Plucked from its second company to star as Olga in Tulsa Ballet's 2016 production of Onegin, Tomoka Kawazoe offered the kind of classic story-ballet sweetness that audiences love. Yet the 19-year-old Tokyo native is equally adept in contemporary works. She wowed audiences in Jennifer Archibald's OMENS, displaying a rapid-fire technical fierceness illuminated by her dazzling flexibility.
Photo by Andrew Fassbender, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet
Last September, as one of The Royal Ballet's coaches walked her through the potion scene from Romeo and Juliet, Francesca Hayward wasted no time marking the steps. Instead of lingering on individual poses, she was instantly focused on the web of emotions behind the choreography. Sitting on Juliet's bed, she seemed to contemplate the events that had just unfolded as Prokofiev's music swelled up, projecting despite her tiny stature; after pretending to drink the poison, she reached for her neck, her eyes filled with fear and disgust.
Russia is often perceived as a closed book from abroad, and ballet is no exception. Though David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, the country's top companies have been slow to open their ranks to non-Russians. Under acting director Yuri Fateyev, however, the venerable Mariinsky Ballet has welcomed a handful of dancers trained abroad. South Korea's Kimin Kim and Great Britain's Xander Parish initially struggled to fit in with the culture, but both have found their niche in St. Petersburg, and are thriving today among Russian colleagues.
Growing up in South Korea, Kimin Kim always thought of himself as a Russian dancer. For the prodigy who honed his astounding technique and poise with Vaganova-trained teachers, being a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet was “the ultimate dream," he says. Earlier this year, it came true: At just 22, after three years in St. Petersburg, he was promoted to the top rank, the first foreigner to attain principal.
Kim's journey started at age 10, when his mother, a composer, decided she “didn't want him to be an ordinary person," as he puts it, and suggested he try ballet. Former Mariinsky soloists Margarita Kullik and Vladimir Kim (no relation) nurtured him at the Korea National University of Arts. By the age of 18, his precocious technique had earned him accolades at international competitions from Moscow to Varna, and his teachers told Mariinsky director Yuri Fateyev about their protégé.
Kim was invited to a private audition in 2011, and since he hadn't graduated from his Korean school yet, Fateyev created a six-month trainee contract for him. He spoke no Russian, so his teachers moved back to St. Petersburg to live with him; Vladimir Kim remains his coach there. “It was very hard at first, because I couldn't do anything on my own," the dancer remembers. “I also had to adapt to the culture: Russian people are more critical, more emotional."
His first role with the company was Ali in Le Corsaire, and word of his impeccable turns, soaring jumps and elegant demeanor spread fast. In 2012, he was promoted straight to first soloist, and has worked long hours to add roles, including Solor, Basilio and Albrecht, to his repertoire, as well as ballets by Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor.
Earlier this year, Fateyev decided Kim was ready for principal status, though in a time-honored Mariinsky tradition, no one told him; instead, while in the U.S. for Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, he got a text from Vladimir Kim urging him to look at the Mariinsky's website. “I saw my face at the top of the roster, and I knew," Kim says.
Fateyev also suggested him to American Ballet Theatre for a guest spot in La Bayadère last spring. While Kim's international career is taking off, the young principal says Russia is his home now. “Ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote were born here. Russian people feel these ballets, and I want to improve my characters, to understand the culture." And now that he has reached his childhood goal, Kim jokes that he needs to find new ones: “Maybe I'd like to be director of the Mariinsky!"
Xander Parish could be the poster child for late bloomers. The British-born dancer spent four and a half years at the back of The Royal Ballet's corps before Yuri Fateyev plucked him out of a class he was teaching in London and asked him to join the Mariinsky.
Parish's training wasn't as far from Russian as you'd expect: At The Royal Ballet School, he was taught in part by former Kirov dancer Anatoli Grigoriev. After he joined the British company in 2005, however, no opportunities came his way. “I was always the last one to get strength, even at school," Parish says. “The Royal wanted instant ability. They didn't have the patience to work with slow developers."
Fateyev saw potential in his long lines and tall stature, however, and Parish took a leap of faith, landing in St. Petersburg in 2010. Hired as a coryphée, he juggled corps and soloist duties while his two coaches, Fateyev and later Igor Petrov, set out to mold him into a prince. Parish estimates it took him three years to feel fully at home in the company. “After one year I'd made some friends. I could understand one percent of the language, give or take," he laughs. “And then it took two years to prove myself as a dancer, to improve my technique, to show I could be worthy of more."
His first leading role in an evening-length ballet, Albrecht in Giselle, was “make or break," he says. “I knew I had to do it well, or I probably wouldn't be doing it anymore." Fateyev was pleased, and more principal roles followed. In 2014, his performance of Aminta in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia earned him the rank of second soloist—his first promotion, he notes self-deprecatingly, since he left school. When the 29-year-old returned to the UK with the Russian company in 2014, the transformation was complete: As Apollo, Parish embodied the young god's journey from clumsy innocence to classical purity.
Parish now spends his long days at the Mariinsky honing his technique and repertoire. Fateyev praises his acting, a British strength, and cast him last season in another Ashton classic, Marguerite and Armand, alongside Ulyana Lopatkina. The Mariinsky's two American conductors have become his close friends; all three live across the street from the theater, in apartments supplied by the company.
The first British dancer to join the Mariinsky hasn't forgotten his roots: He hopes to see Manon return to St. Petersburg, and would love to guest with The Royal Ballet. In the meantime, he relishes Russian ballet's intense work ethic. “Not everyone is an instant success, and it takes dancing to make dancing strong," he says. “Here, I was given the chance to grow into my body."
It's a truth often repeated about ballet that it is an art with a strong oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Aspiring dancers learn the same steps that their teachers learned before them and perfect the same skills: turnout, pointework, épaulement, balance and, above all nowadays, flexibility. Sometimes, in the quest to achieve ever-greater heights of technical skill, other aspects of the art recede into the background. Nuances of interpretation and style can seem less important, even though they are the very things that ultimately make a dancer interesting to watch. That’s the paradox: In the age of ubiquitous sky-high extensions, the richness of a performance counts even more.
Maria Kochetkova has a voracious appetite for inspiration. A principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet since 2007, she spent the last few years guesting with American Ballet Theatre during their spring season. “ABT is very different from SFB—it has a very different rep, it has very different dancers, incredible dancers you can learn from,” says Kochetkova. Last summer, she joined the company as an official principal, taking on a grueling schedule that leaves her shuttling between California and New York.
“I really wanted to learn more and also try to balance my repertoire,” she says. “San Francisco Ballet does a lot of new and more contemporary works—we don’t always do full-length and classical ballets, which I feel I need. And at ABT, you get the full-length classicals, but not so many contemporary works.”
Kochetkova spent July through late September working with SFB before flying to New York for ABT’s fall repertoire season through early November. Her spring schedule looks just as busy. “Overall, I’ll spend half of my time in San Francisco, and half in New York,” she says. As for vacation time? “I usually travel a lot during the off-season, but I had to cut down. But that’s okay. I’m more interested in learning something new.” —Amy Brandt
Getting ready to audition for intensives? Click here to find the best summer study options for you!
By the time Washington Ballet dancer Andile Ndlovu was finishing his training in South Africa, he faced a risky decision. After attending a ballet competition in 2008, he received summer-intensive scholarship offers from The Washington School of Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But choosing between schools would determine more than his summer plans. The right intensive might lead to acceptance into a professional-level training program at summer’s end, whereas walking away empty-handed would mean going back home, to begin again.
Many dancers on the cusp of graduation can relate. Summer intensives often serve as a lengthy audition process for year-round opportunities, a gateway to traineeships or second-company contracts that bridge the gap between student and professional. But choosing a summer program essentially means committing to a company school—before it’s committed to you. If you’re researching summer programs and know you want to move into a more professional sphere by summer’s end, here’s how to ensure that you’re making a smart, career-minded decision.
Assess Your Options
When prioritizing which intensives to audition for, start with schools affiliated with dream companies. But it’s also important to investigate other options and to be very realistic about where you’d be happy day to day. “You have to take away the name brand and take a really close look at the company, at the people, at the repertoire,” says San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet dancer Isabella DeVivo, who received a traineeship through SFB’s summer program in 2012. “I liked how broad the rep was here.”
You also want to understand what year-round opportunities are available in each location. Trainee and second-company programs vary widely, and it’s important to know exactly what is offered (such as classes, performance opportunities with the company and living stipends) and how many students are accepted. You can likely find plenty of initial information online. Darleen Callaghan, school director at Miami City Ballet, says it’s also okay to contact the school with additional questions prior to your audition.
Take past experiences at summer intensives or school visits into consideration, too, paying close attention to the level of interest you received. For instance, an overwhelming amount of corrections could signal that “teachers are interested in working with you and are assessing how much you are willing to change as a dancer,” says Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. The company selects some students for PNB School’s Professional Division during the summer. For DeVivo, these hints came in the form of teachers occasionally asking her to demonstrate at a previous SFB intensive. And while it won’t guarantee a contract, familiarity can work in your favor. “I know the kids spending their fourth summer with us,” says Boal. “That’s a great vote of confidence in us, and it means something.”
Maximize the Audition Experience
In the audition room, you’re not the only one with yearlong opportunities in mind. The directors have their eyes open, too, so it can’t hurt to convey your interest. “Especially if you’re at the age where you want future employment, you should identify yourself,” Boal says. Rolando Yanes, director of Milwaukee Ballet School and its affiliated Milwaukee Ballet II, agrees: “It’s good for them—we start looking at them with a different eye.”
Callaghan recommends mentioning your interest to the audition administrator during registration, who may make a note of it on your forms. In some cases, this may also be an opportunity to speak with the adjudicator firsthand. After the audition, it’s okay to politely ask about your chances of a traineeship or second-company contract. You’ll probably hear some variation of “maybe,” but you can at least gauge the adjudicator’s level of interest. “If there’s one I’m strongly considering, I’ll tell them then and there,” says Boal. If the student doesn’t seem ready, he continues, “I would say: ‘At this point I can see it as a possibility, contingent on you gaining strength,’ or, ‘You were dancing behind the music on this part of the audition.’ It’s helpful to get it out there.” After DeVivo’s audition, the adjudicator brought up the possibility of a trainee position before she asked, which she took as a strong sign.
Choose a Path
With acceptance letters in hand, it’s time to evaluate which summer intensives might lead to a contract. Once you’ve assessed the level of interest of each program through a combination of past experience, audition interactions and the amount of merit scholarships you’ve received, the decision comes down to finding a balance between your own aspirations and your chances of a contract.
First, talk with your teacher and consider whether you can realistically see a future in each location. “Get as much information as possible,” says Callaghan. “Ask: What are the odds of getting into that professional company long-term? What’s the turnover in the company? How many do they take? What’s the cost of living?” Now is the time to contact the school with any questions. “A student is always welcome to call and say that they are very interested in the trainee program or second company and ask what are the chances and when is the decision made,” Callaghan adds.
If your dream company’s school seems only mildly interested while a smaller, company-affiliated program is offering you a full scholarship, your decision will be a very personal one. “Sometimes there’s the misconception that if you get into Harvard you should go,” says Boal. “But maybe it’s not the best choice for you. Maybe it’s too big or too competitive.” Callaghan concurs: “Even if you dream of dancing with a larger company, sometimes getting into a smaller company is a good first job,” she says.
For Ndlovu, The Washington School of Ballet’s intensive was the answer, with his sights set on receiving a Studio Company contract at summer’s end. “I felt like it offered more stability for me as a young dancer getting into the art form,” he says. This was of particular interest to him, considering the international technicalities and paperwork involved.
But also know that choosing one program doesn’t mean you’ve burnt every other bridge. Be sure to maintain relationships with those you choose not to attend by sending a thank-you note. “It’s a gracious way for young people to acknowledge that they understand what was offered to them,” says Callaghan, who especially loves the handwritten notes she receives in the mail. That way, if you happen to walk away from your chosen intensive empty-handed, you have places to turn. In this instance, Callaghan recommends calling the other schools and expressing interest in their professional training opportunities. “I get those kinds of calls all the time, and it’s okay.”
Yanes agrees: “Most of the schools that I know, including ours, are pretty open. If a dancer cannot come to our summer intensive, we encourage them to send videos to us, or they can always go to the company audition, where we choose some members of the second company.”
While choosing the right summer program can be nerve-racking, especially with so much of your future at stake, Ndlovu says the key is communication. “You don’t have to beg for your opportunity—it will come at the right time,” he says. “But you have to keep talking and asking questions.”
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Our Top 12 Standout Performances of 2015! Scroll down for a slideshow of images.
Carrie Imler & Jonathan Porretta
Whenever Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta take the stage together, the audience expects a great performance. The veteran company members are longtime friends as well as frequent partners, and their ease with choreography and one another always shows. But their technical confidence and mutual trust reached rarefied heights in PNB's all–William Forsythe program last March.
The duo were paired in all three dances on the bill, and their pas de deux in New Suite, in particular, showcased them at the height of their careers. Imler and Porretta not only handled Forsythe's demanding choreography with ease, but they infused it with an obvious love for the movements, for one another and for the audiences. The joy they brought to the program was contagious, leaving the crowd giddy with excitement as they left the theater.
Alessandra Ferri has long transported us in roles of larger-than-life passion. But portraying Virginia Woolf, a woman who writes difficult novels—that's possibly even harder to pull off. For Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor's first full-length for The Royal Ballet, he insisted that Ferri, 52, be his star. And she fulfilled this assignment with flying colors. As she stood behind a scrim of jumbled words, we sensed her alertness to language. When she extended her lower leg toward the floor, it was not to show off her exquisite instep, but to point to something she'd observed with a writer's eye.
In the third act, based on Woolf's novel The Waves, Ferri projected a feeling of being at one with the water. As she partnered with Federico Bonelli, she swirled with a natural ebb and flow, occasionally dragged by an undertow. Although we knew this was her character's chosen way of dying, there was something serene about the way she finally got pulled under. Ferri invited you into the tragedy with a lyrical intensity. —Wendy Perron
The gloomy crowd that shuffled into the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June looked like a funeral procession. They were there to see Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's final performances; they were prepared to grieve.
Instead they found joy, of a deliciously campy variety, in Richard Siegal's adrenaline rush of a world premiere, My Generation. And especially in Matthew Rich, the ringleader of its Technicolor circus. Hair whipping, limbs lashing, Rich attacked the choreography with the full-body exuberance that had become his signature during his decade with Cedar Lake. He has the rare ability to be at once arch and earnest, to give us a sly wink even as he's selling the heck out of Siegal's over-the-topness. Somehow, he managed to make lip-synching along to The Who's “My Generation" look, well, cool. It was his party—and nobody was crying. (There's no need for Rich fans to cry now, either: He's taken his considerable talents to BODYTRAFFIC in Los Angeles.) —Margaret Fuhrer
Fans of American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland would have cheered at anything she did, so it was automatic that her first Swan Lake in New York City would get a standing ovation. But Copeland's sold-out debut was also artistically satisfying, especially her Odette. For a dancer who consistently brings fire and joy to the stage, portraying the white swan was a challenge. But coached by ABT ballet master Irina Kolpakova and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Copeland took her time expressing Odette's sadness of being under a spell. Her long limbs extended into space with pathos, settling into exquisite lines. Her head and neck were beautifully expressive, and she took comfort in her closeness to Prince Siegfried (danced with ardor by James Whiteside). Her magnificent timing allowed us to feel the pull between fear and hope, sorrow and romance.
As Odile, Copeland lost her balance during her fouettés, finishing with pirouettes from fifth—yet she remained unshaken and in character. Her artistry under pressure obliterated any worries about whether she deserved her promotion to principal—the first African American woman at ABT to do so—less than a week later. —Wendy Perron
The Men of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
George Balanchine found rich inspiration in sisterhood, in the strong female communities of Serenade and Concerto Barocco. So when New York City Ballet premiered Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes—a ballet with a cast of 15 men and a single woman—its band of brothers immediately drew comparisons to Mr. B's women.
But Rodeo, set to Aaron Copland's famous score, is as much a celebration of NYCB's current crop of men as it is a reimagining of the old Balanchinean model. And what men they are! Several principal dancers—including Daniel Ulbricht and Andrew Veyette—lead the pack, bringing sunny energy and powerful athleticism to the first and last episodes. (Ulbricht's series of decelerating turns in the final movement is as funny as it is astonishing.) The heart of the ballet, though, lies in the lyrical second episode, which Peck devotes to a quintet of non-principals: Daniel Applebaum, Craig Hall, Allen Peiffer, Andrew Scordato and Taylor Stanley. These five find poetry in the choreography's gentle rises and falls, tenderness in its velvety partnering. Together, they paint a sensitively shaded portrait of male intimacy. —Margaret Fuhrer
Last spring, in the light-pierced kaleidoscope that is Justin Peck's Heatscape, Miami City Ballet's Emily Bromberg, then still a corps member, glowed. As the lead ballerina in the opening movement, she was a convivial member of a streaming-by posse before commanding center stage with her smitten partner—vital for the democratic dynamics of the choreography. Bromberg's speed, sharp transitions and projection (those jumps with her eyes set on heaven!) have been honed in MCB's Balanchine aesthetic. But this recently promoted soloist also draws elegance from her Kirov Academy of Ballet training in Washington, DC. And Heatscape has helped catapult her career. “I gained a sense of freedom from this that I didn't always trust before," she says. Through her poise, agility and emotional translucence, she reached timeless beauty as an artist. —Guillermo Perez
After dancing many years as an anonymous swan at the Paris Opéra Ballet, there was a sense of vindication to Laura Hecquet's authority as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake last March. At 30, Hecquet proved she is one of the purest exponents of the French school today, all smooth precision, with fouettés like clockwork. And her instinct for tragedy signaled a born principal: Hecquet's Odette understood her fate from the start, and drew the audience in with elegiac adagio work.
Like her classmate, San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey, Hecquet was pegged as a future star when she graduated from the POB School in 2002. A decade as a sujet and a serious knee injury later, it seemed like the company would never give her the opportunity to prove herself. Benjamin Millepied promoted her as soon as he was appointed director last year, however, and again to étoile after her Swan Lake debut—overdue recognition for a ballerina who has long been a class act. —Laura Cappelle
An étoile is born: Hecquet in her "Swan Lake" debut (Ann Ray, courtesy POB)
When The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay named Sir Frederick Ashton the ultimate poet of line in his review of Sarasota Ballet at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer, he must have been talking about principal dancer Victoria Hulland. As the sole female in the central pas de trois of Ashton's Monotones II, Hulland was a breathtaking study in total concentration. Every second of Ashton's masterwork was performed with equal attention, whether she was reaching for a partner's hand or being lifted from the floor in a dramatic split. And while Ashton's ballet may be spare, it is not cold. Hulland's exactitude and restraint supported the stage's lunar atmosphere with an otherworldly elegance, as if she were an interstellar acrobat from the deep cosmos. She understood Ashton's approach to abstraction, which always feels human, while her musicality mined the wistful, melancholic spaces in Erik Satie's haunting Trois Gymnopédies. —Nancy Wozny
When The Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists brought their self-produced all-Bournonville program to The Joyce Theater last January, they brought along promising corps de ballet dancer Andreas Kaas. And Kaas—who had plenty of featured stage time—more than kept up with his colleagues. A product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, he demonstrated tireless command of Bournonville's vigorous batterie; his explosive jump etched clean lines with diamond-cut precision. But more than that, he was completely invested and alive in whatever role he played. In the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano, he was sweetly attentive towards his partner (the equally impressive Ida Praetorius), a young lover consumed with affection. He burned with good-humored competition in Bournonville's high-stepping “Jockey Dance," and, later, kicked off the tarantella from Napoli with joyful enthusiasm. In an exuberant program full of company stars, it was apparent that Kaas' own is quickly on the rise. —Amy Brandt
Few dancers can master the squiggly, daredevil choreography of Alonzo King, including his 2010 ballet Writing Ground. But for Kara Wilkes, a four-and-a-half-year LINES Ballet veteran, the intense emotionality required for the piece's final movement proved more difficult. In it, four men partner (read: pull, lift, prod, catch, support) Wilkes—though it's not often clear if her character is aware of her surroundings. “At its core, the role represents the spectrum of the human experience," Wilkes says. “Sometimes my character is strong and she knows where she's going. Other times she feels tender, vulnerable—even blind."
Wilkes compares the role (which includes laughing onstage and talking to herself) to swimming in the ocean. But there's something extra eerie about watching a ballerina exquisitely extending her leg one second and scribbling imaginary poetry on the ground the next. It takes courage as a performer to lose one's self completely onstage, and Wilkes went all in, shedding her carefully honed technique for moments of utter realness. —Jenny Ouellette
In Amy Seiwert's Traveling Alone, Dana Benton is a force to be reckoned with. The Colorado Ballet principal, who originated the role with CB in 2012, performed as a guest with Amy Seiwert's Imagery during the company's Joyce Theater debut in August. And though she is petite, with textbook-perfect lines, Benton's dancing was anything but small. She was especially thrilling in the solo moments. Benton attacked Seiwert's precise choreography with ownership, slicing through the air with angular arms and legs, dropping through surprising level changes and luxuriating in off-center balances. While many contemporary ballets rely on ultra-pliable ballerinas to create a central pas de deux, Benton's steely soloing was a refreshing show of strength and confidence. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
San Francisco Ballet–goers have come to expect fluid, intelligent dancing from Dores André; with her bent for the contemporary, the 11-year veteran has made a mark in dozens of new and neoclassical works. But when she debuted as Juliet, one of her first performances after being told that she would be promoted to principal dancer at the end of last season, the Spanish-born ballerina reintroduced herself as a compelling actress in command of an earthy, expressive musicality. She read Prokofiev's score like a storybook, dancing with a sensitive timing that revealed nuances hidden in its lilting airs and clashing phrases. Immersed in the music, André drew us into Juliet's emotional world, and we hung on her every step—experiencing her star-crossed arc from naiveté to longing to anguished maturity as if for the first time. —Claudia Bauer
Sarah Hay rises in both Dresden and Hollywood
On the Starz television series “Flesh and Bone,” Sarah Hay plays Claire, a troubled young dancer getting her first big break in a New York City ballet company. With faraway eyes, she listens to music on a dreary train, escaping some unknown horror at home to attend an audition in the big city. Her hands move expertly through a variation as if in prayer. But when her phone rings during her first company class, she finds herself the focus of ridicule. Forced to perform the adagio by herself in front of the company, she sails through it with sharp technique and emotional intensity, making it clear to the show’s characters that Claire is a dance genius.
Though “Flesh and Bone” is obviously fictional, Hay’s natural acting ability comes across as finely crafted as her dancing. It’s hard not to imagine that Hay had plenty of source material from her own life to draw on for the role. After a slow career start and battles with intense anxiety and body issues, Hay is now thriving at Dresden Semperoper Ballett as a second soloist. Her extreme vulnerability and emotional honesty, developed after years spent struggling at the bottom of companies, punctuate her highly technical dancing and make her performances on stage and screen so compelling. Now, Hay is coming into her own in front of an audience numbering into the millions, and her future is looking bright.
A native of New Jersey, Hay’s ballet training began at the School of American Ballet. But she eventually left in her early teens when it was inexplicably suggested that while she was talented, she should try modern. “I was depressed and wanted to quit after that,” remembers Hay. “It had long been a dream of mine to join New York City Ballet.”
She began taking open classes, eventually finding Susan Jaffe at the Princeton Dance and Theater Studio. Jaffe encouraged her to audition for American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where Hay spent three years developing her technique. “I learned nuance and musicality at SAB, but my technical aspects developed later at JKO,” she says. Hay had high hopes for joining ABT’s Studio Company, but says the artistic staff found her too unfocused. Though she had always contended with attention problems, Hay felt they had improved during her last year of school. But it was too late. Girls younger than her were promoted instead.
Back to taking open classes, she was spotted by Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at Steps on Broadway and was immediately offered a second company contract. While Hay enjoyed her first taste of contemporary ballet and loved working with resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, after two years she did not feel she was being pushed and went back to auditioning. An open call brought her to Pennsylvania Ballet, but her experience still failed her expectations. “I spent two years in their second company and two years as an apprentice,” she says. “My dancing plateaued. I gained weight and lost confidence.” Frustrated, she resigned.
To get to her sweet spot, Hay had to go back to the beginning. While still at PAB, she was coached by Jodie Gates in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. “Sarah was an instant standout when I staged Bill’s work,” says Gates. “She has strong technique, keen musicality and the willingness to take risks, such key elements for a contemporary ballerina.” Gates recommended that Hay try a Forsythe workshop to learn more about his choreographic style, so she attended one held in Dresden. Though Dresden Semperoper Ballett artistic director Aaron S. Watkin spoke with her about hiring her when a contract opened up, Hay returned to New York and resumed a discouraging cycle of auditions for Broadway shows. But a month later, Watkin called. At 23, Hay moved to Germany to finally accept her first corps contract.
There, she found a company full of individual dancers with varying physiques. Having struggled with her curvy body during her school and early professional years, Hay found herself losing weight simply due to being used in more repertoire. Watkin tested her with soloist roles right away. “He gave me chances,” says Hay, “and molded me into who I am.” Two years later, she landed the role of Swanilda. Hay is now featured in both classical and contemporary pieces and feels lucky to have worked intimately with Forsythe on his full-length ballet Impressing the Czar. “I have had to work on loving myself,” says Hay. “When you feel at a loss all of the time you start to wonder if it’s you, but for me it was the place. I felt thrown away by some people who had treated me horribly, but now I just try to see my imperfections as what make me who I am.”
Frequent partner István Simon finds Hay easy to connect with on both creative and personal levels. “Sarah is an intelligent woman with a great sense of humor,” says Simon. “When we are dancing together I feel inspired and can bring out more of myself artistically. With her, I feel free onstage.”
Having found such a welcoming dance home, Hay wasn’t really interested when she was contacted to audition for “Flesh and Bone.” But when she looked closer at the email, she was impressed by the show’s executive producers, including Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad” writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett and Oscar-nominee Lawrence Bender. She sent in a video, but it was taken from too far away. And yet, there was something fragile and intriguing, so she was asked to do it over. Hay had “an innate understanding of the complexities of the role,” says Walley-Beckett, “and she was fearless.” After a three-day final callback in New York, Hay received a call from the production team. “I was so excited I couldn’t even tell my mom on the phone,” she says. “Then I thought, What am I going to do about my boss?” But Watkin was supportive and gave Hay a six-month leave of absence to shoot the show.
Hay entered a new world of 15-hour days on set, often wearing her pointe shoes for 12 hours when shooting dance scenes. Sometimes she would spend the entire weekend in bed out of pure exhaustion. “Her work ethic was impressive,” says Walley-Beckett. “It surprised me that she was more nervous on big dance days than on big acting scene days. I think it’s because ballet dancers are such perfectionists, and she wanted so badly to be flawless in her technique and performance.”
After working with an acting coach the first week, Hay chose to simply channel the real dance world. But as a premium cable series, “Flesh and Bone” deals explicitly with adult themes and is clearly geared towards a mature audience. The stress of playing such a troubled character was real, and a romantic relationship ended up a casualty to her schedule and the intensity of the work. While her personal experience was easy fodder for emotional scenes, nudity and sex scenes were also part of the deal. However, filming them was not as scary as she anticipated, and her attitude seems to reflect maturity gained over her very personal battles with her own physique. “For me a body is a body, and we all have bodies,” she says. “I didn’t have to do anything I was uncomfortable with. The set was closed and everyone there was respectful.”
Now, Hay patiently awaits the reaction to the show while looking towards her future in both ballet and television. “I feel like I have come to my peak as a dancer,” she says, “and now it’s time to push my limits and try to become a first soloist. But as far as acting, I have no idea. I am at a crossroads waiting for things to happen, and for the first time ever, there is no bad, it is all good.”
Candice Thompson, a former dancer, is a writing fellow at Columbia University.