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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.

Posts in: Women's History MonthView All Posts
Shelley Washington.
Posted In
Black History MonthWomen's History Month
March 26, 2021
For Women's History Month, SideBarre is highlighting the extraordinary women who have helped to shape ABT through the years.

"It's how we speak to one another and how we respect one another. It’s about how we can all sit down at the table and at least be able to be heard. I think that's the most important thing for all of us.”

Even contained in a little rectangle on Zoom, Shelley Washington’s vivaciousness and elegance demand attention. Her huge, soulful eyes are mesmerizing, her presence generous. For almost two hours, I had the privilege of interviewing Shelley about her life and her time at American Ballet Theatre.

Shelley was the second Black female Soloist that ABT had ever had, a position she held from 1988-1990. The path to such a coveted position in a ballet company is typically straightforward. Young dancers, with years of training under their belts, fight for coveted apprenticeships. From there, they pay their dues in the corps de ballet and after many more years of hard work, a select few are chosen to become soloists or principal dancers. This was not the case for Shelley. Instead, she took her own uniquely beautiful path.

Shelley Washington at a tech rehearsal for Twyla Tharp's <i>Brief Fling</i>. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington at a tech rehearsal for Twyla Tharp's Brief Fling. Photo courtesy Washington.

From a young age, it was obvious that Shelley had a natural gift for dance and performance, and after years of training, with the help of her mother and her teacher, Shelley found herself at Interlochen Arts Academy. At age 14, for the first time, Shelley was with people who were like her, and indeed there is a unique kind of magic that happens when you find your people. You begin to understand yourself in a different way, in the context of a group, not just as an individual.

“Interestingly,” Shelley said of finding this community she so easily fit into, “it wasn’t that they were Black. It was that they all were dancers, artists, musicians, actors. They were me. They were the people that were seeking something different from the curriculum of their high school. They were me because they had parents or mentors who sent them to the school. All of those students looked like me.”

Coming from a small town in Michigan, where Shelley’s family was the first and only Black family, this newfound space allowed her to blossom.

Following her high school years, Shelley moved to New York to attend Juilliard. From there, it took no time for Shelley’s professional career to come to fruition. At the end of her two years at Juilliard, Shelley was asked to audition for the Martha Graham Company. What followed was a whirlwind year of international touring with Martha, who collaborated with great artists such as Halston and Andy Warhol and hosted internationally renowned ballet stars Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. It ended in true fashion, with a gondola ride to Martha’s hotel room in Venice. Shelley had been offered a position in Twyla Tharp Dance, so she traveled the canals to tell Martha. Somebody who had seen Shelley take class in 1973 at American University with Twyla remembered her and asked her to audition. Twyla swiftly asked Shelley to join her ranks.

We now fast forward to 1988. Twyla Tharp was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov, then Artistic Director of ABT, to begin working with the Company, and in that transition, Twyla brought four of her dancers with her – Shelley among them. Because of her position with Twyla and the amount of money she made, which was more than a corps de ballet member, Shelley became a Soloist. For the ABT dancers who were on the traditional path, this was not received well.

“Now you can imagine, I’m 34 years old, I’m a Soloist at Ballet Theatre, I’m not a classical ballet dancer, and I’m Black. Think about how incredible Misha was to do that and Twyla to have me in there,” Shelley recalls.

Shelley Washington and Kathleen Moore in Twyla Tharp's <i>Everlast</i>. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington and Kathleen Moore in Twyla Tharp's Everlast. Photo courtesy Washington.

The transition was not easy for Shelley, and even Twyla felt that she had let her down, as she later wrote in her book, Push Comes to Shove. Shelley, whom Twyla referred to in her book as one of her “power women,” was at the pinnacle of her career and had been with Twyla for 13 years. As one of the senior dancers in Tharp’s company, Shelley had to rapidly change the course of her career. Even Twyla herself said that Shelley was the only one without pointe shoes in the locker room.

Shelley remembers her first class with ABT as particularly challenging, “I had to walk into a class with all those dancers, and you can imagine what they were all thinking. I can imagine what they were mostly thinking, you know, How is this happening? and How can she be a Soloist? and I’ve been here for all these years. We were in California. I can’t remember who was teaching, maybe Jurgen Schneider, and I went to one barre and as I was standing there, Misha came over and stood next to me. He left his barre and came and stood next to me, as if to say, Okay, we’re in this together. Let’s do this. I’ve got your back.”

The first thing Shelley did at ABT was stage In the Upper Room, a ballet that had been choreographed on her and held a special place in her heart. As one of Twyla’s most experienced company members, Shelley not only came to ABT as a dancer and performed in many of the Company’s works, but also as a regisseur.

Though she was taking on new responsibility and entering into a whole other phase of her career, it was, nevertheless, a huge loss of what she left behind. She didn’t dance as she did before. “I decided that I really couldn’t dance Upper Room because I was so used to dancing every piece every night, seven shows a week, and I couldn’t bear the thought of doing it once every week or so. It was just too much.”

At this point in our interview, Shelley paused and thought for a moment, before taking me back to 1969, “I never told my mother. I never told anyone at the school. I never told my sister. I remember my teacher taking me aside and saying, You know, you have beautiful feet and legs and arms and you’re a beautiful dancer. I really think you should be a modern dancer or go into movies or Broadway, because you’ll never be a ballet dancer because of the color of your skin. And if you got into a company, you would be the gypsy. But I never stopped taking ballet class. I just thought, Okay, well, I don’t want to be a gypsy in a ballet company. I’ll show you.”

And show him, she did. She came full circle, ending her career after a few years at ABT with one of the biggest roles she had ever performed: Madge in La Sylphide. Fondly remembering her final curtain call at the Met, she said wistfully, “It was pretty wonderful.”

Shelley Washington overseeing rehearsal at ABT. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Shelley Washington overseeing rehearsal at ABT. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Shelley didn’t stay a Soloist for very long. It wasn’t something she had strived for her whole life. She had already had a prolific career with Twyla. She understood that there could be only so many Soloists at ABT and that there was a corps de ballet full of beautiful dancers who had been working to move up the ranks their whole lives. She decided to retire and became a full-time regisseur.

“You know, I love dance. I love ballet. I loved my time there, but it was not easy. It was not easy in the beginning, but then for me, nothing really ever has been.”

Shelley was so used to changing schools in the middle of the school year from such a young age because her father’s job was constantly moving. She was so used to being the only one who looked a certain way, whether in junior high in Michigan or in Germany.

Coming to ABT, Shelley said, was the same thing. And throughout these experiences, she kept returning to the wisdom of her grandmother—do your work, keep your focus, be a good girl, be honest, and it will work. Above all, Shelley’s grandmother told her she believed in her, and it is evident that she carries those words and the faith, strength, love, and support from her family with her today.

Shelley respected the dancers at ABT greatly, but they also respected her—her work ethic, her insight, and her determination. A true pioneer, she respects her own bravery in coming to ABT, and the bravery of others to welcome the Tharp dancers when it could have been so easy to reject them.

I want to end this interview with Shelley’s own words. In our few hours together, I had already learned so much from Shelley. I was awestruck of the strength and grace in her words and in her heart. With so much change in the world, so much that has come to the surface, I was curious to hear what she thought the future might hold for the ballet world:

Shelley Washington taking a bow with the cast of <i>In the Upper Room</i> during ABT's Fall 2018 season. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington taking a bow with the cast of In the Upper Room during ABT's Fall 2018 season. Photo courtesy Washington.

“I don’t know what the future is. I know that it can only get better because we are talking, we are dealing, we are listening. We are listening. So perhaps that’s the biggest thing—maybe we’ve always talked, but no one has listened. We can’t go back and fix things from the past, but we can acknowledge them and know that they’re true and that hurt and pain and suffering are there. It’s there and now maybe we can move past that.”

“That teacher could have said, You’ll never be a ballet dancer because of the structure of your hips, as opposed to, because of the color of your skin, but if I’m going to stay positive, I was a Soloist at ABT. I can say I proved you wrong, as opposed to, I’m going to get that person in trouble. Even at 14, I knew it was heavy. I think the first time I ever talked about it was last year.

“Then you start hearing other dancers’ stories, and you’re just like, whoa. I think it was easy to live in our own little bubbles and now they’ve been broken. So, perhaps it’s not only listening. It’s how we speak to one another and how we respect one another. It’s about how we can all sit down at the table and at least be able to be heard. I think that’s the most important thing for all of us.”

Shelley Washington, I hear you. Thank you for allowing me to listen.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in January 2020.

Jennifer Alexander as Bathilde in Giselle. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Posted In
Women's History Month
March 22, 2021
For Women's History Month, SideBarre is highlighting the extraordinary women who have helped to shape ABT through the years.

"American Ballet Theatre honors one senior female corps dancer each year for her professionalism, dedication, and perseverance with the title of Jennifer Alexander Dancer."

As any ballet dancer will tell you, the corps de ballet is the “backbone” of the performance. The corps anchors classical performances as flocks of swans, sylphs, and shades. They frame the stage and often move – even breathe! – in unison. And from within the corps are shining examples of leadership, exuding not only beauty and grace, but also exhibiting strength and resilience on stage and in the studio.

Since 2008, American Ballet Theatre honors one senior female corps dancer each year for her professionalism, dedication, and perseverance with the title of Jennifer Alexander Dancer.

The designation is named after Jennifer Alexander, a deeply respected and beloved former member of ABT’s corps de ballet. In December of 2007, Jennifer tragically passed away in an automobile accident, leaving a hole in the tight-knit corps and in the larger ballet community. ABT honors Jennifer for her 13 years of dedication to the Company and her lasting impact on the corps de ballet as a friend and mentor to those around her.

Betsy McBride, 2020 honoree, echoes this sentiment:

“Jennifer is known for not only being a beautiful dancer and artist but a perfect example of professionalism and focus. I was so honored to have received the Jennifer Alexander award and will strive to uphold her exemplary qualities.”

2019 recipient Brittany DeGrofft agrees, “Though I never personally knew or worked with Jennifer, her legacy of professionalism, perseverance, and generosity is something we all hope to embody as dancers.” She adds:

“It was an honor to be recognized as someone who represents some of the same qualities that were greatly admired in her. I was incredibly grateful and proud to carry her title for the year of 2019.”

Most recently, Lauren Bonfiglio was named as the 2021 Jennifer Alexander Dancer. Lauren embodies Jennifer’s positive influences on ABT and works to further her legacy as a leader within the corps de ballet and her local community.

Lauren began her ABT journey as a student in both the Young Dancer Summer Workshop and New York Summer Intensive, and was accepted to the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2009. She first performed with the Company while she was still a student, landing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker in 2010. She joined ABT Studio Company in 2013 and became a member of ABT’s corps de ballet in January 2015.

Lauren continues to serve as an inspiration for her fellow corps dancers and students in the ABT JKO School. She also works to lift up her community through volunteer work with Brooklyn Book Bodega and as a Guest Teacher, leading master classes for local students on off-days during ABT’s annual national tour.

On receiving the Jennifer Alexander Dancer designation, Lauren says, “to be joining the group of women who have been previously recognized with this honor is deeply meaningful to me.” She continues:

“I have tremendous respect for the past recipients of this award and I’m proud to carry on Jennifer’s legacy at ABT by emulating her exemplary qualities. Working in an environment where professionalism, generosity, and dedication are highly valued raises the level of performance for everyone in the rehearsal studio. I’m very grateful.”

The writer, Samantha Aaronson, is the Press Intern for Spring 2021.

 

Scene from Her Notes. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Posted In
Women's History Month
March 8, 2021
International Women's Day 2021: ABT dancers #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality by cracking the ceiling.

"Today, we celebrate women across the country and across the world who continue to challenge the status quo, chip away at the glass ceiling, and assert their place in boardrooms and in front of rehearsal rooms."

International Women’s Day has been celebrated for well over a century, with roots in the early 1900’s as women organized and campaigned for the right to vote. As the years went on, women’s advocacy efforts expanded to labor relations, healthcare, and more. And although there is still much work to be done in this space, the inclusion of all women, regardless of race, in the fight for gender equality came years later still.

Today, we celebrate women across the country and across the world who continue to challenge the status quo, chip away at the glass ceiling, and assert their place in boardrooms and in the front of the rehearsal room.

In honor of  International Women’s Day on March 8, we take a look at where seven former ABT dancers are now – at the top of their fields, exercising excellence, grace and humility, continuing to be prime examples of female empowerment.

Cynthia Harvey and Patrick Bissell in <i>Swan Lake</i>. Photo: MIRA.
Cynthia Harvey and Patrick Bissell in Swan Lake. Photo: MIRA.

Cynthia Harvey

Currently serving as the Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Cynthia Harvey began her career with ABT in 1974, was promoted to Soloist in 1987, and became a Principal Dancer in 1982. After a brief stint as a principal dancer at The Royal Ballet, Harvey rejoined ABT in 1988 before retiring from the stage in 1996.

For Harvey, being Artistic Director at the ABT JKO School, means “being a small cog in the wheel” of nurturing the best and brightest dancers of years to come. Harvey’s work and influence, however, cuts far beyond ABT; she is a sought-after teacher, jury member, board member, and founder of “En Avant Foundation,” a non-profit foundation for mentoring and coaching ballet for prodigious young dancers.

Julie Kent

Holding the title of longest-serving ballerina at American Ballet Theatre, Julie Kent joined the ranks of ABT as an apprentice in 1985, making her way to Principal Dancer in 1993. Over the course of her performing career, Kent amassed a repertoire of over 100 ballets and helped define and refine the image of the American ballerina.

Now, as the Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet, Kent focuses on creativity, expression, and championing her artists, choreographers, and the art form of ballet itself through various arts education programs throughout the Washington D.C. area.

Maria Riccetto

Maria Riccetto grew up studying ballet at the National Ballet School in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1999 she was offered a position as a corps de ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Riccetto was an ABT Soloist for 10 years before returning to her hometown of Montevideo to continue and progress her ballet career.

In her current position as Artistic Director of Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Uruguay, Riccetto aims to expand the repertoire of Ballet Nacional de Sodre, tour when it is safe to do so, and collaborate with the dancers to create new works. Riccetto is admired in Uruguay as a “national treasure.”

Michele Wiles

Michele Wiles joined American Ballet Theatre Studio Company in 1997, was promoted to Soloist in 2000, and to the role of Principal Dancer in 2005. During her time with ABT, Wiles was a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Dance Fellowship recipient and won the Erik Bruhn Prize.

Wiles left ABT in 2011 to start BalletNext, a dance organization that pairs classically trained dancers with live musicians, emphasizing collaboration, risk taking, and the process of creating. With Wiles at the head, BalletNext’s NextGeneration program offers young dancers the opportunity to learn ballet technique and blended styles alike, as well as receive professional development in the form of personal branding, networking, and application tips.

Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella in <i>Swan Lake</i>. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella in Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Paloma Herrera

Hailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Paloma Herrera made history as the youngest Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre at the age of 19. Throughout her tenure with ABT, Herrera traveled the globe, appeared as a guest artist with various companies, and originated leading roles choreographed just for her.

After leaving ABT in May 2015, Herrera was appointed Artistic Director of the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She additionally has served as a member of the Artist Committee for The Kennedy Center Honorees, was chosen as one of “the top 10 dancers of the century” by Dance Magazine, and was given the Bicentennial Medal by the City of Buenos Aires.

Stella Abrera

Stella Abrera joined American Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps de ballet in 1996 before being appointed a Soloist in 2001, and Principal Dancer in 2015. Abrera frequently works with non-profits including starting Steps Forward for the Philippines, cofounding Artists for Aveni, and participating in a series of galas held in Manila, which resulted in the building of the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall in Batangas.

Abrera is currently the Artistic Director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, where she has hosted numerous ballet companies for performances and residencies, bringing the best of the arts and culture to the Hudson Valley.

Susan Jaffe

In her current appointment as Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Susan Jaffe is only the second woman to hold her position. Jaffe began her dance career with ABT at the age of 16, joined the corps de ballet two years later in 1980, and was promoted to Principal Dancer in 1983.

Years later, Jaffe became the Dean of Dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, a position she served in for eight years until July 2020 when she became Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  

Now, in addition to her more traditional duties as an Artistic Director, Jaffe focuses on giving her dancers a wide breadth of physical and mental health resources, including Pilates, Gyrotonics, cardio, and meditation. Her work with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre compliments her independent, newly established series of positive mindset workshops that provide live and online wellness workshops and audio meditations.

The writer, Samantha Aaronson, is the ABT Press Intern for Spring 2021.