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."

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Dance Teacher Awards

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

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Teachers Trending
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB

Aesha Ash is obsessed with movement. After training at the School of American Ballet and dancing with New York City Ballet, she traveled the world with Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. Ash spent that time watching, absorbing and growing. Continuing to be curious about what can be expressed and achieved through movement, she quietly began teaching, guesting at SAB's Workshop for Young Dancers in California beginning in 2016 and becoming the school's visiting faculty chair from 2018–20; in addition, she earned two Pilates certifications and, through her Swan Dreams Project, created a summer camp in her native Rochester, New York, in partnership with the city.

Ash also has plenty of experience dismantling the boxes that others have attempted to place her in. The latest such instance came in August, when it was announced that she would be joining SAB as the school's first Black female full-time faculty member. Although this news became public in the shadow of worldwide outrage and protests surrounding racial injustice and police brutality, her appointment was first announced to SAB faculty, staff and students in February. Dance Teacher spoke with Ash, a self-described "forever student," about her new position and what she hopes to offer the students of SAB.


​Congratulations on your appointment to full-time faculty at SAB! What does your hiring mean to you?

It's an incredible, full-circle moment for me. There's the weight of what this appointment means, because being hired as a full-time faculty member at SAB is, in and of itself, an honor. Adding to that is the weight of this historic moment that SAB has never had a Black female full-time teacher.

I feel this tremendous responsibility because it is a first. I think anyone who has experienced these sorts of firsts feels that weight on their shoulders. I'm honored and grateful for all the kindness and fanfare, but I have a job to do, and I'm really focused on wanting to give the students the best of me and to be the best teacher that I can for them.

​You've worked with Maurice Béjart, Alonzo King and Christopher Wheeldon, and have two Pilates certifications. How will these perspectives inform how you teach Balanchine technique?

I think my first "aha" moment was when I started working with Chris. After leaving Béjart and going to LINES (where I mostly danced in flat shoes), I went back to "ballet ballet" with Chris. I started to feel what all that knowledge felt like in my body. There was thinking about circles and expansiveness, not trying to hide yourself, and being creative from Alonzo. There were things that I learned watching the dancers in Béjart—for example, a woman from Paris Opéra who was so supple and grounded. You need that grounded earthiness to come up and be quick.

Aesha Ash smiles as she corrects a student's hip placement as they balance in sur le coup-de-pied en pointe at barre.

Aesha Ash teaching at School of American Ballet

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB

Through my Pilates certifications I gained an understanding of that deeper connection with your core. You need to give in to the earth to ground in order to have that freedom and space within the joints, and a core connection to be able to achieve the speed needed for Balanchine.

I had to take my hand off that barre and lie flat on my back, and I had to sit in the studio watching other dancers from other backgrounds. It helps me to take a moment to chew on it, feel it and explore in a different way.

​How are you planning to impart other valuable lessons you've learned along your journey as a dancer and teacher?

I try to help my students enjoy the process and not constantly think, "Oh my god, Workshop. Oh my god, am I going to get in?" Thinking about that in every class, tendu, turn doesn't allow you to enjoy the moment. When you're not fully there, you're not getting any information. Being fully there could mean "Today sucks. It's raining. My body's hurting," and it's okay to be present in that. Maybe the leg doesn't go as high today. Explore what 45 degrees feels like on your body right now. What information are you getting from that? If my students can become more present, then all the other stuff fades away and, beyond the fact that they're gaining and learning more, they're getting a little bit more pleasure out of the work.

In your TEDx Talk you said, "If you put a wall before me, no matter how tall or wide, I was going to do everything in my power to see beyond its limitations." Yet again, you find yourself on the other side of another wall. What do you see in front of you?

The main thing is remembering myself as a student. I want to be there for any girl who is plagued with self-doubt, questioning if she belongs and struggling with her identity. This is an opportunity to, hopefully, lift up and encourage as many students as I can and remind them: "Don't let anyone place a box on you." I hope my students feel they can fall down, make mistakes and try things, like, "This is probably going to be totally ridiculous, but this is what my body's telling me right now, and I'm going to go for it!"

Dance Teacher Awards
Erin Baiano, courtesy NYCB

Missed the 2020 Dance Teacher Awards? Watch them on-demand here.

Most of us know Wendy Whelan for fearlessly approaching difficult tasks, whether creating a role in a new ballet, undergoing hip surgery (on camera, no less), embarking on a self-produced touring project or taking on a brand-new leadership role at New York City Ballet, where she was a principal dancer for 23 years.

But what recently, uncharacteristically, scared the now associate artistic director of NYCB? Teaching her first Instagram Live ballet class from her second home in upstate New York during the pandemic, which she says gave her a panic attack.

"I was insecure about the connection I was going to make," she says. "I was insecure about not being able to see the dancers. I was afraid I was not going to be able to feed every person. I wanted to be a perfect teacher and fulfill everybody's needs perfectly. And I had to throw all that out."

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News
Photo by Suzanne Faulkner Stevens, courtesy of Lincoln Center

How many of us have hovered breathlessly over our iPads, watching grainy YouTube footage of Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Theme and Variations? Or Suzanne Farrell in Mozartiana? (Hundreds of thousands of us, to be exact.) Well, get ready: Yesterday, Lincoln Center announced its brand new Dance Week, a series of seven online broadcasts devoted to our favorite art form. Part of Lincoln Center at Home, the organization's new portal for digital offerings, the six-day fest will feature performances by Ballet Hispánico, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, School of American Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. What's particularly exciting is that some of these—including the aforementioned Theme and Variations and Mozartiana—are legendary performances of yesteryear.

Ready to hear the lineup? Check it out below, then tune in to Lincoln Center's website or Facebook page to watch the performances.

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News
This Bitter Earth. Photo by Sam Wootton, courtesy of NYCB

Create a Watch Party! Here are four free offerings from New York City's most celebrated arts organizations to share with your students and their families.

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Trending
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

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Site Network
Suzanne Farrell works with Sara Mearns during a rehearsal of George Balanchine's "Diamonds." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy NYCB.

In a large practice studio inside Lincoln Center's Koch Theater, Suzanne Farrell watches quietly as New York City Ballet principals Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen work through a series of supported poses. As Janzen kneels to face her, Mearns brushes through to croisé arabesque, extending her leg high behind her. "I wouldn't penché there," says Farrell, gently. "You can, but I wouldn't."

"I get so excited here," says Mearns with a laugh. The three are slowly working through the pas de deux of "Diamonds," the ballet George Balanchine created on Farrell and Jacques D'Amboise in 1967 that makes up the third act of his full-length Jewels.

"I know," Farrell says. "But it's more exciting if the arabesque turn afterwards is sustained."

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