Today Boston Ballet‘s Ashley Ellis joins us to talk about how she gets ready to dance the classic ballet Swan Lake. Read more from her in the coming months as she authors posts for us as a contributing writer to the site…
Dancing the role of Odette/Odile is an incredible challenge for any dancer. What steps do you take to prepare your body for this role?
Dancing the dual role of Odette/Odile is a challenge in various ways. There is the obvious technical challenge that most full-length classical ballets demand. However, Swan Lake is different in that to dance this ballet the ballerina is required to portray two characters that are completely opposite of one another.
When preparing to dance either Odile or Odette I like to start with my arms. The style of the upper body is quintessential to becoming a swan. Like with dancing any role, but especially Odette/Odile, I like to spend a bit of time before rehearsal or a show just to gear my body up for the specific style it will have to feel. I go through the movements so that when I have to dance it feels more organic. When I enter in the second act I don’t want to have to think about if my arms are making the right lines, I want to think about how I feel at that moment with my partner and the music.
So until I feel that I have these extreme and sometimes contorted positions feeling more organic in my own body I am constantly checking in the mirror to see what line the public will see. For me this comes with time as I’m working on the role. Each day my muscles remember more and I have to think less about the positions.
Then it is important to build stamina, so as we approach the shows, I like to run each act to build strength.
What do you do to make each character (Odette and Odile) unique?
Each swan, the white and the black, the good and the evil, represents a completely opposite identity from the other. I try to embody the characteristics of each and do my best not to let them bleed together. I take on each role and try to let them shine through my movements. For example, Odette is a kind spirit, embodying love. However she is not weak, she is still a proud swan queen.
Odile on the other hand shows up in the 3rd act with Von Rothbart and carries out her actions under his command. Her mission is to trick the prince into swearing his love for her. To bring this role to life I try to use my eyes and more commanding movement to show strength and lure the prince in.
It does require a moment though to calm down going into 4th act after running off stage from the high of dancing the black swan–especially because in this act Odette is heartbroken.
When getting coached by the incredible, Larissa Ponomarenko, she constantly reminds me as I execute my steps that although I may be creating an esthetically pleasing classical line with my arms, that I look human, and “at this moment you are a swan.”
What is your rehearsal schedule like for this ballet?
Well, at Boston Ballet we are often working on various ballets at the same time. We just finished putting together Lady of the Camellias as well as various shorter pieces for later in the season. So things can get a little bit crazy, and some days going from contemporary into classical makes it especially challenging. The most important thing is to go into each rehearsal focused on the role to be mastered. So much of dance is about being mentally prepared.
As we get closer to the performances I like to run the ballet in order, beginning with second act and going to black and then back to white. It is so important to build stamina. It’s funny because I find that I tend to stress about not having stamina, but I know in the end I will get there. The feeling of not being able to get through a variation, ballet, or whatever is so daunting. It’s never easy, but it can get easIER.
You have danced Swan Lake before, but Petipa’s version. How is Mikko Nissinen’s version different?
Like the version I danced previously, Mikko’s has the same classical base, with variations in the steps that he has chosen to apply to make it his own. I do find it interesting to see how the ending changes from version to version; if they die, or live happily after, or in some, they even die and then rise up into the clouds. I don’t think I’m supposed to reveal the ending of this version because it is NEW, and he probably wouldn’t like it if I spilled the beans. Haha!
There are many beautiful, interesting, and original touches in Robert Perdziola’s design and it is sure to be stunning. I can’t wait to see the production on stage; I know it will definitely be worth coming to see.
Swan Lake has such beautiful music. Is there a particular section of the score that you find you gravitate toward?
One of my favorite moments is the introduction to the Black Swan Pas de deux. The music begins while we are still off stage and then we fly on from the wing together. From the very beginning it gives me such a feeling of strength and command.
In terms of your pointe shoes – how do you prepare them for Swan Lake, and how many pairs will you use in a performance?
I definitely want good shoes, and will most likely wear a different pair for each act. Not a new pair for each act, because they will be broken in and worn just enough that they are ready to provide what I need. They have to have good support because there is so much technical dancing throughout the whole ballet.
As Odette I like to have supportive shoes but they should be well broken in. There is a lot of running around as well as movement that is very controlled so I need to be able to really feel the floor. As Odile I can wear a slightly harder pair. There are a lot of turns throughout the pas, variation, and coda and I need to know they will support me until the end.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of dancing this ballet, and what do you do to cope with it?
The stamina is quite hard, but it is more than just doing the steps and getting through to the end. It is so important to make everything seamless, while maintaining your portrayal of a swan, and on top of that telling a story. So the hardest part is doing all of this at once. I find that the best way to achieve this is to spend time on it.
It sounds simple, but spending time moving like a swan and listening to the music, and thinking of how the character feels at that moment within the ballet is the best way for me to prepare.
What is the thing that you enjoy most about dancing this ballet?
I love dancing both Odette and Odile so much, the challenge to becoming both is quite exciting. I love various aspects of becoming each character. On a physical level, although the dancing is very classical, the style feels quite freeing. Also, for me the music really brings both characters to life. You can really hear the emotions through each composition; from the tranquil feeling of Odette when she is all alone in her entrance to how frantic she is when the prince startles her, to the second act pas where she is falling in love, but is torn because of the spell cast on her. Tchaikovsky carries you through all of these emotions. Then for Odile, I feel thrown at a high speed onto the stage with the entrance of the 3rd act pas; the music screams grandeur and power.
Boston Ballet will be performing Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake from October 30th through November 16th. See Ashley Ellis bring Odette and Odile to life on stage. View the rest of the company’s offerings for the season here.
Contributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.
She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.
Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère; Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides; Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s Serenade, Coppélia, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.
The Dance COLEctive has an upcoming performance series titled “Holding Ground.” You decided to do a live-stream so that it could be viewed by an additional audience. What made you move in this direction?
There are many reasons I’m interested in the idea of streaming a live performance. I want to share my work with students, collaborators and artists I have relationships with outside Chicago. In fact, we’re encouraging people in other states to organize viewing parties, which we’ll report on via social media. To date, fans in central Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Idaho, Tennessee, Vermont, Germany and the UK are already committed to watching! For those in Chicago, it offers another point of view on the live performance, perhaps even from backstage. I encourage Chicagoans to come to Links to experience the live version, then watch it streaming and compare.
Where will the live-streaming be broadcast, and how did you select that particular channel for it?
You will be able to watch the live stream from the TDC website. Our first priority is to drive traffic to our website, which is why it is important that it be viewed there. TDC is using YouTube to stream the event, which allows people around the world to also find the event there.
Live-streaming adds an additional component to the preparation for a performance. Can you talk about the challenges it presents?
My first concern is about quality—of the footage itself and the different views from which the work can be viewed. Right now we are talking about having three cameras. I think that could change this week when we get in the space. I think no matter how much we prepare that we still have to be ready for anything.
What do you think can be gained by incorporating this type of experience?
Besides engaging with the viewer virtually, it gives me a new lens to look through as a choreographer. While I did not have this live stream in mind when I created the work itself, I do think that having an understanding of the viewer’s experience will have an impact how I design and execute the work next time.
Do you think that anything can be lost by viewing dance via live-stream as opposed to in person?
Of course, dance is a three-dimensional form best viewed in person. I am hoping this will be the next best thing, especially for all our fans, friends and family who can’t be with us in the theater. But I have no expectations that this can in any way be the same as seeing something live!
Has preparing for a live-stream changed the way you choreographed your piece?
For this first experience, no. It has not changed the way I am choreographing the work. I feel, though, that “choreographically” and with the idea of live streaming in mind, Links Hall was an important venue to support the work and broadcast from. Not only does the intimacy of the space lend itself to the signature elements of our work, but I hope it will create a more intimate experience for the viewer.
Do you think you would consider doing this type of thing again down the line? Why or why not?
Like anything creative, I hope to learn from this experience and try again with the intention of doing it again in a more interesting and informed way. Maybe even make it a regular or exclusive part of the way in which we share our work with others. I feel as if I am only just skimming the surface of what the possibilities and technology can provide.
Margi Cole graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts and received a B.A. in dance from Columbia College Chicago and an M.F.A. in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught and guest-lectured at numerous educational and professional organizations, including the Alabama Ballet, the American College Dance Festival, Ballet Tennessee, Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, Lou Conte Dance Studio, the Joffrey Academy of Dance, the American Dance Festival and other institutions throughout Illinois, the Midwest and the Southeast. She is currently on faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where she has served as a lecturer and associate chair. Awards and acknowledgements of her accomplishments include making the list of “Teachers Rated Excellent by their Students” in four consecutive semesters while on faculty at the University of Illinois. She has received two Choreographic Mentoring Scholarships from The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, two Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships, a 2005 Chicago Dancemakers Forum grant and an American Marshall Memorial Fellowship (joining other leaders in their respective fields to represent the United States on a month-long tour of European countries). She won a Panoply Festival Choreography Award for Contemporary Dance in Huntsville, Alabama. Margi is active in the Chicago dance community, serving on grant panels and in public forums as an arts administrator, dancer and choreographer. In 2011, she was integral in organizing the Dance/USA and Marshall Forum annual conferences in Chicago. She has been a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Consortium Member for two years, is a member of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship Selection Committee and served as a mentor during the Thodos Dance Chicago New Dances Project in 2014. She was named one of The Players in NewCity’s “Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago” in 2012 and recognized by Today’s Chicago Woman among its 2014 “100 Women of Inspiration.”
by Nel Shelby
Carmen de Lavallade is a wonderful dancer, choreographer, and performer. I just love her, and her most recent show, “As I Remember It” – the way it was put together, the design of the projection and the set were all totally beautiful.
We filmed “As I Remember It” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this summer, and Carmen and her team asked me to make a promotional film because she was taking it on a full tour. Our promotional trailer wasn’t necessarily to sell tickets to the performance, but for presenters to have something to put on their websites, in their lobbies, on social media or to give to the media.
It was such a pleasure to put together this short dance film. Carmen is very engaging. She’s extremely likable on stage because she’s just completely real. And she’s pretty much mesmerizing to watch. The way that she moves about space makes you feel like she’s dancing, even when she’s not performing dance moves. Carmen de Lavallade just exudes dance.
The thing I thought was incredible about “As I Remember It” is how they designed the projection on stage. It was completely brilliant. The way that she integrated the project – I felt like it was a live performance of a documentary film.
I’m thinking of Carmen, especially this week, since I heard of her husband Geoffrey Holder’s passing. I didn’t have the chance to work with him, but he was such a presence. She is in my thoughts, and I’m sending many hugs and much love. If you want to leave your condolences for Carmen, you can visit her website: www.carmendelavallade.com/contact
Contributor Nel Shelby, Founder and Principal of Nel Shelby Productions, is deeply dedicated to the preservation and promotion of dance through documentation of live performances, fully edited marketing reels, live-stream capture, and documentaries and films that encapsulate the essence of nonprofit organizations.
Her New York City-based video production company has grown to encompass a diverse list of dance clients including American Ballet Theater II, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Gallim Dance, Gotham Arts, Kate Weare and Company, Keigwin + Company, Monica Bill Barnes Company, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Shen Wei Dance Arts, Wendy Whelan and many more. She has filmed performances at venues throughout the greater New York area including The Joyce Theater, New York Live Arts, Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, St. Mark’s Church and Judson Church, to name a few.
For nearly a decade, Nel has served as Festival Videographer for the internationally celebrated Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. Each season at the Pillow, Nel’s responsibilities include documenting aspects of festival culture in addition to its 20 mainstage dance performances, filming and overseeing documentation of more than 100 free performances and events, managing two dance videography interns and an apprentice, and educating students about the technical and philosophical aspects of filming dance.
She also serves as Resident Videographer at the Vail International Dance Festival where she spent her first summer creating five short dance documentary films about the festival in addition to documenting its events and performances. Her longer-form, half-hour documentary on Vail’s festival, The Altitude of Dance, debuted on Rocky Mountain PBS in May 2013.
She has created four short films for Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, and she collaborated with Adam Barruch Dance to create a short film titled “Folie a Deux,” which was selected and screened at the Dance on Camera Festival in New York City and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. She is making a dance documentary featuring Nejla Y. Yatkin, called Where Women Don’t Dance.
Nel has a long personal history with movement – she has a B.A. in dance and is a certified Pilates instructor. She continues to train with world-renowned Master Teachers Romana Krysnowska and Sari Pace, original students of Joseph Pilates. In addition to her dance degree, Nel holds a B.S. in broadcast video. She often collaborates with her wonderful husband, dance photographer (and fellow 4dancers contributor) Christopher Duggan on creative projects with dancers in New York City and beyond. They live with their beautiful daughter Gracie and son Jack in Manhattan.
How did you first get interested in dance?
My older sister, Hannah, danced at The School at Steps. As a 2 ½ year old, I remember sitting in my stroller outside Debbie Roshe’s musical theatre class every Thursday night watching her dance. I loved watching the class and knew I had to dance too. Soon after, my mom signed me up for tap, ballet, and jazz classes where I discovered dance was my passion.
How many classes a week do you take now, and what kind are they?
Right now I take twelve classes a week. In addition to the five ballet, three pointe and two Horton classes, I take jazz and musical theatre. I hope to add in hip hop and tap if I can fit them in my schedule!
What is it about dancing that you enjoy most?
I enjoy the freedom, empowerment, and positive energy I feel when I’m dancing. As I enter the studio, my mind travels to an entirely different world, where I am able to express myself in various ways. When performing on a stage, I feel empowered, as though I could do anything! No matter what, when I dance I feel as though I am pushing away any negative energy and creating something positive. I love movement – it makes me feel so alive!
What is it that you find most difficult about dance?
What I find most difficult about dance is finding the confidence to believe I can learn new steps and routines. I sometimes think to myself ‘I can’t do that’ when learning new choreography, or trying to hit that triple pirouette. But when I doubt myself, or lose my confidence, I know I need to tell myself “Just relax, you can do it. Just go for it.” And I do!
What have you learned about yourself from dance?
Before I started dancing I felt as though I knew very little about myself or what I was capable of. Now that I have been dancing for 9 ½ years at The School at Steps, I have begun to understand so much more about myself. I have learned I am strong, passionate, disciplined, and focused. I use these four assets throughout not just my dance career, but in my daily life.
What advice do you have for other dance students?
There are two things I always tell myself. The first is not to worry about anything that’s happening in studio or out of the studio. Use dance to free your mind and body, and just have fun when you dance! And the second is when you think you have given it your all, when you feel as though you are done, dig even deeper within yourself and leave it all on stage – or in the studio! You will love the feeling it gives you! Most importantly, love dance as much as dance loves you!
The School at Steps is a training ground for students, ages 2-18, who are interested in exploring various dance styles, as well as for those students already focused on a particular discipline. The school offers an Academic Year and Summer Programs, with classes in ballet, modern, tap, jazz, theater dance, hip hop, and Pilates. Students at the school are also given performance opportunities, and workshops on dance and career-related topics. Beginning with the Young Dancers Program and continuing through the most advanced pre-professional classes, The School at Steps provides children with an opportunity to explore the world of dance, to learn and experiment with technique, and to enrich their appreciation for the various forms of the art.
You are choreographing for The Dance COLEctive’s “Higher Ground”, an upcoming weekend of performances in Chicago. Can you tell readers a bit about your piece and the idea behind it?
This piece is a look at the physical and mental necessities for an individual to develop a personal philosophy. The materials available to us such as media, literature and specialized individuals give us the ingredients to formulate ourselves, but what does one ultimately need in order to create their true individuality? Experience. Only then do we choose our path and honestly become what we are meant to be.
How did you work with the dancers throughout this process? What was that like?
I provided them with composition assignments, and free-writing prompts to generate movement and text. Then, I gathered the movement information and carefully sewed the pieces together in what I thought was the best way the dance would make sense.
In terms of music, how did you go about selecting what you would use for this, and did you choose it prior to or after your choreography?
After my choreography. I focused on the mood that I wanted to portray, and went from there.
What were the biggest challenges in terms of choreographing this piece?
Putting things together in a coherent fashion. There was so much beautiful movement that the dancers created, and using it in a way that made sense and created a story was difficult.
What has been the greatest learning experience for you throughout this process?
How to be on the other side.
What do you hope that the audience will see when they view your work?
That everyone should acknowledge the ridiculous things we do to better ourselves. As long as we are aware of them and realize that we should, in the end, rely on ourselves to do the work and make the choices.
BIO: Madelyn Doyle, a fourth year member of The Dance COLEctive, graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Education and received a K-12 Certification in Dance through the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She has been a part of the We Stand Sideways Dance Co., Thread Meddle Outfit, and independent productions with artist Megan Adams. In addition to establishing the Dance Department of Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, she has assisted for the presenting series of Riverside Brookfield High School’s Orchesis and choreographed for numerous musicals and high school dance companies in the Northwest Suburbs. Madelyn is a Choreographer/Teacher/Producer for the Arlington Youth Dance Ensemble in Arlington Heights, and founded her company Demi Dancers in 2013 to support creative movement and pre-ballet in local preschools and montessori schools.0
by Emily Kate Long
When I landed my first job in a small professional ballet company, I had no idea what would happen. How long was it supposed to last? How long did I want it to last? I remember being acutely aware of a hierarchy in the dance world at large, and I wanted badly to get as close to the top as I could. I visualized my career as a vertical climb, and I was singularly focused on bigger things. Little did I know the challenges and satisfaction I would find by staying put. Gradually, my own career focus shifted to depth rather than height.
I hardly need to say that the perfectionist, achievement-oriented mentality is part of what makes dancers successful. It can also cloud our focus from opportunities right in front of us. The broad role of dance as an art form is to inform, inspire, and challenge our audience, and there is a real immediacy to that in dancing with a small company. It’s great fun to be a cultural pioneer in the Midwest. It’s also very fulfilling to know that the whole company dances in every single show—like many smaller companies, we’re unranked and therefore always pushing ourselves and one another to be better.
For me, the right fit has meant tons of challenging performance opportunities, plus getting close to many other aspects of being part of an arts organization. The dancers are the community outreach team, the teachers in our affiliated school, and formal and informal public ambassadors. For smaller shows, we are even our own stage crew. It makes me proud to have a wide-ranging and always-deepening skill set.
So, what size environment is the right one? Every dancer’s response to that is different, and it could take a few job changes to figure out the answer. What satisfies me about dancing for a small company is the richness of experience—in classrooms, onstage, in the community. It’s a gift to be able to open people’s eyes to dance in a place where many people don’t yet know they have a ballet company.
For more perspectives on the “What size is right for me?” question, check out these articles from Dance Magazine and Pointe Magazine. If you’re looking for the right fit, big or small, Dance/USA maintains this roster of US dance companies.
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.
Manon was choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan in March of 1974, and it was danced by Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. The ballet was well-received by audiences, and it became a staple in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire.
On October 16th, viewers all across America will have the chance to see it performed in theaters throughout the nation as part of The Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season. This version will feature Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.
The tragic story of Manon is quite different from the “fairy tale” ballet story where the woman is a pure, princess-like creature to be revered and adored. In fact, the role of Manon is more of an opportunistic one than a sweetheart–though she does fall in love. However, the young lady also lusts after luxury and wealth–and the pull of both prove to be quite strong…
This ballet has both grandeur (scenes for the entire company in Paris and New Orleans) and an achingly beautiful pas de deux that takes place between Manon and her lover Des Grieux. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will note that there’s a lot of depth to this emotional ballet, and it’s a fantastic one to see performed by such amazing dancers!
Take a look at the clip below to see more about The Royal Ballet’s Live Cinema Season offerings for 2014/15. They’ll be dancing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Swan Lake, La Fille mal gardee and The Winter’s Tale – all live on the big screen!
Stay tuned for more information on these performances on 4dancers and Dance Advantage!
Disclosure – 4dancers receives compensation for promoting this series0