As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers,” says Durham. “Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances.” But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. “It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it’s such an intense program,” he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.
Men’s ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l’air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.
Why the Need?
To work professionally, young men have to demonstrate a full range of technical skills, especially in jumping and turning and through a firm grasp of styles and partnering. “Today, boys are expected to be much more flexible and physically fit than they were 20 years ago,” says Peter Stark, who joined the Boston Ballet School faculty in 2015 to shape a comprehensive men’s program, in which 72 percent of students are on scholarship. Simon Ball, who directs the men’s program at CPYB, agrees. “You’re not exceptional if you can do a double tour from fifth to fifth,” he says. “That’s the bare minimum.”
For smaller schools and companies, initiating a men’s ballet program also helps to recruit boys and educate communities. Nick Mullikin, the director of the School of Nashville Ballet, saw a shortage of boys in his school, mostly due to the stigma of young men studying ballet. In response, he launched a young men’s scholarship program last August that currently serves 40 male students, ages 6 to 18. Boys receive a year of free training; subsequent scholarships are merit-based. “Coed classes sometimes put boys in a ratio of 20 to 1,” says Mullikin. “It’s great when there are other boys in class; it helps to build a sense of teamwork. It’s important for young men to have that kind of support.”
In addition, getting proper training during the early teen years is crucial. “At the onset of puberty, which is when girls are going on pointe—that’s when it’s nice to separate the boys out,” says Stark, so that both groups have time to pursue specialized training. In his experience, Ball has seen that boys can succeed in their teens, but acknowledges that the path is generally easier at a younger age to ingrain the focus, discipline and muscle memory.
Men’s programs, often led by male teachers with professional experience, offer more specialized training. Even barre exercises often need to be adapted. “I think it’s really essential for men to get down into the floor for their preparations and jumps,” says Ball, who emphasizes the full value of the plié and the push required to spring off the floor in his classes. He also frequently gives combinations that move side to side to help students feel their backs and coordinate their jumps, rather than move in pieces.
Partnering proficiency doesn’t manifest magically, so constant practice through weekly adagio classes is necessary to prepare men to work professionally. Many programs also implement cross-training to develop upper-body strength and stamina. CPYB two-year male scholarship boys go to a gym twice a week to work with a trainer for core and upper-body strength, while Nashville Ballet and Boston Ballet schools work exercises into class. “We do a lot of gym exercises—planks, push-ups and sit-ups, stretching, and running up and down stairs,” says Stark. “Some boys are tighter but stronger, and some are super-flexible but not as strong,” so a mindful approach to each student is crucial.
For a student whose only experience is his hometown school, entering into a new arena of competition can be challenging. Yet most find being in a class of other boys a positive, and it helps diminish the myth that ballet is only for girls. “The teachers encourage you to compare yourself to other dancers in a healthy way: If this person can do it, there’s no reason you can’t do it,” says Durham. “Being around a group of guys working toward the same thing gives you confidence and is very motivating.”
Another unexpected benefit: The discipline, concentration and focus often expand beyond the walls of the studio. “When the boys get together multiple times a week, you see technical improvement, but we‘ve also seen the changes in their behavior,” says Mullikin. “We‘ve heard from parents that their academic performance in school is better.”
Ball recalls that as a young dancer, he trained with “a handful of men, none my own age.” Now, he says, “I walk into the studio and I continually have to pinch myself because there are 20 to 30 men in the room. I’m so happy with the way things have progressed.”
Are You the Only Guy in Your Class?
If you don’t have access to a men’s program, there are things you can do to progress in your hometown studio:
- Study videos that show excellent male dancing in performances, classes and rehearsals. “As a kid I had three videos: Baryshnikov’s Don Q and Nutcracker, and New York City Ballet’s The Magic Flute with Ib Andersen,” says Simon Ball, director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s men’s program and a former principal with Houston Ballet. “I watched them over and over again.”
- In your early teens, begin an upper-body strengthening routine, preferably with the help of a professional. Back injuries among young male dancers are common. Core work can begin earlier.
- Request that your instructor address the differences in men’s and women’s technique, such as male-specific jumps and turns and adjusting tempos during allégro combinations, in class.
- Ask your local studio to host a guest male instructor who has a background in men’s training.
- Try to see male dancers in live ballet performances as often as possible. “Anything you can do to see male dancers perform keeps you motivated and gives you something to work towards,” says CPYB student Adrian Durham.
Penché: So simple, yet so tough. Here, San Francisco Ballet School faculty member Tina LeBlanc offers her tips for a beautifully supported penché.
Think three-dimensionally: “A penché is not just front and back, or down and up,” says Tina LeBlanc. “You’re wrapping the supporting leg, you’re pulling up the tummy, the back is reaching up, the toe is reaching up—you’re expanding in all different directions.”
Eyes up: For LeBlanc, a tell-tale sign that students will lose their balance in penché is when they drop their eyes. “Your sight is a dominant sense,” says LeBlanc. “When you look down, your sight takes over and you’re not necessarily feeling the shape.” Instead, focus out and over the hand.
The back/foot connection: As you penché, feel the arabesque foot pushing upward as you resist with your back. “Then, as you come back up, your foot is going to resist as your back initiates, all while staying forward in the ball of the foot.”
Keep square: LeBlanc feels a more squared-off penché yields better results. “If you let your working side open too much, it’s like being on a high wire.” Pull back on your supporting shoulder to help square off.
Feeling crunchy? To help free up the working side of your back in arabesque, imagine that your leg is coming out of your spine. “If you can create space in your lower back,” says LeBlanc, “it’s a little easier to keep that working leg turned out and lifted because you’re not dealing with flesh or the ribs.”
Tip: Think “up” to go down. As a dancer, LeBlanc used to imagine a giant ribbon tied around her hips, suspended from above. “The image helped keep my pelvis supported, and I could lean over it. It gives that sense of ‘up’ as you’re going down.” In addition, “feel your back reaching for the ceiling as you go forward.”
Not every male dancer gets to take on roles like Swan Lake’s Odette, and Giannina in a restaging of Jules Perrot’s The Naïad and the Fisherman. But Philip Martin-Nielson isn’t your typical performer.
Martin-Nielson is a leading dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male troupe famous for its parodies of traditional ballets. Quite an accomplishment for someone who was once told he would never be capable of taking care of himself or living on his own.
Although you’d never know it by talking to him or watching him dance, Martin-Nielson has one of the most severe forms of autism. Diagnosed at age 3, he was unable to maintain eye contact or communicate and couldn’t bear to be touched.
But as he memorized and performed the dances he saw on “Barney and Friends,” he discovered that he could express himself through dance. After years of him begging, his mother signed him up for his first ballet class at age 6.
His focus and attention during classes were qualities his mother had never seen before. She knew this was something he had to keep doing. With the help of his teachers, Martin-Nielson learned to carry the discipline he had acquired from ballet over into his academics and day-to-day life. His speech, reading and social skills improved dramatically, and he learned various social cues through movement and observing others in the studio.
“I was always teased and bullied for being different,” Martin-Nielson says. “But, when I was in a ballet class, the bullying, the teasing, the hurt feelings, none of that mattered.”
Teachers at his hometown dance studio in Cornwall, New York, thought his slight build, expressive presence and comedic flair were a perfect fit for the Trocks, so they introduced him to pointe at age 12.
It was Halloween, Martin-Nielson recalls. Armed with a pair of pointe shoes and a tutu, he walked into his first pointe class. “If you fall, you’re taking the shoes off,” his teacher warned.
But Martin-Nielson didn’t fall. Rather, he took to pointework right away. Years later, when he transferred to the School of American Ballet (where pointe is not offered for men), he would practice in his dorm room.
When he was 17, he auditioned for Trockadero. “I wanted to hire him immediately,” says Paul Ghiselin, the troupe’s ballet master. “He just has this natural ability and talent. He really pushes the vocabulary of ballet to its ultimate.”
The Trocks don’t hire dancers who haven’t finished high school, but they encouraged Martin-Nielson to come back once he graduated. He did, and officially signed on with them in September 2012. Now 21, he’s the youngest member of the company.
“The Trocks have given me some wonderful opportunities I never thought I would be able to experience,” Martin-Nielson says. Besides the chance to dance classical roles, he’s had the opportunity to travel, since the company performs all over the world.
Martin-Nielson hopes sharing his story will promote awareness of dance as a therapy for autism, so others like him can achieve their goals and realize their dreams. “If you have a passion, keep going for it and keep doing it to the best of your ability,” he says. “No matter how many times somebody tries to shut you down.”
Pre-performance ritual: “Making sure my pointe shoes are clean and nice, and putting Band-Aids around the ribbons so they don’t come undone.”
Hidden talent: “I’m a costume designer. I can make anything out of any piece of fabric. And I love to do drag performances in the city!”
Guilty pleasure: “Watching Carol Channing.”
Dream role: “Kitri in Don Quixote. And it’s a role that I’m already working on in rehearsals.”
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."
Dance was always my refuge. School was hell for me—it was like a page out of Lord of the Flies. Survival of the fittest was the guiding principle of my middle school. While generally the “fittest” kids were the prettiest and the most popular, at my public school that meant specifically punk skater kids. They acted tough and had this pervasive air of rebellion around them which stood in direct contrast to me. I followed rules, I listened and took direction from teachers, I was disciplined—I mean, I was a dancer! So the cool group teased me relentlessly, called me every name in the book, including “effeminate,” and though it never got physical—it was only words—they did hurt me. I didn’t have the sense to think, “Oh, yeah? One day you’ll see,” because I was a kid and just wanted to be accepted.
In my desperate attempt to fit in, I made fun of the other loser kids. I used to take tap lessons at the local community college. On the eve of Halloween, this kid in my tap class told me about his costume. He was going to be a ballet dancer. I laughed and teased him so hard about it that he ended up being too upset to trick or treat the next night. His mom called my mom, and though I apologized as directed and gave him half of my candy, the damage had been done. He probably would not want to put that costume on ever again. This was long before my serious ballet school days, but still, it is hard not to see the irony. When I look back, there is the thought that kids will be kids, but the truth is, I thought participating in this kind of hierarchy of persecution would gain me acceptance. Dance was a necessity for me, so I was prepared to take the cycle of abuse it brought on.
I had been miserable in my local public schools, so when the Arizona School for the Arts charter school first opened, I jumped at the chance to be a freshman in the inaugural class. It was a ballet-focused program and a big transition from the jazz-based studio I had initially trained at. I swapped out sweatpants for tights and found myself part of an artistic community that included other disciplines, such as music and painting. Around the same time, I made the transition to The School of Ballet Arizona, directed then by Kee Juan Han, for my after-school dance classes. I was compelled by this new world of serious work where there was no talking allowed. We had to stand in line and were expected to work towards perfection. There was not a lot of positive reinforcement, so I had no idea if I was good. But the work saved me.
Which was so important, because even though I had found a new group of artsy friends at ASA, being a dancer meant I would never find inspiration in complacency. In the larger pop-culture world around me, trying hard was not cool. In my smaller ballet world, it was impossible to try hard enough. So I eventually made my peace with being “uncool” and found myself hungry for new challenges. Though I had found an environment that accepted me and gave me the freedom to be myself, I would continue to be the outsider again and again.
This philosophy kept me afloat when I moved to the Paris Opéra Ballet School my senior year of high school. I traded in the teenage freedom of driving around Phoenix and spending my Saturday nights at raves with my friends for an even more rigid system where I didn’t speak the language. At POB, they absolutely rejected me socially. I was American, I didn’t speak French, I was brought into the graduating class and my talent was seen as a threat. And the fact that I was trying so hard to make friends turned everyone off. For six months I was basically silent. Instead of talking, I observed. I noticed body language. I read books and reactions. I was forced to focus on myself and develop my individuality.
Likewise, when I first went to the Bolshoi, I was in a parallel universe to that year at POB. Though welcomed this time, I was still out of my comfort zone with language and lifestyle. I was lonely, but I knew I would grow because my uncomfortable year at POB had been such a growth spurt. I have learned to be uncomfortable with being comfortable. I tend to work myself to the ground in an effort to keep challenges always in front of me.
Ballet idolizes principal dancers—when I was at ASA, I had a photo of Ethan Stiefel on my binder. I wish that at that young, impressionable age I had been able to get to know the person I was striving to be. Maybe there would have been words of mentorship that would have made me feel less alone in my struggle. Now that I’ve made it, I could easily just keep doing my thing and let it be. I obviously figured it out; the next generation will, as well. Or I could step up to the plate and mentor. I realized that I felt compelled towards mentorship because I’ve been there—working my butt off six days a week to become a professional, unsure of what kind of life is ahead, never knowing if you’ll be good enough.
I approached Franco De Vita of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and told him I wanted to give a scholarship to a boy in his program, in an effort for the student to have someone he might relate to more, who could let him know he’s on the right track. There have been two recipients thus far—Alex Kramer, now of Ballet San Jose, and Julian Donahue. I look for kids who are working to get control over an unruly body. I watch them in class and give context to their specific corrections. I try to be available for whatever they want to talk about, though obviously my performing schedule makes it hard. This year, I plan to be around more, especially as I heal from an injury, and I want to try to develop a more personal relationship. I’ll be in hallways, watching classes and rehearsals, available for lunch. I don’t want to force it, but I want my mentee to know he can always reach out to me. In addition, I have also started a tuition scholarship for boys at The School of Ballet Arizona. I want more kids to be able to have the chance to find refuge in the work like I did.
Ballet can be so quantity-based these days. With my outreach work, I want to reinforce that the number of turns you do is the least important thing. Quality and foundation are what count. The greatest dancers are not tricksters, they are artists devoted to the work. Lucky for me, and for these boys, art is born out of sublimating our struggles, our lack of acceptance. I want to send the message that we can be alone, together.
—David Hallberg, as told to Candice Thompson