Larry Keigwin revels in the chance to choreograph in conservatories. “It’s like a working audition,” he says. “I’m introduced to dancers who later can come into my company. I like hiring people after I’ve had experience with them: When you’ve created a piece on somebody, you know how they operate.” Plus, he adds, the extra paychecks don’t hurt.

Professional choreographers have become common inside top ballet conservatories. For Keigwin and other choreographers on this specialized circuit, making new pieces for pre-professional dancers is a win-win situation. The process feeds the artists in ways they don’t always expect. And students graduate from these schools with distinct advantages over their peers: Rather than simply repeating variations that countless dancers have performed before them, learning and participating in the making of a new work helps students pick up choreography faster. They become flexible instruments for dancemakers—and end up as more marketable dancers. 

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has regularly recruited emerging classical choreographers since 1998 through a program called ChoreoPlan. Alan Hineline, CPYB’s resident choreographer, believes students offer professional dancemakers unique benefits. “If what you need is 16 girls who can look alike based on their training, you’re gonna get it,” he says. “That’s honestly something hard to find in the professional world: a corps that all understands movement from the same place.”

In addition to a uniform style, students also bring energy to the studio. “They’re incredibly attentive, disciplined and focused,” says contemporary choreographer Aszure Barton. “They’re interested in being a part of the creation, in doing something challenging and new.” Barton, who graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto in 1993, says she loves going back to work with its students: “Often the money is not the thing. They help me return to my core essence and my voice—the simplicity of being in a creative environment. I feel enabled and unafraid, and that’s when I make the best work.”

The collaborative process works both ways: Young dancers often grow in new directions after working with visiting dancemakers. Students thrown into CPYB’s choreographic crucible, for instance, sometimes discover capabilities they didn’t know they had. Avichai Scher, who made Of Age for ChoreoPlan 2011, says, “I didn’t know any of the students, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what they could do. They had to rise to the level of what I expected the piece to be; I didn’t adjust it for them.” And when Brian Enos made his A Night In The Tropics on CPYB students last year, he says, “After the first showing, one of the instructors said of a student, ‘I’ve never seen her dance like that. She’s such a shy girl.’ The piece showed her talent in a different light.”

It’s not all roses and snowflakes, though, when outsiders encounter students. Darrell Grand Moultrie, a New York–based choreographer who recently made Get in Line at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, is blunt about the lack of information many students have when they audition for his pieces. “Every school I go to, I ask students to tell me what they know about me,” he says. “Students today don’t know choreographers’ histories before they start working with them. And this generation can find out every credit, all the information in five or 10 minutes online!”

Moultrie teaches students what will be expected of them in the professional world. “I try to give them many secrets, share what is really being said behind the audition table or the choreographer’s chair,” he says. “Sometimes it’s jarring; sometimes it can be really helpful. I teach them about networking. If they represent themselves well, they can come to me later for a recommendation.”

The smart students soak up this information. Texan Lindsey Pitts, 24, loved working with Moultrie at DTH. “He is not afraid to push you,” she says. “He doesn’t just sit in the front calling out directions, but is in the middle of the room with us, running behind us, yelling to travel more. In the end the improvement was amazing. He always told us, ‘Just do it—what are you waiting for?’ He helped me understand the mentality of being fearless when I dance.”

Keigwin, who’s worked on Broadway in addition to running his own troupe, demands flair and personality from ballet students. “I’m introducing new compositional tools,” he says. Kingdom, which he created on students at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2009, incorporates their contributions into the choreography. “I’m asking them to participate as collaborators in the work, to be improv artists; that might be different from what they’re used to,” Keigwin says. “This is the time to give them those experiences; they’re more available and open to adventurous tasks.”

Students sometimes find surprising interests that lead them in new directions. After working with NBS, Barton found that a number of the students wanted to audition for Aszure Barton & Artists. “Who’d have thought they’d be interested in doing something other than going into a ballet company?” she asks.

Overall, the experience helps dancers more easily transition to the professional world. CPYB artistic director Marcia Dale Weary cites New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder as a successful graduate of her program who learned to pick up new choreography quickly. CPYB students, Weary observes, “have worked with so many choreographers that graduates are an asset to a company. They don’t waste time. They’re used to standing in the back and understudying, learning the parts so if someone gets injured they can step right in.” And, unsurprisingly, students who’ve had practice being choreographer’s tools are the ones who later find themselves in lead parts not long after joining the corps.

Catching the Choreography Bug

Visiting artists can have an unexpected impact. CPYB alum Antonio Anacan, 25, now at Eugene Ballet, was feeling hungry for something more at school when Brian Enos came to make a dance. “His movement was so loose; instantly I got sucked into it,” Anacan says. “I’d never choreographed, but I heard a piece of music by a Brazilian guitarist that summed up the last two years of my life. I asked Enos if he could help me. He told me to close my eyes and let the music take me, to make sure to use the floor, move around. I finished the piece in just over a week, and actually got to perform it. I was so lucky that CPYB brought in these choreographers and I got to work with one.” —EZ


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

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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