Ballet Stars

5 Pieces of Advice We Learned From Isabella Boylston's Ballet Class at NDI

Courtesy of National Dance Institute

In the middle of preparing for performances at Colorado's Vail Dance Festival and her own launch of Ballet Sun Valley, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston took a break from rehearsing earlier this week to teach ballet during the National Dance Institute (NDI) summer intensive. Founded by former New York City Ballet principal Jacques d'Amboise in 1976, NDI provides a free arts education to children across NYC, many of whom are from low-income communities. "NDI really resonated with me because I didn't come from a wealthy family, and so scholarships were really instrumental in helping me get to where I am," Boylston told us on why she wanted to get involved. "I love the fact that it's free dance classes for kids, and that a dance education really helps you in whatever you pursue."

We got to sit in on class with Boylston, who taught beginner ballet students at NDI's Harlem Center, and we picked up a few important lessons every young dancer can use:

Build on the Basics:
Before traveling across the floor with waltz turns, Boylston had her dancers begin the combination with simple balancés side-to-side. "Once you get the rhythm, you can start traveling with it and changing the arms. Start by brushing the leg out," she explained. Then think of it as brush, walk, walk—traveling on the brush and keeping the walks on demi-pointe underneath you."

Chaînés Are All About Coordination:
Having trouble getting the hang of chaînés turns? You're in good company. Boylston told us that growing up, she struggled with turns, too—and she made sure to spend extra time breaking down chaînés to her students. "Think about spotting every time so your coordination is working with you. Each little step that you do is a half turn, and each time you flip around, your head flips really quickly, too," she said. While Boylston prefers to spot the front during her turns, she advised her students to start by spotting the side since that's the direction they're traveling in. "Once you get that coordination going slowly, it will be really easy to do fast chaînés, which look really exciting."

Practice Helps Take Away Some of the Pressure:
Formerly the youngest principal at ABT, Boylston told the students that she definitely felt the pressure. "My biggest obstacle was battling my own self-doubt. When I first joined ABT, they gave me some really hard roles like the jump girl in Swan Lake's Pas de Trois and Theme and Variations, which are really technical," she said. To combat her nerves, Boylston worked even harder. "I think it's experience, too—there's no substitute for experience. The more time I'm out on stage, the more at home I feel."

It's Okay to Fall:
"I think it's good if you fall because it means you're really going for it," Boylston told the students after one of them fell before quickly getting up. Recalling her own "epic" fall at the Kennedy Center during her debut in La Bayadère, Boylston assured her students that it happens to everyone. "Everything had been going really well, and then there was some kind of mind-body disconnect at the end of the act when I was pulling in during a fouetté turn—and I fell. I'm center stage, spotlight on me, and I'm lying there with my feet over my head. The whole audience gasped, but I picked myself up, took a couple breaths and kept going."

Even The Pros Need Help Sometimes:
During a center combination of tendus, glissades and pirouettes from fifth, Boylston decided to challenge the kids by having them reverse the whole thing. Challenging herself, too, Boylston mixed up the direction of the glissades, and d'Amboise stepped in to solve the tricky reverse combo!

At the students' request, Boylston showed them a bit of Swan Lake, which she called "the hardest ballet."

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Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

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Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

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Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

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Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

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Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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