Out of dozens of dancers who enter a competition, only a lucky few return with medals. How do they do it? Three winners share their triumphs, challenges and secrets for success.
Boston Ballet soloist
Youth America Grand Prix, Grand Prix, 2009
Helsinki International Ballet Competition, Junior First Place, 2009
USA International Ballet Competition, Junior Bronze 2006
Have variety in your variations—it will take you further. For YAGP finals in 2006, I did ones from La Fille Mal Gardée, Giselle and Don Quixote so the judges would see a range of characters, emotions, qualities and steps. Albrecht’s variation is slow and shows your line; he’s sad, pleading for his life. Don Q has lots of bravura jumps and turns. La Fille has a few Bournonville jetés and brisé volés.
I rehearsed every day for a year, but I split up the days—some I did my classical pieces and some my contemporary. There are days when you break down the details, others when you work on characterization. It’s important not to peak too soon. If you rehearse a piece to death it will look stale.
When the competition comes around I never, ever watch anyone dance until after I’m done. I just stay in my own zone by listening to music (anything from rap to rock, but not the music I’ll be dancing to—I’d rather hear that fresh when I go on stage). Once, my coach, Rolando Sarabia, told me to put salt on a lemon and suck on it. I’m sure it was just a mental thing, but it worked!
Joffrey Ballet dancer
New York International Ballet Competition, Silver, 2009
Youth America Grand Prix, Chicago Semi-Final Grand Prix, 2009
I never watch videos of my variation. Although it’s great to see how people have danced things before you, you can watch too many and end up dancing like someone else. At YAGP everyone starts looking the same. When so many people do the same variations you need to show the judges something different.
My routine for dealing with nerves starts with a big lunch. Without it, I get tired, and that’s not pretty. Watching other dancers’ crazy tricks, like 10 pirouettes, during the warm-up can be really nerve-racking, so now at YAGP I just go off to the side with a friend I’ve made, Courtney Catalana. I listen to music, like Jack Johnson, to calm down. I also drink coffee right before I perform. I know that can make some people more anxious, but it works for me. Then I say a little prayer and off I go.
National Ballet of Canada first soloist
Erik Bruhn Prize 2009
It helped me to not think of the Erik Bruhn Prize as a competition because of its meaning: He conceived of it as a way to propel and develop young dancers. But it’s still a huge event. Once I found out I’d been selected to compete, it was at the back of my mind during every performance. I would pretend this could be it. That really eased the pressure once the time came.
Usually, I take a moment with myself about two hours before a performance to reflect on everything I want to put forward. The day of the competition, I was pretty nervous. My coach, Magdalena Popa, found me pacing backstage and took my hand. That calming moment of personal contact really made a difference because it’s integral to what I do as a performer: It’s not about me, but what I want to give.
I was so overjoyed to win. To hear my name read was pretty unreal. It was an extraordinary moment, as if years were packed into one tiny second.
"I'm kind of a collector of clothes," says Natalie Varnum. The Houston Ballet corps member turned a spare room in her home into a walk-in closet and fills it with eccentric pieces. "I love big, clear oversized sunglasses; or a high-waisted pant, socks and loafers; or a newsboy hat," she says. Varnum is inspired by icons from the '60s and '70s—Jimi Hendrix, Jane Birkin, Elton John—and she finds endless ideas on social media. She'll search Pinterest for photos, follow up-and-coming stylists on Instagram or update her own blog with "outfit of the day" posts. It was through Instagram that she recently met South Korea–based designer Sandra Meynier Kang, who reached out in hopes of collaborating and sent her a sample from her new leotard line. "It's the best way to make faraway friends now," Varnum says.
In the studio, Varnum takes a more conventional approach—sometimes. "I like a classic ballerina look, like light pink, long sleeves," she says, "or I go for something completely crazy." She commissions fun patterned leotards from her friend, former company dancer Jordan Reed, who now runs Lone Reed Designs. Her collection includes leos printed with pizza and doughnuts. Whatever she's wearing, Varnum is not afraid to stand out. "There's a time and place for a classic little black dress," she says, "but I tend to go for the more out-there pieces and colors."
Is there anything Tiler Peck can't do?
Promoted to principal at New York City Ballet by 20. Leads in everything from Balanchine's jazzy Who Cares? to classics like Sleeping Beauty to entirely new creations. A starring role in the musical Little Dancer. Check, check, check. (And that's just the beginning of the list.)
Now, her latest accomplishment is music video dancer. And we're not talking about a tiny back-up role. In Charlotte OC's new video for "Medicine Man," Peck is the sole performer of a lush contemporary ballet solo on pointe.
The past few months have brought promotions galore. We already shared Miami City Ballet's list in May as well as the major news from American Ballet Theatre last week, but we rounded up the news from nine other major companies to keep you in the loop.
The Royal Ballet
Exciting news came from London last week when Yasmine Naghdi was promoted to principal dancer after what director Kevin O'Hare called an "extraordinary year." Additional promotions include Matthew Ball and Marcelino Sambé to first soloist, and Reece Clarke, Benjamin Ella and Anna Rose O'Sullivan to soloist. Hannah Grennel, Calvin Richardson, Gina Storm-Jensen and David Yudes will take on the rank of first artists.
Yasmine Naghdi in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy of ROH.
San Francisco Ballet
With the retirement of longtime principal Lorena Feijoo and husband and wife team Davit Karapetyan and Vanessa Zahorian after the 2017 season, SFB had big (ballet) shoes to fill. In June the company announced ten promotions, including eight new members and six apprentices. Who's moving up? Jennifer Stahl (check out her crunchy kale recipe here) has been promoted to principal, and Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis (our February/March cover star), Esteban Hernandez and Steven Morse will be soloists. Filling those spots in the corps are SFB apprentices Alexandre Cagnat, Shené Lazarus, Davide Occhipinti, Nathaniel Remez and Isabella Walsh. Ulrik Birkkjaer and Ana Sophia Scheller are coming into the company as principals as well as a list of new corps members including English National Ballet dancer Madison Keesler. This spring will bring SFB's exciting Unbound festival of new works, and we're looking forward to seeing these dancers get their moment in the spotlight.
When Sacramento Ballet's board announced that it would not be renewing the contract of longtime co-directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda after the 2017–18 season, the news upset many in both the Sacramento community and the dance world. The husband and wife duo, who have run the company for 30 years, told the Sacramento Bee that they were being let go unwillingly, while several company members publicly criticized the board's decision. In a move that would give them greater protection, the dancers voted to join the American Guild of Musical Artists in March.
Last week, Sacramento Ballet announced that choreographer Amy Seiwert, a former company member, will become the company's new artistic director in 2018. And it seems to be smart move. Seiwert, who directs the San Francisco–based contemporary ballet troupe Imagery, danced for eight seasons under Cunningham and Binda. "One of the reasons I decided to go for this was to honor the legacy of Ron and Carinne," Seiwert said in a recent phone interview. "They are in my artistic DNA. My choreography, when you look at my aesthetic choices, when you look at my approach to technique, that comes from them. It's a position I want, but not the situation I want it in, because there's a lot of heartbreak."
If you're a member of a repertory company, tight rehearsal timelines are often a fact of life. You might have only a few weeks to memorize and master a piece before you take the stage. In that time, you'll need to absorb not only the steps but also the choreographer's particular style—the qualities and quirks that set that choreographer apart. Should the movement be buoyant or grounded, fluid or staccato? Is your port de bras meant to be classical or pedestrian? How should you relate to your fellow dancers, and to the audience? Answering these questions will take your performance to the next level. After all, a ballet is so much more than the sum of its steps.
"The ballet isn't going to be the ballet without the choreographer's intention and style," says Sandra Jennings, a longtime répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust. "Balanchine had an intent in his choreography that affects how we move, from our musicality to the way we use our feet on the floor and how the man offers his hand to the woman in partnering. Those nuances matter."
Absorbing a ballet's style should be an integral part of the rehearsal process. But it's not always easy, especially if you've trained in a style that's completely different. Here, three dancers share how they adapted to stylistic challenges in their repertoire. Follow their lead the next time you're thrust out of your comfort zone.
On Wednesday, June 19, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival welcomes James Whiteside Presents to the outdoor Inside/Out stage. This will be the American Ballet Theatre principal's fourth time at the Pillow. He first came to the Massachusetts–based Dance Festival as a corps de ballet member of Boston Ballet in 2004. ("I was struck by the beauty of the place," he recalls.) Whiteside returned in 2010 with Avi Scher & Dancers and most recently with Daniil Simkin's Intensio in 2015.
Now, Whiteside is bringing a program of his own work, performed alongside muse and fellow ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary and actor/show maker Jack Ferver.
"The whole thing was—I like jewels," the choreographer George Balanchine told an interviewer in the spring of 1967, when asked about his newest creation for New York City Ballet, a triptych called—what else?—Jewels. He had his photograph taken while gazing appreciatively at Van Cleef & Arpels designs, or surrounded by ballerinas wearing bejeweled headpieces and gem-toned costumes by Karinska. Balanchine had an instinct for promotion; the ballet was a huge success and is still regularly performed by NYCB and other companies around the world. At the Lincoln Center Festival this summer (July 20–23), 50 years after the first performance, three companies—the Paris Opéra Ballet, NYCB and the Bolshoi Ballet—will join together to perform it in a single night. The French will dance "Emeralds." On different nights, the Russians and the Americans will alternate in "Rubies" and "Diamonds."
This seems appropriate, as each of Jewels' sections alludes to a different style of ballet: French, American, Russian. Ballet was born in France. More importantly, France is where Romantic ballet, with its feather-light technique and delicate, wafting arms, was refined. (Think La Sylphide and Giselle.) The next chapter of its development took place in Russia, where ballet acquired its grandeur, thanks to the imagination of Marius Petipa and the splendor of the Imperial Theatres. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, this world disappeared. Balanchine, along with many others, left the country, bringing his ideas about ballet to Europe and later to America, or, more precisely, to New York City.