Whenever Kaitlyn Gilliland steps out of the corps de ballet to dance principal roles—and she has done so often since joining the company as an apprentice in 2005—she dances with an artistry that rivals the troupe’s top ballerinas. Creamy-skinned, nearly 5’ 11”, with a long torso and even longer legs, Gilliland’s strong technique underlies a sense of theater and feminine glamour. Whether she is dancing the mysterious Dark Angel in Serenade, the menacingly seductive Siren in Prodigal Son, the lyrical Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker or  the placid pas de deux of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, she possesses a mature talent that makes many wonder what she’s still doing in the corps. “I am just starting to grow into myself and my body as a dancer,” says Gilliland mod­estly. In fact, in the last year, she grew three quarters of an inch before turning 22.


Gilliland trained at Minnesota Dance Theatre in Minneapolis with her mother, former American Ballet Theatre dancer Lise Houlton, and her grandmother Loyce Houlton. The school emphasized strong ballet technique. In 2003, Gilliland began studying full-time at the School of American Ballet.?While there, she was spotted by choreographer Eliot Feld, who later cast her in a tailor-made solo to a Philip Glass score, Étoile Polaire. Reviewing the première, Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times wrote, “A star was born.”

Gilliland’s favorite roles include many Robbins’ ballets. “Because I am introverted and shy, when I get onstage I tend to go into myself rather than to the audience,” she says. “Something like Piano Pieces
is very calm, centered and focused, and that’s how I like to feel onstage. I think Robbins’ work lends itself to not necessarily dancing for the audience, but as if the audience happened to walk in and you were dancing for yourself.”


She finds strictly classical roles more daunting. “Something like Sugar Plum Fairy is harder for me,” she says. “I love classical ballet. It’s the most exacting and precise movement, but I often elude myself when I try to get the steps right.” Given her stellar performance in The Nutcracker last December, it’s hard to know exactly why the insecurity persists.


Gilliland has grappled already with injury, which may yield a clue. In 2004, just after she had secured an apprenticeship with NYCB, she suffered a knee injury—some cartilage had detached from her left knee resulting in surgery, rehab and a year devoid of dancing. “Given what I’ve been through, I have to be really careful,” she says.


Sean Lavery, the assistant to Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, taught Gilliland at SAB and coached her as Sugar Plum. “She has an innate sense of elegance,” says Lavery. “She can’t make a vulgar move or do something that is not tasteful.” He also praises her intelligence, work ethic and sense of humor—“everything a ballet master is looking for.”


Gilliland fantasizes about dancing principal roles in Balanchine’s leotard ballets. “I love the abstractness of those ballets. The absence of costume and set allows the dancer to create her own mood,” she explains.


“I would say my career has been full of challenges that I didn’t see coming,” she says. But she claims she wouldn’t change any of it: “It has given me greater knowledge of who I am, how I cope and who I can be onstage. Some people mature faster in this environment than others. It has taken me a while to find my footing—I’m still finding it.”



At A Glance
Name: Kaitlyn Gilliland
Age: 22
Training: Minnesota Dance Theatre, School of American Ballet
Favorite ballets performed: Robbins’ Piano Pieces and Watermill
Dream repertoire: Balanchine’s Agon, Violin Concerto, Monumentum/Movements and Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun

Joseph Carman is the author of Round About The Ballet.


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

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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