Character dancer: To most, it’s a term that evokes an older artist gesticulating dramatically as she savors her last moments in the spotlight. Or, if you’re in St. Petersburg or London, it indicates a member of a subset of classical dancers, a kind of alternate team trained to play the Hilarions and the Lady Capulets, and to fill out Swan Lake’s suite of international dances.

But there’s a new crop of actors in today’s ballet companies, and they don’t fit the stereotypes. Instead, they’re promising corps de ballet members who have carved out a specialized niche, a way to make sure they’re never lost in the corps’ sea of pretty faces. Regularly taking on roles like Bathilde in Giselle, Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty or Herr Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker is a way for these dancers to get noticed in a company where they might otherwise remain anonymous. Character parts offer them chances to occupy center stage, to read their names in reviews, to develop and perfect and own something. And if the hoped-for big role does come their way, these dancers will already know how to command the audience’s attention.

How does this kind of dramatic talent emerge? Gil Boggs, artistic director of Colorado Ballet—and, during his years as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, an accomplished character artist—says it’s partly innate ability. “You look for dancers who seem to have it naturally,” he says. “Watching performance after performance as artistic director, you can tell who is able to express themselves clearly onstage and develop a role.” Demonstrating an interest in dancing character parts, however, can’t hurt. ABT corps member Isaac Stappas, who now frequently steals the show as Bottom in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and Catalabutte in The Sleeping Beauty, first tried out onstage acting as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. “When I joined the company, I was so in awe of Ethan Brown’s Von Rothbart,” he says. “He was fascinating to watch. I remember sitting and observing his rehearsals all the time.” Eventually artistic director Kevin McKenzie noticed Stappas’ interest in the part, and—ping!—Stappas’ name appeared on the casting list.

Though getting cast can (sometimes) be that easy, the roles themselves—contrary to popular belief—aren’t. “In a character part, the dancer doesn’t have the technical framework of a traditional role to fall back on,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. “It’s all acting. People really have to go deep into their emotional side, and it takes guts to get out there and do that.” Boggs agrees. “You’re not just putting a smile on your face and dancing a variation,” he says. “You’re telling a story through mime and expression. You have to be able to command the stage.”

To create a three-dimensional persona that also projects to the balcony, dancers must do a lot of homework. “You have to make specific, detail-oriented choices,” Stappas says. “Whether your muscles are tensed or relaxed, where your eyes are focused—there are many ways to say something onstage, and you have to figure out how this person would say it.” New York City Ballet corps member Georgina Pazcoguin, the company’s go-to for dramatic parts, remembers the feverish preparation that went into her first Carabosse. “It seems funny now, but I called my dad and asked him to send me tapes of every Disney movie that had an evil witch!” she says. “I took a lot from 101 Dalmations’ Cruella de Vil in particular.” Studying the cartoons’ facial expressions, she says, helped her figure out how to communicate with her face in a way that was believable up close but would still read from far away.

Though creating a character and getting a moment in the limelight is exciting, some dancers do have doubts about getting typecast as a “character person.” “I’ve gone through periods where I’ve thought that this might be a self-limiting ability,” Pazcoguin says. “I love acting, but my first dream was dancing, and I don’t want to be seen as an actor first and a dancer second.” Most artistic directors, however, insist that these are unfounded fears. “Dancers have this underlying anxiety: ‘Uh oh, I’m cast as Sancho Panza; they see me as a character dancer now,’” Boggs says. “But no! It’s an honor. The characters are responsible for carrying the story, and the director is trusting you with that.” Plus demonstrating another facet of your artistic personality is never a bad thing. “It doesn’t limit you, it expands you,” Nissinen says. “Suddenly your rainbow has one more color. That doesn’t mean it’s the only color.”

Sometimes character roles involve real dancing, too. Pazcoguin’s favorite character part is mambo queen Anita from West Side Story Suite; Stappas’ is the swashbuckling Tybalt. And no matter how much or how little technique is required, every character part helps dancers develop skills they’ll need if they want to tackle leading roles. “Even when you’re doing a lot of dancing, you still have to think about your facial expressions and the quality of your movement onstage,” Stappas says. “During a romantic pas de deux, everyone looks at your face along with your body. For most audience members it’s just as important as the technique.”

Recently, Pazcoguin has seen her character work pay off in a concrete way. “I have a feeling that, after watching me work all these character roles, people are beginning to think, ‘If she can excel here, maybe she can handle something more technical,’” Pazcoguin says. Last season, she was cast as the impossibly nimble demi-soloist in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony.

“Not only have acting parts helped me find a place in this huge company, they’ve also given me the confidence to be myself onstage,” Pazcoguin says. “And you can’t dance to your fullest capacity until you’re comfortable being yourself.”   

Andrew Peasgood and Constance Devernay in "The Fairy's Kiss." Photo by Andy Ross, courtesy Scottish Ballet.

From now through January 15, Pointe is streaming Scottish Ballet in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy's Kiss). This one-act ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Ice Maiden," was choreographed for The Royal Ballet in 1960. For more on the ballet's history and for behind-the-scenes footage, click here.


The Lullaby in the Storm
A mother with her child struggles through the storm. The Fairy with her attendants appears and pursues her. The Fairy separates the mother from her child. Passing villagers find the body of the mother, now dead, and guided by the Fairy, they find the child. The Fairy kisses him on the forehead. The villagers become frightened and taking the child with them, they run away.

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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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via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.

Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

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Your Career
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.

Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Your Career
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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