Your Career

Company Life: Dancers Getting a Head Start on College

Mori as Snow Queen in The Nutcrakcer. Photo by Kelly Pratt Photography, courtesy Saint. Louis Ballet.

Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.


Tiffany Mori as Juliette. Courtesy Saint Louis Ballet.


Tiffany Mori, Saint Louis Ballet

University of Missouri—St. Louis

Four years into her ballet career, Saint Louis Ballet company member Tiffany Mori began her college career with a community college online course. “My dad was a professor, so college was always a thing in my mind even though I thought I would never go," says Mori. From that first class, Mori began to chip away at her general education requirements until she reached her community college limit. She was fascinated by chemistry, so her science professor suggested she transfer to University of Missouri—St. Louis, which offers a unique night program for science majors. (“Organic chemistry labs take five hours," explains Mori.) The program allowed her to do two incongruous things: dance during the day and go to the lab at night, sometimes from 6–11 pm.

Time management was key to balancing both worlds. Getting up early and going to a coffee shop before rehearsals helped her knock out homework. She'd also study during rehearsal breaks and during downtime in the lab. “I really liked going into class, being able to meet the professor and have colleagues at school, to learn their stories and lives," says Mori. But having to be physically present in classes required that she speak to her professors in advance about her theater-week schedules and go to office hours to put in extra time for classes she missed.

Although her schedule was grueling, Mori found the change of pace between company and campus life refreshing. “I would go into the studio in the morning very motivated and focused because of my different life at night," says Mori. Four and a half years later, she graduated with a BS in chemistry, and while she hasn't figured out her next career path, she hopes to find internships that will accommodate her rigorous schedule and perhaps enroll in graduate school as she continues to dance.

Alexandra Pullen, Freelance dancer

Arizona State University Online

A couple of years ago, Alexandra Pullen found herself caught in the web of company drama and casting disappointments. “I needed to find some balance," explains Pullen, who formerly danced with Colorado Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She found that college courses were the perfect place to funnel her excess energy, allowing her to explore new subjects easily within the confines of her demanding schedule.

She enrolled in Arizona State University's online degree program as an English major, and takes two condensed, seven-and-a-half-week courses back to back every semester. Pullen dedicates an hour or two every day to school so that she doesn't have to catch up all weekend. “Normally after rehearsal, I go to a coffee shop and work until 8 or 9 pm," she says.

All of her classes are online, but ASU provides an advisor for over-the-phone check-ins and tutoring. “I still have deadlines and due dates," she says, “but it's more realistic with my schedule. I travel a lot." Overall she finds the school to be accommodating and supportive. Plus, college has helped her find a more positive mind-set in the studio.

“I always thought I would dance until I couldn't stand up, but now I might explore other careers before I'm crippled," jokes Pullen. Last summer, she did an internship at Los Angeles Magazine during her layoff, and while she doesn't necessarily want to sit at a desk all day, she's happy to have opportunities to gain more communication and business skills.


Pullen in La Sylphide. Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Julia Rowe, San Francisco Ballet

St. Mary's College of California, LEAP Program

“It's important for an artist to have outside influences and understand things beyond the world of ballet," says San Francisco Ballet soloist Julia Rowe about her decision to start college. She recently applied to the LEAP program, a national BA-degree program affiliated with St. Mary's College of California, in which many of her colleagues were enrolled. The program, which offers a mix of in-person and online classes, was built around the demands of professional dancers. Students typically meet for four hours of classes on Sunday evenings in order to complete the 10 core courses offered by LEAP. Credits are also given for dance experience, life experience and outside accreditations, including Pilates certifications. Other general education and minor requirements (LEAP only offers a BA in dance) can be obtained through independent study, online courses or at a local community college or university.

Though it requires a little planning, Rowe has found the degree of commitment required to be minimal when compared to a more traditional college route. Dancers can move through the program at their own pace, with some finishing in under four years and others requiring a little more time.

Rowe is only a few classes in, but she's having fun daydreaming about what she may do when she retires. “I want to learn German, I love sports medicine, I love arts management," says Rowe. She's found LEAP's kinesiology course particularly fascinating, and directly applicable to her life in the studio. “I want to eventually be able to use all the years I've had in professional dance in another field."


Julia Rowe in class. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Many of us take our ballet training for granted. But for dancers living in Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from the devastating affects of last month's Hurricane Maria, pursuing a ballet career or simply taking class must now feel insurmountable. What do you do when Mother Nature not only destroys your dance studio, but your home and the majority of the city you live in? Priorities must shift to those of basic survival.

Now, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School is trying to help six Puerto Rican dancers resume their training. The students, whose studio in San Juan was badly damaged, had recently attended SCBS's summer intensive. School directors Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez have started a fundraising effort called "Sarasota And Puerto Rico Dance Together" to temporarily relocate the dancers. While they can easily offer them scholarships, Serrano and Hernandez must raise an additional $36,000 to provide housing, food and living expenses for one year. (SCBS has a dormitory for female students, but not for male students.)

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Alexei Ratmansky with members of the corps de ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

When the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre as artist in residence eight years ago, the company hadn't had a house choreographer since the days of Antony Tudor. The gamble seems to have paid off handsomely. In that time Ratmansky has either made or restaged 12 ballets for the company. In 2011, the company extended his contract to 2023. Such commitments are practically unheard of at a time when top dancers and choreographers hop from company to company, continent to continent. The scale and ambition of the works Ratmansky is making for ABT is a rarity too, in a world of tight budgets, scant rehearsal time and pared-down esthetics.


Set design for new "Harlequinade." Courtesy ABT.

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Houston Ballet's Jared Matthews and Sara Webb in"The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Despite the devastation and pain that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left in their wake this fall, it's been encouraging to see dancers step up in aid of their communities: When the future of Houston Ballet's Nutcracker seemed uncertain, venues around the city pulled together to allow the company to produce the show on a "hometown tour." And when Florida ballet companies had to evacuate, Atlanta Ballet and Charlotte Ballet welcomed them with open arms. In addition, New York City-based studio Broadway Dance Center offered community classes in September with proceeds donated to the American Red Cross.

The next in this series of good deeds is Hearts for Houston, a benefit performance bringing dancers from seven major companies together at New York City's Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater to raise money for the United Way of Greater Houston's Harvey Relief Fund. Scheduled for Sunday, October 22, the evening will feature members of the Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater, The Washington Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Hearts for Houston is imagined and produced by Houston Ballet principal dancers Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews (both formerly of ABT) and funded by patrons Phoebe and Bobby Tudor and sponsor Neiman Marcus.


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Catherine Conley. Photo by Alex Garcia.

When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

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Pointe Stars
Photo by Paul Kolnik, via Instagram

Zachary Catazaro is ending his New York City Ballet Fall 2017 season on a high note. NYCB's ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, announced Catazaro's promotion from soloist to principal on Oct. 12th, just before the company's evening performance.

Catazaro had a stand out season, making his debut as Prince Siegfried alongside principal Sterling Hyltin's Odette/Odile in Martins' Swan Lake. He also debuted in featured roles in Martins' The Red Violin and Jerome Robbins' In Memory Of... as well as George Balanchine's La Valse.

Catazaro, originally from Canton, Ohio, joined the company as an apprentice in 2007, and has quickly moved through the ranks.

Principal dancer Rebecca Krohn retired from the stage earlier in the season, and Robbie Fairchild is set to give his farewell performance with NYCB this coming weekend, so we can't wait to see Catazaro tackle his new rank (and the feature debuts that come along with it) in the coming seasons.

Training
Eleanor Rodriguez. Photo Courtesy RAD.

"When I compete, I'm the type to get nervous and shaky," says 19-year-old Eleanor Rodriguez. Growing up, the Phoenix, Arizona native had competed in figure skating and archery, but last month she got her first taste competing in the ballet world when she traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for the Royal Academy of Dance's Genée International Ballet Competition. Rodriguez, who has been most recently studying at the Russian-based Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, trained mainly in the RAD style under Mary Mo Adams. "I've been working in the curriculum my whole life, and the Genée is the height of that experience."

Rodriguez was also the only American participant, adding to the pressure. "I definitely feel like I have to represent," she said a few days before leaving for the competition. "But I've been training really hard. I'm as ready as I can be." She prepared two solos ahead of time—the second Shades variation from La Bayadère and a "Dancer's Choice" neoclassical solo choreographed by her Master Ballet Academy teacher Albert Cattafi. Once in Lisbon, Rodriguez enjoyed four intense days leading up to the semi-finals that included classes, coaching sessions with RAD faculty and learning another solo created especially for the Genée by Portuguese choreographer César Augusto Moniz.


Photo by Ed Flores, Courtesy RAD.

While Rodriguez, who joins Ballet Arizona's Studio Company this fall, did not make it to the final round, she felt the experience was well worth it. "I loved receiving coaching and having an opportunity to perform." We asked her to share how she stayed calm and maintained perspective during the competition, below.

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Herman Cornejo in "La Bayadere." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

A double tour, says American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo, "is the step that defines a male dancer." Here, he shares his thoughts on mastering this necessary trick.

Don't anticipate: "The takeoff is hard," Herman Cornejo acknowledges. "You want to take all your force around, and that twists your back to the side and your fifth out of place." Instead, the impulse for the rotations comes from the bottom of the plié. "Be calm to start. Prepare to a relevé, plié, and the moment the heels touch down, then you take the force."

Use your glutes: A common error Cornejo sees is "sticking your butt out and your chest forward in plié so that you're not on top of your hips. You'll never make it to the other side!" Your glutes, he adds, are "so powerful that when you engage them, it really makes a difference."


Cornejo in a double tour en l'air. Photo Courtesy Cornejo.

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