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Xiomara Reyes Lands Soft and Starts Running at The Washington School of Ballet

DT caught Xiomara Reyes in early October, just a few weeks into her new job as head of The Washington School of Ballet in Washington, DC. The former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer had recently relocated from New York City with her husband Rinat Imaev, and immediately begun working long days and nights in an effort to get to know the institution better.

Asked about her future plans, she graciously admitted that she had yet to see how the budget might allow for certain changes and was still a few days away from the first meeting of the board. She was already formulating plans, though, likening the experience of learning on the job to getting comfortable with a new ballet. "Right now, I see a problem, and I just try to solve it," she says. "But I look forward to the moment when I can begin to walk through it, and maybe a year from now, when I have learned more, I will eventually have more control over all of the steps."



Xiomara Reyes is the new head of The Washington School of Ballet. Enrollment: nearly 1,900. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Two months after Septime Webre announced in early 2016 that he would be resigning as artistic director of The Washington Ballet, a press release announced the near-simultaneous departure of longtime school director Kee Juan Han. Though one event had nothing to do with the other—Han had, in fact, given his resignation to the board weeks before Webre, out of a desire to return to his native Singapore—the outcome was nonetheless the same: The new director of TWB, Julie Kent, would need a new school director to oversee two busy locations, a trainee company and various community outreach programs, come fall. Reyes, with her mix of Vaganova and Cuban-style backgrounds, exemplifies the classical style of ballet Kent is after for the school, and Reyes' nurturing personality dovetails with TWSB's mission of shaping young lives through the practice of performing art.

"I had seen Xiomara work with children at IBStage summer program," says Kent. "I saw her commitment, how moved she was when the students made progress. And when we were teaching together, I could tell we felt similarly about how impactful the study of a classical art can be on young lives."

Reyes' instincts have developed out of a prestigious ballet pedigree. She grew up in Cuba, training at the Cuban National Ballet School and performing with Joven Guardia de Cuba under Alicia Alonso's daughter Laura Alonso. "I was influenced by very strong, loving teachers who felt the passion for dance, like Laura Alonso," says Reyes. "She worked extremely hard but had such a charismatic personality. I was glued to her. She was demanding, but you wanted to do it, and there was a feeling of wonder always that has shaped the way I teach."

As Kitri in American BalletTheatre's Don Quixote.

Reyes eventually performed as a soloist with the National Ballet of Cuba and won several awards at International Ballet Competitions in Luxembourg and Peru and IBC Varna before moving on to the Royal Ballet of Flanders, where she first met her husband, and American Ballet Theatre, where she danced for 14 years and made a name for herself in expressive roles, such as Giselle and Swanilda. "Everybody tries to follow her when she is teaching, because she can show the movement alive and how it is supposed to be danced," says Imaev of Reyes, noting how her approach in the front of the room mirrors her gifts as a dancer and storyteller. "It is not just an exercise for her. She insists on positions and musicality, asks for every moment to mean something."


Performing the title role in Giselle


Imaev has also joined TWSB as senior faculty and company teacher and will focus on developing the trainees and upper levels of the school. With a joint background that spans both Vaganova and Cuban training methods, as well as classical and contemporary ballet repertory, Reyes and Imaev are also well-versed in the extreme positions, turnout, delicate port de bras and core strength required of dancers today.

Kent had a long list of reasons for appointing Reyes to help her manage the school, beyond the trust that developed between them over years spent sharing roles at American Ballet Theatre and as friends. Her humble and hardworking temperament—Reyes is known in the professional ballet world as anything but a diva—balances the strict demands of ballet training with the kind of humanity and nurturing care young dancers need to become both successful artists and respectable citizens.
"I am not a mother, but somehow that maternal instinct is there," Reyes says. "I am there to give boundaries but with a loving touch. I love kids and want them to do better, and I hope they can feel that from me."


With a faculty of 40 and staff of 11, Reyesmanages campuses in Northwest DC, Southwest DC and The Joe, which houses adult classes. Photo by Jim Lafferty

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Both Reyes and Kent also have a desire to foster a closer relationship between the school and the company, from pre-ballet to the stage, and to continue shaping lives in the DC area in the tradition of school co-founder Mary Day. "I knew that I could express to Xiomara and Rinat the very particular circumstance we have here as a school with a 75-year history," says Kent. "The role of the ballet school is important in the lives of these dancers, less so as a career vehicle and more so in shaping lives, and we want their hours here to be beneficial and supportive."

And for those on the career track? Reyes sees the closer relationship as a chance to provide valuable role models in addition to pre-professional training and performance opportunities. "When I was in school, I could look up to my idols in the company," says Reyes. "It is important for aspiring professionals to have a person in front of them who is walking that path, a person to idolize and a path to follow."

As she settles in to her new post in the nation's capital, Reyes is not looking to emulate any particular school. "I just want to be as creative as I can," she explains, feeling unfettered from strict adherence to any one ballet tradition. "If you try to follow a model too much, you miss out on an opportunity that this particular place has to offer and develop."


Photo by Jim Lafferty

But as she ponders the future in general, her tone is at once more urgent and impassioned. "While alignment and core strength are really important, I also think how you educate young dancers to not only be good at their craft, but good people in general, who can find happiness in their own little bodies and also be happy for the successes of others, is important," she says. "I want to stand for being a good human, and given the world right now, I take that mission very seriously."

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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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