Pointe Stars

A Touch of Magic

Beatrix Stix-Brunell. Photo by Andrej Uspenski courtesy of The Royal Ballet.

Beatriz Stix-Brunell is standing in front of the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, frowning intently. It is early March at The Royal Ballet in London, and just one day before she is due to make an unexpected debut in the title role of his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, replacing the injured Marianela Nuñez, one of the company's most acclaimed ballerinas. As if that weren't enough pressure, The Royal Ballet is streaming class and rehearsals live online all day, with four camera crews moving between studios.

Wheeldon is fine-tuning (in front of a “worldwide online audience," as he jokingly puts it) the first step of one of Alice's solos. It's an arabesque renversée, in which she must balance for a split second after the turn, before stepping gracefully backwards and repeating the step. After watching Stix-Brunell perform the sequence, Wheeldon gets out of his chair. “Think of somebody taking your arabesque foot and pulling you back," he tells her, demonstrating the openness and breadth he wants for the movement. Stix-Brunell nods briefly and tries again. It's a perfect, dreamy fall, arms floating down with exquisite airiness as she turns out of the arabesque.

“Beautiful," says Wheeldon. “Just three of those would be nice."

Her Breakout Year

The American-born Stix-Brunell is only 19, but she is no stranger to pressure or the spotlight. At 14, she was already dancing with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses. At 17, she joined The Royal Ballet. And in a short two years, she has rocketed from Wili-and-sylph obscurity to a slew of principal roles. Over the past year, she has danced Alice, Princess Rose in Kenneth MacMillan's The Prince of the Pagodas and a principal role in the Wheeldon/Alastair Marriot collaboration, Trespass, part of the “Metamorphosis—Titian 2012" program that ended last season. In July she was promoted from the most junior rank, artist, to soloist, skipping—very unusually—the intermediary position of first artist.

“Every now and again you break the rules," says Monica Mason, the just-retired director of The Royal Ballet, who hired Stix-Brunell in 2010.

Stix-Brunell's path to The Royal Ballet doesn't seem like an obvious one. In many ways, she is quintessentially American, with the speedy footwork, long limbs and streamlined attack that Balanchine sought in his dancers. But, less characteristically, she has a beautifully pure port de bras and a certain old-fashioned glamour that suits The Royal's theatrically-driven repertoire.

A Paris Opéra Ballet “Rat"

Growing up in Manhattan, with an interior designer mother and a father in finance, Stix-Brunell enrolled at the School of American Ballet at 7, and was immediately smitten. At 11, she started taking additional classes with the Paris Opéra–trained Fabrice Herrault, an unusual step for such a young dancer, and the first indication of her attraction to a more European aesthetic. “Fabrice would show me videos of the Paris Opéra Ballet School, of Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland," she says. “I was intrigued by his stories of France, and I decided I would audition for the Paris Opéra Ballet School."

Stix-Brunell traveled with her mother to the school's headquarters just outside of Paris. Although the school takes few foreign students, she was accepted. In September 2005, she left her New York private school, Nightingale-Bamford, and moved to Paris with her mother and brother; her father remained behind, visiting when he could.

“It was overwhelming at first," she says. “Everything, including school lessons, was in French, which I didn't speak, and the pressure in the ballet classes was high; we had exams and were graded, which I wasn't used to. And it was difficult to make friends."

After three months, however, Stix-Brunell was speaking French, loving her ballet classes, taught by the just-retired étoile Elisabeth Maurin, and basking in the sense of tradition that permeated lessons and performances at the Palais Garnier. “I learned so much about the port de bras, the beats and the jumps," she says. “I think it helped to give me a great foundation for my technique."

At the end of the year, she was graded first in her class, but decided nonetheless to return to New York. Her brother, about to enter high school, was eager to go home, and she wanted to head back for eighth grade at her old school. She didn't, however, return to SAB, deciding instead to work with Herrault to further the kind of training she had been getting in Paris. Soon after her arrival in New York, she heard that Wheeldon was auditioning dancers for Morphoses and decided to try her luck.

Making the Morphoses Cut

“It was hard not to notice her. She had a maturity about her, despite her age, and a lovely technique," says Wheeldon, recalling that first audition. “She did so well in that first season that I asked her to come back for the next one, at the ripe old age of 15."

Stix-Brunell joined Morphoses full-time, helped by her school. The sight of the young dancer doing her homework between rehearsals became a familiar one to the Morphoses dancers, who included Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson from The Royal Ballet, and Wendy Whelan and Tiler Peck from New York City Ballet.

While most young dancers might have felt that their careers had been launched, Stix-Brunell agreed with her parents that she should finish high school. She left Morphoses and rejoined SAB, in addition to continuing her classes with Herrault. During that year, she connected with Mason, who, while in town for NYCB's Choreographic Institute showing, sat in on the women's advanced class at SAB. Mason knew Stix-Brunell from her time with Morphoses.

“I had been very impressed when I first saw her," says Mason. “She was a very confident 15-year-old, musical and technically secure, with beautiful arms that give her a feminine, tranquil allure. But I felt she was at SAB and that Peter Martins should have first choice."

Martins, however, didn't choose Stix-Brunell for NYCB, and when the dancer put out feelers, Mason didn't hesitate. During Stix-Brunell's first year in London, she completed high school via Skype (“Monica gave me two days off to go to the graduation ceremony") and danced mostly corps de ballet roles. The breakthrough came this past March, when Nuñez was injured, and Wheeldon asked Stix-Brunell to learn Alice. “I basically locked myself in a room every day, learning the whole ballet," she says. “I lived, slept and breathed the part. I reread the book, I watched the movie; I thought all the time about what I could bring to the role that was my own."

The calmness, ability to learn quickly and stage experience that she showed through the Alice performances stood her in good stead when another ballerina, Lauren Cuthbertson, had to withdraw from The Prince of the Pagodas just weeks later. “She has proved how capable she is, and how cool under pressure, which is hugely important when you have to get something big together," says Mason.

The British critics have so far been mostly noncommittal about Stix-Brunell. “With her willowy limbs, she has an easy flow to her dancing, and like many Americans she has a very open line which looks more relaxed in comparison with her European counterparts," says Debra Craine, the chief dance critic of the London Times. “She didn't look at all fazed by being thrown into the lead in Wheeldon's Alice, but I think, as yet, she lacks a sense of dramatic projection and The Royal is a company that really values a vivid theatrical personality in its ballerinas."

As Wheeldon points out, Stix-Brunell's quick rise through the ranks may bring with it a certain amount of pressure. “She is not in an easy position among her peers," he says. “But what impresses me is her steadfast determination to focus on her career."

Stix-Brunell herself claims to be “friendly with everyone" and to enjoy her life in London, living alone near Covent Garden, attending as many theater and dance performances as possible and going to museums on her rare off-days. Does she miss the normal life of a teenager?

“For dance you have to make sacrifices," she says. “I'm doing something I adore every day. We work hard, and the reward is being on stage."

Roslyn Sulcas writes about dance for The New York Times from London.

Career
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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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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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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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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Pointe Stars
Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

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