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SideBarre

It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this blog series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre each week to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.

July 9, 2020
What is your favorite ballet to conduct?

"There is one ballet that seems to fit me like a glove."

By David LaMarche

I find pleasure, wholly, or intermittently, in all of ABT’s ballets.  Some are more challenging for the conductor, and some more so for the dancers, but they all have their moments!  However, there is one ballet that seems to fit me like a glove, and that is Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia.  It’s not for everyone, but it suits me and my temperament.  The score is so beautifully orchestrated.  There are wonderful tunes – lyrical, grand, comedic – and Ashton understood it because his choreography finds the balance between pathos and humor, intimacy and distance.  I look forward to it every time it returns to the repertoire, and I have enjoyed every single performance.  There are orchestra members who chide me about my affection for the composer, Léo Delibes, but what can I say? It’s in my French heritage!

If I hadn’t stumbled into this profession (and believe me, I had no plan), I can only speculate about what would have happened to me. Something with language, maybe. A writer, a translator (I love languages), or (and this is a stretch), a dancer! I studied ballet for a year in college at a private studio, and my teacher, who had a small company, asked me to join. I think it’s because she was desperate for men to join the troupe, but who knows? I could have ended up on the other side of the proscenium!

Florence Pettan in 1977.
Posted In
Mentors
July 7, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"Florence Pettan was a mentor to me - unwittingly perhaps, as I don't think she realized how her influence on me would take hold."

By Cristina Escoda

Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Florence Pettan.
Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Florence Pettan.

Of the many people who have inspired and guided me through my years in the ballet world, as dancer and then dance administrator, one person in particular was more than just a role model or an inspiration.  Florence Pettan was a mentor to me—unwittingly perhaps, as I don’t think she realized how her influence on me would take hold.  But when I look today at how I try to conduct myself at work and in life, and I look back to my early years as a fledgling artistic staff member in the office next to hers, it is evident how much I learned from Flo.

It was not so much in the practical skills department (certainly not—I was witness to her valiant efforts to move from typewriter to clunky desktop computer, floppy disks and all!).  It was in the area of professional comportment and dedicated service to the Company that I learned a thing or two from Flo.

She was of a different generation, with a Rolodex full of legendary names (movie stars, socialites, politicians) and illustrious close friends from work (the choreographer Glen Tetley, the designer Santo Loquasto, the ballerina Lupe Serrano).  And she had such a style about her— a wonderful wardrobe, Bakelite jewelry, platform heels (she was a tiny thing).  But she was neither showy nor aggressive.  As she gently told me with a smile one day early on when I was fretting over what to wear to an ABT Gala: “It’s not about us.”

Florence Pettan at work.
Florence Pettan at work.

Lucia Chase’s son Alex Ewing spoke about Flo glowingly at a memorial event for her in 2008 (she passed away in December of 2007).  In his words, she was “always on call, never complaining, ready for whatever came up next.”  She didn’t “ever raise her voice, or give way to anger, or put herself first—she was there to do Lucia’s bidding, whatever that entailed.”  All that might make her sound like a bit of a doormat, but she wasn’t.  She was simply “true blue… for Lucia, and in much the same way for American Ballet Theatre.  You didn’t dare talk against either one of them…not with Florence Pettan.”

Flo worked at ABT for at least 50 years (perhaps longer— it is unclear what year she actually began with the Company).  In the beginning, she was one of only five people in the ABT office who were support staff for the entire Company of 100+ people—dancers, ballet staff, crew, musicians, etc.  She was Lucia’s executive secretary, but as there were no separate press, marketing, development, special events or general management departments, she had a hand in every aspect of the Company’s daily business.

My work with ABT is vastly different from Flo’s back then. I also do not have an ounce of her style or fashion sense.  But with her calm, smiling, ready-to-help demeanor etched forever my brain, I try to be as tirelessly dedicated as she was and will be happy if I am able to contribute, without unnecessary fanfare, to the fabric and history of ABT even half as much as she did.

Tina Escoda was a member of ABT’s corps de ballet from 1985-1991.
She joined ABT’s Artistic Staff as Rehearsal Coordinator in 1994 and has served as Artistic Administrator since 2000.

July 2, 2020

"It is impossible to ignore the welfare of our fellow humans."

By Remy Young

The misfortune this pandemic has created is unparalleled. These circumstances are ubiquitous; they have affected every single human being in some way. However, in my opinion what is most mind-blowing is the dichotomous nature of our present state: the physical isolation and loneliness this virus has generated have also resulted in a widespread feeling of unification among people around the world. We can now empathize with one another more candidly than ever before. The only antidote to the stress and anxiety of flattening the curve is considering the greater good— it is impossible to ignore the welfare of our fellow humans.

Once we reach the other side of COVID-19, permeating our world with art will be vital to healing our collective brokenness. Art unites, inspires, empowers— we cannot do these things alone. The purpose of a dancer is to share stories with an audience; we dance FOR the audience. I think everyone is experiencing some hardship in not feeling the presence of a community. This is what I am most looking forward to once we conquer this virus: bringing people together and sharing with them something beautiful. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to remind ourselves that there is indeed a community out there eagerly anticipating the return to normalcy.

Remy Young phone banking for New York Cares. Photo courtesy Remy Young.
Remy Young phone banking for New York Cares. Photo courtesy Remy Young.

For me, volunteering with New York Cares was an exceptionally heartwarming experience that did just that. It consisted of a relatively simple task: make calls to senior members of The Actors Fund to see how they are holding up. I came across many different personalities— some lively and spirited, others just frustrated and fed up with this pandemic. No matter their degree of responsiveness, every person I spoke with was appreciative of the opportunity to chat. The call was beneficial on both sides of the phone line. For them, it was a reminder that they are thought about, cared for, and have access to resources if needed. For me, it provided a sense of purpose that eased the helplessness quarantining has instilled. I was refreshed by brusque New York dialects and inspired by the voices of such well-seasoned artists. I was given hope by seeing that there is still good that can be done from my couch.

Most of all, I was reminded that my community, my New York, is still there, and none of us are alone. I am very much looking forward to volunteering for New York Cares again and would recommend it to anyone who is homesick for the city, in need of a pick-me-up, or just looking for a fun and fulfilling way to spend their time.

Remy Young joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 2016.

Vernon Ross backstage during Whipped Cream. Photo courtesy Ross.
Posted In
Occupations
June 30, 2020
What do you do at ABT?

"Working in Wardrobe can be very demanding, and it helps to be very organized and attentive to detail, which strangely enough, I enjoy."

By Vernon Ross

To be a supernumerary in Dance Theatre of Harlems production of Firebird at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was a life-changing experience for me at the age of 21. It was the impetus for my changing the course of my career path after graduating from college. Having studied mostly modern and African dance because ballet training was less accessible, I had the opportunity to take company class for a week while DTH was in D.C. and consequently was invited to attend the summer intensive workshop that year. At the end of the summer intensive workshop, I was invited to return in the fall as a student in the professional training program. I was a student in the school for two years and was given an apprenticeship the following year. At the request of Mr. Arthur Mitchell, I was asked to work with the wardrobe department. Of course, as an aspiring dancer I was not thrilled with this decision but was hopeful. As part of my apprenticeship, I was given the opportunity to travel with the company and to take daily company class before starting my wardrobe duties. My career at DTH spanned the course from student to wardrobe assistant to wardrobe supervisor, culminating as the production manager for the professional touring company.

Touring nationally and internationally and working in some of the worlds most renowned venues was an invaluable experience for both my personal and professional development and growth. To witness firsthand the multifaceted complexities of live theater kept me focused and knowledgeable. There were always hurdles and challenges that I would have to face when coordinating and setting up shows – I would often have to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”  I look back on my trajectory and sincerely believe that the transition from a wardrobe assistant to the wardrobe supervisor brought me the most joy and satisfaction, which is why I now enjoy working at American Ballet Theatre. Working in wardrobe can be very demanding, and it helps to be very organized and attentive to detail, which strangely enough, I enjoy.

I started working as a dresser for the Principal men at ABT in May 2006; and in January 2017, I was hired as the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Principal men. Keeping up with the details, logistics and maintenance of the wardrobe for a company of 90-plus dancers, which tours extensively, can be very challenging. Documentation and organization are paramount to stay on top of all of the tasks and responsibilities required of the job. There are so many moving pieces that you have to be organized to a fault. How we pack the wardrobe equipment and costume crates before we travel, and unload them when we arrive at the theater, are crucial for seamless and successful engagements and performances.

I enjoy many aspects of my job, such as assuring that the dancers look their best and feel as comfortable as possible when performing on stage. This is achieved by way of individual costume fittings and alterations. I also collaborate with my fellow co-workers on ways to improve and streamline some of the basic wardrobe daily operations. The least favorite aspect of my job, only because of the personal stress it causes me, is preparing and assigning costumes for the dress tech rehearsals at ABT.  While it is exciting and I am always happy to see dancers promoted with the opportunity to perform new roles, it’s unlikely in the ballet world that each dancer performing in a new role will have his own costume. In addition, we often do not run the rehearsals in program order, which prevents me from having sufficient time to properly prepare the costumes for the next cast as precisely as I would like. Oh well, welcome to the world of ballet!

Vernon Ross has been a valued member of ABT’s Wardrobe Department since 2006.

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Vernon Ross has been a member of the wardrobe department with American Ballet Theatre for the last fourteen years, however, working behind the scenes was not Vernon’s first love. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Vernon made his way to New York as a dancer in 1981, joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem pipeline, first as a student in the school and then as a dancer with the company before eventually taking over the production department. In a pinch-hitting situation, (“I didn’t even know how to sew!”), Vernon was plucked from the studio and into the wardrobe department by Arthur Mitchell himself. Vernon quickly became an integral part of the creation of skin-tone tights and shoes for all of the company’s dancers. Vernon spent countless hours standing over 30-gallon boiling pots of water concocting the perfect shade for each individual company dancer. For the first time in ballet history dancers of color were embracing their skin colors on stage that celebrated them instead of covering them up with the traditional “ballet pink” toned tights, “All of them [the dancers] would treat tights like gold, because they wanted to look their best. It was one of the biggest aspects of my job because Mr. Mitchell was really a stickler about the flesh-tone shoes and tights. And, really, he set the platform for it being what it is today.”⠀ ⠀ #Juneteenthdancebreak | Thank you @MoBBallet for the inspiration. ⠀ ⠀ #BalletRelevesForBlackLives #AmplifyMelanatedVoices ⠀ ⠀ Photo Credits:⠀ Photo 1: Eddie Shellman and members of the Harlem Dance Theatre rehearsing Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments”, New York, New York, 1970. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)⠀ Photo 2: Tights and shoes on exhibit at “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts.” Photo by Gene Ogami⠀ Photo 3: Vernon Ross. Photo courtesy of Vernon Ross

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Posted In
Favorites
June 23, 2020
What is your favorite ballet to conduct?

"Undoubtedly one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th Century is Igor Stravinsky's Apollo.

By Ormsby Wilkins

Undoubtedly one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th Century is Apollon Musagète by Igor Stravinsky. However, it is probably less appreciated than the big three ballets written at an earlier stage of Stravinsky’s career: Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. I have had occasion recently to delve more deeply into this work. 

Firstly, I have been fortunate enough to have conducted performances of Apollo with three different companies over the last two years, including ones with American Ballet Theatre during its 2019 Fall Season at the Koch Theater in New York. 

Secondly, I recently did an interview for an online arts journal and as I knew that this interview would be an extensive look into the score, as well as its close relationship to the inspired choreography of George Balanchine, I did some extra reading and to my delight turned up all sorts of interesting facts and stories surrounding the original creation of the ballet.

Stella Abrera (Terpsichore), Melanie Hamrick (Calliope), Joo Won Ahn (Apollo) and Katherine Williams (Polyhymnia) in <i>Apollo</i>. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Stella Abrera (Terpsichore), Melanie Hamrick (Calliope), Joo Won Ahn (Apollo) and Katherine Williams (Polyhymnia) in Apollo. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

I did know that the first performance, commissioned by The Library of Congress, had taken place in Washington, D.C. in April of 1928, though of course that choreography was not by Balanchine but by Adolph Bolm, now completely lost and forgotten. What I did not know was that in some early sketches, Stravinsky had planned to include harp and piano in the instrumentation, perhaps representing Apollo’s lyre, but in the end composed it for a string orchestra (the solo violin makes a glorious stand-in for the lyre!).  It was only two months later, in June 1928, when the Balanchine version (now with the simplified title Apollo) was danced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Serge Lifar as Apollo. 

Ormsby Wilkins joined ABT as Music Director in 2005.

Learn more about Apollo
June 23, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"When I think of mentors who helped me to attain my dream...several names come to mind."

By Cynthia Harvey

Cynthia Harvey and Natalia Makarova in <i>La Bayadère</i>. Photo: Kenn Duncan.
Cynthia Harvey and Natalia Makarova in La Bayadère. Photo: Kenn Duncan.

They say it takes a village; a village and at least 10 years to become a dancer. With that in mind, when I think of mentors who helped me to attain my dream of becoming a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and who simply helped me to navigate life, several names come to mind. No singular person is more important than another.

My first ballet teacher, Christine Walton, was the first person who influenced me. Mrs. Walton opened my eyes to beauty of line. She taught me about effortless grace and imbued in me the joy of dance. She continues to be one of the most open-minded people I know. I look to her now, like I did when I was a child, to respond to my inquisitive nature on the “HOW” of the dance.

The next influential person and mentor to me would have to be the legendary teacher David Howard. He came into my life at a time when I needed to learn how to really move. He dissected movement and helped me to understand that the linking steps were very important, and further, his own generosity of spirit was a lesson in love. Then, around the same time, Natalia Makarova became a mentor. She taught me the importance of dynamism. She taught me that simply making things look easy was boring and that quality and expressiveness were always something to aspire to. She gave me more than she knows.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not include Mikhail Baryshnikov as one of my big mentors. He taught me that purity of form was beauty in itself and verified that the work was the most important thing – always the work. He also made me understand that challenges could be attractive. I owe him, and the other people named here, a tremendous amount.

Cynthia Harvey retired from the stage in 1996 after a celebrated career as Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre and
The Royal Ballet. She was named Artistic Director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2016.

Posted In
Favorites
June 18, 2020
What is your favorite memory in your career?

"I will never forget the first time I got to do a run-through of In the Upper Room."

By Carlos Gonzalez

Cast of <i>In the Upper Room</i> poses backstage at Northrop while on tour to Minnesota in 2019. Photo courtesy Carlos Gonzalez.
Cast of In the Upper Room poses backstage at Northrop while on tour to Minnesota in 2019. Photo courtesy Carlos Gonzalez.

Hi there! I’m Carlos Gonzalez and this is my fourth year as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. I’m in the corps de ballet, and I’m dying to be reunited with all my friends and wonderful people I get to work with every day post-pandemic.

Choosing a favorite memory is hard since there are too many that I would love to share with everyone. But there is one memory from my career so far that sticks out the most.

In the fall of 2018, I got the chance to learn In the Upper Room by Twyla Tharp. Not only was I excited to work with the one-and-only Twyla Tharp, but I was also looking forward to absorbing as much knowledge from her as I could from the moment she stepped in the studio. I remember everybody telling me how amazing their experiences performing that piece onstage were, but I didn’t really believe how incredible it would be until I got the opportunity to dance it myself. I will never forget that first time the second cast got to do a run-through of In the Upper Room. I have never been that exhausted in my life! But also I had never felt more accomplished.

Cast of <i>In the Upper Room</i> gathers on stage before the show (2019). Photo courtesy Carlos Gonzalez.
Cast of In the Upper Room gathers on stage before the show (2019). Photo courtesy Carlos Gonzalez.

You know when you put every part of yourself into something, and then the work pays off? I remember feeling how the hard work, day after day, finally felt rewarded, and that feeling was common among all the dancers in both casts. Everybody gave an incredible effort, and we all went home really happy that day. The second cast performed the work for the first time on tour in Minneapolis in April of 2019; that one show was unforgettable. I loved that we were all completely devoted to giving 110% of ourselves to it. And the thing I love the most is how In the Upper Room requires that all of the dancers work as a team: we go through the nine different sections of the ballet together. It really taught me how to distribute my energy and how to make a challenge so fun and enjoyable.

I really hope I get to perform In the Upper Room again and pass it on to future generations who will have the wonderful experience of doing the work in the studio and seeing it come together on stage.

Carlos Gonzalez joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 2017.

June 16, 2020
In May 2020, volunteers from ABT participated in virtual phone banking to assist seniors and other adults served by The Actors Fund.

"Making the calls had made us feel more connected, potentially even more of a benefit to us than to those we called."

By Rachel Richardson

Hello everyone!

My name is Rachel Richardson and I’m a dancer with ABT. I’m currently sheltering in place at home in Oregon since the Company stopped work in mid-March. Last week I had a chance to volunteer with my colleagues at ABT for The Actors Fund through a program called New York Cares. We were calling members of The Actors Fund over 60 years of age to check in and see if they needed support in any way. This was the second company-wide volunteering project through New York Cares, and I look forward to the next one! It was such a fun and rewarding experience that perfectly complimented the experiences I’ve been having at home.

I’m so grateful to be with my family in Oregon. I spend lots of my time outside (running, biking and hiking) in the beautiful nature of the Pacific Northwest, which I can easily do while staying socially distant. I started my first college course this spring through Fordham University, and I’m taking two other summer courses, so I’ve had plenty of schoolwork to do as well. I’ve also been teaching online dance classes and dancing in my house, outside and in studios I’ve been able to use. ABT has provided us with ballet and conditioning classes, and I’ve also been able to take online classes from a slew of other teachers and in a variety of styles thanks to the magic of the internet. I’ve been working on variations over Zoom with a former ballet teacher and doing in-studio socially distant work with my first ballet teacher here in Oregon.  While these activities are all familiar to me (despite the new settings), the biggest change has been adjusting to family life.

Rachel Richardson taking Company Class at home. Photo courtesy Richardson.
Rachel Richardson taking Company Class at home. Photo courtesy Richardson.

I left home when I was 13 to attend a ballet boarding school in Philadelphia and haven’t been home for more than a few weeks at a time since. I feel like this time is really valuable to me, especially since it seems to be softening the individualism I’ve built up through my schooling and my time in NYC. It’s been especially fun having two foster sisters who came to live with us just last summer. I’ve really been getting to know each member of my family as an individual, separate from the “role” they play in the family. I can tell I was getting set in my ways of doing things, and this has been a great nudge to shift from a “me” centered life to an “us” centered life. I’ve always wanted to maintain a role in my community, and I’ve often looked for opportunities to volunteer in order to help with that. I volunteer regularly with my church, teach free dance classes and donate dance lessons to school auctions. I’ve helped organize and run youth events and have joined in on specific volunteer projects, like sourcing meals for low income NYC students and helping with the Broadway Flea Market. The best part has always been the people I meet and recognizing all the ways people are generous with their time and resources. While I used to feel like I should take every volunteer opportunity presented to me, I’ve realized that I have specific abilities and resources that are needed and that I enjoy giving, and I naturally want to help in those ways. Now when I’m presented with an opportunity, I’m either genuinely excited about it, or I feel confident saying it’s not right for me.

The opportunity with New York Cares sounded fun from the beginning because I’ve always loved meeting new people and engaging with members of the ABT family and the broader New York City community. I was surprised by the amount of action needed to prepare, which included two registrations, training sessions and a background check – all of this a testament to how committed and eager people are to help out. There were 14 of us from ABT volunteering that day and from the moment we began, I was filled with so much love for the people I work with. We started with a preparation call where each member introduced themselves and shared why they had chosen to participate; it was so unifying to hear the communal sense of gratitude for wellbeing during this time and a subsequent desire to help others. It’s always cool for the chance to interact with members from different departments within ABT. In addition to dancers, Orchestra musicians and two conductors, there were individuals from Administration, Education, Press, and Hair and Makeup. After briefing, we began calling the community members. My conversations were heartwarming. Each person I talked to shared how capable and healthy they felt, and that they were eager and grateful for the conversation. Everyone had unique and interesting stories and thoughts to share, and many mentioned how they were also looking out for others in need. When we joined the debrief at the end, I loved hearing how many meaningful conversations had taken place. We all agreed that making the calls had made us feel more connected, potentially with even more of a benefit to us than to those we called. I’ve felt similarly about my time at home; the opportunity to listen to others and consider how I’m contributing to the family teaches me so much and encourages me to grow.

While I’ve kept the goal of helping out my family while at home, it’s hard to say how much help I’ve been. It’s a definite learning curve with plenty of meltdowns on my end. However, like in the volunteering calls, I’m trusting that my presence at home has at least created a sense of connection for others as they have all been such a help to me. I do feel that I’m “shedding” my stubborn habits and character traits, and in return, I’m getting a greater sense of how special and valuable each and every individual is. I certainly felt that way with each person I talked to on the phone while participating last week. The value of connection has been a very universal lesson during this time. People seem to be learning it in a million different ways. It’s been great to learn more about how helping out is such a natural part of existing in a community. Being at home has taught me even more about the diverse ways people contribute.

Rachel Richardson joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 2015.

New York CaresPress Release