For some dancers, it was their first Giselle. For others, it was a contemporary piece set to music with no discernable rhythm. But every ballerina has one: a role that challenged her technique in new ways, or pushed her past her perceived limits, and will live in her memory as the hardest role she’s ever danced. That part can come along at any stage in a career. Here are the strategies three dancers—a corps de ballet member, a soloist and a principal—used to get through their most difficult roles. As they discovered, mastering a challenging part means becoming a stronger, more confident and more complete artist.

Achieving Warp Speed

Now in her fourth year in the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps, Margaret Mullin has danced everything from the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty to Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. But the ballet that taxed her most was David Dawson’s contemporary work A Million Kisses to My Skin, which PNB performed this past March.

Frantically paced, with huge, hyper-extended movements, A Million Kisses requires “taking every ballet position you’ve ever done and making each one 20 degrees bigger,” Mullin says. She found the piece’s turns and direction changes so fast that spotting was impossible. Instead, she learned to use the edge of the white stage floor to gauge her position. “It was the only way I could tell where to stop,” she says.

Mullin looked to her training in non-ballet styles to help her get the hang of Dawson’s movement: “Even though I hadn’t done his particular style before, my background”—which includes tap, jazz and modern—“helped me adapt to it.” Beyond that, mastering the role took plenty of rehearsal, a good dose of courage and an open mind. “I’ve always found it helpful not to think ‘I’m a ballerina,’ but to become the dancer that is required for each piece,” she says. “I never imagined I could dance something like A Million Kisses, but…I did it.”

Taking On Balanchine
Before joining Miami City Ballet in 2007, soloist Jennifer Lauren had already danced Kitri, Aurora and Giselle with Alabama Ballet. Yet she considers the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula, which she first tackled at MCB, even more demanding.

La Sonnambula is the story of a Poet enchanted with a mysterious Sleepwalker with a glassy, distant stare. To achieve that dazed look, the dancer playing the Sleepwalker must essentially eliminate her peripheral vision—but she still has to get through some complicated partnering sequences with the Poet. “Our eyes are such a big part of dancing, and then you have this role where you’re not supposed to use them. It felt like I was dancing blind,” Lauren says. The adjustment was especially disconcerting because MCB performs in four theaters each season. “Every stage was different. I had to learn to just trust that the floor was there.”

Lauren received coaching from Allegra Kent, one of the most famous interpreters of the Sleepwalker role, and MCB artistic director Edward Villella, who showed her that the key to being a compelling Sleepwalker is convincing the audience that there’s an inner life behind those unseeing eyes. “They helped me figure out that it’s not necessarily what you do with your face; it’s what you project out from inside,” Lauren says.

Becoming Odette
A principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet since 2002, Vanessa Zahorian is known for her athleticism and speed. So when she debuted in SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake, Odile’s 32 fouettés were no problem—it was Odette that challenged her.

“When you dance fast, you dance smaller. Odette was a whole other thing for me—traveling, taking up space, elongation,” says Zahorian, who had to figure out how to expand to fill the music during Odette’s tender adagios. “I tend to rush to the end of the music instead of taking up the whole phrase. I had to think about staying grounded and breathing fully and deeply in order to slow myself down.”

Coaching from Tomasson and SFB school associate director Lola de Avila set Zahorian in the right direction. Yet it ultimately came down to practice, practice, practice. “I would go into the studio for hours on end. I would fall, get back up, do it again,” Zahorian recalls. She also started doing Gyrotonic to open up her upper body, which helped her achieve Odette’s delicate, fluid arms.

Zahorian says performing Odette took her to a new level of artistry. “It allowed me to explore a different side of myself,” she says. As overwhelming as the challenge was, “it was one of the most fulfilling roles that I have ever done.”





















Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

There was total silence by the end of English National Ballet's first go at Pina Bausch's raw Rite of Spring, and much of the performance's success came down to a tiny dancer: Francesca Velicu. Handpicked to be The Chosen One, the Romanian corps member threw herself into the role with an innocence that made the ritual newly terrifying. "It brought me the most intense and emotional moments that I'll ever experience onstage," she says.

At just 19, Velicu is already walking in the footsteps of ballet's reigning Romanian star, her ENB colleague Alina Cojocaru. Born in Bucharest, Velicu earned top finishes at Youth America Grand Prix and completed her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 2015, she joined the Romanian National Ballet under Johan Kobborg, who fast-tracked her: In one season, she danced Kitri, Theme and Variations and numerous soloist roles, honing her effervescent technique with breezy confidence.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Alana Griffith in "La Sylphide." Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet/

Rising lazily from an armchair, shrugging her shoulders and limply snapping her arms side to side, Alana Griffith imbued the title role in Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) with the unmistakable boredom and longing of youth. Throughout the performance, her ability to bring personal depth to both the character and to Webre's challenging choreography revealed a special dancer coming into her own as an artist.


Alana Griffith in "ALICE (in wonderland)". Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Screenshot from CNN Style video

While ballet may feel female-dominated in that there are plenty of onstage opportunities for women, key behind-the-scenes roles like choreographer and artistic director are still largely held by men—a point that is increasingly being raised and questioned in the dance world thanks to female choreographers like Crystal Pite and Charlotte Edmonds. Also helping to break that mold is rising female choreographer Kristen McNally, who not only choreographed a recent duet for CNN Style, but also paired two women to bring it to life.

In the short film, which features McNally's choreo and is directed by Andrew Margetson, Royal Ballet first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell and principal Yasmine Naghdi changed the expectations on gender roles in ballet—and the end result is awesome. Nearly identical in appearance, the dancers' movements and lines also mirror each other throughout the piece, even when dancing in canon. Even more impressively, McNally told CNN Style, "The dancers and I did two rehearsals and then we shot the film."

Check out the full duet for yourself, below.


Training
Photo by Lambtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you superglue your vamp? I am new to pointe and don't know where to apply it. —Amanda

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars

The tambourine variation from La Esmeralda is a competition favorite, but the full pas de deux isn't seen as often. That's a shame, because it contains some of the most technically challenging classical choreography to be found. In this video, Yuan Yuan Tan and Felipe Diaz take on this balletic feat with amazing power and ease.

Tan, who was awarded a permanent contract with San Francisco Ballet after performing this role as a guest artist in 1995, is a youthful but commanding presence. Her extensions crawl right up to her ear, and she rises from deep lunges en pointe to arabesque without ever seeming to get tired. After an endless series of promenades (4:00), Tan again lunges low to the floor and then teasingly runs away from Diaz, inviting him to follow her. In her variation, she oozes gypsy spunk, enticing the audience with dramatic details. She takes the variation at a quick pace, blending each movement smoothly into the next.

Diaz, who was a soloist with SFB and is now a ballet master for the company, shines in his own right. The adagio reveals his partnering prowess. From 2:15—2:35, Diaz supports Tan almost continuously in a string of carries and lifts–and his variation is chock full of bravura. All the way through the coda, the technical fireworks in this pas de deux never stop coming. We can't get enough! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

popular
Tanaquil Le Clercq at the 1967 book signing. Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been known for her long-limbed dancing and versatile grace, but it turns out that her renown didn't end there. In 1967 the former New York City Ballet star published The Ballet Cook Book, a mix of ballet history, food stories and the pièce de résistance: recipes collected from over 90 famous NYCB dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine (her then husband), Jacques d'Amboise, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.

Why bring this up now? This year marks the 50th anniversary of her book's publication, and in celebration, food scholar Meryl Rosofsky is curating a program exploring the context of the book. Held on November 5 and 6 at the Guggenheim Museum, the program will include live performance excerpts with roles originated by Ballet Cook Book contributors including Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Bugaku, Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony as well as a panel conversation with d'Amboise and Kent (both of whom were at the original book signing) as well as current NYCB principals Jared Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, both talented cooks.That certainly seems like plenty of excitement to us, but attendees can also stop into the Guggneheim's Wright Restaurant to taste select dishes from The Ballet Cook Book including Le Clercq's Chicken Vermouth, Balanchine's Slow Beet Borschok, Hayden's Potato Latkes and Kent's Walnut Apple Cake.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio to Street

Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!