What began as a routine company class a few years ago for Miami City Ballet’s Sara Esty turned into anything but when a principal ballerina landed badly from a tour jeté. Then in the corps de ballet, Esty felt all eyes turn to her as people realized that she—the dancer’s understudy—would now be starring in both Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section and George Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie. Opening night was less than 24 hours away. It was a terrifying, and an exhilarating, moment.

Two years and one glowing New York Times review later, Esty is a soloist.

Esty’s story is far from unique. But understudying isn’t all Cinderella moments and rave reviews. The reality is that it’s up to the understudy to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice, regardless of whether that moment ever arrives. It’s a frequently frustrating but ultimately rewarding position. Even if you don’t get the chance to perform, you still walk away having boosted your knowledge—and your confidence.

Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch considers understudying one of the highest levels of responsibility a dancer can have: Should anything happen to the first-cast dancer, the full weight of the part falls on the understudy’s shoulders. “If I cast you as an understudy, that means I feel you have attributes that would allow you to really excel in the role, but you aren’t quite there yet,” Welch says. What makes a good understudy? “For me, the best understudies work and prepare a ballet with the same intensity as the first cast,” Welch says. “I think understudies need to spend a substantial amount of time on their own thinking about their ideas for the role, down to the smallest detail.”

Kathleen Tracey, ballet master at New York City Ballet, also values understudies who take the initiative. She keeps tabs on quick studies who are reliable in a pinch. “If dancers are smart and motivated enough to work in the back on their own,” says Tracey, “I see that.” When Christopher Wheeldon needed to fill a spot in his Polyphonia, it was Tracey who urged him to use new company member Lauren Lovette, an understudy who’d demonstrated her strong work ethic in class and rehearsals. (Tracey wasn’t disappointed: It was a breakout moment for the young dancer, who’s now a Wheeldon favorite.)

NYCB corps de ballet member Taylor Stanley likens understudying to being constantly “on call.” When he found himself the only NYCB male apprentice two years ago, he tried to learn all of the male corps dancers’ material, knowing he’d be the one onstage if any dancer dropped out. He kept an eye on the particulars—specific port de bras, entrances and exits—and made good use of the tape room. “It’s tricky to pick things up when you’re standing in the back, and you’re not getting the movement into your body as fully as you’d like,” he says, which is why the tape room was an especially valuable asset. His extra work came in handy when a dancer got injured, and Stanley had only two rehearsals before performing Jerome Robbins’ N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.

But while doing intensive work on your own makes a difference, don’t forget to use your most valuable resource: other company members. “Everyone’s there to help each other,” says Esty. “If you’re confused about something, don’t hesitate to go to the first- or second-cast person and say, ‘Help!’ ” Talk to your ballet master, too. When the other dancers are uncertain about a phrase, and the choreographer isn’t available to answer questions, the ballet master will be able to provide guidance and support.

You might not have adequate rehearsal time to get to know how the steps feel inside and out, but you can get to know the music inside and out. Understanding the intricacies of the score will help orient you if you get confused onstage. It can also come in handy if the orchestra’s version of the music isn’t sounding like the recording or piano version you’ve been rehearsing to. “At any moment, if something happens in the orchestra, I can just keep counting and not skip a beat,” Esty says.

If you don’t end up saving the day onstage, you may feel that your hard work as an understudy is going unappreciated. It isn’t. “Understudies don’t often get a lot of praise, but boy, if they do a good job, you know you can rely on them,” Tracey says. “I look at them as unsung heroes.”















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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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