Making a Role Your Own

By Scherr, Apollinaire | Pointe, December/January 2009 | Go to article overview

Making a Role Your Own


Scherr, Apollinaire, Pointe


A NEW CAST FACES SPECIAL CHALLENGES

When Christopher Wheeldon made Carousel (A Dance) for New York City Ballet seven years ago, Seth Orza was in the corps dancing a merry-go-round horse. Later, he graduated to a demisoloist role and became a man. This year, now a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Orza performed the lead, Billy.

Short on patience and luck, Billy wins the heart of Julie, an innocent and adventurous young woman in this 15-minute ballet based on the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Wheeldon created Billy on Damián Woetzel, then a principal and celebrated virtuoso. "It's a pressure and an honor," Orza says of assuming a role he witnessed being made. The dance is full of Damianisms. He always makes it look easy." But however trying it may be to take on the part of someone you have long admired. That," says Orza, "is what ballet is all about."

Actually, it's what ballet was all about. For decades, you could watch a dance being born, take its place in the repertoire, then spawn new versions through new casts- all within a single company. Dances didn't usually change location: When they moved, it was down the generations. Tribal" is how Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal characterizes the process. "One dancer standing next to another just the way people would gather and tell stories. One leg had to show another leg how it's done."

But in the 21st century, "viral" is more like it. New works aren't passed down so much as they are passed sideways- from city to city and continent to continent. Increasingly, choreographers are free agents, and after a short period in the company of origin, their dances show up everywhere. Carouse/ entered the repertoire of three companies in spring 2009.

Ballet globalization makes less common the challenges Orza felt taking on a role created on Woetzel. Orza knows a "Damianism" when he sees one because he watched the older dancer in class and rehearsal for years. But Thomas Nicholas and Victoria Jaiani, the leads in the Joffrey Ballet's production of Carouse/this spring, were uncertain which NYCB dancers were on the video they studied when they learned the roles. (A quick check revealed they were the original cast, Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli.)

Even when a new ballet is passed down within a company, there's no guarantee of leg-to-leg learning. NYCB principals Wendy Whelan and Janie Taylor are close friends. "I really love her," Taylor says of Whelan and Whelan of Taylor, separately and unprompted. Taylor was Wheian's alternate in Concerto DSCH, the much-hailed 2008 ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, onetime Bolshoi head and current American Ballet Theatre artist in residence. But when it came time for Taylor's DSCH debut this spring, she rehearsed the role as if it were Jerome Robbins' 1951 The Cage or any other piece of the canon, working in the studio with ballet master and video.

Whelan had hesitated to offer her approach to Taylor, remembering her own experience preparing for the massive Balanchine Festival in 1993 when the original dancers bombarded her with criticism and advice. "It was like being in prison." she recalls. She didn't want to do that to Taylor. "Out of respect," she says, she stayed out of her friend's way. "I knew if she needed me, she'd call, and I also knew that on a moment's notice Janie can come up with the most intricate interpretation." Eventually Taylor did call- to get help with her hair.

Dancers today are eager for autonomy. They want to make their own way. They understand independence as the path to artistry, one reason they like having dances made on them. "It's their body that will create the imprint and their intelligence and musicality that will affect the outcome," Boal says. Most second cast dancers say they eventually worry less about not measuring up than about not being sufficiently different from the original. The first time I did it" Orza says of Billy. "I was trying to copy Damian. …

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