It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.
In August 2020, Amy Hall Garner created a new virtual work for ABT Studio Company, Visceral Harmonies, with music by the students of Collective Conservatory. The collaborative work recently premiered online.
"The virtual choreographic process was an eye-opening experience and something new to all of us."
By Aleisha Walker
In August, ABT Studio Company had the opportunity to create a virtual ballet with choreographer Amy Hall Garner, set to music composed by musicians from The Collective Conservatory. This virtual choreographic process was an eye-opening experience and something new to all of us.
During this unusual time, we are extremely fortunate to keep up our ballet training through Zoom technique classes, but it was vastly rewarding to be able to create a piece together again. Participating in a virtual piece is something we never could have imagined pre-pandemic, but we were so grateful for the opportunity.
Most of us in ABT Studio Company have previously worked with choreographer Amy Hall Garner. In the beginning of our 2019-2020 season, she created the ballet Escapades on us during our residency at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, in upstate New York.
Amy is a very detail-oriented choreographer who always strives to make us better artists. Personally, working with Amy has been very beneficial because she pushes me out of my comfort zone. It was amazing to reunite with her.
In addition to working with an outstanding choreographer, we had the opportunity to collaborate with talented young musicians from The Collective Conservatory, who composed original music to complement our virtual ballet. This was my first time dancing to music that was commissioned specifically to accompany our choreography.
The final cut of music was unique and paired well with the movement. It was fascinating to hear the progression of drafts from first to final cut.
We began the virtual piece in August and created the choreography in a span of two weeks. We had rehearsal during the week Monday through Friday for three hours each day. Amy then split these three-hour blocks into rehearsals for small groups and individuals before reconvening us all back together again. This process was similar to how we normally rehearse.
The recording process was new to me, although since the beginning of the pandemic, I have gained more experience filming myself. Because I do not have a mirror in my makeshift home studio, filming has been crucial for me to be able to self-correct. For the filming process, we were given the option to record inside of a studio and/or outdoors. I recorded my sections both in my home studio and outside.
My mom helped me with the recording in my house. It was especially tricky finding ways to film in a smaller area. For the second part of my filming, I filmed outside.
I was on a road trip in Colorado with two of my best friends, so I had plenty of gorgeous spaces to film in. One of the places where I filmed was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
There were many people throughout the nature park, so it was challenging finding moments to film without others in the shot.
The experience of working on this virtual ballet was one of the silver linings to an uncertain time.
ABT Studio Company formed a ballet bubble in East Haddam, Connecticut to rehearse existing repertoire and create new works to be filmed at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York. Highlights from ABT Studio Company’s ballet bubble can be seen in ABT Today: The Future Starts Now on YouTube. Stay tuned for a full virtual program of filmed performances from the ABT Studio Company ballet bubble in 2021!
SideBarre asked ABT Studio Company member Teresa D’Ortone to tell us about her bubble experience.
Remember the feeling the first time you were away from home, leaving your loved ones and all that was familiar? Then finally returning home, and feeling as if you had never left? This was exactly how it felt when ABT Studio Company finally had the opportunity to reunite at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut this September.
The chance to spend seven weeks together was something none of us could have imagined possible a few months back. Arriving at the residency was the beginning of something new. We were so grateful for the opportunity to dance together once again.
Spending the remainder of our spring season at home, though tough at times, helped push a different kind of motivation to the surface.
I soon realized just how much of a privilege it is to dance in a studio every day. Preparing to get back into the studio was a challenge most dancers in our group were quick to accept. We worked virtually with choreographers and learned from all sorts of influential artists. Although we were in different places and different countries, each with our own challenges, our time in virtual class felt like home.
Upon arriving in East Haddam, we followed a strict protocol and quarantined for two weeks. We continued virtual classes, including technique, strength, and Pilates, all from our individual bedrooms. We had no contact with anyone outside of our Studio Company “bubble.”
The hardest part of the quarantine process was knowing that we were so close to our group, all in the same place and doing the same things, but unable to do those things together.
Those two weeks went by very quickly, and we were so fortunate to begin classes and rehearsals in the studio as a group once again. The very first step in the studio was an absolute relief! After imagining what that first day back would look like for so long, it is hard now to put those feelings into words.
It felt surreal to finally be back working with everyone in the same room, doing what we love.
The adjustment from dancing in our bedrooms to the studio came naturally for all of us. Of course, we were all a bit nervous the first few days, but we were quick to ease into our daily routine.
We had a variety of repertoire from last season that we were happy to begin working on again, as well as some new works we have yet to perform. The repertoire is a mix between classical and neo-classical/contemporary – taking on such diverse movement is one of the things I missed most while away.
We are putting together all of these pieces to film over the next two weeks while at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York. More than anything, I am excited for the opportunity to get back in a theater and perform, even without a live audience.
One of our pieces, choreographed by Lauren Lovette, was completed on the very last day before we were all sent home for COVID-19 lockdown in March. Working on this ballet now is particularly special and represents all the hard work that went into the last couple of months. Seeing everyone with newfound levels of motivation and energy has been well worth the wait, and I am trying to take in as much of this experience as possible. I know that looking to the future of ABT will continue to motivate us all!
Teresa D’Ortone joined ABT Studio Company in Fall of 2018.
ABT RISE Weekend Workshops provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to classical ballet, while serving all communities across New York City's five boroughs in a warm and welcoming environment. ABT held its first virtual RISE Weekend on October 24-25, 2020.
"In my Afro Caribbean dance class, I give students the freedom to make their own choices, and I encourage them to reach beyond what naturally comes easy to them."
By Iris Wilson
In February 2020, Richard Toda, Artistic Manager of Engagement at American Ballet Theatre, emailed asking if I could teach the Afro Caribbean classes for ABT RISE Weekend Workshop. Overjoyed and completely stoked about teaching for a prestigious organization, I accepted the invitation. As I prepared my lesson, I knew exactly what I wanted to teach the young second and third grade students who would be participating in the ABT RISE weekend.
Fast forward ahead through a time where our world has been completely flipped upside down by COVID-19, police brutality, BLM protest, California wildfires, closing the city, re-opening the city, #endsars, war in the Congo – and the most chaotic presidential election cycle in recent U.S. history to top it all off – I’m delighted to say that I recently taught my third workshop for the ABT RISE program on October 24 and 25. It was a breath of fresh air and the silver lining in the midst of global pandemonium.
It is truly an honor to be a Teaching Artist with ABT RISE. I love the mission of the program, which is to provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to ballet and all forms of dance.
It is so pivotal to the development of the whole child. By participating in programs such as this, it enables students to better understand themselves and the world in which they live. It also allows room for children to be expressive and communicate their own ideas while being creative, learning new things, meeting new friends, and having fun.
While ballet is the central point, ABT RISE also offers classes in other forms of dance, including jazz, modern, hip hop, and Afro Caribbean. In my Afro Caribbean dance class, I give students the freedom to make their own choices, and I encourage them to reach beyond what naturally comes easy to them. I motivate them to take risks by stepping outside of what’s comfortable or familiar, to test their own boundaries, and to use their imagination.
ABT RISE students have learned dances from Haiti, Cuba, and Dominican Republic, as well as free movement styles found throughout the Caribbean Islands. I teach students the history of the folklore and to recognize the contribution of these cultures to the fabric of our society. This increases their understanding and appreciation of the diversity and value of all people.
Dance, as we already know, is amazingly beneficial for children. It builds a sense of community, and brings joy and happiness to participants.
In the midst of a pandemic where social distancing and masks are mandatory to save lives, we are all on edge and feeling the negative emotional impacts of isolation and being apart from one another. Now more than ever, dance class seems even more magical.
While children may not be able to dance in the physical dance studio and be physically close to their friends and teachers right now, the beauty of technology has allowed the ABT RISE program to continue to bring dance to the lives of children and to enable them to feel connected once again.
As I observed the children expressing themselves through movement during the workshop, I couldn’t help but notice that their smiles had become contagious. The presence of community was there and it felt so organic.
Watching everyone dancing together on the screen in their little boxes restored a new sense of togetherness, no matter how far apart we were. The magic was back in the same way it was before social distancing became our new normal.
Allowing children to unmute themselves so their voices can be heard was an added bonus and a special treat for me, as one student gleefully shared how she loves dancing and that my class was the “best ever” out of the entire weekend. This made my heart smile!
Iris Wilson was an original featured cast member of the three-time Tony Award®-winning Broadway musical Fela! and toured with the show nationally and internationally. She is currently a dance educator at P.S. 9 and a Teaching Artist for ABT RISE.
"By participating in programs such as ABT RISE, it enables students to better understand themselves and the world in which they live. It also allows room for children to be expressive and communicate their own ideas, while being creative, learning new things, meeting new friends, and having fun."
"I teach students the history of the folklore and to recognize the contribution of these cultures to the fabric of our society. This increases their understanding and appreciation of the diversity and value of all people."
"The beauty of technology has allowed the ABT RISE program to continue to bring dance to the lives of children and to enable them to feel connected once again."
ABT RISE Weekend Workshops provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to classical ballet, while serving all communities across New York City’s five boroughs in a warm and welcoming environment. ABT held its first virtual RISE Weekend on October 24-25, 2020.
"As Artistic Manager of ABT Engagement, my role is to design and host the program and bring together a faculty to inspire our NYC kids."
By Richard Toda
As I write this, 48 hours ago we brought our virtual RISE weekend to a close. While the glow of the weekend remains, let me share about the program, my role, and some of the wonderful educators who shared their expertise.
The ABT Engagement team welcomed second and third grade New York City public school students to participate in a free series of dance classes and activities over the weekend of October 24-25 via Zoom. As Artistic Manager of ABT Engagement, my role is to design and host the program and bring together a faculty to inspire our NYC kids.
Everyone has different learning styles. I’m a visual learner, so in designing our RISE Programs, I visualize the flow of the weekend and how that will support our student outcomes.
The ABT RISE Weekend Workshop is an intensive two days offering almost three hours of dance instruction each day. Rest times are woven into the schedule, with snack time where we show dance video clips and breaks between class offerings. Our days start and end with community building sessions.
During the morning session, expectations are shared, including how to meet our teachers, more complex ideas of what success looks like today, and reminders such as, “Those steps I know, those steps can grow.”
The morning session is an important icebreaker to set everyone up to be ready and successful, especially over Zoom. It has also been important to offer students a variety of entry points to further their interest in dance.
ABT RISE Weekend schedules include a daily ballet class, followed by a pairing of either Afro Caribbean and Modern classes, or Contemporary and Hip-Hop classes for our second and third hours of the day.
We enlisted ballet faculty from our own Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Children’s Division, Breana Reed and Alexis Andrews, along with ABT Teaching Artists Mariana Ranz, Carrie Demos, and Kelby Brown, to provide consistency with ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Students also experienced Hip-Hop guest teachers Shaahida Samuels and William Rhem and Contemporary classes with Justin Dominic.
As a former student in Newark Arts High School years ago, Justin Dominic had participated in ABT’s Make a Ballet program. He then danced professionally with Carolyn Dorfman Dance, among other artists and companies. What a joy it was to watch Justin lead and demonstrate Contemporary movement vocabulary with such rich detail for ABT RISE students.
Another admired dance educator who has taught at our previous ABT RISE workshops is Iris Wilson. Iris danced in the Broadway company of Fela! and is now a New York City public school dance teacher. She will share her perspective on the virtual RISE Weekend here on SideBarre later this week.
Part of our network is Harlem School of the Arts (HSA), an ABT-certified school. HSA’s Chief Officer of Education and Creative Programs, Aubrey Lynch, and Dance Chair, Leyland Simmons, lead a conservatory dance program for HSA students on Saint Nicholas Avenue and 145th Street. Leyland taught ballet class to our oldest RISE workshop students on Saturday, and Aubrey and Leyland together introduced students to the possibilities for next steps in their dance education at HSA on Sunday.
Our NYC youth are resilient, and like all dancers, they search out and find community. We’ve now had students who joined us in person at our 890 Broadway studios for our first RISE Workshop, attended our RISE Camp in August, and returned this fall for the RISE Weekend.
I’m so glad these students have found ABT RISE to be a source of community and fun learning experiences that deepened their love of dance. A few of the comments shared during our final reflections show their progress and passion: “I listened,” “I focused better today,” “I had so much fun,” and “I had a great time at all the classes.”
Richard Toda leads educational programs throughout New York City as Artistic Manager, ABT Engagement.
"The ABT Engagement team welcomed second and third grade New York City public school students to participate in a free series of dance classes and activities over the weekend of October 24-25 via Zoom."
"Our NYC youth are resilient, and like all dancers, they search out and find community."
"I’m so glad these students have found ABT RISE to be a source of community and fun learning experiences."
From September 21–October 26, ABT dancers Anabel Katsnelson, Betsy McBride, Duncan McIlwaine, Erica Lall, Jacob Clerico, and Melvin Lawovi, along with Director of Repertoire Carlos Lopez and choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, created the first ballet bubble at PS21 in Chatham, New York. The group lived together on the grounds of the performance space, set in the foothills of the Berkshires, for five weeks to rehearse and film a new ballet under strict safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SideBarre spoke to Anabel about the unique opportunity and her experience there.
How did you feel rehearsing and performing again after months of lockdown?
It was truly a pleasure to dance in a theater after spending months taking “quarantine class” at home on my little square of marley from Harlequin floors. It felt so freeing to take up space and do big jumps across the floor! Rehearsing and creating a new work delighted and challenged me in so many ways; I really tried to soak it all in.The first couple of weeks were physically difficult as far as getting back into dancing shape, but by the end of the project, I felt like I had surpassed where I was as a dancer even pre-covid.
What were the grounds of PS21 like and what did you do there during downtime?
The grounds of PS21 were gorgeous, and we were lucky enough to be there for peak fall foliage! We rehearsed at the on-site theater, just a short walk from the house we all stayed in. I loved being able to go apple picking on my five-minute breaks and take long walks around the grounds in my downtime. There was an animal sanctuary next to the house with pigs and goats! In our downtime at the house we cooked together, watched ballet videos, tie-dyed, celebrated birthdays, sang karaoke, and had dance parties!
How was your experience working and living with the same group of people?
The incredible pod group made the experience so special! Of course, all of us dancers knew each other before the project, but living together for five weeks bonded us all in so many ways. Carlos Lopez, the Director of Repertoire, taught classes for us, organized events for us, rehearsed us, took care of all of our safety protocols, and motivated us every day!
It was inspiring to watch ballets together and have open conversations about our artistic aspirations in a setting outside of the studio. Our choreographer, Darrell Grand Moultrie, also stayed in the same house and got to know each one of us! I think the living situation added a human aspect to the piece. Darrell became acquainted with our personalities and urged us to remain true to ourselves in our dancing.
What was it like working with Darrell Grand Moultrie for the first time?
Working with Darrell was incredible! From the get-go, he had a great eye and was able to assess each dancer’s strengths and weaknesses. He was passionate about not only creating an awesome piece, but also ensuring that the process was transformative and impactful. What I learned during these weeks helped me grow as an artist and will stick with me for the rest of my career!
Darrell chose Duke Ellington music for his new work, which will premiere at ABT’s virtual gala on November 23. How was it dancing to jazz music rather than classical piano or orchestra?
I loved dancing to Duke Ellington! It felt great to dance to familiar music while still maintaining a classical base. In this case, the music really dictated the movement. The piece came together seamlessly because the choreography fit the phrasing of the music so well.
Any other reflections from lockdown or the bubble?
I found that working in this bubble after months of not performing with ABT was extremely fulfilling and inspiring. I cannot wait to see the final result at ABT’s virtual gala on November 23!
Anabel Katsnelson is a member of the corps de ballet. She joined ABT in 2016. Follow her on Instagram @anabel_katsnelson.
In my many years with ABT, I have been blessed to have many mentors – people who not only believed in me, but quietly guided me towards my 40+ years as a member of ABT’s Artistic Staff.
As a dancer, choreographer Agnes DeMille chose me to dance The Cowgirl in Rodeo, against director Lucia Chase’s preference for a soloist dancer. Of course, Agnes won that “battle.” Her belief in me brought out my inner voice as an artist while teaching me stagecraft: timing, the importance of stillness, and honesty in one’s intent.
Twyla Tharp was next. I was still in the cast of Push Comes to Shove when she chose me to maintain the ballet. ABT’s management picked up on that, and within a year I became an assistant ballet master. The path was clear.
Misha Baryshnikov made it clearer when he became Artistic Director of ABT. His guidance became my mantra during tough times: “It comes with the job.” His assistant, Charles France, mentored in a different way. He taught me to stand up passionately for my point of view and beliefs.
And last, but certainly not least, Natasha Makarova’s trust in me has helped me to raise the bar and keep it aloft. I’ve learned so much from her – about technique, artistry and the marriage between the two.
All of these remarkable people have left their mark on me and how I work. They established the standards that I adhere to, and they are with me when I enter the studio. Lessons of a lifetime.
Susan Jones serves as Regisseur at ABT. January 2021 will mark 50 years since she joined ABT.
Susan shared stories of working alongside Natalia Makarova in a video for ABT OffStage: A 2020 Virtual Season, available on YouTube!
In April 2020, the ABT National Training Curriculum Teacher Training Intensives made the leap from in person to online courses. Creators of the National Training Curriculum Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens share their experience with this new virtual world.
"We are honored to work with teachers from around the world via Zoom."
We are two mature men who still write with pens and pencils, type with two fingers, and go into a panic when dealing with computers and the internet. So, for us, it was a scary thought to teach the ABT National Training Curriculum (NTC) Teacher Training Intensives via Zoom.
But the NTC Team, Molly Schnyder, Sonia Jones and Sayako Harada made it happen. It has been an adventure and we are all gaining confidence with every learning curve that comes our way. The NTC Team, from the ABT Education and Training Department, has proven that the “ABT Miracle” does not only apply to performances on stage but also to the work done behind the scenes by the entire organization.
Our first experiment teaching the NTC via Zoom were courses reserved for ABT Company cancers. It went surprisingly well. And what a joy to work with the dancers and with ABT’s Regisseur, Susan Jones. Every time there was a cyber challenge, it was fixed with a great spirit of collaboration from the NTC team and the dancers, just like the ABT family always does.
Speaking of the ABT family, it touched us deeply that so many of our ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School graduates now dancing with the main Company took the course.
It is impossible to describe the happiness we felt seeing their faces and how hard they worked.
We must say that all the ABT dancers’ commitment to learn the NTC was uplifting, especially now with COVID-19. An added plus has been that we were able to visit them all at their homes – virtually of course!
After seeing that the courses were successful for the dancers, the ABT NTC Teacher Training Intensives are being offered to all teachers wishing to participate.
It is mind boggling that we have teachers attending the courses from the entire world, with those in Australia and Asia getting up in the middle of the night to follow the lectures.
We are truly blessed, and we are humbled and honored to be given the opportunity to work with teachers from around the world in this new way online. Still, we look forward to the day we can all meet again at ABT’s historic New York City studios at 890 Broadway.
Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens designed and codified the ABT National Training Curriculum, which was introduced in 2007. They are now ABT National Training Curriculum Associates Emeriti.
This week on SideBarre, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton steps into the spotlight.
"Behind every shining light on stage is a great lighting designer, but Jennifer Tipton doesn’t exist in the shadows. She is a giant in her industry."
Light. For the most part, we just accept it. We don’t question it nor may we even think about it. We take for granted that we are able to see, and that light will continue to allow us to see. There is a reason why darkness can evoke so much fear—light illuminates our world into abundance. Without its presence, so many things just disappear.
There is a certain place that one takes note of the light. In the theater, when the lights dim to signal the start of a show, it brings a collective hush over an eager audience and the late comers scrambling to find their seats.
With the darkness comes a flood of anticipation. We gladly accept ourselves disappearing into the blackness, for the light that appears before us creates another world to immerse ourselves within. It is so seamless that we do not even notice the light that took us there.
Behind every shining light on stage is a great lighting designer, but Jennifer Tipton doesn’t exist in the shadows. She is a giant in her industry, a revered and respected artist who has won too many awards to count: a MacArthur Grant, a Laurence Olivier Award, two Bessies, two Tonys®, two American Theatre Wing Awards to name a few. Jennifer’s work, both in theater and in dance, is known and beloved around the world.
Now a Professor of Design at the Yale School of Drama, Jennifer’s roots began in modern dance. The summer between her junior and senior year of high school in Columbus, Ohio, Jennifer went to the American Dance Festival, where she fell in love with the Graham technique, created by American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.
She loved it so much that during her senior year, she spent two weeks in New York by herself, studying at the Martha Graham Dance Company studios. Although she transitioned into lighting design after graduating from Cornell University, her dancer’s eye has always remained sharp, intuitive and essential to her lighting.
So how does lighting design work? When working on a new ballet, Jennifer would go see the work in the studio and was often one of the first people to see the whole ballet with virgin eyes. Arriving simply as a viewer, she would ask the choreographer not to talk to her about the piece until she had seen it. “If the choreographer tells me certain things, like [the dancers are] reacting to a ghost at this point, then I will see the ghost” she said. Her independent notions that she then formed about the ballet allowed her to aid the choreographer in their storytelling and give recommendations as to how an intention can be made more present by the light.
The next step, moving a work to the stage from the studio, creates a significant difference in how the ballet looks, and it is here that Jennifer works her magic. With the addition of costumes or sets, from the most detailed to the barest, light is the medium through which these elements come together to form a performance.
On stage, light could be its own character, especially in dance, where choreography and light infuse to sculpt and define the movement. The three-dimensional elements of this relationship are the key to perception of breadth and volume, but it must not be obtrusive. As Jennifer explains:
“The lighting designer has to be very careful not to be bigger than the dance.”
It was always her hope that the audience didn’t take too much notice of the light on stage. If one did take note, it could have been for all the wrong reasons (a stage shrouded in an excess of shadow can certainly be a performance-killer). It is the lighting designer’s job to use the light to not just make the dance visible, but to tell a story—one that is fitting and freeing, allowing an understanding and interpretation of the narrative.
Jennifer’s time as a lighting designer was sometimes difficult. It wasn’t a very glamorous job, and she often missed out on the recognition that the dancers, choreographers, costume designers and composers received. She frequently found herself traveling alone, having to fend for herself, needing to be strong. One must weather the bumps and bruises, she told me, to develop a shell, but also needs to stay sensitive to the surrounding world.
Jennifer made it through with her guiding force, “I’ve been just so in love with light, that those other things don’t matter.”
We should all hope to find something in our lives to talk about with as much reverence and passion as Jennifer does about light.
During the Fall 2019 season at the David H. Koch Theater, ABT presented Tharp Trio, a program of three Twyla Tharp ballets: The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Deuce Coupe and In the Upper Room. It was not just an evening of Twyla, but an evening of Jennifer Tipton too.
She had worked with the famed choreographer on all three ballets that spanned three decades. Having them shown together in one evening was a proud and significant moment for Jennifer, a celebration of many years of work.
The lighting featured in In the Upper Room is particularly striking. The beautiful interference of beaming white lights against semi-transparent fog on stage functions as a curtain through which the dancers can appear and disappear. They do not simply exit the stage, they are engulfed and released, their lingering energy fueling the progression of the dance.
Much has changed in lighting design over the years with new and evolving technology. Computer controls make some things possible that could not have been achieved before, such as the rhythm and dynamics in light transitions. There is an increased fluidity of the light that can be altered and manipulated more so than ever before.
Lights and color filters themselves have changed, and the use of LED lights is getting better, but Jennifer does have one gripe about this: “LEDs are not full spectrum lights, so I really don’t like LED light on skin very much. There are all colors in skin, so it needs a full spectrum—skin of all colors needs full spectrum light to not be flattened out.”
Technology has not threatened the organic creativity of before, for these are just new tools. The most important instruments come from within: “One still needs an eye. One still needs the mind to organize the light. The brain will find a way to organize what it’s seeing, whether you organize it or not.”
In this way, light can be the scenery, the highlighter, the focus, the innocuous presence on stage, but Jennifer hopes that, above all else, lighting designers will always continue to make it about the performer. For what is an empty stage with a set and lighting if there is no one to dance within it?
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.
In July and August, Lauren Bonfiglio held a book drive to serve children in the New York City area and bring the ABT community together.
"This “free time” experience has kept me connected with my ABT family, along with introducing me to new friends and collaborators. I look forward to volunteering with Brooklyn Book Bodega again in the near future."
There’s been a shared sentiment amongst many of us that having extra time on our hands has led us to explore our other interests and passions. Having more time in the day to think, reflect and fill those hours has proven to be a unique challenge.
Before the pandemic, every department of ABT was gearing up to celebrate our 80th Anniversary, and we were on a high after the successful world premiere for Of Love & Rage.
For me, this momentum fueled my desire to create and stay engaged with the ABT community, along with NYC in the months following the shutdown. Thus far, I’ve enjoyed wearing a few different hats: dancer, college student, teacher, videographer, editor. Volunteering was something that I always wanted to take part in, but with ABT’s bustling rehearsal and performance seasons, it was hard to find time to do so. This unexpected break in our schedule has given me the opportunity to explore volunteering possibilites.
I came across Brooklyn Book Bodega through a community email. They are a 501(c) (3) organization, based in Brooklyn, whose mission is to increase the number of households that have 100+ books for babies, kids and teens. I was enthralled by this idea, as reading was something that I loved while growing up, and I wanted to help families build a library of their own, especially during this time of the pandemic.
With this, I decided to host a book drive and wanted to include my colleagues and friends at ABT. I organized a few different ways as to how people could participate in donating that included books coming through the mail to my apartment and scheduling socially distanced or contactless pick-ups around the boroughs of NYC.
I was so thankful and thrilled for the enthusiastic response, as we’ve already delivered about 600 books to Brooklyn Book Bodega. And, as more packages keep arriving at my apartment, the count is now closer to 800 books!
The process of putting word out, receiving and collecting books, sorting them into age categories and delivering to Brooklyn Book Bodega was a fantastic experience for me, learning how to take a project from beginning to end. I love to keep busy and having Brooklyn Book Bodega to work with made my summer very fulfilling.
While sorting the books, it was fun to come across some of my favorites like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, Goodnight Moon, along with The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, The House on Mango Street, The Outsidersand of course Romeo and Juliet. It was also so wonderful to have an author in our ABT community sign and donate copies of her new book Gravity.
This “free time” experience has kept me connected with my ABT family, along with introducing me to new friends and collaborators. I look forward to volunteering with Brooklyn Book Bodega again in the near future. I’m feeling super grateful to all that supported this book drive, making it a success. Happy Reading!
Lauren Bonfiglio has been a member of the corps de ballet since 2015.
Last month, the first two books in ABT’s partnership with Random House Children’s Books launched. Have you checked out B is for Ballet and Boys Dance! yet? Find them wherever books are sold!
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are recognizing Carmelita Maracci, a ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher influential to ABT's history.
"Carmelita Maracci was the name that everyone should have known, but few did. She was a standout of her generation."
It is rare to encounter a person who has been described with such a wide range of impassioned, fervent adjectives—ones that are only fit for those who have a touch of the extraordinary inside of them. “Phenomenon,” “jaw-dropping,” “a legend”—these are just a few ways dance critics and contemporaries have described Carmelita Maracci.
Hers was the name that everyone should have known, but few did. She was a standout of her generation. John Martin, dance critic for The New York Times in 1937, said she was “manifestly destined for a great career.” Robert Joffrey, a student of Maracci’s, recalled, “There was, and still is, no one like her. She had incredible strength and supreme delicacy. Her technique was astonishing, perfection itself.” It was even said that she “danced with thunder,” but she could have been thunder itself—her talents almost magical.
From her birth in 1908, Carmelita Maracci’s origins were shrouded in mystery, at least for her. Told by her mother that she was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, it was only much later that Maracci’s husband found out and shared with her that she was actually born in Goldfield, Nevada. Her father, both Italian and Spanish, raised his daughter as Spanish, and despite her puzzling background, this had the biggest impact on who she came to be. After Maracci’s family moved to Los Angeles, where she finished her schooling, her parents encouraged her to pursue a future as a dancer, and off she went to New York.
There she studied with Mikhail Mordkin, who formed the Mordkin Ballet, the predecessor to Ballet Theatre. Eventually, she made her way back to Los Angeles and it was there, in the 1930s, that she met Agnes de Mille. Although they were just a few years apart in age, de Mille studied ballet under Maracci’s tutelage.
From the moment they met, de Mille’s fervent admiration and awe of her teacher solidified a strong bond between the two of them. She could see that Maracci was not just a good ballet dancer.
She created something special when she experimented with blending ballet and Spanish dance, a style she called Hybrid dancing, which she began to bring to audiences on both the East and West coasts.
In the early 1950s, Agnes de Mille urged Maracci to choreograph a new work for Ballet Theatre. She created Circo de Espana, which premiered on April 19, 1951. It was a suite of five serious and comic Spanish dances, and on opening night, Carmelita danced the leading roles in three of the pieces: La Maja y el Euisenor, Fire Dance and Portrait in Raw Espana. It was then planned that Alicia Alonso would take over the roles following that performance opening night.
Despite the talents and stage presence Maracci brought, despite rehearsals of a promising and exciting show, the ballet fell flat. The premiere was not a smashing success, and although critics praised her unfailing, staggering technique, the New York audience was not quite sure what to make of the ballet and had a markedly tepid response.
As the story goes, co-director of Ballet Theatre, Oliver Smith, told de Mille that the piece needed to be adjusted and sent her to give Maracci some words of encouragement to pull the piece back together. Antony Tudor told de Mille that the ballet was “No good,” a message she passed along. When she delivered the news to Maracci, she said it “produced in no time a collapse…because Carmy was always on the emotional brink, Donald Saddler [a Soloist at Ballet Theatre] had to carry her from the theater in his arms. And that wasn’t the first time she committed career suicide.”
Maracci retreated away from the limelight and away from Ballet Theatre. Sadly, there are very few records left of her ballet, Circo de Espana. It was only many years later that a 72-year-old Carmelita admitted the devastation she felt at the time to Los Angeles journalist Donna Perlmutter: “She came to deliver the verdict and then she told me that Tudor always says what he doesn’t mean, that he meant I’m no good.”
Carmelita Maracci was a woman whose dancing was powerful enough to be compared with the elements of the earth—her passion burned, her presence on stage was so grounding that she owned spaces and commanded time. Yet, her gifts came with a deep-feeling heart. She was an artist that prioritized feelings and meanings over commercial success.
It didn’t need to matter that the audience liked her work. That wasn’t the point of it. She wanted to dance real stories because she felt real pain. She had led a relatively privileged life herself, a normal childhood, supportive parents, and the pains and horrors in the world that she spoke of sometimes seemed to belong to another world. In fact, they belonged to other people and she just felt them deeply.
She refused to dance in fairy tale ballets with otherworldly and mystical creatures: “I could not be a dancer of fine dreams and graveyard decor. So, I danced hard about what I saw and lived.”
Most of the world never got to see the greatness that was Carmelita Maracci. Her legacy continues on through her beloved students. Jerome Robbins, Carmen de Lavallade and even Charles Chaplin – as well as ABT’s own Erik Bruhn, Christine Sarry and Cynthia Gregory – owe their early dance education to her. Gregory has given accounts of Maracci teaching in class “on pointe and wearing pink tights, puffing on a cigarette, flicking it out the window and dashing off a fast, furious set of pirouettes.”
The world was perhaps robbed of the opportunity to witness the great Maracci, but her students received an education that few others had access to. She infused her ballet classes with lessons about literature, politics and philosophy. She talked to her students not just as dancers but as people. She left a large impact on many dancers, and although that can be a profound legacy, there are others that still call her career trajectory a “tragedy.”
Carmelita said it best when she denounced the notion that her “unplanned oblivion” was a tragedy. “Save that word for human suffering,” she said, “for wars that kill innocent people, for the devastation of the poor and unwanted, for the corruption and cruelty that cause these things in the world. Mine is no tragedy. If art could relieve misery, I’d gladly sacrifice it.”
She refused to conform to or make way for a lot of things in her lifetime—the commercial side of the dance industry, the conventional structure of a ballet class, the confines of a corps de ballet.
But most of all, she refused to compromise who she was for anyone else. She was unique and she owned that.
Greatness can often come with sadness—but mostly from the people who impose their ideas of greatness upon us, and that comes with a considerable and often unfair burden. Sometimes it can be enough to stand quietly in your convictions, knowing that you do so for yourself, knowing that that in itself is great.
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.