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.”















Trending
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.

Synopsis

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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popular
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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Videos
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).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

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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