How Dance Partners Create Chemistry Onstage

The Arts

Last fall, when Isabella Boylston and Alban Lendorf, both principal dancers at American Ballet Theater, burst onto the stage in Twyla Tharp’s “Brahms-Haydn Variations,” there was a noticeable surge of energy in the hall. The partners looked elated; he tossed her up into the air so high that it felt almost reckless, then caught her as if it were nothing at all. Her dancing was big and bold, unleashed by the freedom and assurance his partnering gave her.

Mr. Lendorf, who is Danish and still serves part of the year as a member of the Royal Danish Ballet, joined Ballet Theater in 2015 but was sidelined by an injury for a year. So when the 2016 fall season came around, he and Ms. Boylston had been rehearsing together for only a few weeks. Their partnering conveyed a sense of discovery — how high can I throw you before everything falls apart? — but also an enviable ease and trust, the kind that usually develops over years of dancing together. (They will be dancing in “Swan Lake,” which begins Monday, June 12, as part of the company’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, their New York debut together in this most paradigmatic of ballets.)

It got me thinking: What is it that makes certain partnerships click? Where does the essence of that chemistry lie? So I asked them, along with two other dance couples — one from New York City Ballet, the other from the Indian classical dance company Nrityagram.

A New Partnership

“I feel like Alban is a really gifted partner. And when you’re good at something, you get into a positive feedback loop. As your confidence grows, your partnering abilities grow along with it.” — Isabella Boylston

Mr. Lendorf, 27, and Ms. Boylston, 30, met about a decade ago, at a ballet competition. They hit it off immediately. “We had a mutual admiration for each other’s dancing,” she said at the Met recently during the break between a matinee and the evening show. Both dancers are extremely musical — he is also a very good pianist — and essentially sunny. When they were first paired together at Ballet Theater, they felt a natural chemistry, which made their partnership easy.

“The nice thing is that at the beginning, when you’re still trying to figure out where the other person’s center of gravity is, Bella gives you a chance,” Mr. Lendorf explained, using Ms. Boylston’s nickname. “Because, as a guy, you feel stupid when the woman isn’t perfectly in balance. But she gives you that extra second so you can fix things.”

In part, this willingness to let her partner find his way is a question of temperament and technique, but, as Ms. Boylston confesses, there is also a method behind her approach: “Ballet is frustrating — you’re never as good as you want to be. So I always try to think about how I can get the best out of my partner. I try to make them feel good and comfortable and confident so I’ll get more out of them.”

The feeling, Mr. Lendorf said, is mutual. “If she feels good, you don’t have to worry, because she actually tells you where she wants to be with her dancing. She makes the shape, and you can follow.”


Sara Mearns and Jared Angle at Lincoln Center in 2014.CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

The Seasoned Couple

“I don’t care if I’m not perfectly in balance. I’m up there. I have muscles, I can fix it.” — Sara Mearns

Sara Mearns, 31, and Jared Angle, 36, of New York City Ballet, have been dancing together for about 10 years, though they can’t remember exactly when they were first paired up by their boss, Peter Martins. In conversation, they tend to finish each other’s sentences, often correcting details like Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in the classic film “Gigi.” They are not, nor have they ever been, a couple.

“Our partnership isn’t based on a sexual attraction,” Mr. Angle said, between rehearsals at the David H. Koch Theater during the final week of the spring season.

“And that’s a good thing, because that can create so much unnecessary conflict,” Ms. Mearns said, completing his thought.

“You don’t even need to be friends,” he continued, “but there has to be respect, manners.”

Ms. Mearns is a passionate, intense performer; Mr. Angle is more elegant and understated, one of the most coveted partners in the company, someone who can unobtrusively fix any problem — a balance gone awry, a wonky turn. It’s one of the things Ms. Mearns loves about dancing with him.

“He lets me do what I’m going to do and waits to see what happens, and once he sees where I’m going, if I’m not balancing on my leg or whatever, he just lightly taps me back into place,” she said, demonstrating the lightness of his touch by raising one finger and tapping at the air as if pushing a button.

Mr. Angle thrives on the way his partner lets herself be led by the music in performance. “It’s exhilarating,” he explained. “Her openness to the stage experience is something I love. And if something goes a little off, she knows I’m going to save it.”

They prefer not to rehearse too much, so as not to lose that feeling of discovery. “He has taught me to relax out there,” Ms. Mearns said. “To just be me.”


Bijayini Satpathy, left, and Surupa Sen at John Jay College in 2016. CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

Devotion to a Single Goal

“We play our respective roles with total sincerity.” — Bijayini Satpathy

When Bijayini Satpathy, 44, and Surupa Sen, 47, dance together, their movement seems motivated by a single thought. The two are specialists in the Indian classical dance form Odissi, from the Eastern state of Odisha, and are regular visitors to New York. Their approaches are quite different — Ms. Satpathy’s dancing is all curves and sensual lines, and Ms. Sen’s is more sculptural and forceful — but at times they move in such perfect unison that they create the uncanny illusion of being two copies of the same person.

“We’re guided by the same force, with similar impulses to rhythmic punctuations and melodic intonations,” Ms. Satpathy said in an email from India, where they were preparing to go on tour.

The two live, work and grow their own food on a dance ashram called the Nrityagram Dance Village, near Bangalore in southern India. For them, dance and teaching are not only a profession but a way of life. There are no distractions.

“We plan our lives around the requirements of our teaching and performance schedules,” said Ms. Sen, Nrityagram’s choreographer. She added, “We are actively involved in preserving and practicing the living tradition of the classical dance.” Her collaboration with Ms. Satpathy is central to that effort. As Ms. Sen put it: “She instinctively understands what I am visualizing without my having to describe it.”

Curving and folding their bodies around each other, they form perfectly balanced compositions. Their approaches to life and dance are different, but it may be this contrast that makes them click as creative collaborators.

“I am constantly struggling with discipline while Bijayini embraces it willingly,” Ms. Sen wrote. “My child-mind and her firm harnessing of self create an unusual balance.”



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