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Daniil Simkin

Daniil Simkin. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / ABT ©

If you follow dance on the internet chances are you will have heard of Daniil Simkin.  He is the whiz kid (not just dance-wise but also tech-wise) who arrived last year from Vienna State Opera to stir some fresh buzz into American Ballet Theatre’s soloist ranks. His virtuoso dancing and various gala appearances, including the prestigious World Ballet Festival in Japan, have drawn a solid fanbase from every corner of the globe and Daniil draws on multi-platform social media and Web 2.0 to stay in touch and connect with all these fans.

We caught up with Daniil ahead of ABT’s trip to China later this week. He was kind enough to answer our questions about his ABT repertoire, his social media projects and to share his plans for the upcoming gala evening “INTENSIO” in Athens this December.

You are now in your second season with ABT. Can you tell us how it’s going? Any new roles/debuts on the horizon? Which roles do you expect to dance in the upcoming tour to China?

DS: So far my second season has been great. I will be touching a lot of new ground and will be expanding my horizons during the MET’s spring season, dancing in Twyla Tharp’s Brahms Hayden Variations, the great Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream (as Puck), probably in Paul Taylor’s Company B, in addition to dancing my current roles in our classical repertoire. I have also been understudying a few Principal roles in the classics since I have performed some of them with other companies, but I have no scheduled performances in those yet.

During ABT’s tour in China I will be performing ‘Everything doesn’t happen at Once‘ by Benjamin Millepied and ‘One in Three‘ by Aszure Barton, both created for ABT and premiered during its Avery Fisher Hall season this Fall. Both pieces are extremely different, but very enjoyable to perform. I am very much looking forward to the tour, especially because it will be my first visit to China.

Simkin Millepied

Daniil Simkin in Benjamin Millepied’s Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Speaking of the Far East, can you briefly share your experiences at the World Ballet Festival in Japan this past summer?

DS: The World Ballet Festival was an unbelievable experience. Just the fact that I was sharing the stage with people like Sylvie Guillem, Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg, Marianela Nuñez, Svetlana Zakharova, Leonid Sarafanov, Tamara Rojo… It gives me goosebumps. One of the most memorable moments was probably receiving corrections & pointers from Sylvie Guillem. Luckily my first show, a full-length Don Quixote, happened at the very beginning of the festival. Not everybody was there yet so I was able to concentrate on my show without thinking too much on who might be watching in the audience!

You are one of few classical dancers currently using social media to connect with your audience. How did you get into it and what are you trying to achieve in all these different platforms (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.)?

DS: I have always been interested in computers and any technology-related gadgets. Some boys are drawn towards cars and motorsports, whereas as a kid I was drawn to computers, science and gadgets. I spent more time on my father’s first computers than he ever did. Then came the Internet and its ever-increasing presence in our lives. Luckily I was born in an age when everything was just starting. I was designing personal websites by myself in my spare time and once codecs for videos became more efficient I put in there videos from my competitions as downloadable clips.

Then one day I saw one of my clips in somebody’s MySpace page and found out somebody else had uploaded two of my clips and was selling a DVD of it on YouTube without my permission. I was shocked. Because of that I decided to put my own videos onto YouTube, otherwise others would. I also started to use MySpace after my competition in Jackson (2006) since it was the perfect way to keep in touch with a lot of the US dancers I had met there.

From there it was not a long shot to Facebook and Twitter. I was the second professional dancer to use Twitter, after San Francisco Ballet Principal and good friend Maria Kochetkova. I had fun updating my status and therefore kept doing it, until twittering was the next popular thing for pretty much every and anyone. Nowadays all of my platforms are interconnected, which means that my profile and my work can be discovered through different channels. If somebody gets to know a little bit about what I do from watching my YouTube videos, this person can then have a full picture through my Facebook page, Twitter and my personal website, which is currently in the process of being upgraded to a new, fully integrated, Web 2.0 version.

Simkin Azure

Daniil Simkin in Aszure Barton’s One of Three. Photo: Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

With all of this, my aim is to demystify our work as ‘professional dancers’. Our profession is surrounded by clichés and prejudices from misinformed people. I am trying to show that we dancers may be a little different from everybody else, but in essence we are human beings with routines, likes and dislikes, social lives and passions like everyone else. In short, we are not so different or more special than the office worker sitting in a cubicle, we just have different workspaces.

People in dance talk about the need to promote ballet more widely and yet, few actually do it. Why do you think there are so few dancers/choreographers in social media channels and have you encouraged any of your colleagues to use them?

DS: To quote a twitterer “I must do something” always solves more problems than “Something must be done” (Author Unknown). In the end, we as the dance world ARE the ones who have to change, not our surroundings, the media, etc. In my opinion classical dance is not more popular because in the dance world we tend to be more conservative than innovative. We have to change our mentality and prejudices towards copyright, media, replace them with openness and transparence. Only when the majority understands that this is the key to the future, will we succeed. In my opinion protectionism in these days of Internet/Web 2.0 can be destructive. That’s my two cents.

I have been encouraging some of my colleagues to participate in the Web 2.0 movement, but unlike most of the other professional fields, ballet is very physical and is very little connected to technology in its everyday routine. Therefore dancers are not as open to embracing the possibilities of technology as they could be.

What do you think major ballet companies should be doing to draw new audiences and to keep engaging them?

DS: The same things I mentioned before. Project more openness and a certain fearlessness in their PR. Fear is the biggest enemy of innovation and it prevents them from progressing, from opening the art form towards new audiences.

It is clear to me that the artistic mission of ballet companies should be to maintain a healthy balance between proven classics and innovative work with new ballet choreographers. Basically it is guarding a basis while nurturing experimental directions, but in reality, only big scale companies have the luxury to do both these things. The smaller the company, the harder it will be – budget and quality wise – to maintain a high level of both. Which doesn’t mean it is not a goal to strive for or one that’s unreachable.

Can you tell us more about the gala you are organizing in Athens this December? Why this particular location and who will be guesting?

DS: After performing in the ‘Svetlana Zakharova & Friends’ gala in Athens last year I was approached and asked to organize a similar event. The Gala evening is called ‘INTENSIO – An International Ballet Gala Presented by Daniil Simkin’. ‘INTENSIO’ is a play with the words ‘intense’ and ‘intention’. It describes the evening quite well in that it is not going to be just a clean dance evening, we are trying to merge different media into a ‘mashup’ for an entertaining evening. My father is in charge of the stage design and video projections specifically designed to support the dance on stage, as some pieces will be integrated with video. It is an exciting project for me and a new approach towards the usual ‘gala’ evening you see so often.

So far the following dancers will be performing (+ another couple to be announced)

Daniil Simkin Peasant Pdd

Daniil Simkin in ABT's Giselle. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor / ABT ©

How do you see your career evolving 5 years from now, what would you like to have achieved & which roles do you aspire to dance?

DS: I tend not to look too much into the future. Life experience showed me that it is healthier and better for me to enjoy the things I have now and share the beauty of life right here, right now. Having said that, dancing the Principal classical repertoire is one of my priorities in the near future and I would also love to go back to school, at least part-time or to learn remotely. Right now I am too busy and I don’t have enough time, but hopefully in the future I will be able to do that.

What’s in your ballet bag?

DS: Different things for different occasions… If I am running from studio to studio rehearsing, then it would be:

  • Water with added Magnesium
  • Different kinds of warm ups to keep as flexible and as warm as possible (normally consist of 4 or more items+ warm up boots or warm up socks)
  • Headband to keep my hair in place (which tends to be long enough to bug me)
  • Sansha Pro 1C skin colored ballet slippers
  • Toe spacers for my big toes + medical tape to stick them
  • iPhone + a2dp Bluetooth Nokia wireless headphones
  • 2 different stretching bands: One from Chacott to stretch my split and extensions and one Thera-Band to warm up my feet

Last but not least, COOKIES to keep my bloodsugar and mood up and to give me an always needed sugar-fix!

More about Daniil:

  1. The New York Times on Daniil in ABT’s Le Corsaire [link]
  2. W Magazine on Daniil’s relationship with the Internet [link]
  3. Daniil’s Official Website [link]
  4. Daniil on Twitter [link]
  5. His Facebook page [link]
  6. His YouTube channel [link]
  7. Intensio Gala Information from Elliniki Theamaton (venue) [link]
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bb_awards_09

The 2008/2009 Royal Ballet season was filled with golden tickets, but which acts made the Bag Ladies tick the most? As we gear up to restock for the new season (tickets go on public sale in 2 weeks), see our top dancers & top dances below and feel free to use the comment form to opine on who was just the ticket for you!

Melissa Hamilton in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

Best “New Kid On The Block”: Melissa Hamilton

She was a golden vision in her first big role, stepping in for (and looking remarkably like) Sarah Lamb on L’Invitation au Voyage, but Melissa soon made a mark of her own in a selection of modern pieces like McGregor’s Infra, Acis & Galatea, Wheeldon’s DGV and Marriott’s Sensorium, making the most of her edgy line and incredible extensions.

Comeback Guy: Steven McRae

Injury may have robbed him of touring last summer & of some chunky debuts (including Lescaut in Manon) but McRae returned to the stage just in time to sparkle in The Nutcracker, shine as the Golden Idol, create principal roles in McGregor’s sleek productions of Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea and bag a promotion to Principal, no mean feat! (For a full feature on Steven, see our previous post).

Comeback Girl: Alina Cojocaru

Alina was sorely missed at Covent Garden for over a year, which was more or less the time it took her to undergo & recover from neck surgery. But in April she returned triumphantly in one of her signature roles, Giselle, amongst a shower of daffodils for the ages. She also managed to play her quirky side in the sweet & short Les Lutins, glow like the most brilliant jewel in Diamonds and join the RB summer tour for the first time since 2006.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Drama Guy: Johan Kobborg

From his intense and deep reading of Des Grieux and the teacher in The Lesson to his display of virtuosity in classical roles such as Solor, Siegfried and Albrecht, Johan keeps showing us he still has it at 37. We may have missed his partnership with Alina, but at least there was that one Giselle. His future as a choreographer looks promising, given that he got stellar reviews on his short work for the Linbury, Les Lutins.

Drama Girl: Tamara Rojo

Intensely beautiful in Ondine, beautifully intense in Isadora, lush in Manon, luxe in Emeralds, Tamara squeezed dramatic juice in every role she was cast and brought home two DVDs (soon to be released “La Bayadère” and “Manon”, both with Carlos Acosta) to add to her Romeo and Juliet which is rumoured to be “on its way”.

Whiz Guy: Sergei Polunin

We knew we could expect great things from Polunin, after that taste of his Golden Idol last season. With outstanding debuts in Tetley’s Voluntaries, as Solor and in the Nutcracker, he spent all season stealing the thunder from more established colleagues. The reward was a deserved promotion to First Soloist, and a main feature in the ROH media campaign for the upcoming season. All of this at 19!

Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its owners

Whiz Girl: Marianela Nuñez

A great season for Marianela, with lots of opportunitities to display her pristine technique and to bag big roles such as Giselle. Her “4 great Swan Lakes in 7 days” deserves a wizardry award of  its own, but on top of that, she gave stellar performances in abstract pieces, from which we definitely remember Voluntaries, Serenade and that Pas de Deux in Infra.

All-rounder Guy: Ed Watson

Yes, we know that this category seems lifted from the 2008 Dancing Times Award where both Ed and Yuhui (see below) won accolades but Watson was truly a “man for all seasons”, dancing in 13 out of 24 ballets (the busiest principal of all) and leaving a mark of diversity both in the quality of his dancing & repertoire, which spanned from old classics (Giselle, Firebird, Ondine) to the 20th century classics (Manon, Dances at a Gathering) and the contemporary (Infra, Acis & Galatea, DGV).

All-rounder Girl: Yuhui Choe

Injuries for some, opportunities for others. Added to scheduled debuts as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikiya, Yuhui also made the most of whatever chances she got to cover for her seniors, displaying her ethereal dancing, strong musicality, those trademark soft arms (Dances At a Gathering, Les Sylphides), coupled with energy & attack (The Lesson, Rubies).

Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Best Partnership: Alexandra Ansanelli & Carlos Acosta

Fair enough, Alexandra and Carlos were never really a partnership (they had a brief stint in La Bayadère, back in January) but the sizzling chemistry they displayed in Rubies, in roles which were  so in tune with their own abilities, made us wish, first that Alexandra would have been cast to dance with Carlos in Dances at a Gathering back in March and second, for a world in which Alexandra was not retiring, so we could see them paired again. Easily the best couple in Jewels, it  was clear that Carlos found his match in Alexandra’s flirty and bendy ruby.

Best Narrative Production: Giselle

The Royal Ballet has productions of the classics that either go over the top of glittery & sweet or fall short when compared to its counterparts in other big companies, but Giselle truly deserves being nicknamed as “The Jewel in the RB’s Crown”. Sir Peter Wright‘s production brings the story to life with beautiful designs, costumes and most importantly, coherent storytelling through both the mime and choreographic sequences.

Best Abstract Production: Dances at a Gathering

DAAG really is like Mr. B said to Mr. Robbins: like popping peanuts in one’s mouth. The combination of the Chopin piano pieces, the delightful choreography and the RB’s unique imprint is so addictive we could watch it over and over again.

Best International Acts:

It’s not all about the RB all the time! While the dancers below have individually left their marks on us while visiting London throughout 2008/2009, hearsay is that even greater things happen when you pair them with their fellow company members. Mariinsky recent cast changes frustrated our plans to see team Obr/Shk, but we have not yet lost hope. So, which couples would you recommend we travel far to catch? Here is a shortlist that we assembled based on our exchanges with fellow Twitterers:

Tiler Peck & Daniel Ulbricht, NYCB

Yevgenia Obraztsova & Vladimir Shklyarov, Mariinsky

Veronika Part & Marcelo Gomes, ABT

Please cast your vote on our Facebook page (link to the poll), or let us know who you think deserves the accolade. 

And last but not least,

Dancers who will be missed:

RB’s Alexandra Ansanelli , RB’s Isabel McMeekan, PNB’s Louise Nadeau, SFB’s Tina LeBlanc.

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It is hard to believe that someone like Alexandra Ansanelli, one of the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal ballerinas, is retiring, given all her accomplishments and the fact that she has always been so vocal about her passion for dancing. At only 28, her impressive CV includes principal dancing jobs in two of the world’s foremost ballet companies and a list of personal achievements which range from overcoming major obstacles and injuries, to adapting to different styles and winning over demanding dance audiences with her particular gifts.

The Ballet Bag is sad that Alexandra is leaving. Over the last two seasons she had become a staple at Covent Garden, someone clearly distinctive, elegant and with particular subtleties in her dance. We also admired her courage of facing up to skepticism and how she adapted her training and brought her unique gifts to the Royal Ballet. We pay homage to her with a brief account of her career and a collection of some of Alexandra’s interesting quotes over the years.

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra’s Story:

Alexandra was born in 1980 to parents of Italian and English descent. She is the youngest of three sisters and surprisingly, she arrived to ballet quite late in her life, having devoted her athletic body and energies to football at first. Her life changed when she attended an arts summer camp is Massachusetts and got told she should audition for the School of American Ballet (SAB).

Aged 11, with no previous ballet background, Alexandra impressed the jury and was admitted at SAB. Commuting three days a week to New York from Long Island to attend class with older girls proved testing for Alexandra and she felt she was lagging behind. The following year, her parents had her move Secondary schools and rented an apartment in New York. During this time, Alexandra was already performing children’s roles with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and winning scholarships for very distinguished summer programmes.

Even though she had never performed at annual performances, Peter Martins saw Alexandra in the studio and hired her as a NYCB apprentice. She then appeared in The Nutcracker and got rewarded with a contract and and a principal role (Dewdrop fairy) on her 16th birthday. She bolted across the ranks, soloist at 17 and principal at just 23, but this quick progression was not without its share of obstacles: she was off for almost two years with a misdiagnosed foot injury which left her unable to walk and close to the point of giving up dance. Her resilience and passion kept her looking for the right answer and finally after receiving the correct assistance she was given the all clear to return.

Alexandra’s NYCB tenure gave her a huge fanbase and the opportunity to work closely with important choreographers, from the legendary Jerome Robbins to the young  & budding Christopher Wheeldon, but she wanted to explore the big world of classics outside the local repertoire, so she decided to leave City ballet in 2005  to look for something else. This strategy paid off and in less than a month she was receiving offers from major companies with classical repertoire, amongst which an audition with Monica Mason followed by an invitation to join the Royal Ballet as a First Soloist, in other words, just the ticket for Alexandra to slowly break into those great classical and narrative roles she was aiming for.

Even though she started as a First Soloist, Alexandra quickly saw principal roles coming her way. She danced The Lilac Fairy and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux and Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of the Faun. Some critics loved her  (and we are forever indebted to FT’s Clement Crisp for first drawing our attention to her) but Covent Garden audiences were divided, given the stylistical differences the SAB training imprinted on her dancing. All this she took as a challenge, with a clear determination to conquer the dramatic undertones in the Royal Ballet’s own style.

In March 2009, after a great season which began with plum debuts in Ashton’s Ondine and as Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile (“a performance of beautiful line, emotional finesse and of fascinating promise for the future” as Mr. Crisp  then noted), Alexandra claimed ballet  no longer completed her and announced her retirement. She had just wrapped up performances as Gamzatti in La Bayadere and the Sugar Plum Fairy in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker, and had been lined up for Mayerling and Sleeping Beauty (amongst others) in the 2009/2010 season.

The Goodbye

Her last performance in London on June 16 as the lead female role in Balanchine’s Rubies opposite Carlos Acosta felt quite fitting, given her NYCB roots. Whilst she had throughout her Royal Ballet years expanded her range enormously, having drawn praise and a whole new fan base with her soft, rippling Ondine of just a few weeks before, Rubies never stopped fitting her like a glove: she dazzled and enchanted us, showing her fiery character and throwing herself into the choreography (It was quite a contrast to Yuhui Choe‘s more restrained, more studied performance in the same role). Alexandra’s last night at Covent Garden was a success, not only due to its aura of adieu, but because it was incredible to see someone clearly enjoying herself on stage and yet about to stop for good. She went out and gave it her all, with Carlos, who enjoys “upping his ante” when the occasion befalls, outstanding but giving Alexandra the opportunity to shine, since it was her night.

At the end of Rubies, with a continuous flow of applause and some ruby red flowers thrown in from the amphitheatre, Carlos chivalrously led an emotional and teary eyed Alexandra to take centre stage, taking a back seat and directing the applause her way, letting Alexandra enjoy her moment all the way through the red run curtain calls. As the applause went on we felt as if some of the audience was trying to convey to Alexandra that she was loved and appreciated and that she certainly was going to be missed.

See also: Emilia’s take on Alexandra’s farewell performance

Some Quotes:

On Why she left City Ballet:

It’s the music in the story ballets, the music, and then the story, that touches a part of my soul that is indescribable.

On the classical repertoire:

I’ve always been passionate about the classical works, and it was important to me as a ballerina to get that education.

On Balanchine’s take on épaulement:

I think he wanted his own style, different from the classical world that he had left behind in Europe.

On what she finds fascinating about ballet:

One of the things that fascinates me about ballet is to see how very different it ” looks ” from one country to the next.

What she would like to see happen in ballet over the next 20 years:

I would like the ballet to have a much broader audience, to reach far more people, and to have them understand more, and to be more involved, with our art form.

On her decision of leaving ballet:

I feel one must be completely devoted if you are a dancer, it’s like a marriage. I have had to face the realization that this is not completing me as a person.

Alexandra’s last performances with the Royal Ballet are in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center (June 24) and in Cuba, at the Gran Teatro de la Habana (July 14-16). She will be performing the lead role in Ashton’s A Month in the Country as part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Interview with Alexandra Ansanelli (circa 2005) via In the Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
  2. Alexandra Ansanelli interviewed by David Bain. Report from The Ballet Association (circa 2006) via Ballet.co [link]
  3. Alexandra Ansanelli’s Artist Detail at www.roh.org.uk [link]
  4. The Classical Test for a City Ballet Star who Flew by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  5. A Young Ballet’s Star Surprising Choice by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  6. An Early Swan Song by Sarah Kaufman, via the Washington Post [link]
  7. Behind the Scenes with Alexandra Ansanelli. From Pointe Magazine’s 10th Anniversary Photo Shoot, via Dancemedia [link]
  8. Statement by Alexandra, issued by Pointe Magazine via BalletTalk [link]

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Now that we know what both the Royal Ballet’s and the Sadler’s Wells’ 2009/2010 dance seasons look like, it’s time to start penciling in dates, drawing cast plans, organizing bookings and, most importantly, cancelling any previous engagements. Because the autumn/winter dance season, after the starvation of summer months, supersedes anything else we may have had in the pipeline (weddings, birthdays, christenings…). Seriously.

Here are some of the treats we will be bagging:

October

Mayerling (Royal Ballet)

MacMillan’s gritty and sleazy classic will be back with solid casts – Ed Watson & Mara Galeazzi, Johan Kobborg & ? (since Alina’s online diary indicates she might not be dancing this, we’d love to see Leanne Benjamin) as well as some interesting debuts for Rupert Pennefather & Melissa Hamilton, Thiago Soares & Lauren Cuthbertson.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev (Sadler’s Wells)

Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Javier De Frutos / Russell Maliphant & Wayne McGregor set about breaking new choreographic ground whilst paying homage to 100 year old Ballets Russes.

Morphoses (Sadler’s Wells)

Christopher Wheeldon joins in the Diaghilev fun with a special Ballets Russes selection of his own. We are thrilled to see Ed Watson (officially the busiest Royal Ballet dancer in the 2008/2009 season and going for another record, lucky we!), Wendy Whelan and young Beatriz Stix-Brunell still with Morphoses for this new season.

November

Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor (Royal Ballet)

The first – and very edgy looking – triple bill of the season provides the opportunity to see the dream team of Cojocaru, McRae and Polunin again in a new production of Glen Tetley‘s Sphinx. Along with a new McGregor. We can’t wait.

December

Carlos Acosta (Sadler’s Wells)

The bravura boss will be back at the Wells to perform Balanchine’s Apollo plus Jerome Robbins’ A Suite of Dances and Afternoon of a Faun. We think Sadler’s has gone a little “Ballets Russes PR happy” in comparing the man (albeit indirectly) to Nijinsky, but we forgive them: seeing Apollo in the programme is more than enough to lure us in.

The Nutcracker (Royal Ballet)

These days The Nutcracker is the most regular staple in the RB’s repertoire (I guess it’s trying to play catch with those 940+ Swan Lakes) but who can resist when high flyer Sergei Polunin is one of the princes? Plus, given that I can’t be bothered with yuletide decorations this is my only chance of seeing a proper Christmas tree.

For more information, refer to the official press releases by The Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells:

The Royal Ballet 2009/2010 Season

Sadler’s Wells Autumn 2009 Season

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The Balanchine method is not a syllabus for training per se, but the term is generally applied to describe the method of teaching dancers at the School of American Ballet (the school associated to New York City Ballet), preparing them  for the specific requirements of the Balanchine repertoire with its focus on very quick movements coupled with a more open and freer use of the upper body.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

In order to describe this training method, we need to talk about the man behind it, George Balanchine, Russian dancer and choreographer who settled in New York in the 1930’s to establish and pioneer ballet in North America, and mastermind of a new stylistic movement within classical dance. Balanchine trained at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg and started his career as a choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where he created  successes such as   Apollo and The Prodigal Son.

During his term at Ballets Russes he started to develop his own neoclassical ideas in dance. Unlike many of the other dance movements in vogue at the time which sought a  breakup from classical ballet structures, Balanchine borrowed from advanced classical ballet technique and heavy pointe work. In fact, Balanchine often cited pointe work as one of his main career motivations. He also believed that dancers should be able to be communicate without the need of mime or any other narrative aids, so he set about creating abstract, or rather, plotless pieces in which dancing was the focus. In other words, his ballets are not usually based on a narrative (a characteristic of the 19th century ballets, think Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), although he was still concerned with the integration of dance and music.

When invited by impresario Lincoln Kirstein to settle in America, Balanchine was given full creative freedom for his balletic enterprise, so he was able to create and train a company of dancers “purpose built” to meet the demands of his unique style. In 1934 he founded the School of American Ballet and in 1948 he established (together with Kirstein) New York City Ballet. He was also involved in the design of NYCB’s headquarters – the  Lincoln’s Center New York State Theatre – designed by Phillip Johnson.

Balanchine was a classicist at heart and his fondness for clarity of movement and physical stature goes back to his roots in the Russian Imperial ballet schooling. He looked at ballet as an art for elegant, tall and articulate individuals. Therefore, his concept of an ideal stage was bringing the dancer to the forefront, like a “2D” canvas in which his ballerinas could move, rather than the standard deep opera house stages in which the dancers became miniaturised.

For Balanchine, movement had to be open (arms wider, everything stretching) as to maximise the space and he was fond of deep lines, sharp positions and strong technique in the petit allegro (combinations of small jumps and quick steps). This is why he favoured dancers with long limbs, slim bodies, great flexibility, turnout and (hyper)-extended legs, all this at a time when these aesthetical/physical values had not yet reached the mainstream in classical dance.

At the level of basic technique, the arm positions tend to be more open, less curved and dramatic, often “broken” at the wrist (e.g.”Balanchine arms”), there are deep pliés to accentuate the jumps and preparation and arabesque positions tend to be uneven. For example in other systems, pirouettes are done starting from a fourth position in a deep plié, with weight distributed in both legs. Here, all the weight goes into the supporting leg, with the working leg stretched out as in a lunge. In the arabesque, an open hip towards the audience is preferred, with very dramatic arms:

Pacific Northwest Ballets Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

The position of the body and arms is then used to give the illusion of having a longer arabesque line. It is said that Balanchine took all this ideas from Jazz and that this kind of movements naturally suited those with long limbs. He also had specific ideas as to partnering, favouring a more dynamical role to the male dancer in pas de deux.

In short, Balanchine taught his dancers to make use of more space on stage through length and speed, and this tradition has continued not only in NYCB but in other companies with direct links to Balanchine such as Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

To better understand his stylistic approach, let’s compare the following photographs of NYCB and the Royal Ballet in Jerome RobbinsDances at a Gathering.

First we have NYCB (from left, Yvonne Borree, Rachel Rutherford, and Abi Stafford). Notice how the arms and the torsos are held.

NYCB in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Paul Kolnik/NYCB ©. Source: ArtsJournal via Bloomberg News.

And a photo of three Royal Ballet principals in the same pose (from left, Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb). See how Tamara’s and Sarah’s torsos are inclined to soften the position, and of course, the arms.

The Royal Ballet in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Bill Cooper ©. Source: Danceviewtimes.

There is clear difference in how the dancers hold their arms and their upper bodies. The look feels more contemporary in the first picture, while it is much softer in the second. The overall effect can be better understood when looking at live performances, but we think these examples give the general idea.

Inversely, there is an ongoing debate amongst critics as to how Balanchine dancers fare when performing the classical repertoire given that the natural lines of their bodies are dramatically different as demonstrated in the above pictures. What is undeniable is that Balanchine was a dance revolutionary and innovator, with a heightened sense of aesthetics and that he brought a bag of new ideas into ballet.

Famous Balanchine Ballets we Love:

Serenade, Symphony in C, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, The Four Temperaments, Apollo, The Prodigal Son, Theme and Variations.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. International Dictionary of Ballet. St. James Press, 1993.
  2. Wikipedia entry on Balanchine Method.
  3. The George Balanchine Foundation [link]
  4. George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb (2004). Harper Collins. ISBN 0060750707.
  5. Keeping the Balanchine Legacy. Interview with Edward Villella by Elinor Rogosin for Dance Universe. [link]
  6. On Balanchine Technique by Suki Schorer (1999). Knop. ISBN 0679450602.

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