Ballet excels at defying gravity. Lightness, ethereality, wispiness, symmetry, lineal order, chivalry and blissful endings to well-worn tales bestow on ballet a reputation as an art form that embraces divine beauty and design. But themes of grief, trauma, death, war, annihilation, exploitation, abuse, oppression and genocide do not frequently skim the surface sur la pointe. Bearing weighty burdens has traditionally found a place in the realm of modern dance in works such as Martha Graham's Lamentation, or Paul Taylor's image of Armageddon in Last Look.
But beyond shimmering tutus and pristine arabesques, there are other reasons why heavy issues seldom appear on the ballet stage. Taking on a serious subject requires a serious treatment. A ballet about terrorism could easily trivialize the subject through melodrama or prettification. Classical vocabulary was born from noble demeanor in the royal courts; in the wrong hands, it can seem limited in registering the mood of a sordid subject or for expressing disturbing behavior. Add to that the industry's marketing directors and board members, tempted towards steering directors and choreographers away from challenging ballets for fear of poor ticket sales.
New York Theatre Ballet performs "Dark Elegies." Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy New York Theatre Ballet.
As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.
Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.
As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers,” says Durham. “Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances.” But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. “It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it’s such an intense program,” he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.
Men’s ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l’air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.
Why the Need?
To work professionally, young men have to demonstrate a full range of technical skills, especially in jumping and turning and through a firm grasp of styles and partnering. “Today, boys are expected to be much more flexible and physically fit than they were 20 years ago,” says Peter Stark, who joined the Boston Ballet School faculty in 2015 to shape a comprehensive men’s program, in which 72 percent of students are on scholarship. Simon Ball, who directs the men’s program at CPYB, agrees. “You’re not exceptional if you can do a double tour from fifth to fifth,” he says. “That’s the bare minimum.”
For smaller schools and companies, initiating a men’s ballet program also helps to recruit boys and educate communities. Nick Mullikin, the director of the School of Nashville Ballet, saw a shortage of boys in his school, mostly due to the stigma of young men studying ballet. In response, he launched a young men’s scholarship program last August that currently serves 40 male students, ages 6 to 18. Boys receive a year of free training; subsequent scholarships are merit-based. “Coed classes sometimes put boys in a ratio of 20 to 1,” says Mullikin. “It’s great when there are other boys in class; it helps to build a sense of teamwork. It’s important for young men to have that kind of support.”
In addition, getting proper training during the early teen years is crucial. “At the onset of puberty, which is when girls are going on pointe—that’s when it’s nice to separate the boys out,” says Stark, so that both groups have time to pursue specialized training. In his experience, Ball has seen that boys can succeed in their teens, but acknowledges that the path is generally easier at a younger age to ingrain the focus, discipline and muscle memory.
Men’s programs, often led by male teachers with professional experience, offer more specialized training. Even barre exercises often need to be adapted. “I think it’s really essential for men to get down into the floor for their preparations and jumps,” says Ball, who emphasizes the full value of the plié and the push required to spring off the floor in his classes. He also frequently gives combinations that move side to side to help students feel their backs and coordinate their jumps, rather than move in pieces.
Partnering proficiency doesn’t manifest magically, so constant practice through weekly adagio classes is necessary to prepare men to work professionally. Many programs also implement cross-training to develop upper-body strength and stamina. CPYB two-year male scholarship boys go to a gym twice a week to work with a trainer for core and upper-body strength, while Nashville Ballet and Boston Ballet schools work exercises into class. “We do a lot of gym exercises—planks, push-ups and sit-ups, stretching, and running up and down stairs,” says Stark. “Some boys are tighter but stronger, and some are super-flexible but not as strong,” so a mindful approach to each student is crucial.
For a student whose only experience is his hometown school, entering into a new arena of competition can be challenging. Yet most find being in a class of other boys a positive, and it helps diminish the myth that ballet is only for girls. “The teachers encourage you to compare yourself to other dancers in a healthy way: If this person can do it, there’s no reason you can’t do it,” says Durham. “Being around a group of guys working toward the same thing gives you confidence and is very motivating.”
Another unexpected benefit: The discipline, concentration and focus often expand beyond the walls of the studio. “When the boys get together multiple times a week, you see technical improvement, but we‘ve also seen the changes in their behavior,” says Mullikin. “We‘ve heard from parents that their academic performance in school is better.”
Ball recalls that as a young dancer, he trained with “a handful of men, none my own age.” Now, he says, “I walk into the studio and I continually have to pinch myself because there are 20 to 30 men in the room. I’m so happy with the way things have progressed.”
Are You the Only Guy in Your Class?
If you don’t have access to a men’s program, there are things you can do to progress in your hometown studio:
- Study videos that show excellent male dancing in performances, classes and rehearsals. “As a kid I had three videos: Baryshnikov’s Don Q and Nutcracker, and New York City Ballet’s The Magic Flute with Ib Andersen,” says Simon Ball, director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s men’s program and a former principal with Houston Ballet. “I watched them over and over again.”
- In your early teens, begin an upper-body strengthening routine, preferably with the help of a professional. Back injuries among young male dancers are common. Core work can begin earlier.
- Request that your instructor address the differences in men’s and women’s technique, such as male-specific jumps and turns and adjusting tempos during allégro combinations, in class.
- Ask your local studio to host a guest male instructor who has a background in men’s training.
- Try to see male dancers in live ballet performances as often as possible. “Anything you can do to see male dancers perform keeps you motivated and gives you something to work towards,” says CPYB student Adrian Durham.
Penché: So simple, yet so tough. Here, San Francisco Ballet School faculty member Tina LeBlanc offers her tips for a beautifully supported penché.
Think three-dimensionally: “A penché is not just front and back, or down and up,” says Tina LeBlanc. “You’re wrapping the supporting leg, you’re pulling up the tummy, the back is reaching up, the toe is reaching up—you’re expanding in all different directions.”
Eyes up: For LeBlanc, a tell-tale sign that students will lose their balance in penché is when they drop their eyes. “Your sight is a dominant sense,” says LeBlanc. “When you look down, your sight takes over and you’re not necessarily feeling the shape.” Instead, focus out and over the hand.
The back/foot connection: As you penché, feel the arabesque foot pushing upward as you resist with your back. “Then, as you come back up, your foot is going to resist as your back initiates, all while staying forward in the ball of the foot.”
Keep square: LeBlanc feels a more squared-off penché yields better results. “If you let your working side open too much, it’s like being on a high wire.” Pull back on your supporting shoulder to help square off.
Feeling crunchy? To help free up the working side of your back in arabesque, imagine that your leg is coming out of your spine. “If you can create space in your lower back,” says LeBlanc, “it’s a little easier to keep that working leg turned out and lifted because you’re not dealing with flesh or the ribs.”
Tip: Think “up” to go down. As a dancer, LeBlanc used to imagine a giant ribbon tied around her hips, suspended from above. “The image helped keep my pelvis supported, and I could lean over it. It gives that sense of ‘up’ as you’re going down.” In addition, “feel your back reaching for the ceiling as you go forward.”
After scouting for a ballet company to feature in the melodramatic reality show “Breaking Pointe," the producers made a U-turn back to Adam Sklute, the CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “They said, In our screen tests, your company is the most photogenic. They have really interesting stories and we'd love to have them on camera," recalls Sklute. The show, which focused on Ballet West's backstage drama and intramural romance, premiered in 2012, ran for two seasons and brought fame to dancers like Beckanne Sisk and Allison DeBona. “Some of our dancers could be supermodels. They are as tall and as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains that we look at," says Sklute. “I want a company of tall, beautiful dancers who produce a glamorous stage picture." Still, there's far more than glitz and good looks at this midsized company.
When Sklute took the reins of Ballet West in 2007, he became the fifth director of the company founded by Willam F. Christensen in 1963. “I feel very connected to the backbone of the classics and the works of Balanchine," says Sklute, referring to the bulk of Ballet West's early repertoire. “But I also want to expand that into the future. My dancers are 21st-century dancers."
City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."
New York City Ballet principal dancer Lauren Lovette, a prolific user of
Instagram, discovered she had an eager following of aspiring ballerinas while guest teaching at Manhattan Youth Ballet and other summer intensives. “They would come up to me and say, 'I follow you,' " she says. “I realized early on the kind of influence I have on younger girls. Now I like to cater my Instagram that way."
Almost by accident, Lovette had built a "brand"—a successful ballerina whose lively photos, sparkling personality and keen fashion sense speak directly to a target audience. While "dancer as brand" may sound strange or distasteful, it has permeated the ballet world: Think of how American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has built her empire through social media, a shrewd publicist, television appearances, film and touring with rock star Prince. Now, more dancers are finding ways to market themselves by finding and promoting their unique qualities.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Alessandra Ferri, the iconic dance actress, has emerged, at age 52, from a six-year retirement into an astonishing post-career. After successes with projects like Martha Clarke’s Chéri and the critically praised Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet, Ferri has been tapped by Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier as the muse for his Duse—Myth and Mysticism of the Italian Actress Eleonora Duse. As an actress at the turn of the 20th century, Duse’s performances were both highly popular and critically acclaimed, and she was lauded by writers like Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw. The ballet, set to music by Benjamin Britten and Arvo Pärt, will premiere on December 6.
Alessandra Ferri in rehearsal for Duse with Hamburg Ballet principal Alexandr Trusch (photo by Holger Badekow, courtesy Hamburg Ballet)
Why did you return to performing?
I realized a part of me was switched off. I love creating and dancing and performing with other artists. I feel very much alive when I do that. The first thing I did—The Piano Upstairs—was a fascinating collaboration with John Weidman. Then Martha Clarke came along (with Chéri). It all happened without me looking for it. Now I’m more conscious of my desire for doing it. At the moment I feel free and much more appreciative of the talent I was given.
What does John Neumeier wish to explore with you in Duse?
I think John has always been very passionate about theater and acting. Eleonora Duse was the first modern actor. She completely changed the art form. She was a very complex, strong and vulnerable woman and very devoted to her art. It’s funny—when I’m talking about her, I’m saying the same things about myself. She felt alive when she was onstage.
What is it like to portray a real-life character?
It’s so hard in dance to just be biographical because dance is the language of emotion. Duse starts out at the end of her life. John is interested in exploring the different woman she was with all these men in her life, like the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. She really wanted to help and console people. She suffered a lot in her life and was very sensitive to suffering.
Did you make any special preparations for the role?
I visited two museums—one in Venice and one in Asola—which house some of Duse’s original letters and clothes. I also read the book Il Fuoco by D’Annunzio, which describes her life.