Company Life: Dancing with the Boys
Whenever San Francisco Ballet soloist Elana Altman sees her name on the cast list for Giselle’s Myrta, she knows it’s time to start preparing for the role’s high-flying grand allégro and stamina-testing
jeté sequence. Does that mean she does extra petit allégro in pointe class? No. Altman, like many women ballet dancers who want to build strength and endurance, drops into a men’s class instead. In addition to reaping technical benefits, Altman says she relishes the chance to cover lots of space in the men’s combinations.
More and more ballerinas are dancing with the men. Some take men’s class because it provides opportunities to tackle the large-scale movements that normal technique classes generally don’t include. Others find that the unique technical challenges of men’s class—the turns, jumps and beats—make them stronger dancers and performers. And men’s classes can also help prepare them for the ballet world’s increasingly blurred gender lines: Women today are often expected not only to be able to soar in Myrta’s grands jetés, but also to master bravura jumps and turns—in pointe shoes, no less.
What dancers like Altman can expect from a men’s class depends on the teacher. Some instructors start to build strength for virtuoso moves early in the class, with more pliés, tendus and beats at the barre. Other men’s classes may differ from a regular ballet class only when they reach the center, by putting a greater emphasis on large leaps that cover space, double turns in the air, multiple pirouettes and batterie.
School of American Ballet faculty member (and former New York City Ballet principal) Jock Soto, who is “very glad” to see NYCB ballerinas Ashley Bouder, Abi Stafford, Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen and Sterling Hyltin in his men’s classes, says that he particularly emphasizes jumps. “We work a lot on very clean technique in the jumps,” he says. “The girls jump in their class too, but they’re mainly focused on pointework. For the men’s class, we stress how to make each jump look precise.” Bouder in particular has seen this work pay off: Soto says she can now do clean double sauts de basque while wearing pointe shoes.
Though many women, like Bouder, keep their pointe shoes on throughout men’s class, others find that trying out the big jumps and turns in flat shoes can ultimately benefit their pointework more. For Altman, the pointe-versus-flat decision “depends on my feet and what I have to do the rest of the day,” she says. “Today, I put on my flat shoes for the last two men’s combinations. I felt more grounded and had more of a connection to jump from. Tomorrow, when I put my pointe shoes back on, I’ll try to remember that feeling and incorporate it into my pointework.”
How do the men feel about ballerinas “invading”? “At first, they joked that I had to wear a dance belt to come in!” says Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian, who takes men’s class about once a month. “But now they don’t notice me.” Kharatian appreciates the “different energy” she feels when dancing with the men. “It’s very much about strength and about muscle,” she says, rather than the delicate intricacies of pointework.
For some ballerinas, men’s class is actually where they feel most at home. The bravura female dancer, for whom double tours and quadruple pirouettes have a special allure, is a relatively rare but highly visible figure. When Fernando Bujones staged La Bayadère for Mexico’s Ballet de Monterrey in 1997, he glimpsed a then-19- or 20-year-old Katia Garza following along in the back as some of the company’s men rehearsed the alpha-male Solor variation. A few days later, when Bujones came into rehearsal, some of the men egged Garza on: “Katia, show Fernando your variation.” She did, flawlessly: the double assemblé, the pirouettes à la seconde, even the barrel turns ending in a flourish on one knee. Bujones paused for a second. “Oh my God,” he said. “I’m glad I retired.”
Today, Garza continues to challenge herself in men’s classes and rehearsals at Orlando Ballet. When a guest choreographer asks for dancers with specialties or tricks, all eyes turn to her. Artistic Director Robert Hill says she can out-dance some of his company’s men. But there can be a downside to dancing with and like the boys, Garza cautions: She has to be very careful not to overdevelop her legs. “I have to work on a lot of stretching so my thighs don’t get too big, because I’m very muscular,” she says.
Still, Garza “loves the big jumps and tricks, because they’re so much fun.” This year, her tenth at Orlando Ballet, she’s determined to add a new men’s trick to her repertoire: the 540, a rivoltade resembling a martial arts jump that spins one and a half times in the air. “I’ve seen Carlos Acosta and other big stars make it look so easy,” she says. “This season, I want to learn it.”
Lisa Traiger writes on dance and performance for The Washington Post, among other publications.