When it was announced last summer that Nacho Duato would become artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, the most common reaction was: Huh? How could the choreographer who transformed Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza into a contemporary stronghold—and left because the Spanish government wanted to steer that company in a more classical direction—take on the oh-so-Russian Mikhailovsky, which performs almost exclusively big classical ballets?

 

 “I know the news that I was moving to this company was completely bizarre,” says Duato, who was offered the position by the Mikhailovsky’s enterprising general director, Vladimir Kekhman. “Everyone thought, Is he mad? Is he crazy?,” says Duato. “And yes, I am crazy. But if you’re not crazy, you don’t move forward.”

 

Actually, Duato’s appointment is more in keeping with the Mikhailovsky’s history than one might think. In the 1930s the company, then known as the Maly Ballet, took an experimental turn under the direction of the forward-thinking Fyodor Lopukhov. He produced a string of innovative works, including the first incarnation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream. But during the past 20 or so years, the company has become a respectable, if second-tier, member of the more traditional ballet scene in Russia. The mainstays of its repertoire are now old-school story ballets—Corsaire, Bayadère, Swan Lake.

 

Although he has little classical experience himself, Duato isn’t planning to do away with the company’s recent focus. “The classics are important, and the company dances them beautifully,” he says. “I’ll update the lighting and the decor a bit, but I’m going to preserve the current classical repertoire.” In fact, he’ll add to it: One of Duato’s first major projects is a new Sleeping Beauty, to premiere in February 2012, which he will stage after Petipa.

 

But Duato plans to supplement that traditional base with new contemporary works of his own, as well as pieces by artists he’s worked with and admires: Jirí Kylián, Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin. “Hiring me is an indication that this company is ready to open up to the West, to stop being a museum,” he says. “My goal is to bring the company into the present by creating a balance between classical and contemporary.” He adds that eventually he’d like the Mikhailovsky to be comparable to an American Ballet Theatre or a Paris Opéra Ballet—yet his troupe’s repertoire will, unsurprisingly, include a substantial collection of his own pieces.

 

Don’t expect Duato’s choreography for the Mikhailovsky to look much like his older contemporary work, however. Though he will set some of his best-known pieces (Remanso and Jardi Tancat among them) on the company, this July he’ll premiere a new ballet whose vocabulary will be significantly more classical. “I have all these beautiful dancers with incredible Russian schooling and technique, so why not take advantage of that?” he says. “The bodies are different, the city is different, so my inspirations are going to be different. My choreography will evolve.”

 

That choreography will still be a shock to most of the Mikhailovsky dancers. “The biggest challenge I face is getting people to trust me,” he says. “They’re a little afraid of me right now, because they aren’t used to modern work—and they haven’t interacted intensely with a living choreographer since, well, ever! They’ve been doing stuff by Fokine and Petipa, people who haven’t been alive for more than 100 years.” Duato—the first non-Russian to direct a major Russian company since Petipa—is eager to “open their eyes to the world beyond Russia.”

 

Duato is counting on the enthusiasm of St. Petersburg audiences to ease the company’s transition. “St. Petersburg may not be the most modern city in the world, but the love is there, and it’s not going away,” he says. “Russians take their culture so seriously. It’s truly extraordinary: The company has 120 performances a year in St. Petersburg alone, and that theater is full every single evening.”

 

Duato also plans to amp up the company’s touring schedule in Europe and America to increase the Mikhailovsky’s international presence. He is confident that his reputation will ensure the company’s success abroad. “The name Nacho Duato will draw audiences,” he says. “I think people are curious to see what I’m doing here.”

 

Indeed, though just a year ago most American ballet fans had never heard of the Mikhailovsky, the company is already booked for a run at Lincoln Center in 2012. It will perform Duato’s Sleeping Beauty and a program of three new contemporary works.

 

“We’re going to jump right into the pool,” he says. “Why not?”


At A Glance
Mikhailovsky Ballet
Founded: 1933
Located: St. Petersburg, Russia
Number of Dancers: 137
Performances: 120 in St. Petersburg, plus approximately 40–50 on tour
Contract Length: Year-round
Website: mikhailovsky.ru/en









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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

Has Something Changed?

If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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