When Dancers Give Everything, Can You Ask for More?
As she opened the door to a dance studio in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood last summer, Wendy Walker tried to quiet her anxiety.
On the seventh floor of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a huge city humming all around her, she scanned the room. She was going to teach ballet to dancers with Ailey II, Alvin Ailey’s second company. Ailey, a famous choreographer who died in 1989, popularized modern dance and is credited with opening the discipline to African-American dancers.
The dancers — students in the hyper-competitive dance company he founded — came from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and were some of the best young dancers in the country. Walker, now 29, is a choreographer and former professional dancer who works at a ballet school and runs a dance company out of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she grew up.
“Everybody that was in that room was driven and intense,” she said.
She’d gone to New York with the help of a Rasmuson Foundation grant to shadow choreographers in Ailey II. Later, she would travel to Denmark to learn from choreographers at the Royal Danish Ballet. Working in a small town, you can get the feeling that your technique or standards don’t measure up to those Outside, she said. Part of her exploration in watching other choreographers was aimed at challenging that. In the studio, she steadied her nerves and asked the dancers to find positions at the barre. She turned on the music and instructed them to begin a plie exercise.
“I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, but it was familiar, that sense of locking in, to the space, to the music,” she said. “The feel in the room of dancers and of company life is the same everywhere, all over the world, in all different companies. There is a sense of camaraderie and community and support and fellowship.”
Walker was born in Nome. She studied ballet in Fairbanks growing up and danced professionally for a few years after college in several major cities. Now she is the ballet mistress at Northstar Ballet, rehearsing large groups and coaching individual dancers. She’s also the director of the North Star Dance Collective, a company that presents contemporary work around Alaska.
She spent two weeks at Ailey II in August 2017, watching choreographers Renee MacDonald, Juel Lane and Darrell Moultrie as they worked. Dancers began the day with technique classes, had lunch and then rehearsed for four hours with the choreographers.
“Everything I feel as a choreographer, I saw in the studio. You have these ideas and then you put them on a body and it looks completely different than it did in your head and you think ‘oh my God, I know nothing, I have made a huge mistake but we’re going for it,’ ” she said.
Her big takeaway: Believe that the dancers can go further.
“These dancers are clearly giving the choreographer everything they have. They are doing everything they ask, they are going 150 percent, for hours at a time,” she said. “And still the choreographer is like, no, more, I want more.”
The lesson was about ambition, she said, and having high standards.
“Sometimes you feel like you are asking for too much, but that is the standard of this craft across the world, you always ask for more, you always push the limits, you always reach for ways to be more impactful,” she said.
The Danish Ballet was a wild contrast to Ailey. Ailey specializes in modern dance, which is all about enhancing dancers’ individuality. In Denmark, the practice is “as classical ballet as you can get,” she said. Dance is also supported by the state and the dancers begin as children, dancing every day at a dance-focused school. They develop quickly compared to American dancers.
“I spent a lot of time watching the creation of new pieces. … Everyone goes through a process, even the most famous choreographer,” she said. “It’s this very exploratory process, especially when you have dancers who are as good as that.”
She was especially struck by watching choreographer Liam Scarlett set a “pas de deux” or partnered dance.
“(He) would say, I would want to portray a feeling of anxiety,” she said. He’d instruct the dancers, watch them and think it over.
“He was not afraid to take that idea and pick it apart, or totally scrap it and start over.”
Since returning to Fairbanks, Walker has choreographed three pieces: “Feet Fete” a modern-inspired piece for 13 women in three movements, with floor-length skirts and bare feet; “Sway,” a contemporary ballet piece en pointe with chiffon skirts and ethereal movement; and “Recomposed,” a contemporary piece in five sections, performed in outside venues by dancers in sneakers. Dropping into other choreographers’ worlds boosted Walker’s sense of her own mastery and inspired her, she said.
“The level of the artistry among the dancers and the choreography blew my mind, it was like being immersed and soaked in beauty all day long,” she said. “All the things I know to be true were still true: the relationship between the dancers, the relationship between dancers and choreographers was still the same. That makes me so excited. I am from Fairbanks, this tiny little town in Alaska, and I felt comfortable and confident walking into that situation. That was just a testament to the training I received and the arts community here, which has been so supportive.”