Gillian Murphy, a principal at American Ballet Theatre, performed her first shows of Twyla Tharp’s Known by Heart pas de deux in London this February. Critics described her as “stupendously sexy” and “serene in the most daring slides.” She will reprise the role this November at New York City Center. Here she talks about the rehearsal process and shares her advice for learning a new role.

Last November I began learning the “Junk Man” pas de deux from Known by Heart, a fun and funky Twyla Tharp ballet. There are a lot of factors to consider when trying to learn and interpret a part, but unless it’s a character-intensive role, like Juliet or Lizzie Borden, that requires extra research, I like to break the process down to four main steps:

1. Learn The Vocabulary And The Choreography
First, think big picture. Try not to get absorbed in the nuance of each moment until you’re comfortable with the material itself. For Known by Heart, the learning process was a bit trickier than usual since the piece has a percussive soundtrack with elusive musical cues and a deliberately quirky, non-classical dance vocabulary. However, I’ve worked with Twyla Tharp before in ballets such as  In the Upper Room and Rabbit and Rogue, so I was familiar with her gutsy sensibility as well as her use of parallel positions, varied levels (such as deep lunges) and flexed feet. We also had the invaluable staging expertise of both Stacy Caddell, an encouraging and inspiring coach on whom the role was created, and Susan Jaffe, an extraordinary ballerina and ABT’s original interpreter of the role. Stacy taught the material very clearly through counts, while giving memorable names such as the “Futomaki Roll” and “Oh Mighty Isis” to certain sequences to help keep us from getting lost in the repetitive score.
After only about eight hours of rehearsal, we had to set the piece aside for over a month to focus on rehearsing Alexei Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker. During that downtime, it was essential that I periodically run through the steps and counts in my mind to stay on top of the intricacies of the timing.

2. Develop Extra Stamina
Even if you are in good shape, each new piece can be uniquely “puffy.” I learned the “Junk Man” pas at the same time as several of my good friends, and we were always laughing with each other about the absurd noodle-like state we ended up in after a few minutes of attempting to run the piece. It’s an 11-minute pas with only short breaks for each dancer, and it was a very real challenge to keep the charged physicality at a high pitch while maintaining technical control underneath Tharp’s aerobic, earthy movement. It’s extremely strenuous, and without proper conditioning it would be next to impossible. The necessary stamina for any new role has to be built through repetition, learning to pace yourself and remembering to breathe fully. Many dancers gain additional stamina by swimming, biking or using the elliptical machine, but my favorite form of cross-training is gyrotonic. It’s gentler than a standard gym workout, but it has helped me to focus on alignment and core strength so that I don’t unnecessarily overwork muscles. I’ve also learned over time that stamina is not only about physical conditioning: It’s about willpower and minimizing the draining forces of nervous energy.

3. Embody The Spirit Of The Choreography
Choreographer Pina Bausch once said, “I’m not interested in how people move, I’m interested in what makes them move.” When I create a role, the “how” is the foundation but the “what” is the point of departure and interest. Once I’m comfortable with the material and my stamina, it’s time to delve deeper into the nuances within the piece and explore the role’s intention. ABT first set the “Junk Man” pas 13 years ago with Susan Jaffe and Ethan Stiefel, and I remember being amazed by their spectacular performances. That memory, coupled with Stacy’s guidance in rehearsals, offered invaluable insight into my character’s feisty spirit, as well as the contentious dynamic established between the couple. Stacy noted that the question of whether my part was essentially playful, spiteful or a combination of both was open to each dancer’s interpretation. In making my movement slightly flirtatious, I interpreted the character as initially enjoying the banter and power struggle with her partner until mounting tension and misunderstanding lead to genuine disdain. An alternative could have been to make her more overbearing and itching to pick a fight. In any character role, it’s vital to develop a personal motivation for each phrase while still trusting your intuitive response to the music.

4. Stay Positive!
Throughout your process, strive to have a positive frame of mind. I was coming back from ankle surgery as I was learning the piece, and my left foot had to get stronger through consistent physical therapy and a few months of healing before I was able to fully accomplish the difficult relevé sections and the slides on pointe in parallel fourth. I also had to walk through several rehearsals due to a strained right adductor. It can be demoralizing not to be able to dance, particularly if you feel as though you’re backsliding on stamina and the sense of momentum inherent in learning a new role. However, there is a lot to learn when injured, and it’s essential not to lose your sense of perspective. Don’t let a setback, a gray winter, or personal anxieties get you down.

Before our premiere on the opening night of ABT’s London tour, my partner Blaine Hoven and I ran the pas a few times, and each run-through was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. I always have fun dancing with Blaine, and I have complete confidence in his partnering skills. Finally, on the night of our first show, I was able to turn my post-surgery doubts and pre-show nerves into extra adrenaline and excitement for the performance. Whatever your last-minute concerns, remember to relax, have faith in your preparation and be in the present moment. My secret weapons when I dance with ABT, aside from my brilliant partners, are that my costumes are made to fit beautifully by wardrobe mistress Caryn Wells, and that Riva Pizhadze does inspired hair and stage makeup right before each show. These final touches are essential to making me feel completely transported into each role. Blaine and I enjoyed every moment of bringing Twyla Tharp’s vision of abandon, contention and spontaneity to life.

















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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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