“When they entered, they were hidden by huge winglike constructions made from parachutes. Carolyn Brown moved down the center line of the rink on pointe, while the men rolled down the edges of the rink and, having reached the opposite end, spiraled around, switched paths, and rolling back to their starting points, swooped around to pick Brown up as she returned along the center line. They partnered her, lifting her and carrying her as they skated in circles and figure eights..."
PNB Students in Bruce Wells' Snow White
Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet The Bright Stream was a highlight of American Ballet Theatre’s performance calendar in 2011. A welcome addition to the year’s full-length classics and mixed bills, it received rave reviews for its use of many levels of company dancers, endearing characters and humorous storyline. And it got the dance world talking about ingenuity in classical ballet.
Professionals aren’t the only dancers who can pull off a new production. Your students and studio could benefit from a recital that focuses on a narrative. Offering an alternative to a traditional recital of short dances can teach students the value of storytelling, which develops young artists. It may also pique the interest of ticket buyers. Aunts and uncles who might pass on their niece’s three minutes of fame may be more compelled to see her play a special character in an original performance.
There’s no doubt that producing a new recital is an undertaking. Bruce Wells of Pacific Northwest Ballet School begins brainstorming initial ideas for a spring performance as early as a full year before the set show date. Rehearsals for a production often begin right after The Nutcracker season finishes. “It’s 24-7 for six weeks,” says Wells. “But I see the dancers’ energy onstage and the audience feeds it back to them. That’s a win-win for both sides.”
After selecting a story or theme, music will help guide you through assigning levels and choreography. Wells narrowed down music for PNB School’s Snow White by making sure it evoked characters he wanted to convey strongly, identifying motifs that fit the evil queen, Snow White and the seven dwarfs. He planned out the structure of the ballet after most of the score was finalized. He says his productions are “shrink-wrapped” versions of a traditional full-length concert—using the standard model of narration by key principal characters and mixing the school’s students throughout. Alternatively, each level can be assigned to a scene. This allows the recital to follow the standard number-by-number format, but places it in the context of an engaging story.
Mary Paula Hunter, who directs JUMP! Dance Company for youth in Providence, Rhode Island, says the bulk of the group’s annual hour-and-a-half-long Scenes From The Polar Express concert comes from pre-existing recorded music—an eclectic mix of classical, contemporary and cultural pieces. When she couldn’t find the right sound for the train scene, she asked a dancer’s father to create original electronic music that is still used in the production today. Hunter split Polar Express into two acts to help the flow of the storyline; the recital reflects the many styles her dancers train in—tap, ballet, musical theater and modern.
In the Studio
With your guidance, individual teachers can choreograph their group’s section of the ballet, but for a cohesive story, you may want to create the movement yourself. This was Alan Hineline’s preference when he choreographed Hansel and Gretel for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. After setting the steps on students, fellow instructors helped get the production performance-ready by coaching rehearsals and cleaning the steps. Hineline teaches the youngest levels first, so they have the most time to rehearse thoroughly.
Hunter asked for her dancers’ input throughout the making of Polar Express—they often added in their own steps and gestures. “Many of the scenes were built together,” says Hunter. “They gained a critical eye for creating dances and editing them down.” She says it also helped them invest in their characters.
JUMP!’s members, who range in age from 8 to 18, form the core of Polar Express’ 35-member cast, but students are encouraged to invite friends to fill the “guest” roles and may perform in up to four scenes. Hunter finds this is a great way to boost enrollment—some of them have enrolled as students after performing with JUMP! DT
Leslie Holleran holds a master’s degree in dance history from the University of California–Riverside. She writes about dance from Seattle.
Use Your Resources
Mary Paula Hunter had a parent craft the music for the train in Scenes From The Polar Express. She also worked with a Rhode Island School of Design student, who created a set for the production. Your community goes beyond the studio: Pitch your idea to local schools, colleges and recreational programs for an engaging, collaborative project that will get everyone talking.
“The first night of the ballet was the most astonishing event. ...At the first sounds of the music, shouts and hissing started in the audience, and it was difficult for us on the stage to hear the music, the more so as part of the audience began to applaud in an attempt to drown the hissing. We all desperately tried to keep time without being able to hear the rhythm clearly. ...And yet now there is no doubt that musically and choreographically, a masterpiece had been created that night.” —Dame Marie Rambert, Ballets Russes dancer (1912–13)
The scene that Marie Rambert describes in her 1972 autobiography was the premiere of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913, in Paris. The discordant music by Igor Stravinsky and experimental choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky were revolutionary for their time, resulting in a scandal on opening night. In the interest of advancing their respective artforms, both composer and choreographer ignored conventions that until then had governed how a ballet should look and sound. “No previous score so thoroughly challenged the fundamental concept of rhythm and meter that had held sway in standard, recurring patterns over the last 300 years,” says Skidmore College music professor Charles Joseph. “Stravinsky liberated music from this history and opened the door to the world of modernism.”
The Rite of Spring is just one score among many that Stravinsky created specifically for ballet. His collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine spanned over 40 years and two continents, and together they produced almost two dozen ballets. This month, New York City Ballet opens its season with a two-week festival celebrating their great partnership that helped shape 20th-century dance.
Born in 1882 near St. Petersburg, Stravinsky showed an early interest in music. As a toddler, he performed a song for his parents that he had heard sung by women in his town. Stravinsky’s parents did not want him to pursue a musical career, even though his father was a renowned opera singer. They preferred that he study law instead, for reasons of status and income. But Stravinsky overcame their objections and studied under another legendary Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Stravinsky left St. Petersburg for Paris in 1910 to further develop his musical talent, given Paris’ more vibrant artistic scene. Additionally, Stravinsky had been commissioned by Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev to create a new ballet score. When The Firebird—a narrative ballet based on a Russian legend, choreographed by Michel Fokine—premiered in 1910, Stravinsky moved to Paris to oversee its debut.
Stravinsky composed often for the Ballets Russes over the next 20 years, in collaboration with its choreographers, until the sudden death of Diaghilev in 1929. Other notable ballets produced during this period include Petrouchka by Michel Fokine (1911) and Les Noces by Bronislava Nijinska (1923)—both with themes drawing from Russian rituals and customs. Rite also had Russian roots: Its harshness was inspired by the natural force of ice breaking up along a Russian river in spring.
Diaghilev introduced Stravinsky to Balanchine in 1925, and in 1928, the two collaborated on Apollon Musagète—now known simply as Apollo. This score heralded a new age for the composer; it favored classicism, not ethnicity. Inspired by classical music and ancient Greek mythology, Apollo is Stravinsky and Balanchine’s first neoclassical masterpiece.
During this collaboration, Stravinsky found Balanchine’s artistic ideas very much in sync with his own, and he was grateful to have found a choreographer who could skillfully handle his music’s complexities. “Balanchine, as ballet master, had arranged the dances exactly as I had wished,” wrote Stravinsky in his autobiography. “His beautiful choreography clearly expressed my meaning.”
Given a truly amicable and fruitful partnership, the duo would work together often after Stravinsky came to America in 1939, following the outbreak of World War II. Balanchine had already immigrated to the U.S. to set up the School of American Ballet (at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein) when he commissioned Stravinsky for a new score. Their neoclassical work Orpheus premiered in 1948, and its acclaim helped transform Ballet Society—Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling company—into the established New York City Ballet.
By the time of Stravinsky’s death in New York City in 1971, he and Balanchine had created more than 20 ballets together, many of which remain in NYCB’s repertory today—including Agon (1957), Apollo and Orpheus. Balanchine remained steadfast in his endorsement of the deceased composer’s work and choreographed to 13 more of Stravinsky’s pieces. Many of these, such as Symphony in Three Movements and Violin Concerto, were created for NYCB’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972. “Our movements have to be performed in the composer’s time,” Balanchine said in an interview before the festival. “That’s why I call Stravinsky ‘an architect of time.’ His music provides the dancer’s floor. It’s the reason for us to move. Without the music, we don’t want to move.” DT
Ballets Russes dancers in Nijinsky's original production of "The Rite of Spring," 1913
100 Years of The Rite of Spring
Almost a century after its premiere, the controversial work has become one of the most beloved of Stravinsky’s scores. Many notable choreographers have used his great work, including Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, Jorma Elo and Glen Tetley.
- 1940: Disney included The Rite of Spring in its animated musical film Fantasia.
- 1959: Maurice Béjart’s production premiered, later toured internationally with his Ballet of the 20th Century and has since been staged on other companies.
- 1975: Pina Bausch choreographed The Rite of Spring for her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. You can see excerpts from this work in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, Pina.
- 1987: The Joffrey Ballet performed a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography, staged by Millicent Hodson.
- 2013: Houston Ballet will premiere a new Rite by artistic director Stanton Welch. Like Stravinsky, Welch has tapped into his own heritage by commissioning indigenous Australian artist Rosella Namok to create the set. But Welch admits, “When I shut my eyes, it’s Fantasia I see.”
- 2013: Carolina Performing Arts has scheduled a “Rite of Spring at 100” celebration. In January, choreographer Bill T. Jones and theater director Anne Bogart will collaborate to create a full-length work that aims to deconstruct The Rite of Spring.
Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.
Ballet Russes. 118 min. 2005. Zeitgeist Films. New York.
Jordan, Stephanie. “The Demons in a Database: Interrogating ‘Stravinsky the Global Dancer.” Dance Research 22, no. 1 (2004): 57-83.
Joseph, Charles M. Stravinsky’s Ballets. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Tony Palmer’s Film about Stravinsky: Once at a Border … 166 min. 1982. Distributed by Kultur, West Long Branch, NJ.
Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California—Riverside.
Photo by Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts; The Rite of Spring photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives
35 years of questioning
“For me, beginning to study dance seriously at the age of 5 meant entering a quiet world of intense physical training where talking was banned and even a certain kind of thinking was discouraged. But during the years of study, questions dogged my path... Who are we dancing for? Why do some people watch and other people get to move? Why this movement instead of that one? I consider my attempt to answer these questions as one of the driving forces in my work.”
—Liz Lerman, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer
More than three and a half decades ago, choreographer Liz Lerman saw a photo that inspired her to make dances with people of all ages and abilities. In her newest book, Hiking the Horizontal, Lerman writes: “At my parents’ home in Madison, Wisconsin, while my mother is dying, I see a picture in the newspaper. It is of a nun, in full habit, teaching an exercise class to the elderly. I look at it and think, ‘Wait, if she can do it, I can do it.’ And so I did.”
Lerman began teaching senior adults in 1975 and the next year established her own company, the Dance Exchange, in metro Washington, DC. Known for its intergenerational explorations, the Dance Exchange has produced more than 100 works and created site-specific projects in communities across the nation. Lerman’s work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, and in 2002, she received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.
Just last month, Lerman stepped down from her role as artistic director. Though she will remain close to the Dance Exchange and collaborate with the group, this transition will allow her to pursue independent projects, including an artistic residency at Harvard University this fall.
DT: What are your plans for Harvard?
LL: I’m teaching a course on partnering. Starting with the partnership between the mind and the body, we’ll then discuss different kinds of partnerships. Using choreography, students will explore partnering with each other, and they’ll research partnerships across campus and so on.
Aside from that, new collaborations are coming down the pike. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar from Urban Bush Women and I are discussing working on a piece about Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The things these two men did together were quite subversive. We’re going to ask: Who were these iconic heroes and how can we be intimate with their stories? We want to explore how you go about standing up to your own people. As I say in my book, it’s easier to stand up to former President Bush than it is to people in your own community.
DT: What do you see as your most lasting contribution?
LL: It’s the notion that being a professional artist does not have a singular definition and can have many different looks. I’m a professional when I’m teaching a dance class in a nursing home or working in a shipyard with a community to help explore its past.
Another contribution is the idea that old people can dance, which has been essential to my work. Older bodies make for great storytelling, beautiful movement and a curious form of courage.
DT: Is there a teacher who deeply influenced your career?
LL: Jan Van Dyke, who is now at the University of North Carolina–Greens-boro, told me, “Go to New York, but you can always come back.” That was really great advice, because I did go to New York in 1974, but I didn’t feel compelled to stay. So I was able to return to DC and teach Cunningham technique at Jan's studio. But soon I found I wanted more so I moved on. Now that I'm a mentor to others, as Jan was to me, the same thing happens—dancers push off me in order to become what they need to become.
Seattle-based writer Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California-Riverside.
Photo by JS Rosenthal, courtesy of The Dance Exchange
Reviving Giselle in the Pacific Northwest
Balletomanes everywhere know the story: A young peasant girl falls in love with a deceptive duke and dies of a broken heart. But Pacific Northwest Ballet will be the first American company to stage Giselle using primary sources that date back to the work’s 1841 Parisian premiere. Artistic Director Peter Boal, now in his sixth year with the Seattle-based company, is staging the Romantic ballet in collaboration with dance and music scholars. Doug Fullington, PNB’s assistant to the artistic director, is reconstructing choreography from Russian Stepanov notation circa 1900. Marian Smith, University of Oregon associate professor of musicology and author of Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, is utilizing French sources from the 1840s and ’60s.
Boal, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and instructor for School of American Ballet, has seen his company perform The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia. However, introducing Giselle to PNB has presented Boal and his dancers with new challenges and opportunities. “We’re making this fresh,” he says. “Other versions can inspire, but at the end of the day, you have to come up with your own Albrecht or Giselle.” The work will premiere at McCaw Hall in Seattle on June 3.
Dance Teacher: Why did you decide to restage Giselle this season?
Peter Boal: To perform a Romantic era ballet will be a new and welcome challenge for our dancers. Giselle is one of the great chapters in the evolution of our artform and one that belongs in our repertoire. I decided to stage a new version for PNB because of Doug Fullington’s ability to read Stepanov notation and Marian Smith’s proximity to us in Portland. Doug had successfully reconstructed parts of Giselle for PNB School before we elected to mount the full production for the company.
DT: What were the challenges of interpreting the notation?
PB: The notation doesn’t include port de bras. It’s 98 percent legs and floor patterns. So I’ve focused on applying what I learned during a six-month leave of absence from City Ballet in 1988, when I took class with the Paris Opéra. The port de bras taught, with the elbow leading and the fingers arriving late, was sublime.
DT: What did the dancers find difficult when learning the choreography?
PB: Certain passages were challenging as far as speed and clarity are concerned. We determined that some of the leg heights that are used in today’s dancing weren’t there originally, so dancers in the 19th century could move more quickly. But, in most cases, our dancers were able to perform the notated steps at the speed required. I don’t have a female dancer’s sensibility since I’ve never danced on pointe. So the dancers have had input and dialogue.
Another challenge came with re-creating mime passages. Dancers today don’t often perform mime. Clarity and timing in their acting were areas that we had to develop. (There are 56 minutes of mime and 60 minutes of dancing, according to the 1841 score.) Pacing the mime correctly requires finishing a movement and allowing a stillness to happen.
DT: Do you view contemporary works differently as a result of this process?
PB: Balanchine, who saw versions of Giselle with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was beautifully respectful about his heritage. The women in his Serenade, in their long, tulle Romantic skirts, are reminiscent of the Wilis from Act II. Also, there is a moment in Giselle when she falls to the ground. That same movement occurs in Serenade.
Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California, Riverside.
Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of PNB
For more than 13 years, David Leventhal has delighted audiences around the globe. As a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, he has performed in 45 of the company’s works, including lead roles in The Hard Nut, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare. Since 2001 the dancer has also been working hard behind the scenes as an instructor at MMDG’s Brooklyn-based school and community dance center.
In July, Leventhal, who’s married to fellow company dancer Lauren Grant, turned his focus from touring to broadening MMDG’s reach. His first order of business: guest teaching at Seattle Theatre Group’s one-week summer DANCE This Camp in Port Townsend, Washington. Leventhal often leads MMDG Dance for Parkinson’s Disease workshops at STG, and the company participates in STG-sponsored school residencies when touring through the Evergreen State, so being involved in their summer dance camp only helped establish a stronger partnership between the two groups, says Leventhal. By forming more of these types of educational programs, the company hopes to expose Morris’ imaginative and musical repertory to teen and pre-professional dancers across the nation.
Dance Teacher: Mark Morris’ choreography can be difficult to grasp. How do you teach it to new students?
David Leventhal: Mark’s work is incredibly specific and constantly surprising, which works well for teens and young adults because they tend to be naturally curious and get bored easily. I always aim for mental and physical understanding and honest effort in my classes, not perfection. The process is about learning how to learn and forming good placement habits. What we try to achieve in these classes is a conversation between technique and the repertory—Mark’s work—and what’s useful technically and stylistically in order to perform it correctly.
DT: What has been the biggest challenge for you about transitioning from a full-time performance career to more teaching?
DL: Transitions are always bittersweet, but they are inevitable in a dancer’s life. I’ll miss being onstage and working with my incredible fellow dancers, as well as Mark. But the opportunity to give back by inspiring and engaging other generations and communities in this work more than makes up for any nostalgia I have about my time performing. MMDG has a tradition of nurturing teachers among its dancers, and those of us who teach are passionate about sharing Mark’s work.
DT: Is there one such teacher who inspired your career?
DL: The late Marjorie Mussman. She had the ability to change the way people danced and to transform our bad habits into good practices. She also had an uncanny way of seeing each dancer’s potential and understanding that the path and process to reach full potential were unique for each dancer. She knew exactly what each student needed to become a better dancer, and she used a firm but disarming manner to get you there. DT
Seattle-based freelance writer Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California, Riverside.
Photo by Amber Star Merkens, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group