Pointe Stars
In costume for Robert Binet's The Blue of Distance (photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Last December—a few days before her 23rd birthday—Indiana Woodward did a quick barre backstage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. In the purity of her port de bras and articulation of her cambered feet, she epitomized Russian-style elegance. Then she removed her warm-ups and suddenly looked more French than Russian, her pastel practice tutu and black choker evoking Degas' paintings. Rehearsal began, and as the music gathered speed, she transformed again. Sweeping headlong across the stage, buoyant and boundless, she was pure New York, pure Balanchine.

Born in Paris and trained in Russian technique before coming to the School of American Ballet, Woodward brings an unusually diverse perspective to her growing repertoire at New York City Ballet, which she joined in 2012. She's the rare dancer who can project worldly glamour and youthful exuberance simultaneously, who can toggle between the precision of the Russian style and the freedom of Balanchine's. One senses she'd make a regal Theme and Variations lead, or an eloquent Odette. But while she's had many opportunities at NYCB, she's such a natural soubrette—petite and bubbly—that we've yet to see the other sides of her artistry. Recently promoted to soloist, she seems about to fully flower.

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Featured Article

Lauren Hunter stands with her feet tightly crossed in fifth position, the number 102 pinned to the front of her leotard. The 15-year-old California native, who trains at Peninsula School of Performing Arts, is a long way from home, but she's one step closer to achieving her dream of dancing professionally. Around her are dancers from Asia, Australia, South America and Europe, all candidates for the Prix de Lausanne, an international scholarship competition held each January in Switzerland. For the next week, a nine-member jury will carefully evaluate them during classes, coaching sessions and performances for a chance to win scholarships to major ballet schools. “I thought it would be a good time for me to open my horizons, to meet new people and see what the professional world is really like," she says.

Hunter is one of approximately 70 young dancers selected to participate. Each candidate must choose from a selection of classical variations and more-contemporary solos by John Neumeier. For the last two months, Hunter has been training to perfect the second Odalisque variation from Le Corsaire, and Neumeier's fleet-footed Bach Suite II. “I don't have a lot of experience dancing contemporary," she says. “It's a challenge for me."

Her dream is to dance with The Royal Ballet, and she hopes to make a good impression on director Kevin O'Hare, who is chairing the jury. “But I'm most excited about being around so many high-level dancers, especially coming from a small school," she says. “I just want to represent my studio and myself well." In January, Pointe followed Hunter to capture her week at the Prix.

Sunday

12:30 pm: Registration

After having a day to adjust to the nine-hour time difference and do a little sightseeing, Hunter heads to Lausanne's Beaulieu Theatre for registration. There she receives her number and is placed in Girls Group A. “I got to meet all the people in my group," she says. “Afterwards we took our first class and got a chance to look around and see all the studios."

Monday

10:15 am: Classical variation run-through

After a warm-up class, Hunter has a chance to practice her Le Corsaire variation onstage. “I'm second in my group, and the girl before me is doing the same variation, so it's kind of nerve-racking." She also has to get used to the stage's raked, or sloped, floor. “You kind of fall forward, so it's a little scary, but once I'm dancing I don't think about it."

12 pm: Classical ballet class, with the jury observing

William Forsythe stager and master teacher Stefanie Arndt teaches Hunter's first class in front of the jury, who sit behind a long table at the front of the studio. Dancers rotate spots after every combination so that everyone can be seen. Judges grade dancers on their artistry, musicality, courage, versatility and overall potential. “I was super-

nervous," says Hunter. “I didn't know we would have to wear pointe shoes for all of center."

4 pm: Contemporary class

“I don't take contemporary very often, so it's very new for me," says Hunter, who nevertheless stands right in front in international choreographer Didy Veldman's class. “I like the teacher. She makes it fun."

Tuesday

11 am: Contemporary class

Today Hunter is starting to move more freely in her upper body. “She's building off the combinations we learned the first day," Hunter says. “Thursday we have our judging with the contemporary class, so that should be interesting."

2 pm: Classical ballet class, with jury marking

“Everyone's amazing here," says Hunter. She pays attention to which dancers the jury watches and tries to learn from them. “The ones who smiled or had a nice upper body seemed to catch their eye."

Towards the end, Arndt gives a lengthy enchaînement, and Hunter has to go in the first group. “I knew all the steps, but I was hesitant about them," she says. “If I had been in the second group, maybe it would've been better. But other than that, class felt good."

5:20 pm: Onstage contemporary coaching session

The dancers in Group A have group coaching sessions for their Neumeier variation with Laura Cazzaniga, a ballet mistress with Hamburg Ballet. As she rehearses the speedy Bach Suite II, Hunter feels the effects of the rake. “There are a lot of direction changes, and whenever you do turns upstage, it's like you're climbing a mountain," she says. “Ms. Cazzaniga worked with us on the style so that we interpret it the way Neumeier wanted."

Wednesday

12:15–4 pm: Classical coaching

After morning class, Hunter has a six-minute private coaching session for her classical variation with former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Monique Loudières. “Her demeanor was very kind, which helped me be more open to express myself and do well," says Hunter. “She gave me a few arm corrections, and there was also a jumping section where she wanted my footwork to be quicker."

Thursday

9:15 am: Contemporary class, with jury marking

“I was super-worried about this," says Hunter. “I thought this would be the hardest part of the competition." However, she's no longer dancing tentatively and wears a confident smile. “Everything just worked!" One of the first things Veldman has the dancers do is run around the studio, freestyle. “I think that helped us loosen up and not get too worked up about the judges being there."

11:30 am: Classical coaching

Loudières gives Hunter some last-minute corrections about her développé (“don't throw your leg") and then speaks quietly with her. “She said I had the confidence to be able to perform strongly," says Hunter. “If she thinks I'm ready, I think everybody else will think so too."

2:15–3:40 pm: Contemporary coaching

After a group coaching session with Cazzaniga in front of the jury, Hunter has a one-on-one session with Yohan Stegli, deputy of the artistic director of the National Youth Ballet of Germany. Both work with her on her sissonne to arabesque. “I have a chronic problem with my ribs splaying out."

Friday

9:30 am: Selections, or semifinals

Hunter performs her classical variation first, and despite a minor bobble with her final piqué turn, everything goes well. “I felt on my legs—I was grounded and remembering corrections as I was going along."

During her contemporary solo, she catches her pointe shoe on the floor and slips. “That freaked me out a little, but I got back into focus." After she comes offstage, she feels grateful and relieved. “I've been preparing for this moment for how many months now, and I finally did it!"

6:45 pm: Finalists announced

The candidates gather to hear who will advance to the final round. “I thought, It's okay if I don't get in—there are so many good dancers here," says Hunter. To her surprise, her name is called. “It was the craziest feeling! I couldn't sleep that night because I was so excited."

Saturday

2:30 pm: Final round

“I was so happy to be in the finals that I wasn't thinking about winning a prize," says Hunter. Technically assured and confident, she gives her best performances of the week. “I felt something click during the contemporary."

6 pm: Awards ceremony

Hunter wins fifth place, and a scholarship to a Prix de Lausanne partner school of her choice. “I didn't expect anything!" she says. Her next step is to visit The Royal Ballet School to make sure it's the right fit. “The fact that I now get to go to a big school just hit me—this is actually happening!"

All photos by Gregory Batardon, courtesy Prix de Lausanne

Hunter takes her first class in front of the jury. "Most of the time they have a poker face, so it's hard to know what they're thinking," she says.

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Featured Article

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.

Simon Ball instructing CPYB student Braden Hart
(photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy CPYB)

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.

What’s Different?

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.

Male Camaraderie

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.

Master Class

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.”

Featured Article

Most vacations don’t turn into the job of a lifetime. But that’s exactly what happened when Jahna Frantziskonis took company class at San Francisco Ballet in the spring of 2015.

“I had never been to San Francisco or seen the company besides on video,” explains Frantziskonis, 23. She had come to the city to visit her younger brother, Elias, an SFB School student at the time. “He said, ‘Just come, take a class, see what happens.’ ” Less than a week after she got back to Seattle, where she was a second-year corps dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, she had received an invitation to join the SFB corps.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

“It was very unexpected,” she says, seeming to still marvel at the outcome nearly two years later. But artistic director Helgi Tomasson confirms that hiring her was no fluke. He immediately noticed three qualities every SFB dancer needs: stage presence, musicality and versatility. “I could see her fitting very well into the repertory we have, in the classical, neoclassic and contemporary,” he says of her accidental audition.

Frantziskonis proved him right. Her first season was filled with debuts, from the first cast of Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, to Prayer in Balanchine’s Coppélia, to her season-ending success as Olga in John Cranko’s Onegin. Throughout, she enchanted audiences with effortless turns and sprightly jumps, sensitive musicality and soubrette charm—not to mention enormous, expressive eyes that rival Audrey Hepburn’s.

While the roles were new to her, the spotlight was not. At PNB, she had already performed the principal pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Rubies,” the pas de trois in “Emeralds” and Cupid in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote, and created roles in Justin Peck’s Debonair and Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station.

“It’s so natural for Jahna,” says PNB artistic director Peter Boal of her technique. “There are some people you like to take credit for having coached, but you realize that anyone could have done it—they were going to get there on their own.”

A Tucson, Arizona, native, Frantziskonis has been single-minded about ballet since her first toddler class at the YMCA. At age 5 she enrolled at Ballet Arts Tucson and trained with owner and former Cleveland Ballet principal Mary Beth Cabana, then finished high school in three years in order to train in PNB School’s Professional Division at 16.

“I always felt, from the very beginning, that she was very, very special,” recalls Cabana, who also trained PNB soloist Margaret Mullin and Houston Ballet demi-soloist Aaron Daniel Sharratt. “She showed a particular intelligence for ballet, and she was very open to expressing herself within her dancing. You could see that every fiber in her being really loved what she was doing.”

Frantziskonis credits Cabana with developing her solid technical base and her enthusiasm for risk-taking. “I’m not a very scared dancer, and I think that’s why. She just gave you the freedom to try.”

She also took a variety of classes, including tap, Fosse-style jazz and contemporary dance. A decade of piano lessons, first in classical and then in improvisational jazz, put musicality literally at her fingertips. “I can recognize structure in difficult pieces,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll hear different notes, and I’ll base my musicality off of that.”

In spite of her skill and talent, the 5' 2 3/4" Frantziskonis had a sizable obstacle to overcome. “Around the time I started dancing on pointe,” she remembers, “teachers and peers started telling me that my height would hold me back from a professional career.” Discouraged but determined, she put in extra time with Cabana to refine her feet, strengthen her turnout and create the longest possible lines. “I really encouraged her to think about herself as if she was an Amazon, to dance really big and bold,” Cabana says. “And to understand that she had so many other qualities to be a wonderful artist.”

Boal noticed those qualities when Frantziskonis performed in the Professional Division recital. “How she held the stage, her presence—it made me do a double take,” he recalls. He took her under his wing, and the two became close as he cast and coached her in increasingly significant roles. “I really looked on Jahna from the very start as a future principal dancer with the company,” he says, so her departure was a shock.

By nature adventurous and curious, and hungry for new artistic opportunities, Frantziskonis was eager to take her chances on SFB. But she also felt a deep attachment to the director who had shaped her as a dancer. “I knew that Peter would change my mind if I told him that I had a job offer, because I love him,” she says. “But I decided this was an opportunity that I don’t know will ever come again.” So she signed her SFB contract before telling him of the offer.

“He took it well,” she recalls, “and then ended up calling me back into his office to tell me that he was really upset.” Boal was disappointed to lose such a promising dancer, but he also knows it’s the nature of the business. “Directors have to recognize that dancers call some of the shots, and that they have a voice and choices,” he says. “I love it when I’m included. But you want the best for somebody, and I’m happy for her success. It was the right decision.”

Nothing, however, had prepared the admittedly starstruck Frantziskonis for dancing alongside idols like Maria Kochetkova, Yuan Yuan Tan, Frances Chung and Lorena Feijoo. “When I did Olga, Yuan Yuan was Tatiana,” she says. “I was preparing backstage and I had this moment of, Whoa, where are you right now?”

She’s learned to talk herself through those stressful moments, and adjusted to life in a larger company (PNB has 47 dancers, while SFB has 73). But learning the sheer volume of choreography can still feel overwhelming. SFB performs about 30 Nutcracker shows annually, followed by a five-month, eight-program season; 2017 brings three full-lengths and five mixed bills, including four world premieres.

“It’s known as the ‘SFB thing,’ ” she says of the company’s notoriously fast rehearsal process. She’s found that there’s no easy way to get all that rep in her body and mind: “You seriously just do it.”

Principal dancer Lorena Feijoo, who tends to keep an eye on Frantziskonis when teaching company class, has faith that she will meet the challenges, and master them. “Jahna has something you can’t teach,” observes Feijoo. “She is an artist.” Thinking back to last season’s principal role in Liam Scarlett’s dark, aggressive Fearful Symmetries, she says that “when Jahna walked onstage, she was on fire. It was like an explosion. For a corps member of that age to do that, it shows you that she’s a little ahead of the game.”

The next time Frantziskonis finds time for a vacation, she’d love to visit Elias in the Netherlands, where he is a trainee at Dutch National Ballet. But don’t expect another job change.

“I get to do what I love every day,” she says of life at SFB. “That’s my biggest goal: What’s making me happy, pursue it. Right now, ballet is really giving me that.” 

Claudia Bauer is a dance writer and critic in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Featured Article

I felt shattered. Cut from the audition at barre. I was 24 years old and had been dancing professionally for eight years already. I’d been very fortunate in my career so far, and although I was no stranger to rejections, this was a first. I thought: I must not be a good dancer anymore. I’m a has-been. Maybe it’s time to rethink my career path.

As I waited for my friend, who came to the audition with me and was asked to stay, I realized which sort of dancers were let go early and which ones were kept. Everyone around me packing up their things was a seasoned dancer. A couple I knew from other companies, all beautiful and capable. The ones that were kept were young and aspiring; they had lots of potential, but no professional experience.

It wasn’t that I was a bad dancer. I just wasn’t what they were looking for.

Audition season is a time of year, for dancers aspiring and seasoned alike, that is full of possibilities: realized dreams or crushed ones, exciting new beginnings and bittersweet ends. A time of year that can be exhausting emotionally and financially. What can we do to be successful in getting our dream job, the one that fulfills our passion? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but, needless to say, I’ve auditioned a lot and picked up a few pointers along the way.

Grace-Anne Powers (photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet)

Don’t Take Rejection Personally

That unfortunate day I was cut from the audition at barre was because I didn’t fit. They were most likely looking for dancers who could fill a second-company position, who could grow into the artistic vision of the company. It’s easy to take rejection personally, but we have to remember that there are so many factors that are beyond our control. All ballet companies have an artistic side and a business side, something we dancers tend to forget since we are so deeply immersed in the former. Artistic directors have the hard job of making their vision come to life while also making a profit. Each audition season, they must choose dancers who not only fit their vision, but who also can fill the positions they have available.

Although it is very discouraging to be told “no,” it could just mean it is not the right time. One thing I’ve learned is that a rejection from a particular company one year does not necessarily mean you’ll get one the next. I sent my audition materials (resumé, video and pictures) to BalletMet for the 2014–15 season. Although artistic director Edwaard Liang was interested in working with me, he did not have a contract available to offer me then. The next audition season I reached out to BalletMet again and was hired. Put yourself out there confidently and without limitations, and you will eventually find your “yes.”

Make a Personal Connection

Although there are many factors we cannot control, there are things I do before auditions to be more prepared and hopefully successful. I’ve found that whether I’m going to a cattle call or asking for an audition in company class, it’s helpful to send my audition materials in advance. This helps make a personal connection so that you can be seen as you and not “Number 67.” The cover letter or introductory email should also be treated as part of your audition materials; it’s where you can explain who you are and why you want to be a part of that particular company. Maybe you took a class from one of their ballet mistresses, or your teacher has a former student in the company. Or perhaps you saw one of their performances and it really inspired you. Whatever has made you want to work there, let them know.

Project Confidence

The last story I’ll share is one that sheds light on what I believe is the most important part of auditioning: confidence. Confidence is very powerful. It was the reason I was hired to dance for La La La Human Steps. Even though I was coming from a very classical company, I went into the audition for the artistic director, Édouard Lock, with a fearless attitude. I had no experience dancing contemporary work and thought, Well, I have nothing to lose. It paid off. I didn’t doubt myself because I had no context of what I could and couldn’t do.

After I had been working with Édouard for a year or so, he told me he had been drawn to my strength during my audition. At the time, I thought he meant a physical and technical strength, but now I believe he meant an emotional one. Every company I’ve danced for has broken me down to my most basic self and molded me into their vision. In this process, I’ve needed to be malleable while also remaining true to myself. I’ve needed inner strength to be more capable and versatile than I thought I could be, instead of stubbornly refusing to dance outside my conception of myself.

Whenever I experience self-doubt, I’m no longer free to be in the moment, nor to be the artist I am. And auditions are your time to let your artistry shine through. Directors want to see that, because live performance is what they are selling. While technique is a tool to help us send a message and tell a story, only an artist can deliver that message. Show who you are as an artist in an audition, because that’s something that’s unique to you, and no one else can fill that spot. 

Grace-Anne Powers is a dancer with BalletMet.

Featured Article

Imagine having your first show with Misty Copeland inches away from you onstage.

Copeland and her prince, American Ballet Theatre corps member Calvin Royal III, swooped into Houston, Texas, in November to dance in Open World Dance Foundation’s new, full-length production of Cinderella. Choreographed by OWDF directors Ekaterina Shchelkanova and Anton Boytsov, the community project showcased 123 local children of various backgrounds at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Some had no previous dance experience.

While it was Copeland and Royal’s role debuts as Cinderella and the Prince, the goal of the production was educational: to show children all aspects of a ballet performance. OWDF, an international nonprofit organization that provides dance education and outreach for disadvantaged youth, opened the auditions to all, regardless of technical level. “It’s not just about the steps, but about music and sets,” says Shchelkanova, a former Mariinsky Ballet and ABT soloist who initially started OWDF as a program for Russian orphans. “It’s about how ballet actually works.” She gave lectures on dance as part of the experience, in addition to free Sunday ballet classes for the cast over the course of several weeks.

(Photo by Amitava Sarkar)

Copeland, who often uses her off-time to advocate for youth organizations like The Boys & Girls Clubs of America and MindLeaps, was invited by Shchelkanova to perform in Cinderella as plans for the Houston performance were coming together. She agreed to star in it. “This was a chance for a community, some experienced with dance and others not, to expand and explore their minds, bodies, creativity and possibly tap into something within themselves they didn’t know was possible,” says Copeland.

Royal was on board soon afterwards, noting that his first experience with dance was through a similar community project called The Chocolate Nutcracker. “It opened my eyes to possibilities of wanting to be a professional dancer,” he says. “Knowing what that did for me made me want to get involved.”

  For three months, the pair squeezed coaching sessions with Shchelkanova and Boytsov in between ABT rehearsals before flying to Houston for performance week. “The highlight of the trip was realizing how symbolic it was for Misty and I to be there,” says Royal. “The cards, letters and support we received from the community and kids made it all worth it.”

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