I remember feeling thrilled but anxious when I signed my first-year corps contract with San Francisco Ballet. My mind raced: What does it mean to be professional? What do I need to do to succeed in a company environment? Like the other new members, I was out of school and therefore out of my comfort zone.

 

Luckily for me, this feeling didn’t last very long. I soon gained confidence and set out to carve my own path—thanks to a few principal dancers who unknowingly showed me the way.

 

“Watch Muriel Maffre,” Helgi Tomasson told me. “Learn from her.” Little did he know that I had already been studying the French ballerina, and not just for her exquisite artistry. I noticed how she maintained her focus while other dancers created drama. I saw that she was respectful of everyone: guest choreographers, dressers at the theater, first-year apprentices. She never shouted into her cell phone in the lounge, broadcasting her personal life for all to hear. Even when I became a principal and moved into her dressing room, Muriel treated me not as the junior dancer I was but as an equal. To me, she was the epitome of professional. 

 

Unfortunately, not all ballerinas behave like Muriel. My strict definition of a “ballerina” has everything to do with artistic quality and nothing to do with personal character. Some phenomenal dancers are arrogant divas, while others who are equally talented manage to remain unassuming and down to earth. Dancers in both catergories are “ballerinas,” but my role models have always been the latter.

 

Muriel’s behavior taught me the importance of steering clear of messy company politics—a lesson that I would soon put to good use. When I was 18, having just returned from a yearlong hiatus during which I nursed three stress fractures, I was chosen to learn the lead in Balanchine’s Bugaku. It was a kind gesture on Helgi’s part, a move I knew was intended to help motivate me. But I was an unpopular choice in the eyes of many company members, and I felt their disapproval. Thinking of what Muriel would do, I was determined to ignore their negativity and concentrate on my work, because I wanted to make the most of this opportunity. Maintaining a positive attitude is always easier said than done, however, so it helped that I had Muriel’s example to follow. She was first cast for Bugaku, and I had the benefit of studying her thoughtful approach in our intimate rehearsals. That experience was my first step towards defining my own idea of what is appropriate in the studio and figuring out how I could not only survive but thrive in a company environment.

 

Other senior company members helped me learn the value of a sense of humor. Former SFB principals Joanna Berman and Julia Adam were not only incredible artists but also the company comedians. Always laughing—whether it was about a “Seinfeld” episode, an onstage mishap or a random quip—they kept the mood light in the studio, and I loved being around them. Humor, they taught me, eases tension and creates a less inhibited work environment, turning awkward moments into potential jokes and keeping things in perspective. And it doesn’t preclude serious artistic work, either. Anyone who has been in rehearsal with Mark Morris knows that it’s impossible to keep a straight face, yet he commands respect and inspires hard work. (It’s no surprise that Joanna and Julia were two of his favorite dancers to use at SFB.) I also noticed that choreographers like Morris are attracted not only to talent but also to dancers who exude passionate, fun-loving creative energy.      

You’re probably thinking, “Sure, but being funny, courteous and kind won’t get you more performances of Odette/Odile.” That’s true. I’ve seen people—usually exceptional dancers who can afford it—backstab and throw tantrums and still get the opening nights. But I’ve found that they’re often unhappy. And since companies are ultimately businesses, unprofessional behavior can affect the longevity of a dancer’s career.

 

Taking the high road does not guarantee professional success. But people notice when you make the right choices. I watched the way my role models behaved, and thanks to their influence, I’m laughing every day and staying positive in the face of frustration. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it.

 

My Ballerina Ideal
Four dancers on their professional role models

 

Julie Kent, principal, American Ballet Theatre: “When I was a student dancing as a super with the New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride was so patient and welcoming with me and the other young girls. Now I try to be the same way after performances. There are children and young performers who have invested so much time watching, so I give them the courtesy of a few minutes of my time.”

Christine Shevchenko, corps de ballet, ABT: “I admire Julie Kent, because she’s consistently polite and very caring, especially with fans. She’ll always wait and sign autographs and take pictures.”

 

Martha Chamberlain, principal, Pennsylvania Ballet: “When I first joined the company, I was struck by the way Leslie Carothers kept the atmosphere very light in the studio. It relieved some of the everyday pressures of being a ballet dancer. She taught me that in this career, no one will die if you make a mistake, so relax a little.”

Vanessa Zahorian, principal, San Francisco Ballet: “I admired the way Muriel Maffre managed to steer clear of backstage cattiness. She never showed a competitive streak, and she would never talk about other people or gossip.”

Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

popular
Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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Pointe Stars
Jurgita Dronina as Kitri in "Don Quixote." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

When Jurgita Dronina first danced Kitri for a guest performance of Don Quixote with Teatro Filarmonico-Fondazione Arena Di Verona, she was in essence cast against type. "Before Kitri, I was dancing only lyrical or dramatic roles, so I had to start from scratch in finding my own signature in the steps and my own interpretation of the character," says Dronina, who was dancing with Royal Swedish Ballet at the time.

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