In her first season as a corps member with Oklahoma City Ballet, Devin Larsen stood among the 17 dancers who made the audience gasp as the curtain came up on Balanchine's Serenade. But her path to getting there would make anyone gasp.
At age 3, Larsen was diagnosed with epilepsy. She averaged 20 complex partial seizures per day, which eventually turned into the more serious kind, generalized tonic seizures, where she would fall and completely lose consciousness. “Your brain just shuts down," she says.
Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.
Courtney Henry knew she wanted to dance for Alonzo King LINES Ballet while she was still a student in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. “I saw LINES perform at The Joyce Theater, and I was blown away, particularly by the women," she remembers. “They were commanding and strong, even scary in how powerful they were. I was like, 'I want to dance like that.' "
She did a 2009 summer program with LINES in San Francisco, then auditioned in 2011. In Henry, King saw an ideal artist for his contemporary ballet company. A lithe six feet tall, the 27-year-old dancer brings the intense physicality and sky-high extensions that King's abstract choreography requires, but also the musicality and technical mastery that make his ballets so mesmerizing.
“Courtney's palette is filled with myriad textures, surprise innovation and rhythmic manipulation," says King, who choreographs to music ranging from Middle Eastern tabla to free jazz to Tchaikovsky. “She is hard to define outside of the word 'brilliant.' " Yet, he says, in her fifth season “she has not even hit the turning point of her career in dance. She is traveling at mercuric speed, ascending toward what will be an astonishing career."
For now, Henry is laser-focused on the demanding LINES schedule, with fall and spring home seasons bookending an average of 20 weeks of national and international touring every year. Her daily routine is designed to keep her relaxed, focused and physically ready. “Because I travel so much, it gets really hard on my system," she says. “I've had to be more aware of my body and my health." Whether she's journaling or rolling out or sipping custom wellness teas, she tunes in to what she needs to feel healthy and creative.
On a picture-perfect Bay Area day, Pointe followed Henry to the LINES Dance Center, where the company rehearsed for its recent fall season in San Francisco and four months of touring from Moscow to Atlanta to La Rochelle, France.
(All photos by Kathryn Rummel)
Artist, Milwaukee Ballet
Favorite role: Clara
“Clara was my first soloist role and the first role I did where my character danced through the entire ballet. I liked playing with different ways of making her sweet and lovable or bratty and funny. Switching from Clara to the corps to divertissements makes the rehearsal process exciting and challenging.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 17–18
“In the morning I take a hot bath for 5–7 minutes as a way to pre-warm my muscles before class.”
“If I have a quick change into pointe shoes, I rip a piece of soft, white tape off my toes and use it to hold my ribbons.”
“I take a homeopathic supplement called Quietude, which helps me wind down after a show.”
Corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet
Favorite role: Spanish
“It’s a very energetic and dynamic part, and there’s a lot of character dancing.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: approximately 33
“When I’m doing Maid or Party Parent in the Party Scene, I wear legwarmers under the long dress so I’m ready for Snow.”
“I stick my pointe shoes under the heater at the theater to warm them up.”
“Take advantage of the differences between each conductor by really listening to the changes in the music.”
Company artist, Oregon Ballet Theatre
Favorite role: Sugar Plum Fairy
“I love that in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy does her variation at the beginning of Act II surrounded by the angels. Sharing the stage with young students reminds me that every audience is full of children who are seeing ballet for the first time.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 15–19
Time Your Hydration
“I drink water well before the show so I can stay focused but not have to go to the bathroom once I’m in costume.”
Pointe Shoe Prep
“I sew as many pointe shoes as possible before we even get to the theater.”
Check Off Christmas Shopping
“I do all of my Christmas shopping before Nutcracker!”
Demi-soloist, Tulsa Ballet
Favorite role: Maid of Honor, in “Waltz of the Flowers”
“In Marcello Angelini’s Nutcracker, the Maid of Honor is partnered by four different cavaliers, and it flows together beautifully. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to dance, but it’s very enjoyable.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 8
“Soup is my go-to meal. It keeps you hydrated and makes you feel full, but you can still move.”
“I take my makeup off immediately after the show, wash my face as soon as I get home, and I don’t put any makeup on until I have to, the next night, so my skin has a chance to breathe.”
“Epsom salt baths help my muscles to recover from that feeling of lactic acid crunchiness.”
Second soloist, National Ballet of Canada
Favorite role: Bee, in “Waltz of the Flowers”
“Although it’s an extremely difficult and tiring role with a lot of jumping and quick movements, the fast-paced choreography makes it a joy.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: 24
“We bring a blow-up mattress into the change room, to lie down between shows.”
Be a Team Player
“I always volunteer to do a new spot if someone gets sick or injured. Everyone will go to the wings to watch, and if you make eye contact onstage it’s fun!”
Balance Is Key
“Doing the same roles all the time works the same muscles. For example, the Snowflake choreography has a lot of quick footwork and relevés, so it’s taxing on our calves and ankles. To balance that I do lunges and squats with weights to engage my hamstrings, quads and glutes.”
Soloist, Pacific Northwest Ballet
Favorite roles: Cavalier and Mother Ginger
“The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier is the most rewarding role because of the beautiful music, and Mother Ginger is an all-out hoot to perform.”
Number of Nutcrackers per season: approximately 35
Natural Skin Care
“Coconut oil is an all-natural way to moisturize your skin. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your makeup case.”
“I always check in with my partner before a pas de deux. Maybe my shoulder hurts that day or her shoes are more dead than usual.”
“It helps to step out of the theater, even if it’s just for lunch or coffee, especially on double show days.” P