Archive | October, 2010


31 Oct

Happy Halloween everyone!

Just for fun, here is Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” being performed by the Carolina Ballet Theatre at a Halloween party. Enjoy!


The Politics of Casting Shows

30 Oct

With holiday dance shows right around the corner, I thought I’d share this fantastic article about casting performances. In my experience it can be a tricky thing because it’s always a challenge to be diplomatic and still make sure everyone is in the best role for them – it isn’t nice having to hurt students’ feelings if they aren’t good enough for the part they really want!

Theory & Practice: The Politics of Casting

By Leigh Kamping-Carder

Establishing a casting process that’s both fair and (relatively) drama-free

Last year, when a large ballet academy held auditions for its annual Nutcracker, the studio owner knew that five “absolutely brilliant girls” coveted the role of Clara. But the owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, knew that one girl would leave the audition disappointed, since there were only four parts. “I’ve never had the scores so close and I’ve never had to eliminate a dancer so clearly qualified,” the studio owner says. “I just didn’t have enough performances to go around.”

The owner’s dilemma is likely familiar to any instructor who casts for recitals or competitions. Rewarding talented dancers while giving every student a chance to perform is tricky. But as long as you give every student an equal shot, establish open communication with dancers and parents and alleviate jealousies before they turn into full-scale conflicts, every casting session can be a teaching opportunity.

Ensure Fairness

First, it helps to choose choreography that allows numerous students to play special roles. “I try to pick pieces that afford me the luxury of having many solos,” says California Conservatory of Dance Director Melissa Allen Bowman, who tries to give about 90 percent of her dancers distinctive parts. Or adapt a classic to suit your needs: Joan Robinson Borchers, founder of California Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA), has expanded her Nutcracker, adding overture dancers, junior maids, a Rose Queen (who would normally be Dew Drop) and a Dream Fairy. With four casts, that means roles for 75 students—and a chance for even the weaker dancers to get stage time. “That gives more girls a chance at plum roles,” Robinson Borchers says.

More importantly, make sure every student gets a fair shake at those roles: Don’t play favorites. For some studio owners, including Bowman, that means holding auditions that put casting choices in the hands of choreographers or neutral judges, rather than classroom teachers. “It’s tough because it puts the dancers on the spot,” says Bowman, “but they seem to feel that it’s fair because everybody gets a shot at it. Everybody.”

Jana Belot, director of Gotta Dance, goes one step further: She outsources casting to a panel of professional dancers who oversee a 600-student audition day. “It’s about the process of learning how to take your work ethic in the classroom and bring it with you to an audition,” Belot says. Every year new students surprise her with their talent, ensuring different students are cast from year to year, she adds.Gotta Dance dancers are scored on specific steps and memorization skills using a numbered scale, with the top 100 scores going to the studio’s Showstoppers company, and the next 300 scores going to the Dynamite dance team. For lead recital roles, Belot pulls from the top scores and considers appropriateness for the role and body type. This year, as if to highlight the democratic nature of the process, half the solos went to dancers who weren’t leads last year.

But Belot’s approach isn’t for everyone. Bowman is wary of hiring professional dancers, who aren’t necessarily familiar with the way children learn and perform, to evaluate young students. “We teach these students every day,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, “so we have a really good idea for who’s going to be right for certain roles.” Hoover has developed a process that she thinks preserves a sense of fairness while keeping casting choices in the hands of choreographers and stagers: Every student learns performance choreography, and most casting decisions are based on in-class performance, attendance, commitment and suitability for the role.

Last fall, Hoover began teaching students George Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations for BAE’s February recital. As the dancers worked on the pieces, both students and teachers recognized the strongest dancers, Hoover explains. She also double-casted and used understudies. For those who missed out on the solos, Hoover was happy to explain why (maybe they failed to take extra classes or languished in the back of the classroom every week) and to encourage the hopefuls. “It’s like a garden,” she told them. “Sometimes the daffodils will come up in spring, and we love the daffodils. But just because the roses bloom later doesn’t mean we don’t love the roses.”

No matter what method you use, transparency and honest communication are always critical to successful casting. In the weeks leading up to the final decision, explain the casting process to students. Be truthful about their abilities, but emphasize that dancers lose out on roles for countless reasons: lack of preparation, weakness in certain techniques, inexperience with auditions or simply not being suited to a role. Give them confidence in your objectivity. “Today you are all strangers to me,” Robinson Borchers tells her students on audition day, “and no matter how much I adore you, that will have nothing to do with the decision I make today.”

Minimize Fallout

Of course, even a fair and transparent casting process can make rivals of classmates. “Are they catty? Yes, I’m sure they are; they’re kids,” Belot says. But studio owners can minimize jealousies. Belot requires cast members to sign a contract that, among other things, forbids them from talking about rehearsals during class time. Robinson Borchers has a “standing rule” that students must be kind, but she knows that that won’t always be the case—and warns her students accordingly. “We teach them early on in class that if you’re a good dancer, then someone else is going to talk about you,” she says.

Ironically, it is often the parents who are angriest when that list of names goes up. Mothers call Belot wondering why their senior dancers failed to secure a solo in their last year of classes; the Gotta Dance director is perfectly willing to show students their scores. Hoover, however, takes a different approach: She chooses not to speak to parents about casting decisions. Whatever policy you choose, it’s important to educate parents about the casting process, either in person or in a newsletter. “We tell parents that if their children don’t get the roles they want,” says one CAPA handout, “it doesn’t mean that they failed in any way. It is simply that, on that given day, with all the variables, they were not the right person for that role.”

As for the girl who lost out on the part of Clara, she decided to try out the next year for a different role. Time has healed the rift between the girl’s mother, who “went ballistic” when the decision was made, and the studio owner. “It’s very hard to hold firm to your policies,” the studio owner says, “but it is the only way to keep the trust and respect of your students and parents.” After all, not getting a role is often as constructive for dancers as nabbing the Nutcracker lead. “Along with learning how to do a tendu in ballet,” Hoover says, “is learning how to accept disappointment and turn it into a positive.” DT

After the curtain falls

27 Oct

So all of us in the dance industry are all too well aware of how short lived a professional career on stage can be. As I mentioned in my first post, I was forced to retire after only five years of professional performing due to two major knee injuries and early onset hip arthritis. I don’t take any of the time I was given for granted, and I feel lucky that I am able to continue working with the art form in any capacity. However, many of us probably don’t stop to think what other professional dancers go on to do when they take off their costumes for the last time and their names get removed from the programs. I stumbled upon a supplement pamphlet online for Dance Magazine titled “Beyond Performance: Dancers talk about career choices before and after taking their final bow.” The full PDF file can be found at at the bottom of the homepage, but I have included the article written about former NYC Ballet dancer Marisa Cerveris, who went on to be a dancewear fashion designer.

Cerveris, at a fitting

Marisa Cerveris’s idea for a dancewear line began as a young dancer studying at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “The leotards did not adhere to the small of my back and the fabric would billow out,” she says about the dancewear available at the time. “As dancers we work so hard to sculpt and shape our bodies. I thought it was crazy that the leotards didn’t accentuate that.”

During her performance career

Cerveris, who has no formal training in clothing design, acquired a basic knowledge of sewing and fabrics from her mother, who would make clothing and Halloween costumes for Cerveris and her siblings growing up in Huntington, West Virginia. It wasn’t however, until the dancer joined New York City Ballet that she began seriously experimenting with designing. Cerveris says she took apart her garments and those of fellow company members, tweaking their fit and getting feedback from the other dancers who served as her fit models.

She also gleaned a lot of information from watching and listening to the various costume designers while dancing with NYCB in Europe, and on Broadway (in The Phantom of The Opera). “We would always go for costume fittings at Barbara Matera’s shop in Manhattan. I would listen to Barbara speaking with Peter Martins and talking about costume design and showing fabrics as they were fit- ting us,” says Cerveris. “I got to see firsthand the creative and collaborative process, and all that seeped in.”

When she retired from the stage in 2000, Cerveris received a grant from Career Transition For Dancers. She purchased her first industrial sewing machine and set to work in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to develop her line of ByMarisa designs which have no elastic or center seams.

“My approach to designing dancewear is the same as my approach to being a dancer: line is most important to me,” says Cerveris. “I am basically trying to paint the body with fabric.”

At first, she used to worry she didn’t have enough to say that was different in dancewear design. But the lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George—“Anything you do, let it come from you, and it will be new”—inspired her to get out of her own way. “This is what I have to offer. It is pure and it is sincere and it comes from me,” she says. The uniqueness of ByMarisa dancewear led the costume designers of Robert Altman’s 2003 film The Company to her to give the film’s dancers a signature look. More recently representatives of TV’s Dancing with the Stars did the same. She has now expanded the line to include workout wear for yoga and Pilates. “Everything I have become is because of my former career.” —Steve Sucato

Dance? There’s an app for that

26 Oct

The National Dance Education Organization is apparently working on a series of dance education apps for the iPhone, which I think is a genius idea due to the fact that mobile apps are becoming more and more accessible. The first app in the series, Say Ballet, is a reference glossary of dance terms that has been hugely successful and used by people in over 35 countries. Their newest installment, Say Jazz, also has voice recognition technology so students can practice properly pronouncing terms, videos of how to execute steps, combinations to learn, and term practice quizzes.

Click here for the full article, and go to for more news and events from the organization.

When Dance Styles Collide…

25 Oct

When I choreograph performance pieces for my ballet students, I generally stay firmly in the classical ballet zone (I’m obviously a bun-head to the core.) I think the biggest reason for this is the majority of the ballet classes taught at the studio where I work are technique only – meaning there are only a few ballet choreography classes that have numbers in recitals, etc. so I have tried really hard over the last few years to make sure the style is well represented as what it is. However, this year I have decided to branch out a little bit and experiment with some style crossing in my choreography. Tonight I started a number in my advanced pointe class for our holiday show this December, using music from Tony Bennett’s Christmas album. The piece is an awesome mix of quick pointe work with a heavy jazz influence (complete with fan kicks and cakewalks en pointe, flicks, and layouts), and I was so pleased and surprised this evening with how much fun the girls had with it. These particular students are all extremely talented and always dance passionately but it was really fascinating to watch how naturally they merged the two styles. Normally they all have very clean ballet technique, and they were actually able to keep that while adding the sassy attitude required of jazz. This has me thinking what other kinds of meshing I might try…and what some of you might have attempted in the past. Please share your own style-meshing endeavors!

I found this really gorgeous duet I wanted to share – It’s a perfect example of when blending styles results in true art. Enjoy!

Some pointe shoe food for thought…

22 Oct

Here’s an interesting video featuring Meghan Fairchild, principle dancer for the New York City Ballet, where she discusses the importance of pointe shoes fitting perfectly.

A Beautiful Strength? Yes I think so.

21 Oct

This is a beautiful compilation video by the Anaheim Ballet with a very poignant message…