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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.

Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet (photo by Rosalie O'Conner, courtesy SAB)

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

Whether it’s Bournonville, French or Balanchine, every methodology has its own aesthetic, movement quality and areas of emphasis. Most dancers find that there’s one in particular that appeals to or suits them best. McAdoo’s admiration of New York City Ballet’s dancers made her want to study at the school that trained them, but another dancer might love the expressive port de bras of The Royal Ballet’s dancers, or the Vaganova method’s power and purity.

One thing is certain—don’t let an unfamiliar style deter you from auditioning for a school’s intensive. While some academies prioritize accepting students trained in their method, most don’t. “We don’t look for students who’ve had Balanchine training previously at all,” says Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty. She notes that most of its summer students are brand-new to Balanchine technique. Similarly, at Sarasota Ballet’s Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, two out of three intensive students are unfamiliar with what principal Christopher Hird calls the “English style” (a hybrid of Russian, Italian and French influences that result in seamlessly clean footwork and eloquent port de bras).

“One of the benefits of a summer program is being exposed to a different way of dancing,” says conservatory director Margaret Barbieri. “The dancers are learning to adapt to whatever is required of them that day, which is an important skill to instill in a student—they will need it as a professional.”

Mazzo says students should start investigating all their options early. “It’s important that when they’re still 12 to 14 years old they look around at different styles, schools and companies, to see what’s out there. Because by the time they’re 15 or 16, they should know what’s right for their body, what they like and what fits well for them.”

What to Expect

Venturing into a new way of dancing can be confusing at first. An overload of information, from the way combinations are presented to different terminology, can make you feel like a beginner again. Last summer, 16-year-old Sofia Yarbrough struggled to make sense of the specific ways the teachers wanted her to hold her head and arms at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Everything, from the language the Russian teachers spoke to the way frappés were done, was different from her home studio, the Ballet Center of Fort Worth. “At first, I felt like a fish out of water,” she says. But soon the new technique took hold in her body. “By the fourth week, the coordination started to make sense and feel normal.”

Mazzo knows how hard it is for students to grasp SAB’s trademark speed, attack, musicality and, for the advanced girls, taking every class on pointe. She counsels being patient. “We tell them on the first day, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ because this might be 100 percent different from what you’ve been taught. Take it one day at a time, and work on one new thing at a time.”

It’s also important to remember that what you already know is not invalid, and the basic concepts of technique carry across all styles. Alexandros Pappajohn, now a member of The Washington Ballet Studio Company, spent a summer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School when he was 15. “It was definitely a big change,” says Pappajohn, then a student at Ballet Academy East. Keeping an open mind helped him adopt the school’s emphasis on clean, fast footwork and épaulement. He admits it was hard to break ingrained habits (like how to prepare before combinations), but otherwise found adjusting to the French classes surprisingly easy. “Ballet is ballet. You always have to straighten your knees and point your feet. If you have good, solid technique, you can go other places and it’s not a shock to your system.”

Developing Versatility

Being able to do steps differently from class to class, according to what each teacher wants, helps develop versatility—a skill professional dancers need when adapting to choreographers’ eclectic movement styles.

“We instill in students that even if they don’t agree with one thing or another, they should soak up everything like a sponge,” says Barbieri. Last summer, students were able to watch Sarasota Ballet dancers rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton’s repertoire to see the intricacies of his style at work. “If they want to be professional, they have to incorporate different styles, and know that Balanchine requires steps to be done differently than Ashton. It also helps them learn what sort of repertoire they want to dance.”

After her summer experience, Yarbrough loved the Vaganova method so much that she decided to remain at the Kirov Academy year-round. But whether studying a different style leads you on a new path or not, exposure to the many unique disciplines of ballet is an invaluable part of becoming a strong, versatile dancer. While it’s challenging to learn something new, Kirov Academy co-artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton notes that students are capable of more than they may think. “Young dancers pick up the nuances of other techniques so quickly. They don’t have to fear losing something by learning a new method—it is part of the adventure of dance.” 

Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.

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For American audiences, Balanchine's "Rubies" is instantly recognizable. Cuban audiences, though, have never seen the iconic work, due to over five decades of severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. That will change this Sunday, when Beckanne Sisk and fellow Ballet West principal Christopher Ruud perform the saucy, showy "Rubies" pas de deux at the International Ballet Festival of Havana gala. Pointe spoke with Sisk about making dance history.

Sisk in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

 

You're no stranger to galas, but do they make you nervous? 

It's not a whole production, so I feel a lot of pressure to do well in those nine minutes. But it's also very exciting. I feel comfortable with "Rubies," and I'm so honored to be the first to dance it in Cuba.

 

How do you think the audience will receive this pas?

I feel like this is the perfect pas de deux to take because they love exciting dancing. This pas has a whole lot of everything in it!

 

How does "Rubies" continue to challenge you?

I'm learning to be able to throw myself and do all these crazy things while keeping the technique. I have to be poised and together in my core while throwing my limbs, so I'm finding that balance.

 

What do you like about the role? 

There are no limits. It's all just power and go, go, go—there are no rest steps, and you do everything to the fullest. It's very showy, but it's all fun, feel-good steps.

 

Besides performing, what else are you looking forward to doing in Cuba? 

I've never been to Cuba, so we're gonna try and do some touristy things. I'd like to see some cool cars, and the food—I can't wait to try the food! We'll also get to take company class [with the National Ballet of Cuba]. I'm really, really excited about that.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Wistrich teaching company class. Photo by Gary St. Martin, courtesy City Ballet of San Diego.

City Ballet of San Diego is admired in Southern California for its diversity of dancers, a sizeable Balanchine repertoire, lively story ballets and regular accompaniment by full orchestra—all from a compact company. Steven Wistrich, artistic director of CBSD, recalls a 2007 performance, an “aha" moment, when he knew his company, then only 14 years old, had matured: The sisterhood of dancers in Balanchine's Serenade delivered the aqueous grace that the ballet demanded. “Seeing Serenade onstage danced so beautifully was definitely a turning point for me," says Wistrich. “I was so impressed with the style, technique and quality of the dancing."

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New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck prepares for a pirouette (still from the Water Dancer series, produced by Quicksilver)

Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I’m dancing a Balanchine ballet and I’m having trouble changing my technique. —Liza

I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!

What helped me was to think of shifting my body forward each time I prepared so that the majority of my weight was over my front foot, instead of underneath myself on two bent legs. The arms help, too: Instead of keeping them classically curved, extend them, as if reaching out. Overall, your body should feel much longer in this position.

The best way to get the feeling in your body is to do it—a lot. Try practicing tombé pas de bourrée to fourth position across the floor from the corner, feeling your momentum moving forward each time you land. Reach your front hand out as your back leg reaches behind you to create one long, continuous line. Notice how different it feels. Try the same thing from fifth position, taking a tendu to fourth in both en dedans and en dehors preparations. With enough repetition, your body will soon do it naturally.

Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I’m dancing a Balanchine ballet and I’m having trouble changing my technique. —Liza

I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!

What helped me was to think of shifting my body forward each time I prepared so that the majority of my weight was over my front foot, instead of underneath myself on two bent legs. The arms help, too: Instead of keeping them classically curved, extend them, as if reaching out. Overall, your body should feel much longer in this position.

The best way to get the feeling in your body is to do it—a lot. Try practicing tombé pas de bourrée to fourth position across the floor from the corner, feeling your momentum moving forward each time you land. Reach your front hand out as your back leg reaches behind you to create one long, continuous line. Notice how different it feels. Try the same thing from fifth position, taking a tendu to fourth in both en dedans and en dehors preparations. With enough repetition, your body will soon do it naturally.

Two of my colleagues don’t take responsibility for remembering choreography. It wastes everyone’s time, and I end up reteaching them during breaks. How can I confront them? —Michaela

Not everyone is a quick study, so first take a moment to assess why your colleagues aren’t picking up choreography. Are they chattering incessantly, spacing out, watching the clock? Or are they earnestly paying attention? If they truly seem to learn at a slower pace, take a more compassionate approach. Suggest that they keep a notebook to write things down after rehearsal—this will allow them to recall steps more easily and to study on their own time. You can also offer to help them for a few minutes at the end of the day. Or, you can recommend that they ask the ballet master for a copy of the video—again, so that they can study on their own.

If your colleagues lack discipline and focus, however, you shouldn’t have to cover for them. Politely tell them that you’re unable to give up your break and that they need to be responsible for themselves. Without their crutch (you), they’ll be forced to pay closer attention during rehearsals. If they don’t, your ballet master will surely notice and they’ll have to pay the consequences. Some people have to learn the hard way.

What exercises will keep my toes from knuckling under when I’m on pointe? —Shannon

Almost every ballerina has experienced knuckling—I certainly did as a young dancer. According to Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with students at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, knuckling is usually a sign of weak intrinsic muscles, located in the arch of the foot. But it’s also a sign that you’re approaching your technique incorrectly. While on pointe, you should feel the muscles in your feet and legs pulling up and out of the shoe, not sinking down into it. Ask your teacher to monitor your placement closely to identify any technical weaknesses and faulty alignment. In the meantime, Dr. Sinkoe recommends these three strengthening exercises, which target different muscle groups.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

Doming: This strengthens the intrinsic muscles. Sit on the ground with one foot flat on the floor. Slowly drag your toes back, keeping them straight and long (not curled!), creating a “dome” shape with your arch. Hold for several seconds and return to the starting position, keeping toes straight. Repeat 10 times on each foot.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

Thera-Band exercise: Sit on the ground and wrap a Thera-Band underneath the ball of your foot, holding the ends in your hands. Point the toes, keeping them straight instead of crunched. Maintaining a pointed position, flex and point the toes against the resistance of the band, keeping them as long as possible. Repeat 10 times. This will also help strengthen the intrinsic muscles.

One-footed relevés: Holding on to the barre, stand in parallel on one foot. Relevé, reaching full demi-pointe in two counts. Slowly roll down in four counts. Repeat 10 times on each leg. This will help strengthen your calf’s gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, as well as the “stirrup” muscles, which wrap around the ankle and support the arch.

Another reason dancers knuckle is to compensate for unsupportive or ill-fitting shoes. If you suspect your shoe may be the problem, make an appointment with a professional pointe shoe fitter to find a better option.

Have a question? Send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt at askamy@dancemedia.com.

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To celebrate its 30th-anniversary season, Miami City Ballet is making a splash. The company’s closing program this spring will transplant A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Balanchine’s 1962 full-length ballet, to the Florida shore, diving underwater for elements of the supernatural realm. Coral Castle, a romantic old-Miami landmark, provides the model for the court in this production. The ballet premieres tonight at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado as Titania (photo Alberto Oviedo, courtesy MCB)

“The reimagining gives us a great chance to mount a masterpiece with inspiration from the place where we live,” says artistic director Lourdes Lopez. For years, Lopez has wanted to see this Shakespeare-based ballet, with sundry music by Felix Mendelssohn, as a new concept. Now, The George Balanchine Trust has approved her vision while counting on her to keep the choreography intact.

Miami Beach–born artist Michele Oka Doner proposed the aquatic theme and has been instrumental in the redesign. Her tutus evoke jellyfish while her unitards derive patterns from a coral reef. In the spirit of this version, Bottom will turn into a manatee—tempted with sea-grass by Titania. Stunning videos on the company's Instagram account have given fans a glimpse of what to expect in tonight's performance.

 

Lopez also emphasizes the contribution of dramaturge Tarell Alvin McCraney. The young playwright—a MacArthur Fellow who grew up in Miami’s inner city—is a dedicated explorer of Shakespeare’s plays and served as playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. “He’s helped the dancers think more deeply about the text, giving meaning to their steps,” says Lopez, who hopes to turn this dream project for a special occasion into a recurrent company success. —Guillermo Perez    

The Workout

Pipit-Suksun in company class at Ballet San Jose (photo by Alejandro Gomez)

Ballet San Jose principal Ommi Pipit-Suksun’s workout is carefully crafted—two parts mental preparation and one part each cardio and Pilates. She’s found the best times of day to sneak in extra moments of strength building, stretching and rejuvenation tailored to her current repertoire, whether it’s Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop or Balanchine’s Serenade.

A delicate balance: When the company’s not performing, Pipit-Suksun hops on a stationary bike or StairMaster for 20 to 30 minutes two to three times per week to keep her quads strong and heart rate up. Once rehearsals are in full swing, she scales back. “If I do too much, it could backfire.”

Biggest challenge: “I’m more flexible than strong,” she says, so when her fellow company members stretch between combinations, Pipit-Suksun does bridges to strengthen her glutes and hamstrings.

Afternoon boost: During lunch breaks, she squeezes in Pilates mat exercises if her body needs extra work. “I pick and choose exercises to match what I’m working on at that moment and how my body feels. The ab series is my favorite because that always burns. If I can squeeze that in every day, then I’m good.”

Catching winks: A 30- to 45- minute nap three hours before curtain “puts me into the mental zone.”

Hot and cold recovery: After a show, Pipit-Suksun always ices her right knee for 15 minutes to keep a previous injury in check, and then takes a hot shower to soothe aching muscles.

Pilates secret: She’s prone to hyperextending her knees, but Pilates taught her not to lock into the joints. “If I keep my knees slightly soft, I feel like I’m able to use my inner thighs and glutes more.” 

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