Sarasota Ballet artistic director Iain Webb approached Tony Dyson—owner of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations—about obtaining choreographic rights without knowing the historic 1968 ballet had only ever been performed by The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Fortunately, the request occurred during the May 2014 Sir Frederick Ashton Festival in Sarasota, at which Dyson watched Webb’s dancers perform 14 Ashton works. “I think it gave him the trust to give the ballet to us,” Webb says. “He knew we’d respect it.” Webb was, in fact, a protégé of Ashton’s, and Sarasota Ballet is noted as the preeminent American expositor of the choreographer’s work.
Thus the April 8 premiere of Enigma, staged by British dance notator Patricia Tierney, was the first time an American company performed the work, set to a score by Edward Elgar.
On a flight home from a teaching stint in California last summer, Miami City Ballet corps member Rebecca King wrote a letter to her former self to post on her popular dance blog, Tendus Under a Palm Tree. Her hindsight advice to aspiring ballet students—no chit-chatting in class, implement corrections, study ballet videos—ended up going viral, eventually landing a page in Florida's World of Dance Magazine.
“Sometimes what takes off is a surprise," says King, 27, a native of Northern California who founded her blog in 2010. “It's made me realize how important social media can be for all businesses, especially in the way it can affect art."
King, who trained at Contra Costa Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet School before completing her senior year at The Rock School in Philadelphia, joined MCB as an apprentice in 2007, entering the company a year later. Tendus Under a Palm Tree began as a way to connect with audience members, “but I never thought it would turn into what it has become today," King says. She has earned a following with her thoughtful and well-researched “Musings," which range from commentary on dance in popular culture to profiles of ballets by her favorite choreographer, George Balanchine.
It was through promoting her blog via her own social media accounts—and the resulting requests from friends and acquaintances asking if she could help them do the same—that King decided to start her own company, Rebecca King Social Media Management, in 2012. Using her own self-taught successes as a guideline, she has since assisted more than half a dozen clients—including a ballet school, a choir and an accountant—in producing promotional videos and materials aimed at increasing their social media presence and traffic. In one case, she more than doubled the number of “likes" on a client's Facebook page, and tripled her Twitter followers. (As for King herself, at last count her blog had nearly 3,000 Facebook “likes" and over 3,100 Twitter followers.)
Her demanding performance schedule—and her long-distance marriage to an accountant who works a couple hours north of Miami—forced King to put the business “on a back burner" during the past year. But her blog continues to be a place to dig deeper into the ballets she performs. For example, cast as one of the three Fates in Balanchine's La Valse, she studied a poem that reportedly inspired the choreographer and wrote a post about the correlations to better understand her character.
“That got me extra interested in what I was dancing," she says. “It became a venue for me to enrich my career."
Her posts have also helped her clarify connections between Balanchine ballets, answer questions from audience members and even explore healthy recipes suitable for a dancer's busy lifestyle.
An ankle injury that cut her season short made King especially aware that, even if it's on hold for now, founding her company was “important for my future."
“As dancers, we all think about what comes next," says King, who hopes to fashion a career from teaching and writing when her stage days are done. “I felt that starting a little earlier would be a good career path."
Favorite social media platform: Twitter
Dream clients: Sara Mearns, Maria Kochetkova
Favorite ballet book: "George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker," by Robert Gottlieb
It’s the day after Christmas and Miami City Ballet’s dancers are taking class onstage in West Palm Beach, where, in a few hours, they will begin the last run of their Nutcracker season. Soloist Nathalia Arja throws herself into a final combination, leaping and turning with abandon in a display of strength and speed that defies the expectations set by her delicate and diminutive body. As she nears the end of the stage, she realizes she’s done the wrong step. But instead of slinking off in embarrassment, she throws an arched arm up in a dramatic pose, lifts her chin and flashes a triumphant smile, as if it’s what she’d intended to do all along.
That athleticism, energy and confidence have marked Arja’s dancing since she came to the U.S. from her native Brazil to study at the Miami City Ballet School at age 15. But it is the honing of those natural gifts under MCB’s artistic director Lourdes Lopez that has fostered a more mature poise and polish, earning her the most prominent roles of her still-blossoming career.
“She has always had a tremendous personality onstage, and this amazing jump and turn that wows people,” says Lopez, of Arja’s natural gift for bravura roles. “The question for me was, Can she do all that with the cleanliness and the line the art form requires—but without changing who she is? I think she’s done that. She’s had that breakthrough moment.”
Arja, 22, was promoted at the end of last season, after challenging but well-received lead performances in Ballo della Regina and Don Quixote. This year she has continued stretching her range, with principal roles in Paul Taylor’s Mercuric Tidings, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements and Justin Peck’s Heatscape.
The 5' 2" Arja has been groomed for the challenge nearly all her life—she’s the daughter of two dancers. Her mother, Alice Arja, owns one of the top studios in Rio de Janeiro and her father is director of Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, the country’s main ballet company.
But it wasn’t love at first sight. As a toddler, she told everyone she wanted to be an actress or a weather forecaster—definitely not a ballerina. It wasn’t until Alice Arja assured her 5-year-old daughter that she wouldn’t be forced into the art that Arja, whom Lopez calls “a strong-willed little filly who knows who she is,” embraced the calling.
“It was a huge release,” she says. “Eventually I gave in. It’s in the blood.”
Arja and Renan Cerdeiro, the son of a family friend, quickly became the featured students at the studio, dancing their first pas de deux at 6 and taking home honors on the local competition circuit. Alice Arja expected them to set an example, but when they were all of 8, the two marched into her office to complain: They didn’t want the responsibility. They wanted to be “normal kids.”
Her mother explained she was just preparing them for their chosen careers, which would be filled with discipline and difficulty. Arja soon accepted this as the status quo. “I got used to the pressure. It was always there and people were ready with expectations wherever we went.”
That preparation served her well when she and Cerdeiro were offered scholarships at MCB’s school after submitting videos in 2007. With two other students, they moved into a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Miami. The transition was not easy. They spoke no English, didn’t know how to cook, clean or open a bank account and were desperately homesick.
“We had to figure out everything for ourselves and it was very hard at first,” says Cerdeiro, now a principal with MCB, who was Arja’s roommate for several years. “The fact that we came together made it easier for both of us. We’re like brother and sister, then and now.” Adds Arja: “He was the reason I never called to go home.”
Arja also faced an abrupt change in training. Raised on Vaganova technique, everything about the Balanchine style seemed arduous—the speed, the repetition, the arm/leg coordination. She also had a few bad habits, such as forcing turnout through her feet, says Geta Constantinescu, a principal faculty member who worked with Arja when she first arrived.
“But those were quickly corrected,” says Constantinescu. “And from the beginning, she had this incredible aura, this quality that is hardest to maintain—the freshness that every day is a new day.”
Arja and Cerdeiro, who are still frequently paired onstage, were celebrated for the fluidity and assurance of their partnership, born of both familiarity and discipline. But they also stood out for their mindset, says Arja’s boyfriend, MCB corps member Ariel Rose.
“What sets them apart is not just their physical training, but their mental training,” observes Rose. “Dancers are often so focused on doing every step right. Those two have no fear. Nathalia has the ability to laugh at herself and to accept that making a mistake is part of being an artist. And not being afraid to make a mistake almost gives her the power not to make them.”
Seeing her ability and her toughness, then-director Edward Villella gave her performing opportunities with the company early on, even while she was still a student apprentice. In 2011, he promoted her, at 19, to the corps and began assigning her soloist roles.
“He was the one who said to me, ‘It’s all about the preparation and how you finish,’ ” Arja says. “He encouraged me to really move big.”
Villella’s abrupt departure in 2012 was traumatic; Arja, along with other MCB dancers, questioned her fate. But Lopez says Arja’s innate talent stood out instantly—as did the need for some “finishing touches” to her pointework, leg lines and foot presentation.
“She could do everything, but I realized there was a kind of refinement Nathalia needed,” Lopez says.
To challenge Arja to take her skills to the next level, Lopez cast her in roles that demanded both fierce technique and nuanced artistry, including the lead in Ballo, for which Arja was coached by originator Merrill Ashley. In moments of discouragement, Arja recalls silently thinking: “I don’t know if I can do this!”
She studiously applied Ashley’s corrections and took ownership of the role. Though reviews—which Arja never reads—were mixed, she says simply, “It went the way I wanted it to.” Still, when Lopez called her in after class one day to tell her she had been promoted to soloist, Arja was the only one surprised; everyone else had already assumed the move was imminent.
“I started crying and the first thing I said was ‘Are you sure?’ ” Arja recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. All that hard work, to have someone recognize that. It was the happiest day of my life.”
The dream she once voiced to Villella—“to become a principal with Miami City Ballet”—is still her ultimate goal. But Arja now dreams of branching into roles that test her ability to be soft and expressive, rather than just a powerhouse.
“I’d love to do something more lyrical, something slow,” she says. “I want to look different every time I’m onstage. I want to try always to move forward.”
Now, a challenge once intimidating has become enticing; a country once foreign is now more familiar than her own. For a few more years, she must make an annual trip to Brazil to renew her visa until she becomes eligible for a green card, but she doesn’t envision ever leaving the U.S.
“I love America,” says Arja. “This is my home now and Miami City Ballet is my family.”
Carrie Seidman, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the dance critic and a staff writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Florida.