In a company known for its tall women, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Leta Biasucci doesn’t fit the mold. At 5' 3", she seems petite next to several of the company’s willowy principals. But her height is far from all that stands out.

Last spring she charmed audiences in Giselle’s peasant pas de deux, flying through impeccable batterie with grace and precision. The role seemed made for her, but so does nearly every one that she’s danced, a tribute to the broad spectrum of her talent. She’s stepped in last minute as Swanilda in Coppélia. She’s conquered Clara in PNB’s Nutcracker. She’s been featured in work by Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp. And last winter, shortly after her 24th birthday, she made her debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. “It’s odd to see someone fit so naturally in a full-length ballerina role,” says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “That’s the hardest thing to do, and she got there first.” Biasucci has been a star in PNB’s corps de ballet for only three years. This fall marks her promotion to soloist, and she is well on her way to expanding the definition of a PNB ballerina.

Even her background is different. Unlike most PNB corps dancers, Biasucci did not come through the company’s professional division or the School of American Ballet, where Boal keeps close ties. A Pennsylvania native, Biasucci began dancing as a 5-year-old in a ballet-tap combo class. After three years, her teacher suggested she might like the more rigorous training at Marcia Dale Weary’s Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, noted for turning out technically strong, versatile performers. Her years there laid the foundation for her entire career. At 16, she became a trainee at San Francisco Ballet School. At 18, she landed her first professional job with Oregon Ballet Theatre under Christopher Stowell. OBT’s small size, she says, gave her “a good place to grow, feel nurtured and have opportunities to be presented,” but she was hesitant to let her roots grow deep. “I had dreams of dancing in a larger company,” she says.

Biasucci took PNB’s company class in spring 2011 without any real expectation of a job. For one thing, she was comparatively short. Early on, she says, “I’d come to terms with the fact that my height would always be a deciding factor in jobs offered, roles danced and heads turned.” Petite felt especially prohibitive at PNB. “In my mind it was always women that are 5' 10" with these incredible lines.” Boal, however, was intrigued by her. “There was something so unique about her style—which is good and bad,” he says. “We see about a hundred dancers a year that come through and take company class, and very few of them stick with you.” Biasucci stuck, and Boal offered her a contract.

She soon proved herself. At the end of her first season, another dancer’s injury gave her an opportunity to dance Swanilda. Last on the cast list, but with a physique and personality perfect for the role, Biasucci had been tapped as an understudy. However, Boal notes, “careers are always made on what happens last minute.” He felt pleased by her success. “It made you look at Leta and think, Okay, we’re not just talking about a future soloist. We’re talking about a talent that’s going to ascend into all of the big roles.”

Last season’s Aurora was a dream role for Biasucci, one she found both rewarding and grueling. “The characterization is conveyed so much through clarity in the technique,” she says, and each act requires a very different approach. Biasucci felt at home in Act I’s rapid-fire petit allégro entrance, but the ballet’s demanding adagios challenged her natural inclinations, especially in the ethereal second act. She notes drily that “other ballerinas talked about how Act II was supposed to be the ‘rest act,’ but I had to expend so much energy on not punching everything.”

Contemporary choreography, integral to PNB’s repertory, has been the final frontier for Biasucci, with her classical CPYB background. “At first it was scary for me,” she admits. At PNB, big names like Twyla Tharp and Crystal Pite setting their work on the company has deepened her understanding and experience. Biasucci has also worked closely with choreographer and former PNB dancer Andrew Bartee, whom she considers a source of inspiration. The respect is mutual—Bartee loves teasing new movement qualities out of Biasucci. “It’s like her skin breathes when she moves,” he says. “I’ve told her before, I wish I could be in her body for a day, because everything looks like it feels good, even if the movement’s awkward.”

“She’s very gutsy in what she’ll attempt to do,” says Boal. “I actually love when she’s unsuccessful, because she has these amazingly creative ways of still finishing a combination when she’s clearly falling to the right.” Biasucci’s willingness to try anything extends beyond the studio. By night, she takes college courses in arts management through PNB’s Second Stage program. “The dance career requires that you are worried about yourself,” she says. “To learn about how the organization operates has allowed me to see the arts as a much bigger, broader entity.”

Biasucci is poised to shift the long-established image of the PNB ballerina. But a company standard arises from exceptional dancers who win the audience over to the qualities that set them apart. “There was probably a time when Patricia Barker went into roles, and people thought she was longer and lankier than what a ballerina should be,” says Boal. “Then Kaori Nakamura went into a role, and they thought, She’s so tiny, we picture someone more like Patricia Barker. But Leta is pushing the model in a new direction, and people have really come to embrace her as a talent.” It’s anyone’s guess where Biasucci’s talents will lead her next, as Boal is first to recognize. “That’s what is so exciting about Leta. She’s going to go in 10 directions. Ten great upwardly-mobile directions.”


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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