As a young student, Shea McAdoo’s classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova.” She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet’s summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I’d never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring.”
McAdoo’s experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn’t cross my wrists,” she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me.” Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine’s Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet’s fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.
Learning about ballet’s various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer’s development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it’s a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.
Let Curiosity Be Your Guide
Whether it’s Bournonville, French or Balanchine, every methodology has its own aesthetic, movement quality and areas of emphasis. Most dancers find that there’s one in particular that appeals to or suits them best. McAdoo’s admiration of New York City Ballet’s dancers made her want to study at the school that trained them, but another dancer might love the expressive port de bras of The Royal Ballet’s dancers, or the Vaganova method’s power and purity.
One thing is certain—don’t let an unfamiliar style deter you from auditioning for a school’s intensive. While some academies prioritize accepting students trained in their method, most don’t. “We don’t look for students who’ve had Balanchine training previously at all,” says Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty. She notes that most of its summer students are brand-new to Balanchine technique. Similarly, at Sarasota Ballet’s Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, two out of three intensive students are unfamiliar with what principal Christopher Hird calls the “English style” (a hybrid of Russian, Italian and French influences that result in seamlessly clean footwork and eloquent port de bras).
“One of the benefits of a summer program is being exposed to a different way of dancing,” says conservatory director Margaret Barbieri. “The dancers are learning to adapt to whatever is required of them that day, which is an important skill to instill in a student—they will need it as a professional.”
Mazzo says students should start investigating all their options early. “It’s important that when they’re still 12 to 14 years old they look around at different styles, schools and companies, to see what’s out there. Because by the time they’re 15 or 16, they should know what’s right for their body, what they like and what fits well for them.”
What to Expect
Venturing into a new way of dancing can be confusing at first. An overload of information, from the way combinations are presented to different terminology, can make you feel like a beginner again. Last summer, 16-year-old Sofia Yarbrough struggled to make sense of the specific ways the teachers wanted her to hold her head and arms at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Everything, from the language the Russian teachers spoke to the way frappés were done, was different from her home studio, the Ballet Center of Fort Worth. “At first, I felt like a fish out of water,” she says. But soon the new technique took hold in her body. “By the fourth week, the coordination started to make sense and feel normal.”
Mazzo knows how hard it is for students to grasp SAB’s trademark speed, attack, musicality and, for the advanced girls, taking every class on pointe. She counsels being patient. “We tell them on the first day, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ because this might be 100 percent different from what you’ve been taught. Take it one day at a time, and work on one new thing at a time.”
It’s also important to remember that what you already know is not invalid, and the basic concepts of technique carry across all styles. Alexandros Pappajohn, now a member of The Washington Ballet Studio Company, spent a summer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School when he was 15. “It was definitely a big change,” says Pappajohn, then a student at Ballet Academy East. Keeping an open mind helped him adopt the school’s emphasis on clean, fast footwork and épaulement. He admits it was hard to break ingrained habits (like how to prepare before combinations), but otherwise found adjusting to the French classes surprisingly easy. “Ballet is ballet. You always have to straighten your knees and point your feet. If you have good, solid technique, you can go other places and it’s not a shock to your system.”
Being able to do steps differently from class to class, according to what each teacher wants, helps develop versatility—a skill professional dancers need when adapting to choreographers’ eclectic movement styles.
“We instill in students that even if they don’t agree with one thing or another, they should soak up everything like a sponge,” says Barbieri. Last summer, students were able to watch Sarasota Ballet dancers rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton’s repertoire to see the intricacies of his style at work. “If they want to be professional, they have to incorporate different styles, and know that Balanchine requires steps to be done differently than Ashton. It also helps them learn what sort of repertoire they want to dance.”
After her summer experience, Yarbrough loved the Vaganova method so much that she decided to remain at the Kirov Academy year-round. But whether studying a different style leads you on a new path or not, exposure to the many unique disciplines of ballet is an invaluable part of becoming a strong, versatile dancer. While it’s challenging to learn something new, Kirov Academy co-artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton notes that students are capable of more than they may think. “Young dancers pick up the nuances of other techniques so quickly. They don’t have to fear losing something by learning a new method—it is part of the adventure of dance.”
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Get to know the dancer behind the turns here. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.
If you only know one thing about Derek Dunn, it's probably his phenomenal turning skills. The recently promoted Houston Ballet soloist—and cover star of our October/November 2016 issue—can be found all over social media demonstrating his flawless pirouettes. Needless to say, we're amazed. That's why we couldn't resist asking him how he does it when he was in New York City for his cover shoot. Check out Dunn's personal pirouette tips in this exclusive video. Then hit the studio. Happy turning!
A beautiful pirouette is one of ballet's most elusive elements. Sometimes you float through multiple rotations and sometimes you can hardly balance on one leg. Here are some of our best tips for nailing your turns, every time.
- Go back to basics. Make sure you've mastered the fundamentals of correct alignment before you go for multiple rotations.
- Know that there's more than one right way to do it. Struggling to adjust to Balanchine-style pirouettes? Focus on shifting the majority of your weight forward over your front foot and extend your arms to find a long position.
- Use positive thinking. Getting over the fear of turning and making yourself stay up on pointe to finish your pirouette is paramount to success.
- Up the ante. Do you fall apart during fouettés? Focus on your coordination and build stamina in your standing leg.
- Get scientific. Understanding the physics of how pirouettes work can help you conceptualize ways to adjust your technique. This TEDx talk breaks down the physics of a fouetté into easily understandable terms:
Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I’m dancing a Balanchine ballet and I’m having trouble changing my technique. —Liza
I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!
What helped me was to think of shifting my body forward each time I prepared so that the majority of my weight was over my front foot, instead of underneath myself on two bent legs. The arms help, too: Instead of keeping them classically curved, extend them, as if reaching out. Overall, your body should feel much longer in this position.
The best way to get the feeling in your body is to do it—a lot. Try practicing tombé pas de bourrée to fourth position across the floor from the corner, feeling your momentum moving forward each time you land. Reach your front hand out as your back leg reaches behind you to create one long, continuous line. Notice how different it feels. Try the same thing from fifth position, taking a tendu to fourth in both en dedans and en dehors preparations. With enough repetition, your body will soon do it naturally.
What color is a flesh-toned technique shoe? Usually it's a light tan, which doesn't leave much wiggle room for dancers with darker skin. While it's common for dancers to pancake their shoes to match their skin tone, the fact that "flesh"-colored shoes only come in a few shades—all of which are light—sends a strong message to dancers with darker skin. It tells them that even though they're working just as hard, and dancing the same roles as their lighter-skinned colleagues, their specific needs are less important.
Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood (who is African-American) took to Instagram to vent his frustration over constant pancaking. After tagging several dance wear companies in a video showing his pancaking preparation, he asked the companies to make more than one "flesh-toned" shoe. Bloch was the only company that publicly responded to his post and, because Underwood spoke up, the company now makes canvas technique shoes in the color "Eric Tan." According to the BBC, the shoes will soon be on sale. It's a small step toward honoring the people who keep ballet alive by taking class, rehearsing and performing; who need tools of the trade that flatter their bodies, no matter what their skin color is.
It's a truth often repeated about ballet that it is an art with a strong oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Aspiring dancers learn the same steps that their teachers learned before them and perfect the same skills: turnout, pointework, épaulement, balance and, above all nowadays, flexibility. Sometimes, in the quest to achieve ever-greater heights of technical skill, other aspects of the art recede into the background. Nuances of interpretation and style can seem less important, even though they are the very things that ultimately make a dancer interesting to watch. That’s the paradox: In the age of ubiquitous sky-high extensions, the richness of a performance counts even more.
Carefree and confident, New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck lights up the stage in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” one of the principal solos in Balanchine’s Who Cares? “It’s one of my favorites,” she says. “Every time I perform it, I feel like I’m doing it for the first time.” Choreographed for Patricia McBride in 1970, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” requires impeccable technique and serious musicality to show off George Gershwin’s jazzy rhythms. Here, Peck shares how she makes the solo such a showstopper.
“Musicality is number one,” says Peck. “It’s the driving force behind the whole variation.” She recommends finding moments of stillness to contrast faster movements. In the first section, Peck sustains her piqué coupé to plié, “because it makes the hitch-kick afterward seem that much more surprising.” Before the slow sultry section, she pauses before slinking into another pose. “You can be still in the midst of the crazy-fast solo and show another facet of your dancing.”
The “Switch Switch”
Dancers tend to have trouble sustaining their balance during the fast arabesque/à la seconde/arabesque body changes (aka the “switch switch”). To stay over her standing leg, Peck suggests hitting a good arabesque first. “If you cheat and flip right to second, you’re not going to do it.” She also relies on her focus. “When I go to second, I look at my leg and then back to front for the arabesque. Torquing the body helps and gives me something else to think about.”
Play with Syncopation
Peck performs the échappé section differently every time. While she doesn’t change the steps, she syncopates them in various ways. “I let the music inspire me to hold an échappé here, or a passé there. It’s whatever I want to do in the moment!” When she goes to hold a position, she commits to it. “That makes it more exciting for me.”
It’s easy to lose steam towards the end of the two-and-a-half-minute solo, so Peck tricks herself into believing it’s easier than it actually is. “Instead of thinking of it as one long variation, I imagine it as three sections: the opening, the slow part in the middle and the end. From the échappés on, you’re home free!”
To control the last diagonal of dizzying turns, focus less on your spot and more on the rhythm. “Keep in tempo with the four piqué walks and step-up double pencil. Find your position with the leg at 45 degrees and don’t let it waver,” Peck says, because sneaking into the turn will make it even harder. “If you really listen to the music, it will drive you home.”
(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)
Nikiya’s epic “death” solo at the end of La Bayadère’s second act is more than a test of stamina: It’s integral to the ballet’s plot. In it, Nikiya laments her doomed relationship with Prince Solor, rejoices upon receiving a basket of flowers she believes to be from him and collapses after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket. “There’s a lot of storytelling in the steps,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, who danced the role this spring. Here are her tips for navigating the variation’s technical and emotional complexities.
1. Let the Character Drive the Choreography
One of the most difficult aspects of the variation is making the spare choreography fill the music. If you’re having trouble slowing down, focus on what Nikiya is feeling as much as what she’s doing. “Her love has betrayed her—and she’s mourning,” Erickson says. “When you grieve, it’s like you’re suspended in time, and that’s exactly how the variation should feel.”
2. Stay Grounded
Maintaining your balance through the solo’s prolonged sous-sus, penchées and backbends can also prove challenging. “Feel a constant connection to the floor,” Erickson advises. “In sous-sus, for example, I think about rooting my legs in the ground, while simultaneously growing taller in my upper body.” Once you’re given the basket of flowers, let the prop work for you. “When you penchée, you naturally want to hold on to something—and the basket is something to hold on to!” Erickson says. “Its steadying influence may be all in your head, but it helps.”
3. Relish Small Details
Because the solo is so slow, it leaves room to play with the port de bras. Erickson likes to incorporate Nikiya’s “sacred, palms-to-the-heavens” gesture from the first act’s choreography. “In the context of this variation, it becomes especially powerful—like you’re asking, ‘Why, God, why?’ ” She also repeatedly reaches the palm of her flexed hand toward Solor. “It’s a very exposed, very human movement,” she says. “It reads as pleading.”
4. Don’t Oversell It
It’s easy to get swept up in the variation’s swoony theatrics. But a little restraint makes Nikiya’s suffering even more acute. “Don’t give too much face,” Erickson says. “The port de bras is doing enough to speak for the emotion.” So, she adds, is the “beautifully sad” score. “I almost cry just listening to it! Subtler interpretations give the audience a chance to hear the music as well as see it.”
5. Avoid Fake Snake Syndrome
Making Nikiya’s death by snakebite look believable can be tricky. “I definitely got called out on that in rehearsal,” Erickson says, laughing. “My fix is to bring the basket of flowers very close to my face, enveloping it, right before the bite is supposed to happen. That way, there’s no visible hand-going-into-the-basket moment.” It’s a character-driven solution to a logistical problem. “I’m inhaling the flowers’ scent, having a moment as I remember Solor’s love,” Erickson says. “And then the snakebite shocks me out of it.”