When I finished high school, I didn’t have any aspirations to go to college. After all, I had already been a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet for six months; I certainly hadn’t needed a degree to enter the workforce. I didn’t have to go to college—I was a ballerina!
Fast-forward a few years, when I came to the startling realization that my career as a performer would not last forever. After a serious foot injury forced me offstage for a year and a half, I began assessing my interests outside dance and was disconcerted to discover I had countless gaps to fill. I didn’t have any hobbies unrelated to physical activity. When forced to sit still, I didn’t know how to occupy my time.
Still, the years kept passing and I kept saying, “Someday.” Then my brother, NYCB principal Jonathan, enrolled at Fordham College at Lincoln Center to study business—and the little sister in me felt those pangs of sibling rivalry. I couldn’t let my big brother beat me at something!
What’s more, I knew that I’d be covered by the scholarship program available to dancers at NYCB. Bari Lipp is the founding director of a fund called Dance On, which helps cover college tuition costs. (There are many similar programs and grants out there for dancers at other companies to take advantage of.)
Now I’m taking classes at Fordham College’s campus in Westchester, NY, where I live with my husband. In contrast to the Lincoln Center campus, where many dancers take courses, in Westchester I don’t feel like just another dancer: I’m an adult pursuing a degree. My first course was European History, which I completed this spring; now I’m tackling a theology class.
Attending college has given me an entirely different focus, and my dancing has been affected in unexpected, gratifying ways. Ironically, shifting my focus away from ballet has allowed me to change and grow as a dancer. I’m no longer obsessing unhealthily about my technique and performances, but happily engaging my mind elsewhere.
Finding the nerve to try new things academically has helped my confidence onstage, too. I want to be more than just a ballet dancer; I want to be a mature artist and person, and I know that to do that I need to step outside my comfort zone. The unfamiliar challenges of college have given me the courage to take more risks in ballet. After discovering that I could succeed academically, I was able to believe that my instincts and choices as a dancer might also be valuable. I’m experimenting with my ideas in the classroom—and with my artistry in front of thousands of people.
On the flip side, it’s sometimes difficult giving up my downtime to attend classes. I want to complete my studies in the classroom, where I feel I learn better than I would online—but that requires sacrificing my day off. Now Mondays are spent scrambling to finish up projects or papers. It’s a different kind of work, too. Grasping spiritual theories in Faith and Critical Reason, my theology course, is a far cry from learning ballets.
But I know it’s worth it. I’m now eager to learn about many different fields of study to find what fits me best. Writing, law and real estate all pique my interest. Whatever I ultimately choose, I know that my college experience has changed me as a dancer and a person. Anxiety about my future has turned into excitement: I know my life after my performance career can be shaped any way I want.
I got my corps contract on my 18th birthday. It was such a relief. I had convinced myself that I would be okay not dancing, but inside I just wanted to get a contract with Miami City Ballet.
I'd trained at Milwaukee Ballet School pretty much my whole life, and in 2014 I went to the MCB summer program and loved it. They invited me to stay for the year, and right when I got there, they offered me an apprenticeship. I spent the next two years as an apprentice. My second year I got to tour with the company and did Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Bourrée Fantasque.
Once I was told that I had a contract, it felt like so much weight was lifted off my shoulders. Every single person came up and individually congratulated me. They were so kind, and ever since then they've been like a big family.
It's such a jump from being in a school setting to being in the company. I'm lucky that I was able to experience so much firsthand as an apprentice, but there were still some things that I couldn't get used to. As an apprentice, I would spend half my day rehearsing and taking class at the school, and the other half rehearsing with MCB. Once I got into the company, there was so much less work. It was hard to stay in shape and make sure that I was on top of my dancing. The ballet masters don't give you as many corrections, and I didn't have anybody there to discipline me. It was all self-motivation.
Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee is back, this time sharing her tried-and-true advice from the streets of New York City. While conducting a pointe shoe seminar at the Joffrey Ballet School's NYC Ballet Intensive, Lee put together a list of five things to keep in mind when choosing a summer program. Whether you're about to embark on this summer's intensive or are already thinking ahead for next year, these are good tips to keep in mind. And what better way to receive advice than while viewing a stroll through some of our favorite ballet-happy spots in NYC?
American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary seems to have it all—not only is our June/July 2016 cover star a dazzling soloist at ABT, she has a sunny, down-to-earth personality and a life-saving hero for a husband. But her first year in the company had its fair share of disappointments—in fact, she almost left dance altogether to pursue acting.
In May, the National YoungArts Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships and mentorship to aspiring performing artists, brought Trenary (herself a 2011 YoungArts winner) and ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky together for a salon-style discussion. Together they talked about critical turning points in their careers, as well as the challenges of navigating the dance world as a young professional. Below are exclusive excerpts of their interview—we hope their words inspire you as much as they inspire us!
There's still time to enter YoungArts's national arts competition for a chance at scholarships, workshops and more. Click here for information on how to apply.
As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.
Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.
To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.
"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells principal Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.
Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.
Last fall, Diana Vishneva shocked her NYC following when she announced that she would give her final performance with American Ballet Theatre on June 23, 2017. The Russian-born dancer has been part of ABT since performing in Romeo and Juliet as a guest artist in 2003, and has held the title of principal dancer with the company since 2005 in addition to her principal role with the Mariinksy Ballet. Throughout her time with ABT, which she spoke about in the below video for The New Yorker, Vishneva has danced as a guest artist with Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Berlin State Ballet.
Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.
Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!