When New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder heard she’d be dancing Giselle, she was excited—and nervous. Bouder had already danced Aurora and Odette/Odile at NYCB, but the Romantic-era Giselle was a lifelong dream. “It had been one of my absolute favorites since I was a child,” she says. Opportunity knocked in 2008 when legendary prima Carla Fracci, then director of the Rome Opera Ballet, invited Bouder to dance the part in Italy. Bouder had watched American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle many times, and she’d also seen videos of several celebrated interpretations, Fracci’s included. But tackling the role herself required some more research.

 

Even the most iconic roles are not carved in stone. Ballet is a living art and, without stepping outside the bounds of the choreography and a particular production, most dancers legitimately strive to make a role their own. One way they accomplish this is by doing their homework, researching every aspect: the style, the music, the cultural history of the era. It could be paintings, decorative arts, books, lithographs, period movies—anything that stirs the imagination. You can’t dance a princess if you don’t grasp the concept of royalty. You can’t be Giselle unless you can enter the mind of an innocent country girl in medieval Europe. Bouder says growing up in rural Pennsylvania and being “kind of shy” helped her identify with Giselle. “You draw on personal experience where it helps.”

 

Ballerinas mostly come to a major role within the comfort zone of a home company. There will be directors, coaches and other dancers to guide them. Ballet mistress Karen P. Brown, who staged Kansas City Ballet’s production of the romantic classic, encouraged first-time Giselle Tempe Ostergren to study various Giselles on video as a way to see how different dancers approach the role. Brown says she tries to guide a dancer while still offering some leeway.

 

Bouder, by contrast, had to do a lot of prep work alone before her two weeks of intensive rehearsal one-on-one with Fracci. A friend lent Bouder British dance historian/critic Cyril Beaumont’s 1945 book, The Ballet Called Giselle. It’s a trove of information that Bouder admits she found almost overwhelming, but it helped her clarify her own approach. “It made me more decisive about what I really wanted to do, particularly about how I identified with the character’s innocence.”

 

Films of past interpreters can provide invaluable insight into a well-known part. Some clips, like those in Jacob’s Pillow’s new Dance Interactive, are available for free online (danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org). But keep in mind that Google can’t get you everywhere. For New York dancers, the invaluable dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has 22,700 films and videos, about half of which are of ballet, says assistant curator Charles Perrier—and very little of this precious footage can be found on YouTube. (That’s not to mention the rest of the dance division’s remarkable collection, which includes choreographic notes; dance biographies and histories; taped interviews with dancers and choreographers; and original costume and set designs.)

 

In fact, since all footage of Balanchine ballets is protected by the Balanchine Trust, when it comes to his works, the library is the best place to go. Unless, that is, you have access to one of the dancers who worked with Mr. B himself. San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten, who dances leads in such touchstone Balanchine works as Serenade, The Four Temperaments and Jewels, says listening to former NYCB stars—Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy and, of course, her own director, Helgi Tomasson—helps her achieve her objective of “trying to keep the ballets as honest to the choreographer’s intention as possible.” And with Balanchine, says Van Patten, the music is everything. “In approaching a new role of his, you need to listen to the music first, and know it inside out.”

 

Since narrative ballets are often built on literary foundations, going back to the story is a good starting point. Czech-born Jirí Jelinek, currently a principal with National Ballet of Canada, learned John Cranko’s Onegin as a member of Stuttgart Ballet, but had previously danced a version by Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev in Prague. Both, like Tchaikovsky’s opera, are based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel. “The first thing I did was read the book,” says Jelinek. “It gave me a feeling of the character, that Onegin comes from a different, aristocratic world.”

 

When preparing to dance the female lead in another famous Cranko work, Romeo and Juliet, Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Kronenberg also returned to the literary source, Shakespeare’s text. Kronenberg watched film interpretations of the play, too—Franco Zeffirelli’s from 1968 and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version—before continuing to videos of several different ballet adaptations. “It’s important to do that kind of research well in advance, if possible,” she advises. “It will help later with how you inflect the choreography.”

 

In the end, remember that research should inform but not dictate a performance. “Gather as much information as you can, yet avoid copying others,” Jelinek says. “Absorb everything—but let it help you find your own way with the character.”

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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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