When choosing a pre-professional program, many dancers focus on the number of hours they’ll spend training in the studio. But technique is only one ingredient in the recipe for making a professional dancer. To produce well-rounded artists, many ballet schools are expanding their curriculums to include classes in dance history, science, stagecraft and career counseling. “The focus so much now is on technique, but I think it’s important for us to go back and develop ourselves as artists and people,” says Colorado Ballet Academy director Valerie Madonia. The broader knowledge these supplemental classes bring makes dancers more marketable as professionals, and helps distinguish a good dancer from a great artist.

Dance History and Culture

Whether you study Vaganova or Cecchetti technique, understanding ballet’s roots and how the art evolved is important to the development of educated, worldly dancers. Madonia, seeing a big hole in the way dancers are trained, decided to spend an hour out of the studio each week exposing her students to different perspectives of dance and the world. “There is so little time in the studio for dancers to really look at the history and meaning behind the work they are doing,” she says.

Madonia brought in Julie Van Camp, a retired California State University, Long Beach, philosophy professor, to give students a sampler of dance aesthetics. When Colorado Ballet performed Concerto Barocco last season, Van Camp used the ballet as a case study for learning about dance criticism and aesthetic theories. Madonia and Van Camp agree that students need to practice thinking about their art form from different dimensions in order to understand the world they are functioning in.

Understanding ballet’s beginnings, as well as the cultural and political influences that have affected it throughout the centuries, also helps to inform artistry. For instance, interactive dance history classes offered at Miami City Ballet School allow students to practice movements from different historical periods. They learn about how Louis XIV’s stance shown in paintings is an early third position, and how ballet’s aesthetic lines changed as skirts shortened in order to show off intricate footwork. “For them to understand why they do what they do and where it came from helps with technical ability,” says MCBS school director Darleen Callaghan.

Stagecraft
Students interested in choreographing or directing benefit from knowing the technical aspects of putting on a production, running rehearsals and managing a company. But rarely do they get hands-on opportunities to learn these skills. Enrichment courses designed to take dancers behind the scenes can help bridge that gap.


In Introduction to Stagecraft and Design at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, dancers learn about costumes, lighting and sound designs from Noel Greer, a professional stagehand who works in many DC-area theaters. “When students start choreographing, we find that they don’t know how to light a stage and how to communicate with the lighting designer,” says Kirov Academy artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton. The class allows them to practice putting on productions in the academy’s theater. “You see them start to look at the theater differently,” she says.  

Dance Science and Nutrition

Since a dancer’s body is her instrument, knowing how it functions and how to take care of it can help maximize performance and prevent injury. Dance science courses give students the necessary tools for a healthy career.

In the nutrition lectures offered at MCBS, dancers learn how to fuel their bodies and grocery shop on a budget. “Their diet and how they are supporting their bodies is as important as their technical training,” says Callaghan, especially since many pre-professional students are living away from home for the first time and learning to cook for themselves. Sometimes MCB principal dancers talk to the students about how they eat to sustain their energy for rehearsals and performances. “It sits in their minds a little better when they hear it from one of the principals than if they hear it from me or their moms,” says Callaghan.

At the Kirov Academy, pre-professional students are required to take a Dance Science and Principles of Movement class. Taught by George Washington University professor Irina Wunder, students learn to visualize the inner workings of the muscles and how they create movement. “Understanding the actual source of movement in the body helps them comprehend how their instruments work and gain an even greater respect for their art,” says Thornton.

Career Counseling

While getting a job is a pre-professional dancer’s ultimate goal, technique class doesn’t prepare them for the stress that comes with auditioning, signing contracts and moving to a new city. That’s where career-oriented classes come in. For instance, at MCBS, graduating students learn how to write resumés and cover letters, as well as research companies around the world. “It was a comfort to know that if it didn’t work out at Miami, I’d have a package that I can send out to other companies,” says MCB corps member Ellen Grocki, a graduate of the school.

In career counseling classes at the Kirov Academy, dancers learn about a variety of topics related to professional life, including how unions work, how to research housing and how to come up with a budget. “It gave me an idea of what to expect when I made the transition from student to professional,” says alumna Megan Amanda Ehrlich, who danced at San Francisco Ballet.

And that added knowledge ultimately makes dancers more marketable. “The more you know as a dancer,” says Madonia, “the more you have to offer as an artist.”

 

Technique Tip
“Early in my career, I had a teacher who told me to exaggerate my movement like a person over-articulating her speech. As he gave me the correction, he enunciated dramatically and used his face and huge hand gestures to make his point. He told me to spell out each individual step with that same energy and attention to detail. I think about his correction all the time, and I try to approach my movement with that kind of specificity.” —Virginia Pilgrim Ramey, Ballet Memphis

If you're in the NYC area and are in need of weekend plans, you might want to consider heading to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Jean-Stéphane Bron's documentary, The Paris Opéra. While the film was originally released in France this past spring, it just made its way to the US on October 18th, and it chronicles the 2015-2016 season at the Paris Opera.

Encompassing the entire institution (which was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV!), dancers will particularly enjoy an inside look at the Paris Opéra Ballet—both in rehearsals and onstage. Most notably, Bron captures the then POB director Benjamin Millepied as he decides to leave his position with the company barely a year after his appointment.

Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

Your Training
Thinkstock.

Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

What Causes It?

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New York City Ballet in Marc Chagall's costume designs for Balanchine's "Firebird."

I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.

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Tiler Peck in "Who Cares?". Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and Emmy-winning actress Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men and Handmaid's Tale fame) may seem like unlikely friends, until you dig a little deeper into their backgrounds. Both attended Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica and spent summers at the School of American Ballet in their youths. Moss and Peck's career paths diverged when the former fell in love with acting and Peck went on to study at SAB full time, eventually becoming the star we know today. Now, the pairs' artistic pursuits are uniting in an exciting new project.

According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


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Your Best Body

Looking for creative and healthy ways to get your pumpkin fix this fall? First, back away from the pumpkin-spiced latte—the season's unofficial drink is often laced with sugary syrup and comes with a complimentary mid-rehearsal crash. Instead, try these simple snacks with puréed pumpkin. It's high in beta-carotene, which converts to immunity-boosting vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin K, iron and fiber. You can buy it canned or make the purée from a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin (they're commonly available at grocery stores or farm markets).

Fruit-and-Spice Toast

- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

- Top with sliced pear.

- Add a dash of cinnamon.

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Pointe Stars

When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
P.O. Alienz in Lavender Leotard; Paulina Waski modelling a Kreature Kulture t-shirt. Photos Courtesy Paulina Waski.

Walk into any ballet class and you're bound to see a row of dancers clad in leotards patterned with dainty flowers and lace. But nearly three years ago, American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski wore a very different kind of leotard to class—and her colleagues loved it. Now an average day at ABT includes any number of dancers in leotards featuring angry aliens, detached eyeballs and grinning monsters.

"My dad, John, is an artist, and he draws all these crazy creatures," Waski explains. "One year he did what he called his paper plate project; he drew a new creature onto a paper plate every single day for 365 days. I thought, 'he should put one on a leotard!' He screen printed one onto one of my old leotards himself, and when I wore it to class everyone was wowed." And so, Kreature Kulture was born.


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