Interviews by Christopher Blank, Rosie Gaynor and Nancy Wozny

A firestorm of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers’ bodies for criticism has raised the question of whether body type still matters in today’s ballet world. Does ballet’s identity rest on presenting a certain image of the ballerina? Pointe asked leading dancers and artistic directors what impact issues like height and weight have on their casting.

Maria Kochetkova (photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Maria Kochetkova

Principal, San Francisco Ballet

When I was 13, I never could be in the first row because I was taller than the others. Then everyone kept growing and I stayed 5'. In Russia, principal roles are never performed by short dancers. It’s the fashion of the day. If I were dancing 30 years ago, I would be normal.

At auditions I was told I was too short, but then artistic directors would see me dance and I would get invitations anyway. For years now I have been guesting with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet Theatre and the Mikhailovsky Ballet, dancing all the roles in Giselle and Sleeping Beauty that I was told I would never do. It proves it’s not about your height, but how you present yourself in a certain role. The stage is deceiving. It’s very hard to tell how tall or short people actually are. At the end of the day, your height is not what determines if you get a job. It’s all about your dancing.

Peter Boal

Artistic Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Body types do change in ballet. As Suzanne Farrell became Balanchine’s muse, suddenly longer legs, shorter torsos, long necks and small heads became the aesthetic all the way through to the youngest 8-year-olds auditioning for the School of American Ballet. I remember when I became an SAB faculty member, there was conversation about “Her head’s so big!” We were looking for pinheads. Which I suppose accentuates what Balanchine was looking for: length—length of leg, length of arm, length of neck, which goes right through to smaller heads.

This is a profession of athletes; it is a profession where we look so closely at the body. We enjoy looking at the body—healthy, beautiful bodies. Sometimes both the excess and the underweight are unappealing to look at. And I think dancers know that. I think they know when they’re in the zone. When they feel like athletes in peak performance condition. And that is the standard of the profession.

Melissa Sandvig

Freelance dancer

When I was 13, a Russian dancer shook his head when he saw me eating a banana, remarking that it had too many calories. I know it was because he wanted to help me. My teacher had told me I needed to watch my body because I have a tendency to be more muscular. I knew there were contemporary companies that would love my build, but my passion was classical ballet.

My first job was with Milwaukee Ballet. The artistic director, Basil Thompson, loved my body and the way I danced. Under him I went quickly from apprentice to corps member. At 19, my body was still not in puberty, so I was advised to take hormones to avoid problems later in life. I did and gained a little weight. By then Michael Pink had come on as artistic director. He put me on weight probation. I was still getting parts, but I could not make the artistic management happy.

It always affected my confidence that I didn’t quite fit in. Eventually it led me to take a break from the ballet world. I missed it, but resolved to work for people who appreciated my body. Suddenly I was working more than ever. I was finally embracing my body. Being on So You Think You Can Dance felt like a sweet victory when they called me “The Ballerina.”

Paul Vasterling

Artistic Director, Nashville Ballet

Tastes have changed. Back in the 1970s, dancers were super-duper thin. In my opinion, that’s less important to our audience. It’s not just about weight; it’s about extension, proportion, height, all the genetic stuff. There’s nothing more exposing of your physique than classical ballet. Ultimately, I want my dancers to look athletic, healthy and muscular. The fact is, women have to be able to be lifted by their partners, and men have to be strong enough to lift the women.

Physical issues are tricky to bring up. You can send someone down a bad psychological path by commenting on his or her weight. My philosophy is not to write people off. There’s a lot more room for individuality in regional companies, and there’s no specific body type for me. Really good dancers can make you forget that they might not have an ideal body.

Drew Jacoby (photo by Marty Sohl)

Drew Jacoby

Jacoby and Pronk

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my height. I liked being tall, but sometimes I wished I weren’t 5' 11''. It seems like I have been tall forever. I went to Pacific Northwest Ballet School, where there were a lot of tall dancers, even though I was the tallest. The repertoire really suited my body type. I was certain I was going to get into PNB and was shocked when I didn’t. They told me to come back when I was strong enough to be a soloist. I was crushed. But I had met Alonzo King of LINES while at PNB, and he offered me a job.

Alonzo is all about freedom and individuality; also, he tends to like long bodies. So I went from school to working with a choreographer one on one. There was no issue with my height—it was only a good thing. When I stopped trying to fit in, and began being myself and exploiting my difference, my career took off. In the end, it was so much better for my artistic growth.

Dorothy Gunther Pugh

Artistic Director, Ballet Memphis

As an artistic director, I care about how our ballets look. Weight is important. Choreographers, certainly, come in and say, “I will not cast that dancer because he or she is too big.” In auditions especially, we all become critics. I have to pare down a group of 350 pretty quickly, and the first thing I determine is which bodies are right for us. It’s not just about being too big. I don’t want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don’t want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don’t think that’s very American. Yet dancers’ bodies need to look a certain way to make the kind of pictures we want for classical ballet.

Wendy Whelan

Principal, New York City Ballet

When I was 12, they discovered that I had scoliosis. I wore a brace for about five years. I only took it off to dance and to bathe. Dancing was my release. I became aware of my weaknesses and of my strengths both physically and emotionally. I was well into my professional career when I was first criticized for being too thin, too angular and crooked. It was a shock after I had reached that pinnacle. I have a body where, if I drop a few pounds, it shows a lot. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but when you work hard during the season, you do. I felt defenseless. Even now, it can still feel harsh when a critic remarks on my “physicality” as a flaw in my dancing, because of all the effort I put into my body. It’s my own personal house of cards, a serious work of art that I’ve spent decades building. It’s truly not something I could or would ever change. Although a negative criticism will certainly sting, I don’t dwell on it. I try to remind myself that nobody has a perfect body and no dancer is a perfect dancer. True beauty lies within each of us to create for ourselves the best we can with what we have been given.

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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.

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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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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

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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Videos

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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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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