When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.


The second part of the exchange brought Ruth Page students to Havana for two weeks. I had no idea what to expect. In some ways, Cuba is a time capsule, with those old cars and beautiful old buildings. In the center next to the capitol building is the grand Great Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso, where the National Ballet of Cuba performs. Every Cuban knows and admires Alicia Alonso and they love and appreciate ballet. While watching TV, I came upon a ballet channel—it was like ESPN for ballet! It says a lot about the Cuban culture and mindset.

I didn't find out until after we were back in Chicago that Ramona de Saa, the Cuban National Ballet School's director, had invited me to train there for the year. I had been undecided about going to college or pursuing a professional ballet career. It didn't take long being in Cuba, dancing all day and seeing the amazing Cuban dancers at work, to conclude that I wanted to pursue a career first. I still applied to colleges, including the University of Michigan; I was admitted there but deferred. It made me feel more comfortable about the decision to go to Cuba to have that option.

In September 2016, I left for Cuba. I was 18 and I needed to adjust to a lot of everyday things that worked differently. First, I had to learn Cuban Spanish, which is very rapid! There's Wi-Fi, but it's not available everywhere; calling my parents was very expensive, so that was limiting. I also had to learn a new currency system. Cuban food is pretty simple and unprocessed. You get your meat from the market and you eat it that day—usually with rice, beans and vegetables. Cubans make the best pork, and their fruit is heavenly.

I lived in the student dorm for a while, but now I rent a room in an apartment from a very nice Cuban woman. I have a boyfriend whom I met during the first exchange in Havana. His family throws big dinners with a lot of people on the weekends, and I am always invited and made to feel like family, which is the way Cubans are.


Conley (far left) with her Cuban National Ballet School classmates. Photo by Alex Garcia.

The Cuban ballet technique is known for its turns and elevated jumps, but there's also a lot of stress on footwork and artistry. And Cuban men are really excellent partners. Partnering class is quite advanced because students have been doing it for so long. I worked regularly with one partner, Dario Hernandez, on the Paquita pas de deux and the Snow Queen pas de deux in Nutcracker. It was hard at the beginning because I had so little partnering experience, but we became friends pretty quickly. At first I didn't speak much Spanish, so he would speak slowly. Now I'm fluent and we dance really well together.

Ballet class here begins at 8 am. Then comes repertoire—this year we did Le Corsaire—followed by a specialty class like ballroom dancing or physical preparation, which is like conditioning. From 12:30–1:30 pm we had variations and pas de deux rehearsal. Sometimes we'd have rehearsal for shows or for the April Concurso Internacional ("competition" in Spanish), and we would be there until 8 pm. My roommate and I would walk home at night, and on the way, there was a place that sold big bags of ice for a dollar. We would get that and soak our feet in ice water.

When I arrived in Cuba, I didn't understand that the Concurso was such a big deal. Basically, all variations and pas de deux rehearsals are in preparation for it. The big event isn't just the competition—it's also a school exchange. Students come from all over the world to take classes at the National Ballet School. I competed in the Concurso with the pas de deux from Paquita. My goal was to just enjoy myself and get to the second round, but I ended up getting silver in the pas de deux category for my age group, and the overall award for Individual Interpretation.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

Most National Ballet School students hope to be chosen for the National Ballet. My original plan was to come back home and audition in the U.S. and Europe, but when I got here and saw the National Ballet perform, and got a feel for Cuba, I started thinking about auditioning for the company. I didn't know if that would be possible. There have been only a few foreigners in the company here, and even though I trained at the school, I was there a relatively short time. However, I think that bonding with instructors and fellow students, plus the Concurso results, made a difference. I was invited to audition right after the competition.

Within a few weeks, I learned that I would be joining the company. I was thrilled on many levels—to join one of the most renowned classical companies in the world, to continue to dance with my good friends, and to stay in a country and culture that I love so much. I'm in the midst of a six-month program that's like an apprenticeship, where the company and dancers get a feel for one another and make decisions from there about the future.

Last year while in high school, I watched a video of Roberto Bolle and Diana Vishneva performing the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux about 100 times. At the end, they do a partnered turn—just one pirouette, but it's the most beautiful pirouette I've ever seen. Someday, I want to be able to do something really simple onstage, but project so it looks as beautiful as that one pirouette. My goal now is to work very hard and make the most of my time in the company to improve. Being here is amazing, and it is my hope to stay.

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Garrett Anderson. Photo Courtesy Ballet Idaho.

Big news in Boise: Ballet Idaho has announced that Garrett Anderson will succeed Peter Anastos as the company's next artistic director, starting in July. Anderson, who had an extensive dance career as a soloist with San Francisco Ballet and Royal Ballet of Flanders, and later danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, has a special connection with Ballet Idaho's home city. He performed with the Trey McIntyre Project in 2011 and later as a guest artist with Boise-based LED, a music, film and dance collaborative. Anderson has also served as the chair of the Dance Department at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe.


Members of Ballet Idaho in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo by Mike Reid, Courtesy ballet Idaho.

Anastos, who has enjoyed a prolific choreographic career, is retiring as Ballet Idaho's artistic director after 10 years at the helm. He leaves behind a company of 18 dancers and 6 apprentices, an academy, and a repertoire ranging from full-length classics to Balanchine to new and contemporary works. In a statement Anderson says: "I am eager to work with these artists and administrators to connect with the larger conversation Boise is having about its future. [...] Together we can continue to extend Ballet Idaho's work throughout the region and expand its artistic voice. Looking forward, my goal is to continue a legacy that is inclusive of all audiences, while pushing the boundaries of dance and helping to define its relevance in our community."

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Kyle Froman

"I'm all about comfort and easy clothing because I'm always on the go," Jasmine Perry says. But that doesn't keep the Los Angeles Ballet company dancer from looking stylish. Favoring dresses and athleisure wear, Perry also prefers classic lines and neutral colors like white, black, navy and gray, which are easy to mix and match. The finishing touch: a pair of sneakers from her extensive collection. "I had ankle surgery four or five years ago, so I need a good walking shoe," she explains. "I have a ton of Nikes and running sneakers from Brooks for when I've had a long day at work and need something that feels like clouds on my feet."

But in the studio, you won't find any of the yoga pants or loose-fitting T-shirts she loves so much. "I don't actually have that much attire for layering," Perry says of her strictly leotards-and-tights class style. "It doesn't get that cold here," she explains. "I have a few legwarmers and things for when I'm rehabbing an injury, but they're not part of my daily attire."

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Ballet Stars
Aviva Gelfer-Mundl competing at the 2018 Prix de Lausanne. Photo by Gregory Bartadon, Courtesy Prix de Lausanne.

At the beginning of the month, 74 young dancers from around the world gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland to compete in the 46th Prix de Lausanne. At the end of a packed week, eight candidates were named prizewinners, including 16-year-old California-native Aviva Gelfer-Mundl. One of seven Americans to enter the competition, Gelfer-Mundl—who trains both at V&T; Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, CA and privately with Alla Khaniashvilli and Nazgul Ryskulova Shinn—was the only one to leave as a prizewinner. Pointe caught up with this nascent star to hear about her former career as a rhythmic gymnast, her time at the Prix and her plans to study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia next year.

Before ballet, you were a rhythmic gymnast. Why did you make the switch to ballet?

I started rhythmic gymnastics when I was around six or seven and I competed for several years. I was actually state champion and winner of the Junior Olympics in level 5. However at age 10 I got a really bad hamstring injury, and that caused me to reconsider if I really wanted to continue the sport. I wanted something easier on the body, so I started ballet and immediately fell in love with it.

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Angelina Vorontsova in the company's revival of "Cinderella." Photo by Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

Ella Persson remembers the rehearsals for her debut as Giselle. "I was in my first year with the company, and I started preparing with Mikhail Messerer during late evenings," the Mikhailovsky Ballet's Swedish-born coryphée says. "I was definitely not ready, but he gave me a chance to push myself and made me so much stronger, mentally and physically."

Under Messerer, the Mikhailovsky Ballet has carved a niche on the Russian and international stage by investing in coaching and dancers' growth. Unlike the older Mariinsky, St. Petersburg's second ballet company was only founded after World War I. But with a classically focused repertoire and productions that rotate onstage every month, it offers plenty of opportunities for talent to thrive.


Ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer. Photo Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

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San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's "Serenade." Photo via SFB on Instagram.

Following a week filled with Valentine's Day-inspired romantic ballets including Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Giselle, this week brings a varied mix of repertory from San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (currently on tour in Chicago), as well as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake and Eugene Ballet's collaboration with local band Pink Martini.


San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet's program entitled Bright Fast Cool Blue is up at the War Memorial Opera House through February 24 and features works by George Balanchine and Benjamin Millepied, as well as the SFB premiere of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. The photos that the company has been posting of Balanchine's Serenade are absolutely gorgeous. From February 17-25 the company is also presenting Distinctly SF Ballet. This trio of works by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Val Caniparoli and Myles Thatcher were all created for SFB. You can check out the program's trailer below.

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Peter Martins. Photo by Adam Shankbone, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times reports that a two-month long internal investigation into sexual harassment and physical abuse allegations against Peter Martins, New York City Ballet's former ballet master in chief, has found that the accusations could not be corroborated. In December, an anonymous letter sent to NYCB and its affiliated School of American Ballet accused Martins of sexual harassment, although the claims were non-specific. Afterwards, several former dancers and one current company member came forward to the press accusing him of physical assault and verbal abuse. Martins, who directed the company for 35 years and has denied the accusations, retired on New Year's Day after taking a leave of absence. An interim team led by ballet master Jonathan Stafford has been overseeing the company in the meantime.

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