How do you sum up an evening that includes performances of stage-shaking passion; heartfelt speeches that make you laugh and then make you ugly cry; and an inescapable sense of beautiful, joyful, warm-and-fuzzy #dancerlove?

You can do it the way legendary Merce Cunnigham dancer Valda Setterfield did it last night: By declaring that there's nothing better than being in a room full of dancers, whom she called the world's bravest, most generous souls. (Not too shabby.) Or you can do it in six words: Welcome to the Dance Magazine Awards.

Yay!

Last night's ceremony marked the DM Awards' 61st anniversary, and this year's crop of honorees included luminaries from all corners of the dance world. None other than Mikhail Baryshnikov graced the stage to present the evening's first award to Karen Kain, one of the National Ballet of Canada's loveliest ballerinas and now its artistic director. Kain was one of the first people Baryshnikov met after he defected from Russia, and the two have kept up a beautiful friendship for decades—though Baryshnikov lamented in his speech that he was too short to ever dance with her. (That honor went, instead, to slouches like Rudolf Nureyev.)

Baryshnikov and Kain: BFFLs.

Also representing #teamballet was honoree Marcelo Gomes, the gorgeous American Ballet Theatre principal and choreographer who charms the heck out of both audiences and his adoring ballerinas. We were treated to a pas de deux from Gomes' recent premiere for ABT, AfterEffect—lushly danced by Cassandra Trenary and Thomas Forster—that put Gomes' deep understanding of the intricacies of partnering on display. And recently retired ABT star Julie Kent made a sweetly teary speech in which she noted that even babies "immediately feel safe in Marcelo's arms, just as I do." D'awwwwww.

Kent in her safe place

Setterfield (wearing the world's most amazing plaid pantsuit ensemble) paid tribute to David Vaughan, a dancer who basically invented the job of "dance archivist" and has served in that role for Merce Cunningham's company since 1976. Now 91, Vaughan shows zero signs of slowing down: In his lovely acceptance speech, he talked about the fact that his old friend, dance artist Pepper Fajans, had convinced him to return to the stage next month. May we all be that awesome in our tenth decade.

We saw a vividly drawn excerpt from honoree Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Walking with 'Trane—a  musing on John Coltrane's legacy—performed by Zollar's company, Urban Bush Women, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Zollar spoke movingly about the fact that reaching a "point of stability" in one's career was actually a bad sign: On a heart monitor, ups and downs indicate a pulse, while death is a stable flatline. She urged everyone to embrace life's natural rises and falls—though now, she added, whenever she's feeling low, she can look at her Dance Magazine Award and say, "Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, you are a bada**." FACT.

The highlight of highlights for me, though, was watching flamenco virtuosa Soledad Barrio blaze through Solea, accompanied by three masterful musicians (and the "Olés!" of the appreciative crowd). Tattooing the stage with her heels, slicing the air with her arms, searing our souls with the depth of her passion, Barrio illustrated exactly what the DM Awards are all about (Charlie Brown): honoring the most extraordinary of extraordinary dance artists, the people whose brilliance is life-enhancing and life-affirming and, sometimes, life-changing.

Olé, Sole!

Check out video highlights from the awards here:

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I don't know about you guys, but I've needed a moment to process the passing of iconic actor Gene Wilder. This incredible video clip from 1982, in which he tries to dance next to none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov, made me smile. Even though Wilder was (quite obviously) not a dancer, he was a born entertainer and in this clip he's willing to try anything once, just like any performer should. It's also pretty incredible to watch Baryshnikov's slightly confused, slightly horrified reactions to Wilder's attempts at dancing. Hopefully it brightens your weekend!

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Jookin sensation (and now ballet crossover) Lil Buck manages to look effortlessly at home wherever he's dancing. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov has managed to be the coolest person in the dance world for the past, oh, four decades.

What happens when you dress these these two forces of awesome in fashion-y ensembles and put them on a soundstage together?

SO. MUCH. AMAZING.

Misha and Lil Buck, gettin' it.

Kudos to Rag & Bone for dreaming up the Baryshnikov/Buck collaboration. It's showcased in a "study of movement" short film that's a ridiculously effective way to display the fashion house's beautiful clothes. For us dance people, though, it's not, of course, about the clothes.

It's about Lil Buck's body control being so insane that he can even choreograph the movements of his hat (2:45). It's about Baryshnikov's uncanny ability to move in a completely distinct way while still channeling Buck's crazy footwork. It's about the delicious pseudo-dance fight that breaks out two minutes in. It's about the fact that these extraordinary dancers are better model-y models than any of the runway models featured (SO MUCH FACE at 1:05). It's about Baryshnikov and Lil Buck being not only masters of their craft but also, quite possibly, masters of the universe.

Soak it in, everyone.

 

This was the most movement Baryshnikov did onstage, but I was pretty much in awe. (Courtesy Northwestern University)

Over the weekend, I traveled to Chicago to see my sister graduate from Northwestern University (Congratulations, Danielle!). And, while I was very proud to see her walk across the stage to claim her diploma, I have to admit, I was most excited by the commencement speaker—the one-and-only Mikhail Baryshnikov.

While he referred to himself as “that old guy from ‘Sex and the City,’” we all know he is much, much more than that. A former dancer with the Kirov Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (where he became artistic director), Misha, as he’s affectionately nicknamed, is recognized as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. Naturally, I was hanging on his every (heavily accented) word. Here are a few takeaways from his speech:

“A few weeks ago, in the NYC subway, a poster said, ‘Are you a better person today than you were yesterday?’ The only wisdom I can offer is related to the arts, because the arts have made me, in my opinion, a better person.

“Figure out what pushes you. If it isn't the arts, what is it? The key is that it excites you, and challenges you. What issues make you willing to go beyond yourself?

"Once you figure out what you will do with your life, and eventually you will, work hard at it. But remember, you don't have to be brilliant 24/7. Leave yourself time to pause and think, Am I doing something today that will make me better tomorrow? Working to be better is not the same as being the best. Best is something someone else decides. Better is more personal. It's a process. And in my opinion, better is better than best."

Here's to being better tomorrow than we were today. Thanks, Misha!

Tonight CBS broadcasts the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors—and one of the honorees is a true ballet legend.

There are many incredible ballerinas dancing today, but nobody can ever quite measure up to Natalia Makarova. She first rose to fame at the Kirov Ballet in the 1960s, but after she defected from the USSR in 1970, she became an international superstar. Though she's tiny and delicate, she nevertheless had a steely technique and a huge, passionately dramatic presence onstage. A frequent partner of fellow stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev, she captivated audiences around the world.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Here she is showing off her exquisite control and dramatic sweep in Odette's variation, from a 1980 performance of Swan Lake:

And to give you a sense of not only her formidable technique, but also her sly sense of humor, here's a clip from the 1985 documentary In a Class of Her Own, in which Makarova narrates footage of herself in ballet class—mercilessly.

We can't wait to see Makarova celebrated tonight— especially since the ceremony (taped a few weeks ago) features performances by a slew of current ballet stars, including Alina Cojocaru, David Hallberg, Tiler Peck, Angel Corella, Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part. Tune into CBS tonight at 9/8 c to watch all that awesomeness.

And for those of you who just can't wait: Here's a sampler of classic Makarova photos. Enjoy!

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It seems like the ballet world always has one or two James Dean-y bad boys, super-talented men who buck convention—not always the easiest thing to do in ballet—and do things their own way. Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carlos Acosta, Rasta Thomas (who founded, fittingly, the Bad Boys of Dance): They're all amazing performers who, thanks to their skills and charisma, have been able to break away from the prince-in-tights stereotypes—or at least to play the princes they want, whenever they want.

Ballet fans have had their eyes on the newest member of the bunch, the phenomenal Sergei Polunin, ever since he left London's Royal Ballet earlier this year. (And if you're wondering whether he's a true bad boy: He not only has about a dozen tattoos, he also owns a share in a tattoo parlor. Legit!) The 23-year-old has been bouncing around from gala to gala and guest appearance to guest appearance since then, but he's made allusions to his big plans for the future.

Well, a few days ago, it was announced that he'll play the lead in the UK premiere of choreographer Peter Schaufuss' Midnight Express next April. It's definitely not your grandma's ballet: The work is based on the true-story book by Billy Hayes about an American stuck in Turkish prison after he's  been convicted of drug smuggling. Marius Petipa would turn over in his grave—and I'm guessing that's exactly the kind of effect Polunin was hoping for.

Here's to Polunin and all of his fellow bad boys, for keeping the ballet world exciting!

Last night I attended the second annual Bright Lights, Shining Stars gala benefiting the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation. We were told the event would be star-studded—and it sure was.

While DS managing editor Rachel Zar was positively giddy about standing in the lobby next to a Real Housewife (Ramona Singer), I was more excited to see some familiar faces in the crowd, like former Cover Model Search winner (and one of my favorite dancers of all-time) Ida Saki, Joey Dowling, Andy Blankenbuehler and Jakob Karr.

As always, I do my best thinking in list form, so here are 5 Reasons Bright Lights, Shining Stars Was a Hit:

1. It helped kids go to college. Since its inception just two years ago, the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation has awarded more than $5 million in college scholarships to more than 100 dancers. This is huge. Many dancers aren't sure if they want to go to college (do it!), and some aren't in a financial position to attend. NYCDAF helps with that, and it's so incredible to watch executive director Joe Lanteri bring a talented young dancer onstage and tell her she's getting a full ride into the life of higher education (hello, Montana Michniak). Lives change, and we get to watch it happen. It's awesome. (You heard me when I said go to college, right? Great.) It's especially fun for us because our sister publication, Dance Magazine, is one of the foundation's gold sponsors!

I only teared up once last night, and it was when Utah comp kid Mattie Love spoke to the audience, thanking everyone for coming and for helping her get to college. Thanks to the foundation, she just took her first class as a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College. Too cool. And congratulations, Mattie! We hope you have a rockin' first year.

2. It was like Dance Spirit's competition issue come to life! Logan Epstein! Noelle Meers! Alexia Meyer! Alyssa Ness! Hannah Seiden! Teeny tiny Kayla Mak! All the cool kids you read about after Nationals each year were onstage performing as NYCDAF scholarship recipients. They danced choreography by Andy Pellick and you could tell they were loving every minute of the stress-free performance. No judges! No scores! No pressure.

3. Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Natalia Alonso, will you be my best friend? The two pieces by Complexions—Testament and On Holiday—were so stunning and were definitely my favorites of the evening.

4. Julie Kent! Julie Kent is the epitome of a prima ballerina. She's lithe and lovely and sweet spoken in a way that makes me hold my breath a little while she's talking. The American Ballet Theatre principal delivered a wonderful speech about honoree Mikhail Baryshnikov, talking about how he hand-picked her to be in the film Dancers and, ultimately, to join ABT. I especially loved one quote that she shared with the crowd from Mr. Baryshnikov himself: "It's not what you did, but how you did it." Kind of makes you want to go do something really full-out doesn't it?

5. Misha and Liza. It's hard to imagine a cooler duo, isn't it? The standing ovation when these two got onstage lasted longer than Kim Kardashian's marriage (sorry, had to go there). So Mikhail Baryshnikov (affectionately known in the dance world as simply "Misha") was awarded NYCDAF's Ambassador of the Arts award, and Liza Minnelli got to hand it over to him. She was so sweet talking up her friend, and she referred to Misha as "my honey," which just about made me melt. She called him "the greatest ballet dancer the world has ever known." Misha, upon receiving the award, was humble and without a speech. He did, however, imply that he would like his next honor to be Czar of the Arts. We're on board.

All in all it was a fun, heartwarming night at NYU's Skirball Center for the Arts. Congratulations, Mikhail Baryshnikov, on your fancy new title and thank you for the endless inspiration.

Every now and then, one of my non-dance friends will see a picture (or, better yet here in NYC: a real-life sighting) of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and she'll say, "It's the guy from Sex and the City!"

I mean yeah, OK. But also, it's Mikhail Baryshnikov! Only one of the greatest dancers of all-time. He did play a coolly seductive Aleksandr Petrovsky, though.

Whether people recognize him as Carrie Bradshaw's Paris-bound love on TV or they realize he's one of the dance world's major heavy-hitters, Baryshnikov is a legend worth knowing. I'll never forget the first time I saw him in person at a New York City Ballet gala. It was the first time I was ever starstruck and I just stood there staring at him, secretly hoping he'd burst into spontaneous choreography in the middle of the David Koch Theater lobby.

Now, you can get your own glimpse at stardom on Wednesday, September 5: I know exactly where Mikhail Baryshnikov will be that night—and where you should be, too.

Next Wednesday, the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation will feature two dance dynamos at its annual "Bright Lights Shining Stars" gala. Mikhail Baryshnikov is the night's guest of honor, and he'll be presented with the NYCDAF Ambassador for the Arts Award. Handing over the trophy? Baryshnikov's longtime friend Liza Minnelli!

The lineup for the rest of the night is star-studded and spectacular, including guest performances by American Ballet Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, New York City Ballet and more.

Like I said, I'll be there. Mikhail Baryshnikov will be there. Liza will be there. And you should make your way there, too.

Click here to snag a 25% off discount on your ticket. The show starts at 7:30 pm at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in NYC.

Hope to see you there!

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