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Category — Dance

Dancing the Bard

Cory Stearns in 'Romeo & Juliet'

Cory Stearns in ‘Romeo & Juliet’

ABT’s Cory Stearns brings Shakespeare to life without words

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Cory Stearns has played Romeo, Prospero, Oberon, and Iago—all without ever speaking a line.

A tall, elegant principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Stearns has portrayed these major Shakespearean characters in ballets based on the Bard. Among his extensive repertory are the leading roles in four works—three celebrated classics, and one created just last year—that in very different ways attempt to bring Shakespeare’s characters and dramas to life through movement alone.

Next week, as part of its eight-week season at the Met, ABT presents four performances (June 30 – July 2) of its Shakespeare Celebration program, a double bill of ballets based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both are substantial one acts, condensing their source plays in very different ways. Both are also set to incidental music that major classical composers created for productions of the original dramas. And both, as it happens, will star Stearns. He’ll perform as Oberon in The Dream and Prospero in The Tempest.

The Dream, an acknowledged masterwork by Frederick Ashton, the leading British ballet choreographer of the 20th century, is set to Mendelssohn’s well-known score. It captures the sylvan atmosphere, human folly, and mischievous magic of the Bard’s celebrated comedy with most of the major characters represented. Now 50 years old—but eternally fresh—it was created for The Royal Ballet, but has found a welcome home (and multiple fine interpreters of its challenging roles) at ABT.

The Tempest, meanwhile, was created last year by Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most admired and prolific classical choreographers working today. The music is Jean Sibelius’ expansive 1925 score, composed for a Danish production. Ratmansky, who excels in creating vivid dramatic ballets as well as bracing abstract works, describes the piece as “at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.”

Stearns worked closely with Ratmansky as the ballet took shape for its premiere last October. (He and Marcelo Gomes alternate as Prospero). Although he had tackled Romeo and other demanding Shakespearean roles, The Tempest was the first for which he was present at the creation. And being asked to portray an older character—one with a very specific backstory, and complex motivations —provided plenty of challenges.

“Some of the steps in Tempest are ones an older man could never do,” says the Long Island native, who joined ABT in 2006. “I definitely had questions about the motivations for some of the steps. I think Ratmansky felt that Prospero was old, but he had this power coursing through him. He tried to show that power through the choreography.” [Read more →]

June 26, 2014   No Comments

How Do Dancers Recreate the Cotton Club?

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) and co-stars

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and co-stars

Inside the lives of two After Midnight stars

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

Since previews began last October, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has danced and sung her way through almost 250 performances of After Midnight, the Jazz Age revue at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre that celebrates the legendary Cotton Club. Whether she’s tap dancing on a set of rotating stairs or belting the apartment-life blues in “Raisin’ the Rent,” she’s channeling the essence of the iconic Harlem nightspot.

But it takes serious work to conjure that spirit. For one thing, Sumbry-Edwards isn’t often asked to deliver the same show eight times a week. “In my line of work, a lot is improvised,” she says. “When I go tap dance [at] places, I very rarely have a set routine. I sometimes don’t even go in for a sound check. ‘I don’t want to see the band. I don’t even want to know what kind of band it is. Let me just go and feel it out.’ But this is not that kind of party.”

Instead, After Midnight, whose seven Tony nominations include a nod for Best Musical, is a consciously sculpted tribute. The setlist zips from classic songs (“Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) to splashy dance numbers to spoken excerpts of Langston Hughes poems, and the onstage band (better known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars) serves every riff like polished pros.

That’s not to say the show feels stodgy—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does feel precise. It’s clear we’re watching a crafted event, not a free-form improvisation.

“But it’s wonderful to be able to work this way, too,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “We’ve settled into the characters and the storytelling, and of course the camaraderie that we have with each other is growing.”

Desmond Richardson echoes that idea. Another of the show’s featured dancers, he solos during a seductive ballet set to Duke Ellingston’s “The Mooche,” and when the band performs a ditty called “Peckin’,” he’s part of a fully synchronized quintet. It’s hypnotic to watch the five men move in unison with each other and also in time with the music, and it’s no wonder Richardson’s connection with his fellow performers has grown so intense. “It’s so spontaneous and so real,” he says. “We tend to listen to the band, and they listen to us. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. When they’re up there with you, you can find the energy you need.” [Read more →]

May 29, 2014   1 Comment

Who Is Balanchine in the 21st Century?

Ashley Bouder & Amar Ramasar

Ashley Bouder & Amar Ramasar

New York City Ballet dancers reflect on their co-founder’s legacy

This week, New York City Ballet opens its spring season with a dozen ballets by 11 different 21st-century choreographers. That’s an impressively diverse collection of artists, but the modern focus means that dances by George Balanchine, the company’s co-founder, will spend a few days off the roster.

Granted, no one is questioning Balanchine’s stature as one of the most important 20th-century choreographers, and NYCB will present a substantial number of his works later in May. But as the company’s repertory has diversified in recent decades, one wonders: How do current NYCB dancers view their progenitor’s contributions?

For an answer, consider Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar. Both are highly contemporary dancers, often chosen by visiting choreographers who create works on the company. However, they are very clear about why they wanted to be part of this troupe.

“The majority of us still come into the company wanting that Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins repertory,” says Bouder, a principal dancer since 2005 and one of NYCB’s most fearless technicians. “I think his ballets—and the way we approach them—are very current. Choreographers today are still massively copying that kind of energy and movement, and things that Balanchine invented. I think this company has a very strong sense of its history, so we know how old the ballets are. But then when you dance them, they certainly don’t feel old-fashioned at all.” [Read more →]

May 1, 2014   3 Comments

Stephen Petronio Dances on the Cutting Edge

Stephen Petronio Company dancers

Stephen Petronio Company dancers

For its 30th season, Stephen Petronio Company looks forward and backward at the same time

Stephen Petronio’s choreography intermingles discipline and wildness, with an underlying structure that gives his dances heft. In landscapes where danger lurks amid beauty, there’s always something significant at stake.

What’s more, these stakes always feel immediate. Petronio’s dances resonate with the moment in which they are created—reacting, responding, and commenting in fascinating ways. A cutting-edge group of collaborators, including visual artists like Cindy Sherman and composers like Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainright, also helps his work speak to our time.

To that end, Stephen Petronio Company’s 30th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater (April 8 – 13) will careen forward even as it engages with the past. The major premiere on the program, Locomotor, explores the idea of “traveling forward and backward through space and through time.” He’s also made a new solo for himself, Stripped, that investigates the specific possibilities of a mature male body. [Read more →]

April 4, 2014   No Comments

Five Decades of Dance in Just Three Weeks


Michelle Fleet & Robert Kleinendorst

Inside Paul Taylor Dance Company’s ambitious new season

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches—the generous collection of 23 dances the Paul Taylor Dance Company is performing during its season at the David H, Koch Theater. Created by Taylor over a span of 53 years, they include the world premiere Marathon Cadenzas, as well as as Fibers, a 1961 work that has not been performed for half a century.

For the audience convening at Lincoln Center through March 30, this extensive array of Taylor pieces demands careful scheduling. For the company’s dancers, it means three weeks of quick costume changes, shifts between celestial loveliness and maniacal ferocity, and intensely physical performing that they can’t get enough of.

“He’s got such a great sense of musicality,” says Robert Kleinendorst, who’s been with the company for 14 years. “What I really appreciate about Paul is that he’s not a slave to the music. He lets the movement do a duet with it. You’re dancing with the music; the music and the choreography are partners in the best sense. Not one or the other is in control. It’s so freeing to dance that way.”

Majoring in musical theatre, Kleinendorst initially took dance classes with that in mind, but his focus quickly shifted. As a graduation gift, his parents paid for a Paul Taylor summer intensive, after his dance professor suggested he had the right build for the company. “After the first day, I knew that was all I wanted to do. I’d only seen his choreography on video, but once I felt it on my body, I knew,” he says.

He made his way to New York, took classes at the Taylor School, danced with Taylor 2, and then joined the main company. His robust energy, invigorating spontaneity, and natural comic skills will be on view in the numerous works he dances this season.

Heather McGinley came to five company auditions before she was hired in 2011. She wanted to dance Taylor’s choreography from the first time she saw it performed, as a high-school senior studying ballet in St. Louis. “I felt completely transported into the world that Paul made,” she says. “What always kept me coming back to the next audition was how I felt doing Taylor’s movement. It’s very full-bodied and satisfying. I always feel like there’s something to really sink your teeth into.” [Read more →]

March 13, 2014   No Comments