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It's International Women's Day! To celebrate, we combed our archives for career advice and wisdom from some of the women currently directing ballet companies. Let their words empower and inspire you, today and always.

Julie Kent working with students at ABT, photo by Rosalie O’Connor

"You don’t become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It’s a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you’re able to look back to see where you came from."

–The Washington Ballet's Julie Kent on the importance of patience

Lourdes Lopez teaching at the MCB School, photo by Daniel Azoulay

"You have to embrace new technology. It’s a no-brainer, but you have to figure out how to use it. People think of ballet as fragile. I completely disagree. I think it’s actually very powerful in terms of a transformational art form. Look how long it’s survived with all the issues and agendas—political, scientific, social and economic. I’m a believer that you can live-stream dance into a bar or restaurant or stadium or a parking lot. It’s not going to diminish the art form.

-Miami City Ballet's Lourdes Lopez on the future of ballet

“The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it’s not actually possible to attain...Polish your strengths so they’re the center of attention, and know what can and can’t be done to change your weaknesses.”

–Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson on fighting perfectionism and gaining confidence

Virginia Johnson at DTH, photo by Quinn Wharton

"It’s not just about being too big. I don’t want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don’t want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don’t think that’s very American."

–Ballet Memphis' Dorothy Gunther Pugh on body type in the ballet world

“I look for commitment and openness. You can keep learning through your entire career, and there are always new ways of looking at things...The spirit of a dancer and their versatility is more important to me than whether they have perfect legs and feet.”

–National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain on what she looks for in dancers

 

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

News

Isabella Boylston is having quite the year. When she's not dazzling audiences at American Ballet Theatre, she's been preparing to take over the silver screen as Jennifer Lawrence's dance double in Red Sparrow. Now, it looks like her summer plans will keep her just as busy.

Isabella Boylston, photographed by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

According to The New York Times, Boylston will curate a show of her own this August, in her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho. The three-day event, called Ballet Sun Valley, will feature performances, and free dance classes for children. Boylston told the Times that it's something she's always wanted to do, and she hopes to make it an annual event.

No word yet on which dancers are participating, but it sounds like we can expect some major star power: they'll come from companies like ABT, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet.

The program itself sounds promising too, with works by George Balanchine, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. Plus, Boylston commissioned a world premiere by ABT corps dancer Gemma Bond (who's become a choreographer-to-watch in recent years), inspired by the solar eclipse that will happen in the area during the festival.

Boylston's ambitions also reflect a larger trend. Lately, more and more pros are taking on leadership roles and developing their own projects during the off-season—like Daniel Ulbricht's Dance Against Cancer benefits, or John Welker's Wabi Sabi program for Atlanta Ballet dancers. They're pursuing work that excites them, fighting for causes they believe in and taking their careers into their own hands—and that's inspiring for all of us.

 

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

From the outside, one might assume that the stars onstage are leaders offstage, too. It might be so, but life in a company is usually more complex. Opportunities to volunteer, teach or represent fellow colleagues allow dancers at any rank to develop important skills and make their voices heard. Others take the lead simply by lifting company morale or setting a good example in the studio. In fact, leadership takes many forms—and you don’t have to be a principal ballerina to be an influential company member whom others look up to. For these three dancers, stepping into leadership roles has given greater meaning and fulfillment to their careers.

Terez Dean offers her input at Smuin Ballet marketing meetings (photo by Lois Greenfield, courtesy Smuin Ballet)

Get Involved, Give Back

Miami City Ballet corps member Lexie Overholt is always looking for opportunities to get involved. “When I was on full scholarship at Miami City Ballet School, I realized I wanted to give back to the ballet because they gave so much to me,” she says. “Leadership is a natural calling for me, so I dive in whenever there are things I can do.”

Now in her fifth season with the company, Overholt volunteers in almost all parts of the organization. She participates in outreach projects and lecture demonstrations at community schools. She also serves on the Upper Room committee, a group that plans events for young patrons. Overholt even helped connect Miami City Ballet to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Now if there is a child in South Florida whose wish it is to be a ballet dancer, we get to share a day with them.”

As a testament to her leadership skills, Overholt was nominated this year to be one of three representatives for Miami City Ballet. “We serve as a liaison between dancers and administration during contract negotiations,” she explains, a job that requires her to navigate potential conflicts with management. “It helps us understand in greater depth the unique perspective of both sides.”

Terez Dean, a dancer with Smuin Ballet, makes a point to learn about all aspects of her company, especially on the administrative end. She attends development and marketing meetings when she can, and always volunteers to step into a focus group. “It’s important for dancers to give our input,” she says. “We can talk about how we see our company evolving, and how we want to show that to the public.” And in a business that’s reliant on outside support and donations, Dean makes a special effort to maintain good relationships with patrons and other community members. “You never know who you’re going to cross paths with in the future.”

For Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier, leading from the front of the studio gives her a special feeling of gratification. She will sometimes teach a master class to local students when the company is on tour. She also teaches for both the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the Aspirant Program (RWB’s pre-professional group in which students have the opportunity to dance in large company productions).

“Teaching is a different kind of fulfillment than I get from dancing because I have direct interaction with the students,” she says. “They take my advice to heart.”

Set the Standard

Sometimes leadership is not so much about what outside roles you take on, but about how you behave and treat your fellow dancers. “I take my job very seriously,” says Sundermeier, who tries to set a good example for all ranks of the company, not just the younger dancers. “I make sure I’m neat and show up to rehearsals on time. I conduct myself professionally in the studio and backstage at the theater, and I’m always listening.”

Lending an ear or a helping hand to dancers in need also boosts morale and creates a more welcoming atmosphere. Sundermeier makes a conscious effort to be approachable, especially when dancers come to her for advice about roles she’s done. “I talk to them about my experience, like my thoughts on musicality or how I felt.” When new dancers join MCB, Overholt has been known to help them with their taxes or even find an apartment. Dancing, she says, is just one aspect of her job. “It’s so important to be engaged and to know everyone,” she says. “It makes what I do all the more rewarding.”

When Dean suffered a serious injury a few years back, she still found ways to help out and feel connected. “I went into the studio almost every day when I wasn’t at physical therapy,” she remembers. “I felt it was my responsibility to be a motivator for my colleagues.” Dean watched rehearsals and performances, cheering for the dancers and being an open ear for their frustrations. “I was there every day to remind everyone how fortunate we are to work.”

Because of her leadership experience, Dean feels more well-rounded, and she thinks she will have an easier time transferring into another professional environment when the time comes. “I know that my passion for working with others will continue to flourish in my next career,” she says. “Being a leader in dance is being a leader in life.” P

Marlow and Logan Pachciarz in Ma Cong's "Angeli" (photo by Philip Koenig, courtesy Jill Marlow)

The off-season may mean rest and relaxation for some, but these pros see it as an opportunity to dive into their own projects. The results of their efforts—a multi-day festival, an international tour and an outdoor performance series—reflect the various ways that dancers challenge themselves in leadership roles outside of the studio. They’re finding new avenues to explore their artistry, expand their skills and bring ballet to different communities.

Jill Marlow, Kansas City Ballet

General manager, Kansas City Dance Festival

Jill Marlow first became involved with the Kansas City Dance Festival when fellow company members Logan Pachciarz and recently retired Anthony Krutzkamp founded it in 2012. The festival allows dancers from multiple companies, such as Cincinnati Ballet and Nashville Ballet, to come together for two days of performances.

“Our mission is to integrate dancers from different companies with KCB dancers in order to promote work that isn’t often performed in Kansas City,” Marlow says. The three use their personal connections with dancers and choreographers to help determine the repertoire and who gets to perform.

As general manager, Marlow deals with fundraising, advertising and coordinating travel and contracts for the performers. It’s a concerted team effort that Marlow admits was scary and difficult the first year. “You don’t learn these things in a dance studio,” she says. But she’s since become a master at logistical organizing, with newly honed marketing skills and greater confidence approaching potential donors.

Marlow and her co-artistic directors have huge plans for the festival’s future, including a lecture series and expanded educational outreach. “We’d also like the festival to be longer than two days since it’s a great experience for everyone involved.”

John Welker, Atlanta Ballet

Founder, Wabi Sabi

Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker conceived of his Wabi Sabi program as a way to offer AB dancers a summer gig. The name comes from a Japanese concept about the beauty of the natural world, and to that end, all performances are held outside or in untraditional spaces. “The performers are right on top of the audience,” says Welker. “They see their reactions and their energy.”

The project has a clear set of goals, in addition to offering summer employment: Create new works by young choreographers and introduce dance and ballet to new audiences. Welker notes that keeping the program within the Atlanta Ballet family has been advantageous. “It works with our schedule and I know the dancers really well,” he says.

Wabi Sabi’s choreographers and dancers have access to AB’s production and administrative departments, but Welker books the shows, helps to select the choreographers and casts the dancers. While time management was tough for him at first, he admits that the link with AB takes some of the operational pressure off.

Welker hopes to expand Wabi Sabi into full-time summer employment, but he wants to make sure the unique elements of the performances are kept intact. “If we tour, that usually means performing in venues. I want to find places that speak to the uniqueness of what we present.”

Altan Dugaraa, Boston Ballet

Founder, Mongolian Ballet Development Foundation

Boston Ballet second soloist Altan Dugaraa wants nothing less than to change the face of ballet in his home country of Mongolia. He established the Mongolian Ballet Development Foundation in 2011, and every summer leads a series of tours to the country. “I want to inspire Mongolian dancers,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to be done there.”

Dugaraa, who frequently performs on the international gala circuit, uses his extensive personal contacts to invite guest stars and small touring groups from around the world to perform for Mongolian audiences. So far, he’s featured performers from Cincinnati Ballet, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the National Ballet of Canada and the Hamburg Ballet, as well as Boston Ballet.

This summer, his group will perform a new work by BB principal Jeffrey Cirio, with plans to tour Mongolia for two weeks, as well as perform in Japan. “Organizing a tour uses your brain in a different way,” he says. “It’s hard, but performing onstage makes me used to high-pressure situations.”

Dugaraa’s dedication to promoting ballet in Asia doesn’t stop with touring and master classes. “I want to create a dance center,” he says, which he hopes will act as a major regional resource.

 

A Man and a Mission

Admirers of New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht probably consider “puckish” an ideal adjective for his personality and his dancing, thanks to his definitive performance as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They would be surprised to learn that someone so convincing as Shakespeare’s scampish prankster would soberly discuss dancing not only as a responsibility, but as a mission. From his Stars of American Ballet touring company to his Dance Against Cancer event, Ulbricht uses every ounce of his spare time uniting ballet with good causes.

Do you think of yourself as something of a missionary?

You are right to say I have a mission. For instance, I host the New York City Ballet’s Family Saturdays program. Each hour-long session is an introduction to NYCB’s dancers, musicians and repertory for an audience of parents and children. I regularly get them up out of their seats to perform “choreography” of a sort. It’s certainly not Balanchine, but watching the joy they get from participating makes me feel like an ambassador for our craft.

Any missionary impulse involved in your touring group, Stars of American Ballet?

Yes, because we regularly present repertory rarely performed in other cities. It may be either a portion of a major work or an entire one-act classic. The section of Who Cares? danced by four principals is top-shelf Gershwin and Balanchine, and it bowled over audiences wherever we danced it. For Bernstein and Robbins’ Fancy Free, we travel with six dancers plus a set of a Manhattan saloon.

Those two ballets are now considered 20th-century classics. What about today’s choreographers?

I feel obligated to tour with works by the new generation, such as Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck. Their works are expected at a sophisticated venue like Jacob’s Pillow, which we have been invited to revisit July 29–August 2.

Are you planning to tour with other productions requiring a set like the one you commissioned for Fancy?

As a matter of fact, I am thinking about several. My goal is to build a repertory of great works that demand sets and costumes. No specific details now, however, but I will say we are planning to visit a dozen cities this year.

When did you become a dedicated activist fundraiser with the annual Dance Against Cancer benefit?

In 2011, I set up the benefit with Erin Fogarty—she’s director of programming at Manhattan Youth Ballet—to create an event that used the talent of the dance world for a good cause. Erin’s father would later die of cancer. My mother was undergoing chemotherapy. Raising money for the American Cancer Society became our mission.

What was the response from your fellow dancers?

It was overwhelming. We had absolutely no trouble finding classical, modern and folk dancers who wanted to donate their services in memory of a loved one or friend. We started small, performing in the intimate black-box theater of Manhattan Movement & Arts Center. We outgrew MMAC in two years and now perform at the AXA Equitable Center. It has a bigger stage and more space for the audience and dancers to mingle after the performance for a catered buffet. To date, our expected five-year total can be as high as $600,000.

Do you have any spare time?

Not much. In New York City I teach up to five times a week at Manhattan Youth Ballet. In between City Ballet’s spring and fall seasons, I administer the New York State Summer School of the Arts School of Ballet in Saratoga Springs. It keeps me busy.

Harris Green

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