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.”





















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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 also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

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!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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