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.
Few things are more powerful for promoting ballet performances than captivating trailers—especially in today's visually-focused, digitally-connected world.
We've rounded up some eye-catching ads from seasons past and present that not only make us wish we could have seen the show, but also stand alone as short films.
Bucharest National Opera's La Sylphide
Magnifying the scarf which—spoiler alert—brings about the ballet's tragic conclusion, this 2013 Bucharest National Opera's trailer turns that fateful fabric into a beautiful, deadly web. Its windswept movements form a dance of its own.
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Damian Woetzel's leadership at the Vail International Dance Festival, a new four-day event will be held in New York City, November 3–6. Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC brings three programs to New York City Center, along with a special lecture/demonstration focused on footwork, hosted by Woetzel. Featured performers include: Lil Buck, Michelle Dorrance, Wendy Whelan, Robert Fairchild, Matthew Rushing and Yo-Yo Ma. Works by George Balanchine, Alexei Ratmansky, José Limón, Martha Graham, Larry Keigwin and Christopher Wheeldon will be performed. Vvf.org/arts/vail-international-dance-festival
The first-ever hall of fame honoring performing artists and advocates will open at Lincoln Center in New York City next month. Legends at Lincoln Center: The Performing Arts Hall of Fame will recognize those who have contributed to the Center’s 60-year legacy. The first annual group of six inductees includes Broadway producer Harold Prince and Tony Award–winner Audra McDonald. They will be honored at a ceremony in June.
A separate group of inductees, the Founding Legends, will also be featured to pay homage to those who made a historical impact. The group of 30 inductees includes choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein and NYCB artistic director Peter Martins.
David Geffen Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, will serve as permanent residence for the hall of fame in 2021 after renovations are complete. Until then, smaller exhibits will be on display at Geffen Hall and Alice Tully Hall.
Photos (from top): by Tanaquil LeClercq, by Frederic Ohringer, by Paul Kolnik, by George Platt Lynes, courtesy of New York City Ballet (4)
This month, as part of its Encores! series, New York City Center premieres Cabin in the Sky, the 1940 musical choreographed by George Balanchine and Katherine Dunham and performed by an all-black cast. Inspired by George Gershwin’s 1935 musical Porgy and Bess, Cabin in the Sky tells the story of a youth named Little Joe who has six months to prove his worth before Judgment Day. It was one of Balanchine’s few forays into the world of musical theater (other credits include On Your Toes and Where’s Charley?), and for its opening, he asked Dunham to play the seductress Georgia Brown. She agreed and recruited her company members as the musical’s dancers.
Cabin in the Sky runs at New York City Center, February 10–14.
Photo by Fraver, courtesy of New York City Center
The holidays are here and in the dance world, that typically means one thing: Nutcracker season! As a former bunhead, I’d be remiss not to give a shout-out to some of the Nutcracker productions we all know and love.
Houston Ballet's Jared Matthews and Karina Gonzalez dance the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux.
10 Nutcrackers That Rock
- George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker(1954) Where to see it: New York City Ballet; Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle; Pennsylvania Ballet, Philadelphia.
- Kent Stowell’s Nutcracker(1983) Where to see it: PNB retired the production last year, but you can catch it on DVD via Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, filmed in 2011.
- Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker(1987) Where to see it: Houston Ballet, Houston, Texas (Catch it now because HB is retiring the production after this year. Artistic director Stanton Welch will present a new version in 2016.)
- Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut(1991) Where to see it: Mark Morris Dance Group, Brooklyn, NY.
- Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!(1992) Where to see it: available on DVD.
- Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker(2004) Where to see it: San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco.
- Debbie Allen’s The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker(2010) Where to see it: Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Los Angeles.
- Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker(2010) Where to see it: American Ballet Theatre, Costa Mesa, California.
- Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker(2012) Where to see it: Boston Ballet, Boston.
- Gelsey Kirkland’s The Nutcracker(2013) Where to see it: Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, Brooklyn, NY.
The snow scene from Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker
5 Reasons Why The Nutcracker Will Never Get Old
- The music is iconic—Nothing rings in the holiday season quite like Tschaikovsky’s score.
- It’s joyful—In most versions, the unhappiest thing that happens is Clara’s nutcracker getting broken (only temporarily) by her pesky brother Fritz. Not too bad if you ask me!
- It’s the perfect blend of narrative and non-narrative ballet—The first act’s party and fight scenes are ballet acting at its finest. The second act’s Land of Sweets offers a buffet of dance delicacies.
- It’s a time-honored holiday tradition—If you haven’t danced in it, it’s likely you’ve seen it. Each year, thousands of people attend the show, bringing in roughly 40 percent of ballet companies’ annual revenue.
- There’s something in it for everyone—From the humorous antics of the opening party scene to the action-packed fight scene that follows, to the technical feats of the Sugar Plum Fairy, it’s a show everyone can enjoy.
Photos (from top): by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet; by Gene Shiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre
Darci Kistler (right) rehearsing company members
In a black, wide-neck T-shirt bearing the words “Drama Queen,” the legendary Darci Kistler coaches dancers on Peter Martins’ Morgen. “For me, the most important thing is not to put Darci on it,” she says, laughing. The Balanchine muse teaches only the steps and music, she says. Nothing else. She leaves it to the dancer to imbue the role with their own sense of self.
In this episode, we hear from a few of New York City Ballet’s 12 ballet masters. While choreographers create the ballets, says director Martins, “ballet masters maintain the ballets” and teach them to dancers.
Jean-Pierre Frohlich joined NYCB as a dancer when he was 17.
Former soloist Kathleen Tracey talks about the obligation she feels to maintain the integrity of an original work while rehearsing it. She often asks herself, “If the choreographer came into the studio, would he or she be happy with what he was seeing?” When that choreographer is the ghost of Mr. B, it’s a pretty weighty responsibility.
Jean-Pierre Frohlich discusses his multifaceted job as teacher, coach mentor, baby-sitter, psychologist and more to the dancers. Both he and Tracey agree you have to develop excellent interpersonal skills to communicate well with dancers of different ages and temperaments.
But in the end, says Tracey, you get to watch dancers onstage and feel proud knowing you helped with that. That’s a feeling all teachers can relate to.
Teaching Balanchine to a new generation
Like many who stage the work of George Balanchine, Francia Russell danced for him while at New York City Ballet (1956–1961). Unlike her fellow répétiteurs, she began teaching the work under the choreographer’s watchful eye, and she became NYCB ballet mistress in 1964 when she was just 26. Two years earlier, Balanchine had sent her to Canada to stage Allegro Brillante for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. “I went in fear and trembling,” Russell says. She took with her a spiral notebook in which she’d written down every step of the dance. Russell relied on that notebook, and her memory, to teach the ballet.
Russell’s staging methods haven’t changed significantly since then, although she now has almost two dozen meticulously detailed notebooks, one for each Balanchine ballet she stages. She has traveled the world for The Balanchine Trust, from Russia to Seattle, where she and her husband Kent Stowell were co-artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet for 28 years. She continues to stage work for PNB, including, at the time of this interview, Agon and Concerto Barocco for the company’s 2013 engagement in New York City.
Dance Teacher: Where do you begin the staging process?
FR: I use everything available, body and brain for sure, but I always use notes, because memories aren’t trustworthy. We alter things without the intention of doing so. The longer I’ve worked on staging ballets, the more I realize not only each detail is important, but it’s easy to lose tiny fragments, and then the mosaic of the ballet doesn’t come together the way I want. I’ve always taken copious notes for the ballets I stage. Except there are a couple—Serenade and Symphony in C—I’ve staged so many times and danced so many roles in them, that if the music starts, the steps just come out of me.
DT: These days performances are available on videotape. Do you use them in the studio when you are teaching?
FR: I use videotape as an aid to memory. I seldom bring videos into the studio until I have taught the choreography. I think the process of transmitting what the choreographer wanted is so important—and in ballet, it’s so personal—that to lose that and just rely on videotape doesn’t seem real to me. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned point of view. To learn from videotape is not the same as to learn from those of us who were in the studio with Balanchine. Plus, a videotape is a record of one performance. It may be wonderful, or it may be flawed. I do often talk to the dancers about the ballet they are about to learn, something Balanchine never did!
DT: What do you mean when you say you take notes?
FR [pulling out a worn spiral-bound notebook]: I wrote down Ballet Imperial when reviving it for New York City Ballet. Every step, every count, every port de bras is in here. I generally have patterns and special added notes on the left side, opposite all the steps on the right side, all the counts along with all the steps.
FR: Yes. I went in a room by myself, danced the whole thing and wrote it down. Some ballets I had to go around and pester the [NYCB] dancers. They would see me coming and run, because I was always asking questions. “Show me what you did right here in the four Ts [The Four Temperaments]. What’s this variation?”
DT: Did you ever ask Mr. Balanchine for help with this?
FR: No. I don’t know a single choreographer who really knows his or her ballets. If he staged his own work, he’d want to tinker, or change it.
DT: Do the counts in your notes correspond directly to the musical score?
FR: Even Balanchine didn’t always count the way Stravinsky would have. He counted what we could hear. The dancers in New York City Ballet at that time devised our own counts. Because in some places, things we could hear in the orchestra, those were our signposts, like a buoy out in the water. But Mr. B had innate musical abilities. He trained at the conservatory, he played violin and piano. “It’s all in the music, dear,” he’d tell me. When I was ballet mistress, our offices were side by side, with a connecting closet. Balanchine studied all those scores, played and played them. I’m not aware that he planned steps [to the scores]. He planned numbers of people, groups, entrances and exits. But when he made up the steps in the studio, the music was inside him.
DT: Once you get into the studio, how do you begin teaching the dancers?
FR: I start from the beginning of the first movement, generally. I ask the dancers to stand in fifth position, then I call out the steps. Sometimes I have to physically demonstrate. It’s not beautiful, but I can do enough that the dancers can tell what I want.
DT: Do you assume that dancers have the necessary technique to perform Balanchine?
FR: I do teach a lot about pointe work, port de bras and épaulement, because if the technique of a Balanchine ballet is difficult and uncomfortable for the dancers, they get all rigid and straight and lose all the beauty of the movement. Balanchine always, always, always talked about the importance of tendus for the development of the feet, ankles, indeed, the entire body. Making the feet work like hands is what he always wanted. Or, he said, “like an elephant’s trunk,” how flexible that is, no joints.
FR: There isn’t really a Balanchine technique; it’s Russian classical ballet. But he asked his dancers for more: higher, bigger, slower, faster, everything more. And no time to sit and think, in preparation. He’d say, “If you’re going to do a pirouette, just do it.” Unfortunately, there are exaggerations that he used to make a point. Exaggerated hands, for instance. He didn’t want what he called Royal Ballet paws, so he had dancers exaggerate like they were holding a cup of tea. He wanted people to dance on the balls of their feet, for the lightness and swiftness, but the heel goes down and comes up again. You are not dancing around on demi-pointe, which is destructive.
DT: You went to the Kirov in 1988, the first person authorized to stage one of Balanchine’s ballets at the company where he trained and first performed.
FR: I had a really hard time with them. There was a sort of reluctance; the attitude was terrible, especially the principals. It became clear nobody knew anything about Balanchine. It was just the beginning of glasnost. I had a wonderful interpreter. I said, “We’re not going to rehearse this hour. I’m going to tell you why I’m here and who I represent.” I told them about Balanchine, what I could conjure up: his life, the speed and musicality he wanted in his ballets. I assured them that if they gave themselves over to the process open-mindedly and generously with their bodies, they were going to love it in the end. And most of them did.
DT: Is there a line between carrying out Mr. Balanchine’s vision and bringing your own artistic interpretation to his work?
FR: I’m sure I put myself into the ballets, and there must be people who disagree with that. I try to feel the foundation, the technical aspect, the steps, the choreography, from the time I was in New York City Ballet. I’ve retained it from there. And then, my memories of what Mr. Balanchine said, what he wanted here or there. You know, I feel it’s important to pass on what he said, but I’m sure it’s all filtered through my taste, my memories. And you know how fallible that can be! DT
When Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, he left behind dozens of ballets in active repertory at New York City Ballet and at dance companies around the world. The George Balanchine Trust was established in 1987 to manage the choreographer’s artistic legacy. After a company receives the rights to perform a Balanchine ballet, the Trust sends a répétiteur, or stager, to prepare the dancers and to oversee the production. “A stager is someone who should have all the information, the steps and the choreographer’s intentions,” says répétiteur Francia Russell. “They should be able to oversee the costumes, the lighting, spacing onstage, to work with the orchestra in the theater. They are responsible for every step of the production.”
Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.
Photos from top: by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet; by Martha Swope, © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; by Fred Fehl, courtesy of Gabriel Pinski