Your Career

Since the start of her career at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been committed to giving back. “Having taken my first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club, there was no way for me not to forever keep it a part of my life,” she says. Over the past few years, she has expanded her philanthropy. This past November, she traveled to Rwanda with MindLeaps, an organization that provides free dance classes to homeless youth as a way to introduce structure into their lives. Eventually, the program offers vocational training with computer and English classes and sponsors boarding school educations. Here, Copeland shares her weeklong experience in Rwanda, and how dance can transform lives.

(Photo courtesy MindLeaps)

I always say that dance saved my life—it gave me every opportunity and made me an intelligent and articulate person. Art can develop you as a human being, and I saw that through MindLeaps. In fact, I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of the program until I was in Rwanda. MindLeaps is trying to stop the cycle of poverty, and it’s amazing that it all starts with dance.

A few years ago, I met Rebecca Davis, who started the program, through a mutual friend. I was supposed to go three years ago, but had to postpone my trip due to an injury. But we kept in touch and decided that it was the perfect time for me to reschedule, especially with the platform that I have now.

For the past three-plus years, MindLeaps has focused mostly on boys, but last November, I went to Rwanda to help launch the girls’ program. They grew up without homes and without having a family structure, for the most part, so if someone just threw them into school, they wouldn’t have the skills to flourish. In this program, dance sparks their interest and gets them in the door every day, making a commitment in a way that they have never experienced.

(Photo courtesy MindLeaps)

In the studio surrounded by other people like them, they start to develop skills that I don’t think you can learn sitting in a classroom. The classes have a set warm-up, and the program is very structured. There’s a little bit of ballet, of course, but it’s more about getting their minds to think about choreography and connecting all the parts of their bodies to their brain. And it’s about creativity. Once they’re caught up with their cognitive skills, MindLeaps introduces IT and English classes.

Each morning I would wake up and have my “selfish” time, when I’d head to the MindLeaps studios and give myself a ballet class. The kids aren’t supposed to be there until late morning, but most of them don’t have anywhere else to be, so they’re there as early as 6 am, just hanging out in the yard. A lot of them would watch me from the window and imitate what I was doing. It was such a beautiful experience to start the day that way.

Afterwards I would watch a shortened version of their typical class and work with them, and then we would just talk. A lot of them didn’t speak English, so we had a translator, and they would ask me tons of questions. I would talk about my experiences with dance and where it has taken me.

When I was growing up, I was constantly hiding the fact that my family didn’t have a lot of money or that we were living in a motel for a time. When I visited where some of the kids lived, I didn’t want to put them in a situation where they would feel like they were being exposed. It was a very strange feeling for me—it brought me back to that place. But they were very open and giving, and seeing where some of them lived was such an eye-opener. One of the teachers, who started out as a kid in the program, had recently lost his mother to AIDS, which is so normal in that community. He lives in a shack that’s about the size of my bathroom, with six of his siblings. Seeing it all was so surreal.

(Photo courtesy MindLeaps)

I ended up sponsoring a boy, Ali, to attend boarding school. Seeing the underground tunnel where he had been sleeping, and then the boarding school where he is sleeping now, makes me think about everything that I have—that I’m so grateful to have.

I could see the program working, and it was incredible. Rather than just giving people money and putting them in school, it develops the skills that will help them flourish. I spent time with some of the boys who went through the program from the beginning, and it’s changing the cycle of their families’ lives. They’ll have opportunities for real jobs, so that their children won’t end up in the same position they were in. And dance is what got them in the door. Seeing it firsthand reconfirmed all of those things that I felt deep inside of me about my own experience.

It’s so fulfilling as a human and as an artist to help someone else, and to lift them up. That’s so much a part of my message in the mentorships that I have, and the women who have mentored me. It’s a beautiful thing—giving, and taking—that I think every person should experience.

Pointe Stars

When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn’t ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family,” she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home.” She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.

These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren’t ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages” in today’s high-profile world. Here’s how to make sure you’re still on track for a career.

1. I train at my local studio.
With the ever-increasing demand for versatile training, it’s hard to get the necessary depth and variety of study at home, which is why moving away to attend a conservatory or company school is so appealing. They provide extensive classes in partnering, contemporary, character and pointe, as well as performance experience. Students dance alongside their more advanced peers, and have exposure to artistic directors and choreographers.


But at auditions, it’s not the name of your school that wins you the contract. “The bottom line is, we pick the dancers that we think are the best dancers,” says Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. “It doesn’t matter if you trained in Timbuktu.” Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater agrees: “I see kids that have been to some top schools, and something is missing from their training. Then I see kids with beautiful training, and I’ve never heard of their school.”

That said, dancers who study locally must be brutally honest about the quality and versatility of their training. Perhaps there aren’t boys to partner with, or few opportunities to learn different styles and genres. It’s up to you to supplement your training by seeking out classes, workshops and summer programs to complete a well-rounded dance education. Start by finding the best technical training in your area. (For some, this may mean taking classes at more than one studio.) Wheater recommends researching examples of school syllabi online and modeling your own training after one or two that align with your goals.

And don’t forget to embrace the benefits of your home studio. For Ogden, this meant more stage time than some of her peers at boarding schools received. For Ballet San Jose dancer Nicole Larson, who trained locally at the Naples Dance Conservatory, the biggest benefit was the one-on-one attention she received.
    
2. I go to a regular high school.

Many pre-professional dancers forgo traditional high school in favor of online study. The impetus here is legitimate: Online school is flexible, often free and takes less time in the day than regular high school, leaving more time for pre-professional training. But it also means giving up that traditional high school experience.

The decision here doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Ogden, for instance, attended a normal high school, but she made a special arrangement to receive credit for her dance training. She left school early before the last class period, arriving at her studio in time for an extra technique class. “I did a few ballet projects to receive those credits for art or P.E.,” she says.

Larson also attended a full-time high school and enjoyed having a life outside of ballet. She and Ogden agree that having non-dance friends is one of the benefits, though it’s hard to find time to socialize when you’re headed to rehearsal. “When your friends want to go to a football game or the movies and you have ballet—that was difficult,” says Larson. “I really tried to stay focused, because I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.”

3. I don’t compete.
Ballet competitions can be a controversial topic, but when approached the right way, they can be beneficial. Beyond the exposure and potential for resumé-boosting medals and scholarships, they allow students to learn how to perform under pressure, build confidence onstage and receive individualized feedback.


If you don’t have the means to participate in high-profile competitions, and you have a strong desire to do so, Wheater recommends setting up a student showcase at your home studio, where each student will perform variations for a panel of teachers who write personalized feedback. “Even if you don’t have the resources to compete, you can still have an evaluation system where you’re able to be really objective throughout the year on what you need to work on,” he says. Shelly Power, academy director at Houston Ballet Academy, also recommends attending nearby competitions as an audience member to learn more about the talent in your area and how you fit in. To gain experience outside of your comfort zone, make a regular practice of going to master classes in neighboring towns.

4. I don’t have a private coach.

Personalized feedback is vital to any aspiring dancer, but this doesn’t necessarily require hiring a private coach, which is often expensive. For Larson, her classes were small already, and she was even able to schedule individual sessions right at her home studio. At large schools, on the other hand, formally scheduled private lessons may be hugely beneficial.

If you’re looking for more individualized feedback but don’t have the funds for weekly private lessons with a star teacher, Morgan recommends contacting the company manager of your local professional ballet company. One of the company dancers may be willing to coach you and teach you repertoire for a reduced rate, especially during the off-season.

Gaining Exposure
At auditions, the big advantage your competitors have is exposure—so as you train, and especially during your last year, it’s up to you to be seen by everyone you can. Summer intensives are one of the best ways to meet teachers, choreographers and directors. Many offer scholarships and need-based financial aid. For Larson, her first professional opportunity came through a summer intensive with Milwaukee Ballet; at the program’s end, she was invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II. “That was what got my foot in the door,” she says.


Morgan notes that less exposed dancers should focus on building relationships. “It’s good to see someone multiple times,” she says of those who attend summer intensives and company auditions more than once. Directors may feel more comfortable offering a contract to someone if they gain an idea of the dancer’s consistency and personality.

Now’s the time to make your connections work for you—and you might be better connected than you realize. “There’s the saying, ‘six degrees of separation.’ Well, in the ballet world it’s probably two,” says Morgan. “Your teacher probably knows somebody who knows somebody.” For instance, during Ogden’s senior year, her teacher, a former professional dancer, recommended her to NBoC, and she was invited to audition. At 17, fresh out of her home studio, her career began. “I was less exposed, for sure,” says Ogden. “But I had a lot of support.”

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Pointe Stars

When she was a teenager, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Seia Rassenti’s training was about as classical as it could get. A full-time bunhead at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she was determined to get a solid technical foundation. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to dance contemporary.  

Nearly every summer, Rassenti would attend a contemporary ballet program, like Complexions, The Ailey School or Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. “That was my outlet,” she says. “Each program had a different atmosphere, and I met some really cool people who had interests outside of ballet.” Then at summer’s end, she would faithfully return to the classical world and get back to “work.” For Rassenti, her classical training was her means to an end. And it paid off: She earned a contract with Charlotte Ballet’s second company (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre 2), known for its diverse and innovative repertoire.

The road to a contemporary ballet career isn’t a clear-cut path. And while strong classical technique is vital, nothing sticks out more than a bunhead in pink tights at a contemporary audition. That’s because traditional ballet training does not typically prepare dancers for the contemporary genre’s emphasis on collaborating, questioning, improvising and baring your soul even when it doesn’t feel pretty. So if a ballet dancer knows that this is the world she was made for, what can she do to prepare?

Branch Out
A classical foundation is essential for contemporary ballet companies, especially those that work on pointe. But classically trained dancers face a specific set of challenges: They have to learn to isolate each body part, pick up detailed choreography quickly and embrace being off-center. “You have to learn to trust your classical technique, to let go of it,” says Rassenti.


“I find that a lot of classically trained dancers lose their natural instincts,” says Josie Walsh, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet School’s Contemporary Ballet Intensive in San Francisco and founder of Ballet RED. “They’re trying to be this classical ideal, and they get very separate from something more organic.”

Walsh recommends supplementing your training with a variety of classes, like modern, jazz and even hip hop to practice freer styles of movement and learn how to pick up small details quickly. Dawn Fay, producing director of Wonderbound in Denver, Colorado, also recommends hip hop, explaining its benefits on a basic anatomical level: Whereas classical ballet tends to be smoother and utilizes “slow twitch” muscle fibers, hip hop involves sudden movements, which require finely tuned “quick twitch” muscle fibers.

Christine Cox, artistic and executive director of BalletX in Philadelphia, also recommends recreational classes like Zumba, or if you’re old enough, going to a dance club to find your innate rhythm and let go of trying to fit a mold. “It’s really important that dancers can move every part of their bodies in a new and different way,” she says.

A New Mindset
Contemporary teachers often talk about finding “honesty” in choreography. But what does that mean? At its most basic, “honesty” refers to embracing (and revealing) your unprotected, vulnerable humanity, as well as letting your own voice shine through the choreography. “A lot of contemporary choreographers look to their dancers for ideas and want them to be a part of the process,” says Cox.


But first, you must find your voice. Improvisation classes are one of the best ways to prepare. “It’s a craft,” says Walsh. “It’s something that you have to do every day and get used to.” Any style of improvisation is beneficial, but Karah Abiog, program director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, notes that Gaga is currently one of the most popular styles used for exploration.

It’s also important to gain experience with the creation process to practice adapting to different choreographers’ styles and learn how to pick up new material quickly. For Walsh, this is one of the most important qualities a dancer can possess: “When I’m choreographing, I would rather work with a dancer who is less talented but who can remember my choreography, than a more talented dancer who can’t remember, so that I can keep moving quickly and follow through the line of inspiration.”

Finding Balance
It might seem like aspiring contemporary dancers have to work double duty, logging both classical and exploratory training hours each week. “It doesn’t necessarily mean doubling your hours,” says Abiog. “It’s doubling your conscious way of working, your mindset.”


To do this, Cox suggests finding a training equation that works for you, and keeping it consistent. For instance, devoting 75 percent of your week to ballet, and 25 percent to other styles such as jazz, modern technique or improvisation.

Regardless, Cox recommends connecting with your classical base every day. Fay, Abiog and Walsh agree: While thorough classical training might not be required in all contemporary dance, impeccable classical technique is non-negotiable to join a contemporary ballet company. Cleanliness and purity of line are difficult to instill in the body otherwise.

Strategizing Your Career
Because “contemporary dance” is such a broad term, the first step towards approaching a career is to identify choreographers that you admire. Begin by researching online and going to performances, then by attending workshops, intensives or master classes hosted by your favorite companies and choreographers. Because they’re all so different, it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you make a commitment.


Networking is key. Contemporary companies tend to be small, with dancers participating in the creation process, so most directors want to get to know you on a personal level before offering a contract. When Walsh needs a new dancer quickly, for instance, the last thing she wants to do is organize a large audition. “I’ll think, I really like that girl who came to my program in San Francisco,” she says. “Taking you into a company is like taking you into a family. You’re with these people every day.”

Most importantly, think about your career goals: For example, would you prefer a repertoire that offers both classical and contemporary works, or one that’s strictly contemporary? Do you want to work with one choreographer or many? Would you prefer a company that works on pointe, or are you comfortable dancing mostly in socks?

For Rassenti, the mixed repertoire at Charlotte Ballet was a comfortable transition. But by the time she joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she was ready to jump into contemporary full-time—and she hasn’t looked back. “In this company, we create a lot of new works,” she says. “I know that there is a part of my soul in every piece.”
 

 

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Training

Ever dreamed of dancing your way through Europe? Of discovering new companies and wandering the streets of historic cities? For Kelsey Coventry, an American dancer with Leipziger Ballett in Leipzig, Germany, moving abroad was the perfect next step. “I thought that I would try to spread my wings a little further,” she says.

Europe also comes with another lure: lengthy, stable contracts with good benefits. “Since I work for an opera house here, and we’re government funded, I’m considered a government employee,” says Coventry. “We’re paid 13 months out of the year, with a 2-month vacation. It’s a pretty good deal.”
But before you get the job, you need to audition. If you’ve never traveled abroad, planning a European audition tour can seem daunting.  But with advance planning and the right blend of organization and flexibility, it can be an easier and more affordable experience than you think.

Research, Research, Research

As early as possible, reach out to dance friends abroad and poke around the websites of European companies you admire. Look for repertoire that suits you and cities that intrigue you. When Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree planned the audition tour that landed her a spot at the Royal Danish Ballet a few years ago, she used major cities that were easily accessible from the U.S. as a starting point.


Jessica Teague, a soloist at Royal Ballet of Flanders, also recommends looking into companies you’ve never heard of. “Add in at least one company that is just purely out of curiosity,” she says. “I’ve discovered some really cool companies that way.” To tap into the European dance scene, Dance Europe will be one of your best resources. It’s a print magazine that’s available in some major U.S. cities, but its website also includes company and audition directories.
Pay special attention to whether the company hires foreign dancers by looking at company bios or the audition page, especially with smaller troupes. In some cases, filing for visas costs companies time and money, so you want to make sure they’re up for it.
    
Reach Out to Companies
When you’re researching company auditions, Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, recommends finding out what kind of dancer the director is looking for, too. Start by asking contacts that you have in the company, but also ask a company manager when you’re scheduling the audition. “Are they looking for small girls right now? Or tall boys?” says Hübbe. “People say if dancers want it enough, they can go to the company and knock down the door. Yes, that shows a certain passion and courage. But if a director is looking for 5' 5" instead of 5' 10", that’s the reality.”



Even if there’s an open audition scheduled, ask whether the company will allow you to take class as a private audition instead. Unlike at large open auditions, “you know that the director will be able to see you and measure you up against their own company,” says Coventry. “And you can see how you fit in from your own perspective, too.”

To request a private audition, look on the company’s website for the appropriate contact (often the company manager or artistic director’s assistant). Then, e-mail an inquiry that includes your resumé (with your citizenship right at the top, highlighting any dual citizenship), photos and dance reel. Elsbree recommends sending hard copies, as well. Follow up in a few weeks to make sure they’ve received your materials.

Plan Your Trip  
Planning your audition tour is like putting together a puzzle. Teague, Elsbree and Coventry recommend setting aside approximately two weeks for a tour that targets five companies and a few possible backups. Your safest (and cheapest) bet is to book early with extra time padded in, just in case your itinerary changes.


Most companies look for new dancers between January and March (which happens to be a great time of year for flight deals), before the bulk of open auditions. But April or May could also be an advantageous time. “Later in the year directors know exactly who’s staying and who’s retiring, and sometimes things go a little bit faster,” says Teague.

Arranging auditions geographically is logical, but not always to your advantage, especially if companies have specific dates they’d like you to visit. When Coventry planned her tour, she started with her first-choice company, giving them the two-week time frame that she’d be in Europe and letting them suggest a date. Then, she e-mailed her second-choice company with a shorter time frame and so on.

Choosing transportation largely depends on the order of your auditions. Keep in mind that low-cost European airlines, such as easyJet and Ryanair, may often get you between cities much more quickly—and more cheaply—than trains. On the other hand, trains can be a relaxing way to see the countryside. Teague recommends asking about youth discounts and weekend fares when purchasing tickets.

Unless you’re staying with friends, you have three main accommodation options: a hostel, a bed and breakfast or a hotel. Hostels are dormitory-style and your most affordable option; European B&B’s are often less pricey than hotels. When choosing accommodations, stay within walking distance of the theater if possible. “The last thing you want on the morning of your audition is to get lost on public transportation,” says Teague. Elsbree adds, “You want to make everything as seamless and as convenient as possible, so that you can save your energy for the audition.”

Bring one book bag and one carry-on suitcase with wheels. That’s it. “If you can manage to do this trip without checking a bag, you will thank yourself,” says Elsbree. “If you’re moving from city to city, you can wear the same thing every other day, and no one will know,” adds Coventry. Pack plenty of pointe shoes, a leotard for each audition, a couple of outfits and your travel tickets.

Cultural Differences
The dance world is small and very international, so you’ll likely find fewer cultural differences inside the studio than outside it. “The parameters of ballet exist wherever you are—adagio is still adagio,” says Hübbe. “Speed is maybe an American ‘brand,’ but that will be incorporated into a well-rounded audition class.” Teague adds, “The chances that you’ll run into someone you know are very big. You’ll find contacts along the way.”


Of course, there will be cultural differences from one studio to the next, so keep these ground rules in mind: Always be your confident self, and err on the side of politeness. If taking company class, ask the dancers next to you before you take a place at the barre.

Whether you end up with a contract or not, a European audition tour is almost guaranteed to be a life-changing experience. “It is so perspective-shifting, just to expose yourself to other cultures and companies and cities,” says Elsbree. “To this day, my audition tour is still one of the highlights of my dance career.” 

 

Budgeting for Europe: Two weeks on $3,000 (or less)

Round-trip flight: $800–$1,200, depending on time of year

Accommodations: $20–$100 per night. You can almost always find a great, well-located hostel room for $20–$40 (per person).

Food: $20–$30 per day. Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree recommends trying street food in each city you visit. “It’s cheap and delicious,” she says. Plus, it’s a great way to experience local culture.

Travel within Europe: $30–$100 per ticket (book in advance for the best rates)

 

Indianapolis to Host New Ballet Competition
Most dancers dream about working up close and personal with ballet’s biggest stars. This summer, 180 pre-professional dancers (ages 11 to 21) will have the opportunity to do just that during the first annual Indianapolis International Ballet Competition. Hosted by Indianapolis City Ballet, the event, held June 11 to 14 on the campus of Butler University, offers competitors both master classes and one-on-one coaching sessions with Ángel Corella, Greta Hodgkinson, Yuan Yuan Tan, Susan Jaffe and Monique Loudière.

In addition, the judges (which include directors from American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, San Francisco Ballet School, the John Cranko Schule and Canada’s National Ballet School, among others) will evaluate both the dancers’ classwork and their performances for scholarships, contracts and cash prizes.

An independent jury will choose qualifying competitors based on a video submission of one classical variation, due January 23. “It’s wise for dancers to choose an age-appropriate variation—one they’re artistically and technically capable of handling—rather than choosing the most difficult,” says Jolinda Menendez, ICB’s performance and master class director. See indianapoliscityballet.org for more information.

 

Technique Tip
“Ballet is about being inspired by images and creating other images. One image that has helped me comes from my past director, William Whitener. He would tell us to ‘find the light’—meaning find where the stage lights reflect off the body. This has less to do with technique and more to do with performance quality. Thinking of where the light is reflecting affects what part of my body I’m choosing to highlight, accentuate or reveal—what glimmer in the eye I want to have captured. It’s literal, but also shows what’s coming out from the inside.” –Tempe Ostergren, Kansas City Ballet

Training

Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.

But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me ‘bull in a china shop’ because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn’t do it gracefully,” she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five.”

Button’s story is one example of how a school’s view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don’t compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.

Training for Competition

There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer’s training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It’s certainly not our prime focus,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process.”

Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show,” says Spassoff.

Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.

 

From comp kid to soloist: Boston Ballet's Dusty Button (photo by Liza Voll)

A No-Competition Policy

Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don’t need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don’t compete,” says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus.”

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn’t be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they’re truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there,” he says. “Then, you’re seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional.”

The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers’ training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.

 

SAB of the West (With a Twist)?

There’s a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life,” says Ringer. “We’re excited to expose them to that through LADP.” Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We’d like to have a similar model to SAB,” she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab

 

Technique Tip

“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don’t have to think about it.” —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet

Training

Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.

But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me ‘bull in a china shop’ because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn’t do it gracefully,” she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five.”

Button’s story is one example of how a school’s view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don’t compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.

Training for Competition
There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer’s training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It’s certainly not our prime focus,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process.”


Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show,” says Spassoff.
Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.


A No-Competition Policy

Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don’t need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don’t compete,” says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus.”

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn’t be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they’re truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there,” he says. “Then, you’re seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional.”

The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers’ training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.

 

SAB of the West (With a Twist)?
There’s a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life,” says Ringer. “We’re excited to expose them to that through LADP.” Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We’d like to have a similar model to SAB,” she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab

 

Technique Tip
“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don’t have to think about it.” —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet

Pointe Stars

Photography by Liza Voll

 

Attend any Boston Ballet performance and you’re almost guaranteed to see one of the Cirios onstage. Although the sibling principals, Lia, 27, and Jeffrey, 22, are rarely paired, they’re two of the company’s most in-demand dancers. Lia, striking and elegant, moves with power and finesse, while Jeffrey, who rose from first-year corps member to principal in just three years, imbues his roles with youthful virtuosity. Both dancers fit easily into Boston Ballet’s diverse repertoire, earning acclaim in works that range from Elo to Balanchine to Petipa. Offstage, they’re the hip kids of Boston’s dance scene, with their home-crafted fashions, quirky tattoos and artsy vibe. Lia recently enrolled in an undergraduate program at Northeastern University; Jeffrey has begun to choreograph in his spare time. They live a few blocks from each other, and often grab lunch or dinner together during the season. Last fall, Pointe followed the Cirios through a day of classes and rehearsals as the company transitioned from La Bayadère to The Nutcracker for its 43-show run.

Your Career

From the moment she gets her first company contract, every corps de ballet dancer dreams of moving up through the ranks. A lucky few are promoted quickly. But more often, corps members must work for many seasons before the title of “soloist” finally comes (if it ever does). While that wait can feel discouraging, it can also be a lesson in patience and tenacity—and in how to find  your own artistic opportunities. We asked three dancers who spent several years in the corps de ballet to share the breakthrough moments that finally resulted in their promotions, and the lessons that kept them going on their prolonged paths to the spotlight.

Kylee Kitchens
Joined Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2000; promoted to soloist in 2012
I was in the corps for 11 years. Some people might have given up on a promotion around year 10. I felt discouraged at times, but I knew I wanted to keep dancing. I had discussions with director Peter Boal about what I needed to work on. He recommended improving my overall strength, so I started exercising outside of class and going to yoga.

There was a time when I didn’t think I would ever be promoted, and I had to learn to be okay with that. I was getting solos and variations, so I could find moments onstage that were fulfilling for me. You have to come to a place of peace within yourself—if a promotion isn’t going to happen, dancing professionally is a huge opportunity in itself.

In 2008, we had a full-company audition for Ulysses Dove’s Vespers. The stager, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, saw something in me and chose me as one of the 11 cast members. The movement in the ballet is powerful, almost rough. Until then, I’d been seen as a classical, lyrical dancer. Realizing I could do this different style of movement gave me so much more confidence. And I think after Peter saw me do Vespers, he saw a different, more diverse dancer in me, too.


Alicia Fabry
Joined Carolina Ballet in 2006; promoted to soloist in 2010
My career has always been a slow process. I’m a very shy person, and I’ve struggled with confidence issues. You can’t change your personality in a year. Opening myself up took some time.

If I did have a breakthrough moment, it was in 2010, when I was cast as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. It was my first big solo part, and it was a good transition for me. I was comfortable in the role—it was technical, but not too technical. Things picked up from there: A couple months later, I was cast as Effie in La Sylphide, and at the beginning of the next season, I was promoted to soloist.

I’m a positive person, but I think we all get discouraged at some point in our careers. I was a late starter, not studying ballet seriously until I went to English National Ballet School at 18. (At that point, I couldn’t even do a double pirouette! I had a lot to catch up on.) I’ve had a few injuries that delayed me as well. You feel like you’re disappointing yourself and your director. But, you know, it’s life, and at some point, you have to get past it and say, I’m going to move forward. I wish I’d understood that sooner in my career.


Jordana Daumec

Joined The National Ballet of Canada in 2004; promoted to second soloist in 2010
During my second year in the corps, I understudied the role of the Bee in our Nutcracker. It’s a big jumping role, which I love, and I’d always wanted to do it—it felt so “me.” A couple of days before we closed, they decided to put me on. After that, I started getting more demi-soloist work and some solos in full-length ballets.

Performing those parts gave me the drive to push myself to improve. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a corps member capable of doing soloist work—I was actually capable of being a soloist. That was a matter of proving two things: that I was dependable and consistent, and that I had the technique to handle regular soloist casting. I knew I had to polish my port de bras and make sure my feet were clean, in particular. Once I refined those things, my promotion came.

I did have days where I thought, Oh, all I really want is to be a soloist. But then I’d ask myself: What’s more important, having the title, or doing the work? I think a lot of young dancers focus too much on the title. Everybody wants to make it to soloist and principal—I mean, that’s why we started dancing. But you can’t control whether they’re going to give you a soloist contract or not. All you can control is yourself. You just keep trucking ahead.























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