When Boston Ballet artist Dawn Atkins was a little girl, she set a goal: to be a principal dancer by age 21. More specifically, a principal at New York City Ballet. Atkins was a successful student, joining Boston Ballet School's trainee program in 2011. She moved up to Boston Ballet II the following year and was given a company contract in 2013. But it was after knee surgery in 2015 that Atkins completely changed her approach to dance goals. "I had to set small ones, like being able to plié on one leg," she remembers. "I learned that I had to be kind to myself and celebrate those little goals."
Goal setting can help you advance as a dancer and a person. But it's easy to overly focus on far-off accolades rather than on meaningful advancements that will take you to the next level. "One should aspire to have dreams, of course, but it is important to keep reality in perspective," advises Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School co-director Dennis Marshall. Instead of tethering yourself to a dream that is ultimately out of your control, you can learn to set goals that will feed your dance career and your confidence.
By the time Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Gabrielle Thurlow reached high school, she knew she wanted to pursue a professional ballet career. But to do so, she had to make the tough decision to leave her local studio in Buffalo, New York, to train at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. "I wanted a school attached to a professional company, where I could train full-time," she says. With her parents' support, she approached her teachers a year in advance to begin talking to them about leaving. "It's a difficult conversation to have," she says. "They trained me, and we had this special relationship. But as former professional dancers, they understood where I was coming from."
Dancers often face this decision as they plan their pre-professional training. They are forever indebted to the teachers who molded them, and broaching the subject of leaving can seem like an impossible conversation. While it's normal to be nervous, there are ways to sensitively navigate the situation, without burning any bridges.
If you think a full-time pre-professional program might be right for you, it's never too early to start talking about the big transition. Deciding to forgo a "normal" high school experience for the chance to take your training to the next level is life-changing, and it's vital to have in-depth discussions with your family. Here's a checklist of topics to bring up—before the auditions begin.
1. What are my professional goals?
At the very least, you should feel sure that you want a professional dance career. But beyond tutus and dreams, it's important to understand what this means on a day-to-day level: the daily grind of technique classes and physical therapy, all-consuming workdays, and the endless pursuit of artistry and perfection. "I find a lot of students haven't done enough research on what a professional life is about—what it really means," says Denise Bolstad, managing director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School.
In addition, think about what kind of company you want to join and which schools can facilitate that. What's your favorite repertoire? Are you interested in a large company or a smaller one? For instance, Miami City Ballet corps member Ellen Grocki knew she loved Balanchine, so she researched schools where she'd gain extensive training in the style. She eventually left her home in Maryland at 16 to study at MCB School.
Summer intensive students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
In The Wings: Jenna Nelson
At Pacific Northwest Ballet School
By Rosie Gaynor
Folks don’t always notice Jenna Nelson right off the bat. She has what Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal Abbie Siegel calls “a quiet strength.” It’s a steadfast presence that doesn’t beg for attention.
Once you spot her, though, she’s riveting. At 17, her movement is already sophisticated and crystalline. Her head knows exactly where to go, and her shoulders are starting to follow suit. She brings exceptional control and generosity to her long développés. Her frappés shoot straight out, precise, strong and yet somehow dainty. You’d never guess that she began dancing only six years ago.
Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB and a teacher at the school, speaks of Nelson’s refinement, line, fluidity—and her feet: “Jenna has found where her arch is strong. When she uses her feet well, they’re pretty much textbook.”
Nelson didn’t start out dreaming about ballet. She grew up playing soccer, and when she was 12, she signed up for ballet class with friends just for fun. It wasn’t long before she realized she loved it—or before her teacher sent her on to PNBS. The commute to Seattle proved impractical, however, so Nelson joined Evergreen City Ballet Academy, studying with former PNB dancers Wade Walthall and Julie Tobiason. But PNBS never lost track of Nelson, and they invited her to attend their summer programs. In the fall of 2008, Nelson made the leap to training at PNB full-time in their two-year Professional Division program, a step Tobiason facilitated by offering Nelson a room in her own home.
Technique reigns at PNBS, with a syllabus that emphasizes Balanchine but also trains dancers for the demands of contemporary ballet work. This suits Nelson, who prefers classical ballets but also dreams of performing Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. The school shares a building with the company, so there are multiple opportunities to learn through observation, including occasional participation in company class. Students perform with PNB as well. In 2009, Nelson danced three corps roles in Nutcracker, and also joined the company in Swan Lake, Symphony in C and West Side Story Suite.
Nelson’s schedule is a ballet student’s dream—if you gloss over the seven online courses she is taking to finish high school. After technique from 9:30 to 11:00 am comes an hour or so of pointe, variations, modern or partnering. (Recent variations have included excerpts from Études and The Four Temperaments.) A second technique class starts at 3:30, unless there’s a rehearsal.
What keeps Nelson focused in the competitive ballet world? “I try to stay concentrated on what I want,” she says, “and not to think about things too much but just enjoying dancing.”
At A Glance:
Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Director: Peter Boal
Past Directors: Janet Reed (1974–75), Melissa Hayden (1976), Francia Russell (1977–2005)
Technique Taught: Various, with an emphasis on Balanchine; syllabus designed to meet the eclectic demands of dance companies today
Classes Offered: Classical ballet technique, modern, pointe, variations, partnering
Number of Students: 950
Alumni in the Past 10 Years: Ballet Frankfurt, Boston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, The Washington Ballet, among others
Focus: PNBS’ goal is to provide a healthy environment, inspiration and education. Dancers receive life-skills seminars, physical and nutritional guidance, performance opportunities and the chance to observe PNB members in their daily class, in rehearsals and in performance. The school flies in directors from 10–12 other companies each year to audition Professional Division students.
From YAGP to Degree
Youth America Grand Prix is now offering a new perk for finalists: the chance to audition for several top college dance departments at once. Representatives from such prestigious programs as Indiana University and Juilliard now attend the final round of YAGP to scout for talented high school seniors. Some even accept dancers and offer scholarships on the spot.
“I’d like to change the stereotype that you have to choose between a professional career in dance or college,” says University of Utah’s Department of Ballet professor Regina Zarhina, who heads the initiative. “If you look at job advertisements, most companies aren’t looking to hire very young and inexperienced dancers anymore.”
The program, which launched in 2009, includes an information session on dancing in college and each participating dance department presents information on their school. Dancers then take a combined audition class, which includes ballet, pointe and a short jazz section. For more information, go to www.yagp.org. You can also learn about each of the participating dance departments on DanceU101.com.
Winning a prestigious award is not only an opportunity for trophies, money and exposure. A win from a respected organization, such as the Princess Grace Foundation–USA, can provide opportunities that stretch far beyond the awards ceremony and into your professional career.
Princess Grace Award recipients not only get a boost on their resumés, they are also welcomed into a fraternity of artists and professionals. In addition to opportunities to network with all of the other winners since 1984, financial assistance is available—for life. “We offer winners assistance for special
projects and residencies,” says Toby E. Boshak, executive director of PGF–USA. “They can use the advantages throughout their career.”
For students, an award from PGF–USA can change their fate when they step into the professional world. “There is a level of prestige that goes along with the honor of winning a Princess Grace Award,” says Boshak.
Alexander Peters, 18, won in 2008 after the faculty at the School of American Ballet nominated him for the award. “I haven’t begun my professional career as a dancer yet,” he says, “but I have the award bolded at the top of my résumé and hope it will help open the door to some great opportunities in the future.”
Students in preprofessional, not-for-profit dance schools or undergraduate dance departments as well as professionals who have been a member of their company for less than five years are welcome to enter. Candidates must submit a joint application with their school or company, which can only nominate one dancer per year. The judging panel, made up of top dance professionals and artistic directors, chooses five or six winners in the dance performance category each year. Student winners receive a scholarship that covers one year of tuition at their school. Professional dancers are given one year of salary at their company. Applications are due by April 30. They can be found at www.pgfusa.com.
Dancing With Pros
Few student dancers are given the opportunity to learn new ballets alongside professionals. But last fall, the Rockville, Maryland–based American Dance Institute launched the ADI Chamber Ballet to give students a chance to do just that.
Directed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer Pamela Bjerknes, the company commissions up-and-coming choreographers to set and create their work on the students, who are joined by current dancers from The Washington Ballet.
“During my performing career, I watched how it always took new company members a year or two to understand how to work with a professional choreographer,” says resident choreographer Runqiao Du, a former dancer with TWB and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. “You have to learn not to be afraid of dancing with the full-on kind of attack that choreographers demand.”
The company’s next performance is scheduled for April 10, with original choreography by Du and TWB dancer Jared Nelson. For more information, visit www.americandance.org. —JS
TIP: How do you stay in top form during spring recital season?
Pace yourself: If you try it 1,000 times today, tomorrow you’ll be too sore to dance. Steady work will get you better results. And once you leave the studio, get your mind off ballet so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. When I’m doing a difficult role, I?need space away from it so I?can focus once I’m in the studio.
—Maggie Small, Richmond Ballet dancer
Inside a coaching session with Elena Kunikova
By Amy Brandt
Don Quixote’s Kitri—feisty, independent and free-spirited—explodes with personality from the moment she leaps onstage. Fiercely stubborn, she and Basilio cleverly plot to marry against her father’s wishes. While Kitri is no demure princess, she displays a proud elegance uniquely her own. The Grand Pas de Deux in Act III is the ballet’s highlight, and Kitri’s variation, with its intricate pointework, fluttering fan and Spanish flavor, gives dancers a wonderful opportunity to explore their individuality.
As a former ballerina with the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Kunikova performed Kitri’s Act III variation many times. She now coaches professionals in the role, including American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko, New York City Ballet’s Ana Sophia Scheller and the male divas of Les Ballets Trockadero. She recently shared her expertise on mastering some of the difficult moments.
Spanish Port de Bras
One of the variation’s biggest challenges lies in its stylized port de bras. “Character dance is not widely taught in the West,” Kunikova says, “so many young dancers don’t know how to move their arms with Spanish flair.” Dancers often place their hands on their hips by pulling their elbows back and sticking out their wrists. “I call it ‘chicken wings,’ ” says Kunikova. “Instead, the palm should be delicately placed on top of the tutu, not grabbing the hip. The wrist should be pressed down and the elbow should be pushed slightly forward (make sure to keep your chest open) while the fingers sustain an elegant classical form.” Each time the arms transition from the hips to second position (and in reverse), they must pass through first position.
Kunikova stresses the importance of coordinating the head with the rest of your body. For instance, she says, “It looks more impressive to look up on the développé à la seconde. Then, look lower during the passés while possibly fanning yourself. It gives more diversity and amplitude to the steps.”
Proper Fan Position
Manipulating the fan presents another challenge. “Rehearse the variation using just the port de bras, without dancing, to incorporate the fan without worrying about what’s happening from the waist down,” Kunikova says. She notes that dancers shouldn’t rest their elbow against the body when holding the fan. Initiate slower, larger fan movements with the elbow, but use the wrist to
create quick, small flutters. For added security, dancers can attach the fan to their wrist with an elastic band.
The fan can help build tension and excitement through the variation, like during the échappé section. “You might keep it low in front of your chest for the first set,” says Kunikova, “then gradually add port de bras on the second and third sets to show the combination’s progression.”
The Final Footwork
The variation’s final section—a series of alternating hops on pointe across the stage (called taqueté in French)—is its trickiest. The hopping foot must maintain a cupped shape to properly support the body. “It’s the only moment in ballet vocabulary when we have to make the foot ugly,” says Kunikova. Keep your weight on the supporting leg to control balance, using a shallow plié. Engaging opposition in the legs and shoulders is very characteristic for Spanish-styled ballet, and it accentuates the body’s position changes.
Exploring Kitri’s Character
Kunikova sees many avenues of artistic interpretation. “Kitri’s character can be quite different,” she says. “She could be proud, playful, willful or humorous.” However, dancers should avoid trying to appear sultry. “I call it the ‘Black Swan impersonation.’ Too much sultriness, especially for younger dancers, isn’t appropriate or true to their age.” Keep in mind that the variation is part of Kitri’s wedding celebration. “She should be joyous!”
While Kitri’s variation allows for lots of individual expression, Kunikova advises young students first learning the dance to avoid overloading it with too many details. “Instead,” she says, “keep it simple and clear.” Flourishes can be added later with experience and practice.