Life as a Houston Ballet apprentice is both full of possibilities and a precarious situation. It’s the dancers’ first taste of life as a professional, but at the end of the year, there will be company spots for only half of them. Even an apprentice as talented as Liao Xiang, who made the finals at Prix de Lausanne last year and has attracted attention in her first months on the job, has to prove herself.


Xiang, 18, left her hometown of Wuhan, China, for the Beijing Dance Academy at 9. A third-place finish at Youth America Grand Prix earned her a scholarship to The Harid Conservatory, where she trained for a few months before transferring to Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. She was quickly taken into Houston Ballet II, where she spent the last two years. “They paid attention to the foundation of my technique,” she says. “The rep made me grow. We did everything from snow in Nutcracker to several of artistic director Stanton Welch’s ballets. That pace prepared me to be an apprentice.”


Houston Ballet apprentices have the same workload as full company members, performing in every repertory program and story ballet. And the company members, from principals to the corps de ballet, regularly help the apprentices along. “It’s part of the plan to have the company adopt the apprentices,” says Welch. “I am looking for how well they dance with everyone else.” Welch wants dancers who can fit in and don’t have an attitude.


This year, four of the five apprentices came through HB II. That extra history with the company in some ways gives them a leg up, since contract decisions happen in January (apprentices start in late July). “It’s tough because there’s a short period of time with just two reps and Nutcracker for apprentices to make an impression,” says Welch. “It’s ideal to be cast in something by a visiting choreographer.”


Xiang is adjusting quickly to life in the main company. “It feels simpler and more streamlined,” she says. “We aren’t trying to do everything like at HB II, where we participated in outreach, toured and danced both as HB II and with the main company.” Rehearsals for Welch’s Tutu and The Core and Balanchine’s Jewels currently fill up Xiang’s days, which stretch from noon until 6:45, with an hour for lunch in the afternoon.


However, it’s been a difficult transition to go from taking class with 18 dancers to 53. “I have to make sure I’m working properly,” says Xiang. “With such a large group, there is less focus on me.” Welch says this can be the hardest part of being an apprentice: “They need to maintain their technique because they actually may be doing less work than they did in school or in HB II.” To this end, additional technique classes specifically for apprentices are offered a few times a year.


Xiang loves that Houston Ballet’s rep includes both classical and contemporary work. “Classical is so familiar; it’s like my home,” she says. “But something happens to me when I dance contemporary work. I find a new part of myself.” HB II ballet master Claudio Muñoz says, “Liao’s built for classical technique. Her coordination between her pointe work and port de bras is extraordinary. Yet she’s simply on fire in Stanton’s Fingerprints. Suddenly, this swan is moving with wild abandon. I didn’t know she had such aggressive energy in her. She continually surprises me.”


Xiang has set her sights on doing the best she can during her apprentice year, proving herself worthy of a company slot. Right now, Houston feels like a perfect fit. “Even though Houston’s hot, the humid weather is the same as in my hometown in China,” says Xiang, who manages trips home three times a year. But it’s Houston Ballet’s focus on artistic excellence and challenging rep that keeps her in Texas. “In China, it’s about training. Here, they nurture a passion for dancing. I want to see just how far I can go.”



At a Glance:

Houston Ballet


Number of Apprentices: Five or six a season
Salary: $19,047.16
Length of Contract: 44 weeks
Opportunities: Apprentices perform in all repertory programs and story ballets, plus a small number of outreach performances.

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.


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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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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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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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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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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