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.”





















Trending
Andrew Peasgood and Constance Devernay in "The Fairy's Kiss." Photo by Andy Ross, courtesy Scottish Ballet.

From now through January 15, Pointe is streaming Scottish Ballet in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy's Kiss). This one-act ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Ice Maiden," was choreographed for The Royal Ballet in 1960. For more on the ballet's history and for behind-the-scenes footage, click here.

Synopsis

The Lullaby in the Storm
A mother with her child struggles through the storm. The Fairy with her attendants appears and pursues her. The Fairy separates the mother from her child. Passing villagers find the body of the mother, now dead, and guided by the Fairy, they find the child. The Fairy kisses him on the forehead. The villagers become frightened and taking the child with them, they run away.

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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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popular
via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Videos
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

Your Career
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Your Career
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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