The Breakout Stars of 2021

By |2021-12-16T08:33:54-05:00December 16th, 2021|Breonna Taylor|

In a year that offered glimmers of hope across the world of arts, these performers and creators rose to the occasion.Olivia Rodrigo, members of the cast of “Reservation Dogs” and a scene from “Sanctuary City.”Clockwise from left: Mat Hayward/Getty Images; jeremy Dennis for The New York Times; Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe cultural world began to sputter back to life this year, and in turn, so did many of us — slipping out of our sweats and into movie theaters, clubs and Broadway shows. Even for those who were less confident rubbing (or bumping) elbows in public, artists brought us plenty of joy in the safety of our home. It may not have been the beforetimes, but in 2021, these artists and creators from across the arts gave us a fresh outlook.Pop MusicOlivia RodrigoFor those of us over 30, Olivia Rodrigo seemed to come out of nowhere with her colossal debut single, “Drivers License,” a heartbreak ballad that dropped in January and stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks. But for a younger audience, Rodrigo, 18, was familiar from her time as a Disney child star. Despite that pedigree, she didn’t drag along a squeaky clean image.Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic at The New York Times, called “Sour,” her debut album from May, “nuanced and often exceptional,” deploying “sweet pop and tart punk equally well.” He called Rodrigo, a California-raised Filipino American, “an optimal pop star for the era of personalities, subpersonalities and metapersonalities.”As Rodrigo told GQ magazine in June, “Something that I learned very early on is the importance of separating person versus persona. When people who don’t know me are criticizing me, they’re criticizing my persona, not my person.”Olivia Rodrigo’s colossal debut single, “Drivers License,” stayed at the top of the charts.Mat Hayward/Getty Images for IheartmediaTelevisionLee Jung-jaeBlood-drenched, brutally violent entertainment is rarely synonymous with nuanced, complex performances. But in Netflix’s “Squid Game,” a dystopian thriller from South Korea that became a global streaming sensation, Lee Jung-jae, 49, pulled off just that. As the protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict who is deeply in debt, he gives a wrenching and surprisingly subtle performance as he battles his way through unspeakable horrors.But Lee, a model-turned-actor who has starred in several hit Korean films like last year’s gangster drama “Deliver Us From Evil,” doesn’t play Gi-hun as a hero or a villain, a bumbling fool or a savvy con man. “Gi-hun’s emotions are very complicated,” Lee told The Times in October.“Squid Game,” he went on, “is not really a show about survival games. It’s about people.”TheaterThe Authors of ‘Six’In October, “Six” became the first musical to have its opening night on Broadway since the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. An exuberant and cheeky pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII, it brought much-needed fun and noise to the stage — thanks to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who wrote the book, music and lyrics. (Moss also directed the show with Jamie Armitage.)The hit show is “a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past” that “turns Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives into spunky modern-day pop stars,” as Jesse Green, the theater critic at The Times, and Maya Phillips, a critic-at-large, put it. Think Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, whom the leading divas were in some ways modeled after.Marlow came up with the idea for “Six” while daydreaming during a poetry class at Cambridge University, where he and Moss, now both 27, became fast friends. “This,” Moss told The Times in 2019, “is obviously the craziest thing that’s ever happened to us.”MoviesAunjanue EllisIn 1995, The Times called Aunjanue Ellis an up-and-comer for her role in the Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” in Central Park. Ellis “projects nearly as much force offstage as she does in character as Ariel,” the article read. That fire hasn’t wavered in the years since, whether on film —“Ray,” “The Help,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” — or on TV in “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country,” both of which earned her Emmy nominations.Now, in the movie “King Richard,” Ellis delivers a megawatt performance as Oracene, the mother of Venus and Serena Williams (opposite Will Smith as Richard) — turning a supporting role into a talker and generating Oscar buzz.In an interview this fall, Ellis, now 52, talked about what makes her say yes to a role: “Can I do it and not be embarrassed and stand by the fact that I’ve done it?” she says she asks herself. “Is it fun to play and am I doing a service to Black women?”.css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-1kpebx{margin:0 auto;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,'times new roman',times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1kpebx{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1gtxqqv{margin-bottom:0;}.css-1g3vlj0{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1g3vlj0{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-1g3vlj0 strong{font-weight:600;}.css-1g3vlj0 em{font-style:italic;}.css-1g3vlj0{margin-bottom:0;margin-top:0.25rem;}.css-19zsuqr{display:block;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% - 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:'See more';}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}Classical MusicEun Sun Kim“An artist is never satisfied,” said Eun Sun Kim after the San Francisco Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” on Oct. 14 — despite an extended ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” from the audience.After all, Kim — the first female music director of a major opera company in the United States and the first Asian to take on such a role, a monumental appointment that became official in August — has a lot on her plate. Not only is she grappling with the company’s financial fallout from the pandemic, she inherited the opera’s previous problems, like declining attendance.“It’s a hard job, it’s a big job, whether you’re a woman or a man,” she told The Times in October. “I want to be seen just as a conductor.”Kim, 41, whose conducting debut in the states was in 2017 with the Houston Grand Opera production of “La Traviata,” is aiming to broaden the art form’s appeal in the digital age. The company hopes her appointment will do the same; there were advertisements featuring her image with the words “A new era begins” around the city.“Opera is not boring or old,” she said in October. “It’s the same human beings, the same stories, whether it was 200 years ago or nowadays.”Eun Sun Kim, the first female music director of a major opera company in the United States, at the San Francisco Opera in October.Kelsey McClellan for The New York TimesArtJennifer PackerLast year, Jennifer Packer, 37, a painter who depicts contemporary Black life through atmospheric portraits and still lifes, told The Times that she’s driven by thoughts of “emotional and moral buoyancy in the face of various kinds of impoverishment and de facto captivity.”Now, that perspective is on display in her biggest solo exhibition, “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show includes about 30 of her works from the past decade, including the painting “A Lesson in Longing,” which was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial — as well as works that speak to Black lives lost to police brutality. Her largest painting, “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!),” referring to Breonna Taylor, was created during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.In reviewing Packer’s Whitney exhibition for The Times, Aruna D’Souza wrote that no other artist right now is doing as much as Packer “to make those who have been rendered invisible — on museum walls, in public culture, in political discourse — visible.”MoviesCooper HoffmanIn “Licorice Pizza,” the new comedy-drama-romance from Paul Thomas Anderson, Cooper Hoffman plays an unlikely teenage hero. Cooper, 18, is the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s muse before the actor’s death in 2014. Before this movie, Hoffman had never really acted, except with Anderson in something akin to home movies, he said during a press event in November. “It was on a very lower scale, with an iPhone and his kid,” Hoffman joked, referring to Anderson’s child. “I would always play the bad guy, and his kid would beat me up, and it was good fun.”In her review of the film, Manohla Dargis, co-chief movie critic at The Times, said that Anderson’s love for Cooper’s character, Gary, is special — “as lavish as that of an indulgent parent.” His affection for Gary, she continued, “is of a piece of the soft nostalgic glow he pumps into ‘Licorice Pizza.’”Cooper plays opposite Alana Haim, who also had no acting experience before “Licorice Pizza.” The pair had met briefly through Anderson several years ago, she told The Times, never thinking their paths would cross again. As soon as they read together, though, Haim recalled, “It was like, oh, we’re a team. We can take on the world together.”Cooper Hoffman, foreground, stars in “Licorice Pizza,” which was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.Melinda Sue Gordon/MGMDanceLaTasha BarnesLaTasha Barnes — a leader in the dance forms of house, hip-hop and the Lindy Hop — bridged worlds this year. Barnes is “a connector, or a rather a re-connector,” Brian Seibert wrote in the Times. In particular, she works to reconnect Black audiences and Black dancers (like herself) to their jazz heritage. To watch her dance, Seibert said, “is to watch historical distance collapse.”Barnes, 41, has been admired in dance for years, but it was her showing in “The Jazz Continuum” (the show she presented at Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum in May and later at Jacob’s Pillow) and her appearance in “Sw!ng Out” (the contemporary swing-dance show that debuted at the Joyce Theater in October) that caught the attention of many. In November, she won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performer.Discouraged by dance teachers at a young age because of her body type, Barnes pivoted to gymnastics and track and field; at 18, she enlisted in the Army. She later weathered athletic injuries, as well as a broken hip, back and wrist after being hit by a car. Despite it all, her zeal for dance continued.“I was always looking at myself as the perpetual outsider,” she told The Times, “without realizing that it was actually the reverse.”The dancer LaTasha Barnes works to reconnect Black audiences and Black dancers to their jazz heritage.Cherylynn Tsushima, via The BessiesTelevisionThe Cast of Reservation Dogs“Reservation Dogs,” a dark comedy about four teenagers living on a Native reservation in Oklahoma, is a game-changer. That’s how one of its stars, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, described it, and he wouldn’t be alone. The series, from FX on Hulu, is the first on TV with an entirely Indigenous writer’s room and roster of directors. That backbone allows the undeniable synergy among its core cast members — Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis — to flourish.On previous sets, Jacobs said she was “literally the only Native person for miles.” The industry “should feel embarrassed that 2021 is a year for firsts for Indigenous representation,” she went on.For Alexis, her acting dreams once felt so impossible, she felt embarrassed to tell anyone about them, she told The Times. “There was no representation on TV. I didn’t think I would make it.” Now she has a role in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” and will star in a second season of “Reservation Dogs,” which was renewed in September.The stars of “Reservation Dogs,” a groundbreaking show from FX on Hulu: from left, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Devery Jacobs.Jeremy Dennis for The New York TimesPop MusicMickey GuytonAfter Mickey Guyton was nominated for three Grammys in November, she told The New York Times, “I was right.” She was referring to her instinct for the direction of “Remember Her Name,” her debut full-length release. “This whole album came from me and what I thought I should release,” she said, “and that’s something I’ve never done.”In January, alongside major players like Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton, she will have three chances to win: for best country album, best country song and best country solo performance (for the title track). Last Grammys, she became the first Black woman to be nominated for a solo country performance award for the track “Black Like Me.”Guyton, 38, is also an outspoken activist in Nashville, with song titles like “Different” and “Love My Hair.”“What’s being played on country radio has been played on country radio for the last 10 years — I can’t do that,” she told Jon Caramanica of The Times in September. “I can’t do it spiritually. I can’t write songs that don’t mean something.”The country singer Mickey Guyton, performing in New York in December, is also an outspoken activist in Nashville.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty ImagesTheaterSharlene CruzIn September, amid theater’s reopening, “Sanctuary City,” a play from the Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok, resumed Off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Like much of Majok’s work, it takes on the “plight of undocumented immigrants, with a glowering side-eye cast on the rest of us,” as Jesse Green of The Times put it in his rave of the play.Sharlene Cruz brings to life the smart, impulsive G — performing opposite Jasai Chase-Owens as B, both playing undocumented teenagers. Cruz, who is in her 20s, renders her character smartly, impulsively and with a lot of subtext. “Impulsiveness can just seem stagy — youth, a caricature,” Green told this reporter, but Cruz gets the rhythm right and is disciplined enough to put that quality in service of the character’s goals.As those goals change — G ages a few years in the play — Cruz convincingly shows how that impulsiveness hardened into hotheadedness, and youth into something that’s not quite maturity.Sharlene Cruz, left, and Jasai Chase-Owens play undocumented teenagers in “Sanctuary City” at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York. Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesArtPrecious OkoyomonPrecious Okoyomon, 28, a multidisciplinary artist and poet who has only been exhibiting for a few years, creates massive site-specific installations using organic materials. “I make worlds,” Okoyomon, who won the Artist Award at Frieze New York this year, told The New York Times Style Magazine. “Everything, every portal I make, is its own ecosystem.”Okoyomon, who lived in Lagos, Nigeria, as a child before moving to Texas and then Ohio, added: “I attach myself to materials such as earth, rocks, water and fire because these are things I can’t control on my own.”As part of the Frieze win, Okoyomon conceived and presented a performance-based installation at the Shed titled “This God Is A Slow Recovery,” which focused on communication or the lack thereof. “It’s about destroying our language, building it up, crashing the words into each other,” Okoyomon said. “How do we create the language to get to the new world?”This month, Okoyomon won a Chanel Next Prize, a new award from the French fashion brand established to nurture emerging talent, nominated by a group of cultural figures and selected by the jurors Tilda Swinton, David Adjaye and Cao Fei.DanceKayla FarrishIn September, the dancer and choreographer Kayla Farrish — teaming up with the jazz, soul, and experimental musician Melanie Charles — transported Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn to a vivid scene of grace and power.The performance — as part of the platform four/four presents, which commissions collaborations among artists — was “sweeping and robust work braiding music and spoken word with choreography” that encompassed the best of technical dance and athletic drills, said Gia Kourlas, the dance critic at The Times.The result turned its five dancers — Farrish, 30, was joined by Mikaila Ware, Kerime Konur, Gabrielle Loren and Anya Clarke-Verdery — into a vibrant union of musicality, tenderness and power,” Kourlas wrote.