The New York City Ballet returns for its summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center July 12 with performances to run through July 16. One of the special things about their summer presentations is that audiences get to watch some of the dancers who have been promoted to more leading positions. This year out of the ninety plus dancers in the company, seven dancers were promoted to soloists, having been members of the corps, and five dancers were promoted to principals.
For Ashley Hod, the journey to get to soloist from the corps took nine years.
“I grew up idolizing the New York City Ballet and at nine did kids’ parts in Saratoga Springs,” Hod said. “I always dreamt about being a soloist and never thought it was an end goal to be in the corps. I knew I was a hard working and dedicated dancer but I always tried to do better. I never got down but I did wonder if it would ever happen.”
Hod had started dancing at age four in the Great Neck School of Dance. By her late teens she began training at the School of American Ballet, which is the official school of NYC Ballet. She got to dance in several ballets and in 2012 became an apprentice and the next year joined the corps.
“I danced every show in corps,” Hod said. “In the first few years I did all the snow flakes and swans I was required to do. It was sink or swim. I danced six days a week in season, sometimes seven shows a week. It’s challenging. I could dance 42 shows in a six-week season, which could mean twenty ballets in a season since each ballet gets four shows.”
Openings in corps are usually the result of a dancer getting injured or retiring. But except of an injury she sustained that kept her a bit sidelined and the pandemic, Hod never missed a show.
“I always hoped to thrive. There’s a lot of pressure in front of the stage, but I loved it. But I didn’t want to stay at the same rank,” she said.
Every now and then, she got the opportunity to “show my stuff” and got a small role. And by last season, she was doing corps and a bunch of solos.
“But I wanted to continue to be challenged. But a role I’d been promised then went to someone else. That’s when I questioned my future and even my place in the company,” she said.
Two weeks later she was promoted to soloist.
“It was a huge, huge shock when it happened,” Hod said.
She immediately noticed the difference this season.
“I went from six nights to two shows a week and physically not rehearsing all day to dancing at night. It has a momentum as soloist that’s not phased by a twelve hour day and a different mind set that’s mentally more challenging and more weight in being visible,” she said.
Hod will be dancing in the first movement of “Glass Pieces” and in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”
Jovani Furlan has a very different story now that he’s a principal. He started dancing in his native Brazil at 11 at the Bolshoi Theater School. But at 17 he took a chance and competed in the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I came from a super supportive family and fell in love with the discipline, the music, even the smell of the studio,” Furlan said. “I saw it could be my job.”
He wasn’t sure about entering the competition but he said his grandmother told him to do it.
“I didn’t make it past the first round,” he said laughing. “But Edward Villella offered me a full scholarship to attend his Miami City Ballet School.”
Villella, a former principal at the New York City Ballet and the director of the Miami City Ballet, must have seen something.
“I don’t know,” Furlan said. “He never told me what had impressed him. But he was always kind to me. I began as an apprentice with the company three months in in 2012. But Balanchine was new for me and I was hungry to learn his dances. I put the New York City Ballet dream to rest.”
Furlan said he loved Miami and worked hard and within three years was promoted to soloist and principal dancer two years later. One of his roles was in a Justin Peck ballet and Furlan began to dream again about joining NYC Ballet.
“I decided to give it a shot and asked to audition for him, since I’d worked with him in Miami. A couple of days later he said OK but only if I was serious. The next week I came to New York City and went to class. It was the winter of 2019.”
Two weeks later Furlan was offered a job as soloist and last February was promoted to principal and he loves it.
“It’s freeing to be in front and doing my own thing. Adrenalin is pumping and all eyes are on me,” he said. “It’s harder to be in corps and do the same thing as everyone. It’s very demanding. If you’re alone and I miss up, no one knows and I can cover. Not so in corps.”
His work schedule also has changed dramatically especially from his former company. Miami performed up to fourteen ballets a season, while New York can do up to seventy. As a corp member, he had to be ready to go on stage at any time. Now that he’s a principal he gets fewer ballets but more of a chance to originate a role, as he did for the one he’s doing at SPAC in Jamar Roberts’ “Emanon in Two Movements.”
“The choreography is very genuine and a marvel,” Furlan said. “Roberts is about seven feet tall and very agile. . .so musical to see him move. But he was very specific. . .to listen and speak with your body. It’s very physically demanding and super jazzy to Wayne Shorter’s piece.”
Furlan will be dancing this and the second movement of “Glass Pieces.”
Dancers aren’t the only ones excited about the SPAC season.
Andrew Litton was made the company’s music director in 2015, but had never conducted dancers before.
“It was the fun thing about it,” he said.
After being music director of at least four orchestras, a Grammy winner twice and 135 recordings, he was looking for something different to do when he auditioned in 2013 in four performances of “Coppelia.”
“It was a blast, but ballet has a whole new set of challenges,” he said. “I had been following sound in orchestra and opera and now I had to follow sight. I had to quickly learn about dance, all the names of the steps.”
Hired in 2015, he’s done three summers at SPAC before the pandemic.
Litton had always been a fan of the dance. His first professional gig came at 18 at the Juilliard School as a piano/conducting major, when he got to play piano for the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
“But I was fascinated by the repertoire. I had three Stravinsky scores under my belt but there were that many more,” Litton said. “It was a fascinating challenge to look at new repertoire and bring my own take to the stage. It’s been a marvelous opportunity to work with the best dance company in the world.”
In a side note about the Roberts dance: the parts to Shorter’s piece could not be found and when they were they were in terrible shape. But Ron Wasserman, the orchestra’s principal bassist and a terrific jazz guy, arranged the parts for the orchestra, so Litton put him in the conductor’s spot for that piece, he said.
Litton will be conducting “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” and the “Four Temperaments.”
New York City Ballet
WHEN: July 12 – 16 at 7:30 p.m.; July 14, 16 at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
MORE INFO: www.spac.org; 518 584-9330