Cory Stearns, American Ballet Theatre
Why partnering couldn’t start soon enough: I had a crush on this girl at my school. Did anything happen? [Laughs] No. I had no confidence, so I never told her. She probably knew.
Top mentors: My first partnering teacher, Dimitri Papadakos, was a former football player, never a dancer, and his advice was all about timing. Today, I go to Kevin McKenzie and Marcelo Gomes. There’s pride in good partnering at ABT. Do the women take advantage of that? Some do. [Laughs] They’re impatient with men who aren’t accomplished partners. But others are extremely easy to work with. I will say, when you work with someone who really makes you swallow your pride, it makes you a better partner.
When to talk onstage: Only if something is wrong. For me, if you’re really in the show, you are that character. It becomes dangerous if I’m out there switching back and forth between Cory and Basilio, or Cory and Siegfried.
When things go wrong, do you take the blame? Oh, totally. I come offstage and say, “Sorry, that won’t happen again,” even though I don’t feel like it was me. [Laughs]
Top choice for next partner: It’s hard to say. There are people who are so well-known and it feels like an honor to dance with them, but a lot of them have huge egos. Notable exception: Polina Semionova—when I finally got to dance with her, it was amazing.
Jonathan Porretta, Pacific Northwest Ballet
Partnering mantra: Keep her on her leg and don’t tick her off.
Partnering rule: Take the blame, no matter what. That’s what Jock Soto instilled in us, at the School of American Ballet: If something doesn’t work, it’s the boy’s fault. Now, I might not say that in the dressing room later on, but in public I’ll take full responsibility. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.
How to talk onstage: Through big smiles, of course. In Act II of Nutcracker, principal Kaori Nakamura and I have it down to a science. What do you talk about? Shopping, dinners, the dancing, how many more Nutcrackers we have to do.
Top choice for next partner: Here at PNB? Leta Biasucci. She’s a corps member, gorgeous, has amazing technique, she’s fun—everything a ballerina should be. Everything she does comes from her heart.
Andrew Veyette, New York City Ballet
Rotating partners: I did Allegro Brillante a couple of seasons ago with my wife Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns—all in the same week. They were three different ballets. I didn’t even pretend otherwise.
Trick of the trade: Sara Mearns goes for broke on everything. I started doing this thing in rehearsal where I beep at her progressively faster if we’re taking something too far. And if we have things under control, it’s just be a few slow beeps here and there. That’s our warning system. [Laughs]
The truth about partnering your spouse: Social niceties go out the window. Megan and I used to say, “You know I hate it when my partner does that, so why are you doing it?” We’d be short with each other sometimes, just because we felt like we could be. We had to get used to having a professional—as well as a personal—relationship. It took some practice, but we get along great now. We’re more polite.
Pet peeve: Megan would say that I hate it when the girl drives, when she starts leading. I’m not doing anything else, so if you’re doing all of the partnering and the dancing, then I’m just walking around. Let me do my job.
Vito Mazzeo, Dutch National Ballet
Best advice: My teacher Leonid Nikonov told me, “Don’t forget you’re a human being, not a barre. Try to match the ballerina, her épaulement, not just think about where your hands are.”
Trouble in the bedroom: Once in the bedroom pas de deux of Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, Yuan Yuan Tan woke up 16 counts early, when Juliet is supposed to be sleeping and Romeo is supposed to just watch her. I didn’t know what to do! So we started to kiss, for 16 counts, which doesn’t even make sense with the story. We were talking and almost laughing, with Yuan Yuan saying, “I’m sorry, Vito!”
Diva ballerinas: The divas are usually the coaches at the front of the room. [Laughs] My coach for many years was Carla Fracci and she is a diva, you know? But she taught me so much, especially about Giselle.
Top choice for next partner: Sylvie Guillem. I have so much love for her, and it’s not because technically she’s amazing. She has something inside her heart and brain that is always working and she knows how to manage herself. She’s unbelievable, that woman.
Fabrice Calmels, Joffrey Ballet
Best way to approach a new partner: Do some homework first, and get to know what kind of a ballerina she is, whether athletic, someone who can really jump and turn, or more lyrical, flexible. The lyrical ballerinas, you have to maneuver them more—they are more work.
Hero: My very good friend, Marcelo Gomes. His eyes aren’t always glued to the woman. It’s a great partner who can just feel the ballerina, where she is, at any time.
Pet peeve: When a ballerina is insecure onstage and a mistake happens and she doesn’t know how to just absorb it and move on, so you hear these sounds of frustration about the performance.
Top mentor: Attilio Labis at the Paris Opéra Ballet School. He focused on teaching you how to do things the opposite way. For example, people use their right hands a lot, so he made us work using only the left hand.
Partnering mantra: Take care of her. She is your responsibility from the moment you walk onto that stage.
At 15 years old, Elizabeth Murphy gave herself an assignment: Get accepted for summer study at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Then a student at The Rock School for Dance Education in Pennsylvania, she traveled to New York to audition.
It did not go well. “I did a développé side, the simplest thing, and just toppled over," she remembers. “I fell again in a pirouette combination—consecutive turns from fifth. And again, during a traveling combination. At first, they were concerned, but I really knew it was bad when they weren't even worried about me anymore. 'Oh, that girl fell again.' I look back now and just laugh at myself. It was probably the worst class I've ever taken."
She was devastated, and skipped PNB's audition the following year. But as time passed, Murphy came to realize the mistake she'd made: “I was thinking, 'I need to be perfect.' And if you have 'perfect' as your goal, that's a lot harder to achieve than just doing your best. Going for more than you're capable of can hurt you."
Now 23, Murphy can say with confidence that she's learned how to beat her nerves. Oh, and she's now a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
All dancers agree: Auditions are tough. They're also unavoidable. “No matter how good you are, this is a skill you need if you want a career in ballet," says Allison Walsh, 27, of BalletX in Philadelphia. “There are a lot of beautiful dancers who just don't make it because they don't audition well." For most dancers, chances are good that their first major audition experience will be for summer study. For many students, these programs mark the point in their training where a pastime becomes a passion. And the outcomes of the auditions are often students' first measure of how their talent stacks up nationwide.
The schedule at most summer intensive auditions is simple: Show up early, get a number, warm up, take a class and do your best. Merde!
But trying out for a conservatory or Bachelor of Fine Arts program is a different ball game: Ballet class is only the first step of many. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Craig Black auditioned for seven college dance programs while finishing high school. With a strong classical background, he was confident in the ballet classes. “But with any modern, I felt in over my head,” he says. “It got better as I kept auditioning, but the first couple were pretty rough.”
The ballet world has changed, and colleges want students who are willing to adapt to its new demands. “Most choreographers these days rely on dancers for creative input, and they’re looking for people who enjoy that collaborative interchange,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, dance department chair at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Consequently, even the most ballet-focused undergraduate programs now ask dancers to improvise, speak onstage and perform contemporary dance. Although every college is different, they’re all looking for the same thing: smart artists in the making.
Study the School
“The first step is to know what kind of program you’re auditioning for,” says Butler University dance department chair Larry A. Attaway. Is it strictly academic, with dance as an emphasis? Is it conservatory study, mostly in the studio? What kind of shoes will you be wearing?
“Butler’s focus is classical ballet,” he explains, “and we’re a conservatory-type program inside a liberal-arts university.” The audition consists of two ballet classes; the first is only for new applicants, the second is with current Butler students. (Nearly all programs post detailed admissions requirements on their websites, and don’t be afraid to ask questions by phone or email.)
At Tisch, prospective students spend more time away from the barre since the school wants high-level proficiency in both ballet and contemporary techniques. “We’re looking for movement sensibility and command of vocabulary in each,” says Lavagnino. Strong skills in a style such as Cunningham or Graham are useful. After a ballet class and contemporary combinations, selected students are interviewed and asked to perform short solos. Hopefuls must also pass NYU’s common application.
At the University of Utah, ballet department professor Richard Wacko sees a lot of dancers simply looking for great training: “They’re not necessarily thinking about academics. They’re thinking it’s like a ballet academy. Well, that’s problem number one.” To get into Utah’s ballet program, students need at least 860 on their SATs (or an ACT composite 18 or higher), and at least a 2.6 GPA. “Sometimes we’ll want to take a student,” says Wacko, “but no matter how great they are in the studio we just can’t accept them academically.”
The Juilliard School likewise attracts students who just want to dance, dance, dance — and since it’s a conservatory, they do a lot of it. Its audition has five components with four cuts in between. Pointe work isn’t required, but solos are, plus phrasework, an in-person interview with faculty and an essay on one of three subjects.
Black says that learning choreography on the spot was an especially difficult part of his audition for Juilliard, from which he graduated in 2011. “That’s where they see how quickly you learn, how detail-oriented you are, what your musicality is like,” he says. “It’s also scary because you don’t know what they’re going to teach you.”
Tell Your Story
After ballet and modern classes at Purchase College, State University of New York, select students are invited to share a 90-second solo. But, as at many schools, first they’ll have to answer some questions during a brief chat. “We want to see if students are articulate, if they express themselves well verbally,” says Wallie Wolfgruber, director of Purchase’s Conservatory of Dance, which emphasizes both technique and composition. A written statement of intent, less than one page, is also part of the application. “To have a career in dance, you need to be able to talk about your art form,” she emphasizes. “You need to know what’s going on in the field. You can’t ‘just dance’ anymore.”
Even at The Boston Conservatory, where students focus primarily on performance, dance division director Cathy Young confirms that your words are more important than ever before: “What are you thinking about? Why do you want to be in this field? Those things are as important as what’s happening physically.” Young advises auditioners to approach their interviews not solely looking to explain what they’ve already done, but also to show how receptive they are to growing artistically and absorbing new information. An audition is competitive by nature, she admits, “but try not to think about it that way—think of it in terms of how ready you are to develop yourself to the fullest extent that you can.”
Know Yourself—and Don’t Be Afraid to Show It
While Boston applicants are taking a ballet class, a modern class and performing a short solo, Young asks herself two questions: “Is there a spark there? Do we get a sense of who this person is besides someone who’s simply doing the steps? To me, those are what make a great performing artist. We’re not looking for cookie-cutter dancers.”
The more things you’ve tried, even just once, the more evident your unique point of view as a future artist will be. Black offers this advice for ballet dancers considering college: “Prepare as much as you can. Work with different teachers and choreographers. You’ll never know exactly what each college is looking for, but you can be as open and versatile as possible in the way you dance, your training and your mindset.”
Body Boot Camp
This fall, step out of your comfort zone and into a lateral T. Renowned Horton instructor Kat Worthington is offering a Horton technique workshop at the Alonzo King LINES Dance Center in San Francisco. Horton is one of the most technically demanding styles of modern dance—and one of the best for ballet dancers. Its focus on extensions and working in parallel challenges your balance, coordination and strength. Worthington, who has seen Horton advance the technique of many ballet dancers describes it as “boot camp to strengthen your body and stretch it out.”
Dates: November 3–December 15 (Saturdays from 1:15–2:45 p.m.)
Location: Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, San Francisco, CA
Tuition: $100 special until October 20
Few people would think of Tennessee as a “dance hub.” But each fall, the Tennessee Dance Festival brings in top instructors from around the country for a weekend of master classes. Faculty include Ballet San Jose artistic consultant Wes Chapman, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Shawn Black and former Atlanta Ballet dancer Anne Burton Avery. The program also offers a student choreography showcase and an audition for summer study scholarships of $500 that dancers can put toward the school of their choice.
Dates: October 19–21
Registration Deadline: October 15
Requirements: Dancers must be at least 12 years old and training at an intermediate or advanced level.
Classes: Ballet, modern, jazz, tap, lyrical, hip hop, belly dance, African dance, composition, improvisation, aerial, Pilates, yoga, kinesiology
Location: Chattanooga, TN
Ballet Goes Digital
The iTunes store is quickly filling up with great ballet apps (including Pointe’s!). One of the best for students is “Ballet is Fun.” It might have a pretty uninspired name, but don’t be fooled—the app has 325 high-definition videos that are full of tips for both beginner and advanced dancers. Former American Ballet Theatre, Australian Ballet, Houston Ballet and New York City Ballet members offer demonstrations that reveal training secrets and help you work on your technique. You can create custom playlists of videos you like, review tricky steps in slow motion and listen to audio explanations. Download it to your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or Apple TV for $14.99.
“When I was at the School of American Ballet, Suki Schorer knew I was dating Seth Orza (now my husband). To get the curve that the head should make in écarté, she’d tell me to pretend that Seth was leaning in to kiss my cheek. I would bend my neck, extend my cheek and turn a deep shade of pink. Needless to say, the image has stuck with me all these years!” —Sarah Ricard Orza, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist
By phone from Europe, where she now performs with a major ballet company, a 24-year-old dancer we’ll call “Claire” recalls the moment she realized cocaine would ruin her life if she kept doing it. She was 19 and training at a renowned ballet academy in New York City. “I’d been living on my own for four years and had met some interesting characters. I knew a dealer who would deliver cocaine to my apartment, like it was pizza.”
Claire had recently checked into a drug-treatment center, prompted by roommates who’d had enough of her mood swings and self-destructive behavior. It had been three years since she’d first experimented with the drug. Her habit began the way many addictions do: Friends were trying cocaine for fun, and she joined in. “We saw professional dancers doing it and we wanted to be cool like they were.”
But she was only able to get through a couple of days of rehab. Back home, feeling defeated, she called in a rush order. The dealer arrived in 20 minutes, and Claire started snorting right away. Something wasn’t right. “Usually, when you use cocaine, you don’t get tired,” Claire explains, “but I was so messed up I couldn’t walk.” She fell asleep—and awoke to the sound of one of her roommates screaming. “My nose was gushing blood. My sinus had basically collapsed on one side.” The cocaine Claire’s dealer brought had been cut with dry bleach cleaner, possibly Ajax.“That was the turning point,” she says. “It wasn’t an overdose, technically, but it was a realization for me.”
Cocaine has a long history in the ballet world that started in the drug’s heyday in the 1980s. Most famously, Gelsey Kirkland wrote about her addiction in her memoir Dancing on My Grave. Many in the dance community got a wake-up call when American Ballet Theatre dancer Patrick Bissell died from an overdose in 1987. Yet cocaine remains a chronic problem, a seemingly easy “solution” to many of the pressures dancers face. Last summer, Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe fought allegations in Danish newspapers that he had used the drug with company dancers. Pointe spoke with dancers, addiction specialists and psychologists to explore why this problem seems to periodically step back into the spotlight.
It’s an urgent question because cocaine abuse comes with serious consequences: Long-term users can experience heart and respiratory problems, headaches, irritability, even paranoid psychosis. And at upwards of $100 per gram, it can quickly drain a bank account.
Despite these risks, ballet’s high-pressure environment can make the drug’s effects—temporary feelings of euphoria, increased alertness and energy, a stifled appetite—seem appealing. A dancer’s job demands sustained focus at levels far beyond the 9-to-5 norm. The job also lends itself to waves of emotion: The rush of a performance may be followed by a crash.
Ballet dancers begin their careers in an addiction-friendly age range as well. “About 70 to 80 percent of people who have a serious problem start using cocaine in their teenage years, definitely a vulnerable time,” says Dr. Andrew Saxon, who directs the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington and has researched cocaine use for 26 years. Compounding matters, many dancers leave home at an early age to train or join a company, and have little contact with people outside of the dance world. Claire, for example, lived unsupervised in New York while she trained. Few adults were paying attention to anything other than her technique. “I was throwing parties at 17 that people still ask me about.”
At midsized ballet companies like the one with which “David,” 21, performs, members get few if any performances off. A run of The Nutcracker might require an entire month in the theater. The resulting stress can drive some dancers to see cocaine as an escape, despite its detrimental consequnces, says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is also New York City Ballet’s wellness consultant. The harder a dancer works and the heavier his workload, the easier it is to justify partying hard. “There’s less guilt,” says David. “If you’re doing fine at work, you might feel you can burn the candle at both ends.”
Losing weight as a result of cocaine use can be a side effect. It can also be the point. Claire didn’t develop her habit trying to stay thin and, initially, she never got high during work hours. But she became close with a dancer who used cocaine as an appetite suppressant. They began getting high together to replace meals. “I saw muscles I’d never seen before and started to get obsessive about it,” Claire remembers. “Everyone, my whole life, had told me I needed to lose weight. I got a very positive response from all of my teachers.” Within a year, cocaine became a staple of Claire’s “diet,” as she calls it. “I’d do a couple of lines every few hours, all day, and at night I smoked weed and drank to come down.”
Many dancers interviewed said if drug use isn’t directly affecting classes, rehearsals or performances, directors tend to turn a blind eye. Often, however, the artistic staff doesn’t ever see any symptoms. Dancers are trained to conceal flaws and problems, and the field attracts people who have high standards and are self-critical. These same qualities that help them succeed in ballet can be used to keep problems like drug abuse a secret.
The danger escalates when an after-show party habit leads to getting high more frequently and needing more of the drug to experience the same effects. Many dancers feel trapped, too scared or embarrassed to seek help. Claire’s parents still don’t know that she ever had a problem. It’s possible to find treatment and support, however. There are even resources that addicts can contact anonymously. (See the sidebar below.)
Not everyone who tries the drug will get hooked. But “the people who are genetically primed for addiction can’t get over that sense of how good it makes them feel,” says Saxon. “They want to experience it again and again, and will keep using even after the body and brain develop a tolerance to its effects.” Saxon identifies two main risk factors for addiction. The first is genetic predisposition: Some people’s genes have multiple mutations which, when combined, increase the likelihood that the first line they snort won’t be their last. The second factor is circumstantial, “meaning your environment, your day-to-day life and the things that happen to you,” Saxon explains. For addicts, everything from a drug’s alleged benefits to working in an exceptionally stressful environment can be used to justify their habit.
Hamilton says that the ballet world has come a long way toward embracing all-around dancer wellness, but she would like to see it go further. Abuse of cocaine and other hard drugs, as well as eating disorders, raise red flags that the industry should not ignore. “The bigger issue is, how do we help dancers deal with stress?” she asks. Artists, administrators, choreographers and teachers “should all be on the same page. We may inadvertently give dancers mixed messages: ‘We’ll provide this wellness workshop but we won’t give you an easier day before an opening-night performance.’ We’re neglecting to give any TLC.”
Claire—like half of all addicts in the rehabilitation program that Saxon directs—beat her cocaine habit. Another 30 percent gain some control but don’t stop using the drug. The rest, says Saxon, become mentally and/or physically disabled, or even die as a result of their drug abuse.
“I had to find my love for dance again after quitting cocaine,” Claire says. “It can give you energy like nothing else except for your own motivation. I had to go back to when I first saw Swan Lake. I had to make myself love myself and my dancing.”
Where To Find Help
Take a self-test for cocaine addiction and find local meetings.
Connect with a counselor 24/7 for free help with your own addiction and to get referrals for local rehab centers, or to learn about the warning signs in others.
National Cocaine Hotline
Connect with a trained professional 24/7 for free information, help with crisis intervention and referrals for local rehab centers.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Search for a list of local treatment programs based on your needs.
At the barre, Michael Sayre works hard to hide his hard work. The 15-year-old has vise-tight fifth positions, but the effort doesn’t affect his soft port de bras or precise épaulement. There are early signs of a danseur noble’s balance of power and finesse; 10 years on, he could be the next Manuel Legris or Peter Boal.
Bolshoi-trained couple Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik became Sayre’s teachers when he was 9, at Southold Dance Theater in South Bend, Indiana. The two were invited to be directors of the Joffrey’s Academy of Dance when the high-rise facility opened in downtown Chicago in 2009. Sayre “piggybacked,” he says, enrolling in the new school to continue with their training.
“Michael’s always been very serious,” says Reznik. “He’s very particular in the way he thinks—he really tries to understand every detail about every exercise.” While many young dancers run to audition for summer programs at other schools, he’s happy to study in Chicago year-round.
Sayre’s commitment to the Academy is a workout for his family. After school, he maybe squeezes in a quick soccer game before biking home for an early dinner. Homework is done during the 100-mile trip to Chicago, finished up on the way back, and then he gets a head-start on sleep. “I stumble out and go to bed,” he says. “We get home just before midnight.”
For Sayre, training under Kremnev and Reznik is worth the extra effort. The pair’s Bolshoi background is evident in their curriculum, which stresses purity and clarity. “Style is style,” says Reznik. “You need it for repertoire but, with our students, it’s about musicality, position, line, details.” The goal of their syllabus, influenced by ABT’s National Training Curriculum, is to generate dancers with impeccable technique and unmatched versatility. “Every year we add something new to the curriculum,” says Kremnev. “Things we would like to see in our students.” The schedule now includes everything from tap to hip hop.
The exposure to new genres has proved a difficult but rewarding adjustment. “It’s been a tough transition,” Sayre admits, “but I really love learning contemporary, jazz, modern and all these cool things.” Following his technique class with Kremnev, Sayre works on a hip-hop routine for the school’s end-of-year performance. The syncopated bass of “Come Around” by M.I.A. fills the studio while Sayre and his classmates are drilled in a particularly tricky bit of floorwork. He’s clearly out of his comfort zone, but keeps pushing himself with the same calm determination displayed earlier at the barre. “Going here is tough,” Sayre says. “You work really hard, but at the end of the day, I usually feel like I’ve done a good job.”
Academy Of Dance, Official School of the Joffrey Ballet
Founded: January 2009
Enrollment: Children’s, youth and preprofessional divisions, 370 students; trainee program, 32 students. Adult open division averages 165 per week. 4,000 students per year are served through a variety of community engagement programs.
Administration: Ashley Wheater, The Joffrey Ballet artistic director; Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik, Academy artistic directors; Elizabeth Millman, Academy managing director
Technique Taught: A mix of Russian and American styles
Faculty: Jen Donohoo, Peter Gaona, Katie Garwood, Winifred Haun, Ethan Kirschbaum, Ludmilla Lupu, Christopher Perricelli, Natalie Rast, Kate Rowan, Marcella Squires-Ducsay and others
Classes: Ballet, character, core strength, hip hop, jazz, men’s technique, modern, MoPeD®, pas de deux, Pilates, repertoire and tap
Alumni: BalletMet, Berliner Staatsoper, Cincinnati Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, Richmond Ballet