Staatsballett Berlin's Iana Salenko on guestings, salsa music and her knack for design.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I'm a tiny dancer, so to dance roles for tall ballerinas I would never have dreamed about, like Swan Lake—I'm very proud that I managed to get them.
What's the hardest thing about guesting with other companies, like The Royal Ballet?
As Hong Kong Ballet corps member Xia Jun rehearses his solo from Krzysztof Pastor's In Light and Shadow, a distinct Eastern flavor of movement exudes from the suppleness of his port de bras and the articulation of his à la seconde extension. The ballet master calls out corrections in Mandarin, and Swedish-born artistic director Madeleine Onne offers critiques in English.
The company, just hours away from its March debut at The Joyce Theater in New York City, is a reflection of the international diversity found in the cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. In addition to full-length classical ballets, Onne—who was the artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet prior to heading Hong Kong Ballet—has brought in more Balanchine repertoire and contemporary works from Europe, as well as new commissions by Chinese choreographers. From its repertoire to its roster, Hong Kong Ballet is a mix of East and West. “The majority of the company is Chinese," says Onne, “but I like to spice it up with Western dancers, too."
Those hoping to dance abroad may not immediately think to launch their career in Asia. But corps de ballet member Nicole Assaad and coryphée Jonathan Spigner are two Americans thriving at Hong Kong Ballet.
“My plan was to dance in Europe—that was my dream," says Spigner, who joined the company in 2010. But when HKB offered him a corps contract at the Monaco Dance Forum, he was impressed. “We work on a 12-month contract, so I feel more secure," he says. “A lot of my friends in the U.S. have six- or eight-month contracts and have to guest or freelance in between."
Assaad was a student at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy when she submitted an audition video to HKB last year. She'd never been out of the U.S. before, but after thoroughly researching Hong Kong and the company, she felt safe starting her career abroad. “I thought, Why not?" she says, noting that the company's expansive repertoire was a big draw. “I gave my parents a huge speech about what a great opportunity it is—I had to warm them up to the idea."
Though neither Assaad nor Spigner speak Mandarin or Cantonese, they don't feel the language barrier affects their growth. English is a common second language in Hong Kong, and the Chinese people are happy to converse with foreigners in English. “Being a dancer is fantastic because you don't fully get how well you understand body language until you're thrown into a mix of people where there are all sorts of languages," says Spigner.
“Don't underestimate what the world can offer," he continues. “We are much more connected now, East to West."
“Being in a new company and new country is like flipping a new page. You learn from it and move forward."
“Culturally, how the dancers here think and work is very different from the West. You learn to respect that and take a little bit for yourself."
All photos by Kyle Froman, for Pointe
"I love the diversity and energy of Hong Kong," says Assaad, center, in the green leotard.
Russia is often perceived as a closed book from abroad, and ballet is no exception. Though David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, the country's top companies have been slow to open their ranks to non-Russians. Under acting director Yuri Fateyev, however, the venerable Mariinsky Ballet has welcomed a handful of dancers trained abroad. South Korea's Kimin Kim and Great Britain's Xander Parish initially struggled to fit in with the culture, but both have found their niche in St. Petersburg, and are thriving today among Russian colleagues.
Growing up in South Korea, Kimin Kim always thought of himself as a Russian dancer. For the prodigy who honed his astounding technique and poise with Vaganova-trained teachers, being a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet was “the ultimate dream," he says. Earlier this year, it came true: At just 22, after three years in St. Petersburg, he was promoted to the top rank, the first foreigner to attain principal.
Kim's journey started at age 10, when his mother, a composer, decided she “didn't want him to be an ordinary person," as he puts it, and suggested he try ballet. Former Mariinsky soloists Margarita Kullik and Vladimir Kim (no relation) nurtured him at the Korea National University of Arts. By the age of 18, his precocious technique had earned him accolades at international competitions from Moscow to Varna, and his teachers told Mariinsky director Yuri Fateyev about their protégé.
Kim was invited to a private audition in 2011, and since he hadn't graduated from his Korean school yet, Fateyev created a six-month trainee contract for him. He spoke no Russian, so his teachers moved back to St. Petersburg to live with him; Vladimir Kim remains his coach there. “It was very hard at first, because I couldn't do anything on my own," the dancer remembers. “I also had to adapt to the culture: Russian people are more critical, more emotional."
His first role with the company was Ali in Le Corsaire, and word of his impeccable turns, soaring jumps and elegant demeanor spread fast. In 2012, he was promoted straight to first soloist, and has worked long hours to add roles, including Solor, Basilio and Albrecht, to his repertoire, as well as ballets by Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor.
Earlier this year, Fateyev decided Kim was ready for principal status, though in a time-honored Mariinsky tradition, no one told him; instead, while in the U.S. for Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, he got a text from Vladimir Kim urging him to look at the Mariinsky's website. “I saw my face at the top of the roster, and I knew," Kim says.
Fateyev also suggested him to American Ballet Theatre for a guest spot in La Bayadère last spring. While Kim's international career is taking off, the young principal says Russia is his home now. “Ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote were born here. Russian people feel these ballets, and I want to improve my characters, to understand the culture." And now that he has reached his childhood goal, Kim jokes that he needs to find new ones: “Maybe I'd like to be director of the Mariinsky!"
Xander Parish could be the poster child for late bloomers. The British-born dancer spent four and a half years at the back of The Royal Ballet's corps before Yuri Fateyev plucked him out of a class he was teaching in London and asked him to join the Mariinsky.
Parish's training wasn't as far from Russian as you'd expect: At The Royal Ballet School, he was taught in part by former Kirov dancer Anatoli Grigoriev. After he joined the British company in 2005, however, no opportunities came his way. “I was always the last one to get strength, even at school," Parish says. “The Royal wanted instant ability. They didn't have the patience to work with slow developers."
Fateyev saw potential in his long lines and tall stature, however, and Parish took a leap of faith, landing in St. Petersburg in 2010. Hired as a coryphée, he juggled corps and soloist duties while his two coaches, Fateyev and later Igor Petrov, set out to mold him into a prince. Parish estimates it took him three years to feel fully at home in the company. “After one year I'd made some friends. I could understand one percent of the language, give or take," he laughs. “And then it took two years to prove myself as a dancer, to improve my technique, to show I could be worthy of more."
His first leading role in an evening-length ballet, Albrecht in Giselle, was “make or break," he says. “I knew I had to do it well, or I probably wouldn't be doing it anymore." Fateyev was pleased, and more principal roles followed. In 2014, his performance of Aminta in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia earned him the rank of second soloist—his first promotion, he notes self-deprecatingly, since he left school. When the 29-year-old returned to the UK with the Russian company in 2014, the transformation was complete: As Apollo, Parish embodied the young god's journey from clumsy innocence to classical purity.
Parish now spends his long days at the Mariinsky honing his technique and repertoire. Fateyev praises his acting, a British strength, and cast him last season in another Ashton classic, Marguerite and Armand, alongside Ulyana Lopatkina. The Mariinsky's two American conductors have become his close friends; all three live across the street from the theater, in apartments supplied by the company.
The first British dancer to join the Mariinsky hasn't forgotten his roots: He hopes to see Manon return to St. Petersburg, and would love to guest with The Royal Ballet. In the meantime, he relishes Russian ballet's intense work ethic. “Not everyone is an instant success, and it takes dancing to make dancing strong," he says. “Here, I was given the chance to grow into my body."
Ever dreamed of dancing your way through Europe? Of discovering new companies and wandering the streets of historic cities? For Kelsey Coventry, an American dancer with Leipziger Ballett in Leipzig, Germany, moving abroad was the perfect next step. “I thought that I would try to spread my wings a little further,” she says.
Europe also comes with another lure: lengthy, stable contracts with good benefits. “Since I work for an opera house here, and we’re government funded, I’m considered a government employee,” says Coventry. “We’re paid 13 months out of the year, with a 2-month vacation. It’s a pretty good deal.”
But before you get the job, you need to audition. If you’ve never traveled abroad, planning a European audition tour can seem daunting. But with advance planning and the right blend of organization and flexibility, it can be an easier and more affordable experience than you think.
Research, Research, Research
As early as possible, reach out to dance friends abroad and poke around the websites of European companies you admire. Look for repertoire that suits you and cities that intrigue you. When Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree planned the audition tour that landed her a spot at the Royal Danish Ballet a few years ago, she used major cities that were easily accessible from the U.S. as a starting point.
Jessica Teague, a soloist at Royal Ballet of Flanders, also recommends looking into companies you’ve never heard of. “Add in at least one company that is just purely out of curiosity,” she says. “I’ve discovered some really cool companies that way.” To tap into the European dance scene, Dance Europe will be one of your best resources. It’s a print magazine that’s available in some major U.S. cities, but its website also includes company and audition directories.
Pay special attention to whether the company hires foreign dancers by looking at company bios or the audition page, especially with smaller troupes. In some cases, filing for visas costs companies time and money, so you want to make sure they’re up for it.
Reach Out to Companies
When you’re researching company auditions, Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, recommends finding out what kind of dancer the director is looking for, too. Start by asking contacts that you have in the company, but also ask a company manager when you’re scheduling the audition. “Are they looking for small girls right now? Or tall boys?” says Hübbe. “People say if dancers want it enough, they can go to the company and knock down the door. Yes, that shows a certain passion and courage. But if a director is looking for 5' 5" instead of 5' 10", that’s the reality.”
Even if there’s an open audition scheduled, ask whether the company will allow you to take class as a private audition instead. Unlike at large open auditions, “you know that the director will be able to see you and measure you up against their own company,” says Coventry. “And you can see how you fit in from your own perspective, too.”
To request a private audition, look on the company’s website for the appropriate contact (often the company manager or artistic director’s assistant). Then, e-mail an inquiry that includes your resumé (with your citizenship right at the top, highlighting any dual citizenship), photos and dance reel. Elsbree recommends sending hard copies, as well. Follow up in a few weeks to make sure they’ve received your materials.
Plan Your Trip
Planning your audition tour is like putting together a puzzle. Teague, Elsbree and Coventry recommend setting aside approximately two weeks for a tour that targets five companies and a few possible backups. Your safest (and cheapest) bet is to book early with extra time padded in, just in case your itinerary changes.
Most companies look for new dancers between January and March (which happens to be a great time of year for flight deals), before the bulk of open auditions. But April or May could also be an advantageous time. “Later in the year directors know exactly who’s staying and who’s retiring, and sometimes things go a little bit faster,” says Teague.
Arranging auditions geographically is logical, but not always to your advantage, especially if companies have specific dates they’d like you to visit. When Coventry planned her tour, she started with her first-choice company, giving them the two-week time frame that she’d be in Europe and letting them suggest a date. Then, she e-mailed her second-choice company with a shorter time frame and so on.
Choosing transportation largely depends on the order of your auditions. Keep in mind that low-cost European airlines, such as easyJet and Ryanair, may often get you between cities much more quickly—and more cheaply—than trains. On the other hand, trains can be a relaxing way to see the countryside. Teague recommends asking about youth discounts and weekend fares when purchasing tickets.
Unless you’re staying with friends, you have three main accommodation options: a hostel, a bed and breakfast or a hotel. Hostels are dormitory-style and your most affordable option; European B&B’s are often less pricey than hotels. When choosing accommodations, stay within walking distance of the theater if possible. “The last thing you want on the morning of your audition is to get lost on public transportation,” says Teague. Elsbree adds, “You want to make everything as seamless and as convenient as possible, so that you can save your energy for the audition.”
Bring one book bag and one carry-on suitcase with wheels. That’s it. “If you can manage to do this trip without checking a bag, you will thank yourself,” says Elsbree. “If you’re moving from city to city, you can wear the same thing every other day, and no one will know,” adds Coventry. Pack plenty of pointe shoes, a leotard for each audition, a couple of outfits and your travel tickets.
The dance world is small and very international, so you’ll likely find fewer cultural differences inside the studio than outside it. “The parameters of ballet exist wherever you are—adagio is still adagio,” says Hübbe. “Speed is maybe an American ‘brand,’ but that will be incorporated into a well-rounded audition class.” Teague adds, “The chances that you’ll run into someone you know are very big. You’ll find contacts along the way.”
Of course, there will be cultural differences from one studio to the next, so keep these ground rules in mind: Always be your confident self, and err on the side of politeness. If taking company class, ask the dancers next to you before you take a place at the barre.
Whether you end up with a contract or not, a European audition tour is almost guaranteed to be a life-changing experience. “It is so perspective-shifting, just to expose yourself to other cultures and companies and cities,” says Elsbree. “To this day, my audition tour is still one of the highlights of my dance career.”
Budgeting for Europe: Two weeks on $3,000 (or less)
Round-trip flight: $800–$1,200, depending on time of year
Accommodations: $20–$100 per night. You can almost always find a great, well-located hostel room for $20–$40 (per person).
Food: $20–$30 per day. Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree recommends trying street food in each city you visit. “It’s cheap and delicious,” she says. Plus, it’s a great way to experience local culture.
Travel within Europe: $30–$100 per ticket (book in advance for the best rates)
Indianapolis to Host New Ballet Competition
Most dancers dream about working up close and personal with ballet’s biggest stars. This summer, 180 pre-professional dancers (ages 11 to 21) will have the opportunity to do just that during the first annual Indianapolis International Ballet Competition. Hosted by Indianapolis City Ballet, the event, held June 11 to 14 on the campus of Butler University, offers competitors both master classes and one-on-one coaching sessions with Ángel Corella, Greta Hodgkinson, Yuan Yuan Tan, Susan Jaffe and Monique Loudière.
In addition, the judges (which include directors from American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, San Francisco Ballet School, the John Cranko Schule and Canada’s National Ballet School, among others) will evaluate both the dancers’ classwork and their performances for scholarships, contracts and cash prizes.
An independent jury will choose qualifying competitors based on a video submission of one classical variation, due January 23. “It’s wise for dancers to choose an age-appropriate variation—one they’re artistically and technically capable of handling—rather than choosing the most difficult,” says Jolinda Menendez, ICB’s performance and master class director. See indianapoliscityballet.org for more information.
“Ballet is about being inspired by images and creating other images. One image that has helped me comes from my past director, William Whitener. He would tell us to ‘find the light’—meaning find where the stage lights reflect off the body. This has less to do with technique and more to do with performance quality. Thinking of where the light is reflecting affects what part of my body I’m choosing to highlight, accentuate or reveal—what glimmer in the eye I want to have captured. It’s literal, but also shows what’s coming out from the inside.” –Tempe Ostergren, Kansas City Ballet