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.”















Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

There was total silence by the end of English National Ballet's first go at Pina Bausch's raw Rite of Spring, and much of the performance's success came down to a tiny dancer: Francesca Velicu. Handpicked to be The Chosen One, the Romanian corps member threw herself into the role with an innocence that made the ritual newly terrifying. "It brought me the most intense and emotional moments that I'll ever experience onstage," she says.

At just 19, Velicu is already walking in the footsteps of ballet's reigning Romanian star, her ENB colleague Alina Cojocaru. Born in Bucharest, Velicu earned top finishes at Youth America Grand Prix and completed her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 2015, she joined the Romanian National Ballet under Johan Kobborg, who fast-tracked her: In one season, she danced Kitri, Theme and Variations and numerous soloist roles, honing her effervescent technique with breezy confidence.

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Pointe Stars
Alana Griffith in "La Sylphide." Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet/

Rising lazily from an armchair, shrugging her shoulders and limply snapping her arms side to side, Alana Griffith imbued the title role in Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) with the unmistakable boredom and longing of youth. Throughout the performance, her ability to bring personal depth to both the character and to Webre's challenging choreography revealed a special dancer coming into her own as an artist.


Alana Griffith in "ALICE (in wonderland)". Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.

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Pointe Stars
Screenshot from CNN Style video

While ballet may feel female-dominated in that there are plenty of onstage opportunities for women, key behind-the-scenes roles like choreographer and artistic director are still largely held by men—a point that is increasingly being raised and questioned in the dance world thanks to female choreographers like Crystal Pite and Charlotte Edmonds. Also helping to break that mold is rising female choreographer Kristen McNally, who not only choreographed a recent duet for CNN Style, but also paired two women to bring it to life.

In the short film, which features McNally's choreo and is directed by Andrew Margetson, Royal Ballet first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell and principal Yasmine Naghdi changed the expectations on gender roles in ballet—and the end result is awesome. Nearly identical in appearance, the dancers' movements and lines also mirror each other throughout the piece, even when dancing in canon. Even more impressively, McNally told CNN Style, "The dancers and I did two rehearsals and then we shot the film."

Check out the full duet for yourself, below.


Training
Photo by Lambtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you superglue your vamp? I am new to pointe and don't know where to apply it. —Amanda

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Pointe Stars

The tambourine variation from La Esmeralda is a competition favorite, but the full pas de deux isn't seen as often. That's a shame, because it contains some of the most technically challenging classical choreography to be found. In this video, Yuan Yuan Tan and Felipe Diaz take on this balletic feat with amazing power and ease.

Tan, who was awarded a permanent contract with San Francisco Ballet after performing this role as a guest artist in 1995, is a youthful but commanding presence. Her extensions crawl right up to her ear, and she rises from deep lunges en pointe to arabesque without ever seeming to get tired. After an endless series of promenades (4:00), Tan again lunges low to the floor and then teasingly runs away from Diaz, inviting him to follow her. In her variation, she oozes gypsy spunk, enticing the audience with dramatic details. She takes the variation at a quick pace, blending each movement smoothly into the next.

Diaz, who was a soloist with SFB and is now a ballet master for the company, shines in his own right. The adagio reveals his partnering prowess. From 2:15—2:35, Diaz supports Tan almost continuously in a string of carries and lifts–and his variation is chock full of bravura. All the way through the coda, the technical fireworks in this pas de deux never stop coming. We can't get enough! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

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Tanaquil Le Clercq at the 1967 book signing. Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been known for her long-limbed dancing and versatile grace, but it turns out that her renown didn't end there. In 1967 the former New York City Ballet star published The Ballet Cook Book, a mix of ballet history, food stories and the pièce de résistance: recipes collected from over 90 famous NYCB dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine (her then husband), Jacques d'Amboise, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.

Why bring this up now? This year marks the 50th anniversary of her book's publication, and in celebration, food scholar Meryl Rosofsky is curating a program exploring the context of the book. Held on November 5 and 6 at the Guggenheim Museum, the program will include live performance excerpts with roles originated by Ballet Cook Book contributors including Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Bugaku, Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony as well as a panel conversation with d'Amboise and Kent (both of whom were at the original book signing) as well as current NYCB principals Jared Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, both talented cooks.That certainly seems like plenty of excitement to us, but attendees can also stop into the Guggneheim's Wright Restaurant to taste select dishes from The Ballet Cook Book including Le Clercq's Chicken Vermouth, Balanchine's Slow Beet Borschok, Hayden's Potato Latkes and Kent's Walnut Apple Cake.

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Studio to Street

Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.

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