(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)
Nikiya’s epic “death” solo at the end of La Bayadère’s second act is more than a test of stamina: It’s integral to the ballet’s plot. In it, Nikiya laments her doomed relationship with Prince Solor, rejoices upon receiving a basket of flowers she believes to be from him and collapses after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket. “There’s a lot of storytelling in the steps,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, who danced the role this spring. Here are her tips for navigating the variation’s technical and emotional complexities.
1. Let the Character Drive the Choreography
One of the most difficult aspects of the variation is making the spare choreography fill the music. If you’re having trouble slowing down, focus on what Nikiya is feeling as much as what she’s doing. “Her love has betrayed her—and she’s mourning,” Erickson says. “When you grieve, it’s like you’re suspended in time, and that’s exactly how the variation should feel.”
2. Stay Grounded
Maintaining your balance through the solo’s prolonged sous-sus, penchées and backbends can also prove challenging. “Feel a constant connection to the floor,” Erickson advises. “In sous-sus, for example, I think about rooting my legs in the ground, while simultaneously growing taller in my upper body.” Once you’re given the basket of flowers, let the prop work for you. “When you penchée, you naturally want to hold on to something—and the basket is something to hold on to!” Erickson says. “Its steadying influence may be all in your head, but it helps.”
3. Relish Small Details
Because the solo is so slow, it leaves room to play with the port de bras. Erickson likes to incorporate Nikiya’s “sacred, palms-to-the-heavens” gesture from the first act’s choreography. “In the context of this variation, it becomes especially powerful—like you’re asking, ‘Why, God, why?’ ” She also repeatedly reaches the palm of her flexed hand toward Solor. “It’s a very exposed, very human movement,” she says. “It reads as pleading.”
4. Don’t Oversell It
It’s easy to get swept up in the variation’s swoony theatrics. But a little restraint makes Nikiya’s suffering even more acute. “Don’t give too much face,” Erickson says. “The port de bras is doing enough to speak for the emotion.” So, she adds, is the “beautifully sad” score. “I almost cry just listening to it! Subtler interpretations give the audience a chance to hear the music as well as see it.”
5. Avoid Fake Snake Syndrome
Making Nikiya’s death by snakebite look believable can be tricky. “I definitely got called out on that in rehearsal,” Erickson says, laughing. “My fix is to bring the basket of flowers very close to my face, enveloping it, right before the bite is supposed to happen. That way, there’s no visible hand-going-into-the-basket moment.” It’s a character-driven solution to a logistical problem. “I’m inhaling the flowers’ scent, having a moment as I remember Solor’s love,” Erickson says. “And then the snakebite shocks me out of it.”
Kitchens with Jerome Tisserand in "Afternoon of a Faun" (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
The woman’s role in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun is surprisingly hard. The plot seems straightforward enough: two dancers happen upon each other in a studio. But the character, created for Tanaquil Le Clercq in 1953, oozes sensuality, innocence and vanity while responding—through the mirror—to her partner’s gaze. Here, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kylee Kitchens offers insights into the “less is more” approach to Robbins’ choreography.
Find Your Focus
The stage is set like a studio, with a door upstage and barres lining the walls. “The most difficult part of the ballet is creating that fourth wall,” says Kitchens. “You have to look at the audience like you’re looking in the mirror.” She uses the real mirror in rehearsal to memorize where her focus needs to be, angling her head like she’s studying her own reflection, or that of her partner. “It has to be realistic. At the theater, we use an exit sign as a focal point so that we’re looking at exactly the same spot.”
Create Tension Through Stillness
Motionless moments emphasize the sexual tension between the two characters; wobbling can break the mood. For instance, after swooping down a diagonal, the woman stops her momentum mid-step at first sight of her partner. To secure this pedestrian pose, while making it look both natural and sharp, Kitchens turns her standing leg in for balance. “Later, when I flip onto his shoulder, I get my arms up and just hold myself,” she says. Once at the top of the lift, she resists the urge to fidget as her partner lowers her down.
Robbins’ style is natural and understated, with much of the acting built into the choreography. “It’s more about your body language, how you angle your shoulders and your head,” says Kitchens. “I try to let my eyes read without being overly dramatic with my face.” The character is inquisitive and self-absorbed, but the movements are simple and clear. Try not to add mannerisms or overdo the subtle details. “The choreography will speak for itself.”
Relate to Your Partner
Upon seeing the man, the woman is aloof yet flirtatious. “It’s like those teenage years that are so raw and innocent, and there’s a bubbling of sexuality,” says Kitchens, who remembers feeling the boy’s hands on her waist during her first partnering class. “You pretend you don’t care.” The tension builds until the end of the pas de deux, when the man kisses her cheek. “You’re watching yourself in the mirror, watching it happen,” says Kitchens. “You decide to leave before it gets to be too much.”
Use Breath for Effect
Afternoon of a Faun is not a stamina piece. “I never feel out of breath,” says Kitchens. Instead, she uses her breath to show visceral responses at key moments. When her partner touches her waist for the first time, Kitchens gasps before stepping away. Later she takes a deep inhale before leaning into a luscious backbend, her partner gently caressing her hair. And before the final kiss, she holds her breath in anticipation. “I don’t want the audience to see my stomach going in and out.”
Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.
Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?
First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.
“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”
Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”
In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?
“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.
“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”
Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.
“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.
Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.
Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.
“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”
There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”
Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.
“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.
“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”
Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.
For our Whole Dancer Issue, Pointe looked at how dancers nurture who they are both inside and outside the studio. We found that dancers in companies all over the country spend much of their time off supporting worthy causes in their communities. In addition to giving themselves to audiences night after night, giving their time to those less fortunate adds an extra dimension to their own lives. And as dancers, they have something especially inspiring to share with others: their art.
The Tough Get Going
Three years ago, Jenna McClintock, then dancing for Richmond Ballet, came across an ad for a juvenile detention center that was seeking volunteer art and music teachers.
“I remember calling them and thinking to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ” she says. “I didn’t even have a program devised. I just told them I was a dancer and would love to help if they had any room for a dance teacher. They said yes!”
When McClintock showed up at the Bon Air Juvenile Correction Center for her first session with some of its teenage girls, she says, “It was scary. They all just stared at me like, ‘Who the hell is this woman? Ballet?’”
But, having lived through some difficult times during her own adolescence, McClintock felt that she could relate to her students. “I too came from not the best place and was always getting into trouble,” she says. “I wanted to give them something to do besides staying in their rec room all day.”
She taught a series of workshops to varied groups of five to eight girls who had demonstrated sufficient good behavior to be allowed to take class. She found that once she got going, the tough vibe changed. “As soon as we started stretching or learning movement,” says McClintock, “all of a sudden they turned into little girls and the daggers in their eyes disappeared.”
McClintock, who now lives in California and dances for Oakland Ballet and Diablo Ballet, says the work she did at Bon Air deepened her view of what dance can do. “I’d always wonder, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But when I’d leave, my heart would just feel so expansive.” By sharing the difference dance made in her own life, she realized, “You don’t have to just be a dancer in a tutu looking like a piece of candy on stage; you can actually help lives. As grandiose as that sounds, that’s kind of what ballet did for me.”
Dance For Life
In addition to offstage service, many dancers find that giving their time onstage can make their artistry more meaningful. Every year in Chicago, an organization called Dance for Life presents a one-night concert of dance by Chicago-based companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Chicago Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet. Proceeds from the performance, which can amount to several hundred thousand dollars, benefit local charities such as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Participation is entirely voluntary.
Stacy Joy Keller, a 10-year veteran of The Joffrey Ballet, has taken part in Dance for Life for several years. “It’s something that I really love to do because I can give back with my artistry,” she says. “It’s a different emotion when you’re dancing for a cause.”
Part of what she enjoys about Dance for Life is working alongside Chicago dancers outside the Joffrey. “It’s always so inspirational because of the other companies that come; the energy is amazing. We all stand backstage and watch each other. Performing with these talented people is one of the most rewarding experiences a dancer can have.”
And it’s not just the dancers and the charities who benefit; the audience gets a kick out it as well. Says Keller, “They really enjoy everything that you do. As soon as you step on stage, they go crazy, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I haven’t really done anything yet!’ We’re all here for one reason and that’s pretty uplifting.”
Shut Up & Dance
Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Jonathan Stiles understands that vibrant connection between audience and performers when all contribute to a common cause. This year will be his second as producing director of Shut Up & Dance, an annual concert staged by the PB dancers to benefit MANNA, a Philadelphia-based organization that helps provide food for people with life-threatening illnesses. Shut Up & Dance, now in its 17th year, began as a show at a night club that made $1,200; last year’s performance at the Forrest Theatre brought in $130,000. The concert is choreographed, produced and performed entirely by PB dancers volunteering their time.
“For a lot of dancers in the company, it’s one of the highlights of their year because our audience is so appreciative and enthusiastic. There’s always an electric atmosphere at the theater,” says Stiles. He has been participating in the event in one way or another (as a dancer, choreographer, videographer and now production director) since he joined PB in1999.
“What has kept this event going all these years is the dancers’ sense of ownership,” he says. “This is the one time that dancers get to choose what we want to dance in, and what we want to choreograph.”
For Stiles, many rewards come with Shut Up & Dance. “Anyone who is fortunate enough to be a professional dancer goes through some frustrating times in their job. It’s great to see dancers at the end of the day volunteering their time, having fun and goofing around, as well as putting together these really great pieces.”
Does he think dancers are inherently generous, despite their relative poverty? “I think,” says Stiles, “if your goal in life was a lot of financial gain, you wouldn’t be a dancer in the first place. Ballet attracts people who have other goals and desires.”
But he points out that PB dancers do reap real benefits from participating in Shut Up & Dance. Those who choreograph get their work seen. And those who perform get that jolt of audience appreciation. “At the end, the performers come out on stage and the lights go up in the house and everyone usually stands up and cheers for several minutes. It’s not just altruistic. We get that immediate gratification from the audience reaction.”
In giving back, all of these dancers found a sense of themselves beyond their ballet company lives. Says Keller, “I feel like in performance you give a little part of yourself to the audience, and in real life, dancers would do that for just about anyone. I think it is a common personality trait in dancers.”
Perhaps it’s this foundation on which the dancers’ commitment to service—whether on stage or off—is built. After all, “Anytime you put on a show, especially when it’s on dancers’ free time, there are stressful moments when people feel like they’ve taken on too much,” says Stiles. “But when the curtain goes down, most everybody feels it was worthwhile, and they’d do it again.”
McClintock agrees. “I was actually given a hard time for volunteering by some of my friends,” she says. “They’d say, ‘You don’t have time for this, you’re not getting paid any money.’ But that’s the whole point; I’m not doing this as a job. I want to be there, and that makes it a completely different story.”
Lea Marshall writes about dance and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in Virginia.
In the ballet world, great partnerships are rare. The unique chemistry of a splendid ballerina and her attentive partner can hold audiences spellbound. Witnessing a pas de deux by extraordinarily simpatico dancers can fundamentally change the way one perceives ballet.
At American Ballet Theatre, Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes deliver that special combination of ballet and theater. In their interpretation of Swan Lake, for example, their legato lines in the “white” acts contrast with the bravura of the climax of the Black Swan pas de deux. They constantly feed off of each other, not in a competitive way, but by building on the drama of the moment. In a contemporary ballet like William Forsythe’s workwithinwork, Herrera and Gomes mutually push each other’s physicality to the ultimate limits.
Truly magnificent partnerships are legendary. Think of Margot Fonteyn’s elegance paired with Rudolph Nureyev’s prowess, or the unabashed passion of Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca. Chemistry in partnerships like these is a mysterious element—some dancers just seem to click from the start. But compatibility alone doesn’t guarantee a fascinating pas de deux. Years of working together in the studio to perfect musicality, transitions, lifts and character development are required.
When dancing solo, Herrera and Gomes are wonderful. But when they step onto the stage together, they ignite their own unique brand of technical and artistic fire. The first ballet they danced together, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, proved that there was a singular quality to their combined talents—almost like blending two rich forms of coffee to make a better brew. Gomes was still in the corps, while Herrera was a principal dancer, but they hit it off instantly. “From the very beginning, Marcelo was so incredible and professional,” says Herrera. “He is a very natural partner. He was so mature, and I don’t mean just technically.”
Gomes says he was initially intimidated when he was cast opposite Herrera, but he got over it quickly. “As a young dancer, you want to please your ballerina, and it’s no different now. We felt comfortable from the beginning.” He cites a rehearsal of one passage in the balcony pas de deux of Romeo and Juliet when he knew they were in synch. “I remember a particular moment where she does a flip and she has to totally trust you,” he says. “You have to catch her in the air and spin her around. Paloma was totally open to trying it over and over again. I could feel that she was comfortable, and I felt the same way.”
One of the keys to their success has been an ability to communicate freely during rehearsals and performances. “We have the same work ethic and the same point of view about what we want,” says Herrera. “There is never tension between us. Even if there is someone at the front of the room who is very tense, we can just look at each other and get through it.”
Gomes says she routinely asks him, “Do you have any requests for me?” Leaving nothing hanging in the air adds to the security of the partnership. Gomes says, “It’s all about creating an environment where you can advance forward together.”
Not all great partnerships flow so easily. What appears to be the equivalent of a wonderful bouquet of roses onstage can be much thornier behind the scenes. Gelsey Kirkland’s analytical process in rehearsals often clashed with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s desire to get the job done. Nureyev was often downright mean to his ballerinas, even Dame Margot.
In any case, dancing together requires kinetic synchronicity, another vital component in the Gomes/Herrera partnership. “Partnering is dancing,” says Gomes. “I sometimes see people partnering and it looks like, ‘Now I am going to partner,’ and ‘Now I am doing my solo.’ It is one thing—dancing with your partner, not just trying to create the line. You are creating phrases and movement. It can take a long time, or it can be like adding water. Paloma and I have been able to find that place that is just like dancing.”
In a company like ABT with a policy of rotating partners, dancing with different artists produces varying results. “Each ballerina gives you a distinct energy, artistry and technique, so you have to adjust,” says Gomes. “For me, it’s both challenging and exciting.”
Dancers naturally have individual ways of approaching their work. Some like to feel their way into the choreography, while others prefer to break it down phrase by phrase. Matching up with a partner who shares similar viewpoints and physicality can make life easier. But in the real world of ballet companies, dancers need to be prepared to work with a number of partners. That translates to a set of challenges that, if looked at positively, can make a dancer a better, more experienced partner.
Herrera and Gomes have an exceptional rapport, and their work has evolved over time. Gomes danced his first Giselle with Herrera and they have honed their performances as they have matured. “It’s the sort of ballet that gets better with age,” says Gomes. “There is always somewhere to go.” From the beginning, they have worked on the ballet from the premise of simplicity rather than operatic grandeur. But subtle details, like the illusion of Herrera’s ethereal weightlessness in the partnered pas de poissons in the second act, have come to make the all-too-familiar choreography particularly heart stirring.
Gomes adheres to a straightforward principle in partnering: “If you just dance with the ballerina and put your back where her back is and see where she is focusing, she ends up where she needs to be,” he says. “Everything falls into place.” Gomes says he learned from and greatly admired the Ferri/Bocca partnership and the unalloyed trust they cultivated onstage, especially in the risks they were willing to take together.
Ultimately, forming a relationship that makes the audience seek out your names on the casting sheet requires a chemistry that is part sweat, part magic. “It goes beyond being a good partner,” says Herrera. “It means being there for your partner—with your eyes, with your emotions, with everything.”
Joseph Carman is a former ABT dancer and the author of Round About the Ballet..What’s true in life is true in art: A sense of cooperation can lead to
better creative energy. Four dancers with ample partnering experience weigh in on what they think can help partners partner.
What Women Want Men To Know
In many companies, dancers are trained in various styles. Plus every dancer has a different temperament. “Be open and listen to discussion,” says Romi Beppu, a principal dancer with Ballet West. “When a partnership is a fight or a struggle, it’s no fun. You’re pulling and pushing. You need to be able to talk through problem areas. Then it becomes a two-way street as opposed to one person barking orders.”
Listen To The Music
“The music is all that you and your partner have to link you together,” says Patricia Delgado, a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet. “Just sitting down and listening to the music with your partner is one of the most beneficial things in rehearsal. Get together and figure out what you are going to do on that note or this breath. It really translates to the audience.”
Feel The Balance
Every ballerina’s axis is different. “I’m hyperextended, so I need to be more over my front leg than most women, like in a penché arabesque,” says Delgado. “Often the guy is behind you and you can’t see him. I like to feel his hands on me.”
“The biggest thing that bothers me is when we talk through and agree on things in rehearsal, then the next week we’re back at square one,” says Beppu. “Remember what we’ve discussed and remember the corrections. ”
When men join the corps de ballet, they often lack strength and partnering experience. Push-ups and weight training should be coordinated with technique training. “By the time you’ve been given a role, it’s too late for strength training,” says Delgado. “With a lot of the contemporary pieces—Balanchine, Tharp, Robbins—you just need sheer strength. I like to dance big and feel the man partnering me has strength and muscles.”
Make a smooth transition from rehearsal to performance. “You can rehearse perfectly in the studio and then onstage there is some sort of disconnection,” says Delgado. “If I don’t feel like my partner is 100 percent there for me, it’s a little shaky. I want them to be in the moment and pay attention to me.”
What men Want Women To Know
“Trust is number one,” says Joan Boada, a principal with San Francisco Ballet. “If you don’t get along, and the other person doesn’t trust you, it makes it really difficult.” And principal dancer Jonathan Porretta of Pacific Northwest Ballet says, “Trust makes everything much more cohesive and allows things to flow better. When the girls are comfortable enough to completely let go, the partnering becomes more than just partnering.”
Don’t take things so seriously that the working process breaks down. “Tell me what you want. The more things my girls can tell me to make them more comfortable, the happier I am,” says Porretta. Example: Some dancers like more force than others in a pirouette. Give cheerful advice and avoid Chekhovian drama.
Take A Helping Hand
“Let the guys do their job,” says Boada. “That’s why we are there. If you don’t need a guy, it’s not a pas de deux. If something goes wrong, talk about it and fix it. Don’t bitch. Talking behind the partner’s back makes everyone insecure.”
Wear Sensible Clothing
“Sometimes in rehearsal, the women wear layered leotards that are slippery to our hands,” says Boada. Stay warm, but be smart. Make sure your clothing won’t hinder his grip or get caught in his fingers.
Take A Chance On Me
“At 5’9”, I’m short. I’m not the biggest guy, but I love to partner,” says Porretta. “I love for girls to be happy with my partnering, and I try really hard. I don’t want girls to give up on me because of my size.”
A well-cultivated partnership is priceless. But perfecting that relationship is a step-by-step process. As they say on Project Runway, “Make it work.”—JC
When Sarah Van Patten first danced the lead in a Royal Danish Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet, it felt like a cinch. Just 16 years old, she was an apprentice in the company and it seemed very real. “I didn’t even think about acting,” she says.
Now 24 and a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Van Patten has often been praised for the way she interprets roles. But when she was cast as a woman quarreling with her lover in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, she felt a little daunted. “I can play the lyrical young girl in love,” she explains. “This was a woman with far more wisdom and experience. To be that, I needed to research it.”
Achieving the heights of artistry can challenge the most experienced dancers, coaches and choreographers. According to Violette Verdy, coach, teacher and former New York City Ballet principal, artistry means expressing all the dimensions of a role, whether or not the ballet tells a story. And ballet without artistry? “Boy, do you get bored!” she says.
Yet many dancers receive little training in how to portray a role beyond its technical demands. That may be one impetus for a burgeoning educational movement to help dancers explore ballet’s vast emotional range. Playing a glass-slippered Cinderella liberated from hearth and rags presents one challenge, but how does a dancer in an abstract ballet convey the steps’ essence? And how does one learn such subtle, hard-to-define skills?
Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has grappled head-on with how to approach teaching artistry. You want to do as many pirouettes as possible? “Fine,” she says. “But what are you saying?” She notes that in most companies today, repertoires are taught quickly, with little time for dancers to fine-tune their understanding of a piece. So a decade ago, Staines started a class to help students learn how to tackle the process themselves. “The schools have to take responsibility,” she says. “In companies, you can’t expect to get coaching like you used to. Students have to be self-sufficient. You have to give them the tools.”
To develop those tools, she invited former Royal Danish Ballet soloist Sorella Englund to Toronto to teach an annual five-week improvisation course, “Drama and Expression.” Englund limits the class size to create a close-knit atmosphere and also sets strict rules to encourage openness and experimentation. “We can laugh together,” she says, “but not at each other.”
Englund then assigns a simple exercise like walking. Next, each student attempts to display a particular emotion while walking. “I ask them how it feels walking in different moods—somebody excited, aggressive, amused by a little thing, seeing a light in the sky,” she explains. Eventually, students take a partner and trade those emotions. “It forces them to concentrate on what they’re doing, and the other person’s emotions.”
To help students learn expressiveness in abstract roles, Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s Dance Division, urges dancers to keep in mind that there may be more to dancing than meets the eye. “An abstract ballet that doesn’t have named characters still has character,” he explains. “Think of a Balanchine ballet that’s very particular in music, style and technique. There is real drama and tension.”
Sometimes ballet masters can share a piece’s history, and what the choreographer originally wanted. But dancers must also look inward. “Don’t be shy about digging into yourself to realize a piece you’re working on,” says Rhodes. He defines that process as finding a way to live with the music, connect the movements and inhabit a piece. Even technically gifted dancers can struggle to achieve artistry, he cautions. “It’s about how deeply you sense character, space, music and relationships,” he says. “And about relating to a partner, a group, the space. And how you move through space and how you decide to develop a dance in space.”
Nonetheless, Rhodes agrees artistry can be achieved to some degree by working hard to learn the steps, counts and music and then adding elements like phrasing and épaulement. In “Modern Solos and Duets,” Juilliard students spend two or three sessions learning a solo or duet. The following 10 classes then are devoted to repetition and coaching. “You have the steps,” Rhodes explains. “Now where can you go with the piece? How do you develop it? We teach students how to dig. With feedback from the instructor, they learn how to refine it, make it better. They understand intrinsic musical values and how to investigate a work.”
Even when dancers become professionals, the digging isn’t over. In the Night’s three couples portray complex relationships. To find her interpretation of an aggressive and emotionally scarred woman—and to avoid provoking laughter as she’s hoisted upside down, arms flailing—Van Patten mined performance videos for nuance and detail, from timing to eye movement. “A lot of it has to do with watching other dancers,” she says. “You have to study them in fine detail to portray a part realistically.”
When Van Patten danced the role of Juliet with SFB, she could still tap into the same well of innocence she felt at 16, but this time, she’d seen more of the world. She realized the significance of the story, including the poignant death scenes. “It was a stronger performance,” she says. “I had more mental awareness.” And if she performed Juliet again? “It would be different,” she says, “because I’m different. With every role, you start at the beginning.” But, she adds, “If the passion’s there, you’ll want to improve. If you have the will, you’ll have the way.”
Melding all these ephemeral qualities with technique is artistry at its apex—and the future of ballet, says Englund. Like many, Englund laments that dance education has become purely physical. Yet she has no desire to return to yesteryear. “We’ve forgotten that ballet is a language to express atmosphere, emotion, energy,” she says. “I realize we can’t go back. Technique is at a high level and it should stay there. But the mind and emotions have to be hand-in-hand with physicality. If you only think of the perfect turnout, the perfect extension, then you’re trying to make art perfect.
“Art,” she says, with absolute conviction, “should be full of life.”
Former dancer Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in NYC.
Ask Keenan McLaren how she felt at the start of her first season with Dayton Ballet in 2005, and she’ll have one word for you: terrified. “I was youngest person in the company, and I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But I reminded myself that I have a certain level of training, and I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think that I was capable.” After landing a job in a company, adjusting to life in the corps can be daunting for any new professional. We asked three recently hired dancers for advice for ensuring a successful first year.
During the first weeks of Emily Bowen’s contract with Houston Ballet, which began in June 2006, she was
nervous that she would accidentally offend dancers ranked above her. She learned the ropes by befriending a
principal dancer. “She told me who stood where, who went in what group and who to probably stay away from,” says Bowen. Overall, though, she adds, “I expected it to be a little more cut-throat. But if the other dancers seem friendly, you have the chance to have someone you can go to who has gone through the same thing.”
While you shake those initial nerves, be ready to hit the ground running. “At beginning of the season, it was like being shot out of a cannon,” says Adrian Fry, a first-year dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre who studied with Omaha Theater Ballet School and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “Within the first 10 days, we were learning six different pieces because of the time that certain repetiteurs could be there. I took it in stride and was really excited to start working.”
McLaren was surprised by the sheer amount of choreography she was expected to learn in her first year at Dayton. “Often when a new company member is primarily performing corps work, they’ll be asked to understudy leads—sometimes more than one! This is definitely a challenge, because you are learning double the choreography and the responsibility is huge,” says McLaren. “You are expected to know the role and be able to go in at a moment’s notice, even if someone is just out sick. It can be a wonderful opportunity if you do get the chance to
go in, because your director gets to see you in a different light.”
Maintaining your physical endurance throughout a full day of company class, rehearsal and even an evening
performance is key. “I think because there’s more emphasis on rehearsal, you have to save your energy source,” says Fry. “We work really hard in class, but we also know that we need to keep our tanks filled up throughout the day, because there are times when we work from 10 to 5:30 straight.” Cardio and weight training at a local gym prior to her start with the company helped McLaren survive long rehearsal days. “If you cross-train, your stamina will just fly through the roof, and that makes those long days so much easier,” she says.
Also expect to make independent practice a personal priority. “When you have rehearsals as a company member, it’s not to go over what you learned in the last one,” says Bowen, who studied previously at North Carolina School of the Arts and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “You’re already expected to remember everything so you can keep learning more choreography. So you have to take time out of your personal life to come to the studio and work on things. That’s how you get promoted and how you get good roles, and then the artistic directors and the ballet mistresses and masters can trust you.”
The transition from being a senior student at your dance school—where your solo work and individual talents were
likely recognized—to becoming a team player in the corps also requires a great deal of focus. “In class, you’re working on your individual needs and focusing on what you need to improve as a dancer. When you’re in the corps, it’s not about you at all,” says McLaren, who studied at Boston Ballet School and danced with Ballet Austin II.
Instead of aiming for your highest extension, your positions must exactly match those of your fellow dancers. Yet, she says, “It’s a very rewarding experience, because when everyone is really feeling together, there’s a certain energy that flows through the group, and it’s a very different feeling than doing 32 fouettés.”
Like most students, Bowen grew accustomed to praise and acknowledgement from her teachers, and the absence of that in company life was an unexpected adjustment. “In a company, if you do something well, you don’t hear about it; you usually hear about it if you do something wrong,” she says. “When you see you’re not getting all of the feedback you want, it can be discouraging, but it’s actually a good thing.”
Your first company season brings the chance to develop your own sense of artistry beyond what you may have been able to accomplish as a student. “I see this year as bridging the gap between dancer and artist,” says Fry. “When you’re in a really heavy professional training program... I just felt like I was cultivating my technique and getting on my leg and working on my jumps. It was really athletic... but I didn’t feel like an artist.”
Bowen agrees. “Artistry is everything. It helps more if you just start thinking about artistry in your last year in school, because once you get in a company, you’re expected to already have all the technique and start to show yourself in your dancing,” she says. “I wish someone had told me that.”
Of all the full-length classical ballets, Coppélia charms audiences with humor above everything else. The ballet tells the tale of Swanilda and Franz, who are engaged to be married. When Franz falls for a doll, Swanilda impersonates it, and mayhem ensues. Here, Texas Ballet Theater’s Jayme Autrey Griffith offers her thoughts on the lead role, which she will reprise when the company presents Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia September 21-23 in Fort Worth. For more: www.texasballettheater.org
The role of Swanilda is special to me because when I was in the academy at Houston Ballet, I got to be the Coppélia doll and switch spots with the principals. Then when I moved to Texas Ballet Theater in 2003, Swanilda was my very first role with the company.
It was pretty easy for me to portray that character because that was who I was. I was only 17 or 18 when I did it. She’s naïve, daring and adventurous, kind of a flirt. I acted like myself. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
I’m pretty intimidated to do it this next time. I’m kind of scared! Last time, I was a new face and no one knew me. Also, I was young and didn’t know any better. Now I’ve performed a lot more, people know me, and they expect something out of me. That adds to the pressure. And I’m not that young girl anymore. I’m married now. I’ve danced Cleopatra and things like that. So it adds a whole new dimension to it.
To go back and be that innocent girl, I have to pay attention to the acting a little more. I’m going to watch how I did it last time, because I think I was natural. But I can’t do the same thing, otherwise I haven’t improved at all. Also, I read a lot whenever I do a part. For Coppélia, I got the children’s books. They break down the story, and I can go through the ballet in my head, matching up some of the words in the books to the steps. Of course, there’s a lot of dancing too. You have all those variations—you want to die afterward—but they are so much fun. Then you save Franz and go into the wedding, when you dance the pas de deux. You’re still young and excited, but you’ve matured a little bit through the whole thing.”