L.A. Story

Jenifer Ringer’s fresh start on the West Coast

“I see myself in them—how hard they work and their dreams,” says Ringer about her students.

When Jenifer Ringer retired from New York City Ballet in 2014, to New York audiences it felt like the departure of an old friend. She had brilliant technique and a raven-haired beauty, but it was the warm radiance and joy that infused her dancing that made ballet-goers feel she’d be as kind and generous, witty and smart offstage as on. Ringer spent more than two decades in the public eye, and her path to principal dancer was not without detours—struggles with weight and self-esteem caused her to lose her NYCB soloist contract for a year—but even those challenges seemed to make her a more interesting, thoughtful performer.

In 2010, The New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay said she looked like she’d eaten “one sugarplum too many” in a Nutcracker review, and the outrage on her behalf was immediate and very vocal. Ever gracious, Ringer appeared on “Today” and “Oprah” to defend herself, by then secure enough not to be rattled by “one person’s opinion.” Ringer, who now had fans nationwide, wrote an honest, revealing memoir called Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet, which chronicled the vicissitudes of her life and career. And now she has created an unexpected post-retirement life on the West Coast, where she is part of the new genesis of dance that is currently underway in Los Angeles.

Performing “Emeralds” from Balanchine’s Jewels

She was planning her retirement when a call came from Benjamin Millepied, a former NYCB colleague who had started L.A. Dance Project (and would later take over Paris Opéra Ballet). Millepied was working with the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles to develop a pre-professional ballet program. “When Benjamin called me, initially I thought he was crazy, because I couldn’t imagine living in Los Angeles,” says Ringer, a longtime New Yorker with South Carolina roots. Yet after she and her husband, dancer James Fayette, visited the school, primarily known for its world-class music training, and met with president Sel Kardan, they were intrigued.

Kardan gave them carte blanche in designing a brand-new program: “Sel said he’d rather see our dream program and have to be realistic and cut back, than start small,” says Ringer. The opportunity was both a fresh start and a fascinating proposition—to create a ballet program relatively free of financial concerns, thanks to a sizable endowment, and the facilities of a respected institution in a city without any tradition of high-profile pre-professional training.

Rehearsing with her husband James Fayette

Charged with creating a new model of ballet training, Ringer and Fayette considered what they could have benefited from as students, consulted with choreographer friends as to what they were looking for in dancers and drew inspiration from Millepied’s own training in Lyon, France. The Colburn Dance Academy, which opened last fall, is remarkable for its intimate size (currently 12 dancers), its focus exclusively on advanced students and a forward-thinking curriculum designed to create well-rounded, confident dancers who also have impeccable technique. It is also uniquely reflective of Ringer as a performing artist—focused, individual, artistic, thoughtful and both open-minded and classical.

The Dance Academy

Ringer and Fayette structured the Colburn Dance Academy as a rigorous ballet program. Students start with two ballet classes a day: technique, followed by variations, repertory, pointe or a men’s class. Unique in the curriculum is the third class of the day, which rotates among different genres of dance (contemporary, modern, street dance, “untapped” tap without tap shoes), music, drama, strength training, ballet history, nutrition and docent-guided visits to the adjacent Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “One thing that James and I came away from our own professional experience with is that ballet dancers today are often exclusively focused on ballet, and we didn’t want that,” says Ringer. “In order to be rich artists and to contribute to the dance world, you need more than just ballet. We wanted a program where we could open up the students to many artistic genres.”

Twelve students, ages 14 to 19, were selected for the inaugural class, from California and around the country. The academy could expand to 15, but Ringer prefers to keep it small. She fosters a warm, collegial environment in which dancers are encouraged to have a voice, something she struggled with as a young dancer. “Dancers are taught to be silent,” she says. “They come into the studio silently, look in the mirror and are told by the teacher what’s wrong. It can be debilitating. We try to have open communication, and we’re able to do that because we have so few students. Even as professionals, many dancers don’t feel they can approach their directors to have a conversation as two adults. That needs to change.”

The value in this approach was reinforced by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who participated in a Skype chat with students after they had studied his work. Wheeldon told the students he could find plenty of technicians who can do 32 perfect fouettés, but finds it harder to find dancers with something interesting to contribute. Ringer, whose nuanced performances embodied Wheeldon’s ideal, agrees. “Choreographers today are looking for individuals, for people who let their spirit come out in dance,” she says.

Transitioning to Educator

Ringer led the ballet program at New York State Summer School of the Arts from 2008 to 2013, a formative experience in her career transition. “Before NYSSSA, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach after I stopped dancing,” she says. “But learning the personalities of the individual students and getting involved in their training for just those four short weeks was so rewarding. I cared so much for these students. It underlined for me that I was ready to be more outwardly focused in the world of dance, rather than as self-focused as a ballerina often has to be. Now at the Dance Academy, I get to have the students year-round and we can be so patient with the details as we polish them up. It has been a great experience so far.”

Colburn Dance Academy student Anna Barnes, 17, was starstruck the first time she was in the studio with Ringer, but says Ringer was so kind that it quickly abated. “She always has a smile on her face,” says Barnes. “I love taking her class. She’ll come up with these insanely hard yet great combinations that make us work but are still fun. When she demonstrates, you can see exactly what you need to do. I learn so much from her.”

“I see myself in them—how hard they work and their dreams,” says Ringer. “The perfectionism that creeps in with ballet can be so difficult. We’ve been trying to manage that, to get them to strive for excellence, but realize that not only is it not going to be perfect, but that real artistry comes when it’s not perfect.”

Taking a bow after her final performance with New York City Ballet

Ringer and Fayette are still fine-tuning. Originally they had coordinated early-release programs with two local high schools so dancers could be at Colburn for a 12:30 pm start (studios are shared with Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, which starts at 4 pm). But since most of the students now do their academic coursework through online high schools, Colburn’s fall classes will begin at 10 am, making online school a necessity. “That, I’m not thrilled about,” Ringer says. “James and I both value academics highly. It took us a long time, but we both have college degrees. Unfortunately, it’s how the ballet world is going right now. You have to do this intensive training in your teenage years because of how early companies want to take dancers.”

Loving Los Angeles

Moving from a dance capital to a city formerly known as a dance wasteland, from polar vortex to beach days in January, and from subway to car culture has been an adjustment, but Ringer and Fayette are embracing Los Angeles, having bought a home and their first car. “As long as our family is together, happy and settled, I can go and do my job well,” says Ringer, who has two young children. Getting around town can still be a challenge, however. “The freeways terrify me,” she says. “I’ve lived here a year and have yet to drive on a freeway. I take back roads. If something’s far away, I tell people I’ll be an hour and a half, turn on my radio and sing and drive slowly.”

Ringer and Fayette arrived in Los Angeles at what seems a pivotal time for dance. “L.A. is on the edge; dance is starting to bubble up and blossom,” says Ringer. “There’s a great deal of interest and support. It feels like there’s a turning point in Los Angeles for dance in general and ballet in particular.” Fayette, who also works as the managing director of L.A. Dance Project, has found a refreshing enthusiasm for collaboration and experimentation. “Right now, I think experimentation happens more easily out here in Los Angeles,” he says. “We couldn’t pull off L.A. Dance Project or the Colburn School in New York City—it’s more rigid and people would be insisting on following the old models. But out here people are like, ‘Let’s give it a try; that sounds exciting.’”

As Los Angeles becomes a dance destination, Colburn students have benefited when dance luminaries (and friends of Ringer and Fayette) stop in to guest-teach (a recent roster included past and current NYCB dancers Wendy Whelan, Jared Angle, Justin Peck, Jonathan Stafford and Ailey’s Hope Boykin). Bringing in successful artists is another way that Ringer encourages her students to master technique, then think beyond it. “We’re trying to empower them as dancers, but also as people,” she says. “We want to give them the tools to be successful wherever they go.” DT

A SoCal native, Caitlin Sims is a freelance writer in California’s other great dance hub, San Francisco.

Photo (top) by Rose Eichenbaum; photos (3) by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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