WHY ARE THE WORLD'S GREATEST DANCERS SO PATHETICALLY UNDERVALUED?

(photo by Lucretia Diaz, taken from here)

I was originally going to title this post “WHOSE PUBLICITY STUNT WAS THIS?” because I couldn’t imagine how someone who was just promoted to principal at one of the most prestigious dance companies in the U.S., helmed by one of the most famous names in dance, could possibly want to jeopardize his career by doing something so publicly that is explicitly forbidden by his contract and then admitting on national TV that he wasn’t fulfilled at his job and wanted more — like the chance to dance ballroom and hip hop. And then I did a Google Image search of Alex Wong for this post and found two pictures of him dancing, and that was after I had to narrow it down substantially to exclude all the many other Alex Wongs in the universe. Even given all I said at the top of the post, he hardly has an internet presence.

For those who didn’t watch tonight’s SYTYCD, it was the last day of Vegas-round auditions, when the judges called each contestant onstage and told him / her whether they’d made the top 20. Of course everyone in the ballet world was ecstatic over Alex being on the show — it would be just like Danny Tidwell; we’d actually have someone brilliant to watch. When Alex was called up, the judges all confirmed how brilliant he was. Then Nigel told him that, given that he was under contract with “Miami Ballet,” he’d spoken with Edward Villella to see if the artistic director would allow Wong out of his contract for the time necessary to be on the show. Villella said no, we need him. Nigel said he didn’t blame Villella. Nigel, completely blowing me away here with actual wisdom, looked at Wong like he was completely off his nut and told Wong he was currently enjoying the opportunity to work with one of the greatest dancers  in the history of dance. Enjoy that time, learn everything you can, he said, and then maybe in the future if you still want, you can be on the show. Nigel actually shrugged at those last words. Like he knew how it sounded to anyone who knew the least bit about dance. Good for Nigel, for once. Seriously, I have a completely newfound respect for the man.

Wong cried — as if he didn’t know this was coming — and said he was so limited in his company; here he’d seen so many people enjoying so many different kinds of dance, he’d been exposed to so much here. His tears looked real.

So, my first thoughts were – –just like Count Albrecht — WHAT THE F— WAS WONG THINKING???? Did he not talk to Villella beforehand? Did he not read his contract? Was he never asked these questions when he auditioned for the show? Did he talk to Villella about, you know, having just a little time off? There are the auditions, the several months of the show, and then, if you go far, the whole year-plus-long tour. Was none of this really considered? So, I thought — and am still wondering — was this a publicity stunt? And if so whose? Villella’s to get Miami City Ballet on the map (even though that backfired a bit by Nigel’s failure to say the name of the company correctly), the show’s producers’ to get fans of serious dance interested in the show, Wong’s to get famous?

But then, considering how horrendously, ridiculously, unjustly little known ballet dancers are these days, maybe I can understand Wong’s desperation. Maybe he really didn’t think. Or maybe it was a publicity stunt — I half expect it to be announced on the show next week, that, yay, Villella came through!

All I know is that I really don’t want to watch the show now. Does anyone else?

31 Comments

  1. I'm not so motivated to watch the show either. I'm not too happy that they kept Asuka and cut Natalie (Katie Sheen's former roommate).

    Maybe Alex didn't ask because he knew Villella wouldn't say yes to him. Maybe he thought that if Nigel called and told Villella that they wanted him on the show, Villella would be more likely to say yes. I don't know what he thought. I don't know that much about ballet, but Alex wanting to do SYTYCD seems equivalent of Yulia Zagarouitchenko all of a sudden wanting to be on SYTYCD 😛 altho he probably isn't as big of a star as Yulia? In all honesty, if Yulia did suddenly want to be on SYTYCD I would watch the show religiously and call in to vote for her no matter how she did in the dance. Yulia would get so many more fans it would be amazing! I have no doubts that she would be top 10.

    Speaking of Yulia….she never performed on DWTS did she? What is up with that? It was on their website.

    ~sorry for the long comment~

  2. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    That's true — they never did perform on DWTS! I wonder what happened? Yes, I would definitely be into watching the show if she was on! Can you imagine … she would definitely increase her fan base, as would he, which is of course why he wanted to do it.

    Yeah, you have a good point, Shim — that he probably thought if Nigel talked to Villella he'd say yes.

    Ugh, I'm so disappointed in this show already! So not motivated to watch…

  3. Hi Tonya,

    I'm still gonna watch the show from youtube. One dancer does not a show make. It's a put down to all the other people on the show as well. I thought it was nuts that A. Wong even tried out when he is with MCB as a principle soloist. I expressed all the same concerns about what must be MCB's rehearsals, classes and performance schedules. There'd be no time for Alex to tour nor could he risk injury, which would be a workers' comp issue/nightmare.

    I don't fault Wong for wanting more; I doubt there's a person working in any profession today, who hasn't wanted more out of or from their job. Most people either suck it up, try to find a job that is more meaningful or go back to school. I think this is why many dancers start their own companies or find projects to participate in during breaks and free time. Wong may need to realize that what he has is a privilege not a right. It comes down to the choices we make; right now, he needs to honor the choice he made to sign a contract w/the MCB.

    By the by, MCB is coming to Chicago on tour October 2-4th; they will be presenting Tharp's 'In the Upper Room', which I haven't seen yet, 'Symphony in Three Movements' (Balanchine), 'Valse Fantasie' (Balanchine) and 'Black Swan Pas de Deux' from Swan Lake (Petipa). Perhaps the publicity from SYTYCD will help advance ticket sales.

  4. I've never been a fan of Niegal L.'s work at all (he started AI as well). However, good for him in putting this guy in his place. Frankly, if I was Villella, I'd be pissed as hell that this guy didn't read his contract, didn't talk to him atll, etc. and I'd demote him. He doesn't deserve aa promtion if he's going to pull crap like this.

    As for Yulia Zagarouitchenko not performing on DWTS, I think (this was last season when it was on their website? or something like that), it was due to time contraints or soemthing like that. It was either time or that the performer had their own dancers. I heard why but now can't remember what it was.

  5. Tonya, I too am simply befuddled by the entire Alex scenario. It's inconceivable that SYTYCD wouldn't have followed up on what must have been on his initial bio that he danced for MCB and specifically ask about contractual issues. And I can't believe Alex would undertake this process w/o mentioning it to Mr. Villella. Surely Mr. V must have been aware of it once Alex was moved thru to Vegas. Why didn't they pull the plug then? I think you're right Tonya, something is fishy about the whole thing. I will greatly miss seeing Alex perform on the show but I REALLY wouldn't want to be in his shoes when he returns to MCB and has to face Mr. V. Unless…….

  6. I have never seen the show, but I found this entire post interesting. I just read a 2007 interview with Evelyn Cisneros, where she repeatedly states she is worried about the future of ballet. So, yes, one wonders.

  7. I def won't watch if Alex isn't on the show :) My two cents!

  8. I don't think it was a publicity stunt, not with the tears and real agony that Alex seemed to be feeling. I cried, too. It seems that Alex was, perhaps, naive in thinking that Edward Villela would release him from his contract to do the show, but he seemed to be pursuing the show simply because of his uncontainable love for dance beyond just ballet. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. That's what I love about dancers. They give themselves body, mind and soul to dancing. And the world's greatest dancers seems to do this most fully and often flagrantly, pursuing their passion for dance in a way that most of us mere mortals would consider naive and irrational. Tonya, I love your blog and your uncontained passion for dance and dancers. Warm regards, Patrice (aka sambagrl)

  9. Though I have respect for those who have the gumption to follow their dreams and audition for SYTYCD…

    I have no respect for this show; it makes me cringe. I find it to be a Vegas-wannabe showcase. That times-up music at the end of each dance annoys the heck. Sorry to be harsh on this.

    Unless the Alex Wong story is some publicity ploy for MCB, an artist's transition from a pre-eminent ballet company to Las Vegas is like flushing your credibility down the toilet.

  10. Danny Tidwell quit ABT before he auditioned for SYTYCD and a lot of people thought he was lowering himself. Maybe Alex thought he could force Villella's hand, but if he did, it backfired. I think that for some extremely talented dancers, ballet is not enough (heresy!) and the idea of “summer dance camp” with all the challenges of multiple styles, demanding choreographers, and the other opportunities SYTYCD brings to a dancer might be intensely attractive. But how Alex could imagine that the company could release him when the season is booked, brochures printed, tickets sold, when they've invested so much is him? I'll put it down to youth and immaturity. He's an insanely talented dancer, who wants to do more than ballet. But I think naive is perhaps the right word. He got a hard lesson in the business end of dance, but I hope he comes back and competes when he is free of his contract. If he's not happy in the world of ballet, he should move on.

  11. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks you guys for all the great comments! I'm glad I'm not the only one who was rather stunned by this.

    I guess it is understandable why some would not be fulfilled by ballet, even if they are with a great company. It's just so hard for me to fathom since, if I could be any dancer in the world ever, it would definitely be Margot Fonteyn or Alessandra Ferri or Natalia Makarova or Cyd Charisse or someone like that. I love ballroom of course and an enamored of the ballroom greats, but if I'd have started at a younger age and had enough talent, ballet would have been my aim. But that is of course my own personal thing. But I always thought for someone who'd taken so much trouble, so much serious killer work to get into a big ballet company, the aim was, likewise, Baryshnikov. Would Baryshnikov ever have gone on this show?…. hmm. My friend last night told me Baryshnikov began to be looked down upon when he started working with Tharp, her stuff being considered to poppy and all. It seems from all the talk that Danny had some racial issues with ballet, which of course should have been a wake-up call (and I think to an extent was) to the ballet world. I wonder if that is part of Alex's issue too. Or if he just wanted more exposure. I'm still shocked he said on national TV that he wasn't fulfilled at his job.

    I'm going to search for that article you read, Maria — sounds very interesting.

  12. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    :)

  13. There is too much on there that is too good for me to give it up. I appreciate the insight, and who knows, maybe we are being played, but it is certainly no worse than what DWTS does to us every single year. Very rarely does this show rely on the drama, it instead allows dance to be enough to entertain us, and there is so little of that on tv right now! I'm glad you are calling them out on this, but don't deprive yourself of the chance to see some incredible choreography performed by amazing dancers because of it.

  14. I remember when Baryhnikove made a break from the ballet world. he was strongly criticized for it, but he has talked about this in a Charlie Rose internview. Beckylooo blogs about it at her site http://tvinthewoods.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/th… and has the video posted of the interview. I have my dream job too, in many ways, but the people I work with are not so wonderful. I've struggled with my dissatisfaction: is it the work? is it them? should I be somewhere else? He's still very young.

  15. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks for that link, Joanna! That's awesome that Beckylooo found it and put it up!

  16. I don't understand the harsh criticism on Alex's decision to audition for SYTYCD. The Miami audition took place in early Feb this year and from all the city auditions 170+ dancers made it to the 4-day Vegas round in April/May. The producers have made it clear throughout the years that in addition to dance ability, the dancers are also being cast based on their likability, tv personality, and growth arc. Should Alex have discussed his audition with the MCB Artistic Director before knowing if he had a remote chance of making it to the final rounds? Do people in general discuss with their bosses their plans to seek other opportunities? In any career?

    I also think it is unfair for us viewers to decide what is 'good enough' for Alex. He said he was satisfied with ballet but was excited to experience all different types of dance. To me that is the view of a true artist (and that he is not a BALLET ELITIST)…that he still respects other dance styles and has the desire to learn new forms of dance even though he is already at a great position in a reputable company at such a young age. By the way, he is not the first dancer to make it to the end of Vegas but have to drop out due to the contract obligations. In Season 3, a ballet dancer (named Dallas I believe) actually made it to the top 20 and was shown in the Top 20 celebration but was later replaced by Jimmy due to contract issues with a Canadian ballet company.

    From the MCB site, it looks like the 2009-2010 season starts on October 23, 2009. I believe that the SYTYCD season ends in mid-August. I think the kink in this whole thing is that if Alex made in to the Top 10, there would be a tour for a couple months after the show and with Season 6 happening in the Fall, who knows if there would be a combined tour.

  17. I love SYTYCD, but you can't ask it to be something other than what it is. SYTYCD isn't a show for dance purists, it is a show for the 96.7% of Americans who have little or no exposure to dance, and, despite that, they get some great dancers. Sometimes I feel like people who live in NYC and other major metropolitan areas forget that the vast majority of our fellow Americans do not. I'm sure the bit with Alex was somewhat of a publicity stunt. Alex auditions, is brilliant, but can't be on the show because of the contract. Miami ballet sells more tickets because people want to see Alex from his brief SYTYCD exposure, and, if he does come back and re-audition when he is released from his contract, he has a built-in fan base already formed. The same situation occurred with the wonderful 17-year-old kid who auditioned (Nathan something). They knew perfectly well he was 17 and couldn't be on the show, but they wanted to show him to give people something to keep the upcoming fall season in their minds and no doubt Nathan wanted to get a fan base started. That's the way the game is played on SYTYCD.

    I've got to say, though, I remember the exchange being different than your description. I don't remember Wong putting down his job or Nigel putting down his show in quite the way you recalled it, but I haven't been able to find a video to refresh my memory. It is kind of insulting to all the past dancers, some of whom were near and dear to your heart, to imply that anyone who knew 'the least bit about dance' would not want anything to do with the show, don't you think? Or maybe I'm misinterpreting that? People are different. They have different goals. Not everyone wants to be a professional ballet dancer, and the dream job isn't a dream if you aren't happy.

  18. 'American Idol''s policy is that a contestant cannot be under contract with a record company or have been under contract with a record company anytime in the past two years. If a contestant is found out breaking these rules, he or she is dropped from the show immediately, this has happened and the contestant never makes it to Hollyweed week (which is AI's version of SYTYCD Vegas round). I find it startling that SYTYCD would allow this young man this far (even though he is insanely talented) when he was taking the place of someone who could have gone through to the end. Even though I'm certain Fox could have easily bought the kid out of his contract (it's done for actors all the time) it would look very much like the giant corperate monster putting its' moneyed fist through the tiny ballet company.

  19. SYTYCD is not American Idol. The 'prize' for American Idol is a guaranteed recording contract and it is understandable that a recording artist cannot be signed under two labels. For SYTYCD though, the winner gets a cash prize, not a dance contract with a dance company. I believe that there is a contract in place that the dancers cannot appear on another tv network without permission. But other than that, it seems that the past winners and contestants have been taking on jobs everywhere in the dance world (music videos, conventions, movies, dance companies, commercials…etc) without any issues.

    As for taking someone else's place in the Top 32, for all we know, MCB could have been contacted prior to the Top 20 selection and schedules were compared with or without Alex knowledge. The contestants are asked to fill out a background/history form before their auditions, I would be surprised if the MCB contract was not part of that info.

  20. Selfishly, I hope you will still watch the show – I love reading your comments on it! (And your comments on anything and everything to do with dance, of course.)

    I'm still going to watch, even though I absolutely hated season four. I have heard that there is another ballet dancer in the Top 20 this year – Melissa something, so I'm curious to see what she can do.

    I live in Australia, and the recent season two winner of our SYTYCD was in a professional ballet company. She's one of my favourite SYTYCD contestants ever. Maybe 2009 is the year of the ballet dancer. :)

  21. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks you guys :)

    I'm torn because I generally do like the show (and my friend was on two seasons ago and a couple of my friends choreograph for it) but then some of the things said — mainly by Nigel and Mary — that are rather homophobic and sexist and focused on the dancers' body parts really get to me. That's just not the way you talk about art or create art — forcing people to conform to stereotypes and social expectations. But then some of the dancers are good, and not watching because of two conservative judges is probably depriving yourself unnecessarily. Maybe I'll just turn off the sound when Nigel talks…

    And EM, I didn't say Nigel said his show was bad, I said I interpreted his body language as indicating that he thought Alex was nuts. I do remember Alex saying he wanted more than just ballet and he only got to dance ballet at his company.

    I didn't mean to suggest that ballet dancers are the only “real” dancers or anything like that. I'm a ballroom dancer as are many of my friends and dancers I highly respect, so I wouldn't say something like that. My point was that some of these ballet dancers who are so incredibly hard-working, who've trained their entire lives, who put everything they have into their art, just aren't getting recognition these days and I find that really sad.

    I still find the whole situation with Alex very suspect. He's back to blogging on the Winger, so maybe he'll pick up new fans.

  22. EM, same producers, etc. So the same rules apply

  23. Tonya, who was your friend on the show?

  24. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Hi Shim — Oh, I meant Pasha and Anya from two seasons ago, and Tony and Melanie who now choreograph regularly for the show's ballroom pieces.

  25. What makes this sad for me is that there are so many dancers out there who would kill to be in Alex Wong's positions with MIami City Ballet and working with Eddie Villella. If he's not happy or fulfilled there are many contemporary dance companies that would be anxious to sign him up. That would leave a spot open for a dancer that wants to dance ballet as much as he wants to breathe.
    Taking a sabbatical from your job is okay but not informing your boss about it while it plays out on national TV is not okay.
    I hope Wong finds the right place to dance for him because he's a very talented and exciting dancer.

  26. What racial issues did Danny have with ballet? I find the discourse of racism and ballet to be an interesting one.

  27. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Hi Jena — Well, to my knowledge he's never given an interview about it or anything, but people were surmising that he might have felt left out since there are so few black men or women who get the big principals roles — the roles of prince and princess, etc. They're usually relegated to the sidekicks or friends of the prince, etc. There are so few black dancers in ballet in general. I know Carlos Acosta had a big problem getting those roles (he says so in his autobiography) but he demanded them and got them (he's at the Royal Ballet in London). Maybe Danny just didn't have that same aggressive personality and didn't feel like going through all that?… People were really shocked when he left Complexions though — a more multicultural company, albeit nowhere near as big and prestigious as ABT. These racial issues have been a big problem and hopefully they are coming to an end. Read the Acosta book, if you haven't!

  28. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Hi Jena — Well, to my knowledge he's never given an interview about it or anything, but people were surmising that he might have felt left out since there are so few black men or women who get the big principals roles — the roles of prince and princess, etc. They're usually relegated to the sidekicks or friends of the prince, etc. There are so few black dancers in ballet in general. I know Carlos Acosta had a big problem getting those roles (he says so in his autobiography) but he demanded them and got them (he's at the Royal Ballet in London). Maybe Danny just didn't have that same aggressive personality and didn't feel like going through all that?… People were really shocked when he left Complexions though — a more multicultural company, albeit nowhere near as big and prestigious as ABT. These racial issues have been a big problem and hopefully they are coming to an end. Read the Acosta book, if you haven't!

  29. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    My thoughts exactly, and perfectly worded. Thank you Susan!

  30. I know this is an old article, but I have to say

    thank you to Alex Wong for coming on the show and giving America a view to his amazing talent. While I do believe that SYTYCD does too much for ratings, it's accessible. Most people, including myself (a college student struggling to pay for dance classes) do not have the money to go see the best ballet companies in the world. Yes, SYTYCD isn't entirely about dance, but neither are many of these dance companies that charge so much money for tickets. While there are obvious obstacles in American culture, I have great respect for companies that do special performances and outreach programs to democratize dance without lowering their quality. People cannot be educated in what they do not have access to.

    I think Alex Wong is a brilliant talent, and however naive he might have been, had the courage to follow his heart and show his power and vulnerability on national television.

  31. I know this is an old article, but I have to say

    thank you to Alex Wong for coming on the show and giving America a view to his amazing talent. While I do believe that SYTYCD does too much for ratings, it's accessible. Most people, including myself (a college student struggling to pay for dance classes) do not have the money to go see the best ballet companies in the world. Yes, SYTYCD isn't entirely about dance, but neither are many of these dance companies that charge so much money for tickets. While there are obvious obstacles in American culture, I have great respect for companies that do special performances and outreach programs to democratize dance without lowering their quality. People cannot be educated in what they do not have access to.

    I think Alex Wong is a brilliant talent, and however naive he might have been, had the courage to follow his heart and show his power and vulnerability on national television.

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