Career

Dancer Spotlight: Courtney Richardson

Richardson with Fabian Voranger in Tristan + Isolde. Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Dresden Semperoper Ballett

At Dresden’s Semperoper, one of Europe’s finest opera houses, the curtain comes down on the premiere of David Dawson’s Tristan + Isolde. When Courtney Richardson, as Isolde, steps forward to take her bow, the applause rises to a crescendo. The ballet had found its heart in her first solo, expressed in powerful, neoclassical lines suffused with passion. Tristan marked her first full-evening creation in Dresden and the culmination of a long journey from Detroit.

“When we discussed Tristan,” Dawson remembers, “I realized immediately that Courtney would be my Isolde. She’s a stunning woman, a very real person with an incredible amount of depth, emotion and artistic vision. And she has an amazing sense of coordination and musicality.” It’s these qualities that have made Richardson something of a muse for Dawson, a collaborative relationship that eventually brought her to Dresden.

An active child, Richardson was sent to her first dance classes at age 3 in Detroit. A later teacher recognized her talent and suggested she train at a professional school. Richardson attended Canada’s National Ballet School and then joined National Ballet of Canada for three seasons.

But she found she was not enjoying dancing. “I needed to get out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I think I hadn’t discovered who I was as a dancer.”

Richardson joined Ballet BC in 2003. Then directed by choreographer John Alleyne, it had a strong contemporary bias. “It was a struggle for me to change so much—ballet dancers are not used to rolling on the floor,” she says. “I found a new voice and new way of working that I really enjoyed.”

Europe beckoned and she gained an audition for the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2005. Her audition day was auspicious. Kathryn Bennetts was the new artistic director, and guest choreographer David Dawson was casting for The Grey Area. “After class Kathy sent me to work with David,” Richardson says. It was her first encounter with his expansive style: ballet poised on a postmodern knife-edge and never completely abstract. “I loved the work and the movement. He was a huge reason why I went to Flanders,” she says. Once there, she continued to explore his work.

The Third Light in 2010 was Dawson’s first creation for Richardson. When rehearsals started she was going through a divorce and he wanted to use that as a backstory. “I kind of didn’t like the idea but wanted to stay open,” she says. “Dance has always been the place where I feel braver and able to expose myself. That first time creating together, we found our rhythm.”

In 2012 Bennetts left Flanders, and Richardson did soon after. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with classical or take the modern route,” she says, “but I knew it would be more of a challenge to work with David again.” She contacted Dawson, who suggested auditioning for Dresden Semperoper Ballett, where he had previously been resident choreographer. They still have many of his works in the repertoire, plus regular commissions.

She joined Dresden in 2013, where she’s found a home in Dawson ballets like On the Nature of Daylight and Opus.11. And in 2015 came Tristan, her second creation. “David paired me with Fabien Voranger in his Giselle to build our relationship,” she says. “We worked for four or five weeks. It was nice to have private energy and be really focused.” Dawson agrees. “There is a constant exchange of artistic intention and respect,” he says. “It’s a deep relationship and one I treasure.”

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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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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
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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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Career
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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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Videos

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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