What Exactly Is Contemporary Ballet?
Ballet Hispanico in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Anchored in the old, hungry for the new, contemporary ballet is a style that remains ambiguous. It allows the body to careen off balance and the stage relationships to shift. It’s less bent on creating masterworks, and more curious to be playing in a sandbox of possibilities. But is contemporary ballet any ballet being made today? Or is there a particular tone, approach or style that marks it as contemporary? Dance Magazine spoke to five choreographers attached to this label to learn what it means to them.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change the shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. But it still uses the classical vocabulary and the aesthetic of a beautiful line.
For me, the woman in classical ballet is so feminine, and I try to change that frail thing so she’s not that 16-year-old princess. I want her to be a woman of our time. She’s stronger. When I use pointework, it’s lower: I have the girls hanging more with their hip, forward or back. I’m looking to use the fluidity of my contemporary work in pointe shoes. I also try to change the position of the female dancer in relation to the male. I make her more powerful and him more visible, so he’s not just lifting her up and down. I try to find tender moments from him toward her, so it’s not that he’s always strong and she has to be as light as possible.
Above: Ochoa rehearsing Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Choreographer in residence, Atlanta Ballet
There’s a quandary about the definition of contemporary ballet that hovers over the ballet world. The term at times seems deliberately ambiguous, almost as though we don’t want to define this era, to stay loose about it so it doesn’t get fixed.
But we need to be clear so dancers can be clear. How do we define this for dancers going to auditions? With the dancers who come to contemporary ballet auditions, there isn’t that beautiful command of the pointe shoe where it’s malleable and looks like part of the foot, or that deconstructed torso, where energy bounces into the torso, then back out into the limbs.
Here’s a definition: Work where the dancer has an incredible sense of complex coordination, where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of épaulement. In Forsythe’s company, where I danced for 12 years, it was about the fully investigated body, absolute physical prowess, going to the end of a movement and asking, How does that take you to the next place?
The classical technique, the anchor, must be there so the riffs can happen. And perhaps the riff is the contemporary part of ballet. Like jazz riffs, like in a poetry jam, you have your anchor and then you go from there.
Right: Pickett in an Atlanta Ballet rehearsal. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Artistic associate, The Royal Ballet
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
For me, contemporary ballet means any ballet choreography made today. I consider all of my ballets, story or abstract, to be contemporary ballet. The real question, I suppose, is, What defines a ballet? For me, the pointe shoe is one of the major factors that define a dance piece as a ballet rather than modern dance. However, my movement language comes from many influences, including modern dance.
Above: Wheeldon working on An American in Paris with Nathan Madden. Photo by Matt Trent, Courtesy Wheeldon.
Above: James Whiteside and Whitney Jensen in Elo’s Brake the Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Resident choreographer, Boston Ballet
There should be some sort of investigating of movement that is not directly taken from the ballet book, something new so you’re not just repeating what the vocabulary has been for hundreds of years. For example, I base my knowledge of how to use the back from Cunningham and from Graham technique, as well as my Vaganova training. I use angles from the legs, from the arms, other parts of the body; I don’t isolate the spine. Some dancers more easily go into movement research. They are not afraid to be in situations that are unfamiliar; they are mentally more flexible.
Above: Elo setting work at Boston Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Artistic director, Kidd Pivot
Associate choreographer, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
It’s hard to find new language within classical ballet, but now there’s more openness to bringing in a new vocabulary and smashing it together with the ballet body. At the Paris Opéra Ballet, for example, there’s work by Emanuel Gat, Sasha Waltz, Jérôme Bel. Even though I danced with Forsythe, now when I work with a ballet company, I feel like I speak a different language. I think, How do I get back into pointe and do I want to? Emergence at National Ballet of Canada was about being otherworldly and alien and insect-like, and the pointe shoes really lent themselves to that strange creature-like state. But to use pointe shoes to try to get at other kinds of content, I don’t really have an interest in that.
Maybe the question is, What kind of training does a company do every morning? Are they at the barre, doing tendus? At Cedar Lake they do ballet every day, but they might do improv depending on who’s visiting. At Kidd Pivot, every once in a while we’ll do a quick-and-dirty barre. It’s healthy to be training in different ways. If ballet is in the mix, great. But it needs to be one part of a bigger picture.
Right: Pite rehearsing Emergence at NBOC. Photo by Sian Richards; Courtesy NBOC.
Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine editor at large, is author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer. Her website is wendyperron.com.
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.