Sat 4/25 @ 8pm
We’ve been interested lately by the ‘Maverick Phenomenon’ in ballet. Ballet dancers — sometimes celebrated ones — leave some big-ass ballet company where they’ve been variously over-worked, under-utilized, or just bored-to-death and go to work with some little tiny ensemble of 10 or fewer dancers. Such a move would seem to be deliberately saying goodbye to job security.
What are the trade offs?
We know a local dancer, Ali Block, who recently hopped off the big ballet company merry-go-round to participate in a number of much smaller projects. She’s freelancing in New York City, which is nothing new, but it gives us a chance to talk with a local dancer made good about the downside of the ballet big time and the upside of going maverick.
We exchanged a few emails with Ali Block and then caught up with her by phone.
CoolCleveland: Ali, we’ve looked up the ballet companies you’ve worked for and you are definitely trending toward smaller and smaller companies. You started out at Texas Ballet Theater with 42 dancers and Sarasota Ballet of Florida with about 35 or 40 dancers and then went to Eugene Ballet with 20 dancers. Then in August of 2014 you started freelancing in New York City and some of the ballet companies you’ve worked with there have been really small. Arch Contemporary Ballet has only 7 dancers.
What are the pros and cons of working for a big company versus freelancing?
Ali Block: There are definitely pros and cons to both company life and freelance life. Freelancing is hard, without question. It takes excellent networking, persistence, and tenacity. And company work has its rewards. I greatly enjoyed my time dancing with Eugene Ballet Company. I had incredible opportunities to dance and perform a lot, I enjoyed the company of my coworkers, and I had the opportunity to tour the Pacific Northwest; however, I think that spending too many seasons with the same people and doing a similar kind of work can lead to artistic and personal stagnation. My focus became the bubble that was my life — the company, our work, and the people in the company.
One of my favorite things about the freelance lifestyle is the opportunity that I have had to experience aspects of life both on and off the stage. I have been able to start my college education at Columbia University, experience all that New York City has to offer, and meet a wide variety of wonderful people.
We notice that all your freelancing in NYC has been with ballet companies. How do you feel about modern dance and dance other than ballet? To what extent is the technique and aesthetic of ballet a comfortable fit for you?
In today’s dance world, an artist needs to be extremely versatile. Within a professional company, it is in a dancer’s best interest to be able to do everything, from the very classical Swan Lake to barefoot modern dance or contemporary ballet in pointe shoes. In the freelance world, versatility is even more crucial.
Ballet technique comes naturally to me in certain ways and poses huge challenges in others. I am petite, compact, and muscular so jumping and quick movement come naturally to me but because of my size and body type, I have to work hard to lengthen both my lines and my muscles. I cross-train quite a bit with yoga, in order to maintain length and flexibility.
Ultimately, contemporary work comes more naturally to me than classical.
You seem excited about your classes at Columbia University. You’re dancing there and taking academic classes as well. Please tell us about that.
I had wanted to go back to school, I just didn’t know where, so when I decided I was going to freelance in New York I put together my application to Columbia, wrote my essays at 2am, and applied pretty much last minute.
I’m not a dance major at Columbia but I’m working with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which is a student organization that includes current professional dancers, former professional dancers, and other trained, talented students. This semester we’re doing public performances of Who Cares? by Balanchine — I’m in the section for 5 girls which is awesome and incredibly challenging — and I’m also in a contemporary ballet choreographed by a woman who is a former professional dancer about to graduate from Columbia.
I hope to eventually major in psychology, a long term interest of mine, so I’ve started taking the core curriculum classes that we need to fulfill, Introduction to Philosophy and Music Humanities this semester.
We consider Wendy Whelan and her Restless Creature tour a prime example of the ballet maverick so we’re going to mention her upcoming Cleveland performance in this article. But we’ve never seen her live. Have you?
Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to see her live. She’s had such an iconic career and she’s such a celebrated dancer, I hope to see her Restless Creature tour at some point.
Who were your dance teachers in Cleveland?
I trained at the former School of Cleveland Ballet, primarily under Gladisa Guadalupe, and later at Cleveland School of Dance, which opened after the Cleveland Ballet folded and retained most of the School of Cleveland Ballet’s faculty. They gave me the tools to pursue a professional career in dance.
Others in Cleveland who had a notable influence on you?
Ann V. Klotz, head of Laurel School, was a huge influence. She has a strong arts background and encouraged me to pursue my artistic passions even at the expense of a traditional academic route.
And I owe everything to my parents. Professional dance is not an easy career physically or emotionally and they’ve been there for me every step of the way.
See Wendy Whelan dancing here.
If you’re so unfortunate as to be out of Cleveland this weekend and thus will miss Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, but happen to be in New York City, you can catch Ali Block performing with Bugge Ballet at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. 8pm Friday 4/24 – Sunday 4/26/2015. Tickets and more info here.
Former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan performs Restless Creature on Sat 4/25 at 8:00 p.m. at the Ohio Theatre. Presented by DANCECleveland and Playhouse Square, Whelan joins forces with four contemporary male choreographers – Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. Tickets, starting at $25, can be purchased online at dancecleveland.org or at the Playhouse Square ticket office, 216-241-6000.
From Cool Cleveland contributors Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas. Elsa and Vic are both longtime Clevelanders. Elsa is a landscape designer. She studied ballet as an avocation for 2 decades. Vic has been a dancer and dance teacher for most of his working life, performing in a number of dance companies in NYC and Cleveland. They write about dance as a way to learn more and keep in touch with the dance community. E-mail them at vicnelsaATearthlink.net.