Posts Tagged ‘Jerome Robbins’

Wanted: Artistic Director of a Ballet Company

Monday, September 21st, 2015

By Rachel Straus

Two mid-size ballet companies in North America are in search of artistic directors. Gradimir Pankov is leaving his post at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens of Montreal after 15 years. John McFall is departing Atlanta Ballet after 20 years. In comparison to the majority of the 140-odd ballet troupes across the North American continent, which have minimal seasons and only a handful of dancers, Les Grands and Atlanta employ between 20 and 30 dancers and commission in-demand choreographers for their seasons and tours. So, what is required to helm a mid-size ballet company? Les Grands recently posted the following criteria for their artistic director search:

  1. “It is important that the AD leads the company by working in the studio, as a teacher, coach, repetiteur, or choreographer.”
  2. “The AD reports directly to the Board and is responsible for the company’s look, repertoire, choreography, programming, and is an artistic leader.”
  3. “[The AD has] a mind to fiscal responsibility, and a vision that includes the community’s desire for entertainment [and] artistic achievement.”
  4. “[The AD should have] a reputation for artistic quality and the contacts and ability to bring the world’s greatest contemporary choreographer’s work to the repertoire of the Company.”

It seems, if one takes the Les Grands advert as more than wishful thinking, the search committee wants the AD to do everything in the studio, know everyone in the ballet world, and have a head for business. Does such a wunderkind currently exist?

Loudes Lopez, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, is perhaps the only person who fits the bill. She became the AD of Miami City Ballet in 2012, after serving for five years as the executive director of Morphoses. She kept this company afloat, even after its founder, the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, jumped ship in 2010. Lopez achieved this feat by inviting guest choreographers to direct separate seasons and by keeping her wary board close. Prior to her work with Wheeldon, Lopez served as the executive director of the George Balanchine Foundation, which is concerned with educational outreach. As a New York City Ballet dancer for approximately 24 years, Lopez developed an intimate understanding of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’ repertory, having performed their works while both choreographers were alive. Lopez is a particularly marvelous fit for Miami City Ballet because she was born in Cuba. She is able to fundraise in her native tongue and in a city, known as the gateway to Latin America.

While Lopez appears to be the dream AD, other recent AD hires reveal the more typical profile of a former principal dancer turned ballet master in chief. Take Madrid-born Angel Corella, who danced for American Ballet Theatre. He was hired by Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. Because of various circumstances, he did not come with impressive executive credentials. After retiring from the stage, Corella returned to his native Spain and attempted to create a ballet company, first in the Castile and León region and then in Barcelona. Corella didn’t have experience fundraising and the Spaniards, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, vacillated about, and then declined to back his ballet company.

Then there is the Cuban-born José Manuel Carreño, another star of American Ballet Theater, who became the AD of Sarasota Ballet in 2011, upon his official retirement from the stage. He is now the head of Silicon Valley Ballet (formerly Ballet San Jose). Like Corella, he came to his first job with scant training in fiscal management, fundraising, or marketing experience.

It will be interesting to see who Les Grands and Atlanta Ballet will hire. In the recent past artistic directors of renowned ballet companies used to be choreographers, such as George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, Frederick Ashton at Royal Ballet and John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet.  Thus their companies had unique artistic profiles. These days ballet companies are in the odd business of performing the same repertory as their fellow troupes. It makes for a homogenized ballet world. My hope is that Atlanta and Les Grands will hire a choreographer, one who puts a real stamp on the artistic “product” of their company. Perhaps this new AD will also be a woman. That would be doubly groundbreaking.

Ballet Goes to Broadway, Again

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

By Rachel Straus

The blogosphere is alive with news about the current forays of New York City ballet principal dancers Robert Fairchild, Megan Fairchild, and Tyler Peck into Broadway.

Robert Fairchild will appear in An American in Paris in the role originated by Gene Kelly. The production will premiere in Paris and will come to Broadway in the spring. Former New York City Ballet resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon will provide the choreography.

Megan Fairchild, Robert’s older sister, recently made her Broadway debut (September 21) in the Broadway revival of On The Town. Originally conceived by Jerome Robbins and based on his 1944 hit ballet Fancy Free, On The Town requires that Fairchild dance, sing and act in her role as Ivy Smith, the small town girl who comes to the big city.

Then there is Tyler Peck, who Robert Fairchild recently married. She will premiere in the new Susan Stroman musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center on October 25. The musical is inspired by the relationship between painter Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the poor ballet student who modeled for his sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” (1881).

The movement of dancers between The Great White Way and the mirrored precincts of the ballet studio is nothing new. What is of note is the development of the Fairchild-Peck dance family dynasty, which also includes Megan Fairchild’s husband Andrew Veyette, another New York City Ballet principal dancer. Veyette excels in Broadway-style City Ballet works such as NY Export: Opus Jazz, where sharpness and grit rather than classical aplomb are emphasized.

Clearly this dancing foursome, who are mature dancers, are looking beyond their careers at City Ballet and ballet, in general. It wouldn’t be surprising if they started a televised dance program, one that presented their shared interests in ballet, Jazz dance, big business (in the performing arts), and self-marketing.

What is not certain for these intrepid ballet dancers is whether their current or upcoming work on Broadway will launch them into a new performing sphere. Much of that success depends on the ability of the choreographers who are, or will be, directing them.

The other ingredient for success is the development of a different kind of stage personality. Highly successful musical theater performers, whether it be Nathan Lane or Sutton Foster, take the material and make it quirky (or comically) their own.

So, in honor of iconic performers and legendary director-choreographers, here is a little slide-show movie about Jack Cole, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins, who worked extensively with ballet-trained dancers, from Gwen Verdon to Vera Zorina to Chita Rivera. Together they made numerous enduring Broadway and Hollywood musical theater dance numbers. All three men developed their choreographic voices by breaking the so-called boundaries between the dance forms. All three woman showed that great dancing technique looks like play instead of performance.

To see the slide show movie, press on this link:

Ballet Goes Broadway, Back Then




Paz de la Jolla: A trip to the ballet, not to California

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Note: This review marks the continuation of a series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History course I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Cleo Person

As a Southern California native, I eagerly awaited New York City Ballet’s February performance of Justin Peck’s new work Paz de la Jolla. Seated in the former New York State Theater, I was hoping for a mini trip home, minus the hassle and airfare. Even though Reid Bartelme’s costuming (bathing suits and shorts) and Peck’s ocean imagery did create some sense of a warmer California climate, not much else about the piece captured the laid-back, costal village atmosphere of La Jolla.

The finale of Paz de la Jolla © Paul Kolnik.

Peck, a twenty-five year old City Ballet corps member, is not a complete novice in the art of choreography. La Jolla is his fourth work for City Ballet, following his most recent critical success, Year of the Rabbit. But La Jolla, set to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta la Jolla, didn’t win me over. Peck’s choreography rarely conjures any sense of La Jolla as an actual place. The ballet seems to be in the service of displaying the dancers’ high level of technical ability, and Peck’s choreographic proficiency. He skillfully arranges his 18 dancers in geometric formations and patterns through an array of steps that feature the classical ballet lexicon. It’s a charming, impressive display. However the confounding part about La Jolla is what it actually evokes: the urgent, frenetic pace of New York.

Though the ballet is mainly abstract, there are a few loose plot points, which enable the leads to stand out as characters. Tyler Peck, clad in a striking blue bathing suit, not only shows off her technical prowess, but also plays a girl with a delightful sense of spark and fun. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, who portray lovebirds on the beach, contribute hints of maturity. It is not, however, the kind of maturity seen in La Jolla, where most of the population is retirees.

Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar in Paz de la Jolla. © Paul Kolnik.

Peck’s need to display movement virtuosity overshadows any feeling or story he could have conveyed. For example, the dancers of the corps act more as design vehicles than real people, and the relationship between the in-love couple is more generic than illuminating or enchanting. Because of Peck’s focus on wowing with steps and speed, even the small allusions to narrative get muddled. At one point, Hyltin runs into the waves, created by the massing of the corps, and Ramasar follows her. It becomes unclear as to whether they are playing in the water, drowning, or dreaming the whole thing up. When the waves subside, the couple lays motionless as other dancers, who previously represented waves, fail to revive them. Seconds later, Hyltin and Ramasar get up and dance joyfully (and absurdly) away.

The most ingenious part of la Jolla is Peck’s depiction of waves, created by a group of dancers wearing shimmery blue tops and dancing on the upstage diagonal in swelling and receding patterns. Peck doesn’t revert to cliché arm waving or other overused water images. Instead, he has female dancers lie prone with their legs in the air while the men form complicated patterns of interlacing circles behind them. He choreographs other women to then weave under the men’s arms. This ensemble-created fluidity is mesmerizing. Other sections, however, don’t flow together quite as smoothly. There are multiple occasions when the dancers arrive into formation and then stand still, waiting for the next musical cue to launch them into the next movement phrase.

Peck’s ballet occurred in the middle of the evening’s program, following Alexei Ratmansky’s spatially stunning Concerto DSCH, and preceding Jerome Robbins’ groovy N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. After seeing all three pieces, it became clear that Peck did a nice job showing off the dancers’ strengths. While Robbin’s Opus Jazz is a brilliantly created, timeless piece of fun that can, if danced well, be a masterpiece, many of the girls looked like they missed their pointe shoes and appeared uncomfortable moving their bodies outside of the ballet lexicon. While not very evocative of a true Southern Californian way of life, Paz de la Jolla was at least danced with great enthusiasm by Peck’s fellow dancers.

Cleo Person is a first year Dance Division student at The Juilliard School.

Lifting Ballerinas

Monday, May 7th, 2012

By Rachel Straus

Have you ever wondered what it would take to partner a female ballet dancer? The May 6 matinee at New York City Ballet was an excellent primer for anyone considering this question. In each of the four works from the All (Jerome) Robbins program, at the former New York State Theater, the male lead rarely left the side of his ballerina.

Robbins’s In G Major was a case in point. In the pas de deux section to Ravel’s eponymous composition, Tyler Angle lifted Maria Kowroski at least 25 times. In the end, Angle walked off the stage with Kowroski in a six-o-clock split, her head almost touching his. To create this pose, Angle benched pressed the tall ballerina above his head. Because of the pleasing geometry of Kowroski’s long line, and the ease of her form, my eye naturally moved to her. But it was Angle underneath who made this vision airborne—and magical. At the last moment, Angle’s arms looked like they were going to fail him. Fortunately, the stage wings were steps away.

Besides Robbins’s The Cage (1951), about a tribe of man-eating insect women who destroy one of their prey (Craig Hall), Robbins’s other ballets on the program showed the influence of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. In the Night (1970), In G Major (1975) and Andantino (1981) are plotless ballets. They feature a relationship, or relationships, between a man and woman, which is expressed through a pas de deux. Balanchine expanded classicism through the partnered duet. His lifts were far more complex than his predecessors Petipa, Fokine, and Massine. They didn’t just go up and down. They traveled. The woman changed poses in mid air. The lifts often began and ended in full-bodied motion. In Robbins’s three ballets, Balanchine-style partnering is evidence. The women sail through the sky like birds (and occasionally like fighter jets). The men below them propel their wings.

Of the male leads from In the Night, to music by Frédéric Chopin as performed by Nancy McDill, Robert Fairchild and Sebastian Marcovici stood out for their convincing portrayals of men in adoration of their women. While Fairchild played the young lover to Sterling Hyltin, Marcovici danced the steadfast companion to Wendy Whelan’s vexed, ambivalent character. Marcovici’s lifts expressed the unswerving nature of his love. While she thrashed and pulled away from, Marcovici carried Whelan aloft through her psychological storm. Their pas de deux was the highlight of the afternoon.

Back in 2007 a documentary about the recently retired New York City Ballet principal dancer Jock Soto was aired. Called Water Flowing Together, it contains a memorable scene in which the virile Soto is crumpled in a corner of a studio. With tears of exhaustion, Soto talks about how his arms ache. He says he doesn’t have the strength to lift another ballerina. Yet Soto wasn’t angry or resentful. He expressed exasperation with his ability to continue to make partnering look effortless, to make lifts symbols of the transcendent power of love.

The men of City Ballet, and male ballet dancers everywhere, may not have to dance on the tips of their toes or to suffer the same degree of competition as female dancers, but their job is no less easy. They literally carry certain ballets. Balanchine said “ballet is woman,” but ballet without men would strip the art form of humanity, and of its fundamental expression of being there for another.

The joys of the ballet spoof

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

By Rachel Straus

There is nothing like a good ballet spoof. At New York City Ballet’s January 21 matinee performance at Lincoln Center, the company danced Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert” (1956). Whether you get the inside jokes about famous ballets, Robbins’s jabs at ballet traditions—the good, bad and the ugly—directly communicate. Many of the high jinks in “The Concert” involve the corps de ballet. They aren’t a sisterhood of synchronous arms and legs, but a bunch of competitive ladies with faulty memories in respect to their steps. The prima ballerina, danced to perfection by principal Maria Kowroski, isn’t satisfied until she is tearing through space, emoting like a diva, and wearing ridiculous headgear (a blue pom-pom hat). Meanwhile the on-stage pianist, Cameron Grant, plays on a dust-covered piano. Dance studios boast some of the most broken down pianos around. These ancient instruments, which have tortured generations of musicians, are too often treated as good places for dancers to put their gear.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

As for the male dancers in “The Concert,” they are reduced to porteurs, carrying ballerinas to and fro as if they are store window mannequins. The motivation of the lead danseur, Andrew Veyette, is to kill his wife, Amanda Hankes, and to win the long-legged Kowroski.

“The Concert,” to Frederic Chopin’s piano sonatas, was made more than a half century ago, but its traditions (and relevance) hold fast. Competition between dancers, the primacy of the ballerina, men hauling female dancers above their shoulders: it’s all very 2012. An all-out audience pleaser, “The Concert” is a gem for any mixed bill program that needs a little leavening.

Two years before Robbins made “The Concert,” his younger colleague Michael Kidd choreographed a ballet spoof for Paramount Pictures called “Knock on Wood.” Kidd and Robbins cut their teeth as performers on Russian ballet. Both felt like imposters, being Jewish, not apprenticing to classical dance in their wee years, and failing to cotton to the big fairy tale ballet aesthetic. When Kidd left the ballet world in 1947 and became a sought after dance arranger for musicals, he used his Russian ballet experience to side splitting effect. In “Knock on Wood,” Kidd directed Danny Kaye to duck into a theatre, don a costume of a Slavic hero and ad-lib through a Russian ballet performance to escape from bad guns with guns. Kaye dances the flat-footed fool in some very saggy tights. He’s no aristocrat. Neither was Kidd. “I was never cut out,” he said, “for being the Swan Prince.” You Tube currently carries the Knock on Wood ballet scene. It’s a little over eight minutes long, but it feels like a flash.

Danny Kaye in "Knock on Wood"

Some ballets are meant to be serious, but are best enjoyed as comedy. Such was the case with an excerpt of Jeremy McQueen’s “Concerto Nuovo” (2009). Performed on January 24 for the Dancers Responding to Aids benefit concert at the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Theater, McQueen set his all-female work to J.S. Bach’s “Concerto in D minor for Two Violins.” If ever there was a loaded piece of music in dance, it’s this concerto. Balanchine and Paul Taylor created their masterpieces, “Concerto Barocco,” and “Esplanade,” respectively, to this music.

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Young McQueen not only turns Bach’s concerto into background music for his grab bag of steps culled from ballet, modern, runaway modeling and the competition dance circuit, he states in the program notes that “Nuovo” is inspired by Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco.” McQueen’s homage and convoluted dance phrases are so tasteless they’re funny. The white ruffled mini dress costumes transform the nine hard-working dancers into identical-looking prom queens. With a good editor, “Concerto Nuovo” could amuse more than offend. Dancing funny to J.S. Bach’s concerto holds promise. Some pieces of music bear too much history to be danced straight.

For more dance writing by Rachel Straus go to

The Orchid of New York City Ballet

Monday, January 24th, 2011

By Rachel Straus

If you’re a ballet lover, you know her name.

Sara Mearns.

New York Times senior dance critic Alastair MacAulay recently called her “the greatest American ballerina of our time.” On January 21, she performed in Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969) and Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008) with the New York City Ballet at the David Koch H. Theater.

She was stunning.

But Mearns, 24, doesn’t look like a City Ballet ballerina. Since George Balanchine increasingly promoted female dancers that resembled Twiggy (and his successor Peter Martins followed suit), she is a departure for the company. Zaftig, Mearns is not. Instead her swan neck, wide back, and strong legs endow her with the potential for enormous physical range. She eats up space. She can spiral like a cyclone. She finishes her pirouettes with a plié that is as pliant as melting wax. This dynamic flexibility in addition to her emotional gravitas makes her a powerhouse.

Despite this power, Mearns doesn’t come across as a bruiser—all emotion, no subtlety. Like Greta Garbo or Lauren Bacall, she possesses a proto-feminist confidence. She has a glamour and maturity that recalls the French City Ballet principal dancer Violette Verdy. In an art form modeled on medieval courtship, Mearns consistently embodies queenlyness. Whether she is being propelled aloft or lassoed by her partner, these less-than luxuriant moments look like part of her grand design. These vertiginous thrills seem to embolden her.

In Dances at a Gathering, in which Susan Walters performed 18 Chopin piano pieces, Mearns was given one of the last solos. Like a racecar at the starting gate, the emotional tenor of Mearns’s solo escalated from 0 to 60 rpm. Mearns’s transformation—from statuesque to scythe-like—made me sit back in my seat. In Concerto DSCH, to Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1957 Piano Concerto No. 2, Mearns’s partnering with the emerging, lyrical dancer Tyler Angle was seamless, as though they had been dancing together for years.

The well-constructed program, which began with Balanchine’s Walpurgisacht Ballet (1980), possessed an overarched theme: Community. Balanchine’s community featured mauve-costumed women whose unfurled hair in the ballet’s last section suggested a sisterhood of wild lilacs who had sprung legs. Robbins’s community in Dances felt very American, resembling a group of enlightened youth, pondering their past and future. Ratmansky’s community in DSCH felt unmistakably Soviet. (Think utopian workers on holiday at a merry-go-round). In the last two dances, Mearns’s engagement wasn’t just with her partner and her steps, but with those around her. She may be a queen, but she is no snob. She’s more like an orchid, sprung out of ground normally reserved for less exotic flora.






* “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”—George Balanchine