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Corps to the Rescue

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With the recent posting of NYCB Nutcracker casting and Megan Fairchild's debut as SPF (along with past talk about her in Coppelia 4x) I've started wondering about the tendency that seems to exist for corps dancers to be pushed into the spotlight. Teresa Reichlen, Ashley Bouder and Yao Wei could be added to this list--which is just culled from the two companies I've seen the most of. I've been through the discussion about Paloma Herrera and how she "burned out" early from overuse, but that isn't my question.

Why is it that companies give these opportunities to fresh-faced, newer corps members rather than some of the more experienced corps or soloist dancers? Is it a chance for them to showcase their talent and learn how to perform as an individual artist, or is it a chance to save money by having them do roles above their level and still pay them at the bottom rung? Is it a way to let them know they are doing well, so that they won't get the idea to go somewhere else? Do you think that it gives people false hope of getting promoted if they are regularly scheduled for roles and not getting moved up?

Please don't misunderstand, I am more than happy to see these (mostly women...but men too-Amar Ramasar, Kristoffer Sakurai come to mind) folks get to strut their stuff, but I'm curious about when is too much without the reward of getting your photo in the program! Especially since some dancers seem to speed through the ranks, while others "do their time" before inching their way toward premiere dancer status.

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It's really a ballet master's call, and is done usually for reasons of career development for company dancers. Economics shouldn't enter into it, but of course, sometimes it does. But the excitement of being able to say "I was there when Gladys Schlabotnik debuted as Aurora!" is a big thrill for audiences, especially if Gladys does a great job and becomes La Schlabotnik! Suzanne Farrell was still a soloist when she was announced as the ballerina for Balanchine's production of Don Quixote.

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At this point, it's something that seems to be part of the institutional culture of NYCB. At least some of the reason seems to be a desire for novelty, and to see what the younger dancers can do. There's a certain fascination with the "new kid on the block" as well. I think that got Abi Stafford the lead in Valse Fantasie before she was even listed on the company roster in January of 2000.

Also, at NYCB, debuts in new roles is unquestionably a sign of being on track to rise in the company, but of course timing is everything.

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I hope it isn't the money -- I would be very surprised if that were the case at a company such as NYCB. As others have pointed out, giving corps dancers big roles has long been part of that company's traditions.

In recent interviews (including one with Wendy Wheelan for DanceView) dancers have stated that Martins has a "sink or swim" approach -- throwing a promising dancer into roles, a lot of roles, and if they make it, great. The unstated implication is if they don't, well, then they've had their chance. From the outside, that's what it seems that ABT does, as well. (Of course, only the artistic director and his immediate staff really knows for sure what the policy is.)

Elsewhere, there's the irresistible desire of some artistic directors to "discover" someone -- which is why they often overlook soloists, or senior corps. (Although, to be fair, sometimes able soloists or senior corps really aren't suited to principal parts).

Another reason that some young dancers may be given more roles than others is that they're fast learners. I've lost count of how many dancer interviews I've read where they say an older dancer gave them the advice when they were kids -- learn every role, you never know when you can substitute (and they did) or that they were fast learners. I've seen dancers who aren't, to my eye, principal dancer material at all get thrown on at the last minute, learn quickly, get through a performance respectably; this happens a few times, and then they've become "reliable." The company knows s/he won't let it down (not a small virtue; think of the number of great dancers who are much injured or have had problems with nerves).

In the best of all possible worlds, I think the company should look at the younger dancers, have a good idea who are the ones likely to go up the ranks, and give them a shot -- but BRING THEM ALONG, as it used to be said, not dumping 10 roles on them at once. Put them in something that suits them and shows them off, then put them in something that challenges them. Build confidence.

The one dancer I can think of who has been "brought along" well recently is Gillian Murphy. She was spotted early (I did an interview for Ballet Alert with her coach, Georgina Parkinson, during Murphy's first season, where she said she thought Murphy was one to watch) but she wasn't given every leading role right away. And I think that's paying off.

I think Helgi Tomasson has a good record of bringing dancers along, too. I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts on this, not only from watching ABT and NYCB, but what about the Kirov, Royal, Pariis -- Marc, Jane, Estelle? Any thoughts on this? And what about other American companies, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City, Pacific Northwest, etc?

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Knowing when to push ahead, when to hold back - things like these make an AD's job very difficult (other bosses, too). It seems when an AD is accused of promoting too soon they always point to Balanchine using Le Clerq, Farrell, Kent Kirkland and Kistler while they were still in their teens. Of course, we also are always told, "Well, there's only one Balanchine."

Looking at NYCB now, Martins has for the last 15 years had put dancers in a cycle of early promotion, breakdown, and comeback. Sometimes it works out - Miranda Weese; other times it works out eventually - Ringer, Ansanelli. Prior to this time, he was accused by some critics of awarding roles based on service time. In some cases, we'll agree on the moves based on if you like the dancers.

I certainly wasn't upset when Ringer, Meunier, Kowroski and Weese were pushed ahead (just to name a few), but some others I felt could have used more seasoning. And I don't think an AD can treat all young dancers the same - not all are going to react well to a "sink or swim" philosophy [here again, Martins might be using a superficial copy of Balanchine's put them on at a moment's notice way, but I think that Mr. B's way was more complicated than that]. Some dancers might be the slow and steady type, they might be the ones who need a little more reassurance, but might become great stars just the same. It's the AD's job to recognize what type a dancer might be. I don't see that very often at NYCB. There's a nice clip of Lourdes Lopez in the Balanchine Celebration tape talking about how she was worried she wasn't getting things as easily as most of the other dancers. Mr. B told her that he was a gardener and some flowers bloom early and only last a short time, and others take longer to flower but last all season.

In addition, there are plenty of parts in the rep. in classical works, Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins etc... that can be filled by a talented dancer right out of school. An AD doesn't have to throw them into Swan Lake or Coppelia at 17.

There's also the point of morale - a company can lose good dancers when an AD "annoints" stars straight out of school. Yes, many of the corps and soloists are just that, but there are other talented dancers who are principal material who just need some time.

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I think Helgi Tomasson has a good record of bringing dancers along, too.  I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts on this, not only from watching ABT and NYCB, but what about the Kirov, Royal, Paris -- Marc, Jane, Estelle?  Any thoughts on this? 

Well, it seems to me that traditionally the POB hierarchy was quite strict, with the big roles for the étoiles,

then some for the premiers danseurs, etc. and the quadrilles getting only tenth Swan or Shade on the left. :blushing:

And sometimes it can be very slow to get promoted: the number of available positions in each category can vary a lot, and there can be several years in a row with no new premier(e) danseur(se), or with only

one or two positions in each category, so a good dancer can get stuck forever in the corps de ballet

if s/he entered the company in a bad period (and from what I've read, for example this year the number

of promotions will be very low :-( )

However, Nureyev gave some big roles to some young dancers (the Hilaire, Guérin, Guillem, Legris generation)- but I wonder if they already were sujets when they got some roles, or if it was before? Also,

in the last few years the hierarchy has been less strict, as more and more premieres danseuses get principal roles (I remember reading a recent interview of Aurelie Dupont, who was promoted around 1998, saying that when she was premiere danseuse she got at best one matinée for the "big" roles like Kitri or Aurora, and

it was a not to be missed opportunity, while now the premieres danseuses get nearly as many performances as the principals) and also some sujets or even coryphees (for example Dorothée Gilbert is supposed to perform in one of the casts for "Liebeslieder Walzer" soon, and Mathieu Ganio in "Ivan the Terrible"). But I don't think that someone just out of the POB school could ever get a big role immediately, that would be totally unusual in the company's tradition, and usually the stagiaires (apprentices) or beginning quadrilles can consider themselves lucky when they actually perform and are not just understudies... Actually I find it quite sad to see that there were some dancers who gave lovely performances with the school, and then get "drowned" in the group of quadrilles and are seldom seen on stage...

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