the stark Polyphonia.
Fowler rehearsing Miami City Ballet dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay
Unlike some répétiteurs, Fowler doesn't use traditional notation. Instead, he writes down the choreography and dances it out to secure it in his muscle memory. "I have a binder which I call my Bible," he says. "It's full of words, drawings, figures, musical notes, anything I can think of to remind me of what that step might be." Sometimes he notates within the score, including key words like "Titanic," for a formation that resembles the bow of a ship. When he sets a piece from a video, he'll often watch three different versions to absorb the specificity of the movement. "Especially when Chris comes in for three days or a week to work his magic, I need to know we're on the same page," he says.
At Pennsylvania Ballet, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Staging time depends on the number of casts, hectic rehearsal schedules and the amount of time the company allots. "I can teach all the steps of Polyphonia and Fool's Paradise in about a week," says Fowler. "But the coaching takes time, preferably three weeks total for two to three casts."
At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Working with a living choreographer, as opposed to re-creating works by a legend like Sir Frederick Ashton or George Balanchine, keeps Fowler on his toes. Wheeldon sometimes alters steps that he didn't originally have time to refine, or tailors them to the current dancer. "Not everyone dances the same—that's the beauty of having someone who can personalize something for a company," he says. "The frustrating part can come when a company gets a video and tries to learn from it and they get confused. That's what I'm there for."
Fowler with MCB dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay
Wheeldon always does the vetting of companies, choosing which ballets are suitable for which troupe, and he usually does the casting. "But if he's not available, it's something that I sometimes do," says Fowler. "I'm his eyes if he can't be there."
Fowler often crosses paths with other répétiteurs setting works by William Forsythe, Jirˇí Kylián and others. "I've known dancers all my life, but now I know more stagers than dancers," he says. "We're all in agreement that no one does this for the money." (The bulk of the work—studying videos and notations or working out steps—is unpaid time.)
At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev
Still, his life as a nomad, which can sometimes feel lonely with over 40 weeks per year on the road, works for him. "The rewarding part is traveling the world," he says. "If you only want to be in one place, it's most likely not the position for you."
With Wheeldon's rate of prolificacy, Fowler can probably count on a job for life, especially given that Wheeldon, a youthful 44, promises many more decades of creating. And staging ballets rather than choreographing them suits Fowler just fine. "I know what my strengths are—and it's not choreography. I'm like a backup singer."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.