Last spring, as American Ballet Theatre began rehearsals for its Metropolitan Opera House run of La Bayadère, someone important was missing.

 

All the Nikiyas and Gamzattis were in the studio; no Solor or Bronze Idol was unaccounted for. But Marian Butler, a member of the corps de ballet since 1995, was out with an injury—a loss that ballet mistress Susan Jones felt deeply. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this without Marian?’ ” Jones says. “I needed her. She knows the ballet inside and out, so she’s a huge support system for me. And her work ethic, her calm demeanor—she’s an example for the other girls. It didn’t seem like Bayadère without Marian.”

 

Most aspiring ballerinas think of the corps de ballet as a place best escaped as quickly as possible, a stepping-stone on the way to better, more glamorous roles. But many—indeed, the majority of professional ballet dancers—have found rich, long, fulfilling careers in the corps. These senior corps artists are the heart and soul of the ballet company. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics, and they’ve earned the respect of their colleagues. Night after night, they make ballets happen.

 

It’s true that few of these dancers expected to end up as corps veterans. “I don’t think any little girl starts out thinking, ‘I want to be a corps dancer!’ ” says Kylee Kitchens, a member of Pacific Northwest Ballet since 2000. “I definitely heard people talk about dancers ‘rotting in the corps’ when I was training,” agrees Mariellen Olson, who joined San Francisco Ballet eight seasons ago.

 

But experienced corps members understand that the corps of an international ballet company can be a rewarding place. They’ve chosen to be there: Most could be dancing larger roles in smaller troupes. “New York City Ballet was always where I wanted to end up,” says Gwyneth Muller, who joined the company’s corps in 2000. “Yes, I could dance bigger parts elsewhere, but I wouldn’t get to do NYCB’s fantastic repertoire. This is such an exciting place! Even if I’m not dancing the lead in a Balanchine ballet, I feel like I’m doing something important by participating in a great piece of art that’s affecting people.”

 

Since most of today’s ballet companies present a wide range of work, corps members have many opportunities to develop their artistry. Contemporary pieces, in particular, tend to give the corps a chance to shine. “Unless we’re doing a big old classic, a Swan Lake, we’re not just standing there, waving our arms,” Muller says. “I’m constantly learning ballets that involve real dancing, and because the company commissions a lot of new work, my rep is always expanding.” Olson notes that even one of the most over-performed classical warhorses—The Nutcracker—can be a gold mine for corps members, who are likely to find themselves dancing the occasional marzipan shepherdess or ballerina doll in addition to their usual duties as flowers and snowflakes.

 

Some arm-waving is unavoidable, of course. But dancing as a Wili in 10 straight performances of Giselle isn’t necessarily a nightmare. “The principals only get one or two shots, but since we do the classics many times, we get to expand our interpretations of the character and play with different things,” Kitchens says. “I’ll think about my port de bras one night, the placement of my head the next.” If, after the umpteenth show, they begin to feel restless or bored—and all admit that they sometimes do—they think about the bigger picture. “I remind the corps girls that, as artists, they bring the same level of contribution to the performance as Odette or Giselle,” Jones points out. “There’s something uniquely beautiful about the corps ‘dressing the stage’ for the principals,” Butler says. “It’s a tradition. I think about that a lot when I’m frustrated: Without me, without us, the ballet isn’t complete.”

 

Without the senior corps members, the company isn’t complete, either. As Jones knows, veteran corps dancers often provide assistance to the ballet mistress in rehearsal. “They’re my security blanket,” says Jones, who herself danced in ABT’s corps for almost nine years. “I remember the 1970-something version of a ballet; they remember the littlest details of all the changes made since then, which I lose track of. It’s in their bodies.” They also help new corps members, who often receive little coaching and yet must quickly familiarize themselves with the classical repertoire. Many senior corps women even consider themselves mentors to greener dancers. “I let the new dancers know that I’m there if they have any questions about choreography—or about how to survive the weeks of performing,” Butler says. “We take it upon ourselves to make sure they feel comfortable with the steps and the style,” Olson says. “In the end, we all have to fly together.”

 

That sense of camaraderie extends to life offstage. It can get lonely at the top of a ballet company, but corps members can rely on each other. “When things get tough, we can commiserate: ‘Ugh, not another Swan,’ or ‘Oh man, my feet hurt too!’ ” Olson says. And hundreds of shared hours in rehearsal studios and dressing rooms foster deep, lifelong friendships. “I’ve grown up with these girls,” Kitchens says. “We’ve had amazing experiences together. They’re my family here in Seattle.”

 

Ultimately, senior corps dancers find joy in the fact that they are living that little-girl dream. “We started dancing because we wanted to perform,” Muller says. “Being onstage is a privilege, and we have more stage time than anyone else.”

 

“That thrill that you get when the lights go down before a show, the breeze you feel as the curtain comes up—at that moment, I’m not thinking about my rank or my role,” Kitchens says. “I’m just thinking, ‘I’m up here! Dancing!’ ”

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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.

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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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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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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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