Career
Lopatkina and Danila Korsuntsev in Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Photo by N. Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky Theater.

Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.


What's the toughest part of being a dancer?

More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.


What ballet makes you most nervous?

Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.

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Photo via Pixabay

Summer is supposed to be carefree and fun, but for dancers, the season often marks a transition out of your regular routine and into a new environment. While it's undoubtedly exciting, the summertime shake-up may also trigger feelings of stress and anxiety. We've gathered six of our best tips to help you adjust—and deal with anxiety—whether you're heading to an intensive, on leave for the summer or performing on tour.

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Inside PT
Photo by Knut Bry, Courtesy Strømgren

Jo Strømgren may not be a household name for stateside balletomanes (yet), but his work has been performed by dozens of dance, theater and opera companies throughout Europe. He's currently the associate choreographer at Norwegian National Ballet and directs his own dance-theater troupe, Jo Strømgren Kompani. Pointe spoke with this major force in European dance before his February 10 premiere at Philadelphia's BalletX.

How would you characterize your work?

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Featured Article

Ballet company auditions are hard to dodge for anyone aspiring to the profession. But they can serve as valuable learning tools by helping dancers determine which types of companies they prefer and ascertain the best ways to present themselves as artists. “How can I be seen in an audition?” “What should I say to a director?” “How do I handle my nerves?” Those are among the valid questions that the three professional dancers here thought about before plunging into the audition circuit. Over time, they’ve discovered ways to use the audition process to their advantage to bolster, rather than sabotage, their confidence and to reveal who they are as artists.

George takes flight in Swan Lake (photo by Michael Cairns, courtesy Bri George)

Bri George: Make a good impression

In 2015, after dancing principal roles with Orlando Ballet for six seasons, Bri George was ready for a change and started thinking about auditioning. Based on insight gleaned from previous jobs and auditions, she knew that a small American company would be best for her. “Once I knew that, I looked at all the smaller companies that had a good repertoire and good leaders,” says George, now with Ballet Arizona. “That helped me decide who to audition for.”

She found that having experience gave her a competitive edge. As a student, George had assembled a video of her classwork to send to potential employers. And after working as a trainee with Boston Ballet, she attended numerous cattle-call auditions before joining Orlando Ballet. But as she gained professional experience, her strategy changed. In an effort to eschew mass auditions, she pieced together performance excerpts from videos that demonstrated her stage skills and posted it to a private YouTube page, then emailed the link specifically to directors or ballet masters.

“I reached out to friends in companies and got their opinion on who was the best person to contact—someone in the company to talk to personally instead of just sending my stuff out there hoping someone would look through it,” says George. “Then we could take it from there,” hopefully receiving an invitation to take company classes. After an audition, she found that shaking hands, stating her name, thanking the director and expressing her interest in the company helped make a good impression.

Despite her solid experience, George received a lot of rejections. “Even this year, I got about 10 ‘nos’ ” she says, before landing her contract with Ballet Arizona. But over the years she had learned how to channel rejection in a positive way. “It took a couple times of putting myself out there to fully understand how to use it as fuel to push myself harder,” she says. “You can’t take it personally. You never know what they’re looking for.”

Advice: “Dancers are so focused on how many turns they can do, or who has the highest extensions and the best feet. While that’s important, you also need to be expressive in your dancing. Directors want to see you looking happy doing what you love.”

Kaftira performing David Dawson's A Million Kisses to My Skin (photo by Altin Kaftira, courtesy Dutch National Ballet)

Megan Zimny Kaftira: Take chances.

Megan Zimny Kaftira joined Boston Ballet at 19, and it seemed like the perfect fit for that period of her life. But after four years, her career felt stagnant. “I wanted to grow deeper,” says Kaftira, now a soloist at Dutch National Ballet. “Europe was calling my name.”

She also knew that, unlike her younger self, she wouldn’t be grateful settling for any contract. “When you’re inexperienced, you don’t get a ton of choice,” she says. “As I grew older, I had developed more as a person. I could pick and choose a bit more.” During the company’s January break in 2010, Kaftira planned an audition tour to the UK and the Netherlands. After meticulously preparing her DVDs, photos and resumé, Kaftira set out on her first trip to Europe alone, scheduling company class auditions with The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Each offered opportunities to grow artistically, she says, through “their strong classical story ballet repertoire, interspersed with plenty of contemporary and Balanchine programs.”

Despite her impeccable preparation, however, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Kaftira arrived in Amsterdam late in the evening the day before her audition. Searching for a grocery store, she became disoriented, walking in circles in the maze of streets along Amsterdam’s concentric canals. “I was lost for three hours in the dark, in the rain,” she says. “I wore holes in my socks.”

Nerves, too, were an issue. “I deal with them quite a lot,” she says. “But accepting who I am as a person and dancer helped me be at ease with them.”

Though Kaftira initially had her sights on London, she fell in love with Amsterdam. She particularly found a natural rapport with Dutch National Ballet director Ted Brandsen. “Speaking with him was really easy, comfortable and honest,” she says. “I felt like we were more like colleagues and we could speak more freely.”

While auditioning overseas was challenging, Kaftira says, the risks were worth it. “Just putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation helps you grow,” she says. “If you don’t get the contract you desire, it’s still a really big learning experience. It can’t hurt to try.”

 Advice: “It’s really important to see the company and meet the people you’ll be working with on a daily basis. Explore the city, because it’s a really big decision. You should love the place you choose. This career is short—you want to enjoy it.”

Griffin in rehearsal for Amy Seiwert's The Devil Ties My Tongue (photo by David DeSilva, courtesy Amy Seiwert's Imagery)

Sarah Griffin: Let your confidence shine through.

Sarah Griffin relishes being the first person to arrive at an audition. “I have no qualms about being auditionee number one, the first one at the barre,” says the Colombian-born Oregon Ballet Theatre corps member. “Being early helps me get the lay of the land, so I can see what the studio’s like, feel out the floor and get into my own personal warm-up zone.”

How did she become such a confident auditioner? Griffin attended Barnard College in New York City—and attended every open company audition possible. After dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem (where she learned to “own what makes me different”), she moved to San Francisco to freelance, performing with Oakland Ballet Company and Amy Seiwert’s Imagery. Working with contemporary choreographers, she says, gave her the skills to be seen as a singular artist. Griffin highlights the contrasting approaches of ballet auditions versus contemporary auditions, which vet dancers on their abilities to digest choreography, including through improvisation exercises or even contact improv with a partner.

Griffin recalls how unsteady she was at her first improv audition. Watching more experienced dancers from the sidelines, she thought, “What makes them so good?” Over time, she discovered that good improvisation demands some preparation in the studio (she culls from a catalogue of favorite phrases), as well as knowing her strengths. The key is to make smooth transitions: “You need to organically move from one step to another.” Improvisation skills, she says, have also improved her classical technique by sharpening her mind–body connection and imagination, and honing her eye for detail.

When Griffin, standing a statuesque 5' 8", auditioned for Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2014, she was 27. “I was the tallest one, the brownest one and the oldest one in the room,” she says. “But being experienced in a room full of 18-year-olds and showing my personality and capability made me stand out immediately.”

Griffin’s confident communication skills with OBT artistic director Kevin Irving helped establish a working relationship from the get-go. (In another audition, she even challenged a director on his 5' 7" height limit for women, claiming that there were plenty of tall men in the company to partner her.) “It’s not just about holding your hands and nodding and being the good girl,” she says. “We need to speak up for ourselves and ask legitimate questions about a contract. You can be gracious without being dull and generic.”

Advice: “It’s one thing to be able to show your stuff onstage with adrenaline. But you also have to channel that feeling in the studio. You’re not just auditioning as a technician, but as a complete artist.”

Stattsballett Berlin's Caroline Bird. Photo by Alice Williamson, courtesy Bird.

Ever wonder what life is like as a corps de ballet dancer in a major company? While principals and soloists get all of the glory, dancing in the corps has a special beauty all its own—and takes just as much work. Isabel Garcìa, a dancer with the National Dance Company of Mexico, spoke with Caroline Bird, an American corps de ballet member of the Staatsballett Berlin, about the joys and struggles of her rank.

What role do you think a corps de ballet plays in a national company?

Without the corps de ballet, each ballet would be a series of variations and pas de deux—not whole stories, but mere episodes of relationships. We represent a group of characters that, stewed together, form the flavor of the company. The soloists and principals are the icing and firecrackers on the cake, which glimmers atop the structure and foundation of the corps.

Who makes up the women’s corps at Staatsballett Berlin?

We’re 24 women from all different countries, backgrounds and experiences. In rehearsals and performances, we work to incorporate each girl’s strengths to create one illustrious heartbeat. We dance and work together as a family and nurture each other in difficult moments.

What’s your typical day like?

We usually have class from 10:30 to 11:45 every morning. I get there early to have a full hour to warm up. Then we rehearse from 12 to 2:00, which is either a series of small rehearsals or whole acts of ballets. After a midday break, we have more rehearsals from 2:45 to 6:15. On an average day, without a performance, I work about eight hours.

How do you prepare for performances?

I like to get to the theater early so I can get into character with hair and makeup first, give myself barre and practice the key steps. If we’re doing Swan Lake, I head down to watch the entrance of Odette, which always instills the beauty of the story within me. Then it’s time to jump around and get pumped up to go onstage and let the music take me into the story.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a corps dancer?

The most challenging part for me is to not feel invisible. To find my way of standing out without sticking out. It’s difficult not to feel lost at times. Also, we’re greatly responsible for ourselves in so many ways. No one is going to take the time to coach each individual corps member on what isn't looking the best. Plus, your contribution to the group as a whole is crucial—if you are late, out of line or make a mistake, it can have a domino effect. It’s a lot of responsibility.

You often have to pose onstage for long periods of time while the principals are dancing. What do you think about when you're waiting for your turn to dance?

One of the hardest parts of being in the corps de ballet is standing perfectly still. We’re acting as decoration to the soloists while we’re dripping sweat and out of breath. I usually have to sing the music in my head to stop the muscle cramps and discomfort from taking over. In the worst moments, when I think, “I can't hold it any more,” that’s when I have to dig deep inside and fight. But these are the moments of sacrifice that we give for the magical moments of dancing.

Bird in The Nutcracker. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Bird.

What is the most difficult ballet you've danced, and why?


Some ballets are exhausting because you don't stop dancing and have lots of quick changes, like Boris Eifman's Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake is stressful because of all the standing still and technicality and pointework. But La Bayadère is the most challenging for me because it targets my weaknesses.
The Shades scene pushes my flexibility and extensions to the maximum, and any wobbling is instantly obvious. The pressure of coming down a 30-foot ramp and doing 20-something arabesques simultaneously with the girls in front of you is frightening—all my nerves are on edge until the adagio section is over.

What do you enjoy most about dancing in the corps de ballet?

When you watch a corps de ballet performing completely synchronized, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Touching people with how we create magical artwork with our bodies and move as one—this is why I love my job. It’s the reward for all our hard work.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Career

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.”

Students in Miami City Ballet School's summer repertory performance (Ella Titus, courtesy Miami City Ballet)

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.

At age 15, competition veteran Hannah Bettes traveled to the Prix de Lausanne, her sights set on getting into The Royal Ballet School. The teen left the competition with a scholarship—and the Audience Choice Award, to boot. That same year, Bettes won the gold medal in the senior division at Youth America Grand Prix and the bronze at The Beijing International Dance Invitational, adding to her already impressive resumé of YAGP and World Ballet Competition accolades. Yet by the time she signed a contract with Boston Ballet in 2014, the glamour of the competition stage seemed a distant memory. “Joining a corps de ballet was a huge change,” says Bettes. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.”

While most young professionals expect to pay their dues in the corps, the contrast can seem especially stark for dancers emerging from the competition circuit. Beyond adjusting to fewer solo opportunities, they no longer have the personalized attention of a private coach. Furthermore, many start company life with a preexisting fan base, whose high expectations may increase pressure to progress quickly through the ranks. As the accolades and YouTube fame begin to fade away, competition dancers who approach company life with a fresh perspective will ultimately make the most successful transition.

Boston Ballet's Hannah Bettes (photo Ernesto Galan, courtesy Boston Ballet)

Finding Your Piece of the Puzzle

When competing a variation, dancers have certain artistic liberties with regard to expression of character. But corps work is about blending in. “I can’t always interpret the movement the way I’d like to artistically, because it will throw everything off,” says Bettes. She hasn’t found the change discouraging, though. “Sure, I miss having the entire stage to myself,” she says. “But the corps is so essential. Without it, no one can see the talent of the principals.”

Birmingham Royal Ballet artist Alys Shee, who won medals at the International Ballet Competitions in Helsinki, Moscow, Cape Town and Jackson, as well as the grand prix at the Star of the 21st Century IBC, quickly learned to approach group work practically: To maximize efficiency, corps dancers must commit to a ballet’s cohesive picture. “Sometimes, we only have two weeks to pull together a production,” says Shee. “If each dancer tries to get her leg a little higher than the one next to her, it’s never going to come together.”

Joffrey Ballet artist and fellow IBC alum Cara Marie Gary had a somewhat different transition into company life. Because Joffrey doesn’t have a traditional hierarchical structure, she was cast simultaneously in soloist and corps roles during her first season. “I’d sharpen my peripheral vision in one piece, then have my moment to shine in another,” says Gary. “When you think of big productions as puzzles, you appreciate every single piece.”

Becoming Your Own Coach

A private coach can feel like a life force to competitive dancers. But most companies won’t be able to provide that kind of one-on-one attention to corps members. “It was a shock at first,” says Gary, who deeply misses working with coach Vlada Kysselova on a regular basis. “I was so used to relying on her unique eye for detail, and her ability to pinpoint corrections to suit my body.”

For Shee, who trained one-on-one with Nadia Veselova Tencer and Evelyn Hart, the toughest aspect of self-coaching is staying motivated in class. “You can’t expect anyone else to push you and make you want to come in and work.” She finds it helpful to work with a private strength-and-conditioning coach to supplement her training.

Bettes focuses on being especially observant in class. “There are still corrections given, but they’re more general,” she says. “You have to watch other people, and apply their corrections to yourself.” She also finds it helpful to study the principals, to try to distill and apply the distinct qualities that make them great.

And there are unique benefits to less individual attention. Gary, for one, eventually found artistic freedom in the absence of a watchful eye. “By approaching things from within, you explore your own limits and learn to find the nuances that help you develop as a professional artist,” she says.

Pressure to Succeed

For many, winning a medal is a sign of future success—a tall order for competition dancers to live up to. In addition, fans often follow competitors’ careers with high expectations and vocal opinions. Shee doesn’t view this added attention as a negative. “I’d like to think that true ballet lovers wouldn’t say anything spiteful about a dancer who encounters obstacles during her career—because they understand how difficult a career it is,” she says. “Knowing I have fans out there only inspires me to continue pushing toward my goals.”

Bettes found that joining a company helped subdue outside expectations. “Back when videos of my competition performances were constantly being uploaded to YouTube, I felt the need to impress my fans,” she remembers. “Now, I focus on the expectations of the artistic staff, the other dancers and myself.”

And unlike competition accolades, artistic decisions in companies aren’t made on the basis of a scoring system. “There are so many variables to company life,” says Shee. Bettes remembers to pause and appreciate her surroundings. “When you’re constantly striving to win that contract, it’s easy to get caught up in goal-setting,” she says. “Now that I’ve signed with Boston Ballet, I’m where I want to be, and I can focus on developing into the professional adult I’d like to become. I’m dancing at my own pace.”

Mills coaching Miki Kawamura and Alvin Tovstogray (photo by Amy Haley, courtesy OKCB)

Some might call it bravado. Others would say fightin’ spirit. When Robert Mills grabbed the reins of a struggling Ballet Oklahoma in 2008, the company was at a crossroads: To sink under a $400,000 deficit or to merge with Tulsa Ballet.

“I wanted to show them what ballet could really do for this community,” says Mills of how he approached the city’s heavy hitters with a third option. His stump speech—“Why Oklahoma City Needs Its Own Ballet Company”—helped pull the organization back from the brink.

After off-loading some company property to settle the debt—a costume warehouse, as well as their studios, which were sold to an energy company that is ultimately donating space back to them—Mills started fresh. The troupe got a new name, Oklahoma City Ballet, and a new mission.

“We shifted from trying to win back old audiences to building new ones,” he says. “Yes, we still do traditional. But when we added new titles like The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom of the Opera, people started coming even if they didn’t know ballet.”

In the past seven years, Oklahoma City Ballet has expanded from 16 to 37 dancers. Its $1 million budget has grown to $3.4 million. Annual box office receipts have nearly doubled in the last two seasons, from $687,000 to $1.2 million, and about 300 students take classes in the company’s American Ballet Theatre–accredited school.

The repertoire is evolving, too. Starting this season, Mills has added a contemporary triple bill, enabling him to include more work by guest choreographers, like Matthew Neenan, Amy Seiwert and Helen Pickett.

Mills, 45, wants to nurture his dancers’ creativity. “I’m creating a company that I would want to dance in,” he says. “I was never 100 percent satisfied. So it’s important to me that my dancers take ownership of their roles.”

Growing up in Indiana, Mills’ early interest in gymnastics grew into a craving for jazz, tap and contemporary training. On Saturdays, he would commute to Chicago for ballet. He studied modern briefly at Columbia College Chicago, where he was encouraged to pursue a ballet career. He left school for a job at the Milwaukee Ballet and then Pennsylvania Ballet. But he wasn’t satisfied in the ranks of those companies. He moved on, landing better roles at troupes such as Tulsa Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Ballet Idaho. His 17-year dance career introduced him to a wide variety of choreographers and styles.

The current OKCB, too, is a melting pot of dancers and artistic choices. Russian-trained, Ukrainian-born principal Alvin Tovstogray, 23, says that working here, he’s had to find a stylistic middle ground. “Robert likes to say, ‘This is America! You have to do everything!’ ” he says.

Principal Miki Kawamura, 35, who moved to the States from Japan in 2000 and has been with Oklahoma City Ballet for five seasons, says that Mills expects a clean technique.

“But he’s not just looking for a pretty line. He likes dancers who can really move.”

Mills choreographs one or two works each season, and ballet master Jacob Sparso has a knack for popular story ballets, like The Wizard of Oz. “People identify with it,” jokes Mills about Oklahoma City’s location in tornado alley. “But really, Jacob and I have in-depth conversations about every ballet. We’re not only concerned about who should be in what role, we are also trying to build an audience.”

Critics have praised the accessible repertoire and the strength of the corps de ballet in particular. In 2013, when Mills debuted his Swan Lake, the Oklahoman called the company “a strong artistic force in the state.”

And outside the state, OKCB is touting its contemporary bona fides. At this year’s Spring to Dance Festival in St. Louis, Mills brought Stanton Welch’s Play. The manic, highly improvisational ballet set to electronica by Moby underscores Mills’ emphasis in his classes: channeling and releasing energy.

“I work a lot with the release and isolation of movement,” Mills says. “At barre, I’ll have the dancers completely relax the outside arm while working with the legs. Or we’ll practice releasing tension in different parts of the body. Contemporary dance is less about shapes and more about movement. So I’m always working with this idea of finding your home base, coming away from it and then moving back to it.”

In a town best known for oilmen, cowboys and sports junkies, Mills has managed to find success—and a home base—of his own.

 

Audition Advice

“More than anything, I like people who look me in the eyes,” Mills says. “Right away, I can see what kind of dancer they are going to be onstage. I want a body that is a blank slate, absent of affectation, but I don’t want a blank mind. I tell my dancers: View art.

 

At a Glance

Oklahoma City Ballet

Number of dancers: 37 (including 12 apprentices)

Length of contract: 30 weeks

Starting salary: $525 per week (corps de ballet)

Performances per year: 30+

Website: okcballet.com

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