“Ladies and gentlemen…Ms. Deanna Seay.” The curtain came up to reveal the principal dancer standing onstage about to bid farewell after 21 years of dancing with MCB. That was how this Saturday’s Open Barre: A Dancer Tribute to Deanna Seay began. It was a very emotional event filled with tears, laughter and great performances of some of Deanna’s favorite ballets. Tricia Albertson, her friend and fellow dancer, put together a video tribute about her that was screened during the show. For those of you who missed it, here is the video tribute to Ms. Deanna Seay.
When I was a student, my teacher, Melissa Hayden, used to tell us that, “Change is the only constant.” Indeed, change is what happens, and sometimes it happens faster than you can blink an eye. Plans have changed for me this week, as in the final performance of Who Cares? at the Kravis Center this past weekend, I landed from a jump and wrenched my left knee. This in and of itself was quite an experience, having to leave the stage in the middle of a variation, the instant (and since, continuous) replay of the series of events leading up to the moment of impact, the surreal moment of not knowing what my leg would do, and not really being able to control what was happening. If there is a bright side to this sort of thing, it would be that I can now add this rather dramatic exit to my list of experiences as well as using it as a tool to learn more about myself.
The uncertainty of my prognosis doesn’t change the fact that there will still be performances this weekend, but I am hoping that, on April 24th, I will still be able to share the stage, in some way, one more time with some of the dearest people in the world. I was really looking forward to these shows- to be able to visit and rediscover these three ballets one more time. “Emeralds”, with its watery green world and romantic movement, is the one I have known longest. When I first danced this role sixteen years ago, Edward introduced me to the idea of “the man who isn’t there,” to help me create a narrative that would link my steps together. The music, as well as the beautiful green costume, led me to a mysterious world of aura and nuance. I thought of the long solo as a Shakespearean soliloquy, with the curving gestures of the arms telling a story of longing, memories and loss. The choreographic marvel of the related pas de deux is the constant walking that links the steps together. The ballerina floats across the stage, guided by a man she cannot see, and perhaps isn’t really there except in her memory.
Allegro Brillante, which I was fortunate enough to revisit earlier this season, is an exhilarating essay on being a Balanchine dancer. This ballet came to me shortly after I became a principal dancer, and I remember being daunted by its sophistication at first. But who can resist Tchaikovsky’s piano works? Where else can you fly and feel as free as in Allegro Brillante? This ballet holds a strange power- with its sweeping choreography it creates a very romantic mood. In the seconds when you look deep into your partner’s eyes, you also have to trust that he will be there to catch you in the next daring moment. This powerful combination of trust and romance eventually worked its magic on me, as I married the man with whom I first danced Allegro.
Theme and Variations, also set to Tchaikovsky, is probably one of the most difficult ballets I ever danced, and one of which I am sincerely proud of what I accomplished. The technical challenges are formidable for both the man and the woman, and to be truly effective, these challenges should be delivered with as much beauty and joy as is held by the music. Balanchine choreographed many beautiful ballets, but Theme is particularly special to me. It represents the pinnacle of classical dancing- a perfect fusion of choreography and music coupled with an untouchable sense of purity. The restraint of the movement speaks volumes about the drama behind the choreography. With such purity, a mere sous-sous becomes a dramatic statement, and the presentation of the ballerina’s hand tells an entire story. To dance, this ballet feels as if it is part fairy tale and part real life. I think that dancing Theme was part fairy tale for me, considering my memories of watching Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Theme with American Ballet Theater during the “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcasts of my childhood. The fairy tale continued for me, as it was after my third performance of Theme and Variations that Edward told me that he was making me a principal dancer.
Yes, I was looking forward to exploring these ballets again, but I was most looking forward to sharing the stage one more time with this wonderful family that surrounds me. I have never been able to write enough about the people that I dance with, to tell whoever may read this what a wonderful group my colleagues are, and how much they inspire me and how much I learn from them. It is amazing the things they go through to be able to dance everyday…aside from the usual aches and pains that come with this career, I watch as one of my colleagues painfully refits her pointe shoes every morning. Others experience the death of someone close, but this does not keep them away from the studio. Sometimes it seems that lives outside of the studio are falling apart, and yet everyone shows up each day with unfailing determination to create beauty out of whatever they can. Between the injuries, the issues and the difficulties, I admire all of these dancers more than they can ever know. Their singular dedication to this company and to ballet makes me proud to have been a part of this group, and honored to have been able to share the stage with them.
Like all years, as we get older, this one has flown by, and I can’t believe that we are already opening Program IV. More significantly, I cannot believe that this will be my 21st, and final, Program IV as a full-time member of Miami City Ballet. Each of the four programs that we present carries a particular feeling – the excitement of opening the season with Program I, for example. As Program IV closes the season, it is accompanied by the excitement of the summer, prospects of the coming season, as well as the bittersweet knowledge of knowing that roster changes mean that this will be the last time we all dance together. This last reason, of course, weighs heavily on me as I prepare this Program IV, so it is fitting that these final two ballets are so special to me.
The full Who Cares?, choreographed by George Balanchine to a series of songs by George Gershwin, was one of my early principal roles. Of the three principal women, I was given the jumping variation – a bit of a surprise since I never thought of myself as a “jumper.” Yet the variation was full of things that I could do — big moving sequences with lots of jazzy syncopation. Still, though, it is two minutes of jumping, but singing the lyrics in my head helped me find a dramatic impulse that allowed me to get past the burning muscles and lungs. Building a stairway to paradise is hardly easy work, but the hopeful, bounding combination of steps and music made the process a lot of fun. My pas de deux, set to the title song, is at the other end of the spectrum — a bit more relaxed and without any sort of technical pyrotechnics. Hearing this music now brings back many years of memories; many different partners, theaters, rehearsals, circumstances, and that is actually what I feel the pas de deux reflects. While “Man I Love,” is the most romantic duet, and “Embraceable You,” highlights young love, “Who Cares?” seems to be a meeting of two old friends — possible former lovers, but maybe not. Regardless, they share a history, and have come together to remember the old times, maybe show off a little. It is a trip down memory lane for them, and in that, for me as well. Who Cares? is most definitely one of the oldest, most faithful of my “ballet friends” and one of the ones I shall miss the most.
The theme of nostalgic memories also carries through to Dances at a Gathering. Set on the Company in 2005, it was one of my “later” roles, and in a completely different realm from Who Cares?. My particular character, the “Girl in Green,” arrives late, and performs a solo. More mime than dance, her gestures convey a series of movements already executed and delivered with an air of how wonderful everything was. During her second entrance, often referred to as the “Walk Waltz,” she dances, flirts, and flits around the stage, trying so very hard to attract the attention of the men that come and go. Her happy-go-lucky attitude surfaces when, after the last man has left, she shrugs as if to say, “Oh well…life goes on.”
This brings me to the finale. I have never experienced a finale like the one that closes Dances at a Gathering. Alarmingly simple, each dancer walks on stage and takes their place, looking around to observe the other dancers, the atmosphere, the stage. They gather, separate, and mingle, before finally dispersing as the curtain closes. Within all of this simplicity, though, is a moment with which I can’t help but to feel a profound connection. When the central male character kneels and places his hand on the floor, it is as if to indicate that it was here, in this place, that all the dancing happened. Watching him make this gesture, I feel that this moment could also express the gratitude I feel as I acknowledge that it has been here, in all of these theaters and with this Company that all of my dancing has happened.
I think that Sonatine is one of my favorite ballets to dance. Set to Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for Piano, the dancing in this pas de deux is subtle and conversational. There is a perfume of intimate delicacy that pervades the atmosphere in Sonatine as the two dancers, dressed in elegant navy blue, enter the stage. Except that it is not a stage that they are entering; it is the arena for an experience to be shared between the dancers, a pianist, and whoever else may be in the vicinity. After initially listening to the sounds emanating from the piano, the dancers’ movements begin to describe the music. The genius of the beginning lies in the fact that the dancers direct their attention to the piano as the first theme is introduced. By the time that theme is heard again, the choreography has embraced the imagination in the score, with the steps performed by the dancers bringing new musical nuances to life. As the piece progresses through the contemplative middle section into the exciting final movement, it is possible to see that the dancers have illustrated the musical journey on which Ravel sent the listener. What began as a quiet, intimate composition, with the dancers constantly close to each other for support, moves on to introduce new moods and different energies before concluding at the opposite end of either a musical or dance spectrum: energetic, explosive, and expansive.
When we first prepared Sonatine, Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous came to help stage and coach the work. They originated this pas de deux, which was created for New York City Ballet’s Ravel Festival in 1975. As I learned the steps, it became clear that with this ballet, Balanchine had created a portrait of these two dancers. The sequences created for Violette are intelligent, witty and sublimely musical; and by incorporating steps that are not entirely conventional, it is possible to see Violette’s sense of humor and imagination, too. It could have been easy for me to impose these ideas onto the choreography, though, as I had known Violette for a long time. However, I had never met Jean-Pierre before, but having studied a video of Sonatine for several days prior to their arrival, I was not surprised that he had a big, masculine presence and shared much of the same wit, refinement and intelligence as Violette.
Even though it has been ten years since I worked with Jean-Pierre and Violette on Sonatine, their memories still replay in my head. Violette’s comparisons between ballet and food are priceless, and while I can’t remember specifics, I am sure that she mentioned “whipped cream” more than once. I also fondly remember her attention to costume details; according to Violette, the best way to determine the length of a skirt is to have the ballerina stand on pointe in costume before trimming the edge. This way, it is possible to find the best overall proportion of lower leg, skirt length and bodice. Jean-Pierre worked primarily with the men, and he pushed them to find their own nuance throughout the work. He described one section of the male solo as “improvisation,” and allowed each man to create his own sequence of steps for this section.
Remembering my own coaching sessions in Sonatine also helps me find my way when trying to coach other dancers myself. For this Open Barre series, I was assigned to assist the dancers with Flower Festival Pas de Deux. There are many challenges that come with teaching a ballet to other dancers. For instance, once the steps are taught, how do I help them to look their best? How do I provide them with an accurate representation of the style? How do I push them to overcome whatever technical difficulties there might be? How do I convey the image I see in my mind, and how do I encourage them to push beyond the limits they may have set for themselves? I find myself often telling stories to the dancers I am working with, as I try to describe the origin of the idea I am trying to convey. These stories, in the case of Flower Festival, often come from my own experience dancing this ballet many years ago, as I try to remember the details I learned from Edward back then. So, it is a welcome relief when Edward comes into these rehearsals; I try to learn from him which details to look for, and how to communicate those details so clearly. Listening to him as he explains technical and artistic nuances, I am often amazed by his ability to identify problems and offer the simplest of solutions. Towards the end of Flower Festival, there is a sequence of hops during which the girl hangs on to the boy’s shoulder as he propels them both around to face the next direction. When the dancers seemed awkward attempting this sequence, Edward merely pointed out that they were initially too close together, and that the man needs to “duck” underneath the woman’s arm. “That was from Stanley,” he said, referring to Stanley Williams, the former School of American Ballet teacher who brought his Bournonville background to Balanchine’s company. With such depth of knowledge and experience as an example, I try to absorb as much as I can from him when he is in rehearsal so that I might be at least somewhat as helpful as he, but most often I just find myself happy that he is here to share these things himself.
Ah…full-length story ballets. Often beautiful, always entertaining, audiences love to watch a story unfold onstage during an evening. Someone is always dancing, whether the corps de ballet or the principals, and the corresponding narrative seems to help the audience understand the dancing language. One of the six full-length works in our repertoire, The Neighborhood Ballroom is unique in its focus on several different time periods (the Belle Epoque, Jazz Age, 1940s war years, and the 1950s) and the related dance rage of each era). Edward Villella’s tribute to these different eras is a product of his extensive dance knowledge, and it is his vision that is fully realized with this production. His sense of detail brings to life four different acts dance trends, spanning from 1912 to the 50s.
Any full-length narrative work requires a lot of preparation, and The Neighborhood Ballroom is no exception. There are many details that must be polished to allow the story to emerge. Working these things out takes time; long rehearsals with intense focus are required to absorb these details, and while the process is ultimately rewarding, it is also exhausting. Each era must be recreated so as to be able to distinguish one from the other; the restrained behavior during the days of Absinthe and the Boston Waltz differs from the crazy experimentation that occurred during the Jazz era and the Quick-Step. One of the wonderful things about The Neighborhood Ballroom (or just “Ballroom,” as we call it) is that these nuances are achieved through the choreography, with the mood of each period expertly conveyed through its corresponding style.
It would not be possible to perform this work if the dancers in it did not love to dance so much. To begin with, there is so much dancing involved that several dancers are required to appear in all four acts. After many hours of rehearsals learning very detailed, style-specific choreography, watching the company members transform themselves from one period to another is very similar to watching a chameleon change colors – they fit themselves into the style instantly and effortlessly. The principals in each act work out the details of their individual characters, adding further dimension to the wonderfully-inventive pas de deuxs that occur throughout the evening. The technical side of this production is also very complicated; the level of excitement in watching the production crew accomplish the many special effects backstage nearly rivals the excitement of watching the dancers onstage. It never ceases to amaze me how much goes into the ambiance onstage; those beautiful serene moments that people see are the product of much more than meets the eye.
We are ending our Love Series with a bang! Here are Edward Villella, Founding Artistic Director and CEO of Miami City Ballet, and his wife Linda Villella, Director of the Miami City Ballet School. Edward and Linda have been married for many, many moons and have a daughter, Crista Villella, who is a ballet mistress with MCB.
We hope you have enjoyed our Love Series! Take the time to celebrate love and friendship on Sunday and have a very happy Valentine’s Day!
More MCB LOVE!
Joan Latham, MCB Ballet Mistress, and former MCB dancer Arnold Quintane, met while dancing together at Miami City Ballet and have been married for ten years! They have two beautiful little girls. Who knows? Maybe they will have the dancing bug just like Mom and Dad.
Principal dancer Deanna Seay and former MCB dancer Mikhail Nikitine completed each other after they met at Miami City Ballet. The married couple recently took the stage together again during Program II in “Diamonds Pas de Deux” to honor Deanna’s last season with the Company. She will be retiring in April after 21 seasons with MCB and will truly be missed.
The approach and passing of the New Year is an ever present reminder of the passage of time, as well as a reminder to get back to work. No sooner is Nutcracker over than we find ourselves hurtling towards Program II and some of Balanchine’s most deceptively difficult ballets. That the Company will return after the holiday break to perform Divertimento No. 15 is no small feat; Divertimento No. 15 is exacting and meticulous, an exercise not only in beautiful, clean technique but also in perfume, style and garden-party freshness. It should appear effortless and enjoyable, each ballerina displaying a distinct personality while exuding the joy of dancing. Valse Fantaisie (1953) is just as unforgiving as Divertimento No. 15, but where Divertimento requires porcelain perfect ballerinas, Valse needs dancers that fly about with the greatest of ease. The solo passages here move- sweep, rather- from one side of the stage to the other, filling the space with beautiful, full, bounding movement that never allows the dancers one moment of rest.
While I have been trying to tackle the challenges of one of the ballerina roles in Divertimento No. 15, my own special assignment for this program, recently added to Program II, is the pas de deux from “Diamonds.” Even though I have danced the role for ten years, it still continues to reveal its secrets to me. When I first approached this part, I tried to make myself into the dancer the role required- or at least the restrained, perfect dancer I thought was required. Originally created for Suzanne Farrell, there was not much that I could imitate, but I did my best to pretend that I might possibly be as perfect, mysterious and elusive as she must have been. Over time I realized that “Diamonds” is not about restraint or perfection in the least. Suzanne Farrell was known for her abandon, spontaneity, mystery and numerous other wonderful traits, and the perceived perfection she achieved in “Diamonds” came about because she was true to herself and her own way of moving.
When a dancer first looks at a role, it is impossible not to fantasize about how the role might look and the “things” a new dancer may want to “do” with a role. Looking at “Diamonds” now, though, after ten years, I realize that maybe it isn’t about what I want to “do” with a role. The role isn’t mine to shape, place a mark on, or to possess in any way; rather, I am the one who should be shaped and possessed by the role. I don’t mean to refer to my first approach, either, of becoming what I thought the role should be. To dance a Balanchine role is to serve the choreography and the music; to be chosen to present a role in one of his ballets is to be humbled by the responsibility of becoming the medium for which the role communicates with the audience. As dancers, we work to purify our “language”- the steps through which we bare our souls to express the essence of choreographic ideas. To add anything more than who and what we are becomes a distortion…and false.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is about truth. As I study “Diamonds” now, the steps speak to me differently than they did ten years ago, directing me towards a truth that is more elemental than the physical truth of perfect execution. In the past where I felt that I needed to polish each step, I now let the music take me on a journey and lead me places that are products of that particular moment in time. Each day in the studio becomes a new journey down this “Diamonds” path, allowing me to spontaneously respond to whatever magic may be present in the most honest way possible.
Deanna Seay in “Diamonds”. Photo by Joe Gato.
Don’t miss Deanna’s performance of “Diamonds Pas de Deux” this weekend at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets click here.
It is that time of year again. Nutcracker is making its way into the halls of MCB as familiar strains of holiday music waft through the studios. Dancers learn new parts and brush off old ones, and children brim with excitement at the prospect of being on stage with the Sugar Plum Fairy. For most of us, Nutcracker is something we have been part of, one way or another, since childhood, and while the performances can seem endless, stories of Nutcracker are something that all dancers have in common.
Twenty years ago, Miami City Ballet opened its first Nutcracker season with about forty performances throughout South Florida. We had sold out standing ovations every night in every venue. The glowing reviews heralded the arrival of a new South Florida tradition. There were galas and celebrations. We toured through South Florida, beginning with endless hours of tech rehearsals and six performances in Naples, Florida during the week around Thanksgiving. From there we traveled to Clearwater for eight performances before returning to perform fifteen shows at Dade County Auditorium in Miami. The run finished with about ten particularly challenging performances at Bailey Concert Hall. Not only did these shows fall at the end of an exhausting run, but the dimensions of the stage required the large pieces of scenery to be set closer together that usual, subtracting from the performing area.
Through the years Nutcracker has continued to return to MCB, every year bringing a new set of challenges and surprises. Nutcracker mishaps are many, and often the best part of the story. More than once, overly -excited soldiers in the Battle Scene have left puddles on stage to be avoided by the Snowflakes. Headpieces and other costume parts fall off on a regular basis, it seems, leaving the dancers on stage with the challenge of surreptitiously removing the obstacle from the dancing space. Occasionally, other things fall onto the stage as well; it is not unusual for the snowflakes to hear items landing with a thud during the snow scene. Then, there was the year that lighting gels over the stage caught on fire and began to rain down during Waltz of the Flowers, with Sally Ann Isaacks as the Dewdrop. None of us who were present the first year will ever forget the dress rehearsal during which we heard Edward yell out, “Crista!!,” as he watched his young daughter, who was rehearsing the role of Marie, inadvertently run off the edge of the dark stage and fall into the orchestra pit.
Her fall was broken by a tympani drum, and after a few frighteningly silent moments her small voice called out, “Daddy, I’m ok.” Years later, during a performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, screams and shouts of, “Stop!” were once again heard from the audience. A fight between patrons had broken out, with two men rolling through the aisle. The newspaper later reported that one of the men had been talking and would not be quiet when asked. Despite the commotion, the dancers continued on, never once missing a step.
Not everything that goes on during a Nutcracker performance is visible to the audience. We have many of our own games that we play, some occurring on stage during performances. The ladies who dance in the Snow scene, many of whom will dance every single performance, are masters at creating storylines that help motivate them to perform the demanding snow choreography day after day with narratives that range from captive ice princesses to imaginary ice- skating competitions. In the past, a version of tag has been played during party scene. Originally intended as an exercise to create movement around the stage, one of the adult party scene guests attempts to tag another by placing an inconspicuous clip onto someone’s costume. Offstage, there is the yearly Secret Santa game.
More than just a gift giving occasion, Secret Santa turns into a company event no matter who is playing. It is impossible not to enjoy the antics as people are forced to earn their gifts by singing Christmas carols before company class, going on scavenger hunts around the theaters, or revealing some of their most embarrassing moments to the entire cast.
The first year in Nutcracker is always the hardest. And so it was for me that first year, dancing every performance of snow and flower corps in that first year, and also appearing as a parent in the party scene each show. My biggest fear was that I would not make it back to the stage in time for Snow. It was not easy to get out of that party scene costume, with its layers of petticoats, gloves, capes, etc. I remember racing from the stage to my dressing room to change my costume, and being in the corps, it seemed that our dressing room was the farthest from the stage. Off with one costume, and into the next, ripping out one headpiece and jabbing pins into my hair to secure the next, grabbing pointe shoes and shoving my feet into them. But as the years went by, Nutcracker seemed to become a little easier. By the second year, I shared a party scene spot, so I didn’t have to race every show to make the costume change. Seniority eventually grants a dancer an alternate for her snow and flower corps spots, and the first time I did not appear in the Snow Scene felt like a milestone. As time went by, I began to dance a variety of roles, including the Dewdrop and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I danced my first Sugar Plum Fairy fifteen years ago at the Broward School matinee. Being young and ambitious as I first learned the role, I worked to make the Sugar Plum Fairy everything I thought she should be, and ended up learning, over the years, that she is the product of so much more. There is no question that she epitomizes beauty, femininity and magic, and that under her reign, there can be nothing wrong in the world as she commands her kingdom with a swirl of her wand, but it is the grace, humility and patience learned from the early years in the corps that become prerequisites for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
So, after a few more shows, this Nutcracker season shall also pass. We will all breathe a collective sigh of relief as we scurry our separate directions for Christmas. And yet, it is another set of stories to compile, another chapter in our ongoing Nutcracker history.
The wonderful thing about Nutcracker is that it keeps coming back.
Check out Patricia Delgado’s interview with Deanna during Naples Nutcracker.
As a ballet student, you never think that the day will actually come when your career as a dancer might become a thing of the past. Caught up with the rigorous challenges of training, you are more anxiously conscious of wanting your career to begin. Then, you find yourself in a company, dancing every night, waking early to take class and rehearse, and time goes by. In the middle of it all, another ten years seem to be so much time to enjoy what you love to do, and with all the work to accomplish- the ballets to learn, the performances to prepare for, the endless strings of Nutcrackers, it doesn’t seem possible as you dance through your twenties and into your thirties that a career could ever end. Suddenly, though, the day comes when you realize it is time to move on, and you are left with years of memories, and the realization that time and careers do pass.
This is where I find myself at this moment, part way through my twenty-first season here with Miami City Ballet. I decided, a few months ago, that I would retire from the stage at the end of this season. I have spent the dancer’s equivalent of a lifetime here; indeed, I feel that, here, as an artist, I was “born,” grew up, matured, and am now facing what feels like the death of my life as a ballet dancer. Somewhere I read that dancers experience two deaths: the “death” of their careers and then their true death – and now I understand. Maybe death is a strong word, but for me, it acknowledges the completion of a journey and the chance to move on.
What can I say after two decades of dance? I have had an amazing time. I have been lucky to enjoy the career I have had- I am not sure it would have been this way anywhere else. I have been allowed to dance to the divine strains of Tchaikovsky more than my fair share, I think, as well as those of Stravinsky, Mozart, Delibes, Prokofiev, Ravel, Faure, Chopin and countless others. The music that moves our souls- I was granted the chance to dance to that- to live- to exist.
All of the ballets I will dance this year hold special meaning for me, and to be able to visit them again before I leave the stage is a special gift. And so I am looking forward to a season of little private moments of goodbye. Dancing my last performances of Company B and Allegro Brillante during the Kravis weekend, words such as,”…and this is the last time…” would float through my head, and the lump in my throat would start to swell. Each moment became a private goodbye to that part of my on-stage world. Bittersweet though it is, I wouldn’t want it any other way.