The life of an emerging choreographer can be stressful. You’re trying to make a name for yourself, to establish your own distinct voice, to earn and then juggle multiple commissions. But some dancemakers struggle with more than choreographer’s block: They also dance with major companies. And many are corps de ballet dancers, workhorses who perform in nearly every show.

For most, one job will eventually eclipse the other. Usually, the pull of choreography proves stronger than that of performing—especially if a promotion up the company ranks isn’t in the cards—and the artist retires from dancing to focus on creating work. But for a few years in these ambitious dancer-choreographers’ lives, the worry is less about work/life balance than work/work balance.

What motivates a dancer in his or her prime to choreograph? Often it doesn’t feel like a choice. “Making work is something that’s been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember,” says New York City Ballet corps member Justin Peck, who has been choreographing for four years and is working on his first piece for NYCB. “I tried to be practical; initially I thought I should focus on dancing now, when I could, and choreograph later. But I felt compelled to choreograph. I have a lot of visions that I’m hungry to realize.”

Artistic directors, who might reasonably be leery of choreographic projects that could distract dancers from their performing responsibilities, are impressed by that kind of drive. Outgoing Royal Ballet director Monica Mason had no hesitations about taking a chance on corps member Liam Scarlett. She asked the then­–24-year-old to choreograph a main-stage ballet for The Royal Ballet after seeing a few of the pieces he had made for the company’s “Draft Works” workshop. “There was something about Liam’s thoughts, the way he chose his cast and worked with them—he was so confident that there was no anxiety about giving him the opportunity,” Mason says. “Psychologically he was ready.”

When a young dancer steps to the front of the room as choreographer, the studio dynamic undergoes an interesting shift. “It’s like the first day of school, that first rehearsal,” says Emery LeCrone, who dances with The Metropolitan Opera ballet company and has made works on members of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. “I have to think about projecting confidence, rather than getting hung up on the fact that the dancers I’m working with have had longer careers than I have.”

The role reversal is especially pronounced when dancers make ballets on their own companies. “It can be a little weird initially,” Peck says of choreographing on his colleagues. NYCB principal Janie Taylor worked closely with Peck on a video for the designer Chloé for The Block magazine last year. In one sense, she says, the project was easier than working with an unfamiliar choreographer, since she and Peck are friends. “But as a dancer of any level, you understand your place in the room,” she adds. “We always want to earn the respect of the person who’s in charge! I know not to take advantage of a friendship.” Taylor also appreciates artists like Peck because they can do everything they’re asking her to do. “I work better when a choreographer can show me exactly what he or she wants,” she says.

A dancer-choreographer has certain advantages when he’s making work on his own company, too. Being able to tailor the movement to the dancers is one. “I’ve been watching some of the NYCB dancers onstage and in class for 10 years now, so I know how to harness their strengths,” Peck says. Understanding the requirements of the company’s venue is another. Mason is impressed by the way Scarlett is able to make use of the cavernous Covent Garden stage. “It’s the theater he’s grown up in,” she says. “He has an insider’s grasp on its proportions and scope.”

As dancers, artists like LeCrone, Peck and Scarlett have front-row seats to other choreographers’ rehearsals. “Whenever I’m working with a choreographer at NYCB, in the back of my mind I’m taking notes,” Peck says. “You can’t learn how to make a ballet, but you can learn how to run a rehearsal.” And when he’s the one leading the rehearsal, he feels in tune with his dancers’ needs. “Sometimes choreographers come in and it seems like they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a dancer, how hard it is,” Peck says. “But I’m still going through it. So I try to be sensitive to how my dancers are feeling, who is hurting, who’s had a long day.”

Challenges aside, dancer-choreographers are lucky, LeCrone says, to have it both ways. “While I still can, I need to dance and to choreograph, because they’re both fulfilling,” she says. “You have your right and left brain turned on at all times.”















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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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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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