New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck is never not busy: This year alone, he's created works for San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet and NYCB. But Peck's latest ballet for his home company, The Most Incredible Thing, is his biggest production yet. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, it features 50 dancers; a score by Bryce Dessner, of the band The National; and costumes and sets by popular artist Marcel Dzama. Dance Spirit caught up with NYCB corps de ballet member Gretchen Smith, a Most Incredible Thing cast member, to get the scoop on Peck's new work. —Olivia Manno
Here at DS, we're big believers in our Sunday #MomentofZen. It's important to take a day to recharge and prep for the week ahead, especially when it comes to setting goals. Which is why we thought it was the perfect time to introduce our Sunday Spotlight Roundup. Maybe you've been wanting to master a new leap in jazz class, or prep your pointe shoes differently—no matter the goal, we've got you covered with these in-depth, how-to articles, covering everything from convention tips to Balanchine technique.
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's Serenade (by Paul Kolnik)
For the bunheads:
Did you start at a new studio that teaches Balanchine technique? Our "Dancing Balanchine" spotlight focuses on all the beautiful intricacies of his style and choreography.
Have your pointe shoes been dying faster than usual? "Shank Strategies" offers tons of super helpful advice on how to customize your shoes.
Are you constantly wondering when you'll be getting that first pair of pointe shoes? "Am I Ready for Pointe?" helps you determine if your strength and technique are solid enough.
For the competition and convention regulars:
Not feeling too hot about your competition routine? We broke down all the problems you
Olga Pericet in Pisadas (photo by Javier Fergo, courtesy Jerez Festival)
might have with your new piece (and the solutions).
Only dance on marley at home? Sometimes the floors at conventions can prove to be the biggest challenge. We rounded up the best tips on how to deal.
For dancers wanting to try a new style:
We explain how to execute a perfect Switch Firebird jazz leap.
Curious about finger-tutting in the hip hop scene? We asked the pros to walk us through a sequence.
Looking to spice up your dancing? Learn all about the passionate, musical world of Flamenco.
Glamorous Titania in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The imperious principal woman in Balanchine's Agon. These are the types of juicy, career-making roles veteran dancers aspire to—but a 19-year-old in New York City Ballet's corps has already put her distinctive stamp on both of them.
In today's ballet world, dancers need to be adaptable. Long gone are the days when a few big companies would dance the classics, while others specialized in contemporary rep; now, everyone does a bit of everything. “You have to be able to put on different styles like you're putting on jackets," says Parrish Maynard, a faculty member at San Francisco Ballet School. “As a professional, one minute you'll be doing a piece by George Balanchine, the next a contemporary William Forsythe work and then a week later Swan Lake."
History: The legendary Russian ballerina and teacher Agrippina Vaganova combined elements of French, Italian and early Russian techniques to create this method. The syllabus is broken down into eight years of training—a slow, steady and deliberate progression.
Emphases: Use of the upper body and placement of the head. "Arms are not just for decoration," says Yuliya Rakova, a teacher at the Vaganova-based Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. "They support the jumps and turns, and have to be very expressive."
Affiliated company: Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia
History: George Balanchine, who trained at the Imperial Ballet School (beforeit was renamed the Vaganova Ballet Academy), developed a unique style that was based on his Russian roots but influenced by his adopted American home. "He didn't change the technique, but he stretched it and made it more modern-looking," says Susan Pilarre, faculty member at the School of American Ballet in New York City.
Emphases: Deep plié, the use of épaulement and keen musicality. "Beautiful arms and hands and the shaping and placing of the feet are important," says Pilarre. "Balanchine dancers can move quickly because they dance on the balls of their feet."
Affiliated companies: New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet
History: Developed by August Bournonville, a Danish dancer who also performed with the Paris Opéra Ballet, this technique has both Danish and French influences. It's the foundation of Bournonville's many famous ballets, such as La Sylphide and Napoli.
Emphases: Light, fast footwork and a quiet upper body. The head and shoulders follow the working leg, and jumps are strong and buoyant.
Affiliated company: Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Denmark
History: Established by Italian master teacher Enrico Cecchetti, this technique
is maintained in the U.S. by the Cecchetti Council of America, through which students and teachers can complete several grades of exams. There are planned exercises for each day, with a focus on anatomy.
Emphases: Coordination of the head and arms, with smooth transitions between steps. Students are encouraged to work both sides of their bodies equally.
Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)
History: RAD was developed in 1920 by a group of leading dance professionals, who created a series of exams to help raise the level of dance education among students and teachers. The syllabus is influenced by the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques.
Emphases: Attention to detail, particularly in port de bras and épaulement. Arms tend to be held low and rounded.
Those of us in NYC were lucky enough to catch Pacific Northwest Ballet in performance last week. I'm totally jealous of Seattle audiences right now, because this company is amazing!
I'm still recovering from the brilliant dancing in on the contemporary program, which included David Dawson's A Million Kisses to My Skin, William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Crystal Pite's Emergence. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the company's all Balanchine program, which included Prodigal Son, Square Dance and Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
As usual, technology has the answer to my sorrows. This video of Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths makes you feel like you're standing in the wings during their performance of Square Dance. And what's even more mesmerizing than their stellar technique? The fact that they're obviously having an amazing time dancing together.
New York City Ballet's Janie Taylor and Craig Hall in Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun (photo by Paul Kolnik)
I’ve just made my entrance in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, stepping onstage into a set designed to look like a ballet studio—with the audience where the mirror would be. I don’t acknowledge my hundreds of viewers. Instead, my partner and I gaze into the darkness and pretend we’re studying our own reflections. In true Robbins fashion, we dance as if no one’s watching.
Performing Robbins’ ballets can be tricky, especially if you’re used to engaging actively with an audience. They aren’t about how big you can grin—or how high you can get your leg, for that matter. To stay true to his style, you need an honest, thoughtful approach. “If what you’re doing doesn’t feel like a genuine human reaction,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director and former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, “it’s wrong.” Humor, emotion and atmosphere are already built into the choreography. The challenge for performers is to trust the steps to speak for themselves.
The Man Behind the Moves
Robbins created more than 60 ballets, mostly for NYCB and Ballets USA (his own company, formed in 1958 but disbanded a few years later). He also directed and choreographed for theater, music and television, earning six Tony Awards for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and two Academy Awards for West Side Story. “West Side was one of the first things I saw that made me want to dance,” says Georgina Pazcoguin, a NYCB soloist known for her interpretation of Anita in Robbins’ West Side Story Suite (a shortened concert version of the dances from West Side Story). “I watched the film when I was in eighth grade and was stuck to the screen.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering (photo by Angela Sterling)
Throughout his career, Robbins surrounded himself with inspiring artists. He collaborated with famed composer Leonard Bernstein (Fancy Free, West Side Story), and worked side by side with George Balanchine, first as associate artistic director of NYCB and then as ballet master (a title he and Balanchine shared). But Robbins didn’t only rub elbows with the elite. He found inspiration in young students at the School of American Ballet (2 & 3 Part Inventions) and was known to pluck dancers from the corps and put them in starring roles. Robbins was most interested in individuality and talent, regardless of age or prestige.
From Broadway to ballet, Robbins’ style is diverse—and timeless. “There’s something about it that seems of its time, current and ahead of its time all at once,” says Damian Smith, principal at San Francisco Ballet. The content of his work often reflects real life. In the Night and Dances at a Gathering are about regular people’s relationships and interactions; Fancy Free and The Concert have a mix of everyday and eccentric characters. His dancers relate to each other onstage in unmannered, natural ways.
Robbins was very particular and notoriously tough to work for. (He expected his dancers to remember many versions of the same phrase, and to be able to repeat, reverse or rearrange them whenever he asked.) “He pushed us to our maximum and made us better than we thought we were,” Boal says. “It wasn’t so much about pointing your foot or turning out, but about the character you were playing.”
(L to R) PNB's Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta in Robbins' The Concert (photo by Angela Sterling)
How to Do It
Robbins’ ballets don’t need a hard sell. He wanted his dancers to be people onstage, not performers playing for laughs or sighs. “It’s as if the people watching are looking through a window at what’s going on,” says Christine Redpath, a Robbins repetiteur and ballet master at NYCB. “He’d always scream, ‘Easy baby!’ It’s not about playing to the public.”
To get the right feel, Pazcoguin has to rein herself in. “I tend to be 125 percent onstage,” she says. “Robbins’ work is extremely athletic, but you’re not supposed to make that apparent to the audience. It’s about finding the subtleties.” Every time she revisits a role like Anita, she likes to bring something different to it. The choreography, though specific in terms of counts, steps and spacing, allows for that kind of individuality.
When Redpath stages Robbins’ ballets, she finds that most dancers worry too much about technique and being in a perfect fifth position. They don’t relax and move without inhibition. “When you’re a kid, and you hear music that brings a smile to your face, you dance and you’re not aware of what other people think,” Redpath explains. “I encourage people to take that approach within the framework of the choreography.”
Lindsi Dec in Kyon Gaines' M-Pulse (by Angela Sterling)
You’re at the ballet, and a dancer catches your eye. She’s got strength, charisma and a beautiful movement quality—but there’s something about her that bothers you. Then you place it: Her hands! Her wrists are floppy and her fingers stick out all over the place. Small as they may be, those bad hand habits change the whole feel of her dancing.
The way you use your hands in ballet can make or break your line. The cardinal rule—hands should enhance your dancing, not distract from it—is simple enough. But getting just the right look can be tricky. Read on to learn about how different techniques use the hands, and how you can overcome the most common bad habits.
George Balanchine trained his dancers to have rounded and delicate hands. “He would have people hold a little ball so that the palm of the hand would round rather than stay flat,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet. “When the fingers opened from the ball, he wanted them to open like a flower.” In the Balanchine style, all five fingers should be seen, not stuck together, and never held straight or stiff. There should be energy coming from the fingertips and life throughout the hands. In arabesque, stretch your fingers to the limit and elongate your line.
In the Vaganova style, the hands are placed so they follow the natural line of the arm. “The thumbs should be curved and softly touching the second joint, not the first joint, of the middle finger,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “The fingers should be separated but not all spread out. It’s a beautification of what’s natural, not an exaggeration.” Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) follows a similar model, but prefers a long line from the shoulder to the fingers, with no broken wrist. Cecchetti teachers prefer curved fingers in demi-seconde, as if you’re holding the edge of your tutu.
Albertson and Bramaz in In the Night (by Linda Hervieux)
All of the styles agree on one point: The hands should be expressive. “Most students forget there’s something beyond the wrist,” Mazzo says. “Always think of your hands as alive.”
Most ballet dancers have had to overcome some kind of bad hand habit. Getting your hands right can take just as much time and effort as getting your pirouettes right. Lindsi Dec, a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, says her hands are a constant struggle for her. “I have one hand that’s more tense than the other, so it looks like a pancake,” she admits. “It’s hard for me to think about relaxing it and being strong in my legs simultaneously.” She focuses on initiating her arm movements from her back, not her fingers, to ease the tension in her hands.
Sometimes a little thing like nail polish can help make you more aware of your hands. When Dec first joined PNB, she even borrowed then-principal dancer Patricia Barker’s rings to wear for class. “They helped me think about my hands a bit more in center,” she says. If you don’t want to wear jewelry or paint your nails, imagine a tingling sensation in your fingertips, which will help you remain conscious of them.
Tricia Albertson, a principal with Miami City Ballet, struggles with another common problem: floppy wrists. “I have to work hard to think of my hand as an extension of my arm,” she says, “so that every line finishes with the fingertips.” She’ll often go through a variation marking the legs but doing the arms full-out, concentrating on maintaining the line of her arm through her wrists and fingers. To avoid flapping her hands during fast steps, like petit allégro, she’ll try moving her arms and legs at different tempos. “I half-time my arms so my wrists don’t respond to the jolt of each jump,” she says.
The best way to develop good hands is to be aware of how you’re using them right from the beginning. “Even when you’re starting your preparation at the barre, think about how you’re holding your fingers,” Mazzo says. “It doesn’t come automatically”—but it will, with practice.