Somewhere in the history of ballet, a rumor started that dancers weren't very smart. Luckily, there are plenty of brilliant ballerinas who prove that rumor wrong. Take, for example, Melissa Thomas, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in psychology. She's now planning to pursue a master's degree in social work and eventually practice clinical psychotherapy. But as she tells it, ballet not only gave her the discipline she needed to succeed in her second career, it also became a passion that will never leave her.
What inspired you to go to Columbia?
In 2005, Lewis Ranieri (former ABT chairman) made a particularly important contribution to the company; he helped fund college classes at Long Island University for any dancers who wished to enroll. I signed up. At the time, I didn’t imagine the impact those courses would have on me, but after a while, I began wanting more. Fortunately, Columbia’s School of General Studies accommodates students with nontraditional backgrounds, like me.
How did your ballet career prepare you for the challenges at Columbia?
The discipline required as a ballet dancer helped prepare me for the high volume of work and challenging exams in college. Even as a young dance student, I was learning how to delay gratification, which is so important in college—stay in and study tonight, so that I might do better on the test tomorrow, for example. Dancers know delayed gratification as well as anybody, I imagine. Even after the show is over, dancers continue working, preparing for their next day of rehearsals—icing, stretching, rejuvenating themselves.
Were you involved with the Columbia Ballet Collaborative?
In the spring of 2011, I choreographed a brief dance for them. I found I can’t really choreograph, and it is a lot harder than I, rather ignorantly, had assumed! That said, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the dancers, two of whom are former professional dancers (one from Pennsylvania Ballet and the other from Orlando Ballet). Another exquisite dancer that performed in the piece was trained at the JKO school of ABT, and another had chosen to pursue a degree in medicine in lieu of a professional career in ballet. My fiancé Grant DeLong, a corps member at ABT, performed in the piece, too. The Columbia Ballet Collaborative combines ex-professionals with gifted dancers who wish to take alternative career paths to ballet, and the occasional guest artist from ABT or New York City Ballet. The company has grown to be an important part of the cultural life at the school, and I imagine it will continue to provide an artistic outlet for its students and training ground for those who wish to dance professionally post-graduation.
In what other ways is ballet still part of your life?
I find it hard to see in what ways dance is not still a part of my life. I read about it, write about it, think about it, dream about it, and, of course, watch it, whether live or on video. Being engaged to a dancer also means hearing about it! Perhaps the only way in which it is no longer a part of my life is that I am not paid to do it.
As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.
Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.
American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary seems to have it all—not only is our June/July 2016 cover star a dazzling soloist at ABT, she has a sunny, down-to-earth personality and a life-saving hero for a husband. But her first year in the company had its fair share of disappointments—in fact, she almost left dance altogether to pursue acting.
In May, the National YoungArts Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships and mentorship to aspiring performing artists, brought Trenary (herself a 2011 YoungArts winner) and ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky together for a salon-style discussion. Together they talked about critical turning points in their careers, as well as the challenges of navigating the dance world as a young professional. Below are exclusive excerpts of their interview—we hope their words inspire you as much as they inspire us!
There's still time to enter YoungArts's national arts competition for a chance at scholarships, workshops and more. Click here for information on how to apply.
To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.
"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells soloist Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.
Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.
Last fall, Diana Vishneva shocked her NYC following when she announced that she would give her final performance with American Ballet Theatre on June 23, 2017. The Russian-born dancer has been part of ABT since performing in Romeo and Juliet as a guest artist in 2003, and has held the title of principal dancer with the company since 2005 in addition to her principal role with the Mariinksy Ballet. Throughout her time with ABT, which she spoke about in the below video for The New Yorker, Vishneva has danced as a guest artist with Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Berlin State Ballet.
Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.
Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
If you, like many of us here at Pointe, wish you could have seen Royal Ballet star Zenaida Yanowsky's retirement performance on June 7, you're in luck. The Royal will screen a recording of it in select movie theaters across the U.S. starting Sunday, June 25. (In many cities, it will be screened on Tuesday, July 11.) The program includes three works by the company's founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton: The Dream, Symphonic Variations and Marguerite and Armand—the latter of which stars Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. You can also catch other Royal favorites like Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Steven McRae, Akane Takada and Yasmin Naghdi. Make sure to bring tissues!
To find dates, times and theaters near you, click here.
Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning has a different kind of vision for her Chamber Dance Project. Though she relocated the project-based company from New York City to Washington, DC several years ago, her focus remains on creating collaborations between classically-trained ballet dancers and other contemporary artists to share in intimate venues with live music. This summer, the artistic director brings together dancers from Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington Ballets for a condensed period of time. The company's 2017 season show titled Ballet Brass & Song opens this weekend, and features works by Jennifer Archibald, Jorge Amarante, and a world premiere by Coburn Bruning herself. We caught up with her last week to hear more about her company's mission.