The Upside of Downsizing

Most dancers dream of dancing for big, prestigious companies with swelling corps de ballet, glittering media coverage and endless weeks of work. So why would anyone who made it to the big leagues want to downsize to a smaller troupe? In the cases of these three dancers, it was about much more than better casting opportunities: For each, leaving a brand-name troupe proved to be a major breakthrough. As their career and life goals took shape, they gladly traded in the prestige to accomplish their objectives—and they haven’t looked back.

Miami City Ballet-->Trey McIntyre Project

As a corps dancer with Miami City Ballet, Elizabeth Keller was often dancing in three ballets a night, five shows a week. She loved the company’s Balanchine repertoire, but after 10 years and a series of major injuries, she grew restless. “I wanted something new,” she says. “I was feeling a little stale, artistically.”

A longtime fan of Trey McIntyre’s choreography, she arranged an audition when the Trey McIntyre Project toured to Florida, then flew out to their home base of Boise, Idaho, for a few days, and finally joined the company last summer. Suddenly, Keller went from working with over 50 dancers to 10, and realized there was no place to hide. “Everything is magnified in the studio,” she says. “All eyes are always on you!”

Keller also had to adjust to a new work and movement style—and realized she was more stuck in her ways than she thought. “Trey wants you to perform on a very human level, not a presentational level, which is hard coming from the classical world,” she says. McIntyre creates three to four new ballets a season, giving Keller a chance to experience the creative process. “I never got to do that in Miami,” she says. “It was something that I was craving.”

Keller loves how the company functions as an intimate, close-knit family. “We really feed off each other. When one person’s having a bad day, it’s up to the other nine of us to help them out.” She also enjoys having a closer relationship with her director. “He’ll shoot off a text or send me an e-mail—he’s less untouchable.”

Although Keller misses the big ballets, as she’s learned to embrace her vulnerable side, she’s found deep fulfillment. “I’ve grown more as an artist in the last six months than in the last three or four years,” she says. “Being on the brink of new and wonderful things is a pretty cool place to be.”

San Francisco Ballet-->Ballet San Jose

After enjoying eight years as a soloist for San Francisco Ballet, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun had an unconventional motive for leaving. Making the switch to Ballet San Jose wasn’t only about her dance career: It was an opportunity to prepare for her long-term goal of teaching in her home country. 

Born in Thailand—where professional opportunities are virtually nonexistent—Pipit-Suksun moved to London at 15 to study at The Royal Ballet School and won a gold medal at the Genée International Ballet Competition. Upon graduation, San Francisco Ballet offered her what most teenagers can only dream of: a soloist contract.

But joining as a soloist fresh out of ballet school wasn’t easy. “I remember being with all the principals and thinking, ‘What am I doing in this rehearsal?’ ” she says. “It was intimidating.” She lacked the experience necessary for high-pressure roles, overexerted herself and ended up struggling with knee injuries. She also sensed competitive resentment among her colleagues. “I think if I’d joined as an apprentice or corps member it would have been a different story. I never felt like I fit in properly.”

By 2012, Pipit-Suksun needed a change. She was drawn to the nearby Ballet San Jose, which offers American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum courses to its company members for free. She joined as a soloist. One benefit was that BSJ’s season is much shorter than SFB’s, running from September to April. “Some dancers might not like that,” she says. “But for where I’m at right now, I can dance and also have time to develop my teaching skills.” She currently teaches at night and on weekends, and this summer, after finishing ABT’s training course, she plans to spend July and August guest-teaching back home in Bangkok. “My dream is to open a professional ballet school in Thailand.”

Pipit-Suksun also feels greater camaraderie at BSJ. “In a smaller company, people are more supportive,” she says. “I love dancing here. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my passion again.”

New York City Ballet-->Kansas City Ballet

Kansas City native Taryn Mejia couldn’t have had it any better as a budding corps member at New York City Ballet. For two and a half seasons she enjoyed nights of endless dancing. “I was performing constantly,” she remembers. “I got to dance ballets that I’ll never get to do again, big ballets like Symphony in C and Stars and Stripes.” She had her dream ballet career. But she only figured out how to balance a well-rounded life as a dancer when she moved back home to Kansas City.

Mejia had trained at the Kansas City Ballet School, then left for the School of American Ballet at 16 and landed a contract with NYCB three years later. But the all-consuming workload took a toll, and she found herself sidelined with a serious leg fracture. “During my recovery, I realized that I wanted more than just dance. I wanted a family, which seemed impossible in a company that performs that much.”

Over the next six years, she pursued her education, earning a degree in child psychology; she also got married, moved to New Orleans and had two children. For fun, she started guesting with New Orleans Ballet Theatre. The director there encouraged her to consider dancing again. “He was right,” she says. “I did still want to perform. I just needed to find someplace where I could also have a life.”

When artistic director William Whitener offered her a place in Kansas City Ballet, Mejia knew it was time to go home. Now in her first season, the 27-year-old is thrilled that KCB’s performance schedule and summers off allow her to spend time with her husband and kids. “Our theater weeks—where you’re there until 10 o’clock at night—only happen every three to four months,” she says. Her parents often help her with childcare during the day.

While she misses the excitement of New York City, Mejia feels that the Midwest is perfect for raising a family, and for now she has the best of both worlds. “I get to have a family and dance,” she says. “I should have done a smaller company a long time ago!”

Amy Brandt is Pointe’s Ask Amy columnist.

Video still by Nel Shelby Productions, Courtesy Dancio.

"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."

For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.

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New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in February. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Pointe Stars
Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT has also offered sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast in the past.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!





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