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La Scala dancer fired after speaking out about anorexia.
By Rebecca Martin.
As a ballet dancer, the pressure is always on. Get your legs up, turn more, jump higher, be thinner, be stronger, turn out, rehearse harder. We look at ourselves in full length mirrors in the studio wearing next to nothing and criticise every arm, leg, foot, and miniscule bulge. For dancers, there is no such thing as perfection, so the quest is endless. Add to that the pressure of teachers and directors and the desire to get a certain part or role.
It’s no surprise then, that young dancers – particularly students – are susceptible to eating disorders. They often think that if they are thinner, they will be better or more successful. If they are thinner, they will get cast in the lead role. If they are thinner, no one will notice their bad feet or their height. Female dancers need to look a certain way and maintain a comparatively lower body weight than non-dancers, not only for the aesthetic of the art form, but for the safety of the male dancers who have to partner them.
However, dancers need to eat. With punishing rehearsal schedules and endless shows, if they don’t eat, they won’t be strong enough to perform at their peak. Dancers certainly need to monitor what they eat, but mainly for overall health and peak performance. It’s like the old adage of putting fuel in the car. If you don’t put fuel in, the car won’t start. If you put the wrong fuel in, performance will be sub-par.
Ballerina Mariafrancesca Garritano
So, unhealthy thought patterns about weight and eating is not unexpected and definitely not uncommon in the dance world. Teachers need to foster healthy body image and eating habits so that students can develop into well adjusted dancers. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. During my time at a full time ballet school, some of the girls in my class were told on a Friday to lose weight by Monday, “whatever it takes”. Drugs and starvation were advocated in these cases, with another student being told to exist on a diet of broccoli and steamed fish in the lead up to a performance so she looked good in a unitard.
This unhealthy weight obsession has been highlighted over the past few months by Mariafrancesca Garritano, a ballet dancer with the famous La Scala in Italy. Mariafrancesca was fired from the company after repeatedly speaking out about what she labelled an “anorexia epidemic” within La Scala. Garritano first raised the issue of the eating disorder in a book called The Truth, Please, About Ballet that was released in January 2010, followed closely by media interviews, in which she said her weight dropped to 43 kilograms as a teenager after teachers called her ”mozzarella” and ”Chinese dumpling” in front of other students. Both the theatre and Mariafrancesca’s former colleagues have denied all claims. Dance Informa spoke to Mariafrancesca after her sacking to discuss the issue of eating disorders amongst dancers…
What inspired you to speak out about the problem of eating disorders at La Scala? I talked about eating disorders, both within and outside the dancing world. By sharing the experiences of my own illness during my time at La Scala Ballet School, as well as the similar experiences of some of my classmates, I have reinforced that eating disorders are a real problem that affects people everywhere, including here in La Scala. My sole objective was to raise awareness about eating disorders, in order to help young people learn how to spot pitfalls and how to heal.
You say 1 in 5 dancers have anorexia. Is this problem worse than before or has it always been this bad? I spoke about my personal experience, 16 years ago – but I did my research and discovered that eating disorders are constantly rising in our society, both here in Italy and abroad. If we don’t encourage people to talk about this issue, we’ll never be able to know how serious this problem is.
Ballerina Mariafrancesca Garritano
Do you believe the problem comes from the ballet schools where the dancers train or is it the pressure of being in a company that makes them anorexic? I believe teenagers are vulnerable, and to keep them in an isolated environment where they’re exposed to inappropriate language runs the risk of aggravating a predisposition to eating disorders. Those in a position of responsibility must be trained to behave in a way that protects young people from eating disorders.
Why do you think your fellow dancers have not supported you regarding your allegations? I heard they were offended by my statements – this is a shame, as it wasn’t my intention to offend, but to raise awareness about a problem.
La Scala had hinted that if you continued to speak about the topic, you would be fired. Did this worry you? Was getting the message out more important than your contract? There is much suffering behind eating disorders and I would have never thought that I’d be ostracised for talking about them. My life, other people lives, are too important for me not to fight this battle. I regret that I had to lose this much, but my motivation came from the bottom of my heart.
Do you intend to continue dancing? Yes, I really hope so!
What do you think needs to be done to address the problem of eating disorders in ballet schools and companies? There’s a need for experienced professionals – diet experts, psychologists, and so on – to follow both students and teachers. A full staff backed by appropriate resources is a good start for any school or company.
Occasionally the enthusiasm for dancing is such that dancers neglect their quality of life. For instance they may skip meals due to tight rehearsal schedules, and eventually skipping meals becomes the norm. Dancers should be trained and monitored in this respect – many already know how to look after themselves, but many others don’t. I hope things can get better for every one of us.
Dot-com start-ups are all the rage in the business world, but what about the unsung entrepreneurs in the dance community? These dancers and dance makers are trying new tactics to find success and re-energize the dance profession. Among these individuals is Asheville native Nick Kepley, an ambitious go-getter who is applying his ballet and Broadway know-how to his own start up MOTION Dance+Theater.
Kepley received his early ballet training from Sandra Miller at Asheville’s Balance Point Studios. He danced professionally with Ballet Austin, Kansas City Ballet, on Broadway in Mary Poppins, and with the New York Philharmonic in Camelot. Throughout his performing career, Kepley demonstrated a knack for choreography and created works for many reputable showcases and regional companies. He learned a lot from each experience, but creating “a 20 minute ballet in five days” was no easy feat. He began to wonder what would happen if the stress of deadlines and scouring for resources were removed. What type of art would transpire?
Adam Still from Colorado Ballet. Photo by Peak Definition
This inspired Kepley to launch his own creative endeavor – MOTION Dance+Theater. He wanted to provide dancers and choreographers employment during the typically slow summer months, as well as give them an outlet to take artistic risks. Kepley describes MOTION as a “laboratory rather than a performing company”, where more importance is placed on the process rather than a finished product.
In July 2010, MOTION had its inaugural season with sold out performances at NYC’s Dance Theater Workshop. Leading up to the shows, Kepley and NYC choreographer Valerie Salgado had three uninterrupted weeks to choreograph on a group of professional dancers. He gave no rules or guidelines, but allowed the art to develop naturally.
Kepley didn’t create MOTION just for his own artistic indulgences. He wanted to provide a new type of dance experience for the audience. “I really try hard for the audience to think about dance as a modern art form”, he explained. At each showing, there was a moderated discussion to talk about “how dance is made” and, afterwards, he invited the audience to participate in a Q & A with the dancers and choreographers.
Choreographer Brian Carey Chung
Unfortunately, the arts were hit hard economically and MOTION felt the blow; it looked as if there would not be another season. Then donations came forth from North Carolina and Kepley decided to move the company to his hometown. Last summer, MOTION enjoyed three weeks in the fresh mountain air of Asheville. “I like having it down there”, he said. “[In New York] it’s so hectic, having it in North Carolina feels freer and more artistically inspiring.”
What to expect from MOTION Dance+Theater in 2012
Six dancers from Colorado Ballet, Ballet Austin, Kansas City Ballet, and Nashville Ballet will join MOTION in Asheville for three weeks of artistic discovery. Kepley will create a new ballet with original composition by North Carolina School of the Arts graduate Bruce Tippette and has invited two other choreographers to participate in the project: Gabrielle Lamb and Brian Carey Chung.
Chung has his own NYC company called Collective Body Dance Lab and has created works for Cedar Lake II, Connecticut Ballet, and Santa Barbara Ballet. He was drawn to MOTION and its mission immediately. “[Kepley] is so earnest about the process of creating work and a safe place to do that”, Chung said. Both guest choreographers agreed that the concept of having resources provided would allow for more artistic possibilities. Lamb, who has choreographed for Ballet X, Morphoses, and Dance Theatre of Harlem, expressed, “when you are a freelancer … and based in New York, everything becomes that much more difficult. You have to do everything yourself: rent the studios, employ the dancers, find venues. It’s a wonderful chance to have that all taken care of, to go someplace and to concentrate on the work.”
Choreographer Gabrielle Lamb by Ken Kramer
Kepley believes it’s important to present a diverse program and felt that could be accomplished by bringing Chung and Lamb onboard. Chung likes to “play with different ways of creating work”, and Kepley loves his integration of multi-media. The two have already discussed building on this cross-disciplinary display. Lamb, who is also a dance filmmaker, sees her work as “cinematic”, saying “the work I have done in film has changed the way I think about choreography.” All three choreographers pull from their ballet backgrounds, but look for deeper meaning in the movement.
The future of MOTION Dance+Theater
Currently, Kepley is working towards a transition out of the limelight and into more choreography, so MOTION comes at a perfect time in his life. But it’s a lot of work. “Funding is a non-stop job”, he says. “As soon as the season ends, I’m already working on the next.” Kepley strives to cover 100% of his dancers and choreographers expenses, including travel, accommodation, production fees, and operational costs.
MOTION is on the right track. Kepley fundraises proactively with special events and invitations to rehearsals. Additionally, he is forming a board of directors with Camp Wayfarer director Nancy Wilson, one of MOTION’s main sponsors, at the helm. There’s no doubt these are difficult economic times, but Kepley’s MOTION Dance+Theater has the potential and artistic integrity to prevail.
Dancers and film lovers alike are buzzing about the announcement of a Dirty Dancing remake. The 1987 musical romance starring the late Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey is set to be brought into the 21st century by renowned director Kenny Ortega, who choreographed the original. Lionsgate Studios announced the remake amidst shock and anger from fans of the cult classic, but we can all be a little reassured by the presence of Ortega. “The opportunity to direct Dirty Dancing is like returning home for me,” he said in a Lionsgate press release. Dance Informa spoke with Kenny to find out more…
Why remake a classic?
I know that there are naysayers and skeptics, and I expected it. It took me a minute too to see the reason for doing this. The reason for doing this is because there’s an entire new world of dancers. We did Dirty Dancing 25 years ago. There’s a whole new talent pool and I think it will be great fun to revisit.
Who do you see in the lead roles?
I have no idea. I honestly haven’t started there yet because I don’t have a writer yet. Until we know where we’re going it’s hard to imagine who might be in there helping us tell the story. I’m looking forward to getting out there, seeing new people and visiting the idea of people we already know. At the end of the day Patrick, Jennifer, Cynthia and Jerry Orbach brought so much. It was so layered what they brought. The chemistry that they had with each other – I want to find that magic.
Kenny Ortega with Mia Michaels & Nigel Lythgoe. Photo Phil McCarten/FOX
You mentioned on So You Think You Can Dance that you might offer winner Melanie Moore a role. Will you?
I’d stand in line and elbow people out of my way to work with her. Possibly on Dirty Dancing, but she is so versatile, so gifted. There’s nothing that I think that young lady can’t do. And she’s so humble. With her humility who knows where this young lady’s going to take us?
What do you look for in a dancer?
I look for dancers that bring something to the party aside from execution. I look for people that put their heart out there and put themselves out on the edge. Dancers that have that ability to put themselves in the zone before they take one step into the choreography.
Have you spoken to any of the old cast about the concept of a remake?
Jennifer Grey and I have been talking and she’s been so supportive. As has Lisa Swayze and Eleanor Bergstein [original writer]. I couldn’t be more thankful for the outreach that has happened from the cast and crew members of the original movie. They have all called and said ‘go Kenny, go!’
Will Jennifer Grey make an appearance?
If it’s organic, right and makes sense. I wouldn’t do it just to do it, but if we can offer her an opportunity to do something important I would love nothing more.
What do you envision for the storyline?
I don’t want to push something onto a writer. I respect writers so much. I want to just find a really great writer. I believe in team work. The reason why Dirty Dancing worked the first time is because of the team. Let’s assemble a team and let everybody have a voice. I don’t want to pretend that it’s going to be about me. It’s going to be about the challenge of putting together the right thinkers, and then setting off on a course together.
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When I first heard about Dance Truck I thought, ‘what a strange, yet intriguing concept!’ I was excited to think about the challenges and possibilities that dancing on the back of a truck could bring. But why dance on a truck?
In 2009, Malina Rodriguez founded Dance Truck after the producers of a local festival insisted that they lacked a suitable space for any kind for dance. “We’ll bring the space to you,” she proclaimed. Several U-Hauls later, Dance Truck has gained momentum not just as a novel concept, but also as a unique opportunity to challenge both artists and viewers in a variety of different locations and environments. Dance Truck, although unconventional, brings dance to people and shares our art form with the community. In just 22 months, Dance Truck has presented over 50 artists at festivals, museums, galleries, and roadside hotspots.
Choreographer Blake Beckham, who presented her work PLOT on Dance Truck at The Goat Farm, Atlanta in July explains, “The universe of contemporary dance can be so insular. Dance Truck dares us to move beyond the confines and culture of the concert stage, to re-envision our relationship with the public, to the site of dance and the situation of its making. In this way, it’s provocative and very much alive with a spirit of invention.”
Discussing her work PLOT and how Dance Truck has shaped her choreographic voice Beckham continues, “It is undeniable that the opportunity to work with Dance Truck has changed the course of my career, because of Malina’s wild ambitions, unwavering faith and creative vision. This mobile movement project has made an imprint on my way of looking, and of asking. So, when I drove up behind a pickup truck one September afternoon (its bed loaded with a fluffy blanket of sod) I saw it as a Dance Truck stage. I saw in it an imaginative opening: my PLOT. The piece has now grown into something momentous. It is the largest, most complex work that I’ve ever made and that Dance Truck has ever presented. None of this would have been possible without Malina’s leadership and tenacity.”
My first Dance Truck experience was enjoying a performance by Portland based choreographer Noelle Stiles, presenting her work Here Begins a Region of Eclipse at the MINT Gallery in Atlanta. Her unique performance embraced the starry sky on top of the truck bed as she took us on her journey to the space between sleep and wakefulness. Dance Truck was the perfect platform for the creation and presentation of such a work, and it seemed as though the outdoor setting had played a large role in the choreographic creation. “A performance in a traditional venue with a traditional audience relationship typically encourages a prescribed way in which we will all conduct ourselves. Taking performance out of that scenario brings an exciting amount of unpredictability and possibility to things and brought up different questions and variables to consider”, shared Stiles.
Performing outside does come with some drawbacks though. “It was a little hot but that’s what I get for coming to Atlanta in June to perform outside”, laughed Noelle.
Whether you look at dance as art, entertainment, or both, we can all agree that dance is to be enjoyed by the people, and initiatives like Dance Truck make this a reality, taking dance out of the theaters and literally into the streets.
“I like Dance Truck’s combination of grit and grace”, said Stiles. “I told Malina to reserve me a spot on the first national tour because it’s an idea that is so enjoyable on many levels and people respond to it. Dance Truck is also doing its part to fill a cultural void. This is a brave and important endeavor. If people want dance in their lives and in their communities, they need to meet projects like Dance Truck half way with tangible support in order for them to last.”
For more information about Dance Truck visit www.dancetruck.org
LA based dance/fitness advocate Michelle Zeitlin is ready to reach out to the world with her unique brand of passion and pragmatism.
By Paul Ransom
Michelle Zeitlin is one of those polymath types; and she’s not afraid to advertise the fact. From her Los Angeles HQ she is looking to take her blend of dance and wellness to the world. When she lands in Australia in July for a master class tour she will doubtless be bringing her energetic, entrepreneurial zap to proceedings across the globe.
Dancer, choreographer, director, producer; Zeitlin has lived and worked on all sides of the entertainment fence and that hard won 360° perspective marks her out as something of a rarity.
“In an industry that can be filled with wishy-washiness and a shortage of integrity, I feel that being recognised for my authenticity is really a truth and a compliment,” she begins unabashed. “I love dance. I love expressing myself with my body. It is my flow; and I feel connected to the earth. That may sound esoteric or corny but I do feel that I’m in the moment when I move … We are naturally meant to move; it is our flight. When we move, we release endorphins and that’s good for our brains and our systems.”
Michelle Zeitlin is clearly big on ‘authenticity’. “Dance is honest for me,” she states upfront. “Just like when you can see ‘acting’ it doesn’t feel truthful; I feel that way about really good dance. It’s best when it’s simple. When movement is truthful, it comes from within. When I choreograph, I really start with a pulse, like breathing, and emerge from there.”
The other big string to her bow is the connect point between fitness and dance. For Zeitlin, dance is not simply a performance mode but something far more fundamental. “Dance is fitness and health,” she says. “There are unhealthy ways to practice dance but in the most basic terms dance is exercise, and good for the body.”
Obvious as that sounds, Zeitlin is taking it further. With a keen eye for business she is tapping into the growing market for programmes that address the burgeoning childhood obesity crisis. “There are many reasons kids are getting fatter and I’ve written a research paper on the subject,” she explains. “I’ve also been putting together a live show and ideas for a web and TV series that will be for the 6-12 year old elementary school set. Kids love to learn experientially and I’m combining my research, my passion for exercise and my love for kids with this project.”
Much of that fitness and financial ethos makes its way into Zeitlin’s masterclass program. Dancers can expect a whole lot more than a few new moves. As she is quick to point out, “I teach like a director. I’m always studying the room; who is there, and how to develop the dancers.”
On the fitness front this means a merging of ideas from contemporary dance, yoga, isometrics, martial arts and cardio. A Zeitlin warm-up is “a body strengthener and builder”, rather than a straight stretch.
Yet for all her startling passion and enthusiasm, Michelle Zeitlin maintains a very cool focus on the ‘realpolitik’ of dance and entertainment. Whereas most artists find the business side of things nigh impossible (or even downright offensive), Zeitlin is a deliberate self-spruiker. It’s surely one of the reasons why her company More Zap Productions is going international.
“Being a professional dancer who chooses to subsist by living and working as a dancer, you must think of yourself as a product – a brand,” she begins bluntly. “Who are you? What do you have to say? What type are you? How do you stand out? This means the way you present yourself is really branding who you are. Dancers, actors, models and singers need to have a sense of who they are as products in a marketplace, not just as artists.”
For all of that, though, Zeitlin remains adamant about one thing. “If you want to dance, dance! Don’t do it because it’s trendy or because you want to back up Britney. Do it because you have something to say.”
So, is this what puts the ‘zap’ in More Zap Productions? “I think more zap is what I’m about,” she says. “People say ‘put the wow into it’ but that’s become a cliché, so I always thought that putting more zap into it was fresher. It’s an energy and a vitality. Motion.”
And Michelle Zeitlin certainly has energy. Her company has been involved in more than two thousand events since its inception; and it could easily have been more. “Before More Zap my company was called Triple Threat, which dancers and entertainers understand … but I once got a phone call asking for Triple Treat. They thought we were strippers!”
This is perhaps an apt metaphor for a woman who works from a space of refreshing honesty and ‘upfrontness’. Zeitlin’s modus operandi is to strip away much of the narrow thinking that can creep into dance practise. “I’m really excited about my masterclass tour and exposing people to some new ideas that could broaden and enhance their tool kit for success in the performing arts and in the entertainment industry,” she adds.
With her consciously broad horizon approach, Michelle Zeitlin has turned a lifelong passion not simply into a source of income but a source of continued inspiration. “I guess I was destined to be either an actor or a spy,” she starts off joking. “Dance for me was an umbrella and an anchor. What I mean is that dance gave me a safe haven to develop, be a little different and have my creative safe place, even in grade school. It made me special and kept me happy. Dance was my anchor; in that I felt planted, disciplined and structured.”
At Feedback, you’ll find musicians against the studio mirrors, painters to your right, a photographer observing the room, a lighting designer setting the mood, a poet with pen in hand, a film student documenting the experience… and DANCERS everywhere. Welcome to Feedback: A two-hour journey where art inspires art. “Feedback is the beginning of a new movement that combines every type of artistic expression into one class”, says Feedback student and dancer Kathryn McCormick of So You Think You Can Dance Seasons 6 and 7. “Feedback gives you the space to discover how much you have to offer.”
Feedback’s mission is to provide a space for artists of all genres to gather, co-create and inspire one another. So far, it has accomplished just that. The structure of the class, danced to live music, includes a warm up, an across the floor moment to loosen up and an improvisation section for all dancers and musicians to ‘feed off one another’. This is then followed by a dance combination for an hour. After class all are encouraged to mingle around the ‘Artist Xing’ table where artists post their info and promote themselves and their products. This is where painters show their works, bands sell their CDs, and upcoming events are shared.
Founded by Alex Little, a Los Angeles-based dancer/teacher/choreographer, Feedback was an idea that has rapidly gained momentum. Alex’s goal was to get rid of the stereo and create a class she could teach to 100% live music. “There is nothing like moving and being one with the piano, the guitar, the voice… essentially the story. In this awareness your dancing changes. It deepens because the sounds are visceral and you feel the presence of a connection between one another’s artistry. As a dancer this experience awakens a sense of awe and gratitude that spurs your discipline to dive more deeply into your senses and find a more developed musical self. It enhances the purpose and intention in your movement – it’s just contagious!”
Alex teamed up first with musical director Steve Maggiora. Alex knew Steve’s voice and musicianship would lend itself beautifully to the project. Steve suggested using local bands for the sound and shortly thereafter began scouting the scene and lining them up. Next Alex recruited teacher and choreographer Sari Anna Thomas who became her partner. Not only does Sari help develop and produces the events, but she also co-teaches each class with Alex. All three felt extremely passionate about the need for this community -based project to begin, where artists could not only be offered another outlet to work on their craft, but could find one another.
“For the last decade I have wanted nothing more than for the world to see and hear how talented my friends are! We can start with the community- then the world”, Alex says regarding singers, artists and musicians she can’t wait to have be a part of the class. Feedback’s first class was held at Elevation Studios with local band “Four Stops to Freedom”. With 35 dancers, a photographer and a painter attending the first class, they knew they had begun something unique, and ever since the word has spread like wildfire. Today, Feedback is attracting fine artists from all realms, and is quickly growing into a creative haven for all artists to be challenged and inspired. “The people attending are there to live, love and learn”, says dancer Alex Blitstein. “This is not a class, it is an experience. I only wish Feedback could be in so many more places at once… I see so many wonderful things for Feedback’s future.”
Currently, Feedback is held once a month at the state-of-the-art facility, Foresight Studios in Los Angeles, but there is the potential to utilize other venues. “Feedback is hoping to expand to theaters by the end of the summer. We feel that one of the real backdrops for this class is a theater”, says Thomas. “By removing the mirror and allowing space for an audience, Feedback will finally be able to take the shape we envision.” Feedback has already been invited to take place at a few different venues in LA. “We are also thrilled to take Feedback on the road as we are now offering it as an in-studio workshop”, Thomas adds. The Feedback team sees their class in other site-specific places, such as the lawn of a museum, at the beach, and even at an art gallery. Painter Amber Helmstetter has painted at each class since the beginning. “I feel honored to take part in such a unique blend of music and dance… the energy and vibe of the experience brings out imagery in my paintings that I know is inspired by the dancers.”
Dancing to live music is as old as time and The Feedback Experience hopes to honor the tradition that has brought communities together throughout history. “In the middle of an industry where there is so much competition for work as an artist, we hope that for these two hours, our class will transcend all of that” adds Little. “When everyone feeds off each other, the walls of fear and judgment seem to dissipate. I have witnessed the surrendering process happen and when pure authenticity comes out the body, the fingers, the paint brush, the lense, the pen, the mouth, the mic, the amp. … it is profoundly beautiful.” As Phillip Attmore, So You Think You Can Dance Season 6, Top 20 contestant, put it, “I felt like I was in New York again… it was simply a forum of artists gathering together and sharing their passions with nothing to prove.”