Reported by Lauren Kay

 

Natalia Alonso doesn’t have Maria Tallchief’s black hair or chiseled features. But given Alonso’s dramatic flair, honed at Ballet Hispanico and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, playing—and dancing—the Balanchine ballerina seems well within her reach. No surprise, then, that Alonso was cast as Tallchief in Nikolai and the Others, a new play at Lincoln Center Theater that revolves around Balanchine’s efforts to choreograph Orpheus. “The ballet’s one of Balanchine’s more theatrical works,” Alonso says. “It allows the dancer to explore mood and emotion, and with my background, I love that.”

For Alonso, delving into Tallchief’s character has been the latest step in an adventurous career that has always pushed the ballet boundaries. With her striking looks, expressive line and passionate attack, Alonso has brought her outsized talent to varied repertoire, finding herself as much at home in contemporary work as the ballet idiom. A driving force has been her desire to explore new terrain, which has kept her growing as an artist.

Her original plan was more traditional. Growing up in New York and Long Island, Alonso trained classically, went to Boston Ballet School summer intensives and hoped one day to join a big company. But a knee injury at 17 waylaid her ballet dreams, and she shifted gears to attend Wesleyan University. Eventually, though, she realized she couldn’t see herself doing anything other than dance, and began training intensely when she returned to New York after graduation. She set her sights on Ballet Hispanico, and after four auditions, the company finally hired her. She quickly emerged as one of the lead dancers.

After seven years, in a bold move, she left to join Complexions. The edgy repertoire was a shift, but she met the troupe’s athletic, technically intense demands with grace and ferocity. Though she enjoyed the challenges, after nearly five years, she started to feel restless. “The company does a lot of touring and I was tired of living out of a suitcase,” she says frankly. She also felt hungry for something new. “When I left, it wasn’t because I thought it was time to end my career,” she says. “When the play came up, it was perfect. It fulfilled this classical ballerina I have inside me, while pushing me in a new direction, too.”

In the play, Alonso dances an Orpheus variation and pas de deux. She was coached by Rosemary Dunleavy, a ballet mistress at New York City Ballet who assisted in the audition process with ballet master in chief Peter Martins. “Orpheus uses elements of contemporary and jazz in the movement—it’s not highly technical Balanchine,” Alonso says. “I’m challenged by Balanchine’s expansiveness, which is intrinsically focused on being in pointe shoes, versus them being a secondary thought.” But the acting has proved the bigger stretch. “As a dancer you look at what the choreographer gives you and you copy it. But as an actor, you have to see the context of the scene and then create something yourself. It’s definitely scary.”

Capturing Tallchief’s poise and dignity without mimicking her has been a major focus. Alonso read the ballerina’s autobiography and watched endless clips, but also trusted her own instinct for guidance. “Maria was very disciplined,” says Alonso. “That quality existed with my Russian teachers growing up and I’m bringing that to the part. I’m finding that even without company class, I’m at the theater at 9 am, warming myself up and getting into pointe shoes.”

Alonso hopes to continue her “mishmosh” of ventures, finding fulfillment in being a chameleon. She feels grateful she didn’t follow the standard ballerina path she saw for herself as a teen. “It’s important to always push yourself,” she says. “Even if life throws an injury at you or takes you on a tangent, keep following through. As a young dancer you have a single vision of who you are. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s not over. Don’t limit yourself.”

At a Glance 

Natalia Alonso

Age: 34

Favorite role: “Every new ballet I do is my new favorite.”

Training: Kaleria Fedicheva, Irina Lebedeva, Boston Ballet School summer intensives

Ballet idol: Natalia Makarova. “The first time I saw her do Swan Lake, I swore I was watching a swan dance.” 

Training
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As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

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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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popular
via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Videos
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

Summer Study Advice
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Summer Study Advice
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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