Dancing Forsythe's Dances: from outside in and inside out

Features, 12-13, Behind the Scenes

by Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland





Part I    Forsythe and his work: From the outside in

In 1963, half a century ago, the fledgling Pennsylvania Ballet cut its teeth on the work of the revolutionary choreographer George Balanchine, dancing the first of over thirty of his ballets that would come to form the spine of its repertory.  While audiences elsewhere may have been puzzled or vexed by this choreographer's innovations, Philadelphians, from the very beginning, were raised on Balanchine's extensions of the ballet vocabulary. We watched and learned as his choreography dynamically sculpted a powerful geometry in both the human form and the form of the dance itself, cutting through the last remnants of 19th century ballet and bringing it into modernity.  What better audience, then, to receive or company to perform the ballets of a contemporary visionary, William Forsythe.

William Forsythe, simply put, is one of the more important choreographers working in the 21st century. Europe knows him, the US is catching up, and Pennsylvania Ballet, having first performed his work in the 1980s, is in the forefront, again, of training dancers to perform, and audiences to see ballet, anew, in his trail-blazing work. Like Balanchine before him, Forsythe has literally turned ballet on its head without missing a beat or diminishing its power as an art form.  Forsythe acknowledges Balanchine's influence, including their shared confidence in the sheer beauty and power of dance on its own, in and of itself.  They share, as well, the use of measured space and counterpoint to provide both visual and aural clarity, a great affection and respect for dancers, and a willingness to stretch the ballet vocabulary and canon to the edge of possibility, not for the sake of vacuous virtuosity, but to explore the full capacity of the dancing body.  The two choreographers have each drawn differently on the same genetic material of stripped down, complex, brilliantly inventive movement and form, but the work of each also embodies a distinct but insatiable curiosity about what dancers can do and what ballet can be . . .or become . . .

Like Forsythe, Balanchine's work emerged from a set of influences particular to his life both here and abroad.  His innovations are too numerous to list but range from the very specific—the particular use of the tendu or stretched foot to initiate action, the distinct placement of hands right down to the fingertips, the pelvic thrusts and flexed feet . . .to the global—the play of counter balance in the pas de deux, the promenades and pirouettes inverted, distorted or compressed, the encouragement towards bigger and faster, all the while maintaining a distinct sense of 'cool' and, always, his supreme musicality.  His impact on both the look and dynamics of ballet is so widespread and his style is so ingrained in us as the exemplar of ballet that, while still spellbound by his work, we barely recognize the revolutionary aspect that once excited or confounded audiences.  But, then, along came Forsythe, building on Balanchine as a baseline and further extending his radically beautiful vocabulary.  Together with a generation of young dancers who matched him nerve for nerve, Forsythe surprised us, revealing ballet's potential to recreate itself once again.  Roughly fifty years after Balanchine created works like Apollo or Concerto Barocco, Forsythe created several revolutionary dances that, like the work of very few choreographers before him, are generally considered to have initiated a new era for the ballet genre. 

With the addition of Artifact Suite, Forsythe's three ballets from that period which are now in the repertory of Pennsylvania Ballet frame a particularly important arc in Forsythe's creative journey.  Starting with Artifact in 1984, travelling through In the middle, somewhat elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and landing onArtifact Suite in 2004,[i] it was evident that Forsythe was doing ballet, but WHAT was he doing with it?  Or, as some thought, to it?    The pace, scale, and complex gestural dynamics clearly pushed ballet into new technical and aesthetic territories. Yet Forsythe ventured a description of his efforts as just another viable strand, another way to do and see ballet that moved alongside the "normative"[ii] or classical tradition of the art form without necessarily displacing it.  These works are attached to ballet tradition by a strong umbilical cord that twists together the history of the form and his own history within it.  Ballet, he has said, is his mother tongue; it cannot be erased from his body or from his consciousness.  But given his intellectual and motional inquisitiveness and the contemporary cultural and political spaces in which these have been cultivated, neither could ballet remain the same.

While Pennsylvania Ballet is one of few US companies to bodily archive three of his works from this seminal period, any company worth its salt uses Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated as its training ground, its portal into 21st century ballet vocabulary and structure. Forsythe's ballet vocabulary has been described as fractured, incisive, willful, deconstructed, in your face, stuttering, extreme, and exquisite. But words can fix as well as describe and Forsythe refuses to sit still for any categorization. Instead, he watches the dancing before him, always recognizing, as he says, that "it could be otherwise" and continually asking, and inviting us to ask, "what if?"  Apply this question to ballet's preoccupation with balance—"what if?"—or to the carriage and shape of the arms—"it could always be otherwise." Question the lift against gravity and leap into space, and possibilities emerge that are limited only by the physical capacity of human bodies and the daring and intelligence of both choreographer and dancers.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Ian Hussey in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.


This vocabulary builds towards an overall structure in his ballets that is often dense with motion and gesture and can be challenging to see and absorb. Forsythe complicates beauty. But he trusts our imaginations as well as our perceptual systems, believing that we will discover patterns within the composition. He calculates and stages points of organization for us within the performance, setting them in motion to emerge from the blurs of complexity on stage. To create these moments of clarity and focus for the audience, he often turns to the classical stalwarts of theme and variation and of counterpoint as compositional strategies to help us make our way through these intricacies. 

In his use of theme and variation, Forsythe references Marius Petipa's 19th century classical inventions as well as Balanchine's more contemporary and complicated fugal structures, but he extends these into his own postmodern displacements of theme across the entirety of both the body and the stage. He claims counterpoint as his means to generate and organize movement, using it as a motor in the body itself, riding the torque and fleshing out the vectors as the dancer spirals her way into the ballet épaulement—the counter position of torso against legs—the same contrapossto that Michelangelo used in sculpture to bring marble to life and convey the depth of human feeling, the same contrapossto so loved by the baroque dancers who seeded ballet with its shape and dynamic. But Forsythe also makes  other uses of counterpoint within the larger architecture of his works.  Like Balanchine and others, Forsythe makes visible the structural similarities between poses, gestures, and musical line, often transferring a shape or dynamic from one location to another, in what he calls "isometries." But he notices other congruencies that often go unseen and pushes these "alignments in time" to their extreme so that they play out across all and any levels of space, time and force. "Look everywhere," he urges. Meaning may be found in the consistency of the centuries-old form or in the surprises and interruptions he introduces. In the end, it is about actively watching the dancing, trusting that you and I will make our own sense of it.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. hoto: Alexander Iziliaev.


This is new ballet and it exists at this time and in this space, because Forsythe saw that it could happen and that dancers were willing to go along for the ride.  While these important ballets make their way into the bodies and psyches of dancers and audiences in the US, he continues to ask dancers in his new group, The Forsythe Company, to catapult along yet other trajectories.  Founded in 2004 and based in Dresden and Frankfurt, works choreographed on and with this company, such asDecreationHuman WritesOne Flat Thingreproduced, or Yes, We Can't, continue to challenge and engage dancers and audiences alike.  Are they dance? Are they ballet? And what does it mean for ballet if, in fact, we consider them as such?  

But Forsythe's curiosity, voracious mind, and huge appetite for how movement, things, and, perhaps, even life are organized and structured, have led him on paths that are alternative even to his own newer visions of danced work.  With collaborators across many fields and disciplines, he has investigated how elements of a dance might be captured in real or virtual objects that would extend our ability to see or 'read' that dance, long after it had vanished into history.  He has even questioned whether the term, "choreography," could be extended beyond dance to describe or define other actions or categories of events or objects and has created both virtual and material installations that illustrate these and subsequent queries into what form these choreographic objects might take and what might constrain or excite their creative potential.[iii]

But returning to ballet as we know it, or are relearning to know it through his work, it may be surprising that, for an artist whose ballets are so firmly constructed on the various permutations of formal elements within a larger, splendid universe of geometrical space. . .the dance, in the end, is never just about the structure and the steps. It is about the affect, the whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, and about the dancers as interesting and intelligent beings who bring the work alive with both agency and abandon.  It is about humans, like you and me, albeit extraordinarily adventurous and talented.  It is not about transcendence but about being the best that humans can be within the art form—and it is the voice of the dancers themselves that make this most clear.


Part II   The Dancers' Voices:  From the Inside out

Forsythe's movement language, perhaps earlier but surely from Frankfurt on, integrated his full-bodied classical technique not only with his own explorations of motional possibilities but also with the movement passions and predilections of his individual dancers, which are generated, as one philosopher has said,  "by that person's use of his own body through the accumulated grooming of a continuous life."[iv]   From dancer after dancer, you hear of Forsythe's rigor and expectations that are exceeded only by his generosity and his genuine desire to motivate each dancer to dance to his or her fullest capabilities. In recalling rehearsals with Forsythe, Brooke Moore,[v] a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, explained that Forsythe "can really just pull things out of you that you didn't know you could do" that he encouraged and supported the dancer's desire to discover and achieve her full range of movement potential.  "He has this ability to make us feel so incredible, and to not say no. . .and to keep pushing—pushing us to just explore every aspect of your body in his choreography."  Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is absolute.  After 20 or 30 years of training, a dancer can easily raise her leg behind her in a perfect arabesque, even if she were sleepwalking.  But, says Moore, Forsythe challenges them to "do an arabesque like it's never been done before. . .you are the first one who had ever done this."  "He is," she says, "giving you the liberty and luxury to explore who you are within his steps."  Noah Gelber,[vi] a dancer with Forsythe back in the Frankfurt days and a trusted stager of Forsythe's ballets from this period, echoes this approach in his own teaching which he models on Forsythe's.  It is, as Gelber says, his responsibility to work towards specificity in the earlier days of the restaging process. A consummate dance artist, himself, his choreographic notes are equal parts beautiful and meticulous.  "I have to set very clear parameters to start with—this is what the dance 'is'.  But at the end of the day, it's not about what it 'is,' it's about how they feel it and, as Bill is always saying, it's about how the dancers feel it for themselves. [The ballet] is not a museum piece, it's live theatre, and it's something that [the dancers] recreate and recreate each time, and each time is going to be only as they are in that moment.  [It's about] letting them trust that and getting them to a place where your word is only a catalyst." 

But even the willing must learn to trust and to dare.  Moore, who danced with San Francisco Ballet prior to dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet, has performed Forsythe's work with both companies.  Reflecting on the extremes of balance that Forsythe's work demands, she admits "it is scary because . . . I know where my weight is going to fall but it's just not how I've been trained. . .so it's not natural.  It's not where I want to be. . .but then once I'm there, especially when I'm with a partner, it feels great. It's liberating, you know—how far I can pull myself off.  I'm on pointe and I have only one hand on my partner and I’m leaning the whole way out…  and he has me.  We both have the ability to bring me to the next step or section.  It is scary, but it's fun, it's a challenge…it's a whole new way of working."

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Brooke Moore and Company Member Andrew Daly in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.


And the dancer's" whole new way of working" feeds back into Forsythe's choreographic loop. He is an artist who describes himself as 'influenced by the here and now" and whose curiosity is sparked by whoever or whatever is in front of him at that very moment. Put this together with a postmodern refusal to see anything as absolute and you get a reluctance to ever consider any dance work, even a ballet, as a museum piece, fixed or finished into perpetuity.  Remember, "it could always be other." Gelber affirms Forsythe's own self-analysis: "He likes to go with what he sees... he might be very inspired by one particular dancer in the room and say, 'that looks good, let's all try that.'  That's why there are so many different versions. . .Bill was changing Artifact for 25 years. . . In rehearsals, what was fascinating for me, as a spectator, was to see all of the permutations, transmutations that the choreography would go through from day to day until he was happy for that year."

Ballets can and do change over time, intentionally or otherwise.  After conversations about the Balanchine repertoire with one of Balanchine's noted ballerinas, Merrill Ashley, Moore speculated that "everyone remembers things a bit differently" and that despite all efforts to coincide with the choreographer's intentions, there will always be "a slight variation there, or a hair of a difference over here."  In addition, as she points out, the choreographer or stager might introduce slight changes to make the piece work for individual dancers, trying to "make it look best, although with the intention of the choreographer in mind."  Add to this Forsythe's willingness, like Balanchine before him, to change elements of a ballet to keep it a living work of art, and the act of restaging a ballet becomes complex indeed.  And if you have three stagers (Jodie Gates, Laura Graham, and Noah Gelber) plus the choreographer, himself, as was the case with the setting of Artifact Suite on Pennsylvania Ballet, how can any agreement be reached?  Moore gives us a clue when she recalls the strong sense of community that the stagers encouraged in the dancers while setting the work.  Having learned Forsythe work while dancing with two different companies, she was, in both instances, impressed with this emphasis on community.   We were told, "You're dancing for each other.  Yes, the audience is out there and watching you and you are dancing for them, but you are dancing for each other…the connection, the community, the family feel…they always wanted us to incorporate that into [the dance].  Moore even sees this reflected in the choreography of Artifact Suite as well. "In the end of Artifact the group, the ensemble, comes in and we're all sort of gaining strength together. . . It's some sort of force, not an army, but a group, and we're all coming together to be as one."  

This sense of community, of reaching some sense of consensus, although far from perfect unity or concurrence, inflects the teaching as well as the making of the work and the restaging process.  "OK, "says Noah Gelber, who eschews the dictatorial, "OK, let us agree to do the arm this way as opposed to another way."  And this same sense of community is, perhaps, what enables consensus among the stagers.  The dancers that comprised Frankfurt, and from whom Forsythe selected a handful to reset the ballets from that period, had learned to work both independently and collaboratively under the guidance of Forsythe.  Because Forsythe had encouraged a process, as Gelber recalled , in which the dance "resided independently and individually in each one's body" there were, and are, likely to be as many minute variations as there are dancers, all bound to the 'steps' so to speak, but with multiple possibilities of slight divergences.  When staging the work, Gelber, teaches the choreography but reminds the dancers that they must remain open.  He tries to "disseminate as much information as possible, so that the dancers are ready for all options. . .and to build in room for the inevitable question mark."  Because the stagers are used to the give and take of collaboration and a shared body politic, when they gather the dancers together in the studio for the first time, "it just naturally happens that we would look at each other and say, OK, you're doing that version, fine.  And we pretty much anticipated the places where there was going to be a need for consensus. . . and it happens."

And what "happens" has changed the way that dancers dance and audiences see the ballet.  Other top ballet companies in the US perform Forsythe ballets, but Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the few that holds multiple danceworks demarcating this groundbreaking historical shift in ballet.  Having honed its skills and aesthetic on a Balanchine repertory that is one of the foundational precedents for Forsythe's work, it is both natural and important that this company serves as a corporeal archive, a living history of Forsythe's significant ballet choreographies.

Artifact Suite provides the dancers of Pennsylvania ballet with possibilities to stretch both their ideas about and their performances of ballet. They can, as Gelber noted, "access their intellectual processes" as well as "the sheer physicality" of the work."   With the other Forsythe ballets now in repertory, Artifact Suite provides us, as audience, with a full-bodied experience of a monumental period in ballet history.

But like the best Balanchine work, these works are not dated and, despite the inevitable urge that other choreographers have had to incorporate this new 'style' or approach into their own work, Forsythe, as does Balanchine, remains a unique talent.  Artifact Suite is a vital inclusion in the repertory. Although an "artifact", it is not a relic. Rather, in each performance we re-witness a turning point in ballet as the dancers experience history incarnated in their bodies. But we also see brilliant, in-the-moment dancing that continues to be a point of instigation, challenging dancers to perform superbly and audiences to see ballet with fresh eyes and an open mind. Forsythe's ballets remain dynamic exemplars of the form, speaking to us across time and connecting us to now.

Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland is a dancer, a scholar, and the Director of Dance and the Alice Carter Dickerman Director of the Arts Program at Bryn Mawr College.  

[i] 1984 Artifact, Frankfurt Ballet; 1987 In the middle, somewhat elevated, Paris Opera Ballet (later incorporated into Impressing the Czar for Frankfurt); 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Frankfurt Ballet; 2004 Artifact Suite, Scottish Ballet.


[ii] All quotes by William Forsythe are taken from published or web interviews with William Forsythe.


[iii] “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced,” is an interactive Web site created with Ohio State University’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/ "Motion Bank" is a four year project of The Forsythe Company designed to provide a broad context for research into choreographic practice. http://motionbank.org/en/   

Examples of Forsythe's installations and choreographic objects can be found on the Forsythe Company's website.   http://www.williamforsythe.de/exhibitions.html(select the English version)


[iv] Joseph Margolis, The Autographic Nature of the Dance," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), p 421.


[v] Brooke Moore (principal dancer, Pennsylvania Ballet), taped phone interview, May 14, 2013.


[vi] Noah Gelber (former soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Frankfurt Ballet, Gelber has maintained the responsibility of Choreographic Assistant for 11 different ballets from William Forsythe's repertoire and has staged Forsythe's work on over 30 companies world wide) taped interview, June 1, 2013.

Eye On The Arts: 23-Year-Old Ballerina To Dance Dream Roll In The Nutcracker

Videos, Nutcracker, Interviews, 12-13

CBS 3, December 2012
CBS 3’s Pat Ciarrocchi speaks with Company Member Lillian Di Piazza, who will premiere as the Sugarplum Fairy in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™ this season.

'Nutcracker' at 25, still jumping for joy

Nutcracker, 12-13, Reviews

Inquirer, December 12, 2012
When Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 25th season of performing George Balanchine's full-lengthNutcracker Saturday at the Academy of Music, there undoubtedly were people in the audience who were seeing it for the 25th year in a row.
So what's to return for after all this time? Like a favorite holiday movie, repeat viewings only add to the comfort and joy. Even when you know what's coming, you're likely to get chills when it begins to snow onstage. And unlike, say, White Christmas orLove Actually, you'll see different things each time as the casting changes.
Saturday night's performance featured Julie Diana as Sugarplum and Ian Hussey - a replacement for Zachary Hench - as her Cavalier. Diana is a lovely, delicate dancer (though her arms shook uncertainly in the pas de deux), and Hussey, who rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to principal dancer this fall, was a handsome, confident partner.
Caralin Curcio was a slithery, sultry Coffee, while Jermel Johnson awed with his signature explosive jumps in Tea. Amy Aldridge often performs Dewdrop, and she was perfect for the role, flitting in, out, and among the Flowers.
In the children's roles, Mary Lee Deddens danced and acted nicely as the multilayered Marie, with Juan Rafael Castellanos as her exasperating brother, Fritz. Christian Lavallie had the combined role of Drosselmeier's nephew and the Nutcracker Prince. He was valiant battling the Mouse King and recapping it later in pantomime to Sugarplum.
If you attend year after year, you'll spot rising stars in the program, as young dancers grow into bigger roles. Stephanie Bandura, who is Marie on the Comcast wall, dances the role of a mouse, and Lucas Tischler, an especially impish Fritz a few years ago, now is the Prince in some performances. Many of the Flowers and Snowflakes are company apprentices, Pennsylvania Ballet II dancers, or advanced students at the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
A repeat viewing is also a fine time to take in the low-tech effects, which astonish nonetheless. A few were wonky on opening night, breaking the spell a little: The Nutcracker transferred into the Prince costume a little too slowly. Mother Ginger's immense skirt revealed all the Polichinelles still inside each time one stepped out. And the Angels' costumes are a bit too short, allowing the audience to see their tiny steps rather than letting them appear to float across the stage.
But the magic is still there when the tree - and Marie's whole world - grows before our eyes, when the toy soldiers come to life, when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sings as snow wafts onto the stage when Sugarplum glides across the floor on one pointe, and when Marie and the Prince sail off in a flying walnut boat - even if we can see the wires holding them up. Also charming is the single bunny among the soldiers, perhaps replacing a long-lost piece.
All these small enchantments, supported by Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score, help make Nutcracker one of the rare ballets to appear on many must-see lists year after year. It's easy to see why.
Read at Philly.com. >>

Surviving "Nutcracker"

Features, Nutcracker, 12-13

Pointe Magazine, December 2012
Dancers have a love-hate relationship withNutcracker. For many, it was the first ballet they saw; for even more, it was the first they ever performed. But, despite the nostalgia, December’s relentless marathon of shows takes a toll. If Nutcracker music is starting to make you a little loopy, you’re not alone!  
Abigail Mentzer
Soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet
First roles: Angel and Soldier in The Nutcracker movie with Macaulay Culkin
Favorite role: Lead Marzipan and Sugar Plum
Performances per season: About 30
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Darci Kistler
How do you stay sane during Nutcrackerseason? I sew. It takes my mind off the day. And my gym is across the street from our theater, so in between shows—some Saturdays we have three in a day—I’ll go to the hot tub. 
How do you keep up your stamina? I swim laps about three times a week. It loosens up my joints. I always feel much more open and taller afterwards. 
What goes through your mind when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Honestly? Anxiety. 
Favorite holiday traditions? Icing my feet! And I love to escape to New York City, because that’s where I grew up. 
Biggest Nutcracker nightmare? In my first year doing Sugar Plum, my shoe came off near the end of my variation! I had to do the whole greeting scene with it practically off my foot. I thought nothing could go wrong after that—but the next day, my partner was horribly sick, and in the pas when we did the no-handed fish, he didn’t feel me start to slide down. My belly was basically lying on the floor!
Read more at PointeMagazine.com. >>

Ian Hussey: Taking athletic abilities to the ballet’s center stage

12-13, Interviews

Philadelphia Gay News, December 2012
In “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture,” the narrator states: “In the language of this dream, in that palace of delight, we spoke with our whole selves ... And my tall Nutcracker Cavalier had eyes only for me, for at least as long as that dream could be.” Well, this week we only have eyes for Ian Hussey, the principal dancer who plays the Cavalier in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of “George Ballanchine’s The Nutcracker.”PGN:I know you’re used to expressing yourself through dance, but tell us a little about yourself.IH:Well, I grew up in Westmont, N.J., and I’ve been training in ballet since I was 9 years old. At 16, I trained with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, graduated from that high school, joined the Pennsylvania Ballet and have been with them ever since. I’m pretty much a Philly guy. I’ve lived in all areas of the city and even growing up I was always coming into the city for dance.PGN:Where do you think you got your artistic bent?IH:I don’t really know. Both of my parents were in business. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, now she’s a medical secretary, and my dad worked as a financial advisor. I think the reason they put me in ballet was because I was really into figure skating. I wanted to be a skater so bad. I idolized Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton. As it happened, a friend whose father was working on the house of a dancer with the PA Ballet got free Nutcracker tickets and gave them to my mom, who took me to the show. I was enthralled and my mother asked me if I wanted to try ballet. I said sure, started taking classes and the next winter I was onstage at The Academy of Music in the production as one of the party boys.PGN:That’s amazing! You were clearly talented. Any siblings?IH:Yes, I have an older brother, Colin, and a twin, Eamonn.PGN:I’m guessing you’re an Irish boy?IH:[Laughs.] Oh yes.PGN:No sister? Though I guess that’s a good thing with your last name!IH:Yeah, but my mom is a big Hussey!PGN:[Laughs.] You said it, not me. Is your twin identical or fraternal?IH:Fraternal, but we could easily be mistaken for identical. It was tough growing up: We were best friends and inseparable, but we also fought like crazy people. They called us the Bicker Brothers because we’d fight so much. We shared everything: a room, classes, even friends, and it could get to be too much. And we were very competitive; whether it was playing wiffle ball or basketball in the backyard, we’d always have very intense games that ended up in a fight. As we’ve grown older, we’ve each had different personal lives, but we’re still very close. We talk at least every other day.PGN:So for those people who always think, Man, I wish I had a twin ...IH:That’s so funny. Someone just said that to me yesterday. I was like, “You know, growing up I didn’t think it was so awesome.” I hated it, but now that I’m older I enjoy it­-having that special connection with somebody.PGN:Is Eamonn heterosexual or homosexual?IH:He’s heterosexual.PGN:Any weird twin things?IH:Not really. I mean, I know him. I know how his brain works because it works exactly like mine. So if my parents were having issues with him and said, “I don’t understand why he’s doing that,” I always knew why he was doing that. I get him. Totally ... but nothing like being able to feel his pain or anything telepathic.PGN:What did you like to do other than play wiffle ball?IH:Lots of sports. We played little league baseball, team soccer, a lot of tennis. My brother and I loved to go to the tennis courts and play, though we’d fight there too. We loved anything having to do with sports. We were into the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, Eagles ... and we were really into playing video games.PGN:So you were a jock, Mr. Hussey?IH:Yeah, I was. It was very difficult because I had to give all that up for dance. When I was about 13, I had to make the decision as to whether I wanted to stay in regular school and play sports or go to Carlisle and study ballet. I’m glad that I chose dance, though it’s still pretty hard sometimes. I’d love to be able to play in the City of Brotherly Love Softball League or join a recreational tennis league but I just can’t. I’m not willing to risk my job sliding into third base. Maybe when I retire ...PGN:Do you have to worry about insurance? Getting sick? I’m guessing most dancers freelance.IH:One thing that is really wonderful about being with the PA Ballet is that we are provided health insurance by the company as part of our contract. Health, dental, it’s all covered, and if we get injured on the job, we can file for workman’s comp, so we’re very well-protected.PGN:That’s great.IH:Yes, you’re correct in that a lot of dancers do live and work as freelancers and they constantly have to audition and look for work and worry about things like health insurance. But with PA Ballet, I’m an employee of the company plus we’re also a part of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which is a union that protects us. It covers opera singers and musicians and other types of musical artists.PGN:I see that in addition to your work as a member of the PA Ballet, you also were a producer of “Shut Up and Dance.”IH:Yes, I’ve been part of the show for years as a dancer and choreographer and production manager. In 2012, I was the producing director. It was hard and crazy and a lot of work but fun and totally worth it. It was one of the best nights of my year. The house was packed and I think we raised, if not more money than was raised before, then darn near close to it. I love the cause and it’s great to be a part of the event. It was an emotional journey and to end it onstage with the dancers behind me and the audience on their feet was awesome.PGN:I saw you did a “Tough Choices” video on coming out. When did you come out?IH:It was difficult for me, being taught by society that being gay was shameful. I was raised in a Catholic family but luckily both my parents were very liberal. I knew if I were to ever come out, I wouldn’t be shunned from the family or kicked out of the house, but it was still terrifying. I knew since I was 13, but I fought it.PGN:You would think being in the world of dance, you’d be exposed to gay culture more.IH:You know what, I was, but it wasn’t until I got older that my friends started to actually come out. Being in the small school environment in Carlisle didn’t help; everyone knew everyone and all their business, so I didn’t want to come out there. I had a girlfriend who I’d been dating for a year-and-a-half and I knew I had to tell her. The video was about the tough choice to tell her and begin to live my life freely and openly. Once I did that, there was no turning back. I told my mom and she was very cool about it. [Laughs.] We were fighting that day so things were already emotional but it drew us even closer.PGN:When did you tell your twin?IH:On Halloween. I don’t even remember why but we were at a Halloween party and he said something about girls and I wasn’t planning on telling him but it just came out. He was awesome about it. He was more mad at me for making him look silly. Over the years when his friends thought I was gay, he’d always say, “No, he’s a dancer, but he’s not gay.” [Laughs.] He was mad at me for making him defend me all those years.PGN:So speaking of your dancing, what are you doing with “The Nutcracker” this year?IH:I am the Cavalier to the Sugar Plum. It’s the best role for a guy in the show. The Sugar Plum Fairy is the lead ballerina and I get to dance with her. I’ve been dancing in the show since I was a kid and have played pretty much every male role in the show.PGN:So does “The Nutcracker” conjure up the holiday spirit for you?IH:Absolutely, it makes you think of Christmastime and families coming to see the show every year. It’s a grueling show to do, especially for the girls, but it’s nice to be in the theater for such a long period of time and to have so many people come see the show. I’m more of a Thanksgiving guy, because we’re pretty busy doing 11-12 shows a week during the holidays, but it’s always a fun time of the year.PGN:What’s the feeling of leaping across the stage in front of a theater full of people?IH:It’s an adrenaline rush. It can be scary, it can be exhilarating, it can be great fun, there’s no one emotion. But for the most part, it’s so much fun, it’s why you do it ... just for the love of dance.PGN:Biggest ballet blunder?IH:Oh, that’s easy. It was in “The Nutcracker” a few years ago. I was doing the Candy Cane dance, which is a part in which the guy jumps through a hoop, like a million times. At the very end, there’s a part where you have to jump up and go through the hoop twice and it’s very difficult. You’re tired from the whole dance and then you have to do this stunt. In this one performance, I don’t know if I slipped or had my weight back, but I landed on my butt with my legs in the air just as the music hit its crescendo.PGN:I see your name connected to Arantxa Ochoa a great deal.IH:She was someone I danced with for many, many years and someone I idolized growing up. She’s danced with PA Ballet since 1996 and just retired last year. She’s a wonderful person and now she’s going to be the principal instructor of the new school.PGN:Do you watch any of the dance shows on TV?IH:No, not at all! I’m a big “Game of Thrones” fan. But I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t even have cable; I watch most shows through the Internet.PGN:OK, I admit to watching dance shows, but I like that they show the hard work that goes into dancing. Showing football players and Olympic athletes struggling to do lifts, etc., people see that it’s not for wusses.IH:Oh yeah, ballet is really, really hard. It takes years and years of hard work and dedication to get to where we are and even then, there are many people who put in the time and still don’t achieve the success we have. It’s a grueling process. It’s hard on your body, it’s hard on you mentally, you’re very self-critical and you’re fighting your body every single day. But that’s also why we love it, for the challenge and chance to push yourself. It’s definitely not for wusses. A lot of people think that because someone does ballet that they’re gay, but we have loads of straight guys who do ballet as well.PGN:It seems like the tide is turning: It used to be that men were encouraged to dance — Gene Kelly, Fred Astair, Jimmy Cagney — and then for a minute it became unpopular. But now you have guys like Neyo, Usher and shows like “Glee” making it acceptable for boys to dance again.IH:Yeah, they’re removing the stigma. It’s great.PGN:How about some random questions. The feature I get the most compliments on?IH:[Feigning a Southern accent] Um, prob’ly mah hair. I have a lot of curly hair that people always comment on. Or wait, my eyelashes. I have very long eyelashes, let’s use that.PGN:[Laughs.] OK, they both count as hair. The worst pick-up line tried on you?IH:This guy once said, “You know when I graduate college I’m going to be making over $200,000 starting salary. As an artist, you’re going to need to be taken care of.”PGN:Would you rather travel to the future or go back in time?IH:That’s a hard one, Suzi! I think I’m going to say future. It would be tempting to go back and change things or do things differently. To help my childhood self so he wouldn’t be so damn scared all the time, but I think it would be more helpful to go into the future. It would be fun to see how the world changes.PGN:The family claim to fame is ... ?IH:Cooking. Both of my parents are really good cooks.PGN:I saw that you were reviewed in the New York Times as “the hunky, precise Ian Hussey” and you were voted one of the Daily News’ Sexy Singles of 2011. How cool was that?IH:Very cool. And flattering. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, it didn’t help me in the dating department, but it’s always nice to get a good review in any form. And I’m happy with my life just the way it is.PGN:A fun dancing experience?IH:I got to be in the film “Black Swan” with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Most of the dancers in the movie are from PA Ballet. It was an incredible experience. I got to work on a movie set with the stars and Darren Aronofsky, who was one of my favorite directors growing up. To see him at work was surreal and when [Portman] won the Oscar it was awesome. It was exciting to be part of an Oscar-winning film.PGN:A fond moment?IH:The final scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” dancing with Arantxa. It was one of the most incredible parts I’ve ever had on stage. It was a part where you really had to bare your soul and she’s such an amazing artist, to share that with her and the audience ... to be in that moment was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.“George Ballanchine’s The Nutracker” runs through Dec. 30 at The Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.paballet.org/nutcracker.Read at epgn.com. >>

Pennsylvania Ballet, Behind-the-Scenes

Features, 12-13

Philadelphia Style, December 2012

Barbara Weisberger still speaks fondly of the tree that became known to some as “Barbara’s Folly.”

When the founder and former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet staged the company’s first production of The Nutcracker back in 1968, the centerpiece was a huge Plexiglas tree, in keeping with Weisberger’s desire for an original and modern take on the story. “I would not have any candy canes or anything like that,” Weisberger recalls—though her desire to also have Plexiglas stalagmites onstage was shot down when her staff pointed out, “[Those could] kill someone!”

That tree serves as a fitting metaphor for Pennsylvania Ballet’s journey with the holiday classic. For one thing, notes Weisberger, since Plexiglas was manufactured by a local company, Pennsylvania Ballet got a healthy corporate donation for that first production.

The pas de deux between art and commerce and between tradition and change runs through the Pennsylvania Ballet’s history with The Nutcracker. The company, which celebrates its golden anniversary in 2013, also marks 25 years this holiday season with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker—the crown jewel in the canon created by the legendary choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet. From December 8–30, Pennsylvania Ballet presents 23 performances of Balanchine’s gem at the Academy of Music.

The Pennsylvania Ballet is one of only seven companies worldwide licensed to perform the Balanchine version, which premiered at NYCB in 1954. But like the magical toy itself, there have been a lot of transformations for Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker over the years. Even though Weisberger was a Balanchine protégée and the first child dancer he ever trained—“he was my professional father and I adored him,” says Weisberger—the company didn’t start using his version in full until 1987, after she had left Pennsylvania Ballet.

One thing that remains constant is ticket sales. Though the terms “bovine” and “ballet” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, few ballet companies would deny that The Nutcracker in any form is a cash cow. Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael Scolamiero says that 44 percent of the company’s annual earned income (which includes investments from endowments and revenues from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, along with ticket sales) comes from The Nutcracker. Last year, the show sold 37,568 tickets, adding $2.175 million to the company coffers. For a company that operates on an annual budget of $11 million and is gearing up for a January move into the $17.5 million Louise Reed Center for Dance—a new facility on Broad Street that brings the administrative, rehearsal, and school facilities under one roof—The Nutcracker provides a lot of fiscal sugarplums.

Given its popularity, one might expect that The Nutcracker also serves as a cultural gateway drug, turning families into repeat annual audiences for the show and into patrons for other offerings. But Scolamiero says that over half the audience for Nutcracker is new every year, and many of them don’t see other shows in the season. “It’s great that there’s this churn, and you get a lot of new faces coming into the theater,” he says. But, he adds, “when the [children] reach a certain age, especially boys, they stop looking at ballet as an option.”

To counter that tendency, the company promotes family matinees for other shows, such as their upcoming production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in March. For The Nutcracker, the company also offers add-on options, such as teas with the Sugar Plum Fairy herself. Scolamiero acknowledges that patron information captured through Nutcracker ticket sales “is a nice list to take advantage of, but we need to do more with it.”

Changes in choreography and design have kept patrons and artists on their toes over the years. The 1968 version mostly used the Balanchine second act, but the first act was more streamlined and included work by Robert Rodham, a student of Weisberger’s, who created the pas de deux for the Snow Queen and King, as well as the dance of the Snowflakes.

Budgetary concerns played a role in that first Nutcracker. Weisberger felt that the company’s smaller budgets might not allow for the “grand, elegant” Balanchine aesthetic that audiences familiar with NYCB expected. By 1987, then-artistic director Robert Weiss, a longtime dancer with NYCB, decided it was time to go the full Balanchine.

Current artistic director Roy Kaiser, who danced The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet every year from 1979–1992 before assuming his current role in 1995, identifies two enduring strengths of the Balanchine version. First, the principal children’s roles are performed by child dancers, rather than youthful-looking adults. Says Kaiser, “It is kind of a children’s story, one told through ballet. The original story [by E.T.A. Hoffmann] is kind of dark, but the way it has evolved as a ballet is as a children’s story, so I think it’s appropriate to have the children in it.” And, adds Kaiser, “The other thing is that Balanchine was such a musician. His choreography came from music. And the [Tchaikovsky] score is just fantastic. Thank God it is as good as it is.”

Ongoing seasonal hits like The Nutcracker also generate high revenues because they don’t require building costumes and sets from scratch every year. But even classics need face-lifts.

In 2007, Pennsylvania Ballet unveiled a new look for the 20th anniversary of the Balanchine Nutcracker, with sets by Canadian-born designer Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn (herself a former dancer). The focus was on a regional flavor, so Horne’s set suggests a Federal-style mansion familiar to Philadelphia audiences. It didn’t come cheaply—the company spent $950,000 on the redesign, which included 185 costumes. The most expensive costume Lynn designed in the show belongs to Mother Ginger, who wears an 40-pound dress—big enough to accommodate the children who scamper out from underneath it—that cost $10,000. Luckily, that redesign came before the economic collapse of 2008. Scolamiero says, “When we unveiled the new production in 2007, we expected it to do really well that year and then fall back a little, and it did; 2009 and 2010 were a little off, and that’s because of the economy.”

For dancers, a different kind of transformation and stamina is required, since many of them perform multiple roles. Principal dancer Ian Hussey, who has been dancing in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker since age nine, has played nearly every male role. He now dances the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier. “It’s very difficult when you’re doing the third show of the day on a three-show Sunday. It’s mentally and physically tough,” says Hussey. But he also notes “The guys have it a lot easier. The girls have it rough. It’s a lot of dancing, and very grueling.”

For soloist Gabriella Yudenich, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy is a childhood dream come true. Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and the late Alexei Yudenich, both danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet—her mother was in fact the first dancer hired in 1963—and her older brother danced the prince the first year they did the Balanchine version. “I watched him do it and I wanted to be in the party scene so badly, but I was too little,” says Yudenich. Now, when she dances the Sugar Plum Fairy herself, Yudenich says “The choreography is so breathtaking and the music…. I always go into it feeling fresh. I never think ‘Oh, this again.’”

Weisberger, who has seen The Nutcracker more times than anyone else associated with Pennsylvania Ballet, attributes its enduring appeal to the fact that, though the music is “so familiar and beloved,” the dancing itself transforms with the unique physical poetry the performers bring.

“Unlike other performing arts, even theater, dance is so ephemeral,” says Weisberger. “It’s there, and then it’s not. You can see the same ballet, but it is a completely different thing when you see [a new] dancer.”

Read at phillystylemag.com. >>

A Swan Song For A Prima Ballerina

Retirement, Radio, Features, 12-13

Jim Cotter speaks with Pennsylvania Ballet Principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa.  After 16 years with the company, 11 of those in leading roles, Ochoa will retire from the stage after dancing the title role in Giselle, the ballet’s season-opening production.

Listen Now >>

October 20, 2012

It's Last Dance For Pennsylvania Ballet's Arantxa Ochoa

Retirement, 12-13, Giselle, Features

When a great athlete retires from the game, we always hope they go out on a high note. Ballet dancers are no exception; they are as much athletes as they are artists. And like many a pro quarterback who doesn’t know when it’s time to quit, many dancers conclude their careers after their skills have been diminished due to age and injury.

Happily, this is not the case with local legend Arantxa Ochoa. A performer with the Pennsylvania Ballet since 1996 and principal dancer for the last 12 years, Ochoa is transitioning from the stage to classroom. Since September, Ochoa has been leading the faculty of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet; in January, the recently opened school is scheduled to move into the Ballet’s new home at the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad Street. While beginning her tenure as a teacher, Ochoa is simultaneously bringing down the final curtain on her on-stage career this weekend with a farewell performance as the title character in the company’s magnificent production of Giselle at the Academy of Music. (Performers are subject to change, but Ochoa is scheduled to perform Oct. 28.)

“I had already made the decision to retire [before the company announced its 2012-13 season], and then I found out that Giselle was going to happen, and I thought how perfect that was,” says Ochoa. “When you are a little girl dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer, you dream of playing Giselle. From the music to the story to the steps, there is so much in the role, and there is a lot of opportunity for acting, which I enjoy.”

Her acting ability is one of the elements that separates Ochoa from other dancers. Roy Kaiser, Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director, refers to her as a “full artist.” “Arantxa is a wonderful technician,” he says, “but she also has the ability to fully immerse herself in a role, and there is a presence about her on stage that is completely engaging.”

Ochoa, who is married to former principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev, now Pennsylvania Ballet’s photographer and videographer, says she enjoys the acting challenges that come with “story ballets” like Giselle, a far cry from the shorter works that the Pennsylvania Ballet also stages. “I love the two- and three-act ballets like Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty. I love to act. People want to see the steps, but I love to develop a character that I can fully express on stage.”

Her decision to retire from it now, she confesses, is hard to put into words. “It’s the right time. Other performers always say that you will know when the time comes. I never thought that I would, but then something clicks, and you just know it’s time to move on and try other things.” And while she’s had her share of injuries—including breaking her fifth metatarsal—she says that the physical demands of ballet are only one factor in her decision to retire. “It’s a little bit of everything. It is your mind, as well as your body. I’ve had a wonderful career. And it is just the right time.”

What will she miss most? Ochoa mentions the audience first, but says she’ll also miss the arduous rehearsals. Despite the grueling hours—9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday with performances on the weekend—she admits, “I will miss the work you do with your partner before you go on stage.” It is this work ethic that Ochoa stresses with her students. “I think people don’t realize how much hard work is involved because they just see the beautiful part. There are a lot of things that a dancer needs, but I tell my students that hard work is most important,” she says.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Ochoa’s retirement, says Kaiser, is that she’s still in her prime as a performer. “It’s always sad to see a dancer’s performing career end, but in Arantxa’s case, she’s doing it of her own choice. She’s not retiring because of an injury or something else,” he explains. “It’s her decision, which is always a very positive thing for a dancer.”

And, as Ochoa’s performance in Giselle proves, she’s still at the top of her game.

Featuring Adolphe Adam’s lushly romantic score, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production is visually stunning (John Hoey’s lighting design is wondrous) and emotionally affecting. In the title role, Ochoa’s dancing is precise and elegant, and she truly captivates in a performance that is both subtle and breathtakingly passionate.

As Kaiser observes, “there is a natural evolution in a ballet company. Will one dancer step in and fill (Ochoa’s) shoes? No. But a number of dancers will step in and bring their qualities to the repertoire we perform.” 

Through Oct. 28. $30-$125. Academy of Music, Broad and Locust sts. 215.893.1999. paballet.org

Oct. 24, 2012
By J. Cooper Robb
Philadelphia Weekly

Read at PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.

Review: Pennsylvania Ballet opens season with 'Giselle'

Giselle, 12-13, Reviews

Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 49th season with Giselle Thursday night at the Academy of Music and made it clear why the work has such staying power.

One of the world's most frequently performed ballets (with Nutcracker and Swan Lake), Gisellewas choreographed in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and reworked several times by Marius Petipa. It is breathtakingly beautiful, from the courtyard scene to the romantic pas de deux to the lush corps de ballet in long puffs of white tulle to the memorable Adolphe Adam score.

This run of Giselle is notable as the last dance for beloved principal Arantxa Ochoa before she retires from the stage. (She has already begun the next phase of her career, as principal instructor at the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet.) Ochoa was to perform Friday night, as well as in a final performance at the Oct. 28 matinee.

But Julie Diana, who danced the title role Thursday, was wonderful as well. Her strong dancing and acting and delicate features made her believable as a young girl, and later a ghost defending her feckless lover, Count Albrecht, from the vengeful female spirits called Wilis. Albrecht was played by her real-life husband, the reliable Zachary Hench, the flirt who breaks Giselle's heart.

Gabriella Yudenich, who was promoted to soloist shortly after her breakout debut as Myrta, queen of the Wilis, in 2007, reprised the role and was just as mesmerizing, her fluid arms and quick bourees as light and ghostly as the part demands.

That entire second-act scene at the graveyard was stunning. The corps dancers do not get much difficult dancing as the Wilis, ghosts of jilted brides, but their precision and lines are what make some fall in love with ballet. They were led by Barette Vance Widell and Abigail Mentzer; the two made a lovely trio with Yudenich.

There were a few missteps, and one was amusing: Jong Suk Park as Albrecht's friend Wilfred regally promenaded across the stage with two fluffy hunting dogs, one of which got to center stage, lost interest, and had to be coaxed the rest of the way.

The other lapse involved what should have been a light-hearted peasant pas de deux. Evelyn Kocak - whose charming performance as Wendy in last spring's Peter Pan led up to her recent promotion to soloist - danced proficiently but appeared stiff, nervous, and uninvested in the part. Her partner, newly minted principal dancer Jermel Johnson, usually an explosive jumper, nearly fell several times.

Giselle makes for a crowd-pleasing season opener at a transitional time for many of the company's dancers. Along with Ochoa's departure and Kocak's and Johnson's new roles, Lauren Fadeley, Brooke Moore, and Ian Hussey will be performing for the first time as principal dancers. So the entire run is sure to feature interesting performances.

October 21, 2012
by Ellen Dunkel
Philadelphia Inquirer

Read at Philly.com.

Giselle Rendez-vous Package

12-13, Packages

Enjoy a night out with a performance of Giselle at the Academy of Music and dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House! Packages start at $80 and include performance ticket and three-course meal. Available October 19 and 27 only. 
Details and Tickets >>


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