Category Archives: ballet

Cinema: Ballet Shoes

To find out more about this movie, see this post! Enjoy!

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City Ballet of San Diego

by M. Harker April 2009
 The 2008/2009 season opener for City Ballet of San Diego was a mainly classical ballet program with one lyrical dance piece. The November 8 performance at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre featured City Ballet’s co-director/choreographer, Elizabeth Wistrich’s short version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Diane & Acteon Pas de Deux” and “Grand Pas Classique.” The finale, Wistrich’s 2004 work, “Leave the Light On,” added a special twist to the evening affair.

The music of Felix Mendelssohn played as the curtain rose to reveal the simple forest backdrop for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A recorded version of the music was used and accompanied by a recorded narration of the play used during mime segments. The poor sound quality of the narration was an unfortunate miss that only detracted from the ballet. Getting past the sound was one issue; having a clear view of the stage was another. Main floor seating was on a virtually flat surface. Without an incline, nearly 50 percent of the view was obstructed by those in the preceding rows. The size of the stage also seemed to be a problem for several dancers, as falls and collisions were a recurrence.The character Puck is synonymous with “Midsummer.” As such, expectations for this key character are often quite high. Cast in the part of Puck was Daniel Salvador; a dancer that projects good energy and enthusiasm, but underplayed his role as the mischievous character. Among the mortals, Janica Smith’s Hermia and Geoff Gonzalez’s Demetrius were convincing, and Ariana Samuelsson was delightful and giddy as Helena. Gerardo Gil as Lysander danced skillfully, but seemed emotionally detached from his character. The King and Queen of the Fairies, with Sarah Bek as Titania and Taurean Green as Oberon, were strong technically, but the connection between them was not evident. In the role of Bottom, David Levy brought a playful quality to his character. The romance between the smitten Titania and the transformed Bottom, turned donkey, was charming and one of the most memorable scenes.During the first intermission, it was a prime opportunity to move to higher ground to watch the remainder of the program. From this vantage point, Agrippina Vagonova’s, “Diana & Acteon Pas de Deux,” music by Cesare Pugni, was far more satisfying. Sarah Bek, all dressed in pale blue with arrow in hand, was a vision of beauty and strength as her character Diana, the hunting goddess, depicts. Taurean Green was well suited for this role and gave a solid performance in this ever-popular ballet.The only tutu on stage that evening was worn by Ariana Samuelsson in Victor Gsovsky’s dazzling “Grand Pas Classique,” set to music by Daniel-Francois Auber. Samuelsson and her partner, Gerardo Gil, were elegant in white and danced together with grace and precision. Samuelsson demonstrated unfaltering strength with her intricate pointe work. Facial expression was missing in Gil’s performance, but his solo was beautifully executed, showcasing clean lines and excellent timing with the music. Afterward, Gil’s energy level started to fade resulting in an anti-climactic finish.

“Leave the Light On,” a five part piece, was performed to the rock/blues music of Beth Hart. Women danced barefoot with loose hair and in simple dresses, which seemed fitting for this representation of Hart’s turbulent emotional journey through life, as expressed in her lyrics. The dance style had modern and contemporary influences such as loose movements with big free-flowing arm and body rolls. Technical elements were in their turned out, pointed feet, long, extending straight legs and turns and leaps with their bodies in upright positions. The men had shorter dance sequences, but their presence didn’t go unnoticed. During one segment, the audience hollered as the men strut downstage in unison while sustaining a lift with one of the female dancers. The dancers were clearly enjoying themselves as they performed and the positive vibe was infectious. When the performance was over, the audience left the theater feeling energized.   

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Excerpt From “FERNANDO BUJONES, An Autobiography”

Zeida Cecilia-Méndez December 2009

In 1972, the American Ballet Theatre, founded in 1940, was at its peak, capturing the attention of audiences, critics and dancers all over the globe. In my mind, ABT stood out from the rest because it had the most exciting repertory of them all—this is where the great classical masterpieces were. Some of these works had been performed for decades by legendary dancers, and they were the heart and soul of the company. I was fully aware the company’s wealth was its heritage and its stars.

Royes Fernandez and Lupe Serrano, Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci, Toni Lander and Bruce Marks, Eleanor D’Antuono, Ted Kivitt, Michael Denard, Paolo Bortoluzzi, Sally Wilson, Karina Brock, Dennis Nahat, Christine Sarry, Gayle Young, Scott Douglas, Roni Mahler, Cynthia Gregory, Natalia Makarova, Ivan Nagy, Michael Smuin, John Prinz, Jonas Kage, Bill Carter—those were only some of the names that were making Ballet Theatre such an exciting company! ABT had the history, the magic, and the inspiration that made me want to dance. American Ballet Theatre was where I wanted to be. Our ballet masters and regisseurs, Enrique Martinez, Michael Lland, Scott Douglas, Patricia Wilde, Dimitri Romanoff, themselves had fantastic backgrounds, having danced with some of the legendary ballet companies. Choreographers like Anthony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, Eugene Loring and Glenn Tetley, Eliot Feld, Jerome Robbins, Jose Limon, Alvin Ailey, were also part of the company’s great strength, adding depth and a new dimension to the existing classical repertory.

Without a doubt, there was one person at the helm of this remarkable ballet company, Lucia Chase. At the time I didn’t know much about this woman, but as the years went by, I came to admire her greatly. Lucia had the kind of courage and commitment you need to pursue your life’s dream, and even more, to make it come true. She had it, and American Ballet Theatre was the culmination of her dream, her magnificent obsession. ABT lived through Lucia Chase. I am sure her vision and stubborn determination to keep her company alive through good and bad times has earned her the brightest star in ballet heaven. Without her, the most glorious ballet seasons our country has ever seen would never have happened, and because of her, that company secured its place in history.

From the beginning, my rehearsals with ABT were very challenging. Soon we would be opening our summer season at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater. I had been cast in six full-length works, and had to learn all those parts in less than one month’s time! I was dancing in the First Act “Peasants” and Third Act “Neapolitan Dance” of the full-length “Swan Lake.” I was a warrior in David Lichine’s “Helen of Troy,” the Drummer Boy in “Graduation Ball,” a Cow Roper in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” in the corps of Jerome Robbins’ “Interplay,” and in the corps of Harald Lander’s magnificent “Etudes.” It was a repertory of dreams.

During the company rehearsal period I had gotten a taste of what “corps de ballet” work was all about and now I realized the days ahead meant long hours of classes, rehearsals and performances. My first time on stage with ABT came during a performance of “Swan Lake.” That evening, Prince Siegfried was being danced by Bruce Marks. Right before the curtain opened, he walked to me, shook my hand and said: “Good luck! I wish you the best in your career.” Some of the older dancers embraced me and wished me good luck and as the State Theater’s curtain rose and I heard the applause of the audience, I felt the adrenaline rush and excitement of knowing I was now part of that great company.

This book can be purchased from Books & Books, Barnes & Noble,, or from Fernando’s web site at

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On the Record With Choreographer Edgar Zendejas

Ariel Osterweis Scott December 2009

Born in Mexico, choreographer Edgar Zenejas danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal [now BJM Danse], and Gus Giordano Dance Chicago before starting his own troupe, ezdanza, based in Montréal. He sat down with Dancer to talk about his creation methods, the choreographers who inspire him, and his recipe for turning Montréal’s economic blues into fertile ground for collaboration.

Q: Did you dance as a child?

A: No, I started when I was 16. In my country, my parents weren’t close to the world of dance at all. I found it, liked it, and went for it. No one was interested in art in my house. I discovered dance in high school when two performers came to perform.

Q: When you were a dancer, did you know you were a choreographer? We know that not all dancers are choreographers and vice versa.

A: Actually, not at all. I never planned it. It wasn’t in my thoughts until I arrived in Canada. As a dancer, opportunities came about to choreograph, such as workshops, so I started doing that and started developing my own vocabulary and I really enjoyed it.

Q: What do you feel characterizes your own vocabulary?

A: I think my vocabulary is a mix of different influences I had as an artist, in my career working with so many people. I would say they have all influenced me, but some are very strong. I really enjoy their movement and working with them.

Q: Who?

A: I can mention three: I worked with Twyla Tharp at Hubbard Street, Crystal Pite from Canada (she was BJM’s resident choreographer), and Ulysses Dove. When I worked with Dove I was very young (at BJM). It was a very strong but beautiful experience. He came for only two days to work with us. I was second cast for that piece and when he came he put me in first cast and I was really touched.

Q: Do you consider yourself a contemporary ballet choreographer? Modern? How do you feel others categorize you?

A: I think right now there’s a fusion of dance. And to classify my work…well, it has a strong base of classical ballet technique. [Throughout] my career, I was taking ballet class and working with contemporary choreographers with freedom of movement and creation (but the base was always classical). My work is very based in classical technique, but the influence of other choreographers has brought in this other term called “contemporary.” I do have a special style here in Canada. It has been a little hard for them to define my work here, which has been good and bad. The contemporary people here in Canada don’t classify me as contemporary; they think I do too much technique. The bigger companies like Les Grands Ballets [Canadiens de Montréal] see my work as contemporary. I kind of like that uniqueness of the work. I’m just waiting for them to recognize…that it is contemporary but it’s also classical. Also, this is something that’s been happening in the States as well; they see my work as contemporary.

Q: Your movement is both fluid yet organized. I can definitely recognize movement phrases, but I also sense a certain kind of drama. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your process. Do you come in with phrases? Do you collaborate with the dancers?

A: My work as a choreographer has developed over the years. I remember the first work I did. I was really creating everything—counts, each step. I would be so tired after the creation. Then we [at BJM] had this wave of improv and European style of creating. In the beginning I had a hard time working with such choreographers, but then I started enjoying it a lot, so I took part of that for the way I was working. In terms of myself, I like to create phrases, or what I call “combos.” The number I create depends on the length of the piece. I do like for the movement to [become] familiar for the audience and the dancers throughout the whole piece. In the beginning I used to do tons of steps from the beginning to the end, and it was so much work and [audiences] didn’t appreciate it. So I came to enjoy movement [executed] in different ways. I wanted to see how you could develop a phrase: floorwork is completely different from the standing version [of a phrase]. Working in colleges and universities has given me a lot of freedom to experiment because the students really go for it. They are like, “We’ll do anything you tell us.” It’s great because I learn a lot from them and I learn how to work better, so, by the time I work with professionals I have the base.

Q: Do you feel there is a dramatic or narrative impulse to your pieces? How do movement and the dramatic come together in your choreography?

A: It’s been different with every creation. Sometimes I feel really inspired by some event in my life—some relationship, something very personal, so I will decide to express it through movement with some kind of music that gives me this feeling. But sometimes I feel very inspired by the music and I don’t think of narrative or emotional expression; I just want to do movement with music. But its very interesting to see how the audience receives it because everyone identifies according to their own experiences or culture…

Q: In terms of your relationship to music, do you tend to use prerecorded music, or do you also work with composers?

A: My experience with composers has been amazing. I met composers here in Montréal and Europe and they have been with me for many creations. One of them is Edouard Dumoulin and the other is Jean-Philippe Barrios. They have been working with me for so long and almost for free. Their music is amazing. It’s great to work with people like them because sometimes they see my movement and they create through the inspiration of my work or I explain what is in my head and they create through that, so it’s a collaboration. With recorded music, it’s completely different; it’s already set.

Q: In terms of the thematics of your pieces, how does your Mexican heritage or culture play into your work? You touched upon the fact that different audiences respond differently to your work, but in terms of your own cultural heritage—whatever that means to you—do you draw from your own background, or not?

A: That’s another good question because as a Latino choreographer, some people hire me to do a “Latino” piece or something with “roots.” I did a piece for Luna Negra. They said, “You can do a contemporary piece but it has to have something Latino in it.” That piece and another I did for BJDM are two pieces I decided I had to be inspired by something from my culture. I did a piece called “Besame Mucho.” It has sections and explains my place in my culture as a Mexican person. I used a very famous Mexican singer: Chavela Vargas.

Q: Who are some living choreographers you consider yourself to be in conversation with?

A: I had an opportunity to give a workshop in Portland and the other choreographer was Jennifer Muller. I remember being young in San Diego, seeing her company, and I was extremely touched. I don’t remember steps or anything, but I remember coming out of that show very high. When I saw that she was working next to me I felt very small but at the same time, just very excited and I wanted to talk to her. She is such a beautiful lady, and I just tried to absorb as much as I could about the way she thinks. She is extremely smart. Another choreographer here in Montréal I respect as a person—she has so much passion for dance—is Margie Gillis. She is a soloist. Talking to her has been a beautiful experience. I like the humanity of these two choreographers.

Q: How do you develop material in your dances?

A: I do two or three combos. From that, I work myself, develop something from each phrase. Then I ask the dancers to do tasks. I will say, “Can you take all the arms of the combo without moving your legs?” It becomes something totally different. Or I will say the opposite. Or sometimes watching the combo, I will sit in the back of the room and I see another perspective. I have noticed lately that my work is very three-dimensional. Sometimes I finish the piece and tell the dancers, “Now we’re going to face the back in this part.” So I change the front for them. They’re not very happy, but they adjust and it’s beautiful because you see something totally different. I collaborate with the dancers a lot, for example, “Can you transfer this phrase onto the floor?”

Q: What are you currently creating?

A: Right now I want to promote my company a bit more here in Montréal. Just like in the States, the economy is not doing very well. So, it’s been hard to have a real season in a theater. So, I am creating a studio series for my company every month to bring a different artist in to collaborate with us each time—singers, musicians, painters. Every show will feature a different one. Hopefully at the end of the year (because each one is short) we can create a full performance with all these artists.

Q: So, it’s as though the bad economy has forced you to stage all these interesting collaborations.

A: Coming back from the States—and here in Canada—that’s all I hear: so many cuts. So, let’s do something low budget, create something more local, more for the community. Let’s have donations or something. These will take place in inexpensively rented studios. Canada supports the arts as much as they can. We get a lot of support from the government. Once you are in it, and they know you, you have made it. It takes time, but I’m happy. Hopefully I’ll get a grant for the studio series project so I can pay everybody.

For more information on the work of Edgar Zendejas, please visit:

Ariel Osterweis Scott, a PhD candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley, is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator, and scholar. She can be reached at

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A Closer Look: Rudolf Nureyev

Lindsay Dreyer December 2009

There is perhaps no male dancer more significant, more celebrated, and more influential than Rudolf Nureyev. There was nothing particularly special about Nureyev’s humble beginnings in Ufa, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Bashkir. But as he grew, he developed a talent so immense and a spirit so full of passion that he touched the lives of millions around the world. From his controversial defection from the U.S.S.R. to his courageous battle against AIDS, Nureyev did everything with character, nonconformity, and incomparable charm.

Nureyev was born on March 17, 1938 aboard the Trans-Siberian Express Railway, near Lake Baikal. He was the youngest of four children and the only boy in the family. When he was 3, Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. and his father was called to service until 1946. His mother Farida struggled to keep the family healthy, but food and resources were scarce. His ticket out was ballet; he saw a performance in 1945 and decided he was going to become a dancer.

He began taking folk dancing lessons in school and later studied ballet under Anna Udeltsova and Elena Vaitovich, both of whom had danced professionally. They noticed young Nureyev’s potential and urged him to study in Leningrad. Although he was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet School, he ultimately decided to study at the Vaganova Academy (Kirov Ballet School) in 1955 at the age of 17, where he trained under Alexander Pushkin.

Nureyev spent two years at the Kirov school and upon graduation received a contract to dance with the company. During his three years with the Kirov, he partnered all of the company’s ballerinas and performed lead roles in “Don Quixote,” “Giselle,” “La Bayadère,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake.” Nureyev had gained a reputation not only as a gifted performer, but also as a troublemaker. He danced to his own rhythm, quite literally, and often walked out of the studio or rehearsal during arguments with directors and choreographers.

When the company went on tour in Paris in 1961, Nureyev did something that went down in history. He “defected,” or in other words he refused to return to Moscow despite orders from the KGB. French officials granted him permission to stay, and Nureyev began his new life in the West where he was free.

In 1961, he made his London debut and received an offer from the Royal Ballet to dance “Giselle” with Margot Fonteyn, and so began another chapter in Nureyev’s life. His partnership with Fonteyn was epic; not only were they brilliant together on stage as artists, but they maintained a meaningful friendship even after the curtain fell. Although the age difference was great (Nureyev was 23 and Fonteyn was 42 when they began working together), the two remained lifelong friends.

Nureyev danced throughout Europe and the U.S., taking over a hundred roles by more than 40 choreographers, including Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Kenneth MacMillan and Paul Taylor. His range as a performer was unprecedented—from contemporary to classical, melancholy to humorous, there was nothing Nureyev couldn’t do, including choreograph.

In 1983, he became the ballet director at the Paris Opera, a position he held for six years. His contract allowed him to continue guest performing with other companies while handling his responsibilities by phone. During this time, his health and stamina began to decline after learning he was HIV positive. Nureyev shifted his career goals and began dabbling in film and later in music, still determined to work as much as possible despite his weakening condition.

Although he had planned to continue working, he succumbed to the illness and died of AIDS related complications on Jan. 6, 1993. He was 54. Perhaps the most technically proficient and charismatic performer of all time, Rudolf Nureyev changed the perception of and raised the standard for male dancers. His brilliant legacy will live on indefinitely.

World AIDS day is Dec. 1. To get involved, visit For more information on Nureyev, visit


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Another Coup for the Washington Ballet: A Dazzling “Don Quixote”

Judith Lynne Hanna, Ph.D. December 2009

Loving duets, spirited solos and ensembles, lively humorous characters, enchantment and plain fun! “Don Quixote,” a full-length classical ballet, was a perfect fit for The Washington Ballet (TWB). The alchemy was superb. Artistic director Septime Webre drew on his Cuban roots, once again bringing Latin flair and passion—especially with guest ballerina Viengsay Valdés from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, her first solo performance in this country.

Valdés complemented the dynamic 20-member company and these emerging artists: two apprentices, the eight-member Studio Company and about 50 dancers from the Washington School of Ballet. There were also several guest artists from the community and beyond. Quite a display of talent! The luxurious costumes and scenery were courtesy of Houston Ballet and additional children’s costumes were courtesy of Tulsa Ballet. Thanks to budget limitations, the dancers performed to recorded music.

The story of “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” a famous novel by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, was first adapted for ballet in the 18th century in Vienna. New versions followed, the most famous and enduring adaptation was created in the 19th century by choreographer Marius Petipa, of the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, and composer Ludwig Minkus.

“Don Quixote” in its many transformations has had reknown performances world-wide. Anna Pavlova brought an abridged version to the West in the 20th century. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ballet Rambert, the Vienna State Opera Ballet and the Australian Ballet performed their adaptations. Mikhail Baryshnikov mounted his rendition for American Ballet Theatre, and George Balanchine created a modern adaptation for New York City Ballet.

And in the 21st century, former dancer, Boston Ballet director and internationally-regarded repetiteur Anna-Marie Holmes staged her interpretation of Petipa’s “Don Quixote” for TWB’s premiere performances in October, 2009, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

As the curtain opens, Don Quixote (well-played by Luis Torres), a valiant, eccentric elderly gentleman, dreams of Lady Dulcinea (Valdés), heroine of a story he was reading. She ethereally appears behind a scrim. In the Don’s delirium, he sets off to save Dulcinea from her persecutors. His squire, Sancho Panza (Zachary Hackstock), a funny country bumpkin, accompanies him.

At the Barcelona port, the lovely, spunky Kitri (Valdés) seeks out her sweetheart, the gallant young barber Basilio (Jonathan Jordan). Her blustery father, the innkeeper Lorenzo (Peter DiMuro) tries to force Kitri to marry the rich nobleman Gamache (Carlos Valcarcel), a parasol-toting fop. Don Quixote arrives and, imagining Kitri to be Dulcinea, invites her to be his partner. The crowd supports his hallucination. Kitri and Basilio run off with Lorenzo and Gamache in hot pursuit. The Don and Squire follow to right all the wrongs.

The lovers seek shelter in a huge windmill and encounter Gypsies who entertain them. Don Quixote, thinking his Dulcinea is in danger, attacks the windmill. He falls in exhaustion and dreams that Cupid leads him to a magic garden where the Queen of the Dryads brings a grateful Dulcinea to him. Sancho Panza awakens the Don, and he sets off once again to find his lady. Kitri, Basilio, and their friends celebrate their escape when Lorenzo, Gamache, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza arrive. Basilio pretends to kill himself and Kitri begs Don Quixote to intercede with her father so that she may marry the apparently dying Basilio. The ruse succeeds and Basilio springs to life. Kitri and Basilio perform the famous wedding pas de deux. The Don and Squire continue the quest for Dulcinea.

Valdés set the quick-paced tone and exemplary technique for “Don Quixote.” She has performed the role of Kitri in various productions of this ballet, including at award-winning dance competitions. Valdés exudes radiant charm as she flashes a broad smile and sparkling white teeth. She commanded the entire stage with spitfire turns and leaps, shoulder shimmies, and unusually lengthy balances en pointe in arabesque.

Jordan, also a prize-winning dancer, was a gallant partner. A slender man showing surprising strength, he effortlessly lifted Valdés into the air. His solos had extraordinary leaps and turns, including what Webre calls an “unusual jump with a whipping turn in it—it is a kind of rivoltade but rightfully should have its own name.”

Among the outstanding performers were Jared Nelson as a Gypsy; Morgann Frederick, Jade Payette and Elizabeth Gaither as friends of Kitri; Maki Onuki as Cupid; and Sona Kharatian as a taunting, seductive street dancer.

The square life and festivities were filled with Spanish folk dances: sequidilla, fandango, and a group dance to the accompaniment of a woman marking time with a long stick, plus dancers performing hand claps and finger snaps. Ten dramatic matadors in red and purple brocade twirled their capes, arched their backs, and performed a variety of leaps.

TWB’s masterful “Don Quixote” is testament to the company’s growth in stature under Webre’s direction. He announced that marking his 10-year anniversary with TWB, the company published its first book, “Wonderland,” a limited commemorative of beautiful images available at $55 through TWB (202-362-3606).

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Just Say Yes to a Drug-Free Dance Studio

Lindsay Dreyer December 2009

 Although members of the ballet community have remained relatively tightlipped, it’s no secret that drug and alcohol abuse continues to plague pockets of this high art form. From the recreational use of illicit drugs to the dependence of prescribed and over-the-counter painkillers, the ballet world has a long and unfortunate history of dabbling in it all, and it’s time to start talking about it.
In 1986, Gelsey Kirkland shared her personal struggle with drug addiction in her infamous book “Dancing on My Grave.” Although her addiction was an extreme case and her circumstances were unique, she still shocked readers and opened their eyes to this growing epidemic in the ballet world. Just one year after the release of Kirkland’s book, her longtime friend and colleague Patrick Bissell, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, died of a drug overdose at the age of 30.
In the years that followed, many ballet companies and schools that once turned a blind eye buckled down and adopted zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies. Dancers began understanding the importance of respecting their bodies and taking care of their instrument. Psychologists, nutritionists, and substance abuse counselors were added to school faculties, and it seemed as though the dance community was heading toward a drug-free future.
So how can a teacher or artistic director maintain a healthy, drug-free dance studio? The best way to combat the problem is to equip young students with the tools they need to resist the pressure to experiment or turn to drugs. Whether one runs a small ballet studio or teaches at a large performing arts school, it’s important to create a caring environment where everyone feels valued, worthy, and part of a team.

According to Katie Bergstrom, former corps de ballet dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and graduate of The School of American Ballet (SAB), aspiring ballet dancers deal with the same issues facing regular high school students. “There was always a group of kids who were considered the ‘bad kids.’ I think the main reason kids did it was for recreational/experimental use. They just wanted to look cool,” she recalls.

Dance teachers should look out for signs that students are experimenting with drugs and/or pressuring other students to experiment. Sometimes they can be difficult to spot, especially when the substances being consumed are over-the-counter. “I don’t know if you could call Advil a painkiller, but that is really overused and I think makes it easier for people to think its okay to take things like Vicodin and drugs like that,” reveals Bergstrom.

But drug use is not the only problem to look out for. According to dancers like Bergstrom, alcohol abuse is fairly common in the professional realm. “I think it’s easy to feel like its OK to abuse alcohol, only because it’s obviously more socially acceptable,” she explains. “After a long day, your body is killing you, and you just want to sit on the couch with a big glass of red wine. I think it’s easy to get into a cycle of drinking on a daily basis as a way to unwind and numb the body. It’s like a painkiller in a sense.”

Ballet dancers are extreme perfectionists, which is what drives them to soar beyond expectations. But sometimes, the need for perfection can drive them to unknowingly sacrifice the health of their bodies for the perfect silhouette or the perfect arabesque. The best thing a teacher can do is to educate his or her students about taking proper care of themselves, and above all, loving and respecting their bodies. Creating an open line of communication will show your students you can be trusted and that you truly care about their health and well-being.

But sometimes, it’s better and more effective for students to hear the advice from an outsider. Bringing in a professional nutritionist for one-on-one meetings or group discussions is a great way to get students involved in the dialogue. At SAB, for example, students are required to attend “Finding Your Way” programs in Alcohol & Drug Education, Nutrition & Wellness, which are designed to give them a well-rounded educational experience.

Additionally, it’s important for teachers and faculty members to set strict rules and adhere to them. “The faculty at SAB, during my years, were relatively strict and we were taken care of really well,” explains Bergstrom. “I felt like the RAs in the residence hall did a really solid job of keeping track of everyone. Curfews were strict, and they had to know where we were at all times, until the age of 18.”

Zero tolerance drug and alcohol policies are the best way to keep your studio substance free. For example, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s substance abuse policy states: “Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s forbids the possession, consumption, sale, or storage of any alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs on School property or School sponsored events. Students face immediate dismissal from the School, and will be referred to the proper authorities, should they be involved in any of the above activities.”

It’s not enough for these policies to be set; they must be adhered to, even when the offense involves your best or favorite dancers. Exceptions cannot be made. At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB), even scholarship students are held accountable. “CPYB has a zero tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use as these actions endanger the safety and well-being of the offending student and others. Scholarships can be withdrawn anytime at the discretion of the artistic director,” reads the 2009-2010 student handbook.

The best thing a teacher can do, above and beyond setting and adhering to rules, is to create an environment based on positive encouragement. “Being a dancer is incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally. You spend all day standing in front of a mirror, judging, perfecting, and picking apart every aspect of yourself,” says Bergstrom. “For most of the young dancers, you start your career aiming to please. That is all you want to do. A smile, a nod, anything! And when you’re that young, you need it.”

The good news is that dancers these days are smarter than ever before and are taking the initiative to make better choices. They have learned from the painful stories of Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and others. “It’s different than it was in the 80s,” says Bergstrom. “For the most part, dancers want to take care of their bodies and stay healthy.” And that is certainly half the battle.

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The Contemporary Ballet Master

Ariel Osterweis Scott December 2009

With an Eye to the Past

When we hear “ballet master,” most of us think of wooden canes or demi-heeled ballet slippers. In today’s most demanding contemporary ballet companies, these images could not be further from reality. At Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the role of ballet master is one in which ballet comprises only a fraction of the job’s demands. Working for repertory companies, Complexions’ ballet master Jae Man Joo and Cedar Lake’s ballet master Alexandra Damiani engage with a diverse group of living choreographers and artistic directors. Joo calls himself a “translator,” while Damiani refers to her role as that of an “engineer.”

 The ballet master’s role has always been to maintain the choreographer’s vision from the inside out, and this often includes tasks from teaching technique class, to rehearsing the company, to coaching dancers on individual roles. Many of the dance world’s historical luminaries are remembered more for their roles as choreographers or artistic directors, but such roles can go hand in hand with that of the ballet master. George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Agrippina Vaganova, Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton, and Michel Fokine have all held the position of ballet master at one point or another.

One aspect of the ballet master’s job that has remained constant is the idea that choreography should be passed down from generation to generation. To bring a piece back into circulation does not necessarily mean dusting off a 19th century story ballet. At a new company like Cedar Lake, which commissions works by Europe’s most sought after choreographers, it is the ballet master’s job to teach new company members roles that might have been created on the company just several months prior.

Becoming Ballet Master

In smaller contemporary and modern companies, the role of ballet master can be a matter of terminology. For example, Damiani herself began as a “rehearsal director.” She explains to me that often injured or aging dancers accidentally slip into the role of rehearsal director, no longer able to sustain performing careers. However, her own decision to move into the position of Cedar Lake’s rehearsal director at the peak of her dancing career came about at the request of its artistic director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Having worked together as dancers in Complexions (directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson) and Donald Byrd/The Group, Pouffer and Damiani already had an understanding of each other’s movement tastes and rehearsal modes. Before being approached by Pouffer, Damiani had added to her dance resume jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Rubberbandance, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. Looking for a new challenge, she accepted Pouffer’s offer. Damiani’s newly revised title of ballet master “gives more weight to the job of rehearsal director.”

I had the privilege of meeting both Damiani and Joo during the time we were all dancing for Complexions, and I can attest to the fact that Rhoden demands of his dancers quick uptake, as phrases are generated at lighting speed. Thus, the process requires collaborative effort in order to maintain material. Additionally, while some steps have balletic names, others are referred to by a sound or nickname. Working with a contemporary choreographer often means working within an abstract movement vocabulary that does not rely on centuries-old steps, dramatic impulse, or narrative plot. In the case of Complexions, budgetary concerns did not allow for an official ballet master during the company’s early years. Such a position allows for increased company unity, which is important in an environment such as Complexions in which dancers must embody Rhoden’s specific style (in addition to those of its guest choreographers). Today, Joo’s position as ballet master for Complexions thus provides a crucial element that will help ensure the long-term health of the company.

Joo’s path to ballet master was rather organic. He began choreographing at Hankuk University in Seoul, South Korea. After training in ballet with Um Ballet Studio, studying modern techniques such as Graham and Limón in college, and dancing with Korea Contemporary Dance Company, Joo earned the Best Individual Dance Award in the Bagnolet International Choreographer Festival in Paris. Upon his arrival in New York in 1996, he danced for companies such as Ballet Hispanico and that of Igal Perry. After dancing with Complexions for more than 10 years, Joo was promoted to ballet master in 2007. In 2009, Joo earned a Princess Grace Award for his work with Complexions.

Damiani’s training also began with classical ballet, starting with the Geneva Dance Center and continuing with Attilio Labis from the Paris Opera School. After winning the International Competition of Marseilles in 1995, she was awarded a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Thus, like most Complexions dancers, both Joo and Damiani’s training began in classical ballet and was augmented by several years of training in modern techniques such as Horton and Graham. It is important for the ballet master to understand the larger context of the piece, while paying attention to the specificity of each movement phrase. As Damiani explains, the job of ballet master requires “certain important qualities, and not everyone has them or gets a kick out of [the job]. It is important to feel a passion for it…fulfillment. Not every dancer can become a ballet master.” Joo concurs: “It is the most difficult task. It’s not easy.” Nevertheless, Joo finds that “when you teach, you learn more.” Though not an official prerequisite, having danced in a company environment for many years greatly informs the multi-faceted task of ballet master. But what sets contemporary ballet masters such as Joo and Damiani apart from those of yesteryear is their ability to jump out of their chairs and step right into the movement the dancers are rehearsing. In visiting both Complexions and Cedar Lake rehearsals this season, I observed Joo and Damiani teaching as much by dancing (and sweating) as through speech. Forget about proper dress and shoes; this is a job done best in lycra and bare feet.

A Day in the Life

For Complexions and Cedar Lake dancers, the day begins with company class. Joo usually teaches daily company ballet class, while Damiani only teaches when on tour or during performance runs. This structure mirrors the companies’ repertoires, as Complexions’ choreography is mainly comprised of Rhoden’s work (with the occasional guest piece by William Forsythe or Joo himself), while Cedar Lake is a multi-choreographer repertory company. Cedar Lake offers its dancers a variety of teachers and techniques, “depending on the work [they are] doing” at any given time. These classes range from ballet and modern, to yoga and gaga (Ohad Naharin’s technique). Nevertheless, Damiani explains that for their repertoire, “ballet is still the foundation…the best way to get the body ready.” Joo thinks of his ballet class as “ballet for modern dancers…with a very dance-y combination across the floor.” It is important that the style of ballet executed in the class Joo teaches reflects the movement demands of Rhoden’s highly articulated, yet sweeping choreography.

 After class, both companies embark on rehearsal, and more often than not, they are working on brand new material. Joo tells me that he, Rhoden and Richardson “discuss” the next day’s rehearsal “the day before” in order to be “organized and efficient.” Each day is mapped out ahead of time, dedicating two to three hours to each piece or section, depending on the stage of creation. Damiani also takes preparation seriously: “The dancers are top notch, and they expect the best. For me it’s a lot of prep before rehearsals, but the dancers take responsibility for their role too.”

Both Joo and Damiani stress the importance of their emotional (as well as functional) role in their respective companies. Joo calls himself the company “translator” and feels that his presence has increased the sense of trust in the company, between its directors and dancers: “It’s emotional; I am the middle person.” Damiani, similarly, is Cedar Lake’s “engineer.” “I am a link between the artistic director (or choreographer) and the dancers… There are so many ways to mold the dancers. You can really leave an imprint. In that you have so much power.” She explains that dancers who have been in the company for several years have had the advantage of engaging in a three-month workshop with Ohad Naharin to learn his gaga technique. “A new person,” she says, “only has two weeks.” In that time, they must learn an entire piece and its accompanying technique and philosophy. “Teaching them the part is easy,” explains Damiani, “but to have them do it the right way is challenging… To reset a piece you need to know what the intention was behind the movement—concepts, keywords. If I need to coach a new dancer who wasn’t part of the creation process, it takes time, [working] privately with that dancer. Sometimes the choreographer returns to re-inspire the dancers.” Ultimately, Damiani tells me, “To keep the choreographer’s vision fresh and maintain the integrity of the work… I need to speak multiple movement languages.”

What does the “right way” of moving mean to companies that privilege such abstract, yet physically and technically demanding choreography? Damiani has the added task of reassessing preferred modes of movement with each new choreographer who sets foot in Cedar Lake’s studios. She says, “I really need to comprehend the movement physically, not only verbally. It needs to make sense in my body. Because I’m in shape, I can use my body. For my relationship with the dancers, it’s really important for them to see that I can embody that movement and understand it so they can respect me.” Some choreographers prefer Damiani to be dancing just as much as the company members, while others (like Stijn Celis) need her “to be next to him, sharing eyes, being able to talk to him, to understand his images.” Damiani admits, “I didn’t understand [Celis’] vocabulary easily, but I realized that he needed me.” If Joo sees himself as a translator of movement, Damiani often finds herself in the role of linguistic translator, as her mother tongue—French—comes in handy when working with European choreographers. Recently, she found herself conversing in French with Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for the recent “Orbo Novo.”

No doubt, ballet master is a full-time job. Somehow, Joo has made time to work on his choreography, photography and costume-making. He appreciates the various dimensions of each one of his interests, but never forgets that, as a ballet master, he works toward the vision of “someone else.” “As a choreographer, I’m just me,” he says. For better or worse, “Everything’s mine: 100 percent freedom.” In a sense, to work as ballet master is to be assured a set of tasks. To choreograph is to be creatively unlimited, and as liberating as it can feel, it comes with its own set of risks. Damiani does not know where this job will lead her, but by the looks of Cedar Lake, she has done an incredible job of negotiating multiple choreographic styles to ensure a unified ensemble of virtuosos.

Ariel Osterweis Scott, a PhD candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley, is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator, and scholar. She can be reached at

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What’s Old is New Again at Fall for Dance

Meryl Cates December 2009


When the annual Fall for Dance Festival at the New York City Center set out to honor 100 years of the Ballets Russes, they assembled five programs of Ballets Russes classics and reinventions. These programs were interspersed with new premieres and time-honored favorites, as a celebration of dance diversity. The Festival served as a tribute to dance history; the audience was exposed to classic ballets that do not frequent many repertories today. But most importantly, audience members had the privilege of witnessing these ballets performed with the technical prowess that has accumulated over the last century. That was the real treat.

The Festival’s final evening and fifth program on Saturday, Oct. 4 featured The Australian Ballet in “Le Spectre de la Rose”; a US premiere by Sang Jijia, “Snow”; “The Dying Swan” danced by Diana Vishneva; and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s “Revelations.” The evening was dominated by classics, leaving “Snow” as the sole new work.

Sang Jijia, the first professional Tibetan modern dancer, created his solo “Snow” as an expression of inward conflict and journey. The piece made its premiere in the Spring of 2007 in Taiwan. While the conceptualization and execution of the falling snow against the severe black backdrop and sharp plain lighting was pleasing and effective, it was not enough to carry us through the choreography’s building repetitiveness. Jijia’s continuous grabbing of a foot, knee or arm initially proved to be an interesting propelling motion, but did not have enough variation to keep it alive and fresh. There were some elegant moments as a leg extended outward and quickly snapped back through a sharp passé, but it was the scenic element of the snow falling around him that was most compelling.

The Australian Ballet’s performance of “Le Spectre de la Rose” was a radiant display of classic choreography meets modern-day technique. Danced by Gina Brescianini and Tzu-Chao Chou, their performance exhibited a level of technique that thrust this ballet from 1911 into contemporary times. Choreographed by Michel Fokine and originally performed by the Vaslav Nijinsky, the ballet pushed the boundaries of gender roles in the romantic era: the man had demanding choreography and primary attention, while the woman spent most of the pas de deux dreaming in a chair, rising only to do some turns and a few arabesques (which Brescianini did with a gentle beauty). But it was Tzu-Chao Chou’s performance that explored these boundaries even more thoroughly, with crisp lines and extensions that seemed to lengthen far beyond any physical limitations.

The other Ballets Russes celebration piece was “The Dying Swan” choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1907 for Anna Pavlova. The famed score was played by Borislav Struley on cello and Maxim Mogilevsky on piano. Performed by Diana Vishneva, a principal dancer with The Mariinsky Theatre Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, the musicians’ masterful timing allowed for striking pockets in the music where Vishneva could sustain a relevé for a breathless moment creating a mesmerizing stillness. The solo is performed without the ornamentation of scenery or even complex steps. (Although, the costume features layers of tulle and a beautiful headdress of swan feathers.) It is about the artistry alone, and the way it was danced, it needed nothing else. When Vishneva made her entrance with sailing bourrées, the lighting, which remained white for the rest of the performance, cast a light blue shadow on her legs, creating the appearance of an ethereal ascent from a mysterious waterbed.

Vishneva’s interpretation of the legendary role was both raw and private, like the audience was watching the most intimate of performances. Her arms shaped into intricate angles as one arm would slide down the other in a caressing motion, and likewise, they transformed into seamless wings when she collapsed to the floor, her cheek carefully resting against her outstretched leg.

A fun aspect of the Festival’s programming is that Fokine’s “The Dying Swan” can be directly followed by Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” A dimensional work, and one that is seen and loved all over the world, “Revelations” has something to offer each time it is watched. Upon a first view, the dancers’ stunning technical ability and devoted energy are cause for admiration. But, seen time and time again, the detail and touches are what gives it a lasting relatability and impact—like the sheer strength and connection in “Fix Me, Jesus” (danced by Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims), or the vigorous undulation of the arms in “Wade in the Water,” or the exciting speed in “Sinner Man.”

It is the choreography with room for enrichment and development that’s the real cause for celebration. And this program demonstrated that there doesn’t have to be anything old about a classic.

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Boston: Ballet Capital of New England

Lindsay Dreyer December 2009

History abounds in Boston, MA, one of the oldest and foremost cities in the United States. Stroll through the Boston Commons to see the Massachusetts New State House or take a ride on the “T” to the North End, home of the Paul Revere equestrian statue. A trip to the birthplace of the American Revolution wouldn’t be complete without some fun and it can be found at the famous Bull and Finch Pub, “where everybody knows your name.” Red Sox fans can get their fix at Fenway Park, and music lovers will find theirs at a Boston Pops concert.

But there’s more to Boston than historic landmarks and bustling ballparks. In addition to the capital of Massachusetts, Boston holds another important title: Ballet Capital of New England. Whether you opt for a full-length program at the Opera House with Boston Ballet, an informative lecture/demonstration by the students at Northeast Youth Ballet, or an edgy collaboration performed by members of the Harvard Ballet Company, there’s something for everyone. Boston’s ballet community is eclectic and inspired.

According to Denise Cecere, artistic director of Northeast Youth Ballet (NYB), which is located just outside the city in Melrose, MA, living and working near Boston is enriching and rewarding. “My favorite thing is being able to continue to work in an inspiring environment while my husband and I raise our four children, and being close to family,” she explains. By family Cecere also means her mother, Sandra McNaught, who grew up in Boston and established the Northeast School of Ballet (NSB), the official school of the Northeast Youth Ballet, 38 years ago. “Having the opportunity to teach in the school for the past 20 years, stay close to home, and receive constant support from my mom has made it possible for me to accomplish more than I thought imaginable.”

Since its inception in 1996, NYB has become a nationally recognized performing company. Not only is the troupe applauded for strong emphasis on technique and repertoire, but Cecere and her dancers are also highly respected for their work in the greater Boston community. “We believe at NYB that it is most important to provide opportunities and give back to our community,” she says. NYB has numerous educational and outreach programs that are interspersed during the regular performance season. According to Cecere, “They are designed not only to build the artists and the audiences of the future, but to also enlighten and expose school-age students to the value of the arts in our society.”

The company also heads a program called STARS, a community outreach program created to “encourage and educate children and individuals of all ages who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend the ballet.” Each season, members of NYB reach out to students, senior citizens, special needs organizations, and families from the inner city communities. NYB offers complementary admission to STARS performances. In addition to reaching out to the community, NYB brings the community into the studios with the Mentor Program. This program allows professional dancers to work one-on-one with young students, acting as role models and inspiring the upcoming generation of dancers. “If you set the standards high for children, they will reach them if they are mentored properly,” believes Cecere.

For Cecere, one of the most important things is creating an educational and professional environment for her dancers, and the troupe’s proximity to Boston makes that goal easy to accomplish. “They use the ‘T’ and public transportation to take open classes, attend the museums, ballets, operas and musical theater productions in the theater district,” she reveals. “They take advantage of the theaters’ ‘student rush’ rate, which is significantly lower than the cost of a regular ticket.” She also encourages her students to use the library to watch videos and research ballets.

Another benefit of living in Boston is the proximity to quality medical care. “Boston is also known for having the best doctors and hospitals in the world today,” explains Cecere. “Our dancers are fortunate to have sports medicine doctors and therapists that specialize in dance related injuries so close and convenient. They are able to receive the best medical attention and in most cases recover quickly.”

Cecere uses many of the resources around town to further her own education as a dance teacher and artistic director. “I feel much of the company’s success is because of the educational and cultural atmosphere surrounding the city of Boston and having access to the highest quality of dance, music and art in the Northeast,” she reveals. “We are fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with many local artists and organizations…This gives our young dancers exposure to the current dance scene and broaden their education.” NYB has worked with local artists such as scenic designer Roger LaVoie, musical conductor Richard Pittman, and choreographer Thang Dao.

Bostonians like Cecere pride themselves on being well educated, both artistically and intellectually. Just head over the bridge to Cambridge and ask members of the Harvard Ballet Company (HBC). This student-run group, which was founded in 1993 to provide performance opportunities for classically trained dancers, is comprised of Harvard University students who dedicate just as much time to their dancing as their studying. With an eclectic mix of styles and a repertoire that rivals many top professional companies, HBC is proof that you can do 32 fouettés and recite the periodic table of elements.

Members of HBC utilize many of the city’s resources, including open classes at José Mateo Ballet Theater, Green Street Studio, as well as Boston Ballet. “The urban setting that Harvard enjoys allows the dancers to take advantage of dance opportunities not only for classes but also to collaborate with interesting and inspiring performances all over town,” explains Merritt Moore, artistic director of the company’s 2009 production, “Momentum.” This large-scale collaboration, which ran from Nov. 6–14 at Loeb Drama Center, involves live musicians, aerialists, filmmakers, and a rocker on stilts.

Staying involved in university and city life is important to members of HBC. “We perform regularly at the Harvard Dance structure. Individual dancers are often asked by the university to perform for faculty, donors, and events sponsored by the museum,” says Moore. “For our current show ‘Momentum,’ a certain number of seats are allocated to outreach programs such as City Step, a student run organization that introduces public school youth to the performing arts as an outlet for creative self-expression, and for Strong Women, Strong Girls, a not-for-profit residential program for inner city teenage girls.”

A Boston native, Moore has a special relationship with the city, one that goes beyond her life at Harvard. Starting her training relatively late at the age of 13, she never imagined having the opportunity to dance professionally, especially upon her acceptance to Harvard where she is a physics major. But dancing with HBC opened many doors and ultimately led to a Senior Company contract with Zurich Ballet Company for the 2008-2009 season.

“When I got here as a freshman, I found myself performing Twyla Tharp’s ‘Sinatra Suite,’ which you might know is only performed by major companies like ABT and then only by their principals,” she reveals. “Then, later in the spring, I performed Trey McIntyre’s pas de deux to Etta James along with Balanchine’s ‘Serenade’ staged by Heather Watts.” Video clips from these performances earned Moore auditions with every major company in Europe and eventually a contract with the Zurich Ballet Company. “Dance at Harvard and in Cambridge and Boston were ironically instrumental in my professional career. I honestly don’t think this confluence of events would have happened to me anywhere else and am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity,” she says.

Moore believes the city’s connection to ballet stems from its cultural and historical roots. “As one of the oldest cities in America, Boston is deeply, culturally based on a strong love of the arts,” she contends. Furthermore, Boston is one of the few cities in the U.S. with a resident ballet company. “Even very large cities such as L.A, Atlanta, Washington D.C. have no major companies that have regularly scheduled performances and tour dates. Boston Ballet Company has a proud tradition as one of the oldest in the country.” During her career at Harvard, Moore was fortunate enough to take company class with the Boston Ballet with permission by artistic director Mikko Nissinen.

Boston Ballet, which was founded in 1963 by E. Virginia Williams, was the first professional repertory company to form in New England. Since its genesis, Boston Ballet has become one of America’s premier companies, performing a wide range of works from classical to the contemporary. The Boston Ballet School has an enrollment of 3,000 students in four locations, the headquarters located at 19 Clarendon Street in Boston’s South End. The Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education offers numerous educational and outreach activities for the community, including Summer Dance Workshop, Summer Dance Program, Citydance, Taking Steps, and Adaptive Dance in partnership with Children’s Hospital Boston.

Ballet abounds in the beautiful Ballet Capital of New England. But the next time you visit Boston, don’t forget to take some time away from ballet to do some touristy sightseeing. Rumor has it the Duck Tours give “Swan Lake” a run for its money.


Duck Tours: Boston Ballet: Harvard Ballet Company: Northeast Youth Ballet:

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