(Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)
In Balanchine's comedic Coppélia, San Francisco Ballet's Frances Chung brings out Swanilda's playful side.
All of Swanilda's actions come from a place of pure fun. She's kind of sassy, but I like bringing out her playfulness instead of taking a more bratty approach. The role comes quite naturally to my personality. When my partner and I are in the studio, we're very playful even though we're working hard and refining everything. I try to have a good time and I think that it translates onstage.
As Swanilda, my love for Franz is very youthful, like when you hit someone because you like him. I'm quite confident in myself and in our love, even though I see him blowing kisses at another girl (really a doll). I get mad for a second, but at the end of the day I know he's going to choose me. That's my underlying feeling. When I finally make the connection that she's a doll, I think it's hilarious!
From the outside, one might assume that the stars onstage are leaders offstage, too. It might be so, but life in a company is usually more complex. Opportunities to volunteer, teach or represent fellow colleagues allow dancers at any rank to develop important skills and make their voices heard. Others take the lead simply by lifting company morale or setting a good example in the studio. In fact, leadership takes many forms—and you don’t have to be a principal ballerina to be an influential company member whom others look up to. For these three dancers, stepping into leadership roles has given greater meaning and fulfillment to their careers.
Get Involved, Give Back
Miami City Ballet corps member Lexie Overholt is always looking for opportunities to get involved. “When I was on full scholarship at Miami City Ballet School, I realized I wanted to give back to the ballet because they gave so much to me,” she says. “Leadership is a natural calling for me, so I dive in whenever there are things I can do.”
Now in her fifth season with the company, Overholt volunteers in almost all parts of the organization. She participates in outreach projects and lecture demonstrations at community schools. She also serves on the Upper Room committee, a group that plans events for young patrons. Overholt even helped connect Miami City Ballet to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Now if there is a child in South Florida whose wish it is to be a ballet dancer, we get to share a day with them.”
As a testament to her leadership skills, Overholt was nominated this year to be one of three representatives for Miami City Ballet. “We serve as a liaison between dancers and administration during contract negotiations,” she explains, a job that requires her to navigate potential conflicts with management. “It helps us understand in greater depth the unique perspective of both sides.”
Terez Dean, a dancer with Smuin Ballet, makes a point to learn about all aspects of her company, especially on the administrative end. She attends development and marketing meetings when she can, and always volunteers to step into a focus group. “It’s important for dancers to give our input,” she says. “We can talk about how we see our company evolving, and how we want to show that to the public.” And in a business that’s reliant on outside support and donations, Dean makes a special effort to maintain good relationships with patrons and other community members. “You never know who you’re going to cross paths with in the future.”
For Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier, leading from the front of the studio gives her a special feeling of gratification. She will sometimes teach a master class to local students when the company is on tour. She also teaches for both the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the Aspirant Program (RWB’s pre-professional group in which students have the opportunity to dance in large company productions).
“Teaching is a different kind of fulfillment than I get from dancing because I have direct interaction with the students,” she says. “They take my advice to heart.”
Set the Standard
Sometimes leadership is not so much about what outside roles you take on, but about how you behave and treat your fellow dancers. “I take my job very seriously,” says Sundermeier, who tries to set a good example for all ranks of the company, not just the younger dancers. “I make sure I’m neat and show up to rehearsals on time. I conduct myself professionally in the studio and backstage at the theater, and I’m always listening.”
Lending an ear or a helping hand to dancers in need also boosts morale and creates a more welcoming atmosphere. Sundermeier makes a conscious effort to be approachable, especially when dancers come to her for advice about roles she’s done. “I talk to them about my experience, like my thoughts on musicality or how I felt.” When new dancers join MCB, Overholt has been known to help them with their taxes or even find an apartment. Dancing, she says, is just one aspect of her job. “It’s so important to be engaged and to know everyone,” she says. “It makes what I do all the more rewarding.”
When Dean suffered a serious injury a few years back, she still found ways to help out and feel connected. “I went into the studio almost every day when I wasn’t at physical therapy,” she remembers. “I felt it was my responsibility to be a motivator for my colleagues.” Dean watched rehearsals and performances, cheering for the dancers and being an open ear for their frustrations. “I was there every day to remind everyone how fortunate we are to work.”
Because of her leadership experience, Dean feels more well-rounded, and she thinks she will have an easier time transferring into another professional environment when the time comes. “I know that my passion for working with others will continue to flourish in my next career,” she says. “Being a leader in dance is being a leader in life.” P
Carefree and confident, New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck lights up the stage in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” one of the principal solos in Balanchine’s Who Cares? “It’s one of my favorites,” she says. “Every time I perform it, I feel like I’m doing it for the first time.” Choreographed for Patricia McBride in 1970, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” requires impeccable technique and serious musicality to show off George Gershwin’s jazzy rhythms. Here, Peck shares how she makes the solo such a showstopper.
“Musicality is number one,” says Peck. “It’s the driving force behind the whole variation.” She recommends finding moments of stillness to contrast faster movements. In the first section, Peck sustains her piqué coupé to plié, “because it makes the hitch-kick afterward seem that much more surprising.” Before the slow sultry section, she pauses before slinking into another pose. “You can be still in the midst of the crazy-fast solo and show another facet of your dancing.”
The “Switch Switch”
Dancers tend to have trouble sustaining their balance during the fast arabesque/à la seconde/arabesque body changes (aka the “switch switch”). To stay over her standing leg, Peck suggests hitting a good arabesque first. “If you cheat and flip right to second, you’re not going to do it.” She also relies on her focus. “When I go to second, I look at my leg and then back to front for the arabesque. Torquing the body helps and gives me something else to think about.”
Play with Syncopation
Peck performs the échappé section differently every time. While she doesn’t change the steps, she syncopates them in various ways. “I let the music inspire me to hold an échappé here, or a passé there. It’s whatever I want to do in the moment!” When she goes to hold a position, she commits to it. “That makes it more exciting for me.”
It’s easy to lose steam towards the end of the two-and-a-half-minute solo, so Peck tricks herself into believing it’s easier than it actually is. “Instead of thinking of it as one long variation, I imagine it as three sections: the opening, the slow part in the middle and the end. From the échappés on, you’re home free!”
To control the last diagonal of dizzying turns, focus less on your spot and more on the rhythm. “Keep in tempo with the four piqué walks and step-up double pencil. Find your position with the leg at 45 degrees and don’t let it waver,” Peck says, because sneaking into the turn will make it even harder. “If you really listen to the music, it will drive you home.”
Julie Kent looks back on her nearly 30-year career at American Ballet Theatre
Who was your biggest inspiration while growing up as a dancer?
My first experience in a professional environment was when I was a supernumerary in New York City Ballet’s Coppélia. Patricia McBride was so kind and gentle with all the children. That made a big impact on me. Balanchine was still alive, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell were dancing. They were the most exciting, exotic and wonderful creatures.
You joined ABT when you were just 16. What was the most valuable thing you learned during those early years?
I learned to learn. I studied all the great ballerinas at ABT to identify what made each of them so wonderful, and to see if there was any of that I could develop in myself. I could never balance like Cynthia Gregory—I realized that was beyond my capability. But I tried to understand how she did it and how she used that command of her physicality to enthrall people.
What would you say is the stamp of your dancing?
It’s hard to think about what’s so identifiable about my work because I’m wearing it from the inside out. But my mother will watch a performance and say to me, “I forgot you’re my daughter.” I try to bring to life the characters in a way that makes the persona of Julie Kent secondary.
Of your extensive repertoire, which ballet was the hardest to learn and perform?
Learning the third act of MacMillan’s Anastasia was really hard. I wrote it all down and just studied it. It takes place in an insane asylum, and you cannot see the stage from the wings. There were no cues. Once you started, you were on your own. That was a wonderful artistic learning experience, and it really changed things for me.
How has motherhood influenced your dancing?
It’s made me stronger physically and emotionally. I was able to go into the studio after the birth of my children and accomplish more in less time. I had a much clearer idea of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I’ve been dancing 11 years as a mother. It’s been something that’s added to my life as a dancer.
Why did you choose to make ABT your home for almost 30 years?
It was the people, especially my husband, associate artistic director Victor Barbee, who were so nurturing and gave me support and encouragement. Of course everybody struggles and goes through an enormous amount of stress, doubt and agony. That’s the life of an artist. But it’s the people who help you get through it that make it all worthwhile. And for me, those people were at ABT.
What advice do you have for aspiring professionals?
Take pride in what you are accomplishing, regardless of where it takes you. We all have different capabilities, but the intention is the same for anyone who takes first position at the barre. We stand up. Our pursuit is to improve ourselves.
Kitchens with Jerome Tisserand in "Afternoon of a Faun" (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
The woman’s role in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun is surprisingly hard. The plot seems straightforward enough: two dancers happen upon each other in a studio. But the character, created for Tanaquil Le Clercq in 1953, oozes sensuality, innocence and vanity while responding—through the mirror—to her partner’s gaze. Here, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kylee Kitchens offers insights into the “less is more” approach to Robbins’ choreography.
Find Your Focus
The stage is set like a studio, with a door upstage and barres lining the walls. “The most difficult part of the ballet is creating that fourth wall,” says Kitchens. “You have to look at the audience like you’re looking in the mirror.” She uses the real mirror in rehearsal to memorize where her focus needs to be, angling her head like she’s studying her own reflection, or that of her partner. “It has to be realistic. At the theater, we use an exit sign as a focal point so that we’re looking at exactly the same spot.”
Create Tension Through Stillness
Motionless moments emphasize the sexual tension between the two characters; wobbling can break the mood. For instance, after swooping down a diagonal, the woman stops her momentum mid-step at first sight of her partner. To secure this pedestrian pose, while making it look both natural and sharp, Kitchens turns her standing leg in for balance. “Later, when I flip onto his shoulder, I get my arms up and just hold myself,” she says. Once at the top of the lift, she resists the urge to fidget as her partner lowers her down.
Robbins’ style is natural and understated, with much of the acting built into the choreography. “It’s more about your body language, how you angle your shoulders and your head,” says Kitchens. “I try to let my eyes read without being overly dramatic with my face.” The character is inquisitive and self-absorbed, but the movements are simple and clear. Try not to add mannerisms or overdo the subtle details. “The choreography will speak for itself.”
Relate to Your Partner
Upon seeing the man, the woman is aloof yet flirtatious. “It’s like those teenage years that are so raw and innocent, and there’s a bubbling of sexuality,” says Kitchens, who remembers feeling the boy’s hands on her waist during her first partnering class. “You pretend you don’t care.” The tension builds until the end of the pas de deux, when the man kisses her cheek. “You’re watching yourself in the mirror, watching it happen,” says Kitchens. “You decide to leave before it gets to be too much.”
Use Breath for Effect
Afternoon of a Faun is not a stamina piece. “I never feel out of breath,” says Kitchens. Instead, she uses her breath to show visceral responses at key moments. When her partner touches her waist for the first time, Kitchens gasps before stepping away. Later she takes a deep inhale before leaning into a luscious backbend, her partner gently caressing her hair. And before the final kiss, she holds her breath in anticipation. “I don’t want the audience to see my stomach going in and out.”
Auditions are an unnerving fact of life for dancers—and can be especially unsettling when they’re done in the comfort of your own company. When visiting choreographers and répétiteurs come to town, they prefer to have a day or two to work with the company before making their casting decisions. The good news is that when someone from the outside is casting roles, dancers often end up on the same playing field regardless of rank, with an equal shot at getting noticed. And if you make the most of the audition, your career can get a major boost. Here are some tips for putting your best self forward.
Before the Big Day
Prior to visiting, a choreographer will probably do some homework by watching videos of the company and getting a feel for the dancers ahead of time. Trey McIntyre, director of the Trey McIntyre Project, starts by talking to the director and rehearsal assistants first. “I do my best to explain what I’m trying to achieve with the piece and get suggestions in terms of who they think might fulfill those roles the best,” he says. If you have a reputation for being focused, versatile and a fast learner, you’ll be at the top of the list.
You can gain a competitive edge if you do a little research of your own. “The more prepared you are, the more you can adjust to what the choreographer might want,” says Dance Theatre of Harlem member Ashley Jackson. Before someone comes to set a piece, Jackson looks up the choreographer’s biography online, watches examples of their work on YouTube and reads recent reviews to get a sense of what to expect. For added insight, she tries to talk to friends who have already worked with the choreographer. “You could learn that the person prefers dancers to be more internal, with less showmanship,” she says. Knowing that can help you adjust your projection accordingly.
While you don’t need to stand front and center to get noticed, where you are in the studio—and what you’re doing—says a lot. “It’s important to find at least a couple moments when you’re forward and present,” says choreographer Julia Adam, who has created work for companies like San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. “Hiding in the back can look like you’re disinterested.” Jackson prefers standing in the front but off to the side so she doesn’t have the pressure of being on center. She also tries to make eye contact with the choreographer to make a connection and convey her interest.
McIntyre will hesitate to work with dancers if it looks like they’re afraid to expose themselves artistically. “If someone’s using anything to hide, whether it’s where they stand in class or if they continually make a joke of their mistake instead of focusing on how to fix it,” he says, “I’ll take pause.” McIntyre and Adam also warn against wearing too much junk. “I don’t mind funky style,” says Adam, “but you absolutely have to be able to see the body. That’s also showing an openness and vulnerability, rather than hiding.”
Have a Focused and Open Mind
Choreographers might value different things when it comes to movement quality or aesthetics, but they appreciate a strong work ethic and positive approach. “I look for people who are extremely focused in the studio, who want to take chances creatively and devote themselves to the process,” says McIntyre. “They should do everything they can to describe the kind of person they are in rehearsal and what I can expect them to be like.”
When auditioning for a new ballet, Jackson realizes that her ability to absorb details is being scrutinized as much as her dancing. “I listen to other people’s corrections and avoid talking in the back of the room,” she says. “When other groups are going through combinations, I go with them or work on the side by myself.” More than once, Jackson got into a piece because the choreographer saw her reviewing material in the corner. She’s also made an impression by learning other people’s choreography, even the men’s steps. “If you have to do a version of it later, you already know it,” she says.
If the choreographer teaches material as part of the audition process, it’s important to be adaptable. “You have to be open to what the choreographer wants to create,” says Jackson. “Sometimes it feels weird, or you’re not sure about a step, but the trust needs to be there.”
Adam concurs. When she’s unfamiliar with dancers, she tries to make the most honest connections as quickly as possible. “I try to get a sense of not only how they move but who they are as people,” she says. Adam looks at the dancers’ musicality and whether or not they take direction well. “I can’t reinforce enough the importance of being open,” she says. “Show who you are in your body and in your mind, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Then you’ll be put in the right place.”
During my years as a principal with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, it made me cringe if new corps members pulled out their phones to text or tweet. It felt unprofessional in the middle of class, but it was especially disrespectful during rehearsal, even if they weren’t involved in the scene being danced.
Something like checking your phone in the studio may not seem like a big deal, but small mistakes like these add up. If you’re not careful, you could offend other dancers, or worse, send the wrong message to the artistic staff. The transition from star student to new corps member can be difficult to navigate, but don’t start off your first year with an unprofessional impression. Even little things could jeopardize your success.
Mistake 1: Disrespecting Other Dancers
Showing respect for older and higher-ranking dancers begins the minute you walk into the studio. It’s important to give others their space. Skylar Campbell, a second soloist with the National Ballet of Canada, suggests arriving early on your first day and asking a friend, or a friendly-looking colleague, to point out any unclaimed barre spots. Once you get to the center, allow older company members to dance first and wait until the last group to go across the floor.
These unwritten rules don’t mean you can never interact with dancers above your rank. But Campbell says it’s best to feel out the situation and allow them to acknowledge you first. “When older dancers put the hierarchy out of the picture, there’s no problem with being friendly,” he says. It’s okay to go to them for advice, especially when you’re cast, partnering or sharing a role with them. Timing is important, though: Wait for a break or until rehearsal is over to ask for a little guidance. Most dancers will be flattered and more than willing to help, says Campbell. “Don’t let intimidation prevent you from asking questions.”
Mistake 2: Throwing Away Small Roles
Most dancers dread the classic peasant corps roles where they’re stuck in the back of a village scene holding a flower basket. These parts may seem unimportant, but there isn’t a moment when you’re not being watched by the audience, critics or artistic staff. It’s a chance for young dancers to prove their professionalism and artistic maturity. “We all have to put our time in and do some roles that we don’t exactly dream of doing,” says Miami City Ballet soloist Jennifer Lauren. “Give it 100 percent and people will notice.”
Spend as much thought preparing for your role as you would a principal part. Make up a name, background and storyline for your character. Are you on your way to the market to buy apples? Are you going to visit a friend? Invest yourself fully in the part without overacting and distracting from the scene. Know exactly where the audience’s attention should be focused at all times and think of your dancing in terms of the principal’s movement dynamics: If Giselle is having a quiet moment, yours should be even quieter.
Mistake 3: Not Presenting Your Best Self—All Year Long
New company dancers often start the year with a professional look and demeanor. But as the season grinds on and the schedule becomes more grueling, it can be easy to slack on presentation. You don’t have to wear pink tights every day, but dress in a way that flatters your line and reflects thoughtful preparation. Use common sense: If you’re doing a lot of partnering, avoid baggy clothes. If you’re rehearsing Act II of Swan Lake, leave the bell-bottomed legwarmers in your bag.
Making a lasting impression isn’t just about your appearance; it’s also about your mental preparation. For instance, you should take a peek at videos of a work being set—or if it’s a new creation, other works by the choreographer—before rehearsal starts. If you don’t walk into the studio with some background, you’re already behind. Quick learners often get thrown into new roles over those who fumble the steps.
Mistake 4: Slacking Off in Company Class
The way you present yourself in company class sends a strong message about your long-term professionalism and work ethic. Don’t look at class as solely a time to prepare for rehearsal; see it as an opportunity to show your technique and desire to grow. Arrive early to warm up, watch closely as others dance and examine your technical and artistic weaknesses. “It plays a big part in getting noticed,” says Campbell, who adds that young dancers are often frustrated by the lack of attention they get in company class versus feedback they received while training. “A lot of dancers get lost because they don’t rely on self-motivation to further their career.” A mature attitude signals to directors that you’re ready to take on more work, says Lauren. “You can go months without anything being said to you, no compliments or corrections. But they’re always watching.”
Beware of Social Media
It’s tempting to share everything about your new dance job with the social media world. But unless the company has specifically asked you to take pictures, tweet or post status updates, talking about work online can cause tension with your coworkers and directors—or it could get you fired. Many companies, like New York City Ballet, have adopted social media policies that prevent dancers from sharing the health of their colleagues or posting pictures of company events without permission. When in doubt, follow the guidelines your company has set.