Maria Tallchief dies at age 88
Maria Tallchief, a dancer of electrifying passion and technical ability who forged a pathbreaking career that took her from an Oklahoma Indian reservation to world acclaim and who was a crucial artistic inspiration for choreographer George Balanchine, her first husband, died April 11 at a hospital in Chicago. She was 88.
For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More recently we’ve seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being.
Then most recently we’ve heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.
You may have heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging. Here it is in a nutshell.
The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity. They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect. Other activities had none.
They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.
One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind. There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.
Reading - 35% reduced risk of dementia
Bicycling and swimming - 0%
Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week - 47%
Playing golf - 0%
Dancing frequently - 76%.
That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
Quoting Dr. Joseph Coyle, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who wrote an accompanying commentary:
“The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.”
And from from the study itself, Dr. Katzman proposed these persons are more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Like education, participation in some leisure activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving cognitive reserve.
Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it doesn’t need to, then it won’t.
Aging and memory
When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there’s only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. So as we age, we learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks. (Or maybe we don’t learn to do this, and just become a dimmer bulb.)
The key here is Dr. Katzman’s emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal synapses. More is better. Do whatever you can to create new neural paths. The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living our lives.
When I was studying the creative process as a grad student at Stanford, I came across the perfect analogy to this:
The more stepping stones there are across the creek,
the easier it is to cross in your own style.
The focus of that aphorism was creative thinking, to find as many alternative paths as possible to a creative solution. But as we age, parallel processing becomes more critical. Now it’s no longer a matter of style, it’s a matter of survival — getting across the creek at all. Randomly dying brain cells are like stepping stones being removed one by one. Those who had only one well-worn path of stones are completely blocked when some are removed. But those who spent their lives trying different mental routes each time, creating a myriad of possible paths, still have several paths left.
The Albert Einstein College of Medicine study shows that we need to keep as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal synapses.
We immediately ask two questions:
- Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?
- Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?
That’s where this particular study falls short. It doesn’t answer these questions as a stand-alone study. Fortunately, it isn’t a stand-alone study. It’s one of many studies, over decades, which have shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive processes. Intelligence: Use it or lose it. And it’s the other studies which fill in the gaps in this one. Looking at all of these studies together lets us understand the bigger picture.
Some of this is discussed here (the page you may have just came from) which looks at intelligence in dancing. The essence of intelligence is making decisions. And the concluding advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.
One way to do that is to learn something new. Not just dancing, but anything new. Don’t worry about the probability that you’ll never use it in the future. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways. Difficult and even frustrating classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways.
Then take a dance class, which can be even better. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once, increasing your connectivity. Dancing simultaneously involves kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional processes.
What kind of dancing?
Let’s go back to the study:
Bicycling, swimming or playing golf - 0% reduced risk of dementia
But doesn’t golf require rapid-fire decision-making? No, not if you’re a long-time player. You made most of the decisions when you first started playing, years ago. Now the game is mostly refining your technique. It can be good physical exercise, but the study showed it led to no improvement in mental acuity.
Therefore do the kinds of dance where you must make as many split-second decisions as possible. That’s key to maintaining true intelligence.
Does any kind of dancing lead to increased mental acuity? No, not all forms of dancing will produce this benefit. Not dancing which, like golf or swimming, mostly works on style or retracing the same memorized paths. The key is the decision-making. Remember (from this page), Jean Piaget suggested that intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do.
We wish that 25 years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing, to find out which was better. But we can figure it out by looking at who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980. Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers (today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social dancing — basic foxtrot, swing, waltz and maybe some Latin.
I’ve been watching senior citizens dance all of my life, from my parents (who met at a Tommy Dorsey dance), to retirement communities, to the Roseland Ballroom in New York. I almost never see memorized sequences or patterns on the dance floor. I mostly see easygoing, fairly simple social dancing — freestyle lead and follow. But freestyle social dancing isn’t that simple! It requires a lot of split-second decision-making, in both the lead and follow roles.
I need to digress here:
I want to point out that I’m not demonizing memorized sequence dancing or style-focused pattern-based ballroom dancing. I sometimes enjoy sequence dances myself, and there are stress-reduction benefits of any kind of dancing, cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, and even further benefits of feeling connected to a community of dancers. So all dancing is good.
But when it comes to preserving mental acuity, then some forms are significantly better than others. When we talk of intelligence (use it or lose it) then the more decision-making we can bring into our dancing, the better.
Who benefits more, women or men?
In social dancing, the follow role automatically gains a benefit, by making hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next. As I mentioned on this page, women don’t “follow”, they interpret the signals their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive. This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow. With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables. This is great for staying smarter longer.
But men, you can also match her degree of decision-making if you choose to do so. (1) Really notice your partner and what works best for her. Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going, which moves are successful with her and what aren’t, and constantly adapt your dancing to these observations. That’s rapid-fire split-second decision making. (2) Don’t lead the same old patterns the same way each time. Challenge yourself to try new things. Make more decisions more often. Intelligence: use it or lose it.
And men, the huge side-benefit is that your partners will have much more fun dancing with you when you are attentive to their dancing and constantly adjusting for their comfort and continuity of motion.
Finally, remember that this study made another suggestion: do it often. Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week. If you can’t take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can. More is better.
And do it now, the sooner the better. It’s essential to start building your cognitive reserve now. Some day you’ll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible. Don’t wait — start building them now.
Former director of English National Ballet asked principal dancer Daria Klimentova to consider aborting unborn baby so he could cast her as Sleeping Beauty
After groping with buttons, belt, and zipper, Misha appeared for a brief moment to be a statue himself, a pedestal of rumpled clothes at his feet. He seemed embarrased, like a bashful god. I shared his discomfort and dimmed the lights to conceal my own naked form. Our embrace did nothing to relieve the pressure. This would be our first performance. We were both suffering from stage fright.
I retreated back into the refuge of fantasy, allowing my imagination to guide me through the seduction. We were two statues that had somehow come to life only to dance this intimate pas de deux. The choreography called for us to topple in slow motion onto the mattress. After sliding gracefully beneath the sheets and into each other, the next moment found us hopelessly entangled, like something out of one of those abstract ballets.
There was an awkward frenzy of limbs, a struggle for balance and possesion. I felt that I had to surrender at this point to his need for control, to his fantasy. My purpose in life came into focus as his fingers ran up and down the lashing curve of my spine: to please him, to give him pleasure. Sensing what was expected of me, I waited for him to be done. I felt no need to fake what had not taken place, what could not have taken place in the time that elapsed. After he came to rest in my arms, we both turned back into stone. It was over.
Gelsey Kirkland recalls sleeping with Mikhail Baryshnikov for the first time in Dancing on my Grave
Dancer admits role in Bolshoi Ballet Acid Attack
The acid attack on Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin was shocking when it happened and turned even more bizarre when police said it elicited a confession from a Bolshoi dancer known for playing the Evil Genius in one of the most beloved ballets of all, “Swan Lake.”
Details came to light early Wednesday when Bolshoi soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko confessed to organizing the January attack, and police announced two other men confessed to carrying it out.
“I organized the attack, but not to the extent of the damage that happened,” Dmitrichenko said to Russia’s Channel One. The dancer planned the assault for “personal resentment related to his work,” the police said, according to reports in the Russian media.
An upcomming documentary (Spring 2013) titled All I Am will focus on Marianela and Thiago’s relationship with each other and ballet
ALL I AM is an innovative, creative, hybrid documentary film, quietly, closely and beautifully observed. Its filmic language will challenge the perceived view of dance documentaries as it SEAMLESSLY weaves in especially created dance pieces into the films narrative.
It is an incredibly intense and personal film about a couple’s relationship and their love affair with dance. A story of discipline, of dedication, of frustration, of the quest for absolute perfection that is dancing at this world-class level. Of the pressures to attain and hold your position within a ballet company. The challenges of working so intimately with someone who is also your partner.
It is a portrait of a tempestuous relationship. A relationship both founded and strained to the very limits by the life they have chosen. Ballet is their shared passion and dream. It is all consuming and if you are so successful, a relentless and brutally short career, which leaves little freedom outside the theatre. Family, children, friends. Everything else must wait.
This is a film about Argentinean Marianella Nunez and Brazilian Thiago Soares, principle dancers on stage at London’s Royal Opera House and lovers off stage. They have been captivating audiences for the last six years in memorable performances in Romeo & Juliet and Sleeping Beauty amongst others.
They got married last summer in Argentina with receptions in Buenos Aires and Rio. For any couple this is a massive moment. A point of intense reflection. Even more so for two people who have left family and friends behind to pursue their dreams on stage FAR AWAY IN LONDON. And so this film is also invested with a rich seam of dream and dance sequences, elegantly choreographed and woven into the narrative. The chance to explore their most private hopes and fears.
With total access to their lives both in and outside the Opera House, we meet the key protagonists including the formidable Monica Mason, Director of the House who plucked them out of the corps de ballet and has made their careers. We meet Marinella’s dresser and closest confidant who has worked with her for over ten years, fondly tending to her and sewing every costume. We meet Thiago’s most ardent fan that stands and waits at the stage door night after night, waiting patiently for the chance to see her idol and share a few words.
‘All I Am’ is now shooting on location in London, Rio de Janerio and Buenos Aires, featuring original choreography by Liam Scarlett.
Directed by Beadie Finzi, ‘All I Am’ is a Tigerlily production.
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For more information contact Producer Nikki Parrott on firstname.lastname@example.org
Onegin is a ballet in three acts and six scenes that is based on the poetic novel ‘Eugene Onegin’ by Russian author Alexander Pushkin. The ballet was adapted by renowned choreographer John Cranko in 1965 and was set to Tchaikovsky’s piano divertimento The Seasons by German composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze. Onegin premiered in Stuttgart on April 3rd 1965 with Cranko further revising it in 1967 for the Stuttgart ballet; this is the version that is performed to this day. Onegin is widely considered to be one of Cranko’s finest works.
In Act One, Scene One birthday party celebrations are underway for the ballet’s female lead Tatiana. Her mother Madame Larina, the family nurse and friend Olga are finishing their dresses and gossiping about the forthcoming festivities. Olga’s fiance is a poet called Lensky and he arrives at the country house with a friend from the city, Onegin. Handsome and elegant, Tatiana immediately falls for the sophisticated stranger from the city. Onegin is less enamored of Tatiana however considering her to be something of a country bumpkin who has perhaps read too much romance fiction! Act One Scene Two is set in Tatiana’s bedroom and sees Tatiana in a state of infatuation with the handsome gentleman from the city. Overwhelmed with the flush of first love Tatiana writes an impassioned love letter and presents it to her nurse to give to Onegin.
In the first scene in Act Two, Tatiana’s birthday party celebrations are in full swing. The local gentry have turned up to celebrate and they speculate on the possibility of a blossoming romance between Onegin and Tatiana. Prince Gremin is also in attendance and this older man is the preferred future husband of Madame Larina for her daughter, Tatiana. Onegin finds the whole scenario boring however and he has been put into a bad mood by Tatiana’s love letter, which he regards as childish. He finds Tatiana and tears her love letter up in front of her telling her he will never love her, leaving the young girl distraught. Bored Onegin flirts with Olga in an attempt to provoke Lensky that spectacularly backfires. Lensky is enraged by the flirting of his so-called friend and challenges him to a duel. The second scene in Act Two sees Olga and Tatiana trying to dissuade Lensky from the duel. However Lensky is determined to see out his challenge. The duel ends in tragedy with Onegin killing his friend and this makes Tatiana realise the foolishness of her infatuation, she sees Onegin for what he really is.
In the first scene of Act Three Onegin returns to St Petersburg after several years to attend a ball at the palace of Prince Gremin. The prince has married Tatiana who is now more worldly wise and has grown to be a beautiful young woman. Onegin regrets his treatment of the younger Tatiana and is overcome with regret about losing the chance to be with her. In the final scene set in Tatiana’s boudoir Onegin appears after sending the young princess a letter expressing his love and regret. Tatiana still feels the same passion for him but concludes that she would never be able to respect him. The tables are reversed as Tatiana orders Onegin to leave her alone forever.
The 13th National Dance Awards
DANCING TIMES AWARD FOR BEST MALE DANCER
Akram KHAN (Akram Khan Company)
GRISHKO AWARD FOR BEST FEMALE DANCER
Marianela NUÑEZ (Royal Ballet)
STEF STEFANOU AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING COMPANY
Royal Ballet Flanders
BEST CLASSICAL CHOREOGRAPHY
Annabelle LOPEZ OCHOA (‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ for Scottish Ballet)
BEST MODERN CHOREOGRAPHY
Arthur PITA (‘The Metamorphosis’)
OUTSTANDING FEMALE PERFORMANCE (CLASSICAL)
Ksenia OVSYANICK (English National Ballet)
OUTSTANDING MALE PERFORMANCE (CLASSICAL)
Zdenek KONVALINA (English National Ballet)
DANCERS PRO AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING MODERN PERFORMANCE (FEMALE)
Teneisha BONNER (Zoonation)
DANCERS PRO AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING MODERN PERFORMANCE (MALE)
Tommy FRANZÉN (Zoonation & Russell Maliphant Company)
BEST INDEPENDENT COMPANY
DE VALOIS AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT
DANCE UK INDUSTRY AWARD
Bolshoi Ballet Director Is Victim of Acid Attack
MOSCOW — A masked man threw acid in the face of Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet, on Thursday night, leaving him with third-degree burns and possibly threatening his eyesight, Bolshoi officials said on Friday morning.
The attack followed a series of anonymous threats to Mr. Filin, 42, a dancer who rose through the ranks of the world’s largest ballet company to become its head.
Investigators have not ruled out a dispute over money or property, but are focusing on the theory that Mr. Filin was targeted because of his work, a police spokesman told the Interfax news service.
As dancers kept an overnight vigil at the burn unit where he is being treated, his colleagues said they suspected that professional jealousy was behind the attack. In recent weeks, his tires were punctured and his car scratched, and his cellphones and personal e-mail account were hacked and correspondence published, his associates have said. A relative had offered to supply Mr. Filin with a bodyguard, but Mr. Filin refused because he did not believe that the threats would lead to physical violence, said Dilyara Timergazina, his assistant and adviser.
The threats, she said, “don’t show that someone with great conceptual thinking is behind that, but someone very primitive, with unhealthy aspirations — I don’t know how to put it — someone full of hate.”
Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Filin was opening the gate to his residence when a masked man called out his name and threw the contents of a bottle in his face. After the attack he was able to see out of one eye but not the other, Ms. Timergazina said.
An official at the theater told Interfax that he would be sent overseas, probably to Germany or Israel, for treatment. Doctors have said his recovery may take as long as six months.
The Bolshoi has a reputation for intrigue and outsized emotions, but Ms. Novikova said she never imagined that it could lead to violence.
“Sergei was constantly receiving threats after he took up this post and his predecessors were under attack before him,” she told Russia’s Channel One. “We never thought that this war for roles — and not for real estate or for oil — could reach such a criminal level. And we always wanted to believe that people connected with theater would have a minimal level of morality. That’s why this is an absolutely frightening story.”
Mr. Filin signed a five-year contract as director of the Bolshoi in 2011. Among his first big decisions was to hire David Hallberg as a principal dancer — the first American to hold that coveted status, which has traditionally gone to Russian-trained dancers. He suffered a setback when two of its stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, left the Bolshoi for a far lesser-known theater in St. Petersburg.
Mr. Filin’s leadership has not stood out as especially controversial. But Anastasia Volochkova, a former Bolshoi ballerina, said his power to assign roles made him the focus of sometimes passionate resentment.
“Sergei didn’t do anything he could be condemned for,” she said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, a radio station. “This position is, of course, a sweet one. The head of the ballet decides everything: what grants each artists receive, or maybe won’t receive. Who will dance certain roles, and who won’t dance them.”
She added, “The cruelty of the ballet world has become surprisingly pathological.”
One simmering conflict has involved Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a popular principal dancer who last year harshly criticized a recent reconstruction of the theater and has publicly clashed with its leadership since then. A group of Mr. Tsiskaridze’s supporters petitioned President Vladimir V. Putin in November, requesting that Mr. Tsiskaridze be appointed director of the Bolshoi.
Aleksei Ratmansky, Mr. Filin’s predecessor as the company’s artistic director, wrote on Facebook that the incident was “not a coincidence” and wished Mr. Filin “swift recovery and courage.”
“Many of the illnesses of the Bolshoi are one snowball — that disgusting claque which is friendly with artists, ticket speculators and scalpers, half-crazy fans who are ready to slit the throats of their idol’s competitors, cynical hackers, lies in the press and scandalous interviews of people working there,” he wrote. “The cause of it is the lack of theatrical ethics, which were gradually destroyed in the Bolshoi by specific people. This is the real trouble of this great theater.”
Ms. Novikova said Mr. Filin met earlier on Thursday with Anatoly Iksanov, the theater’s director, and discussed the hacking attacks and other threats. She said Mr. Filin’s personal e-mail account was penetrated and personal correspondence was published in an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the theater’s leadership, a tactic that was also used against Mr. Filin’s predecessor.
When this did not prove effective, she said, “it looks like they took one step further, but one step that was too harsh.”
News of the attack rippled through Moscow, a ballet-loving city whose elite converged in 2011 to celebrate the theater’s reopening after a six-year restoration. Natalya Timakova, the spokeswoman for Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, wrote on Facebook that she hoped Mr. Filin would recover and “forget everything that happened today, like a bad dream.”
And Ms. Volochkova, the ballerina, who clashed publicly with the Bolshoi leadership in 2003 after she was dismissed over her weight, said the crime spoke to a degradation of Russian society.
“It surprises me that there was a time when there were duels — people fought with swords, or settled their relations in a real, noble way,” she said in the radio interview. “When it gets to the point where you can just splash acid, or kill a person, it’s so low.”
“I think the end of the world has already arrived in this land,” she added. X
I am tired of all those people who think is ballet is just some easy nonchalant thing that anyone can do. It’s not. It’s way more that that.
From the book entitled, “100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life”
“Professional ballet dancers get hurt more often that boxers or hockey players, and their injuries are as serious as are those to athletes in any of the major contact sports. In fact, if you look at injury statistics alone, ballet is more dangerous than boxing and ice hockeycombined.Dance results in about 45,000 emergency room visits a year in the United States, while boxing accounts for only 11,506 and ice hockey 16,845.
…Dancing on pointe requires a woman to balance on a spot only slightly larger than 1 square inch/2.5 square cm. One of the most difficult feats a ballerina performs is when she appears to stand still on the tip of her toe. In fact, she is constantly shifting, making tiny adjustments of her weight over her foot.”
Steve Targett who works with both professional rugby players and professional ballerinas says this, “In a way, ballet dancers are pretty similar to the rugby guys. They are pretty determined and don’t want to stop. They want to keep dancing and will dance through injuries.”
Well, if you aren’t convinced, you should probably be put in an asylum, and your opinion doesn’t matter.
A Desperate Desire to Be Slender May Have Cost 22-Year-Old Ballerina Heidi Guenther Her Life
FINALLY THE YEARS OF PLIÉS and dreaming had paid off, and ballerina Heidi Guenther was determined to make the most of it. In May 1996, Guenther, 22, had been promoted from the Boston Ballet’s apprentice company, where she had been perfecting her technique for two years, to the main corps de ballet. During Boston’s grueling 52 performances of The Nutcracker last Christmas, she performed with remarkable zeal, dancing her own roles and often subbing for other corps members who were sick or injured. By the time the troupe closed its season in May with Cinderella, Guenther was looking noticeably thinner, but not alarmingly so—at least not by ballet standards. “Heidi was a lyrical dancer,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Anna-Marie Holmes, “with a lovely sort of refined quality.” Adds Boston soloist Kyra Strasberg: “She was a very, very talented dancer with a gorgeous light jump.”
But at what price, many now ask, was that lightness purchased? For on June 30, while visiting her family in California during the Boston Ballet’s summer break, Guenther was traveling with her mother and brother to Disneyland when she suddenly dropped dead from cardiac arrest. At the time of her death, the 5’3” dancer weighed only 93 lbs. Friends and family soon believed that she had been dieting relentlessly to maintain what she thought was a suitable ballet body, which may have caused her heart to stop. Officials at the Boston Ballet denied that they had pushed Guenther too hard, arguing that though they had suggested she lose weight two years ago, they had recently urged her to eat more. But to the dancer’s grieving mother, Patti Harrington, those protestations of innocence rang hollow. “The thinner she’d get, the more roles she’d get, the more compliments she’d get,” says Harrington, a hotel concierge in San Francisco. “There’s a real subliminal message that comes with all that.”
There is no question that the physical demands and psychological pressures of a top-flight company like the Boston Ballet are at least equal to those of professional sports. “Dancers do feel they could be replaced in a minute,” says James Reardon, who danced with the Boston Ballet from 1976 to 1985 and is now the artistic director of his own small company in Cambridge, Mass. “There’s always somebody in the wings.”
Typically, Boston Ballet dancers spend an hour and a half a day in classes, working on technique, then another six hours in rehearsal, learning the steps for the ballets they will be performing during the season, with little more than a lunch hour and occasional five-minute breaks. All sessions are conducted under the watchful—and frequently hypercritical—eyes of the ballet directors. Furthermore, studios are lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which invite an almost obsessive self-scrutiny. It is a fiercely competitive world in which physical perfection can often seem like the expected norm, rather than an unattainable ideal. “Your body is your instrument,” says Reardon. “Dancers are constantly evaluating themselves. ‘Do I look good?’ ‘Do I look bad?’ ‘How can I look better?’ “
Those, plainly, were the questions that haunted the days and nights of Heidi Guenther. Yet they hardly deterred her. Born in San Diego, the oldest of three children (her sister, Kirsten, is 20; her brother, Quinton, 15), Guenther began demonstrating her physical gifts almost from infancy. By the time she was 8 months old, she was walking; not long after that, she could climb out of her crib. “She was always into things, climbing on things,” says her father, Richard, who separated from Heidi’s mother in 1988 and now teaches fifth grade in Los Osos, Calif. At 6, like many little girls, she began taking dance classes. “That’s where she just blossomed,” Richard says. “She loved dancing.”
With her mother’s strong encouragement and support, she set her sights on becoming a professional dancer. At age 11, she was accepted into a summer program at the Houston Ballet School. From 1987 to 1994, until securing her spot in Boston, she was a scholarship student with the San Francisco Ballet School. “She was so focused and driven to succeed,” says Melanie Brown, a close friend and dancing partner in San Francisco. “All she wanted was to be a ballerina.”
The question of body image first cropped up when she hit puberty and her breasts began to develop. “She didn’t like her boobs,” says sister Kirsten, a student at the City College of San Francisco. “She didn’t want them.” That year, according to Patti, the San Francisco Ballet told Guenther to lose weight. “It was just devastating to hear,” Patti says. “It was really hard. I felt for her because she felt so bad.” Still, after Heidi lost a few pounds, she didn’t seem obsessed about her diet. She and her friends would meet almost daily at a local drive-in and eat chicken strips dipped in ranch dressing, which Heidi would wash down with a chocolate shake. “She ate whatever she wanted to eat,” says her friend Brown. “She was burning it all off anyway. Yet at that age…we saw a lot of eating disorders.”
The issue became more urgent several years later, in 1995, after she had completed her debut season with the Boston Ballet’s apprentice company. “She had gotten just a little pudgy at that point,” says Dierdre Myles, who directs the corps de ballet. Artistic director Holmes suggested to Guenther, who weighed about 115 pounds, that her chances of joining the main corps would improve if she dropped 5. When Guenther returned in August for the next season, Holmes says, she had lost the weight and “looked terrific.”
A year later she won her promotion to the Boston Ballet. How much the company is responsible for planting the seeds of what seemingly became an eating disorder is open to debate. In an interview with The Boston Globe after learning of Guenther’s death, Holmes sounded like an advocate of slimmer-is-better. “You see a girl onstage, her butt going up and down, it’s not attractive,” she said. But Holmes insists, and a glance at her dancers confirms, that she is actually rather flexible when it comes to body types in her company. “I like diversity,” she says. “Our company is not a company of sticks…but you have to have some aesthetic value. People are paying for tickets to see you.”
Moreover, the Boston Ballet did eventually encourage Guenther to maintain a healthy weight. As whispers began circulating in the company that she was looking thinner than usual, she was asked several times if she was eating properly. In her official evaluation last January, Guenther’s dancing was praised, but she was cautioned about her diet. “Be careful not to get too thin,” the evaluation read. “We are concerned and hope you are eating well.” Guenther signed a statement acknowledging that she had been cautioned. “That’s about all we can do,” says Holmes, emphasizing that Guenther was an adult and a paid professional. In May, Guenther had a routine physical with a dance-company doctor and a nutritionist, who noted no serious problems. Indeed, her weight was hardly unusual for a young dancer. “She was thin,” says Holmes. “But not thin to the point of dying.”
It is now clear, however, that Guenther had not taken the company’s warnings to heart. When Heidi arrived home on June 11, her mother was taken aback at how skinny she looked. “She was thin, too thin, and I said that to her,” recalls Harrington. “She said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to gain a few pounds.’ ” Kirsten says that her sister was down to a size 1—”and that looked baggy on her.” Harrington was also dismayed to discover that her daughter had started smoking. All the same, Guenther showed no outward signs of an eating disorder. At a barbecue she reluctantly ate just a small piece of steak. But her spirits were good, she seemed to have plenty of energy, and no one caught her throwing up after a meal. “If I had thought there was an eating disorder, I would have acted on it,” says Harrington.
On June 30, Heidi, her mother and Quinton set out by car for their annual visit to Disneyland. Heidi was laughing and joking much of the way. They stopped to stay overnight with long-time family friends Rosie and Randy Morrison. “She looked much thinner than I had ever seen her—ever,” says Rosie. When she asked Heidi what she weighed she just “blew me off.” Around 9 p.m., after a quick run to the convenience store, Patti, Rosie and Heidi were stopped at a gas station in Paso Robles when Heidi suddenly fell backward in the minivan. “No gasp, no cry, no nothing,” says her mother. “When I opened the door and she fell out, her eyes were fixed, her lips were blue.” Frantic, Patti began screaming, “Heidi, wake up! Heidi, wake up!”
Shortly before 10 p.m. she was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A later search of her belongings uncovered a stash of over-the-counter laxatives. She was also taking herbal pills, which she may have been using as a diet aid. Just how her weight loss could have contributed to her death is speculative. An autopsy showed no heart deformities, and tests revealed no unusual substances in her blood. But doctors caution that excessive use of diet aids can, under certain circumstances, lead to cardiac arrest. And the family did have a history of heart trouble. Richard Guenther’s father died of heart failure at age 37, and his mother and sister have also suffered attacks.
Heidi’s father acknowledges that he, for one, tried to encourage his daughter—who never even had time for a serious boyfriend—to live a more rounded life. “I knew she wasn’t going to be able to do this forever,” he says. “I’d tell her, ‘Heidi, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ ” But for the moment, she wouldn’t hear such talk. “She was very headstrong, dedicated and focused,” he says.
As many experts would agree, young women with eating disorders often exhibit an extreme perfectionism, though doctors are wary of predicting which individuals are most at risk. “There’s a complex psychological underpinning to eating disorders,” says Dr. Michael Strober of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, who treated actress Tracey Gold when she developed anorexia. “The question becomes, why do some people in the face of pressures to control the body’s natural form develop these problems,” he says, “and others do not.”
In the aftermath of Heidi’s death, her family is hoping to establish a foundation to help young athletes and dancers cope with the pressures of their careers. For now, they are left only with fond memories of a slip of a girl who loved ladybugs, sunflowers and, above all else, dancing. Her father recalls one trip he made with Heidi to Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1992. During a severe thunderstorm it suddenly started to hail. “Ahh, I’ve never danced in the snow,” said Heidi. With the hail pelting down and covering the ground, she ran outside and began dancing a scene from Swan Lake in the street. With each pirouette, says her father, she seemed to become more and more lost in her own fantasy.
X By Bill Hewitt
What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?
What motivates me and gets me out of bed in the morning on the first work day of the week is knowing that I will have the privilege of working with a choreographer or teacher who inspires and excites me. More than anything else, I think this has been a prime motivator of my life ever since I was a young kid.Why ballet ?
I chose ballet, because my body and mind were made for it. I love the challenge of it and the feeling of transformation that it creates within me.
What are you looking forward to dancing in the new season?
I am looking forward to dancing Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH again this season. It’s a great piece, and I have an exquisite pas de deux that he made for me in it that I love very much.
Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance?
I have always wanted the chance to dance with my choreographers in their own work. (not something that’s ever been reasonably possible at NYCB or in ballet, generally speaking)
If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance?
I relish the idea of dancing in uncharacteristic places. I often think of performing for inmates at a prison or old people at assisted living situations, etc, for all the people who don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to see a dance performance, I would love to bring it to them.How do you prepare your pointe shoes?
I sew on my ribbons and elastics inside the shoe and drop a bit of jet glue hardener in the tip. Once I get to class, I cut the satin off the tips of my shoes, then I flatten the box by stepping on them usually with my heel, and I also crack the toe of each shoe, also with my heel. Then once they are on my feet I bend the shoes more so I can get up and over my toes on pointe, and don’t feel stuck back. I usually do this by pressing my heel into the arch of the opposite foot as I press over my toes on pointe. Seems like it takes a lot of help from my heels in order to get up on my toes !
What is your daily routine at the moment?
At the moment I have a pretty light schedule with NYCB. After my class in the morning, I will rehearse for my Nutcracker gigs whenever my partner and I can connect in a free studio. We generally text each other daily to arrange times to rehearse. I am also working whenever I can on new collaborations with four different choreographers. We try to schedule rehearsal time each day for about 1 to 3 hours according to which of them might be in town or available. I am also about to begin work on learning two dances by Martha Graham that I will be performing with the Graham Company next spring.
You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite?
Balanchine, Cunningham, Graham, Ailey, Fosse and Pina Bausch.
What would surprise people about you?
I think most people would be surprised to know how down to earth and open I am, and how silly I can be.
Who inspired you to dance?
When I was 6 years old, I saw my first ballet, and it was The Nutcracker. I will never forget the girl who was dancing the Arabian dance. Her name was Lisa Patrick and she was a teenage dancer with the Louisville Ballet Company. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, wearing a turquoise harem costume, with jet black hair. I wanted so badly to grow up and be like her. She’s a lawyer now and we are friends.
What is your best piece of advice?
Keep a good sense of humor and be good to your friends – both will come in very handy in life!
How do you prepare in the hours before a show?
I really love to sneak in a nap before a show, to sort of balance out the energy and give myself a calm base to begin my preparation. I like to be at the theater about 2 hours before I have to dance. I spend between a half hour to an hour doing my make-up and hair, then I like to have an hour to warm up. I like to warm up straight until it’s time for me to go on stage. I find my hair and make-up time to be very meditative and transformative for my mind and mood, and I use my physical warm up to focus my energy and muscles.
Which role has tested you the most & how?
Any full length story ballet has been a huge test for me. I never expected to do those kinds of ballets when I joined NYCB because when I started with the Company they were not in the repertory (until Peter Martins choreographed The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Romeo + Juliet). Dancing full lengths was a huge challenge for me because I wasn’t surrounded by people who had already done them, so I always felt like a real fish out of water. Eventually I found a way for myself to feel good in them, but it was always about learning and figuring out answers to all the questions I had along the way. I definitely learned a lot and found new strength both mentally and physically from dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.
If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create?
I am actually working on a costume idea at the moment for a new work I am doing with the choreographer Joshua Beamish. I found a gorgeous red ball gown at a vintage store and knew I wanted to dance in it one day. Josh and I are hoping to use it in our new piece. I think I am going to keep the skirt full, maybe even make it fuller, and give it a new top that is easier to move in. Maybe add a red ombré leotard going from red at the waist to nude at the top, and have a deep cut back as low as possible so my back is completely naked- something very sexy like that.
What do you look for in a dance partner?
I really enjoy a partner who is relaxed and confident; I can feel that right away in a person. I respond well to a partner who can meet me half way creatively, someone I can get into the zone with, where we can almost riff together or mind read each other’s needs during a dance. Going on stage together is like going into an unknown world together and there is nothing better than knowing you can trust your partner and that you’re there for each other no matter what happens during the performance.
What is your favourite quote?
“Energy Produces Energy.”
Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you?
I don’t think I have a signature ballet step that I am known for, but I do think that I can claim ownership (for now) of some unique moves here and there in certain ballets- especially in ballets that were made on me.
A phrase I use far too often is … ?
I am running late ….
What’s been your best on-stage moment so far?
I have had a lot of great exciting onstage moments and a lot of bad funny ones… but one I will never forget happened a few years ago when I was dancing Concerto Barocco with Abi Stafford. We were holding hands and doing a balone step toward each other in the third movement when all of a sudden she slipped and fell to the ground. My initial instinct was to stop dancing and help her up off the ground. It felt like it was the right thing to do and kept me connected with my partner. I could have just kept dancing on top of her while she pulled herself off the ground, but I knew we needed to stick together as a pair, it’s what the ballet is about, working together to create harmony. She wasn’t hurt and we finished the piece just fine. I actually enjoy these split second decisions that we are forced to make on stage occasionally, and I appreciate finding out what we can learn about ourselves and the ballets we are dancing from these experiences.
Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about?
I love to take photos, but most people already know that. My photographer friends even tell me I have some talent.
In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now?
I will be focusing in 2013 on outside projects more and more in order to develop and build new choreographic collaborations for myself with new artists. I have a project that I am developing right now called Restless Creature, with four amazing young choreographers. I will dance a new piece by each of the four and perform with each of them in their own works- a real dream come true for me. Each of these choreographers makes contemporary work so none of the work will be ballet based or on pointe. This evening of dance, my Restless Creature, will debut in August 2013. Definitely many new and exciting challenges for me in the coming year.
Julie Kent, principal, American Ballet Theatre: “When I was a student dancing as a super with the New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride was so patient and welcoming with me and the other young girls. Now I try to be the same way after performances. There are children and young performers who have invested so much time watching, so I give them the courtesy of a few minutes of my time.”
Christine Shevchenko, corps de ballet, ABT: “I admire Julie Kent, because she’s consistently polite and very caring, especially with fans. She’ll always wait and sign autographs and take pictures.”
Martha Chamberlain, principal, Pennsylvania Ballet: “When I first joined the company, I was struck by the way Leslie Carothers kept the atmosphere very light in the studio. It relieved some of the everyday pressures of being a ballet dancer. She taught me that in this career, no one will die if you make a mistake, so relax a little.”
Vanessa Zahorian, principal, San Francisco Ballet: “I admired the way Muriel Maffre managed to steer clear of backstage cattiness. She never showed a competitive streak, and she would never talk about other people or gossip.”
Most dancers are busy enough with The Nutcracker at this time of year. But in addition to dancing several Sugar Plums, Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nuñez will also be making notable debuts in the company’s upcoming mixed bill program, which opens December 22. X
What are the ballets on your plate this month?
I have been performing The Nutcracker while and also rehearsing for Raymonda Act III and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, which are both debuts for me. I’m learning the second pas de deux in In the Night—so beautiful.
That’s a lot of different hats to wear.
I love doing all these ballets at the same time. The three are very different, and it’s a fantastic challenge to be working in their various styles. I learn something new in every rehearsal, which is what helps you grow as an artist. I’m a lucky girl!
What are your holiday plans? Will you have some time off to relax?
Actually, I will be performing The Sleeping Beauty on Christmas day in Greece with Thiago Soares, my husband. It will be our first Christmas performance. We may open our presents on the stage as soon as we finish!
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I’m a control freak. I do my makeup and hair, then pack everything away before I go onstage. If something is out of place, it makes me nervous.
How do you prepare your pointe shoes for performance?
I always wear brand-new shoes. I try them beforehand to see if they’ll work, then bash them with a hammer so they don’t make any noise.
You’re planning your wedding to fellow principal Thiago Soares. What will it be like?
We’ve both been working so hard it’s taken us a while to figure out, but we want to have three weddings: One in Argentina with my family and our closest friends; a second in Brazil for Thiago’s friends; and the third is going to be a big party in London, because the company here is like our second family.
Anything in mind for your first dance?
I have to talk about it with Mr. Soares! But we’ve gotten married in so many story ballets that we want to keep it really cozy for our actual wedding. There definitely won’t be a big wedding pas de deux!
Do you fight a lot in rehearsal?
We used to when we were young, but not anymore. We know each other so well, and we’ve toned down our Latin temperaments.
Do you go for sneakers or high heels when you’re offstage?
I’m a high heels kind of girl. I definitely like to dress up. We spend so much time in our ballet clothes that I like to make an impression when I’m on the street.
Is there anything about your body that you’d like to change?
When I was younger I struggled with my weight quite a lot, but as you grow older you get more comfortable with yourself. The only thing I can really complain about is my toes—they look awful!
What was your worst nightmare onstage?
When I was very new in the corps, I did Swan Lake and used to think: OK, whatever happens, just follow the blonde girl in front of you. At one point I got lost, and when I turned around there were four blonde girls. That was one of the scariest moments of my life! X